If the Republic still existed, if it was even a shadow of what it was meant to be (and never was), then bells would tolling across the land and flags would be flying at half-mast, in sorrowful honor for one of its true sons. Gore Vidal is dead.
The loss is great. His was a unique sensibility: artistic, caustic, unsentimental, casting a Yeatsian cold eye on the human comedy, and in this way — with no false pieties, no dogma, no ideological crutches — revealing, with inescapable clarity, the rank injustices and murderous hypocrisies of power, and the ludicrous pretenses of power’s sycophants.
It was the artist in Vidal — largely overlooked, especially now, in death, as pages and pixels fill up with quick ricochets of his Wildean bon mots and Twitter-ready soundbites — that gave his work a special force. As with Tolstoy, Vidal’s fiction — the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across — deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility. And as with Tolstoy, you might not agree with every conclusion (although in matters of politics, society and culture, I very rarely disagreed with Vidal), but the art showed a mind, a spirit, that deserved to be taken seriously.
Vidal obviously relished his outsized, gadfly role in American politics and media: his self-appointed (and entirely credible) persona as the Alternative President to whatever poltroon happened to be occupying the White House at any given moment — even down to the issuing of his own “State of the Union” essays from time to time, always devastating in their corrosive wit and blistering truths about American society. The vast body of his non-fiction is captured best in the massive 1992 compendium, United States: 1,271 pages long — and not a boring passage in the entire book. (This is in itself a near-miraculous achievement of the art of prose; even Montaigne nods, but not Vidal.) Its three sections — State of the Art, State of the Union, and State of Being — comprise a kind of marvelous postgraduate education in life and learning — worth more, and far more useful, than a PhD from Harvard or an Oxford PPE.
It is here we see not only Vidal the thinker and media figure, but Vidal the man: steeped in history — like few others of his time and almost no one of our day — yet also riding on the sharp, cool edge of modernity as it sliced its way through the 20th century. He seemed to radiate a sense of liberation, in many forms: political, sexual, cultural. He was also a consummate detector of bullshit, and a ruthless dismantler of its celebrated dispensers. (His evisceration of John Updike — “Rabbit’s Own Burrow” — is a splenetic wonder, on a par with Mark Twain’s takedown of Fennimore Cooper or Robert Graves’ demolition of Ezra Pound, leaving the reader incapable of taking the victim seriously again.)
But again, I come back to the fiction. I think this is where Vidal’s true greatness lies. Perhaps so much in the “experimental” novels, the surreal affairs like Myra Breckenridge, Duluth, and Live From Golgotha. As enjoyable and insightful as these are, they seem to me more like extensions of his political writings: send-ups, or mash-ups, of American society, in broad strokes, a species of commentary. Of course, this might just be a matter of personal taste. But for me, his accomplishment reaches its height in several of his other novels, most of them in historical settings, which are brought to uncanny life through the sharply-realized consciousness of individual human beings. Though the novels are set in the past, these characters are always in their present, in the eternal now where we all live, making our way through the chaos of the moment to the forever-unknowable future.
Lincoln is generally considered the best of the novels, with good reason. It is a remarkably effective — and remarkably subtle — example of the “polyphonic novel,” as pioneered by Dostoevsky and championed by Bakhtin. Through a kaleidoscope of consciousnesses, Vidal reanimates the crucible of the American experience — the Civil War — and the man whom Vidal called our “most mysterious of presidents.” Lincoln was part of what Vidal came to see as a series of related novels, a family chronicle — and a national epic of America’s peculiar history: “Narratives of a Golden Age,” beginning with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and ending at the dawn of the 1960s (with an epilogue in the new millennium). While Lincoln may hold pride of place in the Narratives, several others in the series are also outstanding works, particularly Burr, 1876 and Empire. The Narratives caught a perfect pitch of the faint but persistent idealism — the humanism — wafting through the always-overpowering, and always-triumphant, corruptions of power in the miasmic swamps of Washington and beyond, as the Republic slouched bloodily toward its current monstrosity of empire.
But Vidal, of all people, was no American Exceptionalist, and neither was his best work confined to America’s mores and madness. In fact, I believe that his finest novel, his finest work of art, was Julian: an astonishing recreation of the life and mind of the Classical world during its final, fatal flowering during the short reign of “Julian the Apostate,” the Roman emperor who tried to reverse the Empire’s conversion to Christianity, initiated a half-century earlier by Constantine I. The book is steeped in a rigorous historical learning that is worn so slightly, is so thoroughly worked into the very human story of a very human man, that it is scarcely noticeable at all. Julian’s world simply lives, and the reader lives in it — yet at the end, emerges with a new understanding of this absolutely crucial period of history.
In the same vein is Creation, which once again immerses us in the human realities of a crucial era in the life of humanity: the “Axial Age,” which saw the rise and development of new religions and new thinking across the world, an era when Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Zoroaster, Lao Tzu, early Greek philosophers like Heraclitus and other pivotal figures were walking the earth and revolutionizing ancient structures of thought and belief. But again, the learning is carried lightly, in the ironic person of Cyrus Spitama, a witty, aging Persian diplomat in Athens whose main claim to fame is that he is Zoroaster’s grandson. He narrates the tale of his long life — his youth in the Persian court of Darius and Xerxes, his sojourns in India and China, and the machinations and corruptions of the rising Greek city-states.
This is not the time or place for an exhaustive look at Vidal’s literary achievements. (For more on this theme, see Critical Malfunction: Misreading Gore Vidal.) But in the media onslaught of obituaries and appraisals, most of which seem, perhaps understandably, to focus on the gadfly persona noted above, I thought it was important to recall this vital element of Vidal’s legacy: his fiction, which at its best has richly enhanced our awareness of what it is to be a living human being — mortal, troubled, confused, alone — caught up in the maelstrom of historical forces we can scarcely understand and cannot control.
It is no small thing to have left such a mark. It is a legacy well worth celebrating, and one that will outlast even the wittiest and most telling of his aperçus.
On a personal note, it would be hard for me to overestimate Vidal’s influence on how I see the world, in so many different areas. His death is like losing a spiritual father. (If I can be forgiven for using such an outrageous term for a man so entirely worldly! ) His work schooled me and sharpened me and, in the words of Henry Miller (another writer he once wittily skewered, albeit with more affection than bile), “inoculated me with disillusionment” — a task which Miller called the highest purpose of an artist. Vidal made me see the world — and myself — with new eyes, and taught me how to keep on seeing in this way: relentlessly, fearlessly, unsentimentally casting “a cold eye, on life, on death.” I’ve fallen short of this teaching — woefully, continually — at nearly every turn, but it is still there, a lodestar in a night sky that is now a bit more lonely, more harrowing than it was.