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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Gore Vidal, RIP

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, born Oct. 3, 1925, at the United States Military Academy at West Point, experienced, passed away yesterday at the ripe old age of 86. He had outlived his enemies -- Bill Buckley, Truman Capote -- as well as his friends -- Howard Austen, Tennessee Williams, President John Kennedy -- and it is entirely possible that because of his wit, his elegance and his endless television appearances that Gore may, in the judgement of History and to this dismay of his detractors, get the last laugh.

Vidal , as well as Ingmar Bergman and the ethereal Miles Davis were, this blogger cannot fail to note, the most influential modern artists in my life. Now, alas, all three mavericks have shuffled off the mortal coil, leaving me feeling quite alone.

Vidal, ever the aficionado of the Roman republic, lived at La Rondinaia in Ravello, Italy up until several years ago, when his bad knees made it impossible to climb the ancient steps. Sting once joked to Vidal -- and where did we read that? Palimpsest? -- that the musician, who had been brooding at a party all evening, wanted to toss the author off the cliff and to take possession of the property immediately.

Gore Vidal always had a profound intellectual attraction to ancient Rome, which, parallel to that more than any other era, influenced the Founding Fathers as well as our founding documents. I mention this fact because Vidal, as an expatriate for most of his life, was viewed -- particularly by his enemies on the right -- as some sort of Blame-America-Intellectual-Abroad. Quite the contrary; that is a scurrilous idea contrived to minimize the sharpness of Vidal's insight. Vidal consistently trained his jewelers eye on American politics throughout his life, whether on the Continent or in points as distant as Mongolia. I once had the opportunity to talk to Gore Vidal on the phone in 1995, when I was an intern at The Nation, where he wrote on and off since 1981. He was in Ravello and I had been tasked with sending a fax to the great writer concerning a political issue in America that he always wished to be appraised by The Nation staff. I believe Christopher Hitchens, under who I was interning, tasked me with this thing.

I was, quite frankly, terrified. Gore Vidal was an intellectual idol. He was also a devastating wit, acerbic. That is how he is perceived. I feared Vidal might ream me out over the phone, reducing me to a twentysomething jelly over the phone and I would have to continue the rest of my internship mortally wounded. In fact, as cold and imperious as Vidal seemed to be on TV, he was kind and gentle -- and probably a little drunk -- on the phone that day. Answering "pronto!" in a gentle voice, he asked who I was, then warmed immediately when he learned I was an ally at The Nation. I told him a fax was forthcoming after we exchanged light pleasantries I could tell, in the background, there was one hell of a Ravello party going on. He said thank you and that was it. My brush with Gore. Wish I could have seen who was at his party that day (Mick Jagger? Italo Calvino?). Alas.

From The Nation:
Gore, who had accepted (former Nation publisher Victor Navasky) invitation to join the magazine in 1981 as a contributing editor, published forty-one articles in The Nation at those rates. Some of his most memorable quotes appeared in The Nation: “We are the United States of Amnesia,” he wrote in 2004. “We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” In that same essay he called the US a place where “the withered Bill of Rights, like a dead trumpet vine, clings to our pseudo-Roman columns.”

Gore was a great talker as well as a great writer, and I interviewed him many times—in front of live audiences, on the radio and for print—and in many places. The most memorable was at his legendary cliffside house in Ravello, on the Amalfi coast of Italy, where lots of people visited him. We arrived a few days after historian Eric Foner departed; he told me his daughter had played in Gore’s famous swimming pool with the children of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. Gore sent my wife to sit by the pool with Howard Austen, his lifelong partner—she had a wonderful time with Howard—while Gore talked about his life and work in the deep shadows of his downstairs study.

In that interview, for the Radical History Review, Gore described his campaign to introduce the term “American empire” into the political discourse—and, later, the concept of “the national security state”—both of which were firmly rejected at the time by establishment thinkers. Indeed much of his writing for The Nation was devoted to elucidating those two ideas—and empire was also the theme with his six-volume series of historical novels “Narratives of Empire,” which included number-one bestsellers Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984).
It wasn't until I read the Annals of Tacitus, which frequently Vidal drew upon as a source for quotes that the Roman influence made itself known to my mind. Vidal's affinity for ancient Rome -- always through the lens of Robert Graves, a popular, though brainy writer in the English language whom he greatly admired -- led him to write fascinating essays and a great series of fictional novels recasting the United States as an empire in decline, a a dark mirror to Rome under that ironic emperor Tiberius. There are also, one cannot fail to note, hints of Gibbon in much of Vidal's later writing. Under Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus a corrupt aristocracy ceded their beloved Republic to a brutal authoritarian regime, seemingly overnight. Vidal also often referred to this country as the United States of Amnesia -- see above quote -- because we, the people, often forget the intellectual principles which gave us our vitality. It is difficult in retrospect to discern how much of Gore Vidal's devastating critique of America in his later years was based on American decline and how much of it was his shaking his fist at his own natural erosion. Because Vidal never believed in an afterlife -- he found Christianity inherently funny -- matter and power and form were his Ultimate Reality. And so, of course, old age and infirmity was not a fun experience. As gloriously Lucretian as Gore was on Life and Death and the inevitable rearrangement of matter, it is impossible not to draw some coincidences between Gore's skepticism about the American Empire which increased each year Gore got older.

It was the cruelty that the rich -- the few -- inflicted upon the poor -- the many -- that was an underlying factor in all of his novels (Lincoln, particularly) and many of his essays, particularly the ones dealing with social liberties and our growing lack of them.

Vidal loved America almost as he loved classical Rome, upon which, Gore Vidal believed. America was built largely (in addition to the influence of the Enlightenment thinkers and, to a lesser degree, Athenian democracy and Protestant thought). America was the subject of his chronicle of American history. Vidal's final study of history, on the Mexican-American War -- covering roughly the period between where Burr ends and Lincoln begins -- concludes his American Chronicle historical novels and will be released soon. We can hardly wait to read Vidal's final installment of what can only be properly construed as as much The Great American novel as the sum total of Updike's Rabbit series.

Pascal once posited, famously, that Nature abhors a vacuum. Then which public intellectual will fill the void that Gore Vidal's has left in his passing?

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, RIP

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