Saturday, August 4, 2012

Gore Vidal

"It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."

It seems that he made a rule of always entering a room sneering. He was smarter than us and we both knew it. No matter on what occasion he appeared on television, he invariably came across as adversarial. Someone called him 20th Century's Oscar Wilde - I suppose because he, too, was gay. Wilde tried to be entertaining. Gore Vidal evidently wanted to be feared. During the live ABC coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he called his co-host William F. Buckley a "crypto fascist" and Buckley obliged by calling him a "queer". He never seemed to let ceremony get in the way of his opinions, as when he wrote, in his obituary of Buckley in 2008, "RIP WFB — in hell."

But he also wanted to be taken seriously. Although born into an American elite, educated at St. Albans and Phillips Exeter Academy. He joined the Navy rather than go to an Ivy League college, explaining, "Every fool I knew had gone to university. I didn't think it necessary. I'd seen some of the results, you know." Despite all his privileges, he was a true Republican, in the ancient sense, as one who advocates "a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them." Yet he watched throughout his lifetime as the power in America shifted from the people into the hands of the few with all the money.

He was politically neutral, insofar as neither American party impressed him much:

"There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party ... and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently ... and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties."

He was out front with his sexuality: "We are all bisexual to begin with. That is a fact of our condition. And we are all responsive to sexual stimuli from our own as well as from the opposite sex. Certain societies at certain times, usually in the interest of maintaining the baby supply, have discouraged homosexuality. Other societies, particularly militaristic ones, have exalted it. But regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime ... despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word 'natural,' not normal."

Unfortunately, he felt obliged to portray himself as a sensualist, claiming an absurd number of sexual partners, both male and - for a time - female. His claims were neither credible nor creditable.

He had a brilliant, acerbic intellect, which perhaps explains why he wasn't a very good novelist. He used fiction to flesh out his ideas. The ideas had more substance than the characters in his novels. He was at his best at the disciplines of critic and essayist. Better than anyone, he knew the reason for the dearth of great writers:

"You hear all this whining going on, "Where are our great writers?" The thing I might feel doleful about is: Where are the readers?"

Though he often hated it, he was a man of his time. In an age in which everyone would do anything to be loved, he was likable precisely because he didn't care to be.

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