Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship
Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship is a collection of twenty-five essays, most of them on topics related to literature, which Mr. Vidal has published since 1963. Several first appeared in this journal. Together, they constitute the second volume of unassuming but distinguished work which is, I believe, quite unlike anything else in American letters today. Though parallels can surely be found in British writing as late as that of E. M. Forster, who blends criticism, history, politics, and journalism in proportions similar to those Vidal favors, Vidal is one of America’s most civil writers. Civility is a form of civic virtue; Vidal has long been politically active in the classical rather than the contemporary sense: he ran unsuccessfully for Congress from the district that includes his Dutchess County home; several of his novels have political themes.
If Vidal’s style is classical, there is surely nothing archaic about his presence. He is about as likely to be where the action is as Norman Mailer, though rather less likely to compete with it. His piece on the Republican Convention in Miami Beach is among the best in the book; while his essays “The Holy Family” and “The Manchester Book” are original contributions to knowledge about the peculiar place of the Kennedys in American society and folklore. They are also more interesting than the other essays because Mr. Vidal’s heartfelt dislike for the Kennedys occasionally breaks through and enlivens his usual detached irony. His decision to retain “The Holy Family” in Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship despite the assassination of Robert Kennedy, whom it portrays most unfavorably, adds to the credibility of the book, as does his postscript observation that “It is curious how often one prefers his enemies to his friends. Although I certainly never wanted Bobby to be President, I had largely come to accept him as a useful figure on the scene—and now that he is gone I find that I genuinely miss him.”
Mr. Vidal tends usually to combine literary and political criticism in a single essay. The “Notes on Pornography” and the essay, “Edmund Wilson, Tax Dodger,” are excellent examples of the analysis of a distinctly literary topic through the extraction of its quite basic political implications. “A Passage to Egypt” was written in 1963 as a pure piece of political reportage on the State of Gamel A. Nasser; yet Vidal was also concerned, as the title of the essay implies, with the cultural effects of Egypt’s efforts to play us against the Russians in the interests of its own economic development; it is his observations about these matters that have survived six years of Middle-Eastern political conflict, while the political observations themselves have dated.
“E. Nesbit’s Use of Magic” and “The Waking Dream: Tarzan Revisited” are the sort of thing E. M. Forster used to do in redirecting attention to works of minor but unique talent whose peculiar merits had been lost in undeserved obscurity. Such oblivion is itself more a social, if not explicitly political, than a literary phenomenon; we are familiar with it as affecting appreciation of acknowledged masters like Henry James or Theodore Dreiser, whose reputations wax and wane with changes in the social climate. But Vidal, like Forster, is especially good at recalling and identifying the specific delights still to be derived from smaller and less serious work now thought hopelessly outdated.
Such interests themselves attest to Vidal’s historical sense and are in the best sense conservative. It is the prevalence of a kind of elegiac conservatism which gives Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship a large degree of unity; this collection of essays does come off as a book even though Vidal has done very little explicitly to connect its parts together. They are held together through the consistency of his own complex, highly modulated, but very unambiguous personality.
From this book I would infer that Mr. Vidal has come to view life in a spirit that owes something to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, though he is less optimistic. Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship begins:
Seven years ago when I first put together a book of essays, I titled it, somewhat vaingloriously, Rocking the Boat. Since then the boat has begun to ship water (no thanks to me), and I am again drawn to a nautical image. With no melodramatic intent I have selected a title which seems to me altogether apt this bright savage spring with Martin Luther King dead and now Robert Kennedy. The fact that these deaths occurred at a time when the American empire was sustaining a richly deserved defeat in Asia simply makes for poignancy, if not tragedy. But it is not only the American ship which is foundering. Nearly half the human beings ever born are now alive, breeding like bacteria under optimum conditions. As a result, the planet’s air, water, and earth are being poisoned and used up, and there are those who believe it is already too late to save this ark of fools….
I find the general tone of these pieces a good deal less hopeful than that of Rocking the Boat, possibly because in youth one thinks that all the changes which ought to be made will be made in one’s lifetime, while in middle age (where I am now irritably lodged), it becomes quite plain that very little one hoped would happen will happen. But there is still “yet.” Some bad things do change for the better. A liberalization of American sexual mores is taking place even though to date no American state legislature has recognized that under our Constitution and Bill of Rights private morals are not the law’s affair. On the other hand, some things grow worse. For instance, the American attitude toward drugs is absurd….
All times have seemed bad to those living in them; and all societies are sick. But some societies are sicker than others and some times are, potentially, more dangerous than others. We can blow up the earth. That is new. We can breed ourselves out of existence. That is new. To ponder these matters is to know despair which is why I personally find myself vacillating between living in Rome and raging in New York, between silence and exhortation, between human despair and animal hope. Stendhal wrote that politics in a work of art is like a pistol shot at a concert. But that was another century. Today the pistol shots are the concert while the work of art is the discordant interruption. To interrupt catastrophe is the artist’s highest goal at a time when, like it or not, pure novelist and worldly polemicist are in the same boat.
The Preface to Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship, from which this long quotation is taken, does what good prefaces should do but seldom achieve: it gives the reader a very clear idea not only of the central concerns of the book but of what its strengths and weaknesses will be. The juxtaposition of ideas in this passage alone is enough to establish Vidal as that rarity in America and in modern times generally: a conservative defender of personal liberty. That such a man should have involved himself in American politics and become familiar as a television commentator on presidential nominating conventions is, I think, both ironical and an indication that the media people may have a shrewder understanding of Vidal’s special political function than he has himself; though they could not have if he had not revealed himself to them through his political candidacy. But that candidacy could not conceivably have succeeded. American popular democracy does respond to the popular will; and that will could not conceivably serve to elect Gore Vidal.
Vidal is the least vulgar American writer; he comes on like a British country gentleman specially armored to adapt to twentieth-century tactics. This freedom from vulgarity—and, especially, from its lethal shabby-genteel mutation—makes him something like, in the words with which he once titled a charming play, a visitor from a small planet; he can see aspects of our life more clearly than a person who took the assumptions of liberal democracy for granted could. Only someone with a genuinely aristocratic temper, I think, could perceive as Vidal does the way in which the Kennedys, precisely because of their vaunted style, were far more objectionable even than Lyndon Johnson. Only someone with such a temper would object to wealth as a political factor on the grounds that Vidal does: not that the rich are more evil than the poor, and not simply because wealth gives the rich an unfair advantage, but because that advantage permits the possessors of wealth to swamp real merit and drown it out so that the polity has no chance to find and identify the leaders who might actually be able to save it. A political system in which enormous wealth panders to a vast and malevolent honkitude in order to wield political power is absolutely inimical to personal liberty. This is a simple, but wholly Roman, truth; and to apply it in America is very difficult.
For Americans who are devoted to freedom remain by and large committed to the belief that freedom should be enjoyed by all the people; that democracy is the proper source of liberty and dignity, which all would come to share and prize if democracy were functioning properly. Vidal’s book is both haunted and held together by the implication that this belief is false. But he himself never concludes that it is. He leaves his reader, as conventional liberals do, with the implication that somehow our doom is attributable to an excessive rate of technological development—the bomb and air pollution, or overpopulation attributable to the specious encouragement of advances in hygiene and agriculture which nevertheless remain powerless to arrest the Malthusian process.
But those of us who share Vidal’s taste for, and conception of, human freedom are not bugged by technological advance or overpopulation, but by the specific and oppressive intrusions of our neighbors, generally on a pretext which the democratic state makes fully legitimate. It is precisely this which Edmund Wilson showed so clearly in The Cold War and the Income Tax, a pamphlet which affords Vidal the occasion for one of the best essays in this book. The mass of the American people do not enjoy this kind of freedom and they do not propose to allow anyone else to if they can help it; and it certainly seems that they can. Vidal recognizes this; he speaks of the “new world order” of managers who “will create a society more repressive than any man has so far endured, and what little is of value in our civilization is certain to be spoiled by the managers.” That is not an uncommon prediction, and is probably true. But this does not, as I think Vidal suggests, imply the end of democracy. It attests to the strength of democratic institutions, never more impressively exhibited than in the act of repression, and never more popular.
Even the advancing technology may be more effect than cause; for napalm, the space program, and the intricate apparatus of American executions all serve the same psychological purpose: to show what kind of people are in charge on this planet, and that they are smart enough to control anything without having to do more than push a few buttons that drop a few pellets or an occasional capsule. Last night on TV—21 May—was a compact triumph for American civilization. A moving appeal from Senator Kennedy for clemency to his brother’s assassin, followed by sentence of death imposed by an august Los Angeles jurist. A new Chief Justice of the United States, reputedly tough on law and order, presented to the American people amid an exchange of platitudes from the White House. The witless chatter of the Astronauts, calling the moon to the attention of the American people and assuring them that within two months they would truly be a nation of lunatics. And as counterpoint, Berkeley police helicopters gassing the students and faculty of the University of California, some of whom later complained that this made education impossible; though the position of Governor Reagan and most of the other Regents has been viciously clear for several years and I cannot myself quite understand why such slow learners should object to the use of audio-visual aids in instruction.
Yes, the pistol shots are the concert, all right; but the work of criticism must still be more than a discordant interruption. It must also point out that the American taste in pistol concerti and divertimenti for wind ensemble is banal as well as lethal. Indeed, it is the banality of our favorite works that legitimates their lethal action; for this is what makes them popular as it simultaneously conceals their consequences. For most of the American people, the news last night was groovy.
In 1969 it is hard to make such statements bluntly in a serious essay. To say directly that what is wrong with the social organism is exactly what makes most of its members dig it seems intolerably anti-democratic when stated as a general proposition. In America this must still be said symbolically and in fictional form. Must of the obliqueness and obscurity of contemporary fiction is perhaps attributable to this need to express elitist insight without avowing an elitist philosophy. But the need is pressing, and sometimes the feat succeeds brilliantly. I could not like Vidal half so well, loved I not Vonnegut more; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater says what Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship merely hints, though insistently. On Vidal’s own terms this, I think, is a real defect. An aristocracy, like a volunteer fire department, is valueless unless it can rise to occasions of peril by risking really aggressive action. For a writer this action is to bear precise witness. Somewhere in Mailer’s earlier work he notes, magisterially, “The shits are killing us.” They are; and a noble temperament must say so.