News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

A Review of Conversations with Gore Vidal

This book contains a smattering of interviews with Gore Vidal, put together in hodgepodge fashion to eliminate redundancy. It works well, only running out of steam when Vidal himself runs out of steam.

Gore Vidal was born on October 3, 1925 at West Point. His grandfather was a senator. He's related to Al Gore.

Below are a few examples of Gore Vidal on himself, selling himself, charm set to full-blast.

Page 22: Rockefellers are ruling class because they rule through money. My family was ruling class through holding office (senate, cabinet) as well as providing generals and admirals for the various wars. When asked by the BBC what class I was (oh, the English on that subject!), I said, "Third-generation celebrity." My grandfather, father and self were each on the cover of Time. ...

Page 23: I was asked if my first sexual experience was homosexual or heterosexual. I said I was too polite to ask.

Vidal's decisive, firm, practical, and utilitarian. Page 23: I do not flatter the young, either as a writer or as a performer. And I do not flatter them sexually. That doesn't mean I don't like them.

He's anti-mainstream, but rationally so. And he's comfortable with sex, which is, after all, a pathetically simple subject to master.

Oui: how does a formal man perform sexually in a group? Aren't orgies less than formal occasions?

Vidal: Depends on who's the orgy master. You can have formal orgy, in which patterns are made, or you can have just your average California mass. Since I'm of an orderly disposition and given to symmetry, whatever I'm engaged in usually has a formal tone to it. But the idea that sex is something informal is just one of our current madnesses.

Oui: Do you go to many orgies anymore?

Vidal: No, but group sex has a great use, I think, particularly for young people. It's one way of working out all sorts of problems.

Oui: Do you still have a keen sexual appetite?

Vidal: Sophocles said, at eighty, "I am at last free of a cruel and insane master." Well, I've thirty-one years to go.

Oui: You should be fairly busy.

Vidal: Well, in my youth, I never missed a trick.

Oui: Are you proud of that?

Vidal: Yes. Because I think most people spend most of their lives saying, Oh, Jesus! If only I had done this or that. Well, I did my best to do both this and that.

Like most intelligent people he moved around as a child. Page 26: Eugene Walter, 1960: your education?

Vidal: Lots of schools. From eleven until fourteen I was in St. Alban's, in Washington. I was a year at Los Alamos, than three years at Exeter which are among the happiest of my [early] life. You know, getting away from the family and its problems. My first novel was written Exeter when I was fifteen.

Vidal says he began writing at seven, wrote parts of five novels from 15 through 19, became published at 19 and published his first bestseller at 21. He never went to college, going from high school directly to the army to serve during WWII. He despised school (and the army).

Page 27: I would have lost four very productive years. My classmates were all over age, having spent three years in the army; so we were, my classmates were, a bunch of 21-year-old freshman, and they then took three to four years to get to college in those days. And they became extremely lazy. Because the army made you lazy. You didn't do anything in the army. A few people saw a little action, but never very much of that. Then adding on top about four years of college, until when they finally got out they're 26 years old and they've never done a stroke of work in their lives. They've been passive receivers, first of all of orders from others, and secondly of instructions from others and, you know, frankly, none of them amounted to a god damned thing.

Vidal declined membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters: "I was already a member of the Diners Club." In his experience most novelists don't read novels, don't read much at all which is why they (ex: Tennessee Williams) run out of things to say after the first three books. Mencken mentioned something similar about English authors. (Speaking of Mencken, I seem to find quite a few of his views in this book; coincidence?)

Vidal is knowledgeable, honest, descriminating, and confident, but doesn't have a well-rounded understanding how the world works in terms of economics, anthropology, jurisprudence, etc., nor, and more importantly, can he think on his own two feet and run with ideas. On the one hand, his interests don't seem to move beyond literature which means the cross-fertilization of interdisciplinary reading never got a chance to get going. Plus it appears he failed to learn anything valuable once he hit celebrity (i.e. found out how to make a comfortable living and retired from the learning business in favor of the earning business). Again, he just can't work up new ideas and I'd place him in the top tier of the second-rate literary scribbler's heap which is to say he's a capital observer, sophisticated collector, aggressive copier, and confiding and congenial regaler of gossip. He has sufficient chutspah and uppitiness to fool the illiterati which constant the majority of his, or anyone's, fans into mistaking him for an Oracle.

From the second page of Vidal's article "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisements": That wide graveyard of stillborn talents which contains a so much of this brief ignoble history of American letters is a tribute to the power of a democracy to destroy its critics, brave fools and passionate men.
What is the power of democracy? What? No answer is forthcoming. It's like answering the question, what makes a car run?, with the reply, the power of gasoline. It's pretty, profound, and near meaningless, like poetry. No, it is poetry: i.e. cliche all dressed up with no place to go.

To be demoralized by the withdrawal of public success (a process as painful in America as the withdrawal of a drug from an addict) is to grant too easily a victory to the society one has attempted to criticize, effect, change, reform. It is clearly unreasonable to expect to be cherished by those one assaults. It is also childish, in the deepest sense of being a child, ever to expect justice. There is none beneath our moon. One can only hope not to be destroyed entirely by injustice and, to put it cynically, one can often flourish through an injustice obtaining in one's favor. What matters finally is not the world's judgment of oneself but one's own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive long in America.
There's no definition of justice, nor even an attempt to describe what it is. Indeed, his statement, "there is none beneath our moon," is more lofty ingratiating sophistry; and to a more jaded eye an almost abject confession of his inability to explain what justice is in this instance and how it operates. The latter would have been interesting, fascinating even (which is what makes people like Wilde such a good read)

I'm very fond of Gore Vidal. But this is typical of him far too often. He has a gift for assembling facts and ideas that he comes across and then phrasing them in accessible and flowing English; as opposed to the clotted jargon of the vain professor safe in his guild. What Vidal fails to do, because he is incapable of it, is define ideas and attach them to other ideas and create structures of logic and pathways of understanding as de Tocqueville, etc. did. And so, while reading Gore Vidal is pleasing and self-affirming to the sneering and the smarmy - lonely souls who can use a bit of cheering for the home-team - in large doses he becomes tedious because too many of his ideas are old hat and insufficiently refurbished and upgraded to be worthy of re-release. Indeed, Mencken to his credit often made a point of demonstrating how a given writer, allegedly the fertile genius behind various astounding ideas, had actually borrowed or filched them from other literati who in turn had purloined or taken them on loan from earlier luminati, who in turn one could reasonably be sure had engaged in no little grave-robbing themselves.

Again this is not to say that Gore Vidal's work lacks great distinction. He is willing to be honest. And willing is the key word. And, perhaps, so is Able. As in willing and able. And this, in turn, empowers him greatly. He can then be unabashedly snobbish (and free of guilt because he knows the uplift is a fraud) and chatty in a worldly fashion.

We are a chronically and incurably dishonest species, the majority of which is not only incapable of producing ideas but which has even been taught by public school to fear and dislike ideas. The tiny remaining minority lacks an affinity for them or the self-assurance required for their bold propagation (many thinkers so-called are the product of inspired pathology, not inspired genius) or the ability to think on-the-fly (required of anyone who is both honest and original, for one has to deal with hecklers and other attack-dogs). Given the abysmal circumstances we endure as a community of deadwood, an unoriginal but congenial, amusing honest individual is surely not something to be sneezed at.

It's also worth pointing out that his honest cynicism doesn't devolve into anger (at least prior to 9-11) and thus he doesn't often write solemn tracts; he doesn't feel that you have to know, have to understand him. In part it's presumably because he feels genuinely superior and figures we're beyond saving. Ergo, there's no messiah complex, no tinpot desire to cure the world of its generally incurable ills. He's sufficiently distinguished talent-wise and workaholic-wise to be an impressive collector of ideas and notions. He's secure enough in his person that he's not tempted to fall into chronic fibbing nor to whitewash nor to be disingenuously amiable in the manner of so many left-wing fanatics (right-wing fanatics don't try nearly so hard to hide their hostility and desire to physically hurt people; the apocalyptic antiabortion clinic-bombing and doctor-shooting crowd, for example).

On the other hand, he doesn't rise to the Olympian perspective of genuine indifference (though nobody much ever does, and only temporarily at that) Throughout his writing there is a pervasive revenge motive. He constantly endeavors to humble Americans and have them more receptive to things of the mind, by humiliating his US readers with attacks on cherished beliefs, mainstream ideals, and beloved writers. Presumably, in part this was because he was wounded by hacks (his books were blacklisted by the New York Times literary critic during the 1950s and early 1960s, with Vidal writing for Hollywood and even producing three detective novels under a pseudonym) but also because he doesn't have the power of creating ideas and therefore has difficulty persuading people to accept the nonmainstream ideas he cherishes. This naturally leads to dissatisfaction and lashing out.

On the other hand, a faculty for generating new ideas on-the-fly would enable him to attach old ideas to existing mainstream notions; then open up paths to new ways of seeing things. Otherwise, we have the present situation by and large: ruffled luminary versus excitable personality, the dull clash of mammalian egos, our team vs. your team, persuasion through coercion (when there is persuasion at all).

Lacking an enterprising muse, Vidal could never hope to persuade on the strength of borrowed ideas alone. Not without engaging the public like a TV pundit or a glad-handing politician in the manner of the ever-hopeful Chomsky. After Vidal failed in his candidacy for New York governor in 1960, he moved to Italy to read and write. That sealed his fate. Which is probably a good thing, is he himself has mentioned. It was probably better for all that he was a novelist and essayist and not a double-talking backpedaling people's representative high on glory nor an itinerant lecturer dumbing himself down for a public ever besotted by celebrity. I much happier reading him than hearing him. Ditto for practically anyone else.

No comments:

Post a Comment