October 3, 2015
The last time I saw GORE VIDAL (1925–2012) — guesting on Real Time with Bill Maher on April 10, 2009 — he was mounting a perverse and not very interesting defense of Bernie Madoff. His idea being, I think, that Madoff had made visible all the hidden motives of our empire instinct, and was being scapegoated for every capitalist entrepreneur’s unadmitted wish — to screw everyone in sight, reduce other lives to ruin, and get away with it. I got Vidal’s idea, but was turned off by his expression of it. Like many, I’d always looked to him for clarity, critique, and a fearless (albeit biased) response to American madness; I never expected to agree with him on everything, nor imagined I would want to be his friend. Even so, I was offended by that appearance. But then it was never the role of the public intellectual to confirm anyone in his or her beliefs, or let anyone feel too comfortable for too long — and deciding that the intellectual himself is unassailable, a guru, or even a wonderful person is the first step in getting too comfortable. Vidal’s final gift to me, his ardent fan, was to offend me.
Of course he was elitist: point to one great critic who isn’t. Besides, that was much of his authority. Jabbing relentlessly from his privileged perch at the very system that had once groomed and now galled him, he took the broadest latitude to be the critic of America that our vaunted freedoms guarantee each of us the right to be. He filled your head with notions and, if you were a writer, prodded you to create the fastest, sharpest, most challenging sentences you could (and let the reader try to keep up). My desert island book would be his United States, the collected cream of our country’s greatest essayist on matters of politics, history, sex, film, literature, and life. Vidal both articulates and is the unbounded “Yes” of creativity, judgment, absorption, production — as well as the “No” by which we grant ourselves the power to say, rightly or wrongly but with conviction, that every “Yes” is a lie.
READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).