Novelist, playwright and, above all, essayist – in his essays he was at his pungent and exhilarating best. In a previous age he would have been called a man of letters, which Gore Vidal, just dead after a full and eventful life, quintessentially was.
Living with his pen and, as I was just reading in one of the obituaries about him, living rather well, like a patrician, and making it a lifelong endeavour to deploy wit and irony to mock opinions and ideas that most of his countrymen took for granted.
Empires are great at propagating self-serving myths which everyone else is expected not only to swallow but to hail as the ultimate truth. Without such story-telling empires would be lost. But to the United States belongs the undisputed honour of promoting self-interest under the most beguiling slogans known to history: assassinations, the toppling of democratic governments, support for some of the worst examples of third world tyranny, all in the name of freedom and democracy, and saving the world from communism.
Vidal wrote about art and literature and the Washington political scene, and the men and women who cut a figure in his time. But he also made fun of American hypocrisy and America’s pretensions on the world stage. He was not the only one doing this but he did it rather well and he was entertaining. The eleventh commandment could well be, thou shalt not be boring. Noam Chomsky is ponderous. Vidal’s tone is light-hearted, and therefore never boring.
It’s like reading history in a school textbook and then reading history in the language of Gibbon and you can’t help wondering why all history can’t be as entertaining as that. Why can’t political commentary be closer to how Vidal could write it?
I suppose it comes from intellect and reading and spending your entire life in the company of books and the world of ideas. Living such a life you acquire a certain tone and if you take to writing, and are lucky, it comes to permeate the way you write. The style is the man. Who you are is the foundation of your style. For instance, from a walking jackass should we expect wisdom? When most politicians write or speak you can make out it’s a politician you are dealing with. He tends to walk both sides of the road.
About Clinton it has been famously said that he’s the kind of guy who even as he shook your hand vigorously will not think twice about pissing on your shoes. No wonder he’s a smart guy. But as he does his thing, shaking your hand and giving you his shoeshine, there should be someone in the wings splitting his sides with laughter, and making you laugh at the same time. The US would be a better country, certainly a less stuffy country, if it had more fun-makers – I am shying away from the word iconoclast – like Gore Vidal.
Certainly in the era of Emperor Bush the world would have been better served by more of this tribe. Who knows, we might even have been spared the horrors of Iraq and the lies, the sustained lies, which served to bamboozle most of Congress, most of the media, most of the intelligentsia, as the US was dragged into that immoral war...by a set of intellectual gangsters we know of as the neo-cons.
The world owes the Iraqi resistance a debt of gratitude. Otherwise Cheney and Rumsfeld and the rest of that crew had every intention of carrying forward their adventure and recasting the map of the Middle East. Bizarre as it sounds, a wealth of contemporary evidence supports this conclusion.
Having gotten thus far, I suddenly realise that I have quoted not a word of Vidal’s. From The Twelve Caesars this is good: “It would be wrong, however, to dismiss...the wide variety of Caesarean sensuality as simply the viciousness of twelve abnormal men...They differed from us – and their contemporaries – only in the fact of power, which made it possible for each to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies.” Sex and power: more intertwined than we care to think.
His take on Nixon is surprisingly balanced. Gently taking apart the myth that Nixon was somehow an exception – the only bad apple in the barrel – he says he was no more corrupt than others before and after him. And unlike Kennedy, Nixon was no real war-monger. And Vidal, again in an entertaining way, praises Nixon for realising the importance of co-existence with the Middle Kingdom and the Land of the Czars.
Last week I was reading something by the original Watergate reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, in which they said that Nixon in reality was more evil than anyone could have imagined at the time of Watergate. Vidal’s piece dated December 1983 makes more sense.
Not surprisingly, Vidal admires the uncrowned king of all journalism, past and present, H L Mencken: “After politics, journalism has always been the preferred career of the ambitious but lazy second-rater. American exceptions to mediocrity’s leaden mean: from column A, there was Franklin D Roosevelt; from column B, H L Mencken.” What a way to start.
In my teens I read a lot of Maugham, all his short stories and his better known novels. This was a mistake because the sophisticated semi-decadence which one imbibes from Maugham may not have been the best thing for the rigours of Kakul training where I happened to be at the time. Vidal writes about Maugham indulgently, confirming me in my view that across a range of objects Vidal had the right opinions. He admires Montaigne too (who wouldn’t?). Maugham, Mencken, Montaigne: to those given to have these as their guiding stars, how can they go too far wrong in the things that matter, or should, to the subversive at heart?
We are no empire but we are a stuffy republic, inebriated on our own half-formed ideas and taking this mental junk for the gospel truth, thinking it to be divinely-inspired and divinely-gifted. We could do with a more iconoclastic tradition, leading to a freer exchange of ideas and to the breaking down of old shibboleths, whether held up by religion or patriotism.
There are things we just can’t discuss because the fear of denunciation and worse is so close at hand. Cynicism is not enough. Someone like Gore Vidal is more relevant in this context, using mockery to bring down the barriers to clear-eyed thought.
More than most other third world countries we have an American problem given our Cold War heritage and the demons of Afghanistan. But the answer to this problem is not the world-view of the Taliban or the pseudo-Islamism fostered by some of our military geniuses, and the holy fathers dancing to the tune of these geniuses. A better perspective on American power comes from the irony of some of America’s own writers. Hence this piece of gratuitous advice: in Kakul and Staff College Quetta, and perhaps also in that holy of holies, the National Defence University, two American writers should be required reading: Vidal and Mencken. More of these and less of the holy fathers...and less of the mental junk we purvey in the name of ideology and, with a little help from the stars above, we can hope for a better understanding of so many things.
Anyway, a life well lived, packed with excitement and joy, and productive labour...the gods would be pleased. For what do they expect of us? That we make the best use of our gifts and opportunities, and live life without regrets. Gore Vidal now departs into the shades but it should be a safe bet that beyond the pearly gates he will be in the best company, convivial of spirit and not wholly averse to the decadent sound of irony and unrestrained laughter.