I am notorious for not adhering to the taboo on saying critical things about the recently deceased. Announced this morning, the death of Gore Vidal is no exception.
Vidal’s life work is problematic in a number of ways. But two issues stand out.
1) He claimed to be open and honest about his sexuality, but he was really confused and duplicitous.
Two recent incidents show that, even towards the end of his life, he had made little progress in grappling with this central issue.
Gore never abandoned his admiration for the late Timothy McVeigh, the "noble boy" with whom he exchanged an avid correspondence while the terrorist languished on death row. McVeigh had blown up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people. Vidal chose to downplay the huge loss of life in this act of mass murder. “He was a true patriot, a Constitution man,” Vidal claims.
Vidal’s infatuation inspired a satirical play by Edmund White, "Terre Haute," yielding the following outburst from Vidal. “That play implies I am madly in love with McVeigh. I looked at [White's] writing and all he writes about is being a fag and how it’s the greatest thing on Earth. He thinks I’m another queen and I’m not. I’m more interested in the Constitution and McVeigh than the loving tryst he saw. It was vulgar fag-ism.”
These words reveals more than a touch of self-contempt. Of course Vidal long adhered to his special version of the Kinsey doctrine that there are homosexual acts and no homosexual persons. At least he is not one of those, thank goodness! Still, he has boasted that he had sex with 1,000 men by the time he was 25. And how many women? Very few, I suspect. Of course anyone has the right to be bisexual. Yet Vidal was a one-sex guy. After all these years, the great Truth Teller was never been willing to be honest about the most important thing: himself.
In an interview that appeared in The Atlantic in 2009, he was asked to comment on the Polanski case. “Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?"
When it came to sexual matters Gore Vidal was decidedly not a reliable narrator.
2) Vidal claimed to be a kind of tribune of the people, defending their interests against the depredations of the powerful elites. Yet he came from the elite himself, and never allowed his followers to forget it. In fact he despised the common people, who were too stupid to vote in their own interest. They were distracted by a cloud of rhetoric. By contrast, with their superior breeding and education Vidal and his friends were easily able to cut through these distractions,
Even though it was never explicitly stated, the conclusion is obvious: the country must be governed by a special body of privileged Platonic guardians, with Vidal himself of course in the vanguard. With their peerless, faultless judgment these superior folks would assume the burden of deciding what is best for the rest of us.
UPDATE (August 3, 2012), A version of the above text triggered, as I expected, some lively ripostes on Facebook. In these the defenders of Vidal gave some ground. His position about homosexuality was ambivalent, his novels worthy but not exceptional, and his essays full of gossip.
One thing remains, it seems; Vidal’s critique of imperialism. Imperialism is a little like sin in the Calvin Coolidge story, for everyone is against it. And so am I. But the nature of imperialism has changed over the decades. When Vidal was born in 1925 it was largely a matter of controlling territory (the “colonies”) and extracting labor and resources therefrom. This is the view that he retained throughout his life, as seen not long ago in his unlikely speculation that the reason we were in Afghanistan was to build an oil pipeline across the country.
After 1945, the old-style empires of Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal were gradually dissolved. What we have now is something different, something sometimes termed superimperialism, in which a number of powerful countries, or international business firms which essentially have no country, form consortia for domination. In this quest they are as likely to use soft power as well as the hard power of direct physical control.
A valiant, though in my view not entirely successful effort to understand his transformation has been made in the big 2000 book “Empire,” by Hardt and Negri. For his part, though, Vidal made little attempt to modernize himself, clinging to a dated and inadequate concept of imperialism. Unlike such diverse figures as V.S. Naipaul, Jimmy Carter, and Edward Said he never traveled much in non-European countries. In consequence his rhetorical sallies against “the Empire” don’t amount to much.
UPDATE NO. 2. Citing Picasso, a friend asks if it is not appropriate simply to judge Gore Vidal as a creative figure, regardless of the content. My response is as follows. The case of Ezra Pound comes to mind. Few of Pound’s admirers, even the most fervent ones, would embrace his anti-Semitism and adulation of Mussolini. Yet he won the Bollingen prize for the quality of his poetry alone. While Vidal uttered some good epigrams, some even worthy of Oscar Wilde, not many would say that aesthetics were his main driving point. Vidal claimed to be a political analyst and historian, whose often biting comments were intended to wake us up to the need to repair the body politic. That is how he should be evaluated--and how he would have wished to be evaluated.
One who has drunk the Vidal Koolade full strength is Justin Raimondo, who runs the Antiwar website. Over the years this site has published some important pieces. Yet Mr. Raimondo’s unbounded enthusiasm for Gore Vidal, the “last Jeffersonian,” has, for me at least, the opposite effect than the one intended. See antiwar.com.