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The Last Pagan


by Gore Vidal
Little, Brown, 503 pp., $6.95

Julian is Gore Vidal’s first novel for ten years, during which time he has been writing plays for television and the stage, working in movies, and campaigning in and commenting on politics. There is no reflection of these activities in Julian; instead, it brings together and dramatizes more effectively and with much greater authority than ever before preoccupations that have been present in his fiction almost from its beginnings. Indeed, despite the complete dissimilarity of ostensible subject, form, period and setting, Julian in a real sense recapitulates the themes and attitudes of The Judgment of Paris, which appeared in 1952.

That novel was a modern version precisely of the judgment of Paris, who, in Vidal’s pages, is a young American in Europe tempted in turn by beautiful women representative of power, wisdom, and love respectively. Its literary sources are plain enough—Wilder’s The Caballa, South Wind, the early Huxley, together with more than a hint of Firbank. As a novel, it is anything but wholly successful, but it remains witty and entertaining, and, with the hindsight afforded by Julian, one can now see that in intention, at any rate, it is more than the young man’s jeu d’esprit that it seemed when it first appeared. Of several passages that strike a similar note one might choose this as central to the novel:

The guests went home, carrying with them all the anxieties of the age: a beleaguered church, intellectuals in search of dogma, a barbarian horde poised upon the eastern marches, a materialistic giant beyond the western sea, neither civilized nor barbarians. Each age has its tyrants, thought Philip, preparing for bed. He was soothed by this knowledge as are all properly educated Americans when they come to Europe and visit ancient rooms in which all the fears of other days have been resolved by time or superseded by equivalent crises. He turned out the light and thought of what Regina had said about the old gods, and he wondered if she were right: were they constant after all? Would they reappear now that the last messiah’s work had been undone? The son giving way to his mother and the father lost in heaven? He hoped so, knowing that when men are wise they love the natural more than dogma, more than revelation.

Not entirely obscured by the wit, the irreverence and the fun, the deliberate surface lightness, The Judgment of Paris contains a vision of the twilight of the gods, or rather, of the Christian god; through it there runs the feeling that the world is at a new turn of the great wheel, that one phase of man’s religious history is ended and another slouches towards Bethlehem to be born. It is this vision, of a decisive change in man’s orientation to nature and the universe, that is at the heart of Julian, and in the figure of the great apostate Vidal has found what seems an ideal persona through which to express his vision.

The novel takes the form of Julian’s memoirs as dictated to his secretary during the nights of the disastrous Persian campaign. In this respect, it resembles other novels of our time about ancient Rome, Graves’s Claudius books, Peter Green’s novel on Sulla, The Sword of Pleasure, and Wilder’s The Ides of March, though Vidal also provides commentaries and annotations on Julian’s text from the pens of two of the Emperor’s closest friends, the philosophers Libanius and Priscus. The device is effective: the two sophists, appearing from the wings from time to time as pigmy survivors of their master, act as a chorus to the action; and, in the Mutt-and-Jeff contrast between their characters also provide some fairly obvious but all the same agreeable comedy.

Yet, despite the superficial resemblances between Vidal’s novel and those of Graves, Green, and Wilder, there is a fundamental difference. It is a difference in intention. Vidal is attempting something other than the recreation of the past for its own sake. While it would be absurd to see the novel as a parable for our times or to look for any close parallels between Julian’s situation and our own, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Vidal intends the book to have some direct relevance to the world of today. The brilliance of his portrayal of Julian persuades us that it has. How accurate this is in terms of historical scholarship, I certainly cannot pretend to know; Vidal appends what he calls “a partial bibliography” and gives every impression of having done his homework. But all this is beside the point: the novel must stand or fall by the success of his version of the character of Julian, and here it seems to me he has brought off a considerable imaginative achievement.

This comes out most clearly in Vidal’s intellectual identification with his hero. The story of Julian is fascinating in itself: that of the nephew of Constantine the Great whose life was in continual danger throughout his youth simply because of that fact, who was brought up on the assumption that he would become a Christian priest but who devoted himself to Greek philosophy and literature and became a secret apostate at an early age, who against all likelihood and almost by accident proved himself a soldier of genius, was elected Emperor, abolished Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and attempted to revive the worship of the old gods. It is the index of Vidal’s achievement that he makes us understand how Christianity could appear to a learned, sophisticated, Plotinus-inspired religious pagan as a barbarous regression into the illiberal and the absurd, a return to death-worship.

This said, what must be stressed is the religious nature of Julian’s opposition to Christianity. He has his fun with the semantics of the controversies between the Arians and the Athanasians, but the basis of his fun is nothing like Gibbon’s: it is not that of an eighteenth-century skeptic but of a man living in constant awareness of the numinous and who more than once experiences mystical union with the One. The serenity and nobility of his religious beliefs are rendered by Vidal in the most attractive terms, so that one has no difficulty in assenting imaginatively to the notion of Christianity as retrogression.

Yet, wise, maganimous, and humane as he is, and possessed of a tolerance no man was to achieve again until ten centuries after his death, Julian fails either to stem the tide of Christianity or to restore the worship of the old gods. It is part of the subtlety of Vidal’s presentation of him that one not only understands why this was so but even approves the failure. In the end, Julian is a tragic figure—on two counts. Committed to political action, he yields to the temptation that inevitably faces the idealist in politics—to fight the enemy with the enemy’s weapons:

One reason why the Galileans grow ever more powerful and dangerous to us is the constant assimilation of our rites and holy days. Since they have rightly regarded Mithraism as their chief rival, they have for some years now been taking over various aspects of the Mithraic rite and incorporating them into their own ceremonies. Some critics believe that the gradual absorption of our forms and prayers is fairly recent. But I date it from the very beginning…So quite alone, I set about reorganizing…no, organizing Hellenism. The Galileans have received much credit for giving charity to anyone who asks for it. We are now doing the same. Their priests impress the ignorant with their so-called holy lives. I now insist that our priests be truly holy. I have given them full instructions on how to comport themselves in public and private.

In other words, all that Julian attempts is to substitute one institutionalized state religion for another; in both, the emphasis is on outward forms.

And then the sweetness and light of Julian’s religion of the sun have their dark underside. Vidal reveals brilliantly through Julian’s words how increasingly his policies and actions are rooted in gross superstition. His progress through Persia is accompanied by holocaust after holocaust of bulls and birds; increasingly the gods speak to him through the livers of animals, in the interpretation of which quite as much tortuous ingenuity is exercised as was ever practised by Christians upon the mystery of the nature of the persons of the Trinity. The sophist Priscus, in one of his comments, isolates Julian’s “one flaw: that craving for the vague and incomprehensible which is essentially Asiatic,” adding: “At heart, he was a Christian mystic gone wrong.”

Julian, as we find him in Gore Vidal’s recreation, is not anything so simple as the last of the Pagans. He is fatally contaminated by the very factors in the psyche that gave rise to Christianity itself. He is man in an age of transition, looking back to the past, tugged whether he likes it or not into the future by forces he cannot control. It is this, as Vidal well shows by implication, that gives him his universality and makes him emblematic of man in our own time.

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