Thursday, August 2, 2012

Gore Vidal’s certain idea of America

My first encounter with Gore Vidal was in 1988, when he spoke to the annual convention of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in a most un-Vidalian setting, an off-the-shelf hotel in Crystal City, Virginia. The topic was the American national security state, and Vidal, of course, delivered a talk dripping with sarcasm.

At the time I wasn’t particularly taken by what he said. His attack against monotheism was perfectly sound, though it must have confused quite a few people in the audience, who had just been through that peculiarly American ritual of a religious invocation over breakfast. Vidal’s criticism of Israel was equally understandable, given his public, although it was also unfocused and not terribly well-informed, unsurprising for a man never really drawn to the affairs of the Middle East. More questionable was his blithe dismissal of the American empire, his view that it was about to collapse through bankruptcy, and that once it did all would be better for Americans.

Still, Vidal’s death on Tuesday at the age of 86 reminded me of the permutations in my own modest thinking on American power, and how influential the author was later on in shaping these views. I share the late Christopher Hitchens’ view that, toward the end, Vidal mostly wrote drivel. His approach to 9/11, Hitchens believed, because it was so driven by conspiracy theories, had “accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant.” But even then, Vidal’s second volume of memoirs, “Point to Point Navigation,” published in 2006, had a surprising melancholy quality to it and a sense of lucid finality, almost brutal, as Vidal closed many of the doors on his life.

In retrospect, and the crackpot strain notwithstanding, Vidal was ultimately correct about the perverse nature of American power. It could lead to laudable actions, such as the removal from office of a mass murderer like Saddam Hussein, in the face of protests from an international community that never worked up nearly the same outrage when the Iraqi leader slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. However, more troubling is how the blunt instruments of the American state, as well as of myriad American private institutions, have acquired tremendous authority over the individual, both at home and abroad, repeatedly violating America’s constitutional principles such as due process, the right to privacy, and countless other freedoms.

Vidal often liked to say that he had not a sentimental bone in his body. “There is no warm, loving person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” Many of his essays belie that view, and one could not possibly understand his articles and novels on the United States without first acknowledging his longing (surely the anteroom to sentiment) for the ideals of the early American republic. These were, as Vidal saw them, anti-imperialism, a respect for liberty, a reluctance to be drawn into the complications of the world, above all through the use of military power, and an odd acceptance of a specific type of patrician elitism, even if Vidal, never devoid of contradiction, liked to present himself as the enemy of an American establishment that sustained empire.

Though dismissed as an “America hater” by his detractors, Vidal was a blend of radicalism and conservatism. He regarded the first as inherent in the second – the preservation of American values requiring the constant challenging of a present undermining what was most admirable in the past. Yet Vidal was not naive about the Founding Fathers. His novel “Burr,” the first in his Narratives of a Golden Age, addressed the intrigues of America’s first decades after Independence. Not coincidentally, its main character was the man who shot Alexander Hamilton, whose vision of a centralized and expansionist America first echoed national impulses so distasteful to Vidal.

There was something else profoundly old-fashioned in the man, namely an appetite for history. Yes, he could publish what passed for serious fiction, Vidal once observed, by describing the “common experience,” something as “boring as one’s friend Brian, who wants to tell us just how and why he left Doris shortly after the exchange student Sonia signed on for his Barth Barthelme Burke and Hare course at East Anglia.” But history, Vidal believed, was the only form of narrative with universal appeal, and his writings were all, in some manner, historical. “There are few texts without context,” he wrote.

That is perhaps why Vidal’s essays sparkled, and why his novels sometimes suffered for being veiled essays. The good essayist has to make a point clearly, usually from the top, illustrate that point in invigorating ways, and, even where there is ambiguity, not allow the ambiguity to overwhelm the argument. These seemingly stark rules aside, Vidal wrote unforgettably about cosmopolitans who were anything but black or white. His essays on Italian novelist Italo Calvino are superb (in the one on Calvino’s burial, the cold water has turned distinctly warm), and few writers were as careful readers as Vidal was of Updike, Montaigne, Henry James or Sciascia.

Vidal had a quality, humor, sorely missing these days among American public intellectuals, for whom earnestness and lawyerly caution has become the norm. His articles, choosing randomly, on the Kennedys, Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, can be simply hilarious, brilliantly so, and deliciously cutting. Vidal’s view that Roosevelt’s affinity for violence was the consequence of an irresistible drive to transcend his inherent “sissiness” is difficult to ignore, and quite subtly tells us something about more brutal leaders far and wide, not least the current president of Syria.

It’s a shame that advanced age had transformed Vidal’s wit into a repulsive lump of vitriol. This isolated him, and his credibility was little enhanced as he became, quite willingly, a guru to those far less sophisticated than he, gathering up any morsel of condemnation of America falling from his lips. And yet Vidal loved a certain idea of America, not that of noisy patriotism and suffocating surveillance, but of the sovereign individual, free and left to his own business. Whether one agreed with him or not, there is no doubt that the country Vidal knew so well is drifting away from where history should have taken it.

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