Milton gave the devil all the best lines, and the devil gave them to Gore Vidal.
It’s now fashionable to talk about a writer’s “voice,” but Vidal was a reminder that it’s style — as much an invention as an endowment — that matters most. His voice, the one you heard on television, was languid, supercilious, self-pleased. His style — what you saw on the page — was virtuosic: witty and serious (not by turns but at the same time), erudite but not ponderous, both periodic and pithy. Above all, it was elegant. It must have galled him that most people under forty may know him best for his televised spat with William F. Buckley, Jr., at the 1968 Democratic Convention (viewed over 700,000 time on YouTube), or his weird paternal sympathy for Timothy McVeigh, or his public falling-out with the man he had designated his “dauphin,” Christopher Hitchens. Vidal was first of all a writer, and first among writers who did, or tried to do, what he did. Here is a typical passage from his earliest essay, “The Twelve Caesars,” written in 1952, though not published till 1959 (in the Nation):
One understands of course why the role of the individual in history is instinctively played down by a would-be egalitarian society. We are, quite naturally, afraid of being victimized by reckless adventurers. To avoid this we have created the myth of the ineluctable mass (“other-directedness”) which governs all. Science, we are told, is not a matter of individual inquiry but of collective effort. Even the surface storminess of our elections disguises a fundamental indifference to human personality: if not this man, then that one; it’s all the same; life will go on. Up to a point there is some virtue in this; and though none can deny that there is a prevailing grayness in our placid land, it is certainly better to be non-ruled by mediocrities than enslaved by Caesars. But to deny the dark nature of human personality is not only fatuous but dangerous. For in our insistence on the surrender of private will (“inner-directedness”) to a conception of the human race as some sort of virus in the stream of time, unaffected by individual deeds, we have been made vulnerable not only to boredom, to that sense of meaninglessness which more than anything else is the characteristic of our age, but vulnerable to the first messiah who offers the young and bored some splendid prospect, some Caesarian certainty. That is the political danger, and it is a real one.
There it all is, from the first: the weary and authoritative tone, the perfect rhythm, the metaphors (“virus in the stream of time”). Not all of the judgments hold up — they were, after all, judgments about another time, another America — but the writing does. No wonder John Gross included this essay, essentially a book review, in his Oxford Book of Essays. It deserves to be stitched together with the work of Hazlitt, Dr. Johnson, and Orwell.
Vidal did not mellow with age. On the contrary, his work became angrier, more acerbic. Nothing seemed to delight him more than his own impiety. Here he is writing about sex in 1991:
When people were few and the environment was hostile, it is understandable that we should have put together a Book about a Skygod that we had created in our own image — a breathtaking bit of solipsism, but why not? The notion is comforting, and there were no book reviewers at the time of publication, while later ones, if they wrote bad Book reviews, were regularly condemned to death by natural lawyers employing earthly hit men, as Salman Rushdie can testify. Then our Skygod told us to multiply in a world that he had put together just for us, with dominion over every living thing. Hence the solemn wrecking of a planet that, in time, will do to us what we have done to it.
Eat your heart out, Ambrose Bierce. Vidal himself was triumphantly heartless. “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
Arrogance, cynicism, and malice (roughly in that order) were the condition of Vidal’s brilliance. His friends and admirers would call him honest. And that’s true, too. He was also courageous in his way. Courageous and arrogant, honest and malicious, cynical and — about his own youth at least — sentimental. Vidal was Exhibit A in the case against the Unity of the Virtues. He was promiscuous in everything, combining whatever was to hand. He was a snob and a populist, an exquisite and a fogy. He balanced charm and mephitic gloom as perfectly as he balanced his sentences. He never really had a dauphin, never could have. He was the beginning of a line and the end of one, which would not have disappointed him.