Wednesday, August 1, 2012

GORE VIDAL



Gore Vidal will be missed because he was, perhaps, the last of the Great Public Intellectuals with the ability to discourse knowledgeably on an impressive variety of inter-related subjects. Let's say right here that Vidal isn't, of course, the last intellectual who will attempt to conquer all media and become on the few anointed by the Infotainment State to appear with bright elucidations on the variety of platforms available in a demonstration of Marcuseque tolerance that resists the codifications which allow corporate coffers to swell. There a number of others who can talk up a good contrarian view on a number of subjects, but none of them are as entertaining as Vidal had been, the cynic, the Wildean wit puncturing holes in the thin balloons of bullshit that his way. His presence on the talk shows throughout my childhood, admittedly, helped formed my progressive views and instructed me, more or less, to think harder on subjects, to be skeptical, to think critically, to be willing to change my mind based on new evidence; all that was good enough on the face of it, but that was essentially a side benefit of paying attention to what Vidal was, in fact, which was an entertainer, another distraction, a decent enough man to utter views half way critical of a racist/misogynist/ /homophobic status quo  who would not, all the same, dissuade viewers from purchasing the sponsor's products. It was a racket and Vidal knew it. But his performances on the talk shows did inspire me to read his books, which makes me thankful that the talk shows of the time--Carson, Cavett, Griffin, Mike Douglas--booked serious American writers as guests , a class of introverts who spoke of great things and ideas while the camera was on them and which, in turn, pushed me to the bookstore, the library sale, the librar stacks to get their books. We can run down the list of items he had a nuanced opinion on literature, politics, antiquity, American history, film, particular and peculiar aspects, niches and submerged terrains of popular culture and the currents that ran under it. He was the man to read whenever a new essay appeared or a new novel appeared on the new release table in a local bookstore. He was a lively, challenging read.

Still, there was something about Vidal that struck me as being a mile wide and an inch deep; there are points in both his essays and the many, many interviews he gave where he would cite the same facts, make the same sweeping declarations, offer the same crowd-pleasing diagnosis as to what exactly the matter with American at large happens to be and the same crowd soothing prognosis for the country, citizens and culture at large if his advice were heeded; Vidal would often sprinkle his views with scattered facts, but he rarely cited his sources, rarely delved into a matter and provided substantial, vetted analysis of many of things he spoke. As with many people I've met over the decades, Vidal seemed to be a brilliant writer who can make provocative and well-structured speculations to the origins of our lust for power and the cultural and institutional disguises we disguise our ambition with, but remaining, by and large, an intriguing conversationalist, the center of every cocktail party who offers things more quotable than useful as regards policy.

 That being said, allow me to insist that I agreed with most of what Vidal noted and recommended for the country. Vidal was a novelist, most of all, especially brilliant and grossly underrated by critics who were condescending even when they were giving his books favorable reviews. And I think his intellectual legacy will be less the political writings for which he most noted for and more for the large body of literary criticism and book reviews he wrote during his lifetime. He was a first-rate literary intelligence, powerful, insightful, able to detect fakes, fads, and balderdash in the work of other novelists who were trying too hard to be unique.

 I, for one, am grateful to him for a long essay he wrote reappraising the career of novelist Dawn Powell, author of "The Locusts Have No King" and other novels; she is, as Vidal wrote, the best American comic novelist of the 20th century. His essay helped bring her books back into print. I wound up being doubly blessed, being a man who had the honor of reading both Vidal and Powell in the same lifetime.

2 comments:

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  2. Thanks for this perceptive and judicious summation of Vidal’s work and legacy. I agree that his views were stimulating and trenchant, if sometimes repetitive. He would go over the same ground again and again in his essays, perhaps out of moral outrage or the need to satisfy his fan base or both. As a novelist, I found his work full of worthy ideas, though his prose could be rather bland at times. His treatment of American political history – particularly in Burr and 1876 – was delightful. Who else bothered to resurrect the likes of Samuel J. Tilden and James G. Blaine as literary characters? I’m sorry he never won any of his quixotic political contests. Most of all, Vidal’s passing reminds me that (like Norman Mailer) he was an independent voice, beholden to no narrow ideology or political party. He was nobody’s mouthpiece, something that seemingly can’t be tolerated in today’s Fox/MSNBC polarized climate.

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