The Last Roman: What Gore Vidal Taught Us


In How Proust Can Change Your Life, a witty hybrid of daily affirmation, literary biography, and SparkNotes, Alain de Botton mines the writings of Marcel Proust, not for the usual Freudian, Derridean, or queer-theory insights, but for self-help homilies, improbably enough. (Improbably because Proust was a hypersensitive neurotic with self-esteem issues who, as de Botton notes, “once referred to himself as a flea and to his writing as a piece of indigestible nougat.”)

For de Botton, In Search of Lost Time is not merely a “memoir tracing the passage of a more lyrical age” but a philosophical how-to manual as well — “a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting time and start to appreciate life.” (Just offstage, motivational guru and inspirational firewalker Tony Robbins is warming the coals.)

For example, Proust is famous — some would say infamous — for the length of his sentences, Titanoboa-like constructions that throw coils around the unsuspecting reader. To his serpentine syntax, Proust added the vexation of protracted reveries, a combination that pained readers like Alfred Humblot, one of several publishers who rejected Lost Time. “My dear friend, I may be dense,” he wrote, “but I fail to see why a chap needs 30 pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.”

Even so, in Proust’s divagating, detail-obsessed style, and in his insistence that a creative mind can pluck from an ad for soap pensées worthy of Pascal, de Botton finds “an entire philosophy, not only of reading but of life.” Among its insights are the Proustian slogan n’allez pas trop vite — don’t go too fast. By not skimming over the surface of things, but rather examining them in detail, we give the world, even at its most apparently banal, “a chance of becoming more interesting in the process,” says de Botton. The Proustian gaze alchemizes the everyday. Also, Proust reminds us, “there is something beyond those facts that are reported.” According to de Botton, the novelist read the morning paper with obsessive attention because, in his hyperactive imagination, every news-in-brief item was a compressed novel, comic or tragic or both.

Vidal and Proust couldn’t have been more unlike. Proust was a sickly, sensitive soul and textbook Mama’s Boy who spent much of his life confined to his bed by asthma, ate dinner bundled up in an overcoat, closely monitored the state of his stool (he suffered from constipation), and couldn’t sleep unless his underpants were hiked up tight around his stomach and secured with a beloved pin (the loss of which, one morning, threw Proust into a panic). Vidal, in contrast, was a “gentleman bitch” (his words), waspish and WASP-ish in equal measure, as quick with the eviscerating comeback as Proust was lavish in his compliments; as Olympian in his majestic disdain (for the American idiocracy, famously, but for the species, too) as Proust was self-effacing.

Vidal wasn’t Proust. Of course, both were of the Ganymedean persuasion, both elevated gossip to a high art, both were virtuosic talkers: “One can never say it enough: Proust’s conversation was dazzling, bewitching” (Marcel Plantevignes); “like Wilde, [Vidal] was almost never ‘off’: his private talk was as entertaining and shocking as his more prepared public appearances” (Christopher Hitchens).

In most respects, though, they were poles apart. Yet Vidal, like Proust, has much to teach us. In the meditation that follows, I draw wisdom from the man’s art and life, summing up with a punchline borrowed from de Botton: “The moral?”

By the time the curtain fell, Vidal’s Last-Roman-Senator-Quoting-Suetonious-Amid-the-Ruins routine had begun to pall, some thought.

His perennial subject was the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, and his commentaries on it constituted one long poison-pen elegy for American democracy, delivered with that patented blend of amused hauteur and oracular self-assurance. The small, what-fools-these-mortals-be smile he managed at the decline of Our Fair Republic (for him, it had been declining from the day it was founded) made mock of any dreams of social justice we might entertain.

Little surprise, then, that he wasn’t to everyone’s taste. In “Mr. Gore: Unpatriotic Vidal” (The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America), Martin Amis found his brick-thick novels hard going, took a dim view of his militant heterophobia (Vidal was bisexual), marveled at the virulence of his anti-Americanism, and raised a wry eyebrow at his pose, on the page, as “the only grown-up in America,” his tone “that of a superevolved stellar sage gazing down on the globe in pitying hilarity.” (Amis did concede, however, that Vidal was “probably” — I can just see the Cicero of the Small Screen pursing his lips at the weasel word — “the cleverest book-reviewer in the world.”)

In his chainsaw obituary for Esquire, Tom Junod portrays “Gore Vidal, American Roman” as more Caligulan than Ciceronian, a truculent old crank gloating over American decline. Near the end, writes Junod, Vidal had “become one of the American grotesques he despised, a man who might have been asked to play a corrupt Roman Senator in a sand-and-sandals epic from the Fifties and who might have been pleased by the invitation. But what kind of American wants to be a Roman? What kind of American goes through life as if he were to the toga born, and his life’s greatest tragedy is that he has to endure it wearing slacks?”

Junod isn’t alone in decrying what some saw as Vidal’s descent from the moral high ground to the manure lagoon of conspiracy theory: Christopher Hitchens gored Vidal, in the pages of Vanity Fair, for asserting that “the Bush administration was ‘probably’ in on the 9/11 attacks” and for expressing what sounded, to Hitchens’s ear, like sympathy for Timothy McVeigh.

But there’s more to Vidal’s persona — the world-weary Roman Republican lamenting the corruptions of empire — than an antipathy for slacks.

In a sense, Vidal was born in a toga: he grew up in Washington, D.C., shepherding his blind grandfather Senator Thomas Gore (D-Oklahoma) around the Hill. Impersonating a cynical patrician came naturally to an upper-class radical (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing) who was schooled from an early age in the founders’ swelling rhetoric about a new Roman Republic — and who witnessed, as a youngster, the venal backroom dealmaking that reduced that rhetoric to comic relief. “’At least they will make wonderful ruins,’ said my grandfather, turning his blind eyes on the Archives Building,” Vidal recalls, in “At Home in Washington, D.C.” (United States: Essays 1952-1992, a superb introduction to Vidal the essayist).

But those Piranesi blocks of marble eventually became real buildings that soon filled up with real bureaucrats, and by the end of the Second World War Washington had a real world empire to go with all those (to my eyes, at least) bogus-Roman sets. Empires are dangerous possessions, as Pericles was among the first to point out. Since I recall pre-imperial Washington, I am a bit of an old Republican in the Ciceronian mode, given to decrying the corruption of the simpler, saner city of my youth.

Of course, Vidal’s choice of ancient Rome as his master metaphor allowed him to flaunt his classical education — an education he acquired entirely on his own, by the way, having never attended college. The index to United States reads like Suetonius’s idea of the Yellow Pages: Agrippa, Augustus, Caligula, Cato, Catullus, Claudius, Juvenal, Lucretius, Nero, Petronius, Seneca, Vespasian, Virgil.

In his essay on Montaigne, Vidal tips his hand with a quote from the man who coined the word essay (and whose Complete Works he has, tellingly, kept at hand for 30 years, he says): “Does knowing mean nothing to you, unless somebody else knows that you know it?”

I thought of a chat with Robert Lowell at my Hudson river house 40 years ago. Somehow, we had got on to the subject of Julius Caesar’s character. I mentioned Cicero’s letter to Atticus on how unnerving it was to have Caesar as a house guest. “But,” said Lowell, “remember how pleased Cicero was when Caesar praised his consulship.” Of course, each of us wanted the other to know that he had read the letter and that, if nothing else, we held, in common, a small part of the classical heritage — so etiolated! So testosteronish! So Eurocentric! — that Montaigne had spent his life in communion with. I wonder what a poet and a novelist would have in common to talk about nowadays.

Here come the comment-thread snorts of derision. One-upping another literatus over your shared knowledge of Cicero? Using a word like “etiolated”? Seriously? This sort of highbrow pretentiousness — why, the very idea of any-brow — is chum in Gawker’s shark tank.

A more multicultural, less Eurocentric canon is undeniably a good thing. And a post-postmodern world where high-, low-, and middlebrow are remixed into a carnivalesque culture is a world I’m happy to live in. (As I write this, HiLoBrow, a website that specializes in cultural studies without tears, is running “Kirk Your Enthusiasm”: “25 posts, by 25 writers, analyzing Captain Kirk!”)

The trick, in a mass culture consumed by consumption, is to have your Kirk hermeneutics and clear some space for the sort of discourse where the nature of Caesar’s character is what passes for chitchat and the chitchatters walk around with their footnotes hanging out. The trouble is that the same commercial scramble for the lowest common denominator, the same screen-age post-literacy that conspired against Vidal’s “classical heritage” and “elitist” vocabulary have given us an America where Snooki is a bestselling author and the redneck moppet Honey Boo Boo — imagine Shirley Temple in The Hills Have Eyes — is a household name. It makes a man want to trade in his slacks for a toga.

The moral?

As Americans, we’re all “to the toga born.” Vidal chose to channel Cicero’s ghost because our forefathers took Rome as a blueprint for American democracy, a truth self-evident in our civic architecture. Vidal’s Roman is America’s conscience, his satirical jabs reminding us just how far short we’ve fallen of the utopian mirage. “We should stop going around babbling about how we’re the greatest democracy on earth, when we’re not even a democracy,” Vidal told an interviewer. “We are a sort of militarized republic. The founding fathers hated two things, one was monarchy and the other was democracy; they gave us a constitution that saw to it we will have neither.”

Peering down on the anthill of human affairs from the fourth century A.D., Vidal’s Roman takes the long view: he’s seen it all before, which gives him a historical omniscience. By restaging the American scene — the hog wallow of our political process, the bread-and-circuses vulgarity of our tabloid culture, our imperial overreaching — as a tragic farce  set in ancient Rome, Vidal offers a lesson in the political uses of historical memory. The Caesars have things to teach us, especially in their hubris and madness. More generally, the past reminds us that our Eternal Verities are usually more relative than we know, circumscribed by our historical consciousness, bounded by our cultural norms. In a society obsessed with the New, the Now, the Next Big Thing, that’s a useful corrective.

In “State of the Union, 2004,” Vidal wrote, “Happily for the busy lunatics who rule over us, we are permanently the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” Unsurprisingly, “we have ceased to be a nation under law but instead a homeland where the withered Bill of Rights, like a dead trumpet vine, clings to our pseudo-Roman columns…”

Sometimes, the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror.

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