Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952-1972
I first met Gore Vidal in 1947 (or was it ‘49?). He was very young and looked spruce and golden. He had tawny hair and eyes that made me think of bees’ abdomens drenched in pollen. The center of each eye, perhaps its iris, held a sting.’ He wore a bow tie and a well-tailored light-brown English country-style suit. He discussed his success (had he just published The City and the Pillar?) like a joke which we shared. He showed me an envelope on the inside cover of which an ardent fan had glued an ecstatic self-photograph. He could not have been more enviable.
Perhaps it was on this occasion that I made the priggish remark he quotes in his essay on Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. The conversation had shifted for a moment from his success to some other young writer who had “unexpectedly failed, not gone on, blown up.” Apparently I said, “The difference in England is that they want us to be distinguished, to be good.” I should have added, of course, that in England success is supposed to be kept within the bounds of decency: that is to say, to bring to your friends credit for knowing you but not pushed to that extreme where they might become envious. I have always suspected that the real reason why E. M. Forster gave up writing novels was in order not to provoke his English friends.
Just about this time there was an even younger American writer who, when we met, looked at me coolly and said: “When I meet older writers I can just smell failure!” Fortunately I was able to get back my own some minutes later when he asked me, as one infinitely acquainted with the sordid ways of the literary world, whether I considered that he should follow his publisher’s advice and have himself photographed entering a brothel. I saw my chance and answered: “I assure you there isn’t a brothel in the world that could do you more harm than your publishers are already doing by promoting you.” The remark went unheard.
The difference between Gore Vidal and the second writer was the sense in which Gore Vidal wasn’t serious. Or perhaps I should have written “was serious.” For he is one of those who had learned “to care and not to care,” and to discriminate between things that are worth and things that are not worth caring about. For all he talked about it, I do not think he really cared about success. Certainly someone mad about success would not achieve his most genuine effects in a form so modest as the essay; and this is what Gore Vidal does in the present volume. Not only are the individual essays excellent, the whole volume is more than the sum of its parts. For taken together these essays compose the features of the writer, complex and a bit mysterious, like a face mirrored in the darkened waters of a well.
There are at least two or three Gore Vidals. One is the earnest and attentive student of literature, doggedly informative about subjects such as the nouveau roman. The second is the tipster of the authors’ stakes: a great expert on the running form of Norman Mailer, and with much inside knowledge of the fixers and the rackets. And the third is the President-watcher, standing at a respectful distance while inspecting Presidential candidates, but with a glint in an eye that is altogether too observant.
The essays about literature are probably the most studied and the least at ease with themselves, for Gore Vidal, superbly self-assured at his best, can be painfully painstaking, as he is in “French Letters: Theories of the New Novel.” He is much happier when he moves from the written to the writer, as is shown in the first essay in the volume, “Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s.” This essay hardly counts as literary criticism, but that does not matter, for there is justification for an attack on the extraordinary pretensions of modern critics to make absolute judgments.
It is difficult, on the internal evidence provided by the essays, to measure his learning, but in this first essay he already shows that he has access to an arsenal of random information about the ancient Romans and the church fathers (it may well have come out of Gibbon) which he draws on to make swift thrusts at an opponent. The arguments of new critics remind him of
the semantic and doctrinal quarrels of the church fathers in the fourth century, when a diphthong was able to break the civilized world in half and spin civilization into nearly a millennium of darkness. One could invent a most agreeable game of drawing analogies between the fourth century and today. F. R. Leavis and Saint Jerome are perfectly matched, while John Chrysostom and John Crowe Ransom suggest a possibility. The analogy works amusingly on all levels save one: the church fathers had a Christ to provide them with a primary source of revelation, while our own dogmatists must depend either upon private systems or else upon those proposed by such slender reeds as Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot, each, despite his genius, a ritual victim as well as a hero of literary fashion.
This is delightful and gives one a ringside feeling like that which the Israelites must have had watching their youthful David go out to meet Goliath. One wonders, a bit anxiously, how many of these learned pebbles Vidal has in his sling. (He has mentioned earlier on that doubt is cast on Matthew Arnold’s enthusiasm for Dante on account of Arnold’s inadequate Italian.)
The pleasure conveyed by the passage I have just quoted is not as elementary as it may seem. This is partly on account of its style, which is worth considering, for Gore Vidal is an elated stylist. He carries weights of packed allusion with a buoyant air. In so far as he has an argument he is well on top of it. What is most characteristic of him in this passage is a kind of mock pomposity. The learning or the pseudo learning verges on the hectoring or lecturing manner. But just as he seems about to cross the line which divides riding high from pomposity, he wheels his charger around and turns the whole thing into a joke, just as he turned the talk about his success into a joke when we first met.
As Gore Vidal several times reminds us his grandfather was a senator and he himself electioneered to become a congressman, as though to turn into his grandfather. That he should ever have wished to be in Congress is utterly absurd. His strength and his deepest seriousness are that he himself sees the absurdity. He has turned pomposity manqué into a life style. The charm of his essays when he describes important people in public life is that the description seems constantly to inflate little balloons of importance—and then to stick pins into them.
The underlying activity which he sees to be common to the academic, the literary, and the political life is the success game. He does not forget, of course, that games can be serious, especially in politics; the fascination of his President-watching essays is that he sees in Washington the interlocking games of high seriousness and low comedy.
A game which he rather enjoys playing himself is that which he calls, in an essay of that name, “Literary Gangsters.” Stung by opening a number of Playbill and reading some remarks by Mr. Richard Gilman in which Gore Vidal is referred to as “a culture hero of the Fifties,” he launches forth into a wonderful attack on certain theatrical and literary journalists. It is written with such relish that sometimes it reads like Advice to a Graduate Student about to Embark on a Literary Career. He lists the rules for this hectic infighting, and concludes:
Finally, the gangster can never go wrong if, while appearing to uphold the highest standards (but never define those standards or say just when it was that the theater, for instance, was “relevant”), he attacks indiscriminately the artists of the day, the popular on the ground that to give pleasure to the many is a sign of corruption and the much-admired on the ground that since all values now held by the society are false (for obvious reasons don’t present alternative values), any culture hero must reflect perfectly the folly of those who worship him.
His account of some of those he labels gangsters is so boisterous that I can hardly believe they could be offended. In a swift summation, he relates one writer’s career: how Mr. John W. Aldridge, Jr., set up in 1947 “as a legitimate literary businessman, opening shop with a piece describing the writers of the postwar generation in which he warmly praised John Horne Burns and myself. The praise made us think he was not a hood, his shop a legitimate business not a front.” Alas, though, it was all a monstrous plot, even including the move to Connecticut “in order to be close to certain of his victims.” It turned out that
…he was thoroughly casing the territory. Then he struck. In a blaze of publicity, Mr. Aldridge bit one by one those very asses he had with such cunning kissed, earning himself an editorial in Life magazine congratulating him for having shown up the decadence and immorality of the postwar writers. He has long since faded from the literary scene…as have, fortunately, those scars on which we sit.
Gore Vidal is brash, but in a passage such as this, he elevates brashness to satire through the style. Satire is unfair, simplifies those attitudes it attacks, and then expresses the simplification with an elegance and elaboration pleasing in themselves. What he does with the literary gangsters is cut through the gordian knots of their style and show that it often conceals a brashness less justified than his own (he is very good at playing his opponent’s game better than he does himself).
Memories of having been the young lion who shook out his mane before ten thousand glowing sophomores, who leaped from the circus floor to jump through the same hoops as Norman Mailer, and who scorned to be thought whelped of the same litter as Truman Capote—these are aspects of Vidal’s self-mockery, which does not call his whole personality into play. It is when he is writing about politicians that he becomes like one of those “opposites” in a Yeatsian world of antinomies, the perfect negation of its own hugged secret self-image. The negative of his positive Senator Vidal, but also deep down the projection of him, he looks with the glare of an unthinkably powerful searchlight at Ronald Reagan, illuminates every pore and wrinkle exposed under the grease paint, and writes the description down with the diamond pen of hell’s least kind recording angel:
Ronald Reagan is a well-preserved not young man. Close-to, the painted face is webbed with delicate lines while the dyed hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes contrast oddly with the sagging muscle beneath the as yet unlifted chin, soft earnest of wattle-to-be. The effect, in repose, suggests the work of a skillful embalmer. Animated, the face is quite attractive and at a distance youthful; particularly engaging is the crooked smile full of large porcelain-capped teeth. The eyes are interesting: small, narrow, apparently dark, they glitter in the hot light, alert to every move, for this is enemy country—the liberal Eastern press who are so notoriously immune to that warm and folksy performance which Reagan quite deliberately projects over their heads to some legendary constituency at the far end of the tube, some shining Carverville where good Lewis Stone forever lectures Andy Hardy on the virtues of thrift and the wisdom of the contract system at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
It is description of this kind, done with the fervor of a scientist exploring a strange land and making a description of its fauna of such accuracy that the language itself acquires the clarity of cells magnified under a microscope, that Gore Vidal does best. The language becomes an apparatus designed to capture very rare specimens observed in highly characteristic but not often reported situations, like that of camels in heat—
Ordinarily Rockefeller’s face is veal-white, as though no blood courses beneath that thick skin. But now, responding to the lowering day, he has turned a delicate conch pink. What is he saying? “Well, let’s face it, there’s been some disagreement among the pollsters.”
Just as Vidal is even better on writers than on writing, so he is better on politicians than on politics, about which he is always interesting. But as President-watcher he ceases to be either frolicsome or satiric; he is contributing to knowledge in describing with great attention a new American species: the public man seen as a fusion of all the external forces of publicity, presentation, and advertising media concentrated upon him and the extraordinary transformation of the inner man into mechanical will and perpetual guardedness which is the result of exposure to these conditions.
Joseph Alsop, also a President-watcher, once explained to me that men like Johnson and Nixon are not at all like the rest of us. They think of power unceasingly, and they tap resources of will and duplicity which by ordinary standards are unthinkable. Obviously, politicians like Adlai Stevenson (to whom, humanly, Hugh Gaitskell was a close equivalent) are too nice and cultivated for such a task. Occasionally they think of something other than power, and this is debilitating to a system which ought to be fueled on nothing but high-octane publicity. Some men have energy that is human and some have energy that is inhuman, but they rarely have both at once. Increasingly presidents tend to conscript the inhuman or superhuman qualities in themselves (perhaps Nietzsche’s Superman is really a mid-twentieth-century American president).
Descriptions such as those of Governors Reagan and Rockefeller are cruel not because they are satiric or malicious, but because they are true. As President-watcher, Gore Vidal is personally often quite sympathetic to the objects of his attention. Of course, failure, like absence, lends enchantment to the view, and his portrait of Barry Goldwater renders him positively charming.
In his famous essay on the Kennedys, “The Holy Family,” he combines satire with observation. The satiric idea that the Kennedys have projected onto the American public their sense of family which derives from Ireland, “priest-ridden, superstitious, clannish, is worked out to the point where the satire is superseded by the tragedy:
Meanwhile, the source of the holy family’s power is the legend of the dead brother…. Yet the myth that JFK was a philosopher-king will continue as long as the Kennedys remain in politics. And much of the power they exert over the national imagination is a direct result of the ghastliness of what happened at Dallas. But though the world’s grief and shock were genuine, they were not entirely for JFK himself. The death of a young leader necessarily strikes an atavistic chord. For thousands of years the man-god was sacrificed to ensure with blood the harvest, and there is always an element of ecstasy as well as awe in our collective grief. Also, Jack Kennedy was a television star, more seen by most people than their friends or relatives.
The modern world absorbs the atavism and legends of the past and transforms the Fisher King into its own terms—hence Jesus Christ Superstar. Gore Vidal, President-watching, expresses this process with exceptional vigor, but where he is most original is in his insight into the qualities of personality (or lack of it) required today of the holders of highest office. The public does not require the President to be, as a person, trustworthy. What they do require is that they can trust him never to stop thinking about the presidency:
Hypocrisy and self-deception are the traditional characteristics of the middle class in any place and time, and the United States today is the paradigmatic middle-class society. Therefore we can hardly blame our political gamesmen for being, literally, representative. Any public man has every right to try and trick us, not only for his good but, if he is honorable, for ours as well.
Trust in this context means not trusting the President to refrain from trickery during elections, but trusting him to be wired into, powered by his own ambition unceasingly, like a dynamo.
When he writes about power, one is impressed by something authoritative in Gore Vidal’s manner. The features reflected on the surface of the well have muscles compressed to seriousness, yet they do not lose the self-awareness which includes a trace of self-mockery. The writer who can quote to such effect in parenthesis, “(“It all began in the cold”: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days),” is not likely to fall into the trap of solemnity.
Gore Vidal is by now obviously irremediably saved from his public persona. His essays celebrate the triumph of private values over the public ones of power. They represent the drama of the private face perpetually laughing at, and through, the public one. At the same time, their seriousness lies very largely in his grasp of the conditions and characteristics which make up the public world. What makes an essayist? It is curious to reflect that the greatest English essayist, Francis Bacon, was also a man with the strongest sense of public values consistently questioned in his essays by those of the private human condition; and that Montaigne was a magistrate who retired from public life to his country estate and thought much about the world, and about power, and about friendship.