"The End of Liberty," by Gore Vidal, Septermber 2001.
Note: Not long before September 11, 2001. Vanity Fair commissioned a piece from their favorite author, Gore Vidal. Sometime after the events of 9/11, he submitted the below essay, which the magazine returned with a kill fee for "market reasons." The essay had, however, already been published in a collection of Vidal's essays by Fazi Editore in Italy under the title "La fine della libertà: verso una nuova totalitarianismo." (The below retains British punctuation and spelling.)
According to the Qoran, it was on a Tuesday that Allah created darkness.
Last 11 September, when suicide-pilots were crashing commercial airliners into crowded American buildings, I did not have to look to the calendar to see what day it was: Dark Tuesday was casting its long shadow across Manhattan and along the Potomac river. I was also not surprised that despite the seven or so trillion dollars we have spent since 1950 on what is euphemistically called 'Defense', there would have been no advance warning from the FBI or CIA or Defense Intelligence Agency. While the Bushites have been eagerly preparing for the last war but two - missiles from North Korea, clearly marked with flags, would rain down on Portland, Oregon only to be intercepted by our missile-shield balloons, the foxy Osama bin Laden knew that all he needed for his holy war on the infidel were fliers willing to kill themselves along with those random passengers who happened to be aboard hijacked airliners. Also, like so many of those born to wealth, Osama is not one to throw money about. Apparently, the airline tickets of the 19 known dead hijackers were paid through a credit card. I suspect that United and American Airlines will never be reimbursed by American Express whose New York offices Osama - inadvertently? - hit.
On the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, a passenger telephoned out to say that he and a dozen or so other men - several of them athletes - were going to attack the hijackers. 'Let's roll!' he shouted. A scuffle. A scream. Silence. But the plane, allegedly aimed at the White House, ended up in a field near Pittsburgh. We have always had wise and brave civilians. It is the military and the politicians and the media that one frets about. After all, we have not encountered suicide bombers since the Kamikazes, as we called them in the Pacific where I was idly a soldier in World War II. Japan was the enemy then. Now, bin Laden... The Muslims... The Pakistanis... Step in line.
The telephone rings. A distraught voice from the United States. 'Berry Berenson's dead. She was on Flight...'
The world was getting surreal. Arabs. Plastic knives. The beautiful Berry. What on earth did any of these elements have in common other than an unexpected appointment in Samarra with that restless traveller Death?
The telephone keeps ringing. In summer I live south of Naples, Italy. Italian newspapers, TV, radio, want comment. So do I. I have written lately about Pearl Harbor. Now I get the same question over and over: Isn't this exactly like Sunday morning 7 December 1941?
No, it's not, I say. As far as we now know, we had no warning of last Tuesday's attack. Of course, our government has many, many secrets which our enemies always seem to know about in advance but our people are not told of until years later, if at all. President Roosevelt provoked the Japanese to attack us at Pearl Harbor. I describe the various steps he took in a book, The Golden Age. We now know what was on his mind: coming to England's aid against Japan's ally, Hitler, a virtuous plot that ended triumphantly for the human race. But what was - is - on bin Laden's mind? For several decades there has been an unrelenting demonisation of the Muslim world in the American media. Since I am a loyal American, I am not supposed to tell you why this has taken place but then it is not usual for us to examine why aNYThing happens other than to accuse others of motiveless malignity. 'We are good,' announced a deep-thinker on American television. 'They are evil,' which wraps that one up in a neat package. But it was Bush himself who put, as it were, the bow on the package in an address to a joint-session of Congress where he shared with them - as well as all of us somewhere over the Belt-way - his profound knowledge of Islam's wiles and ways: 'They hate what they see right here in this Chamber.' A million Americans nodded in front of their TV sets. 'Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.'
At this plangent moment what American's gorge did not rise like a Florida chad to the bait? Should the 44-year-old Saudi-Arabian, bin Laden be the prime mover, we know surprisingly little about him. We can assume that he favours the Palestinians in their uprising against the European- and American-born Israelis, intent, many of them, on establishing a theocratic state in what was to have been a common holy land for Jews, Muslims and Christians.
But if Osama ever wept tears for Arafat, they have left little trace. So why does he and millions of other Muslims hate us?
Let us deal first with the six foot seven inch Osama who enters history in 1979 as a guerrilla warrior working alongside the CIA to defend Afghanistan against the invading soviets. Was he anti-communist? Irrelevant question. He is anti-Infidel in the land of the Prophet. Described as fabulously wealthy, Osama is worth 'only' a few million dollars, according to a relative. It was his father who created a fabulous fortune with a construction company that specialised in building palaces for the Saudi royal family. That company is now worth several billion dollars, presumably shared by Osama's 54 brothers and sisters. Although he speaks perfect English, he was entirely educated at the Saudi capital, Jeddah.... Several siblings live in the Boston area and give large sums to Harvard. We are told that much of his family appears to have disowned him while many of his assets in the Saudi kingdom have been frozen. Where does Osama's money now come from? He is a superb fund-raiser for Allah but only within the Arab world; contrary to legend, he has taken no CIA money. He is also a superb organiser within Afghanistan.
In 1988, he warned the Saudi king that Saddam Hussein was going to invade Kuwait. Osama assumed that after his own victories as a guerilla against the Russians, he and his organization would be used by the Saudis to stop the Iraqis. To Osama's horror, King Fahd sent for the Americans: thus, were infidels established on the sacred sands of Mohammed. 'This was,' he said, 'the most shocking moment of my life.' 'Infidel', in his sense, does not mean aNYThing of great moral consequence - like cheating sexually on your partner; rather it means lack of faith in Allah, the one God, and in his Prophet. Osama persuaded 4,000 Saudis to go to Afghanistan for military training by his group. In 1991, Osama moved on to Sudan. In 1994, when the Saudis withdrew his citizenship, Osama was already a legendary figure in the Islamic world and so, like Shakespeare's Coriolanus, he could tell the royal Saudis, 'I banish you. There is a world elsewhere.' Unfortunately, that world is us. In a 12-page 'declaration of war', Osama presented himself as potential liberator of the Muslim world from the great Satan of modern corruption, the United States. When [President] Clinton lobbed a missile at a Sudanese aspirin factory, Osama blew up two of our embassies in Africa, put a hole in the side of an American war-ship off Yemen, and so on to the events of Tuesday, 11 September. Now President George W Bush, in retaliation, has promised us not only a 'new war' but a secret war. That is, not secret to Osama but only to us who pay for and fight it.
'This administration will not talk about any plans we may or may not have,' said Bush. 'We're going to find these evil-doers... and we're going to hold them accountable' along with the other devils who have given Osama shelter in order to teach them the one lesson that we ourselves have never been able to learn: in history, as in physics, there is no action without re-action. Or, as Edward S Herman puts it, 'One of the most durable features of the U.S. culture is the inability or refusal to recognise US crimes.'
When Osama was four years old, I arrived in Cairo for a conversation with Nasser to appear in Look Magazine. I was received by Mohammed Hekal, Nasser's chief adviser. Nasser himself was not to be seen. He was at the Barricade, his retreat on the Nile. Later, I found out that a plot to murder him had just failed and he was in well-guarded seclusion. Hekal spoke perfect English; he was sardonic, cynical. 'We are studying the Qoran for hints on birth control.' He sighed.
'Not very. But we keep looking for a text.' We talked off and on for a week. Nasser wanted to modernize Egypt. But there was a reactionary, religious element... Another sigh. Then a surprise. 'We've found something very odd, the young village boys - the bright ones that we are educating to be engineers, chemists and so on - are turning religious on us.'
Hekal was a spiritual son of our Eighteenth Century Enlightenment. I thought of Hekal on Dark Tuesday when one of his modernised Arab generation had, in the name of Islam, struck at what had been, 40 years earlier, Nasser's model for a modern state. Yet Osama seemed, from all accounts, no more than a practising, as opposed to zealous, Muslim. Ironically, he was trained as an engineer. Understandably, he dislikes the United States as symbol and as fact. But when our clients, the Saudi royal family, allowed American troops to occupy the Prophet's holy land, Osama named the fundamental enemy 'the Crusader-Zionist Alliance'. Thus, in a phrase, he defined himself and reminded his critics that he is a Wahhabi Muslim, a Puritan activist not unlike our Falwell-Robertson zanies, only serious. He would go to war against the United States, 'the head of the serpent'. Even more ambitiously, he would rid all the Muslim states of their western-supported regimes, starting with that of his native land. The word 'Crusader' was the give-away. In the eyes of many Muslims, the Christian West, currently in alliance with Zionism, has for 1,000 years tried to dominate the lands of the Umma - the true believers. That is why Osama is seen by so many simple folk as the true heir to Saladin, the great warrior king who defeated Richard of England and the western crusaders.
Who was Saladin? Dates 1138-1193. He was an Iraqi Kurd [born in Takrit in what is now Iraq]. In the century before his birth, western Christians had established a kingdom at Jerusalem, to the horror of the Islamic Faithful. Much as the United States used the Gulf War as pretext for our current occupation of Saudi Arabia, Saladin raised armies to drive out the Crusaders. He conquered Egypt, annexed Syria and finally smashed the Kingdom of Jerusalem in a religious war that pitted Mohammedan against Christian. He united and 'purified' the Muslim world and though Richard Lion-heart was the better general, in the end he gave up and went home. As one historian put it, Saladin 'typified the Mohammedan utter self surrender to a sacred cause.' But he left no government behind him, no political system because, as he himself said, 'My troops will do nothing save when I ride at their head...'
Now his spirit has returned with a vengeance. The Bush administration, though eerily inept in all but its principal task which is to exempt the rich from taxes, has casually torn up most of the treaties to which civilised nations subscribe - like the Kyoto Accords or the nuclear missile agreement with Russia.
As the Bushites go about their relentless plundering of the Treasury and now, thanks to Osama, Social Security (a supposedly untouchable trust fund) which, like Lucky Strike green has gone to war, they have also allowed the FBI and CIA either to run amok - or not budge at all, leaving us, the very first 'indispensable' and at popular request last global empire, rather like the Wizard of Oz doing his odd pretend-magic tricks while hoping not to be found out.
Latest Bushism to the world, 'Either you are with us or you are with the Terrorists.' That's known as asking for it. To be fair, one cannot entirely blame the current Oval One for our incoherence. Though his predecessors have generally had rather higher IQs than his, they, too, assiduously served the 1% that owns the country while allowing everyone else to drift. Particularly culpable was Bill Clinton.
Although the most able chief executive since FDR, Clinton, in his frantic pursuit of election victories, set in place the trigger for a police state which his successor is now happily squeezing. Police state? What's that all about? In April 1996, one year after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton signed into law the Anti-Terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act, a so-called 'conference bill' in which many grubby hands played a part including the bill's co-sponsor Senate Majority leader Bob Dole. Although Clinton, in order to win elections, did many unwise and opportunistic things, he seldom, like Charles II, ever said an unwise one. But faced with opposition to Anti-Terrorism legislation which not only gives the attorney-general the power to use the armed services against the civilian population, neatly nullifying the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, it also, selectively, suspends Habeas Corpus, the heart of Anglo-American liberty. Clinton attacked his critics as 'unpatriotic'. Then, wrapped in the flag, he spoke from the throne: 'There is nothing patriotic about our pretending that you can love your country but despise your government.' This is breathtaking since it includes, at one time or another, most of us. Put another way, was a German in 1939 who said that he detested the Nazi dictatorship unpatriotic?
There have been ominous signs that our fragile liberties have been dramatically at risk since the 1970s when the white-shirt-and-tie FBI reinvented itself from a corps of 'generalists', trained in law and accounting into a confrontational 'Special Weapons and Tactics' (aka SWAT) Green Beret style army of warriors who like to dress up in camouflage or black ninja clothing and, depending on the caper, the odd ski mask. In the early 80s an FBI super-SWAT team, the Hostage 270 Rescue Team was formed. As so often happens in United States-speak, this group specialised not in freeing hostages or saving lives but in murderous attacks on groups that offended them, like the Branch Davidians - evangelical Christians who were living peaceably in their own compound at Waco, Texas until an FBI SWAT team, illegally using army tanks, killed 82 of them, including 25 children. This was 1993. Post Tuesday, SWAT teams can now be used to go after suspect Arab-Americans or, indeed, anyone who might be guilty of terrorism, a word without legal definition (how can you fight terrorism by suspending habeas corpus since those who want their corpuses released from prison are already locked up?) But in the post-Oklahoma City trauma, Clinton said that those who did not support his draconian legislation were terrorist co-conspirators who wanted to turn 'America into a safe house for terrorists'. If the cool Clinton could so froth what are we to expect from the over-heated Bush post-Tuesday?
Incidentally, those who were shocked by Bush the Younger's shout that we are now 'at war' with Osama and that those parts of the Muslim world that support him, should have quickly put on their collective thinking caps. Since a nation can only be at war with another nation-state, why did our smouldering if not yet burning bush come up with such a phrase? Think hard. This will count against your final grade. Give up? Well, most insurance companies have a rider that they need not pay for damage done by 'an act of war'.
Although the men and women around Bush know nothing of war and less of our Constitution, they understand fund-raising. For this wartime exclusion, Hartford Life would soon be breaking open its piggy bank to finance Republicans for years to come. But it was the mean-spirited Washington Post that pointed out, under US case law, only a sovereign nation, not a bunch of radicals, can commit an 'act of war'. Good try, W. This now means that we the people, with our tax money, will be allowed to bail out the insurance companies, a rare privilege not afforded to just any old generation. Although the American people have no direct means of influencing their government, their 'opinions' are occasionally sampled through polls. According to a November 1995 CNN-Time poll, 55% of the people believe 'The federal government has become so powerful that it poses a threat to the rights of ordinary citizens.' Three days after Dark Tuesday, 74% said they thought, 'It would be necessary for Americans to give up some of their personal freedoms.' 86% favoured guards and metal detectors at public buildings and events. Thus, as the police state settles comfortably in place, one can imagine Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield studying these figures, transfixed with joy. 'It's what they always wanted, Dick.'
'And to think we never knew, Don.'
'Thanks to those liberals, Dick.'
'We'll get those bastards now, Don.'
It seems forgotten by our amnesiac media that we once energetically supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq's war against Iran and so he thought, not unnaturally, that we wouldn't mind his taking over Kuwait's filling stations. Overnight our employee became Satan - and so remains, as we torment his people in the hope that they will rise up and overthrow him - as the Cubans were supposed, in their US-imposed poverty, to dismiss Castro a half-century ago, whose only crime is refusal to allow the Kennedy brothers to murder him in their so-called Operation Mongoose.
Our imperial disdain for the lesser breeds did not go unnoticed by the latest educated generation of Saudi Arabians, and by their evolving leader, Osama bin Laden, whose moment came in 2001 when a weak American president took office in questionable circumstances. The New York Times is the principal dispenser of opinion received from corporate America. It generally stands tall, or tries to. Even so, as of 13 September, the NYT's editorial columns were all slightly off-key. Under the heading 'Demands of Leadership' the NYT was upbeat, sort of. It's going to be OK if you work hard and keep your eye on the ball, Mr President. Apparently Bush is 'facing multiple challenges, but his most important job is a simple matter of leadership.' Thank God. Not only is that all it takes, but it's simple, too! For a moment... The NYT then slips into the way things look as opposed to the way they ought to look. 'The Administration spent much of yesterday trying to overcome the impression that Mr Bush showed weakness when he did not return to Washington after the terrorists struck.
'But from what I could tell no one cared while some of us felt marginally safer that the national silly-billy was trapped in his Nebraska bunker. Patiently, the NYT spells it out for Bush and for us, too. 'In the days ahead, Mr. Bush may be asking the nation to support military actions that many citizens, particularly those with relations in the service will find alarming. He must show that he knows what he is doing.' Well, that's a bull's eye. If only FDR had got letters like that from Arthur Krock at the old NYT. Finally, Anthony Lewis thinks it wise to eschew Bushite unilateralism in favour of cooperation with other nations in order to contain Tuesday's darkness by understanding its origin while ceasing our provocations of cultures opposed to us and our arrangements. Lewis, unusually, for a New York Times writer, favours peace now. So do I. But then we are old and have been to the wars and value our fast-diminishing freedoms unlike those jingoes now beating their tom-toms in Times' Square in favour of an all-out war for other Americans to fight.
As usual, the political columnist who has made the most sense of all this is William Pfaff in the International Herald Tribune (17 September 2001). Unlike the provincial war-lovers at the New York Times, he is appalled by the spectacle of an American president who declined to serve his country in Vietnam, howling for war against not a nation or even a religion but one man and his accomplices, a category that will ever widen.
The riposte of a civilised nation: one that believes in good, in human society and does oppose evil, has to be narrowly focused and, above all, intelligent. Missiles are blunt weapons. Those terrorists are smart enough to make others bear the price for what they have done, and to exploit the results. A maddened US response that hurts still others is what they want: it will fuel the hatred that already fires the self-righteousness about their criminal acts against the innocent. What the United States needs is cold reconsideration of how it has arrived at this pass. It needs, even more, to foresee disasters that might lie in the future.
War is the no-win, all-lose option. The time has come to put the good Kofi Annan to use. As glorious as total revenge will be for our war-lovers, a truce between Saladin and the Crusader Zionists is in the interest of the entire human race. Long before the dread monotheists got their hands on history's neck, we had been taught how to handle feuds by none other than the god Apollo as dramatised by Aeschylus in The Eumenides (a polite Greek term for the Furies who keep us daily company on CNN). Orestes, for the sin of matricide, cannot rid himself of the Furies who hound him wherever he goes. He appeals to the god Apollo who tells him to go to the UN - also known as the citizens' assembly at Athens - which he does and is acquitted on the ground that blood feuds must be ended or they will smoulder forever, generation after generation and great towers shall turn to flame and incinerate us all until:
The thirsty dust shall never more suck up the darkly steaming blood... and vengeance crying death for death! But man with man and state with state shall vow the pledge of common hate and common friendship, that for man has oft made blessing out of ban, be ours until all time.
Let Annan mediate between East and West before there is nothing left of either of us to salvage. The awesome physical damage Osama and company did us on Dark Tuesday is as nothing compared to the knock-out blow to our vanishing liberties - the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991 combined with the recent request to Congress for additional special powers to wire-tap without judicial order; to deport lawful permanent residents, visitors and undocumented immigrants without due process and so on.
Even that loyal company town paper the Washington Post is alarmed:
The Justice Department is making extraordinary use of its powers to arrest and detain individuals, taking the unusual step of jailing hundreds of people on minor ... violations. The lawyers and legal scholars... said they could not recall a time when so many people had been arrested and held without bond on charges - particularly minor charges - related to the case at hand.
This is pre-Osama:
Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and associations; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.
The tone is familiar. It is from Hitler's 1933 speech calling for 'an Enabling Act' for 'the protection of the People and the State' after the catastrophic Reichstag fire that the Nazis had secretly lit.
Only one congresswoman, Barbara Lee of California, voted against the additional powers granted the President.
Meanwhile, a NYT-CBS poll notes that only 6% now oppose military action while a substantial majority favour war 'even if many thousands of innocent civilians are killed'. Most of this majority are far too young to recall World War II, Korea, even Vietnam. Simultaneously, Bush's approval rating has soared from the around 50% to 91%.
Traditionally, in war, the President is totemic like the flag. When Kennedy got his highest rating after the debacle of the Bay of Pigs he observed, characteristically, 'It would seem that the worse you fuck up in this job the more popular you get.' Bush, father and son, may yet make it to Mount Rushmore though it might be cheaper to redo the handsome Barbara Bush's look-alike, George Washington, by adding two strings of Teclas to his limestone neck, in memoriam, as it were. Finally, [DQ] the physical damage Osama and friends can do us - terrible as it has been thus far - is as nothing as to what he is doing to our liberties.
Once alienated, an 'unalienable right' is apt to be forever lost, in which case we are no longer even remotely the last best hope of earth but merely a seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line by SWAT teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated. Since VJ Day 1945 ('Victory over Japan' and the end of World War II), we have been engaged in what the great historian Charles A Beard called 'perpetual war for perpetual peace'. I have occasionally referred to our 'enemy of the month club': each month a new horrendous enemy at whom we must strike before he destroys us. I have been accused of exaggeration, so here's the scoreboard from Kosovo (1999) to Berlin Airlift (1948-49).
You will note that the compilers, Federation of American Scientists, record a number of our wars as 'ongoing', even though many of us have forgotten about them. We are given, under 'Name' many fanciful Defense Department titles like Urgent Fury which was Reagan's attack on the island of Grenada, a month long caper which General Haig disloyally said could have been handled more briefly by the Provincetown police department. In these several hundred wars against communism, terrorism, drugs or sometimes nothing much, between Pearl Harbor and Tuesday 11 September 2001, we always struck the first blow.
Copyright © by Gore Vidal
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Gore Vidal has known, or at any rate met, nearly everyone of literary, political or cinematic note during his lifetime. A great many of his essays feature anecdotes, always charming and often revealing, about his personal encounters with his subjects: Tennessee Williams, Dawn Powell, Christopher Isherwood, Norman Mailer, Paul Bowles, Anthony Burgess, Italo Calvino, Amelia Earhart, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, the Roosevelts, Luces, Kennedys, Reagans and Gores among them.
I have never met Gore Vidal. But that seems a paltry reason for not beginning this homage in the proper Vidalian key. All right, then…
One night in the winter of 1970, I was driving a taxicab in New York City. Outside a posh club, I was hailed by a tall, handsome gent in evening dress. “Old bores,” he muttered as he climbed in. “Money and brains; never the twain shall meet without giving rise to trulylethal tedium.”
“Where to?” I piped up.
“Wherever I can find some intelligent company,” he sighed.
From a certain lyrical eloquence in the sigh, I guessed he meant literary company. “How about Elaine’s?” I suggested, glancing at him in the rearview mirror.
He winced. “No-o-o, thank you. Norman is probably presiding tonight. I’m not feeling sufficiently…existential.”
“The Gotham Book Mart is probably still open. Lots of writers hang out there, I think.”
The handsome face wrinkled in distaste. “Also a few literary parasites, I’m afraid. I doubt I could control myself if I spotted Truman’s malicious mug leering in my direction.”
“Well, maybe the White Horse Tavern?”
He blanched. “Good God, no. Anaïs sometimes holds court there, fabulating reminiscences and emanating her legendary Life Force. Of course, she’s the source of that legend.”
I looked more closely in the rearview, and this time I recognized him. “You’re Gore Vidal, aren’t you?”
Wary, noncommittal, slightly amused, he murmured: “Possibly.”
I was inspired. “Well, why don’t I just drive you home? Then you can have a nightcap alone, in the company of the most extraordinary assemblage of wit and talent since JFK invited all those intellectuals to dinner at the White House.”
He snorted appreciatively, reached over and patted my head, and when I let him off at his hotel, gave me the biggest tip of my short cab-driving career.
Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. has always enjoyed a healthy appreciation of his own, indeed remarkable, wit and talent. So have most other people, though approbation of his moral character has perhaps been less close to universal. His successes–bestselling novels, Broadway plays, screenplays, two enchanting memoirs and five decades of scintillating literary and political criticism–would be tedious to chronicle (and superfluous in the Age of Wikigooglespace). But what do they add up to? Is he famous for some more enduring reason than… being famous?
He grew up in the penumbra of fame. His maternal grandfather, T.P. Gore, was more or less heroic: blind, Oklahoma’s first senator and a friend of Bryan and Darrow, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. His father, Gene Vidal, was an All-American football player, World War I aviator, friend of Lindbergh and Earhart and founder of TWA. His mother later married that socialite of socialites Hugh Auchincloss, who would later become Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s stepfather as well.
In the vast attic of his grandparents’ house in Rock Creek Park were thousands of books. Up there and downstairs, reading to his grandfather, he acquired an education. At school–he attended St. Alban’s, like his younger cousin Albert Arnold Gore–he picked up Latin and fell in love with a godlike fellow student, who died a few years later, young and still perfect, on Iwo Jima. As told in Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest, it is one of the most stirring love stories in recent literature.
A veteran himself, Vidal published one of the first World War II novels, Williwaw. Public service in the family tradition was one possible future. Instead he wrote The City and the Pillar, a novel about a youthful homosexual affair that one of the boys, but not the other, leaves behind. So much for his political career, at least as of 1948.
Vidal spent the ’50s in the trenches, writing for television, Hollywood and Broadway. He cavorted with the stars–Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and far too many others to mention. More perilously for his soul’s health, he also cavorted with the Kennedys. But by the end of 1961, the moral and intellectual hollowness of Camelot was plain to him. With his nest egg, he left for Italy and novel writing. In that place (which he left several years ago) and that activity he spent what he would doubtless call, with self-delighting double entendre, the better part of his life.
It would be hard–and is, of course, unnecessary–to decide whether Vidal’s novels or his essays are his greatest achievement. Certainly the seven-volume “American Chronicles” series is in the front rank of historical fiction; and at least two volumes, Burr and Lincoln, are indisputably masterpieces. Julian, it seems safe to wager, will long remain the only novel set in the fourth century, with a protagonist dedicated to turning back the fateful onrush of Christian fanaticism, ever to ascend to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Myra Breckinridge was a minor milestone in the sexual revolution–perhaps not so minor.
Essay writing was an afterthought. Edmund Wilson, too, would have preferred writing novels and plays to literary journalism–who wouldn’t?–but he was never as successful as Vidal. As a result, Vidal tells us in Palimpsest,
I never wrote a proper essay until 1954, when I read a new translation of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. Suddenly, I had so many new thoughts on the subject of sex and power that I was obliged to write an essay…ot for publication but just to clear my own mind. Eventually, it was published…and that is how I became an essayist. I wrote first for myself; then for those few readers who might be interested in the resulting essai.
It was, he acknowledged, “not exactly novel writing, which I missed, but it was prose and kept me thinking” while he was churning out those scripts, earning that nest egg.
The fruits of those fifty-plus years of thinking on paper are harvested in Selected Essays. The first thing to say is that this new collection does not replace United States: Essays 1952-1992 and The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000. Nothing could. The former, in particular, is the best essay collection in recent decades by any American writer, except perhaps for last year’s two-volume Library of America edition of Edmund Wilson. At 1,300 pages, United States is, however, a little bulky. So there is every reason to cheer Vidal on his way to Valhalla with the publication of this compact yet comprehensive and very well-chosen volume. Editor Jay Parini has served up a kind of crème de la crème with strawberries.
Vidal is perhaps better known for his raspberries, which are well represented here by “American Plastic,” “The Hacks of Academe” and “The Top Ten Best-Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973.” The first of these, though by no means a hatchet job, does make one grateful not to have read much of John Barth or Donald Barthelme. It also expresses a far more discriminating admiration for William Gass than is usual among reviewers of that overadmired writer. But nothing in “American Plastic” equals the joyous havoc wrought on the bestsellers, whose roots, structural and thematic, in bad Hollywood movies Vidal convincingly demonstrates. Poor Herman Wouk (Winds of War) and Frederick Forsyth (The Odessa File) receive a brisk version of the treatment meted out to James Gould Cozzens by Dwight Macdonald and to Judith Krantz by Clive James. Even “the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn” (August 1914), though an exemplar of “man’s indomitable spirit in a tyrannous society,” is chiefly talented at “describing how things work, and it is plain that nature destined him to write manuals of artillery or instructions on how to take apart a threshing machine.”
Though Vidal can be devastatingly snide (“Rabbit’s Own Burrow” makes John Updike pay very dearly indeed for a few censorious remarks about our hero and other “frivolous” opponents of the Vietnam War), his generosity is more characteristic and even more satisfying. Some of his subjects in Selected Essays, like Tennessee Williams and Edmund Wilson, may not have needed critical rehabilitation, but William Dean Howells and Dawn Powell did. Twenty-five years ago, Howells was frequently dismissed as dry and lifeless, the faded flower of a genteel tradition. Explicating Indian Summer, A Modern Instance and The Rise of Silas Lapham, Vidal reconstructs Howells’s “subtle and wise reading of the world,” which “opened the way to Dreiser and to all those other realists who were to see the United States plain.” And the first half-dozen pages of the Howells essay contain a surprising revelation. As the judicial murder of the Haymarket Square defendants unfolded in 1886, “of the Republic’s major literary and intellectual figures…only one”–Howells–“took a public stand.”
Dawn Powell’s novels were all out of print in 1987 when Vidal’s long appreciation in The New York Review of Books pronounced her “our best comic novelist.” Her studies of genuine Midwestern dullness and ersatz Manhattan gaiety, rendered with fearless, pungent wit and entirely without sentimentality or euphemism, may have been, as Vidal claimed, “Balzacian” and as good a portrait as we have of mid-twentieth-century America. But in this they were fatally unlike the top ten bestsellers of 1973 or any other year. She died more or less obscure in 1965, and Vidal’s influential revaluation doubtless brought a smile to her long-suffering shade.
The hacks of academe (new generation) have put it about that everything is political, especially textual analyses of great literature that reveal, through the application of emancipatory ideology and subversive wordplay, that the past was even less enlightened than the present. Besides allowing critical minnows to patronize artistic whales, this approach frees academic literary intellectuals from having to learn much about history, economics, politics or how to compose felicitous English prose.
Without ever saying so, Vidal also manages to suggest that everything is political, though in a very different, non-postmodern sense. The clarity and elegance of his prose, for example, make a political point: that a critic with public purposes has rhetorical obligations, above all transparency. More generally, to a sufficiently sensitive and knowledgeable critic, everything will appear intelligent or unintelligent, skillful or shoddy, graceful or graceless, truthful or mendacious. In each of these pairs, the latter is–not immediately, perhaps, but ultimately, in some measure–a threat to our common life, our res publica. Intellectual virtues are civic virtues; intellectual vices leave the citizens vulnerable to superstition and demagoguery. There is, of course, no more sense in trying to legislate the intellectual virtues than the moral ones. But one can propagate intellectual virtue, first of all by example. This is Vidal’s abiding contribution to American politics.
The prevailing American superstitions are: one, there is a Supreme Being, omnipotent and benevolent; two, some sexual predilections are more natural than others; and three, there is no class system in the United States. No one who denies any of these things can be elected to high office. As a patriot, Vidal naturally has no patience with this affront to our civic intelligence. Some of his most memorable onslaughts on our national delusions are included in Selected Essays.
“Monotheism and Its Discontents,” a version of which appeared in these pages (July 13, 1992), is forthright. “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism.” Vidal’s dislike is ecumenical; Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all “sky-god religions.” The sky-god is, alas, a jealous god, whose intolerance and blood lust have set a very bad example for his more devoted followers, whose unyielding irrationality managed in only a few decades, Vidal laments, to pervert the founders’ entirely secular purposes. “Monotheism” was written in 1992; sixteen years later, the danger is much more widely recognized. I suspect Vidal’s puckish but prescient call for “an all-out war on the monotheists” had some effect in stimulating the salutary secularist counteroffensive.
In (possibly premature) retrospect, it appears that one historical function of neoconservatism was to supply an intellectual rationale for the worst impulses of traditional conservatism. The attack on the welfare state rationalized–in effect if not intention–greed and class privilege. With the same qualification, the attack on affirmative action rationalized racial hostility. The attack on multilateralism and international law has, less ambiguously, rationalized national chauvinism and aggressive tribalism. Midge Decter’s “The Boys on the Beach,” a vaguely Freudian analysis of homosexuality as pathology, published in Commentary in 1980, was a not at all ambiguous effort to rationalize sexual bigotry. But thanks to Vidal, this was the least successful of all the neoconservative ideological operations. “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star”–perhaps his best-known essay–so thoroughly demolished Decter’s smug fatuities that neither the pseudo-psychoanalytic approach to homosexuality nor, mercifully, Decter herself ever regained intellectual respectability.
My favorites among Vidal’s essays, both included in this volume, are “Homage to Daniel Shays” and “The Second American Revolution.” Soon after the Revolutionary War, the eternal tension between lenders and borrowers, the rich and everyone else, came to a crisis in New England. Shays led thousands of small farmers, many of them former soldiers in the revolutionary army who stood to lose their land to creditors, in search of debt relief and tax relief. The rich fought back, first militarily and then by writing a Constitution that imposed a strong central government disproportionately weighted in favor of the propertied.
That Constitution has become the American Scripture, our political Holy Writ and a chronic obstacle to popular initiative. Dissolving the mystique of the Constitution and those who framed it, as well as that of the revered Federalist Papers–whose “general tone,” Vidal accurately observes, “is that of a meeting of the trust department of Sullivan and Cromwell”–is essential to our civic health. These two essays, along with Vidal’s historical fiction, are powerful dissolving agents.
Disabusing Americans about their government’s international behavior is equally essential. After a PEN benefit one night in the mid-1980s, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. confided to his diary, “Gore gave a (relatively) polished talk about the American empire, banal in content, cheap in tone, and delivered to the accompaniment of smiles of vast self-satisfaction.” Presumably it was the tone Schlesinger objected to; his own self-satisfied banalities about the American empire were always pronounced with reverence and gravitas.
Vidal’s bête noire (and not surprisingly, Schlesinger’s hero) was Harry Truman. The National Security Act of 1947; the creation of the CIA, with its unconstitutional exemption from Congressional scrutiny; the containment doctrine, supposedly for defense against Soviet expansionism but promptly invoked to justify the rearming of Germany and interventions in Greece, Guatemala, Iran and elsewhere; the paranoid secret blueprint for the cold war, NSC-68–all these Truman-era setbacks for democracy are described in “The National Security State,” along with a modest and sensible five-point program that, decades later, still sounds like a very good way to begin reclaiming the country.
It’s not clear, though, to me and I suspect to Vidal, that American democracy can be reclaimed, at least in the form of vigorous, Jeffersonian self-government. (As Vidal points out with his customary sardonic relish, Jefferson began selling out Jeffersonianism during his second term.) The reasons are structural–mass production and mass consumption may not leave enough room for individual autonomy–and clinical–like muscles, intellectual and civic virtues may atrophy beyond repair. No matter who is elected president this fall, the country may become an ever more dispiriting place for a conservative-radical aristocratic republican of Vidal’s stamp.
If so, he has much to teach us about grace in an era of decline. Twice before, he has lived, in imagination, through the death of a cherished ideal. The first was paganism, splendidly memorialized in Julian. In that novel’s climactic scene, the eponymous emperor appeals to the assembled Christian bishops, who are bent on destroying traditional religion, “never to forget that the greatness of our world was the gift of other gods and a different, more subtle philosophy, reflecting the variety in nature.” Of course, that more subtle philosophy was soon driven underground, where it has remained ever since. But things can live a long time underground, especially when nourished by occasional infusions like Julian.
“French Letters: Theories of the New Novel,” another well-known essay reprinted here, reports on the programmatic writings of Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Roland Barthes and their American enthusiasts, none of whom saw much of a future for the traditional novel. Vidal agreed, not because the traditional novel is exhausted but because its traditional audience has been captured by electronic distractions. He greeted this melancholy prospect with barbed but eloquent stoicism:
The portentous theorizings of the New Novelists are of no more use to us than the self-conscious avant-gardism of those who are forever trying to figure out what the next “really serious” thing will be when it is plain that there is not going to be a next serious thing in the novel. Our lovely vulgar and most human art is at an end, if not the end. Yet that is no reason not to want to practice it, or even to read it. In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.
Whatever dreariness lies ahead for our endlessly benighted and bamboozled republic, Gore Vidal’s mocking, disenchanted patriotism will always be a resource for its well-wishers.