My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A little over a decade and a half ago, Gore Vidal was one of the most urgent voices on the American left: challenging empire in the era of neoconservatism, challenging religion at the height of evangelical power, he seemed to speak for America’s disaffected left-liberals in the Bush years.
Readers coming to Vidal’s cultural and political essays for the first time today, however, may not necessarily associate them with the political left at all. Politics change with the times. What is progressive in one decade looks regressive the next, and vice versa. If Vidal, who died in 2012, could come back to see Bill Kristol and David Frum hailed as heroes of an anti-fascist resistance movement, he would die all over again. But other changes are more subtle. The leading edge of today’s progressive movement, for instance, is notably religious, its socialism informed by a spiritual commitment to “the least among us.” Similarly, its feminism (having largely dismissed the sexual revolution as the alibi of the male predator) is tempered by an ecumenical avowal of “modesty.” Contrast Vidal’s classic essay, “Monotheism and Its Discontents” (1992):
The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved — Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
In the era of the religious right’s dominance, Vidal was not in the mood to be “inclusive.” When it came to capital-P Politics, matters of statecraft and war, he, in the same essay, remarks upon the resemblances between his own “isolationism” (a word he felt had been unfairly demonized) and that of the populist right:
Meanwhile, the word “isolationist” has been revived to describe those who would like to put an end to the national security state that replaced our Republic a half-century ago while extending the American military empire far beyond our capacity to pay for it. The word was trotted out this year to describe Pat Buchanan, when he was causing great distress to the managers of our national security state by saying that America must abandon the empire if we are ever to repair the mess at home. Also, as a neo-isolationist, Buchanan must be made to seem an anti-Semite.
Speaking of the latter point, Vidal did not place much value on politesse in matters multicultural. His most famous statement on sexual freedom is perhaps 1981’s “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” (which you can read at The Nation under its original title, “Some Jews & The Gays”). That essay may be understood as a sequel to Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic.” As Wolfe’s 1970 essay charted the late-1960s apotheosis of phony leftism among “the new class” (midcentury media elites), so Vidal’s 1981 essay accounts for this class’s turn to neoconservatism and its accompanying homophobia.
Because so many members of the new class descended from immigrants, Vidal sought to make common cause with Jews on the grounds that reactionary regimes, Nazism above all, tended to target Jewish and gay populations alike. Yet he does not avoid stereotype. In fact, he mercilessly manipulates stereotype, evidently considering turnabout fair play: as if to avenge the vicious homophobia of Midge Decter and Joseph Epstein, he deploys, in discursive revenge, judeophobic tropes: “No matter how crowded and noisy a room, one can always detect the new-class person’s nasal whine.” And the whole essay argues, in the name of a universal humanism, against any exceptionalist understanding of the Holocaust, as illustrated by this memorable anecdote with, ironically, the cadence of a Borscht Belt bit:
In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexualists wore pink triangles. I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. “After all,” said Isherwood, “Hitler killed 600,000 homosexuals.” The young man was not impressed. “But Hitler killed six million Jews,” he said sternly. “What are you?” asked Isherwood. “In real estate?”
Vidal’s attitude toward sexuality as such was anarchic. He construed human beings as essentially bisexual, denying any such thing as the homosexual identity as opposed to the variably sexual actor, and he saw males in particular as sexually omnivorous. He had a contempt for bourgeois family life, on the basis of whose protection the empire was extended and whose metaphysical warrant was monotheism, with the Hebrew Bible as its wellspring. A coherent and comprehensive worldview, then, not much in evidence on the left today, even if various of its features seemed crucial in the years after 9/11, when Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War seemed (to some) like beacons in a fog of propaganda.
Vidal once semi-seriously appointed Christopher Hitchens his “dauphin or delfino,” before the two men broke over Hitchens’s own post-9/11 conversion to neoconservativism; Vidal ironically outlived his erstwhile successor by one year, which means neither of them crossed into the Trump era. A few commentators have speculated that Hitchens, had he lived, would have warmed, out of sheer contrarianism, to Trump. I highly doubt it, notwithstanding the role played by Hitchens’s nemesis (and Clinton bagman) Sidney Blumenthal in the concoction of the Steele Dossier; I tend to imagine, wrongly perhaps, Hitchens voting for Evan McMullin! With Vidal, on the other hand, one does have to wonder.
Despite all of the above, I do not recommend, as I never do, intellectual biblioclasm. Vidal was a giant of American letters, a brilliant political essayist, and a rebel against orthodoxies whose solidity in their own time it is now difficult to remember. Often the contemporary critics most loudly denouncing historical figures for their “privilege” are themselves unwittingly privileged by their own presentist bias; heirs to the revolutions our predecessors made at great cost to themselves, we judge them from positions of moral security they could not have known.
After that unconscionably long preamble, let me get to the point: Vidal mainly considered himself a novelist. Like Orwell and Baldwin and Sontag, he was almost certainly a better essayist than novelist, but is his fiction any good at all?
His early novel, The City and the Pillar (1948, revised 1965), provides a mixed answer to that question. Historically, it is a crucial text, part of that handful of canonical testaments to 20th-century gay male life before Stonewall, alongside Maurice (1913-14, 1971), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and A Single Man (1964). Of these novels, Isherwood’s is perhaps the only outright literary masterpiece, while Vidal’s is, aesthetically speaking, the slightest. The work of a very young author (Vidal was 21 when he wrote it), The City and the Pillar lacks the moral wisdom of Forster or the sociopolitical acuity of Baldwin, not to mention Isherwood’s late-modernist prose-poetry. Nevertheless, as Vidal mentions in his 1995 introduction to this edition, a reprint of the 1965 revision, he sent the novel to Isherwood and to Thomas Mann, and both men admired it, with Mann reporting in his diary, “An important human document, of excellent and enlightening truthfulness.”
The novel begins with Jim Willard drunk in a New York City bar. From there, a flashback is cued that fills out the bulk of the novel before we return, in the final chapter, to the present. Jim is reared in a politician’s family in Virginia, and is an all-American athlete himself destined for politics. But in high school, he falls in love with a classmate named Bob and they share a tryst in an old “slave cabin” (Vidal again links instances of oppression) by the Potomac:
Now they were complete, as each became the other, as their bodies collided with a primal violence, like to like, metal to magnet, half to half and the whole restored.
Then novel’s prose will rarely be so lyrical again. After high school, Jim becomes a sailor, and then he jumps ship and becomes the kept man of a movie star named Shaw. Life with Shaw gives Jim his introduction into the queer demimonde, which Jim regards ambivalently. Like Forster’s Maurice and Baldwin’s David, Vidal’s Jim is characterized as a “normal” man but for his desire for other men. “Normal” here means “not effeminate.” This is unacceptable to us, no doubt, but these novels tend to express a horror at the feminine, wishing instead to associate male homosexuality with traditionally masculine expressions of gender. As in Giovanni’s Room, the effeminacy of the queer male world is implied to be damage done by the constraints of the closet, and also a cause of the sorrows of gay life.
The City and the Pillar certainly dwells on the sorrows, though they come across more as corruptions given the briskness of the novel’s unsentimental dialogue-heavy and generally anti-lyrical style. Vidal in his introduction says he intended “a flat gray prose reminiscent of one of James T. Farrell’s social documents,” while Brian A. Oard ingeniously compares the novel to Candide. And in Vidal’s pitilessly appraising eye, canvassing in a brief but picaresque text almost the whole of North America as well as London and the sea, there is not a little of Voltaire.
The rest of the novel’s plot is shortly told. Jim leaves Shaw to take up with the writer Sullivan, which gives Vidal a chance to satirize the literary world. After a failed love triangle in Mexico with Sullivan and a woman named Maria, Jim enters the army during World War II and experiences more romantic failure. Though he finds economic success postwar as a tennis instructor in New York, he remains unlucky in love and unsatisfied with the gay subculture, a dissatisfaction that Vidal brings out most brutally in his cruel portrayal of the fatuous and hypocritical party host Rolly: “‘You know, I loathe these screaming pansies…I mean, after all, why be a queen if you like other queens, if you follow me?'”
The novel is plainly moving toward the crisis of Jim’s reunion with Bob, his first love, now married with a child. While Bob had been a willing sexual partner in their youth and expresses ambivalence when he rejoins Jim in New York, he eventually rebuffs his old friend’s advances. Following this rejection by his Platonically ideal male lover, Jim rapes Bob and leaves him face down on a hotel room bed (and in fact, in the novel’s original 1948 version, he kills Bob). After this unforgivable violation, Jim goes to the bar where we met him in the novel’s first chapter. The despairing conclusion finds him in contemplation of the river, water being the novel’s symbol of metamorphosis from the Potomac beside which Jim and Bob make love to the ocean on which they separately set sail:
Once more he stood beside a river, aware at last that the purpose of rivers is to flow into the sea. Nothing that ever was changes. Yet nothing that is can ever be the same as what went before.
As these words imply, The City and the Pillar differs from Forster’s, Baldwin’s, and (to a lesser extent) Isherwood’s novels. The hero’s fundamental problem is not society’s ban on his love for men as it is in, say, Giovanni’s Room. Jim’s tragedy, or fortunate fall, is rather the reverse: his love for men, by freeing him from family life and respectable bourgeois society, discloses to him the essential emptiness of existence, as perceived by the godless Vidal but concealed beneath monotheistic rhetoric and the nuclear family. Like the queer theorist Lee Edelman after him, Vidal treasures queerness for its power to dissolve comforting illusions, its anti-promise of “no future.” (A comparison might also be drawn to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood .)
Like his political essays, then, Vidal’s fiction retains a power to shock and disturb. But Vidal’s wit is better expressed in essay form, where it is wedded to the dissolutely avuncular charm of his voice, rather than to the cold eye of his novel’s third-person narrator. The novel’s grim point, too, could have been made without the climactic act of violence, whether murder or rape, which to me bespeaks a young author’s belief that shock tactics can disguise structural flaws.
The novel’s main structural flaw is Jim. He is too colorless a character, merely a passive observer, his recalcitrant lovelessness and unconvincing obsession with his youthful paramour inexplicable extremisms. (Vidal compares him to Humbert Humbert in his introduction, but where in Jim is Humbert’s idiosyncrasy and perversity?) The novel’s title allies Jim to Lot’s wife: he is destroyed for looking back. But what does Vidal give him to look forward to? I admire amoralism in a novel, but immoralism is moralism’s equal and opposite, just another version of the didactic. Oddly, Vidal’s essays feel less sermonic than this novel does.
Even so, The City and the Pillar is darkly entertaining, historically illuminating, and remorselessly intelligent. Though politics and history have left him behind, as they will leave all of us behind, Gore Vidal remains a writer to read.