Obituary for Gore Vidal: Public Intellectual of the Great Republic

By Omri Preiss

The recent death of Gore Vidal was the loss of an icon, among the last of a rare breed of thinkers – no less. At a time when so much of our political discourse has deteriorated to driveling gibberish, Vidal’s passing is a dear opportunity for reflection.

“One of the most salient features of our culture,” the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote, is that “there is so much bullshit,” and that we “tend to take the situation for granted.” And if most of us look around us, and click a little around our virtual worlds, we would instinctively agree. Setting aside the ‘Theory of Buillshit’ (google it), this momentary lucid realization is perhaps what makes the life and works of Gore Vidal so potent and poignant.

As a political commentator and polemicist, a man who seems to have lived and breathed politics, Vidal had an unmatched wit, sharp as a blade, able to articulate through comic quip or scholarly argumentation ideas that would cut through bullshit with merciless laser precision. A fearsome colossal intellect, wrapped in the humour of a good-hearted cynic, Vidal did not tolerate fools, foolishness, mediocrity, and hypocrisy, and many of his pronouncements will live on long after him.

Photo courtesy of http://www.pitt.edu

In many senses, Vidal, a lifelong Democrat (famously closely connected to the Kennedys), was among the last of a breed of true republicans, in the true sense of the word – as a proponent and researcher of the establishment of the Republic of the United States. His painstakingly detailed exploration of 19th century American politics in his historical novels illustrates a rare touch for nuances, as does the appreciation and reference to ancient Greece and Rome. Such profound allusions to the historical roots of Western politics, in order to throw light on the inadequacies of both past and present, is something that our current impoverished political deliberations often lack.

The sexual (and gender) revolution that took place in the 1960s and 70s owes something to Vidal, who was among the first to present homosexual and transsexual relationships in novels blatantly, such as ‘Myra Berckenridge’, that provoked vehement conservative denouncements as ‘perversion’ and ‘pornography’, which Vidal gracefully deflected. Vidal proclaimed that “there is no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person, there are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a collection of impulses if not practices.” As such he never identified himself as gay or bisexual, claiming that human beings are too complex to be reduced to their sexual preferences. His work has surely contributed much to our changing perceptions of gender and sexuality, as a landmark in gender and queer theory.

It is somehow fitting that Gore Vidal passed away this last July, as the US presidential contest began to gear up to climax. As has become the norm, it is money over matter, and much depends on the manufacturing of alternate realities – fabrications that insult intelligence. Surely, if Romney were to win the elections, Vidal would have wanted to get off of this planet (as would most of us, who hope it will not come to that). Regardless of the election outcome, his voice in American and world politics will be sorely missed.

When asked how he would like to be remembered, Vidal responded “not at all.” But it is emphatically important that he is. If anything, his legacy is one of ever-discerning intellectual pursuit of nuance, of questioning norms, and of not taking the establishment, or humanity’s buffooneries generally, all too seriously. These habits we would do well to encourage in these harrowing times.           

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