Gore Vidal: Vital Punk
Author: Aaron Tilford
August 10, 2012
The evening of July 31st, 2012, Eugene Luther Gore Vidal passed on from our mortal ranks. I received a text at 2:06 am August 1st from a friend on the east coast: “RIP Gore Vidal.” I had just gotten in from seeing a friend’s band perform (a little late, and a little drunk). I grabbed my laptop, curled up in bed, and went online, and as soon as I began to read The Guardian obituary I started crying—as though I’d just broken up with a long-term boyfriend, or lost a close family member. The more I read the more cried. And I don’t, in general, cry that easily. Later that morning after I woke up, I remembered and cried again. Why was this affecting me so dramatically? A younger friend of mine innocently IM’d me and I told him I couldn’t stop crying because Gore Vidal had died. “Who’s that?” Who’s that?? I sent him a link to the obituary. “Oh. He was a famous writer?” Well, yes. But that’s not really it. I said he was my hero. Now, I have a lot of heroes, all for different reasons. And no one can be your hero in every way, but he was my hero in a lot of ways. As a man, and an artist, growing up identifying as gay, in a country I love but was politically (and religiously) ill at ease with, he became a kind of intellectual beacon for me. He said to me: you don’t have to be A or B; there is another way.
Not to imply that there was a nurturing quality to the man—he was not the warm and fuzzy type. Gore was entertaining but he was also, like Larry Kramer, challenging. He was fearless, fiercely intelligent, and well spoken. I can’t imagine him ever losing an argument or breaking a sweat. But he was homework, and people don’t like homework. I like to laugh and have fun, but at my core I am a serious and thoughtful person, with an overactive, restlessly questioning mind. And he comforted me intellectually. He was a kind of anchor.
I’m not an authority on Gore Vidal. I’m not educated enough to evaluate his work or impact on a large scale. I haven’t read all his novels, essays, and interviews. Or seen every film he’s contributed to or play he’s written. I can only speak to how a fraction of his work and thoughts have affected me.
I grew up in the Midwest going to a Protestant church and my father was a military officer. In spite of the implications of all of that I rarely felt victimized and always felt loved. I realize that I am a lucky, privileged case. My corner of the Midwest was a university town. And my father was (and is) a liberal in a conservative environment. Negative comments toward gays did start the crack in my young Christian faith though. (A crack that would grow and splinter and lead to a questioning of all things.) I recognized the connection between my early sexual stirrings and the “homosexuals” that were apparently such a problem. I thought, “Well, that must be me” but didn’t feel a real connection to the community I saw represented by rainbow flags and freedom rings—a culture shaped by a history of victimization and abuse. In time I did come to adopt, cultivate, and celebrate the rich queer perspective of aesthetics and humor. But I never wanted to be defined by my sexuality. Vidal refused to be. It was validating for me to hear his perspective—he believed the difference was between men and women, not gay and straight. All else is affectation. Meanwhile his third novel, published in 1948, featured homosexuality (The City and The Pillar), and in 1968 he published Myra Breckenridge, a satirical comedy about a transsexual.
He blasted monotheism as the “unmentionable evil at the center of our culture,” the three main religions as being “anti-human,” and put into perspective Leviticus (“that looney text”) that religion uses as a basis for hatred.
He, like my father, also served his country in the military services and always felt passionately, like my father, about the founding ideas of our country and the military. He was however not shy to point out exactly how far our country has come away from those ideals, and how hopelessly changed and corrupt our political system has become and how beyond repair it is. American history and politics were his central passion. He was a kind of cultural and political referee. Not just a man of words, though, but a man of action—he ran for political office twice. And called William F. Buckley a “pro-crypto-Nazi” on national television.
Growing up an artist dabbling in several mediums, I resisted the unwritten law that you must pick one and ended up moving into graphic design and art direction, fields that can incorporate a variety of art forms. Vidal’s artistic career inspires me in its variety: his writing of essays, novels (historical to satire), short stories, memoirs, screenplays, Broadway plays; the cultivation of a public personality (through interviews) and his roles as an actor, in main stream movies, independent film, and cameos in art projects (he, along with Anna Magnani, received star billing for just a few seconds on screen in Fellini’s Roma).
If he said or did nothing else, these things would be enough to earn him a place in my personal pantheon and inspire me forever.
He was, for me, like that photograph of Johnny Cash flashing his middle finger that my sister loved so much. He was a middle finger to organized religion. He was a middle finger to homophobes as well as the so-called “gay community.” He was a middle finger to the corruption of Republicans as well as Democrats. Except in my constructed image of Vidal as Cash he sports a relaxed, confident smirk, and the “middle finger” is expressed in words, written and verbal. He was punk rock with a traditional, smooth exterior. But there was nothing traditional about him, not really. He defied singular category.
Was he a snob? Maybe. But if he was he was the best variety of snob and entitled to it—he earned it through intellect and achievement. He hobnobbed with celebrities and intellects. He was a celebrity and an intellect. (If you’re Gore Vidal you probably don’t meet a lot of farmers.) I think he was drawn to beauty and intellect. I think he prized talent, honesty, and kindness. And I think he believed in doing the right thing.
Was he a great writer? I don’t know. I think he was a great thinker. He changed the way I view myself and the world. He made me want to aim higher, to think and produce outside the box, and to be a smarter, more evolved man.
The world’s a richer place for his contributions and a poorer place without him.