“As literary feuds go it has all the hallmarks of a classic. In one corner, the journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens. In the other, America’s great man of letters, Gore Vidal. The latest salvo is in this month’s Vanity Fair….”
–The Independent, February 7, 2010
There’s nothing quite like a bitchy little food for-thought-fight to liven up a dull literary winter. Reading atheist-contrarian Christopher Hitchens’s spirited broadside against the doddering Dowager Empress of American letters, Gore Vidal, I experienced something like the momentary satisfaction that sane Westerners must have felt when Adolf Hitler tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded Stalin’s Russia. No matter who won, you knew that by the time the dust settled the world would be rid of at least one pain in the posterior.
To alter analogies but stick with the early 1940s, it reminds me of one of the last big gothic monster movies, Universal’s 1943 release of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. In it, reluctant lycanthrope Larry Talbot (played by a convincingly pathetic Lon Chaney, Jr.) is torn between the evil impulse of the full moon and his residual decency. Meanwhile, the totally bestial Frankenstein Monster (played by a down-at-heels Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff having long since moved on to better roles) engages in an orgy of soulless murder and mayhem. Under the circumstances, star-crossed Larry the Wolf Man is clearly the lesser of two evils and, in the best Hollywood horror tradition, he perishes while destroying the Frankenstein Monster, thus earning partial redemption in spite of his own beastly bits and bites.
Ditto Christopher Hitchens in the redemption, not death, department. As a casual acquaintance, I have always enjoyed Chris’s conversation and appreciated much of his prose. He is clever, well read, entertaining, and generally honest by his own lights. But, if his foreign policy common sense and common decency have separated him from Gore Vidal at the head, the two remain joined at the hip by their adamant atheism. Perhaps this is why Chris has always struck me as something of an intellectual Larry Talbot, a conflicted figure torn between a core of reasonable, ethically sound values related to human rights, individual dignity, and intellectual rigor on the one hand, and a mischievous/perverse pull toward indiscriminate iconoclasm — a kind of compulsive cultural vandalism — on the other. This latter streak of almost sadistic skepticism is probably best illustrated by his potboiler biography of the late Mother Teresa, a hatchet job with a smuttily sophomoric title including the words “Missionary Position.” A similar tone pervades his book-length paean to atheism, God Is Not Great. The subtitle tells you all you need to know about the author’s intemperate bias: “How Religion Poisons Everything.”
When it comes to atheism, Hitchens remains an apostle rather than an apostate of Gore Vidal. Indeed, Vidal was toiling in the barren vineyards of disbelief while young Christopher was still in diapers (British readers please substitute “nappies”). To continue along film lines, it was an old director friend of mine, the late Frank Capra (You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, inter al.) who best described Vidal’s adamant atheism in his 1971 memoir, The Name Above the Title: “Playwright-author Gore Vidal is a caustic intellectual, a possessor of an eloquent bitchiness that I found entertaining. One would never expect him to also be a dedicated evangelist with a lifelong mission. But he was.” Frank then recounted a conversation between himself and Vidal when the former was considering directing a film adaptation of the latter’s political play, The Best Man: “I called Vidal’s attention to the queer coincidence that all the main characters in his script were confirmed atheists. ‘No coincidence,’ he said. ‘I’d like to convert the whole damn world to atheism. It’s my vocation.'”
Over a long career, Vidal, like Hitchens, has devoted much of his artistic and intellectual energy to that vocation. At least one of his major novels, Julian, tried to inflate a minor Roman emperor’s disastrous 20-month reign — remembered mainly for Julian the Apostate’s frenzied hatred of all things Christian and his failed bid to restore the spent force of paganism — into heroic tragedy. (Ironically, Julian came to a sticky end, possibly at the hands of his own subordinates, while invading what is now Iraq, the subject of some of Vidal’s most feverish fulminations.) In his later historical novels set in America, Vidal used the same crude device of inverting vice and virtue, fact and fiction, to serve his ideological agenda. To cite the best-known example, in Burr he casts that most thoroughly rotten of figures — the personally and politically corrupt Aaron Burr — as a hero, and then paints deliberately twisted, disparaging portraits of infinitely more important, and, for all their flaws, more worthy figures from George Washington downward. It’s a cheap literary parlor trick, but Vidal’s considerable talent as a novelist makes it read rather well and may even convince those in his audience with no independent knowledge of history.
When attacking religion and other social values and norms, Chris Hitchens sometimes uses similar tactics. But the same innate sanity that allows him to recognize the current terror war as a battle between rival worldviews — one of which is considerably more evil and barbaric than the other — has led him to attack Vidal, once a mentor of sorts, for the kind of snide blanket indictments that he himself directs at his chosen targets. None of which makes Chris Hitchens wrong in his selective condemnation of Gore Vidal’s increasingly bizarre espousal of crackpot conspiracy theories and his characteristic inversion of heroes and villains, e.g., describing Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as “a noble boy,” no more murderous than Generals Patton and Eisenhower, and opining that the Bush administration was “probably” criminally complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
Where i would differ with Chris is in his rendering of Vidal as a pseudo-tragic King Lear type whose current failings are due to an intellectual, emotional, or, perhaps, geriatric meltdown. While it is true Gore Vidal’s hatred of contemporary America in particular and the Judeo-Christian-shaped ethos of modern Western civilization in general has become increasingly frenzied, sloppy, and illogical in its expression, it was always there. Only the sly, cynically engaging mask has dropped. It just took Chris Hitchens longer than most of us to recognize Gore Vidal for what he always was.
In his Vanity Fair musings, Chris expresses the view that Vidal once had the potential to become a latter-day American version of Oscar Wilde. But, for all his faults, Wilde’s art, while much of it had a weighted socio-sexual agenda, was never driven by bile. From beginning to end, Gore Vidal’s has been fed by little else. We should remember, however, that Oscar Wilde, who, as Hitchens writes, “was never mean-spirited” and never became an endlessly droning “Ancient Mariner,” was only in his mid-forties when he died. Gore Vidal is now 85 and, as so often happens to not very nice people who get away with a lot through surface cleverness and charm, old age is the great unmasker. Stylistic degeneration aside, Gore Vidal hasn’t changed very much at all. What he is has simply become more obvious. And, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, it doesn’t make a very pretty picture.
If his legendarily epicurean appetites allow Chris Hitchens to make it to 85, one hopes that, unlike Gore Vidal — but like Wolf Man Larry Talbot — his better side will ultimately prevail. If not, the scholarly epitaph Stewart Henry Perowne and E. Christian Kopff provided for Vidal hero Julian the Apostate may apply to Chris as well:
[His] religious policy had no lasting effect. It had shown that paganism, as a religion, was doomed. It is perhaps sad, in retrospect, that the odium of proving it should rest on [one] who, with a little less venom and more tact, might have been remembered for his many virtues rather than for his…blunders.