The (Not So) Great Pretender

Paul Greenberg

8/25/2012 8:27:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

He was a minor figure in the freak show and dictionary of dysfunction that was American culture during the downhill years of the last century. And the more minor a figure, the better. Yet on his death at 86, another proof that the good die young, he still fascinated. You could no more stop watching him than you could maggots in a pile of rotting garbage. Call it the fascination of the repellent.


He could trace his genealogical line back to Aaron Burr, the one founding father who proved an utter scoundrel, and he lived down to the name. Let's just say Eugene Luther Gore Vidal came by his principles, or the absence of same, honestly. Was he conservative or liberal, reactionary or progressive, all of the above or none? It was never clear. He just followed his own mood of the moment, consistent only in his amour-propre, which never faltered.


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Lower'n a snake's belly, country people say. But in his case, such an altitude would have been a dizzying aspiration. He was one of those low, blind slithering things that cultural evolution has left behind somewhere on the dank floor of a black cave you wouldn't want to explore, or even know existed. Evolution? Decade after decade, he devolved, till he finally dissipated in the slime of his own words.


Only on the rarest of occasions might he rise to the pitiable. And that was so many years ago we can't even remember any without trying hard. He may have seen himself as a refugee from a Henry James novel, but he was really out of Havelock Ellis. If he depicted himself as a misplaced Henry Adams, last survivor of an American aristocracy, no trace of the old republic was visible in his character, to misuse the word. He took the romance out of decadence and, in his case, bigotry would have been a step up.


Call him a 20th century Nero without the musical inclination, a Caligula without even the remnant of an empire. Yet to the end he still had his praetorian claque of admirers. He retained all the trappings of an end-of-the-line emperor but not a trace of the nobility. Simple dignity was for others; he found it déclassé.


In this cultural pageant, he would not do even to swell a chorus, taken as he was by the idea, the compulsion, that he belonged at center stage, or rather in a royal box looking down imperiously, though it would have been impossible for such a night crawler to look any way but up.


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There must be something to say about the man's ever downward trajectory -- just when you thought he could sink no lower, he did -- and yet on his demise, as during his life, it is not he who is demeaned by such comments but the speaker, once again tricked, like the late great William F. Buckley, into wasting insults on him.


On his own death, what is to be said about someone who never hesitated to speak ill of the dead? Especially if he could get a memorable quip out of it. Why follow his example in his own case?


Because his delusions were so sweeping in their scope, so rococo in their intricacies, they fascinate as they repel. It would be impossible to cover them all. Where would you stop? At one time or another Gore Vidal claimed to believe William F. Buckley was a crypto-Nazi, FDR had stage-managed Pearl Harbor, Timothy McVeigh was just a misunderstood all-American boy (like John Wilkes Booth?), 9-11 was actually the work of the CIA, or maybe the Mossad, the Patriot Act is "as despotic as anything Hitler came up with," and ... well, space is limited.


Naturally, he would carry the anti-semitic bug, too, but on him it was scarcely noticeable, like still another pustule lost amid the running sores on a portrait of Dorian Gray. He would make your average conspiracy theorist sound perfectly sane.


For a fuller catalogue of Gore Vidal's aesthetic and ideological deliria tremens, see his obituary in the current National Review. ("A Vicious Narcissus" by the estimable Roger Kimball, editor and eminence of the New Criterion, a journal that is just about all Gore Vidal wasn't and could never be.)


Of his unending literary works, the best that can be said is that they didn't work. Though they may have enjoyed a fleeting popularity when American taste was at one of its usual lows. It is hard to imagine why anyone, with the exception of long-gone wannabe intellectuals and Hollywood's still unchanged elite, could have taken him seriously.


On his death, our commentariat displayed a remarkable politesse about His Cattiness' little foibles, like spreading hateful libels, desecrating the memory of far better men, and generally being a disgrace to what used to be called the republic of letters. All that, you see, was just evidence of the gentleman's superior intellect and aristocratic bent. There is such a thing as tact, but such tributes came closer to sycophancy. Or maybe just idiocy.


In the end, despite his wealth of poverties, one is left with nothing to say on his pointless exit, yet feeling something has to be said, the man was in the public eye so long and so disgracefully. But what?


Answer: De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est. Of the dead, let nothing but good be said. No matter how hard one must scrounge to come up with a scrap here and there. He once wrote a fine appreciation of Montaigne, of all figures -- a writer whose virtues were almost precisely the opposite of his own multifarious vices.


As a literary critic, he did have a sharp tongue if not mind. However tasteless, some of his judgments had the ring of sour truth, as when he opined that the three most depressing words in the English language were Joyce Carol Oates. It's hard to forget that one. (Ms. Oates surely won't. Ever.) And he may once have given a blind beggar a nickel.


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Let it be noted that he was also one of the few literati, maybe the only one, who ever caused the equable William F. Buckley to lose his temper, a feat indeed, for WFB knew that anger was an emotion to be deployed, not indulged.


Mr. Buckley lost it when, in one of those dreadful dual commentaries on politics à la David Brooks and E.J. Dionne on NPR, Gore Vidal called him a Nazi -- and Mr. Buckley returned the compliment by calling his verbal assailant a queer. It was one of his rare misapprehensions, however temporary, for the merely queer have an integrity and propriety Gore Vidal could never aspire to even at his most ambitious.


It wasn't Bill Buckley's best moment, as he later acknowledged and regretted. But that was Gore Vidal; his one great, low talent was the ability to bring his countless betters down to his level. His ways remain highly contagious, and just thinking about him may be enough to catch them. Which may explain the tone of this obituary "tribute," which has gone on entirely too long. Enough. More than enough. May its subject Rest in Peace, or at least in whatever lost place the repellent go to be forgotten.