Sunday, August 26, 2007

Views From a Window

Published in GCN, April 11, 1981. At 82 Vidal is still alive and kicking, despite recent knee replacement surgery, and despite my occasional disagreements with him I still admire him. He's one of the writers from whom I've learned the most, and he still makes me realize how little I've accomplished.

Views from a Window: conversations with Gore Vidal
edited by Robert J. Stanton and Gore Vidal
Lyle Stuart, Inc. 320pp.

"It's people like that," Tom Lehrer once remarked of Alma Mahler Werfel, "who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years."

It is a sobering thought that when Gore Vidal was my age, he had published seven novels (as well as three murder mysteries under the pseudonym "Edgar Box") and twelve of his plays had been produced on television. His first novel, Williwaw, had been written when he was 19, and his third, The City and the Pillar, published when he was 23, nearly destroyed his career, since it dealt with homosexuality at a time when the sway of the Heterosexual Dictatorship was almost unchallenged. Not only was the boy precocious, but he had guts. It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. And Gore Vidal is still very much alive.

He is by now one of the best essayist/critics we have, perhaps the best, both in the way he handles language and in what he says with it - Matters of Fact and of Fiction (Essays 1973-1976) is simply breathtaking. He is one of the most visible and outspoken of our Elder-Statesman Fags - by which I mean those older gay men of letters who have in recent years become more open about their homosexuality, a group which includes among others Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Christopher Isherwood - and he has been outspoken on the subject longer than most of them. He is a serious novelist whose books appear regularly on the best-seller lists. And of the social and political commentators with regular access to the mass media, he is possibly the most radical.

This access is due I think partly to his witty and patrician manner, which makes him seem less serious than he is, and partly to his very loose links with the Kennedy clan, which for a long time meant he had to contend with interviewers who wanted nothing from him but gossip (and post-mortems) on Camelot. But then, his status as a kind of renegade scion of America's ruling class is one of the things that make him interesting.

Vidal is proof that Marshall McLuhan was right: the presentation of a message carries more weight than the message itself. Vidal lacks the image and the rhetoric the media have taught us since the '60s to associate with radicals; his manner and appearance suggest rather a new appointee to the Reagan cabinet. As a result the Left considers him an elitist, and the Right considers him a fag. (He is of course both.) Yet for years, in person and in print, Vidal has been denouncing the American Imperium, the Presidency, our repressive sex and drug laws, Christianity, racism, and capitalism. (See "The State of the Union" in Matters of Fact and of Fiction for a sample.)

While Vidal may not be as radical as he thinks he is, especially where sexual politics are concerned, he is more radical and daring than many of us young upstarts sometimes realize, and has been doing it far longer. Remember that he was born at West Point to a West Point family; from the age of 10 till he was 16 his stepfather was Hugh D. Auchincloss; and he spent part of his childhood in the house of his grandfather Senator Thomas P. Gore. With that kind of background he should have become an appointee to the Reagan cabinet, if not Reagan himself. It would have been in many ways an easier life, and certainly more lucrative. (Even "this fag thing," on which he has blamed his failure to become President, need not have interfered with his political ambitions if discreetly managed.) But Vidal is an idealist - or as he puts it, "a pessimist - who tries to act like an optimist." And if anything, he seems to get more radical as he gets older.

He is now - according to the newspaper - considering running for Congress from California, and it will be interesting to see how far he gets. Given the nature of politics in general, and our government in particular ("There are no radical politicians close to the top of our system, nor are there apt to be until - a paradox - it's changed," he has said), I suspect Vidal's usefulness would be curtailed if he were elected. Would he be able to function as a working politician without sacrificing his outspokenness? Or would political office be a platform from which he could better draw attention to what needs to be criticized and changed? Vidal himself isn't sure. When asked if he saw himself as a radical, he replied, "In thought, certainly. I'm not so sure in deed." Certainly it will be interesting to see whether a man who calls himself a socialist can be elected to the U.S. Congress. ("I seem to have evolved into a socialist on the grounds that the best countries to live in are those of the northern European tie. This is not opinion but fact; unfortunately, Americans are trained from birth to think Sweden equals socialism equals suicide. The Owners know what they're doing.")

Views from a Window: Conversations With Gore Vidal is a collection of interviews with Vidal from 1960 onwards. Robert J. Stanton, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has also published a book-length bibliography on Vidal, has drawn excerpts from published and unpublished interviews, using sources which range from Fag Rag and the Paris Review to Oui and Mademoiselle. This material he has arranged thematically, and Vidal has gone over the result to add comments and to correct grammar and matters of fact. While this approach sacrifices the chronological perspective one might seek in a collection of interviews spanning almost 20 years (though statements on the same topic made years apart are often usefully juxtaposed), it minimizes the repetition usual in such collections, and adds to the coherence and readability of the whole.

Stanton has included material from his own unpublished interviews with Vidal, in which he himself, rather than Vidal, seems to be the subject. "You know about my life," he says at one point, "the poverty, the struggle for education... my numerous working positions, the censorship I encountered..." Fortunately these intrusions are not too frequent. Stanton seems not to understand Vidal at all, and I fear his upcoming Twayne series study of Vidal will be a disaster. But he has done a conscientious job on this book. The effect of Views from a Window is of a prolonged and systematic interview proceeding topic by topic through Vidal's work and ideas, with time taken out here and there for interesting digressions. As one would expect from an interview with Vidal, it is also most entertaining.

Vidal is endlessly quotable, and for those of us who love gossip the book provides one gem after another:

Ah well, poor John Simon - what a nightmare, to wake up in the morning and realize that you are John Simon. (p. 171)

Shortly after I announced that I was contributing $100 to the Angela Davis Defense Fund in Nabokov's name - to improve his image - he responded by assuring an interviewer that I had become a Roman Catholic. It is curious that Russia's two greatest writers - Nabokov and Pushkin - should both have had Negro blood. (pp. 196-197)

Nothing ever remains the same, with the possible exception, as someone said, of the avant-garde theatre. (p. 258)

Napoleon called the English a nation of shopkeepers. The Americans of today are a nation of shoplifters. They knew Nixon was a crook and they liked him until he was caught. (p. 199)

For all Vidal's ability to think and learn, his background is still with him, and his generation shows. A minor example is his dislike of the word "gay," which may be the only thing he has in common with John Simon. "I don't know why I hate that word," he told Fag Rag. "Historically it meant a girl of easy virtue... And this, I don't think, is highly descriptive of anybody." He prefers to use the word "faggot," which is curious since historically a faggot is a bundle of twigs or sticks - even less descriptive, I'd think, than "gay." More commonly in print he has used "homosexualist," which sounds like an athletic event or a division of Scholastic philosophy. Though he objects to the use of "homosexual" as a noun, he has been known to write of "heterosexuals" and "bisexuals." As I writer I sympathize with Vidal's linguistic conservatism, but this is one instance where I don't share it. Any word that annoys John Simon and the Indianapolis Star so much can't be all bad.

Vidal can be annoying when he is congratulating himself on his achievement - which I don't mean to minimize - in writing The City and the Pillar. In 1960 he admitted human frailty: "I remember I read it through once before it was sent to the printer, and I thought that if I ever read it again I'd never publish I sent back a hardly-corrected proof." But generally he has talked as if he had invented the gay novel: "With an axe, I took on the heterosexual dictatorship... The book-chat world doesn't mind a faggot who comes on like a cripple." Jim Willard, protagonist of City, is a cripple: that's the point of the book. Vidal thinks he showed "the homosexual act as being equal to the hetero," and it is true that in 1948 even to mention the existence of homosexuality was considered propaganda, but a central character who "can only live in the past," like Jim Willard, hardly seems to me the way to challenge the heterosexual dictatorship. While it is true that "To tell such a story then was an act of considerable moral courage," it should be remembered that publicity protects as well as destroys; that many fags and dykes of that time went to prison and mental hospitals without Sturm und Drang in the world's book review sections; and that Harry Hay was at the same time exercising his considerable moral courage to organize what turned out to be the Mattachine Society, without book-chat writers watching to debate whether he had succeeded or failed. More disturbing is what I can only call Vidal's growing anti-Semitism. He has often been quick to condemn anti-Semitism in others. But over the past ten years, he has become increasingly concerned with the Jewishness of some of his critics. "I am not a favorite of American middle-class establishment Jews," he told Stanton in 1978, though he is not exactly popular with American middle-class establishment gentiles either. In 1977 he exploded to Dennis Altman:

In the last few months, I have been singled out not only as the National Fag, but as the creator of a new order that means to destroy The Family, the American Empire, Capitalism, and Warm Mature Heterosexual Relationships. This shit is being dispensed, variously, by Norman Podhoretz... Joseph Epstein. ... Alfred Kazin... and what I take to be a Tel Aviv hotel named the Hilton Kramer... All of these fag-baiters are Jews who have swung to the right... (p. 171)

As a rural Midwesterner my perspective on Jewishness is not of course that of an urban Easterner, but this outburst makes me very uncomfortable. Of course Podhoretz et al. "are fools, and dangerous. More to the point, they don't realize to what extent they themselves - the Jews - are hated out there in Goy-land..." But what, really, is the relevance of their Jewishness to Vidal's - justified - complaint? (Though I'd be flattered to have been credited with so much influence.) The shit they are dispensing is echoed by goyim like Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan, and there are Jews - I.F. Stone, Ellen Willis, Allen Ginsberg, and others - who are vocal critics of the American Empire. In Vidal's remarks I hear echoes of the generals he heard, as a boy, denouncing the Jew Franklin D. Rosenfeld. He has not, I think, left them entirely behind.

Still, what makes Vidal remarkable is the extent to which he has left those generals behind. My disagreements with him are many, but if I am in a position to disagree with him at all intelligently - to know and be able to articulate why I disagree with him - that is due in large part to the influence of his example. If I proudly call myself "gay," it is partly because of Vidal's polemics in behalf of the naturalness of homosexuality, and partly because of his own example: a talented man, successful on his own terms, comfortable with his unorthodox sexuality. If at 30 I look forward to middle age with optimism, it is partly because of men like Vidal (Isherwood is another) whose lives and work show me that it is possible to grow and learn throughout life. It is always a pleasure to read him - fiction, essays, and interviews - to see where the searchlight of his passionate interest has been turned this time, to laugh with him, and learn from him.