Magazine | August 27, 2012, Issue

A Vicious Narcissus

On the career of Gore Vidal

The novelist and fantasist Gore Vidal, who died last month at 86, must ever occupy a special place in the hearts of National Review’s extended family. I hasten to add that by “special” I do not mean honored, cherished, or affectionate. On the contrary. The critical Vidal moment came in the summer of 1968. The place: Chicago. The festival: the Democratic National Convention. The weather: partly cloudy with a high chance of riots.

If you are reading this, you probably know the story. WFB and Gore Vidal had both been asked by ABC, at that time an important television network, to comment on the proceedings. The chemistry between them was not pacific. The streets of Chicago were exploding with demonstrations “against the war” — against, as WFB observed, the orderliness that civilization requires. Vidal thrilled to the anarchistic spectacle of it all. “They were absolutely well behaved,” quoth he. Reality check: They were attempting to raise the Vietcong flag in a public park, taunting the police, and chanting “F*** LBJ! F*** Mayor Daley!” WFB was not amused: “I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American marines and American soldiers.”

That was too much for Gore Vidal. “As far as I am concerned, the only crypto Nazi I can think of is yourself,” et cetera, to which WFB made his now-famous reply: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

The man from ABC intervened with a “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Gore Vidal beamed with pleasure at getting under WFB’s skin, and the proceedings bumbled along with a few tu quoques before the interviewer managed to shoo them both off the air (“I think we have run out of time . . .”).

WFB provided a long recollection of the incident, “On Experiencing Gore Vidal,” that first appeared in Esquire and was reprinted in his collection The Governor Listeth (1970). The piece has some tantalizing details. One is that he was suffering from a broken collarbone, an injury he sustained sailing the previous weekend. As WFB’s son Christopher speculates in a masterly obit of GV in The New Republic, absent the fractured clavicle, history might have recorded a more kinetic reply from WFB to Vidal’s accusation that he was a “crypto Nazi.”

Another detail: The actor Paul Newman, a longtime friend of Vidal’s, joined the Buckley party afterwards to express his displeasure. “Have you ever been called a Nazi?” asked WFB. “That was purely political,” said the future purveyor of popcorn and lemonade. “What you called him was personal!”

A dissertation, or rather several, might be written to explicate that observation fully. You’d need a sociologist of Max Weber’s stature to get to the bottom of the social assumptions behind Newman’s use of “political” and “personal,” and a philosopher of the astringency of A. J. Ayer to unpack the epistemology. For now, let’s just ponder the worldview that regards the charge that someone is a Nazi, be it crypto or flagrantly patent, as something other, and decidedly less obnoxious, than personal.

One further semantic plug to chew on: Newman’s objection seems to have centered not on WFB’s threat of violence but on his use of “queer,” a colloquial synonym for “homosexual.” That is curious in about 18 different ways. Let’s take an analogous case. If Lillian Hellman says “I’m a Communist,” people like Gore Vidal and Paul Newman cheer. “Atta girl! Free speech, long live the Constitution that Communists like you are trying to destroy,” etc. But if a conservative commentator like WFB says “Lillian Hellman is a Communist,” folks like GV & PN find the highest horse in the neighborhood, climb aboard, and start denouncing him for “red-baiting.”

#page#Something similar, I think, was at work in Newman’s snit over WFB’s use of the word “queer.” Not that WFB was proud of his outburst. I spoke to him about it a few times and it was clear that he deeply regretted it. He did not, by the way, regret the substance of his response. He always acknowledged that he regarded Gore Vidal as a repellent human being who eminently deserved being socked. But he regretted losing his temper. Anger, like other natural human emotions, has a rightful place in the economy of human life, but, as Aristotle pointed out, one should be angry at the proper things, in the proper degree, for the proper duration. A temper, that is to say, ought not to be lost but deployed. WFB, on that one occasion (it is the only one I know about), lost his, and he regretted it.

Well. This is a memorial notice about Gore Vidal and here I have said at least as much about WFB. That strikes me as about right. Gore Vidal was always a minor literary figure. As a figure in the annals of recent intellectual life, he does not register at all. He occupies a footnote in the library of pornography for period-piece S&M fantasies such as Myra Breckinridge. He wrote some good essays: on Montaigne, for example (I always found it curious that he admired Montaigne: a less Montaigne-like character than Gore Vidal is hard to imagine), and on the canny, if grim, 1950s novelist Dawn Powell. In the library of memorable catty lines, he also has a place. Among my favorites is his judgment that Leon Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of The New Republic, is distinguished chiefly by having “important hair.” (I also like his observation that the three most dispiriting words in the English language are “Joyce Carol Oates.”)

But even these barbs point to something unpleasant about Vidal. There was a barely concealed (or do I mean ostentatiously exhibited?) current of viciousness that characterized his spirit. Teddy Kennedy, he said, had “all the charm of three hundred pounds of condemned veal.” Yikes. I laughed, but a bit uncomfortably. Shortly after WFB died, in February 2008, Vidal said in an interview for the New York Times that “hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.” Vidal cultivated his viciousness at the expense of the truth, at the expense of that sanity which a steady contact with reality confers. Bill Buckley was a “crypto Nazi.” Pearl Harbor was provoked by FDR. World War II was orchestrated by U.S. arms manufacturers. Timothy McVeigh, the deranged man responsible for the Oklahoma City bombings, was “a noble boy,” no more murderous than Generals Patton and Eisenhower. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a plot by the U.S. government — or was it Mossad? The Patriot Act was “as despotic as anything Hitler came up with.” And so on.

Thinking back over Vidal’s long and garrulous career, I am left primarily with a feeling of sadness. Mark Steyn once described Vidal as “the Noel Coward of conspiracy theorists.” That’s funny, but it’s not quite fair to Coward, whose lightness of touch and fundamental decency were qualities Vidal never approached. Writing about Vidal’s 2006 memoir Point to Point Navigation, the journalist Joseph Rago made an observation that touches on the cold and melancholy core of Gore Vidal: “His self-love is well requited.” That’s it precisely. To understand Gore Vidal, his detached noli me tangere pan-sexuality, his bitchiness, his unending contempt for the habits and institutions of civilized life, one need only turn to those pages in Ovid’s Metamorphosis devoted to the unhappy figure of Narcissus, the comely youth who was burdened with a “pride so cold that no youth, no maiden touched his heart.” The world unfolded all around him, but Narcissus remained bent over the fatal pool, rapt: “He gazes in speechless wonder at himself.” It gives me no pleasure to say that those words might serve as an appropriate epitaph for Gore Vidal.

– Mr. Kimball is the editor of The New Criterion and the author, most recently, of The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.

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