Gore Vidal: The First and Last Great American Radical
“Impact’s Wolfgang McFarlane pays tribute to the late Gore Vidal, American author and social critic.”
Acerbic. The vast amounts of prose, speech and entire demeanour of Gore Vidal could not be stuffed more neatly into a word. The playwright, author, essayist and political campaigner was the first of his kind, emerging as a cynical presence in a booming, prejudiced post-war America.
Unflagging in debates, obstinate in his contempt for his critics, and frankly dangerous in his wit, Vidal wrote twenty-six deeply caustic novels across many subjects: 1948′s The City and The Pillar was the first to feature explicit homosexuality with a positive outcome, and rocked a sexually conservative society. From there, he wrote profound fiction on emperors and U.S Presidents (Julian, 1964, and Washington D.C., 1967) and was one of the few male writers to explore the limits of gender in the brilliant satire Myra Beckinbridge, 1968.
As well as his illustrious writing career, he was also immensely quotable. His astute remarks include: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail”; “The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes”, and “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise”.
Perhaps a side effect of his legendary wit, in the literary world, Vidal acquired a reputation for his unpredictable outbursts. Of the Roman Polanski child sex case, he calmly responded that he “couldn’t give a fuck”. He called God a “blackmailer” on live television and likened Norman Mailer to mass murderer Charles Manson – one of his many high-profile feuds. His abrupt turn toward the conspiratorial after the September 11th attacks provoked a scathing counter-argument from his English protégé, Christopher Hitchens, a writer more similar in his style to Vidal than any other.
His politics drove everything. In 1987, he wrote a series of essays titled Armageddon?, critiquing the power of American authority and its permeation of the private sphere. He wrote another series, The Last Empire, in 2000, in which he compared the Bush administration to a Junta – the term given to totalitarian sub-equatorial military regimes. Clearly, Vidal did not shy away from anti-establishment sentiment – rather, he aimed to make it as accessible as possible.
One of the most significant – and unfulfilled – aspects of Vidal’s life was his political ambition. A fervent democrat, his desires for positions in office was beaten back: socially at first, due to his homosexuality, and then electorally in California and New York. While labelling himself a conservative, he advocated social welfare and redistributive justice, and described the Republicans as ‘more rigid…stupid…doctrinaire’ proponents of capitalism than the Democrats. It seems likely that his intolerance of laissez-faire economics and typecast American greed was surpassed only by his contempt for dim-wittedness.
So, with such a vibrant, public, volatile life, what has he left behind? His reputation is indisputable: terrifying, exciting, controversial, an unrivalled intellect. His legacy, though, is harder to define. Politically, it was distorted a little by his schism with Hitchens, who was surely the only other writer worthy of delivering thorough, cutting, stylish criticisms of society. In terms of the biting tone of his novels, his influence is far clearer: social criticisms in literature have all but faded away, corroded by the appeasing policies of western governments that aim to give a false, patronising gloss to inequality. The assured protests against injustice that Vidal pioneered may have died somewhere in the late seventies, with the likes of Foucault, Greer and Castoriadis, if not with Hitchens. However, there is still hope for Vidal’s wry messages: American television provides a more direct outlet for public dissatisfaction with fulminating Republicans and religious homophobia; the likes of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher hold similar anti-traditionalist views on same-sex marriage, religion and rampant Republicanism, while notorious far-right commentator Bill O’Reilly detested him.
Perhaps it’s ill-suited to talk about the ‘legacy’ of Gore Vidal because, really, he was a unique breed. An unrivalled polemicist, a devastating speaker, an engaging storyteller and a thoughtful politician, he could reduce an opponent to nothing but blushing skin and stammering indignation with a single word. I suppose, ultimately, it would be impossible to find somebody who gave less of a damn.