Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Gentleman Bitch.

Requiescat in Pace.

The soixante-huitard turned chickenhawk Christopher Hitchens once said that he had a kind of "penis envy" for Gore Vidal. Indeed the young contrarian had based himself on Gore Vidal and the two met in 1970 at the New Statesman. Eventually the slender Hitchens became the dauphin to Vidal's contrarianism and would later become one of many porky opponents to be outlived by Gore. Over the years the gadfly had stung William F Buckley as a "crypto-Nazi" only to apologise on the grounds that the term "crypto-Fascist" is much more accurate. Truman Capote felt the sting when Vidal described him as a "filthy animal that has found its way into the house". Later Capote's passing prompted the infamous remark "That was a good career move." Then there was Norman Mailer whose positions on women's rights prompted Gore to criticise his old friend. It was at a Manhattan dinner party in 1977 that Mailer threw a whiskey in Gore Vidal's face before heat-butting and punching him. To this violence Vidal quipped "And, once again, words fail Norman Mailer."

On that note Gore Vidal once described himself as a 'gentleman bitch' in his role as a provocateur of historians and the political class. He showed no mercy in his scathing attacks against deserving enemies and reached into areas as seemingly varied as politics, religion, history and literature. As a polymath he tried his hand at novels first then plays and scripts for film as the commentariat turned against him over The City and the Pillar. The mainstream media, with The New York Times in the lead, waged a campaign against Gore Vidal refusing to review his work. Out of this relatively dark time in Vidal worked on Ben-Hur (uncredited) as well as Visit to a Small Planet and a political drama set on a fictional campaign trail The Best Man. History is not without irony as Ronald Reagan auditioned to play the lead in the film adaptation of The Best Man. Reagan was turned down on the grounds that he did not appear presidential. Eventually Vidalian fiction was rehabilitated in the eye of the Establishment, but he remained a controversial figure.

The essay was his preferred form, placing him in the line of great litterateurs, for it was the form which he felt he had mastered and he hoped he would be remembered as an essayist above all else. There is a degree of self-awareness, detachment and cool about Vidal that led Italo Calvino to conclude that he has no unconscious. In his own words Gore stated "I am exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water." He was as much a fixture of American life, its discourse, culture and narratives even in the capacity of opposition which he practiced. Even though Gore was a prominent commentator he remained out of the field for the most part. He could have been a politician with his family background and connections. Indeed he came close to becoming a player in the 1960s. After the disillusionment he experienced Vidal contented himself with the role of gadfly and cynic. In the words of Alexander Cockburn "Cynicism is the birth of opposition."

The contrarian tradition to which Gore Vidal belongs may properly be traced back to the Cynics of Ancient Greece. The taunting and mockery of all power by Diogenes, whether it be the waggling of a plucked rooster at Plato or telling Alexander the Great to get out of the light. It is the case that Gore was more than content to stand on the side-lines, for the most part, and attack both the Democrats and the Republicans. He deemed both parties to be just two right-wings of the Property Party. Vidal wasn't a perfect cynic, for he knew how to appeal to power at times and did so in support of George McGovern, then Jesse Jackson and later Barack Obama. But Gore Vidal remained much more of a cynic than his former dauphin Christopher Hitchens. He hadn't voted since 1964, when he did so to support Lyndon B Johnson, which severs him from the Democrats at the ballot box. Vidal explored the third party option in the form of the People's Party, a left-wing populist party looking to build on New Deal liberalism.

As a controversial figure, right up until the end, he outlived many old opponents and even the unseated dauphin only for Hitch to slander him a conspiracy theorist and anti-Semite. This is over Gore's provocative comments on the "War on Terrorism" waged by the Bush administration, let alone his long-time criticisms of neoconservatives and Israel. He first courted controversy as a proponent of gay rights, though he was strictly anti-essentialist in his insistence that there are only homosexual acts and no homosexual persons. Similarly Vidal maintained that the issue of race was a real one, even if just politically. He never bought into the language of liberal multiculturalism and political correctness. The reasoning here is that the issue is not cultural, the US is a case of a monoculture with plenty of room for hatred along racial lines. This was the same man who once rubbed shoulders with the Kennedys, Tennessee Williams and Paul Newman (he didn't mind name-dropping either). The irony of all this is that the ideal Vidalian narrator is a person who sees as much as possible, but is seen the least himself.

See also:
Proposals to Improve the US Government
Vidal looks back on his remarkable life
The Profile of a Writer
Documentary on Vidal
Hot Talk with Gore Vidal 
The Education of Gore Vidal 

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