His love of the provocative masked a deep, warm humanity.
Gore Vidal, the acerbic literary oracle who died Tuesday, was a reliable nutcase in interviews: Once phoned up or sat down, he was guaranteed to oblige whichever eager journalist was on hand with a barrage of arrogantly hilarious comments and absurd gossip. Given his wide circle of acquaintances among the cultural and political elite, the gossip tended to be juicy.
Many interviewees can provide provocative rejoinders on cue. Vidal certainly had this ability, but his performance in interviews was something more, his responses not merely trenchant but trenchant in often entirely unexpected directions. This side of his entertainment value only grew as Vidal seemed to transition into devil-may-care senility. His brief, withering, baffling appearance with BBC host David Dimbleby on Election Night 2008 made his legendary 1968 televised Democratic National Convention debates with William Buckley look positively civil by comparison. If we're doomed to suffer the indignities of age, would at least that every curmudgeon could muster such addled scorn as compensation.
There was, however, a darker side to Vidal's nonchalance as a provocateur. Hilariously, in an October 2009 Atlantic interview with John Meroney, Vidal pronounced Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and producer Robert Evans "virgins, every last one of them. I can testify to that." Less hilariously, he also pronounced the victim in the Roman Polanski rape case a "young hooker." By this point, similarly offensive statements had already enraged former fans and enemies alike: his sympathy for Timothy McVeigh, for example, or belief in government foreknowledge of September 11, which led to a falling out with his anointed successor, Christopher Hitchens.
It's worth remembering today that Vidal was not always so trollish. For someone born when and where he was, and congenitally infatuated with social connections, he evinced in the first half of his life an uncanny sense of morality and humanism. He stood for tolerance and art appreciation against critics who despised his sexual orientation, as well as his "pornographic" novel Myra Breckenridge, a satire dealing with transsexuality. His moral sensibility pervades his fictional works. The novel Burr is, in many ways, not just a study in human idiosyncrasy, but a moral meditation on the Founding Fathers. It's easy to imagine how such a sensibility might have contributed to his later thesis of American decline.
Yet some of Vidal's most remarkable writing was about hope. A dully titled 1953 Esquire essay "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s" shows the hopeful Vidal at his finest, musing on the net pessimism of the universe and the courage and beauty of humans forging meaning in the face of such emptiness.
In each of these three writers man acts, through love, through hate, through despair. Though the act in each is different, the common emotion is sufficiently intense to dispel, for a time at least, the knowledge of that cold drowning which awaits us all.
The malady of civilized man is his knowledge of death. The good artist, like the wise man, addresses himself to life and invests with his private vision the deeds and thoughts of men. The creation of a work of art, like an act of love, is our one small 'yes' at the center of a vast 'no.'
On the day following Vidal's death, what better way to recall a man so conscious of mortality than featuring a small sample of his "yes"? It takes a soulful 23-year-old to provide such a closing to a glorified book review:
The thought of heaven, a perennial state of mind, a cheerful conception of what might be in life, in art (if not death), may yet save our suicidally inclined race—if only because heaven is as various as there are men in the world who dream of it, and writers to evoke that dream. One recalls Constantine (to refer again to the image of the early church) when he teased a dissenting bishop at one of the synods: 'Ascesius, take a ladder and get up to heaven by yourself.' We are fortunate in our time to have so many ladders going up. Each ladder is raised in hope, which is heaven enough.
"I'm exactly as I appear," The New York Times reports Vidal once said. "There is no warm, lovable person inside." He was lying. Vidal will be remembered as a stylistic demigod, incisive above all else, but the supposed conflict between wit and warmth is nonsense: Narcissist though he may have been, this was a man who saw immortality in an "act of love."
If anything, the memory of Gore Vidal should make society question its suspicion of the articulate in its midst. Coolheaded barbs can just as easily come from deep conviction as detachment. Vidal's convictions, however outlandish, were born of a heartbreakingly human core.