Susan Sarandon: “[Vidal’s] just such an original. He’s so American in that way, you know. He’s clearly such a believer in the republic in a very idealistic way, which is such a strange thing to learn about him because you could think that he was being cynical—(sometimes his way of speaking, and he’s so very funny and so biting)—but in fact he so believes in the purity of the republic. And I think after he wasn’t able to successfully run for office that it really was devastating to him, you know. I think it’s part of his family thing and you could tell that that was a turning point, in some way, for him.”
Interviewer: “What would you have made of him as a president or a senator?”
Sarandon: “Well, he’s just too smart to ever be elected. He speaks too smart. He’s just too intellectual.”
I know there's a thread on him, but since I already voted in the poll a long time ago and have changed my mind regarding his type, I've decided to start a new thread.
Vidal wrote an introduction to an edition of Somerset Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage. Vidal was a fan of Maugham's writing. Several people in the Socionics community have consider Maugham to have been SLI.
Although Vidal was primarily into frottage (penile-penile sex or genital rubbing), he claimed to have tried anal once when he anally penetrated Jack Kerouac (an SLE in Socionix, etc.).
I'm not convinced Vidal was Beta NF for a variety of reasons. Although I'm IEI and a gay man who isn't into anal and has never done it and hopefully never will, nevertheless there are quite a few things about Gore Vidal and his beliefs, etc. that don't necessarily resonate with me that much.
I voted for IEE, SEE, ILI, LIE and SLI in this poll. I believe that he might have been one of those types. My first choice would be IEE-Fi (Harmonizing subtype) [ENFp-INTp]. (Does the fact that Gore Vidal disliked categorization suggest that he was Ti-PoLR?) If he was Beta NF, I’d still say Ni-ENFj > INFp. Honestly, I doubt he was my identical.
Gore Vidal was quoted as saying, "If the male is not the sexual aggressor he can’t get it up. This is certainly true of me; when anyone else is the aggressor, male or female, I can’t respond. I have always been extremely selfish in sexual matters."
Vidal was also quoted as saying, "I have never found [Truman Capote to be] an interesting writer. No, this is not because of my distaste for him personally. . . . It is never wise to allow personal feelings to affect one’s critical judgment. If they do, then avoid any mention of the one disliked. After all, if a critic is not personally disinterested, he’s simply another literary gangster, grinding axes."
“Gore is a man without an unconscious,” his friend the Italian writer Italo Calvino once said. Mr. Vidal said of himself: “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.”
Regarding Hemingway [SLE-Se in Socionix], Gore Vidal said, "I detest him, but I was certainly under his spell when I was very young, as we all were. I thought his prose was perfect—until I read Stephen Crane and realized where he got it from. Yet Hemingway is still the master self-publicist, if Capote will forgive me. Hemingway managed to convince everybody that before Hemingway everyone wrote like—who?—Gene Stratton Porter? But not only was there Mark Twain before him, there was also Stephen Crane who did everything that Hemingway did and rather better. Certainly The Red Badge of Courage is superior to A Farewell to Arms. But Hemingway did put together a hypnotic style whose rhythm haunted other writers. I liked some of the travel things—Green Hills of Africa. But he never wrote a good novel. I suppose, finally, the thing I most detest in him is the spontaneity of his cruelty. The way he treated Fitzgerald, described in A Moveable Feast. The way he condescended to Ford Madox Ford, one of the best novelists in our language.”
Vidal: “Norman [Mailer] doesn’t read much of anything. Yet when he does get outside of himself and looks at something, he’s marvelous. He got interested in—and therefore he was interesting on—the moon shot. He suddenly started describing machinery. He was trained as an engineer, and he has a convergent as opposed to a divergent mind, which means he’s always trying to connect one thing to another. I’m just the opposite—I see no connections.”
Vidal: “So what is there in our society that makes empathy in such short supply? I’m more shocked by that than other people in every society—the inability to picture what it is like to be somebody else. Now [in] my profession as a novelist, I have to do that, I become other people. But I’ve always had that tendency; and I am always startled when I start to talk to people [who] start going on about how much they hate the Blacks or the Jews or the gay people, and you suddenly see there is no ability to identify with anyone else except themselves. And I suppose if I had a motivating thing it would probably come out in an overwrought empathy, [and] an irritability in its absence in others.”
Palimpsest: A Memoir by Gore Vidal; p. 217-9:
Allen [Ginsberg] spoke of [Jack] Kerouac. I think he is still in love with the idea of him; at least as he was in early days. Later, as Jack [Kerouac] became more and more alcoholic, he would denounce Jews and fagg*ts. “And sound just like his mother,” said Allen, “a true horror who never let loose of him….”
“Or he of her,” I added.
Allen nodded. “You know around 1968, when we were all protesting the Vietnam War, Jack [Kerouac] wrote me that the war was just an excuse for ‘you Jews to be spiteful again.’ I sometimes think maybe he was right.”
“No, right-wing,” I contributed. Drunken Jack [Kerouac] had made a fool of himself on Buckley, Jr.’s television program; and then never ceased to admire that profound political thinker. I have only just learned that Buckley figures benignly in a current documentary film of Allen’s life. Political kinship? Or simply a naïve love of celebrity in any form? I can’t tell. Anyway, Allen’s gift for public relations has always been masterful.
I said that I had read Allen’s version of what happened between Jack [Kerouac] and me in the Chelsea Hotel. “Well, he did say that he had blown you.” Allen on sex is rather like a doctor describing, neutrally, the symptoms of a case. “He was sort of proud of that.” Jack gave out many different versions of what happened that night, including a chapter in his novel The Subterraneans and a poem dedicated to me in Mexico City Blues.
Allen was surprised that I had known Jack since 1949. “I suppose back then he would have come on to you like a dumb football jock.”
“Quite the opposite. Anyway, that was my come-on, only with me it was tennis, not football. No, we met at the Metropolitan Opera House, in the club circle, in evening dress.” I’ve always found this first encounter satisfyingly incongruous. Jack was with a publisher, and I was with a friend of the publisher, a brilliant alcoholic writer with a fortune that he was systematically losing. The writer had paid both Jack and Jack’s beloved Nemesis, Neal Cassady, for sex.
Allen asked for the names of our two johns. I gave them. “I’m starting to remember,” he said at last.
“Jack came on to me as one writer on the make to another. Only, his first book, The Town and the City, wouldn’t be published until the next year, and I’d already done The City and the Pillar.”
“We all read that,” said Allen, who seems to have stopped reading me at that high point in my career. “Because of the sex. Nobody had gone that far then.”
I can still see Jack vividly. We are standing at the back of the opera box, which is so crowded that our faces are only a few inches apart. I feel the heat from his body. The eyes are bright and clear and blue; the body muscular, not yet bloated; a drop of water slides alongside his left ear and down his pale cheek, not sweat, but water that he must have just used to comb his thick black Indian-like hair. We were also coming on to each other like two pieces of trade—yes, I was attracted.
“I used to blow him every now and then.” Allen stared at Kenneth Galbraith as he loped like a benign camel across the room. “Jack liked company in bed, but he wasn’t all that keen on the sex part—with men. He blew me once to see what it was like. He didn’t like it.”
Allen spoke of Jack’s sad last days, when he and his mother retired to Florida, where he drank himself to a death which finally came when, after he ate a tin of tuna fish, his liver exploded and he bled to death, like William Burroughs’s son, who, in his twenties, thanks to drink and drugs, underwent a successful liver transplant, then promptly used up the new liver and died.
We discussed the unpleasant things that Jack had said about us in his last years, every word excitedly recorded by passing journalists. “He was a mean drunk,” said Allen. “Like his father. What did you and Jack do?”
“Well, I fucked him.”
“I don’t think,” said Allen thoughtfully, “that he would have liked that.”
“Maybe that was the point.” I changed the subject; I said that I was preparing a new edition of The City and the Pillar.
“Put more sex in!” Allen was cheerful.
“But everybody does that now. Maybe I’ll take it all out.” As I revise these pages, Allen is coming to call this afternoon. He is in Los Angeles, giving readings; meeting Buddhist groups; promoting the film about himself. He is a born executive. Why then did he take up literature when he seems happiest with religion of the somewhat dopey American kind? Maybe I’ll ask him about that. Maybe not. I suddenly remember that I introduced him to Mailer. Paul Bowles was staying in a friend’s Manhattan house. [Allen] Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were already there. Time for the Beats to meet the War writers. I arrive with Mailer. Mailer makes a speech. Then lies down on the floor and goes to sleep. Allen puts his bare feet comfortably on Mailer’s paunch. “Of course, he’s crazy,” he observes. (When I told Allen this, he grinned. “How could I have been so disrespectful?”)
. . . . Most southerners in that latitude were sexually mature at an early age. On the other hand, sex was not as easy then as it was to be after the war and before AIDS. The back of the car was still the favored venue should the family not be out of the house, while if there were full-time servants, then al fresco was in order; or that airless game room in the cellar. Early maturity also made sex between boys a natural business, though there were certain rules that “straight” boys generally observed (this weird adjective was unknown to us, by the way; if we had thought that a word was necessary, it would have been normal versus queer, which we were not—we were just messing around). Rules: Boys did not kiss each other, only girls, and many of us thought that kissing had been invented by girls in the first place, because it was not always pleasant for us when the increased estrogen flow made their saliva’s taste unpleasant; cock-sucking and buggery were unthinkable. Didn’t it hurt? Wasn’t it dirty? Otherwise, we were true pagans who knew nothing about categories. Obviously, there were sissies, whom we made cruel fun of, and there were dangerous older men, like the one who sat next to me in Keith’s Theater and put his hand on my crotch. I fled. Every boy I knew had had a similar experience. What we were all up to was a perfectly natural homoeroticism, which some continued for the rest of their lives without lapsing into the physically more complex homosexuality or, for whatever reason, into serious heterosexuality, an “avoidance” that was the one true heresy which so bewildered and chagrined Anais, goddess of love therapy and astrologist divine.
Jimmie was both homoerotic and heteroerotic. I suppose I am curious about the balance between the two in his nature. But then when one lover goes into shock at the news of his death and another mourns him to the end of his life, we have moved far beyond sex or eroticism and on to the wilder shores of love, and shipwreck.
Logan McClintock: In 1948 Gore Vidal wrote The City and The Pillar, a landmark novel that was the first American novel to showcase two athletic normal masculine teenagers having a homo-erotic affair. The famous sex scene by the river is clearly a scene of frottage. After wrestling with each other by camp firelight, Vidal's protagonists, Jim and Bob, find themselves, after taking their trousers off, embraced:
Their faces met, their cheeks touched and with a shuddering sigh Bob gripped Jim tightly in his arms... Now they were complete, each became the other, as their bodies collided with a primal violence, like to like, metal to magnet, half to half and the whole restored.
A world of sensation was found. Innocently they discovered each other with their hands and bodies, their eyes shut and seeing for the first time. Jim's movements were natural and familiar, practiced before in many dreams remembered now... Then, at the most heightened moment, they were both released, one against the other, made complete.
Jim felt as if his entire body were exploding, was crashing rocket like in this release. Lights glittered in circles behind his closed eyelids and his breathing stopped. This was the world and he was alive.
Vidal later wrote in his memoirs Palimpsest about his real-life boyhood love, Jimmy Trimble, with whom he shared a deep emotional and physical intimacy. Plato's writings in the Symposium also illuminate what is a natural act between two friends who become lovers, as Vidal writes: "When I came to read the Symposium, I was amazed at how precisely Plato had anticipated two boys twenty-three hundred years later." Vidal quotes Plato:
And so when this boy... is fortunate enough to meet his other half, they are both so intoxicated with affection, with friendship, and with love that they cannot bear to let each other out of sight for a single instant... although they may be hard put to say what they really want with one another, and indeed the purely sexual pleasure of their friendship could hardly account for the huge delight they take in one another's company. The fact is that both their souls are longing for something else — a something to which neither of them can put a name....
Vidal's biographer Fred Kaplan, also covers this ground in his book Gore Vidal, in writing about Vidal's relationship with Jimmy Trimble, and their first encounter together at Vidal's family manor when they were both 12 or 13 years old:
Quietly, to avoid being heard by the butler, they rubbed their stomachs and genitals against one another into what Vidal remembered as an explosion of perfectly blissful orgasm. Neither of them felt they had broken any taboo. Neither felt any guilt, though they both tacitly understood that this was a private affair. It was something they would talk about neither to others nor even, for that matter, between themselves.
Vidal and Jimmy were later separated due to Vidal being sent away to distant boarding schools.
They met again as 17 year-olds, at a Christmas party in 1942. Vidal showed up to the party with a girl he was considering marrying. Jimmy told him, "You're crazy," in a friendly manner. As Vidal writes, "We went downstairs to the men's room, with its tall marble urinals and large cubicles. I wondered what if anything he felt. Fortunately our bodies still fitted together, as we promptly discovered inside one of the cubicles, standing up, belly to belly, talking of girls and marriage and coming simultaneously." The face to face, belly to belly position was to be Vidal's favorite.
A short time later they both served in World War II, and Jimmy died at Iwo Jima. Gore wrote in Palimpsest that Jimmy was his only true love, ever.
After World War II, Vidal spent a good deal of time in New Orleans. It was there that he first started reading Plato, and found in the Symposium a historical, cultural and intellectual framework to understand his own sexuality.
In New Orleans he became friends with a British intellectual couple, Geoffrey and Penelope Moore. Geoffrey taught at Tulane and ran a literary radio-interview program that the young author, Vidal would be interviewed on. In private discussions Vidal would educate the couple about sexuality. Geoffrey and his wife (a journalist) had only known "obvious queens" as their reference point for homosexuals. Vidal, all masculine and athletic, was revealing to them in breaking the stereotype. In conversation, Geoffrey said to Vidal that the idea of anal penetration was "pretty repellant" to him. Vidal was taken aback and quickly noted, "Oh we don't do that! We don't do that!" When Geoffrey asked Vidal what he did sexually, he noted that Vidal, "used a curious expression, 'belly rubbing' ... I had never heard of that."
Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal; inside front cover:
“ . . . have you looked at Myra Breckinridge? I never thought the day would come I’d ever say anything good about Gore’s contributions, but . . .”—Truman Capote
- p. 38-43 (Chapter 10):
Seated at a table in the Academy cafeteria. It is three weeks to the day since I arrived. People want to sit with me, but I graciously indicate that I would rather make these notes. They respect my writing at odd times in public places. There is a rumor that I am with the CIA.
While waiting just now to be served today’s lunch specialty, a chili con carne that looks suspiciously like Gravy Train, a concentrated dog food which California’s poverty-stricken Mexicans mix with their beans, I noticed, as always with a certain pleasure, the way the students go about playing at stardom.
A fantastically beautiful girl called Gloria Gordon holds court at one table, wearing a silver lamé evening gown, cut to the navel, while rock-and-roll singers do an impromptu number in the center of the room, to the delight of the western stars in their boots and chaps; a pleasure not shared by the motor-cyclists in their black leather, bedecked with swastikas and chains, radiating hostility, so unlike the Easterners who are solemnly catatonic in their Brooks Brothers suits and button-down collars, each clutching an empty attaché case. The students regard the Easterners respectfully as being the farthest-out of all for they are, reputedly, the drug-takers. Of course all the students smoke pot and experiment with LSD but only a few main-line, and of those few the Easterners, to a man, are thought to be totally hooked.
As a spiritual child of the Forties, I cannot give my imprimatur to this sort of behavior. The drug-taker is a passivist. I am an activist. Yet—to be fair—how can the average person make a meaningful life for himself in an overpopulated world? There is very little of interest for him to do in the way of work, while sex is truly absorbing only for those who possess imagination as well as means. With these young people one has the sense that they know instinctively that there are plenty more where they came from and so why fuss? They’ll soon be gone, their places taken by others so closely resembling them that only a mother’s eye could tell the difference.
They are an anonymous blur, even to themselves, which explains their fitful, mindless shuffling of roles. In the morning Gloria will wear a silver lamé gown complete with Miriam Hopkins cocktail shaker; in the evening her ensemble may consist of leotards and a sunbonnet. It is easy for these young people to be anything since they are so plainly nothing, and know it. Their metamorphoses, however, seldom involve more than a change of clothes and the affecting of certain speech mannerisms, appropriated from Western or Eastern stars of television series, liberally sprinkled with jokes told late at night on television by nightclub comedians.
Mimesis is normal, particularly in youth, and my only demur is that today’s models are, by and large, debasing. In the Forties, American boys created a world empire because they chose to be James Stewart, Clark Gable and William Eythe. By imitating godlike autonomous men, our boys were able to defeat Hitl*r, Mussolini and Tojo. Could we do it again? Are the private eyes and denatured cowboys potent enough to serve as imperial exemplars? No. At best, there is James Bond . . . and he invariably ends up tied to a slab of marble with a blowtorch aimed at his crotch. Glory has fled and only the television commercials exist to remind us of the Republic’s early greatness and virile youth.
Of all the students at the Academy, only one has sought to model himself on a Forties star: the sickest of the Easterners is currently playing Humphrey Bogart, and he is hopeless in the part. The rest are entirely contemporary, pretending to be folk singers, cowboys and English movie actors. Needless to say, all attempts at imitating Cockney or Liverpudlian accents fail. For one thing the accents are too much for them; for another, any evidence that there could be a real world outside Southern California tends to demoralize our students. Of course they can observe other worlds on television but then that is show business and familiar. Even the Martian landscape of Southeast Asia loses all strangeness when framed by the homey plastic of a television set, while the people involved in that war are quite plainly extras lucky enough to be called upon to fill in prime airtime with the appearance of people dying and living.
Naturally, the Vietnam exercise appeals enormously to the students. “I mean,” said one of them, “if we don’t stop them there—you know, where they are now—they’ll be right here in L.A.” To which I answered, “This city could not be worse run by the Chinese than it is by the present administration and, frankly, if the Chinese could be persuaded to take on the job—which is doubtful—I think we should let them.”
Since that exchange, Myra Breckinridge has been thought by some to be a Commie, not the worst thing to be known as at the Academy since the students are scared to death of Communism (like, man, they make you work!), and so regard any alleged conspirator or sympathizer with awe . . . which I like. As for the theory of Communism, they have not a clue. In fact, the only book any of them has read is something called The Green Berets, a jingoistic work written in the spirit of Kipling with the art of Mickey Spillane. Apparently this work is a constant source of sadistic reveries. Time and again have I heard the students speak wistfully of fighting and torturing the Vietcong, or rather of other young men fighting and torturing the Vietcong on their behalf. Not only are the male students drawn to violence (at second hand), they are also quite totalitarian-minded, even for Americans, and I am convinced that any attractive television personality who wanted to become our dictator would have their full support.
As usual, I am ambivalent. On the one hand, I am intellectually devoted to the idea of the old America. I believe in justice, I want redress for all wrongs done, I want the good life—if such a thing exists—accessible to all. Yet, emotionally, I would be only too happy to become world dictator, if only to fulfill my mission: the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population wihle increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage.
No doubt this tension in me constitutes my uniqueness, and genius. Certainly everyone senses it. Students flock to my lectures. Craving my attention and advice, they giggle, fascinated and frightened, at what I say. They sense my power, particularly the boys who are drawn to it even as they fear it. Of course these students are not entirely typical of the nation. They are somewhat stupider than the average, while simultaneously rather more imaginative and prone to daydreaming. Like most members of the lower classes, they are reactionary in the truest sense: the unfamiliar alarms then and since they have had no experience outside what Dr. Montag calls their “peer group,” they are, consequently, in a state of near-panic most of the time, reacting against almost everything. It was Myron who observed in 1964 that all of the male hustlers were supporting Goldwater for President. He wrote a fascinating analysis of this phenomenon and sent it to the ADA, but received no reply.
p. 33 [Chapter 9]:
From the angle where I sit I can see part of the street in Carvel where Andy Hardy lived. The street is beautifully kept up as the shrine it is, a last memorial to all that was touching and—yes—good in the American past, an era whose end was marked by two mushroom shapes set like terminal punctuation marks against the Asian sky.
Views from a Window: Conversations With Gore Vidal (Edited by Robert J. Stanton and Gore Vidal); p. 187:
VIDAL : . . . . Norman [Mailer] doesn’t read much of anything. Yet when he does get outside of himself and looks at something, he’s marvelous. He got interested in—and therefore he was interesting on—the moon shot. He suddenly started describing machinery. He was trained as an engineer, and he has a convergent as opposed to a divergent mind, which means he’s always trying to connect one thing to another. I’m just the opposite—I see no connections.
NEWSWEEK, 1974: You’ve long advocated complete sexual freedom. Is it happening?
[GORE] VIDAL: There is sexual blurring. The boys are looking more feminine—their pelvises are wider and their shoulders are narrower and they tend more to fat. There is a kind of “caponizing” going on. I thought at first they were just not sexually inclined toward me, which is always a grievous blow. But they aren’t sexy. Maybe it’s like those rats who when overcrowded get very bland and lose all interest in sex. But I do take seriously what you do hear about impotence in the male. While I don’t see much difference between male and female in character, yet there is something. Now whether this is innate in the male I don’t know, but if the male is not the sexual aggressor he can’t get it up. This is certainly true of me; when anyone else is the aggressor, male or female, I can’t respond. I have always been extremely selfish in sexual matters. I was told by one woman that I made love just like Picasso and I said, “Oh, I’m a genius too?” and she said, “Yes, and a very bad lover. In and out and back to work.”
JUDY HALFPENNY, 1978: Have you read Sarotte’s books Like a Brother, Like a Lover?
VIDAL: I glanced at Sarottes’ book when it first came out in French. Le Monde hailed it as a masterpiece, no doubt wanting to prove that the declining Americans are and were nothing but a bunch of fags. I read the parts about me and was a bit bewildered. He is so busy making his sub-Freudian case that he ignores the main line of my work which has nothing at all to do with sex unless sex is everything—which some like to say, but not in my presence.
FAG RAG, 1974: Are you sexually active when you write?
VIDAL: The more active I am the better I write. . . .
FAG RAG: Do you think you’re similar to the working class, in this respect?
VIDAL: Well, that’s what’s always been claimed by the British, and I think so. The fact is that for us there was really no fuss about sex. You did as much as you could. I’m fascinated by this book [Portrait of a Marriage] about Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. . . . He was a relentless chaser of Guardsmen and she of cunt. This is the condition of people who are not trapped into that economic middle-class tightness, and the worry of always keeping up appearances, the worry that they’re always going to be ‘done in’ by somebody. The working class, God knows, they’re filled with terrible passion and prejudice, but give them a sexual act to perform that seems amusing . . . In Texas—that relentless Bible belt—there’s nobody who’s not available. It’s like Italy.
FAG RAG: Is there legal prostitution in Italy? Are there bordellos?
VIDAL: No. Rome is actually very Puritan. That’s because the Pope lives there.
FAG RAG: . . . Are there sex toy shops in Rome? And how do you contrast the sort of decadent Puritanism with sensuality—of which you’ve always been an advocate—in Italy?
VIDAL: The Italians are naturally sensual and opportunistic about sex. They don’t fuss. That’s one of the reasons why there are really no queer bars.
GERALD CLARKE, 1972: How about Truman Capote?
VIDAL: Truman and I have known each other since I was nineteen and he was twenty. His first short story and my first novel came out in the same year. All through the forties we were linked together by the press, I suppose just because we were the two youngest writers. Neither of us much enjoyed the linking together. Capote always had a passion for knowing the rich and famous. [I] didn’t [—and I don’t.]
PARIS REVIEW, 1974: How do you see yourself in an age of personality-writers, promoting themselves and their work? For instance, Capote says he is an expert at promoting books and gaining the attention of the media.
VIDAL: Every writer ought to have at least one thing that he does well, and I’ll take Truman’s word that a gift for publicity is the most glittering star in his diadem. I’m pretty good at promoting my views on television but a washout at charming the bookchatters. But then I don’t really try. Years ago Mailer solemnly assured me that to be a “great” writer in America you had to be fairly regularly on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book section. Nothing else mattered. Anyway, he is now what he wanted to be: the patron saint of bad journalism; and I am exactly what I set out to be: a novelist.
STANTON, 1978: I should like to know why Mailer is so crazy. I read his article in the November, 1977 issue of Esquire, and saw you and him on the Dick Cavett show. I’m going to write him a letter to see if he can come up with an explanation for his strange behavior.
VIDAL: I’d be interested to see what Mailer writes you, if anything. I don’t think he is likely to admit to envy, that chief emotion of all United Statespersons. “When I first heard of you, I thought you were the devil,” he said to me when we met in the early ‘50s. I suspect he has now gone back to his original superstition. For decades Capote was reviewed as if he were Goethe. Now Mailer would have hated Capote for his success. Not I. I had—and have—perfect contempt for those writers of bookchat who were not able to see how very bad Capote’s work was (and, obviously, how good mine was!). You might have some fun trying to figure out the reason why I create such a storm of rage from so many odd types . . . even, on those rare occasions, when I am innocent of provocation.
STANTON, 1978: Alas, Mailer never answered my letter.
VIDAL: Mailer is too great a writer to read anything at all.
MONIQUE VAN VOOREN, 1976: Have you seen Capote lately?
VIDAL: I’ve seen him about once in twenty years and I had an impression that the one time was probably too often. It was at Dru Heinz’s. I didn’t have my glasses on and I sat down on what I thought was a poof and it was Capote.
FAG RAG, 1974: Truman said you took him to the Everard [Baths].
VIDAL: I did take Truman to the Everard. Couldn’t have been funnier. “I just don’t like it,” [says Vidal in Capote’s voice].
FAG RAG: What is it about that man that interests him in murder?
FAG RAG: Will Capote be very rich when he dies?
VIDAL: Capote has no money.
FAG RAG: Really? Living at UN Plaza?
VIDAL: This is one of the reasons why he has no money. He thinks he’s Bunny Mellon. . . . He thinks he’s a very rich Society Lady, and spends a great deal of money.
FAG RAG: So Mailer went after you?
VIDAL: They all did. However, Capote never really touched on the subject. He is a Republican housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices. Just as Norman Mailer is a VFW Commander in Schenectady.
STANTON, 1979: What ever happened to Capote’s Answered Prayers? He claims that he started the work in the mid-1950s. I notice that in a recent interview with Capote, David Susskind did not ask him about the work. He won’t answer any of my letters to him. Does anyone know if his “swan song” (his words) will ever be finally sung?
VIDAL: I gather that Capote has written nothing since those pieces that he composed in 1968 and published in Esquire as parts of something called Answered Prayers. I have never found him an interesting writer. No, this is not because of my distaste for him personally. An hour with a dentist without novocain was like one minute with Carson McCullers but I admired her work. It is never wise to allow personal feelings to affect one’s critical judgment. If they do, then avoid any mention of the one disliked. After all, if a critic is not personally disinterested, he’s simply another literary gangster, grinding axes.
JUDY HALFPENNY, 1979: I have never known a book to disappear as fast as Answered Prayers.
VIDAL: Mr. Capote never wrote Answered Prayers. It is the Madonna of the Future all over again. But as this is America, if you publicize a non-existent work enough, it becomes positively palpable. It would be nice if he were to get the Nobel on the strength of Answered Prayers which he, indeed, never wrote. There were a few jagged pieces of what might have been a gossip-novel published in Esquire. The rest is silence; and litigation and . . . noise on TV.
GERALD CLARKE, 1972: William Styron once told me that there are only five big writers in the country today. He included Mailer, of course, Truman Capote, and himself. You, I’m sorry to say, were not on his list. . . .
VIDAL: There are some writers who are more written about than others. . . . I’m more written about than most. Is this bigness? The books of Styron’s “big” writers aren’t very good. A Separate Peace by John Knowles is better than any novel by William Styron. The novels of Louis Auchincloss are better than the novels of Truman Capote. But Capote and Styron are big, Knowles and Auchincloss are small. Bill looks like a greater writer, and he sounds like a great writer. Will anybody ever sort this out? In the absence of literary criticism, probably not.
JUDY HALFPENNY, 1977: In general, I dislike short stories but I enjoy those of Louis Auchincloss more than his novels, and I even think they are better written.
VIDAL: You’re right about Louis’s stories. They are infinitely better than the novels and I can’t think why. He has the architectural sense which makes novel-writing possible. Not many writers have the capacity. I think he gets bored too early with his characters.
STANTON, 1978: Do you have any reactions to John Knowles’ use of you as a model for Brinker Hadley in A Separate Peace? Did he give us an accurate portrait of you as a young man? How well do you know Knowles? Where did he stand in relation to you at Exeter?
VIDAL: I don’t remember Jack at Exeter. I was a year or two ahead of him. He knew me because I was a busy politician; and wrote for the Review. The character is not me at all; in fact, Jack is more interesting in Look magazine in ’68, when he describes me to Laura Berquist. I liked his book enormously. I see him from time to time.
MICHAEL DEAN, 1968: You are regarded, from this safe distance [in England] anyway, as a rather patrician figure, as a kind of fugitive from the French court.
VIDAL: Which court? Not Malraux’s anyway. I never much liked the classical canon in American literature. I always thought that our great novelists were minor provincial writers. Our great classic canon now being taught at Sussex and so on really isn’t much good, and I think I have known this all along—that’s part of my loneliness, you know, that Moby Dick is a very bad novel. I think I could prove it, given 5,000 words.
STANTON, 1977: You have not really said much of importance on early American literature, have you? Perhaps Henry Adams is the one exception, and maybe Washington Irving. . . . Do you see yourself in line with any particular American writer or writers?
VIDAL: No, I don’t feel any particular kinship with the early American writers. Obviously James and Henry Adams have been influences but since I do not write romances I was not influenced by Hawthorne & Co. who were all romancers rather than novelists. Late in life, I’ve developed a taste for Howells. And, of course, Edith Wharton.
EVE AUCHINCLOSS & NANCY LYNCH, 1961: Can a democracy produce great literature?
VIDAL: Well, [so far] it hasn’t, not in the large tradition. Literature comes out of a civilization, not the other way around. And this is hardly a civilization yet. We’ve produced many enormously talented writers, whom we have tended to inflate, but we’ve produced no literature. You can make literature out of anything, but there must be a proper climate to make the best things possible. We may now be on the verge of having a civilization—small, but all our own—but it looks like it may not be interested in novels.
CURTIS BILL PEPPER, 1974: What is the aim of art?
VIDAL: It used to be perfection, whatever form you were working in. What is perfection? We don’t know, but we certainly know what is less than perfection, so that’s how you can, in a sense, be a critic. For the last fifty years, however, the aim of art has bee novelty—which, by and large, is repellent. So the result is a kind of vicious circle, with people trying to think up something that nobody else has thought up because they think that’s the way Masaccio discovered perspective. They think he sat and thought and thought . . . and, by God he came up with perspective. Well, everybody knew about perspective. It just happened that in the evolution of Masaccio’s way of looking at things—and in the situation in which he was when he was given a couple of walls to paint on—he made something of his own. That’s how it happened, how it always happens. The great artist is original without trying to be.
STANTON, 1978: I hope one day to be able to recreate Hawthorne’s world in a novel. Although I have been studying Hawthorne for fifteen years, I am not ready to put him into a novel yet. But I am learning through your example, and what I’m writing now is quite good I think. The only clumsy thing about Hawthorne was his use of dialogue. He had, as he was told by a one-armed lawyer, the eye of a hawk. Have you read the letters and notebooks? It was impossible to fool him; he was a brilliant observer and his art is rich and deep, especially his descriptive powers. Our Old Home will delight you, if it hasn’t already.
VIDAL: The world of Hawthorne ought to be a fascinating thing to reconstruct. There is something awfully wrong with his writing. Partly, no ear for dialogue. Partly too much Romance? I’ve read Our Old Home, and borrowed from it for Burr: the description of a consul’s tasks vis-à-vis ships in port. The Franklin Pierce connection is also interesting. And Melville. . . . You have, indeed, a Subject.
STANTON, 1977: Three outstanding writers—Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, and Hemingway—have written about the test of men (and their honor) in face of an overwhelming challenge and/or death. We know that Hemingway has been an influence, but what about Crane and Conrad? Is their theme in your work? If so, how have you handled it differently? Did you ever meet Hemingway? If so, what was your reaction?
VIDAL: I don’t see Hemingway as an influence after the first three books. And Crane was more of an influence in Williwaw than Hemingway; also, Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers. Crane and Hemingway are external writers; Conrad internal. I don’t think their themes are mine. Just read The Secret Agent, not bad, and Under Western Eyes, really bad . . . no focus, art. I never met Hemingway.
STANTON, 1977: Are you still influenced by Marshall McLuhan? What do you think of his literary criticism?
VIDAL: I have never read Marshall McLuhan; I’ve read about him . . . as did Myra. She was a great one for the second-hand quote. I hear he is good on the 18th century literature.
PARIS REVIEW, 1974: You came out of the Second World War. What do you think of the writers of the previous generation—Hemingway, for example?
[GORE] VIDAL: I detest him, but I was certainly under his spell when I was very young, as we all were. I thought his prose was perfect—until I read Stephen Crane and realized where he got it from. Yet Hemingway is still the master self-publicist, if Capote will forgive me. Hemingway managed to convince everybody that before Hemingway everyone wrote like—who?—Gene Stratton Porter? But not only was there Mark Twain before him, there was also Stephen Crane who did everything that Hemingway did and rather better. Certainly The Red Badge of Courage is superior to A Farewell to Arms. But Hemingway did put together a hypnotic style whose rhythm haunted other writers. I liked some of the travel things—Green Hills of Africa. But he never wrote a good novel. I suppose, finally, the thing I most detest in him is the spontaneity of his cruelty. The way he treated Fitzgerald, described in A Moveable Feast. The way he condescended to Ford Madox Ford, one of the best novelists in our language.
EVE AUCHINCLOSS & NANCY LYNCH, 1961: Is there a clue to the future of literature in the writings of the Beats?
VIDAL: Their kind of run-on writing is, in a sense, a farewell to art. Whatever comes into your head, you put it down on the grounds that since you found it there in your head—which is an enormously valuable head, because all things are equally valuable under the sun—[so] it must be recorded.
OUI, 1975: Whom do the English departments admire?
VIDAL: Those academic writers who reflect the university itself, like John Barth. He writes novels to be taught in class. [Since] I aim at clarity, [I] need no one to mediate between me and the reader.
PARIS REVIEW, 1974: How much do you think college English courses can influence a career? Or teach one about the Novel?
VIDAL: I don’t know. . . . I have lectured on campuses for a quarter-century and it is my impression that after taking a course in The Novel, it is an unusual student who would ever want to read a novel again. Those English courses are what have killed literature for the public. Books are made a duty. Imagine teaching novels! Novels used to be written simply to be read. It was assumed until recently that there was a direct connection between writer and reader. Now that essential connection is being mediated—bugged?—by English Departments. Well, who needs the mediation? Who needs to be taught how to read a contemporary novel? Either you read it because you want to or you don’t. Assuming of course that you can read anything at all. But this business of taking novels apart in order to show bored children how they were put together—there’s a madness to it. Only a literary critic would benefit and there are never more than ten good critics in the United States at any given moment. So what is the point of these desultory autopsies performed according to that little set of instructions at the end of each text? Have you seen one? What symbols to look for? What does the author mean by the word “white”? I look at the notes appended to my own pieces in anthologies and know despair.
PARIS REVIEW: How would you “teach” the novel?
VIDAL: I would teach world civilization—east and west—from the beginning to the present. This would occupy the college years—would be the spine to my educational system. Then literature, economics, art, science, philosophy, religion would be dealt with naturally, sequentially, as they occurred. After four years, the student would have at least a glimmering of what our race is all about.
DENNIS ALTMAN, 1977: It’s often said that the American literary establishment—you might argue whether there is such a thing—is relentlessly anti-gay.
VIDAL: I think that’s quite true, at least during the thirty-odd years that I’ve been writing. Much of this reflects the general ethos of the country. Then there are special problems. The New York Times is essentially a Jewish newspaper. Until recently, the editors were a sort of rabbinate upholding Mosaic values. Fag-baiting was routine there. The fifties was a very bad time, in general. . . . The fact that 99.9 per cent of homosexualists haven’t the slightest desire to be women, nor do they think of themselves as women, is still unknown out there in the wild American dark, and I can’t think why. Old Testament canards, I suppose. The fact that all the so-called he-man occupations (warriors, sailors, athletes) are heavily populated by homosexualists is simply denied, even though anyone who has served in an army knows otherwise.
ALTMAN: How far have you suffered in terms of reviews, etc., from being known, in your phrase, as a “homosexualist”?
VIDAL: Contrary to legend, I have never discussed my private life in my work or in public—except once. As a result of something my old friend Jack Kerouac wrote about the two of us in The Subterraneans, I responded to it in Two Sisters. By temperament [I’m] not a self-revealer; on the other hand I’ve been an activist when it comes to changing laws and so on, and I’d say the reactions to that were pretty venomous. After two highly praised books, I published The City and the Pillar. Half the newspapers wouldn’t review it and The New York Times would not take advertising for it. Orville Prescott (the daily reviewer for the Times and the most powerful bookchat writer in the country) said that not only would he not review that book, but he would never again review a book by me. So my next five novels were not reviewed in the daily Times. Silence is the great destroyer. That was how John Horne Burns was, in a sense, murdered by our literary homophobes. But I am not easily destroyed.
GERALD CLARKE, 1972: Your reviews here [in America] haven’t been all that bad.
VIDAL: Maybe one good review in ten. But then, are they really reviews? They usually read like Leonard Lyons’ column, without Lenny’s wit and polish. Our bookchat writers have heard about literary criticism, just as they know about books—they’re something remote and faraway from school days. But when they have to actually describe a book, panic sets in. All those words to be read! Better to talk about the author: How much money does he make? What’s his sex life? Politics? Life-style? Does he conform to what middle-class, middlebrow readers would think of as a really Good Person? I fear I’m not their idea of a Good Person. Worse, in Two Sisters, I said “classic” American literature wasn’t much good. I dared suggest Moby Dick was not in the same class as King Lear. Roget’s Thesaurus really hit the fan. After all, isn’t America the greatest country on earth? If that’s so, then its writers have to be the greatest—so Melville must be at least as good as Shakespeare. Actually, anyone who thinks Melville is in the same class as Tolstoy, George Eliot, Dickens, Flaubert, Stendhal . . . oh, well, you can’t blame them. They’re pumped so full of America the Beautiful laughing gas in school that they’re kept permanently floating outside Western civilization.
We’ll never know whether anybody was a good novelist or a bad novelist in this period because there’s nobody left to do the necessary reading. . . . The bookchat writers haven’t read Stendhal, much less me. There is a kind of galloping cretinism in the land which does not augur well for our shoddy civilization.
You see, if you don’t share any of the cultural values of a country, you’re immediately embattled. I have a militant nature, and I don’t mind that at all, but it gets very tiring to live in continual conflict. I don’t read the same books they do. I don’t know the same culture, I don’t have the same admirations, and I certainly don’t have the same moral code as any of [our] contemporary writers. To me Norman Mailer is like the head of an American Legion post. His patriarchal attitudes toward sex are exactly the same, and his self-aggrandizing bullying is very much in the American tradition.
- p. 192-4:
VIDAL: I think he [John Horne Burns] wanted to die. They really wiped him out on Lucifer with a Book. Same thing happened . . . it’s very funny . . . we were both, in 1947, the two leading writers in the country. The ineffable John W. Aldridge began his career with a piece in Harper’s Magazine [“The New Generation of Writers: With Some Reflections on the Older Ones,” November, 1947], out of which came his book After the Lost Generation [in 1951]. He reversed all his judgments [between the two publications, including two favorable reviews of Vidal in 1949]. He began his career as our great admirer. [Later] he discovered we were dealing with the horrors of homosexuality. He then exactly reversed himself and began to applaud the Jewish Giants who are still with us today. Aldridge is nothing if not a rider of bandwagons. So Burns was absolutely at the top then. We were both admired as War Writers. To be a War Writer was pretty gutsy. You can’t knock off a War Writer. Then City and the Pillar. Then Lucifer with a Book. They said: “Oh, my God! What is this we’ve been admiring?”
FAG RAG: Did the straight critics pick up on the homosexual themes in Lucifer with a Book and The Gallery?
VIDAL: They got it in Lucifer with a Book. He hit you on the head with it.
FAG RAG: One never knows the mentality of reviewers.
VIDAL: We wrote differently in those days, but it was perfectly plain what was going on at that school [John Horne Burns described in Lucifer with a Book].
FAG RAG: And was that the reason to condemn the book?
VIDAL: Entirely. Any writer suspected of being homosexual. . . . The only thing that they respect, that they put up with, is a freak like Capote, who has the mind of a Kansas housewife, likes gossip, and gets all shuddery when she thinks about boys murdering people.
JUDY HALFPENNY, 1976: It’s the adolescents who write confessions; the ‘mature,’ well-adjusted, married fags keep quiet. Which leaves me with one burning question: what about the wives? Do they know? Do they accept it? Would they sue for divorce if they discovered their husbands were fags, or do they keep quiet for fear of the neighbors? I wish someone would find out.
VIDAL: Do fags’ wives know? Generally, yes (I speak of the generation before and just after me, as well as my own), but the subject is often taboo. In Paris and Rome it is the ladies who are the bisexuals with a passion, and the husbands who do not know, even though Marcel [Proust] tried to tell them.
‘The immediate challenge was to graduate from Exeter. English 5 gave [Vidal] the extra credit he needed, but he still had to pass his other courses. It looked almost certain, though, that he would fail mathematics again. That would be disastrous. At worst he would be drafted into the infantry, destined for the European or Pacific front lines. At best he would have to take some sort of summer makeup program. For the month of April he had gotten an E in math and an E+ in French. History, English, and art seemed secure. Assigned to study hall again, unusual for a senior, he cut back on everything but classes. The French he restored to its usual D status, but it soon became clear there was no likelihood he could pass math. Like Paul in Fling Out the Banner, Gore had been unprepared for so long that no amount of preparation, even if he were capable, could help now. He confessed his miserable situation to the math teacher. With bombs falling and bullets flying, the math teacher took an un-Exonian liberty with the “stern mother’s” usual standards. “All right,” he said. “I agree, you’ll never pass this subject, not in a million years. So I’ll do something unheard of. I’ll pass you with a D in this course. But you must promise me two things. One, you’ll never breathe a word of this to anyone. Two, you’ll never take another math course again!”’ [from Gore Vidal: A Biography by Fred Kaplan]
Interviewer: “What’s important to you?”
Vidal: “ . . . looking out the window and not being appalled at what I see.”
Vidal: “So what is there in our society that makes empathy in such short supply? I’m more shocked by that than other people in every society—the inability to picture what it is like to be somebody else. Now [in] my profession as a novelist, I have to do that, I become other people. But I’ve always had that tendency; and I am always startled when I start to talk to people [who] start going on about how much they hate the blacks or the Jews or the gay people, and you suddenly see there is no ability to identify with anyone else except themselves. And I suppose if I had a motivating thing it would probably come out in an overwrought empathy, [and] an irritability in its absence in others.”
- from the documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia:
Regarding Gore Vidal, someone was quoted as saying, "I like to think of Gore [Vidal] in the company of Henry James and Mark Twain."
Regarding Gore Vidal, someone was also quoted as saying, "He was ruthless in exposing phonies."
In the documentary Gore Vidal was quoted as saying, "America's sense of irreality is too powerful."
More Gore Vidal quotes:
“...American society, literary or lay, tends to be humorless. What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?”
“We’re the most captive nation of slaves that ever came along. The moral timidity of the average American is quite noticeable. Everybody’s afraid to be thought in any way different from everyone else.”
“We should stop going around babbling about how we're the greatest democracy on earth, when we're not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised 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. I don't know how wise they were.”
“We must always remember that the police are recruited from the criminal classes.”
“As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days.”
“That peculiarly American religion, President-worship.”
‘My father had a deep and lifelong contempt for politicians in general ("They tell lies," he used to say with wonder, "even when they don't have to").’
“The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western World. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity — much less dissent.”
“Apparently, a concern for others is self-love at its least attractive, while greed is now a sign of the higher altruism. But then to reverse, periodically, the meanings of words is a very small price to pay for the freedom not only to conform but to consume.”
‘The last best hope on earth, two trillion dollars in debt, is spinning out of control, and all we can do is stare at a flickering cathode-ray tube as Ollie "answers" questions on TV while the press, resolutely irrelevant as ever, asks politicians if they have committed adultery. From V-J Day 1945 to this has been, my fellow countrymen, a perfect nightmare.’
“The more money an American accumulates the less interesting he himself becomes.”
“It is notable how little empathy is cultivated or valued in our society. I put this down to our traditional racism and obsessive sectarianism. Even so, one would think that we would be encouraged to project ourselves into the character of someone of a different race or class, if only to be able to control him. But no effort is made.”
“The period of Prohibition — called the noble experiment — brought on the greatest breakdown of law and order the United States has known until today. I think there is a lesson here. Do not regulate the private morals of people. Do not tell them what they can take or not take. Because if you do, they will become angry and antisocial and they will get what they want from criminals who are able to work in perfect freedom because they have paid off the police.”
QUOTE ABOUT VIDAL:
“Gore is a man without an unconscious.”
“Vidal reportedly composed Thieves Fall Out on a Dictaphone, which perhaps accounts for his somewhat bland, affectless prose.”
In September 1992, Gore Vidal was interviewed by Larry Kramer, the celebrated gay playwright. Kramer: "Well, I guess what I want to talk about today mostly is homosexuality." Vidal: "Startling subject to bring up."
So, a collection of Gore Vidal's writings and interviews based on the theme of sex is hardly startling. He has always been as ready, and as qualified, to pronounce on this subject as on any other. You may recall his insistent line that there are no homosexuals or heterosexuals, there are only homosexual or heterosexual acts. In this collection, it is a point that is reasserted about every three pages; but just because he says it often doesn't mean it isn't worth thinking about, or possibly even true. It is also important that someone intelligent says something like that to those who overvalue categories. Vidal: "Look, what I'm preaching is: don't be ghettoized, don't be categorized. Every state tries to categorize its citizens in order to assert control of them." Kramer: "But you're living in a time when many of us want to be ghettoized and categorized." Vidal: "Well, I disapprove."
Vidal has been being brave, candid and funny about sex since at least 1965, if this selection is fully representative. What is most striking is that he has been unimpeachably consistent, because he looks at first principles, and in particular the principle of injustice. From the beginning of his career he has carefully pointed out the fatuity of the conservative moral bigot's position; he has simply had to wait for the world to catch up with him. Not quite there yet, you feel. Yet Vidal's pronouncements on these matters could have been made yesterday - which means that while he can look on his cuttings file with satisfaction and pride, the rest of us, and the retrogressive powers that be, should look on their antediluvian socio-political rhetoric with shame and disgust.
In 1965, Time magazine could call homosexuality a "pernicious sickness" and expect society's applause, but not Vidal's. In 1970 he could review David Reuben's supposedly ground-breaking Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), and point out what a pile of silly prejudice and cant it actually was. "If a jocose approach to sexual matters is a mask for unease, then David Reuben, M.D.... is in a state of communicable panic." Reuben asserted, among other things, that all female prostitutes are lesbians and that male homosexuality can be "cured". So much for the swinging 1970s.
Much as he dislikes categorisation, it is in the interviews with gay publications that Vidal unwinds most amusingly. These almost freakishly indiscreet chats are a joy to read, not least because Vidal speaks in proper sentences; and his ad hoc satire leaves everyone else standing. "I've cleaned up [his novel] Myron, I've removed the dirty words and replaced them with clean words... I thought and thought for a long time: what are the cleanest words I can find? And I discovered that I could not come up with any cleaner words than the names of the five Supreme Court justices... who have taken on the task of cleansing this country of pornography. I inserted the words in place of the dirty words. For example, a cock becomes a rehnquist."
This collection is not only fun but essential. The pieces on Wilde, Tennessee Williams and Maugham are valuable as criticism; I am not sure what a piece on Eleanor Roosevelt is doing here, but it's a joy to read anyway. Which is, I suppose, hardly startling.
I first came to Gore Vidal's writing through Myra Breckenridge, his infamous/revered/absolutely brilliant 1968 novel (later turned into the worst film ever made). And while the heroic misadventures of that book's high-minded, transgendered protagonist provided nearly unprecedented literary pleasure, Myra's removable boobs proved to be but stepping stones on the path to the true prize: Vidal's personal essays—particularly his essays on sex, previously included in the muscle-straining comprehensive anthology United States, now gathered on their own in this user-friendly edition by canny underdog Cleis Press.
Some might balk at the use of the phrase "personal essays" to describe Vidal's work. Ostensibly these pieces tackle larger issues: the evolution of pornography, the limitations of the feminist movement, the pernicious attempt to legislate morality. But not since God has there been a more charming or relentless egoist, and it's safe to say that every Vidal essay is a personal essay. Lucky for us, the person in question is Gore Vidal—learned historian, rigorous free-thinker, and cold-blooded bitch. In each of these works (written from 1965 to 1998), Vidal gets in the ring with An Issue, and the ensuing whomp-fest is never less than titillating, mind-expanding, and more often than not, deeply funny.
Vidal's basic tenets — sex plus law equals stupidity, men and women are inherently different creatures, and everybody's bi ("the dumb neologisms 'homo-sexual' and 'hetero-sexual' are adjectives that describe acts but never people") — pop up throughout the collection, but the proceedings never grow predictable. In his vivisection of '60s sex hack Dr. David Reuben, Vidal eschews obvious potshots for a searching (but equally damning) examination of Reuben's class and race-religion idiocy. Later he pillories Henry Miller in a manner so deceptively respectful I imagine even Miller himself would be pleased. And, wisely, Vidal never underestimates the power of a good joke. Case in point: Vidal's summary of the results of a late-'80s sex census. "A majority of men and women like oral sex. Next in popularity was sex with a famous person. Plainly being blown by George or Barbara Bush would be the ultimate trip for our huddled masses."
Understanding America’s Terrorist Crisis: What Should Be Done? (Featuring Gore Vidal):
“As the presidents get sillier and more reckless, the wars get more surreal. We blew up Afghanistan when all of our enemies who struck at us in the airplanes that day were Saudi Arabians. They aren’t Afghans. And the Afghans were rather hurt that we were blowing up all their cities when we should’ve been taking out Riyadh and the Saudi royal family . . . . So we hit the wrong people.”
“. . . . that is the background to a very nice story here from a surprising source: a quotation from a newspaper . . . . And I say yet the simple reasons behind the various provocations that led to the attack of 9/11 was precisely stated two weeks after the attack by our own San Francisco Chronicle where Frank Viviano wrote, ‘The hidden stakes in the war against terrorism can be summed up in a single word: oil. The map of terrorist sanctuaries and targets in the Middle East and Central Asia is also, to an extraordinary degree, a map of the world’s principal energy sources in the 21st century.’ "
Conversations with Gore Vidal:
Vidal: The United States is not a normal country. We are a homeland now under military surveillance and military control. The President asked the Congress right after 9/11 not to conduct a major investigation. “As it might deter our search for terrorism wherever it might be in the world.” So Congress obediently rolled over.
There was, I remember, Pearl Harbor. I was a kid then. And within three years of it I enlisted in the army. That’s what we did in those days; we did not go off to the Texas Air Force and hide. I realize the country has totally changed, that the government is not responsive to the people. Either in protecting us from something like 9/11, which they should’ve done, could’ve done. Did not do. And then when it did happen, to investigate, investigate, investigate.
So I wrote two little books, one called Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, in which I try to go into the why Osama Bin Laden, if it were he, or whoever it was, why it was done. And I wrote another one, Dreaming War, on why we were not protected on 9/11, which ordinarily would have led to the impeachment of the President of the United States who had allowed it to happen. They said they had no information. Since then every day the New York Times prints another mountain of people that say they had warned the government, President Putin of Russia, he had warned us, President Mubarek, of Egypt, he had warned us, three members of Mossad claim they had come to the US to warn us that sometime in September something unpleasant might come out of the sky in our direction.
Were we defended? No we were not defended. Has this ever been investigated? No, it hasn’t. There was some attempt at the midterm election, there was a pro forma committee in Congress which has done nothing thus far, and we’re three years later. This is shameful. The media, which is controlled by the great conglomerates, which control the political system, has done an atrocious job of reporting, though sometimes good stories get in. I’ve worn my eyes out studying the Wall Street Journal, which despite its dreadful editorial policies is a pretty good newspaper of record, which the New York Times is not.
If you read the Wall Street Journal very carefully you can pretty much figure out what happened that day. At the time of the first hijacking, according to law, FAA, it is mandatory within four minutes of a hijacking, fighter planes from the nearest air military base go up to scramble, that means go up and force the plane down, find out who they are, find out what's happening. One hour and 50 minutes I think it was, no fighter plane went up. During that hour and 20 minutes, we lost the two towers, and one side of the Pentagon. Why didn't they go up? No description from the government, no excuse, a lot of mumbling stories which were then retracted, new stories replaced them.
That to me was the end of the republic. We no longer had a Congress which would ask questions, which it was in place to do of the executive. We have a commander in chief who likes strutting around in military uniform, which no commander ever did, as they are supposed to be civilians keeping charge of the military. This thing is surrealistic now and it is getting nastier and nastier, as we are more and more kept in the dark about those things which most affect us, which are war and peace, prosperity and poverty. These are the main things that the government should look after. And we the people should be told about them. We have been told nothing. And every voice is silent.
So I wrote two little books, which were then noticed by people who like to look at the Internet, and then a few hundred thousand people have bought them. And I don't come out with conspiracy theories, I never became a journalist, I am a historian. Because journalists give you their opinions. And pretend they’re facts. I don’t give you my opinions because they may be valuable to my mother, but they are of no value to anybody else. But I give you the facts as I find them, and I list them and they’re quite deadly. This government is culpable of, if nothing less, negligence. Why were we not protected with all the air bases’ fighter planes up and down the eastern seaboard? Not one of them went aloft while the hijackings took place. Finally two from Otis Field in Massachusetts arrived at the twin towers I think at the time the second one was hit. If anybody had been thinking, they would have gone on to Washington to try to prevent the attack on the Pentagon. They went back to Otis, back to Massachusetts. So I ask these questions, which Congress should ask, does not ask, which the press should ask, but is too frightened. It's a reign of terror now.
AMY GOODMAN: A recent expose shows that even a Congressional Committee that’s looking into this can’t get a hold of documents that are classified, and even public testimony is now being reclassified.
GORE VIDAL: Well isn't it pretty clear that the dictatorship is in place. We’re not supposed to know certain things and we’re not going to know them. They’re doing everything to remove our history, to damage the Freedom of Information Act. Bush managed to have a number of Presidential papers, including those of his father, put out of the reach of historians, or anybody for a great length of time, during which they will probably be shredded, so they will never be available. And what I have always called jokingly the United States of Amnesia will be worse then an amnesiac it will have suffered a lobotomy, there will be no functioning historical memory of our history.
AMY: How has George Bush accrued so much power?
VIDAL: Well, the election of 2000 was the end of the republic. It was the second time that it happened that somebody who got the popular vote did not get the election. 1876, when Governor Tilden, a Democrat of New York, won the election. But they were able — we still had troops in the south — they were able to turn the election around, the electoral college, Tilden didn't want another Civil War, so he just withdrew, but there was no sinister group taking charge, it was just a party group of Republicans who wanted to continue the reign of General Grant. That was mildly sleazy. This is major corruption. This is corporate America, as one, putting in place a president who was not elected. Getting the Supreme Court to delay and delay, when under the 10th amendment, every decision about the voting in Florida, should be made by the Florida Supreme Court. Not the U.S. Supreme Court, which the Constitution rules out in matters of election.
AMY: How did that happen? Well isn’t he your relative, Al Gore?
VIDAL: That’s nothing that I go through the streets boasting of no, but yes, he’s my cousin. And very un-Gore. The Gores are known for their belligerence and he is not known for self-defense let us say. He should have asked — it’s easy to say he should’ve, but it was pretty clear at the time. I would've, and I've been in that situation — to count the total Florida vote. He has every right to demand that, and they couldnt’ve played games, 'cause it's too big of a vote. Instead he asked I think three counties, Dade and Brower and one other, to do their count over again.
AMY: Concern that he wouldn’t win outside of those?
VIDAL: No I think he figured that he had won those, Dade is certainly a large minority vote, which had all voted for him, there's a wonderful book by [John] Nichols, called Jews for Buchanan, and it’s a marvelous shot of four Jewish gentlemen looking terribly alarmed, and you see Dade County goes for Buchanan. And even Buchanan goes “these are not my votes down there, something's wrong.” And it was stolen by the Secretary of State, that lady who now has been rewarded with a seat in Congress, the president’s brother, the losing president candidate’s brother, was governor, and he took part in it. And the court did by five to four.
Two of the five should have recused themselves, should have just withdrawn from the case when Gore vs. Bush came before the court. Why? One of them, [Anthony] Scalia, had a son, who was working for the Bush team of lawyers before the Supreme Court. Did Justice Scalia recuse himself as he should because his son is arguing? No. He wants to kill Gore. He wants to make sure that the bad guys win. Thomas’ wife was busy, getting Curricula Viti of potential people to serve in a Bush administration. Clarence Thomas should have recused himself and withdrawn for the case, in which case it would have been 4 to 3 for Gore, who would now be president. And Iraq and Afghanistan I can guarantee would not have been knocked down, in order to benefit Halliburton and Bechtel.
AMY: Scalia recently went to Cleveland, he spoke at the Cleveland City Club, which is known as the oldest free speech forum in the country, he allowed no press in, and the night before he spoke in the city, and he said that that vote, choosing George Bush, was his proudest moment.
VIDAL: I would impeach him and in a well-run country the Senate should make a move toward the trial of Justice Scalia. And in back of that there’s some interesting organization going on, which is hard to determine, Opus Dei, both Scalia and Thomas have connections with Opus Dei, a secret Catholic order, originally fascist. General Franco in Spain was sort of a Godfather to it, and we don’t know much about it, and it’s all over the place, about 80,000 worldwide, Louis Freeh of the FBI at that time was a member, as was Mr. [Robert] Hanssen, the spy, who had been giving all of our secrets, he was with the CIA, he had been giving our secrets to the Russians for many years. I make no charges, but I simply bring up questions, why not ask questions of these people. Does it suit Opus Dei that Bush is President? Now we're getting into God territory, which I normally would stay away from as any good American should, it's not my business other people’s religions. But Bush is Born Again, that’s why he used biblical language. (imitating Bush) “He's evil! He’s an evildoer!” Well that’s theological language. You can say he's a bad man, a dishonest man, a ruthless man. Evildoer? And he believes the end of the world is coming. Born Agains believe in rapture, they don't care about this world. When it ends George W. Bush will be lifted up in a state of rapture into the bosom of our lord.
Also among the born-again category, not that kind of protestant, is Tony Blair, who has become like his wife, Roman Catholic, which is difficult for a British Prime Minister, since the Prime Minister is supposed to be an Anglican — what we would call Episcopalian — as he picks the Bishops of the Anglican Church, so you can’t have a Roman Catholic picking Anglican Bishops, but he is. So now we have two boys who think “Jesus wants them for sunbeams,” who are willing to put at risk — I’m extrapolating on my own just from the evidence at hand. This is mostly humorous. You can judge it as you may -- But two believers in our Lord’s coming, an Armageddon and the end of the world — this is the way that Reagan used to talk — and it made him very popular with the southern states, that’s why this big thing was just about South Carolina that's the heart of it — why? Well those states don’t have much in the way of population, but they have very strong born-again Evangelical Protestants, and they believe in our Lord returning at any moment, and if you can collect them all, by saying you hate abortion and this and that. They have a swing vote in those states because of the Electoral College, they don’t have much population, but they have a lot of electoral votes among them. The Electoral College was devised — you call yourself a democracy, you're very un-American, the founding fathers did not want democracy in the US ever. They also did not want tyranny, a king or Hitl*r, they wanted a Republic. And they devised the Electoral College so the majority could never control anything. So you have a popular vote out there and in those days it was just for congress, so there was one electoral vote per congressmen, one per senator and the state, and they get together and decide the election. So what Scalia was doing was going back to the Electoral College in order to put together a majority to put in his candidate who will probably hasten the end of the world. I don’t know where Scalia will be during rapture. He may be ...
AMY: You’re talking about religion, you’ve written about Pat Robertson and John Ashcroft.
VIDAL: Yes I have, they are very religious men. The wall that Thomas Jefferson thought that he had built, as did John Adams who was pretty much an antagonist of Jefferson, but they were both agreed that religion ought not to in any way intrude itself into politics, it was something quite separate, whatever your religion, you obeyed its laws, if you believed in those laws and nobody would stop you. But once you start raising money in tax free institutions, whose tax-free money you use to influence elections, like Mr. Robertson, and Mr. Falwell then you are out of the constitution, and you should be taxed anyway before you use it, but they are free of taxation and with that the whole country began to change and this very small minority of Evangelicals, mostly in the south and southwest, have achieved great power, in states of small population where their electoral college count, state by state, adds up to quite a lot, in fact added up to a Bush “victory.”
AMY: Gore Vidal, you've said, I don’t see us winning this war, you’ve also said that this will force Saddam Hussein to use whatever weapons of mass destruction he may have. Maybe you were prophetic, and maybe in fact that was true that if he had them he would have used them, and he didn’t.
VIDAL: Well, it’s pretty plain he didn’t have them, nobody in Europe thought he did. The Europeans at least have a free press which we don’t, or most of the countries there do. I said he probably would, if we pressed him hard enough. You see when you live with nothing but lies being told to you in the media, nothing but lies, and it’s done the way they do advertising, it’s repetition: “Weapons of mass destruction! He’s got weapons of mass destruction! Mass destruction! Mass destruction! Mass destruction!” When you hear that 10,000 times a day, you finally think he must have, they can’t go on like this forever, well he didn’t have them, now I'm sure we’re busy planting them all over the place, and we’ll be: “Oh look what we found! Goodness me! Here’s an Atom Bomb! Made in USA. No, scratch that out, scratch that out. He made that mark.’’ I fully expect us to plant something or other, but as it's the United States of Amnesia, why go to the trouble, it’s expensive to have troops going around looking for stuff. I think they think the public will have forgotten it, I think the public is forgetting it, doesn't much care.
I thought when I said that we would lose the war, I still think we will. Afghanistan the fighting is going on, rather rougher then it was during the so-called war. It will keep right on going as long as we have a presence in Iraq. And we will eventually be driven out. Somebody will have a bright idea, one of those neo-conservatives, we know what they’re like, and will decide to kill everybody there, that this would be a very good thing to do. Gotta show force. And all these sissies, all of whom who ran from the idea of going into the army, talk so tough when they get together, we’re gonna show our muscle , you look at Mr. Crystal, and Mr., who’s the sidekick who rides with him? Fat Boys With Asthma, talking tough, it makes their blood run cold. So I think that we haven’t a chance of winning in the Middle East, nobody has, nobody except the Turks, with the Ottoman Empire, which Woodrow Wilson, one of the great fools of our history, decided to break up at the end of WWI, so we get Turkey, which turns out to be really quite a formidable country now, and broke up bits and pieces, into Syria, and Jordan, into this into that, which became British and French mandates, and are now countries which are uneasy, with all sorts of warring religious groups.
AMY: Gore Vidal, you developed a relationship with Timothy McVeigh. Can you talk about that?
VIDAL: I never met him, nor did we talk on the telephone, but we did exchange letters, he read a piece I wrote in Vanity Fair, about the shredding of the Bill of Rights, which has been further shredded since his death, and he wrote me a letter, and I wrote him back, and he wrote me some very informative letters about himself, he was very smart, knew the constitution backwards and forwards. I was struck by reading about his trial, at first I had no interest, he was the lone crazed killer, that our public must always have, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, we all know that, you can get the Warren Commission to say that, he was obviously not alone. But that worked so well that, the people always fall for it every time, so they decided that Timothy McVeigh, a rather slight young man, with no knowledge of explosives, had put together this two ton bomb, which he himself, and this guy called Nichols loaded on a Ryder truck — it took at least 9 people it’s been figured out, to get that bomb onto that truck, and then a very careful, experienced driver to get that thing without blowing himself up into Oklahoma City in front of the building. He was not alone, and we have a pretty good idea of some of the people he was associated with who might have been in on it. The FBI began quite professionally, they had infiltrated a lot of these Patriot movements out there in the middle-west, people who don’t like the government and others who were as angry, as was McVeigh at what the federal government had done to the Branch Dividians at Waco; for McVeigh this was revenge upon at what he regarded was an odious government, a tyrannical government, he had gone out there and watched them using military, army stuff. And remember he was an army hero of the Gulf War, and he watched them break the law. The Posse Commitus Act of 1876. and in one of the letters to me, these are all reprinted in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, if you want to read McVeigh’s actual words about it. He said, 'You know soldiers are trained to kill. The police are trained to protect persons and property. These are two different functions. The justice dept. called in the army. They wanted tanks and all sorts of things, army material. With which they shot up the buildings that fired oil and people died.' There was once again no proper investigation. In the course of McVeigh's trial, which was a kind of joke, the FBI behaved pretty well, they had a lot of interesting leads, 305s I think they’re called, they take down the evidence that people give them, directions in which to look and so on. They followed up nothing. And I wrote Louis Freeh who was then the head of the FBI, a letter which I include in the little book, a letter which I read aloud on the Today Show, just to make sure that he saw it, no answer, but I said there's certain very interesting leads here, and this is all from evidence at the pre-trials, which anybody can get at, and I said these should have been investigated, but they weren't, they decided it was McVeigh and that was it. Now a couple of days ago we find out that the FBI was faking it, some anti-McVeigh stuff in their labs, trying to prove that he built the bomb, that he had ammonia on his trousers or something. Well he may well have been in on it, I don’t know, I’m not a prophet, but my impression is that he could not have done it alone. So there were others to follow up, and on television I said you’ve got to start doing your job, at the FBI, at the Justice Department, your job is to protect persons and property. You didn’t follow up there may be 100 McVeighs out there, waiting to take another crack at us. And you did nothing, cause you want to unload Gray’s killer, and you wanted the book shut. So what sort of government is this. I’d say a bad one.
AMY: What effect do you think that the Persian Gulf war had on Timothy McVeigh? It said that he was involved with bulldozing people in the highway of death, as Iraqi soldiers retreated after surrender.
VIDAL: Well he was shocked by it, he also got the Bronze Star, he was a great marksman, and he did his share of shooting soldiers, but he was appalled at the civilians, the children. That’s why it’s so ironic, “oh, he killed all those children,” as though he got up in the morning to kill all the children in the nursery in that building. He says in one of his statements, he finally says, I did it, because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a box, he could live 30-40 more years and then as he wrote me, I’d rather have federally assisted suicide, which is how he termed the injection in the arm, then a lifetime in a box. Because he saw there was no way out. He could have sung, but he didn’t, he could have said who else was involved in this, but he did not. He was a complex character, and endlessly interesting I thought, and he should have been kept alive, so we could find out who these other people were.
AMY: Would you put Timothy McVeigh in the same category as Mohammed Atta?
VIDAL: No no no. We don’t know that story either. Mohammad Atta was obviously a Muslim zealot. Also in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace there’s another question that goes unanswered, the head of the Pakistan Secret Service, was in Washington a week or so before 9/11, while he was there, it was just a ceremonial visit with the head of the CIA, they worked together, he sent back word to Islamabad about one of his henchman, to wire $100,000 to Mohammad Atta in the United States, which was duly done. The FBI, I think it was the Wall Street Journal where I got the story from, only said American Secret Services found out about this, they complained to the Pakistani Government. “What is the head of the Secret Service in Washington telling somebody to send $100,000 to a guy that we now know was the lead bomber, lead hijacker just a week before 9/11.” Times of India published the whole story, Wall Street Journal did a pretty good version for them, now shouldn’t that be examined? Wouldn’t Congress be interested in this guy in Washington meeting with all our top secret people? Says ok, send him $100,000. Not one more word, not one more word. Now in a country with any curiosity, in a public that was informed of anything, there would be a great deal of outcry. I couldn’t imagine this happening in England, maybe questions in Parliament, the papers would be full of it until it was solved. It couldn’t happen in Italy, which dearly loves a conspiracy, or Germany. In the U.S., everybody listens to 19th Century Fox TV News. In which a bunch of loons just scream and scream and scream. And with each scream they tell another lie. How are we ever going to have an informed citizenry? Which means then how can we have an informed election?
AMY: So what’s it like for you, Gore Vidal, to go back and forth between Italy and the United States through this period.
VIDAL: Let’s clear up one thing. The right wing has been desperate to explain to Americans that I live in Italy, that I’m an ex-patriot. “He hates America.” Just because I dislike them. I’ve had a house in California for 30 years. I’ve had a house in Southern Italy for 30 years. Sometimes I’m there when I'm working, but I’ve always been involved in American politics, and American history. That's a fact that you can look at a long line of books, to attest to that fact. The idea of geography is very exciting to people, because I think it's only 7% of the American people have passports, only 7% have been abroad. Not counting the ones who were sent in the military of course, but 7% have voluntarily gone abroad. It’s a tiny percent of those in congress who’ve been abroad. Bush had never set foot in Europe before he became President. He had spent 10 minutes in China when his father was Ambassador there, and obviously never went outside of the compound. What I have to do lot of times in Europe is explain to them that Americans are not stupid, when they meet them, they think they’re very stupid because they don’t know anything, I have to explain to them that we're not stupid, I think we’re rather brighter then the average, but we’re ignorant, which means not knowing, we have no information because it isn’t given to us. Our public schools are a scandal, they stopped teaching geography in 1950 in most of the public schools, by which time we were a global empire, we have a global empire and nobody knows where anything is, nobody knows any languages, so our statesmen go abroad and people laugh at them, because they are so dumb, or seem to be so dumb.
from The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz ; p. vii-xi (Foreword by Gore Vidal) :
As the Freudian gulag finally implodes like the former Yugoslavia, it is heartening that the learned and constitutionally irreverent Jonathan Ned Katz should be on hand to drive, as it were, a wooden stake through the expiring gulag’s heart. Heterosexuality, a weird concept of recent origin but terrible consequences, is, of course, central to those very strange notions of human sexuality with which Freud and his apostles saddled us for a century.
According to the Prophet, one begins by being born — this was to be the last plain fact that he dealt in; then, baby has erotic longings for the parent of opposite gender; next, baby fears incest as soon as the subject has been explained to him or her, so he/she represses as best he/she can a passionate longing to couple sexually with parent; later in life, due to this repression, the adult (heir to baby) suffers from anomie, asthma, dandruff … until he consults with a member of the Freudian priesthood, who will tell him that although he repressed (did he, though?) his basic incestuous drives, he will be cured, once he recognizes that he had wanted to screw his old Mom just as Oedipus did. Characteristically, Freud managed to muddle even that classical allusion: Oedipus killed his father and screwed his mother without knowing who either was; so, perhaps uniquely in Freudian history, Oedipus the king did not suffer from the complex that bears his name.
Freud was a romantic, school-of-Nietzsche, would-be novelist of the modernist-symbolist school (his case history of Leonardo da Vinci is historical fiction worthy of Rafael Sabatini) who put together a crackpot religion that would never have got off the ground had it not been for his personal brilliance and imperturbable megalomania. Along the way, he developed a theory of human sexual development that rests, as is usual with him, on a series of false hypotheses. Baby moves, if lucky, from incestuous desires to a longing for self (masturbation) and then for others like himself — the dread abomination that the Leviticus Committee denounced in old Babylon — and then, with luck, and the intervention, perhaps, of a brilliant Jewish burgher from old Vienna, he will, as an adult, ascend to the happy plateau of heterosexuality where Mom and Pop do their thing in the happy knowledge that they are following, if not God’s scenario, the rather more important one of S. Freud, inventor of psychoanalysis (sensibly he often slept while his patients babbled on the sofa at his side) and no matter what was plaguing a girl, he was there to tell her that it was just plain hysteria, and touching her clitoris was a no-no since maturity meant vaginal orgasm, something that does not exist but he believed that it did, and so he even managed to get wrong the very anatomy that he had so firmly declared was destiny. Certainly he never saw anything in human nature that he himself, rather like an absentminded God, had not put there.
For some years now, long before the Freudian religion began to crumble, Katz has been questioning its essential foundation: heterosexuality, as the grail, the ultimate in human maturity and happiness. As I write that last word, I think of Freudian slips or misunderstandings. Prime Minister and Mrs. Harold Macmillan were having lunch with General and Mrs. de Gaulle in Paris. Macmillan and de Gaulle discussed what each would do when he ceased to lead his country. Each said he would write a book. Politely Macmillan asked Mrs. de Gaulle what she wanted after the limelight faded and the trumpets fell silent. Mrs. de Gaulle’s English was not good. “I would like,” she said solemnly, “a penis.”
The unflappable Macmillan assured her that this was a very sensible thing to want. The general, however, realizing his wife’s mistake, said, in his somewhat better English, “Madame means ‘app-penis.’”
Freudians were never able to come up with a proper word (instead of a hybrid Greek-Latin one) for heterosexuality because the Greeks didn‘t know what it was. They knew about reproduction. They knew about lust and love. They knew about the intensity of sexual desire between men and men, women and women, but for them, Lesbos was just an island off the coast of Asia Minor while Sappho was your average Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Unfortunately, as a Vienna burgher of the late nineteenth century, Freud had powerful Old Testament ideas about what was good and what was bad behavior. He was also no fool (though, arguably, he was an evil man in many respects) and so he accepted the bisexuality of human behavior. As a classics buff, he knew Greek history and culture. He had not missed the ultimate wrath of Achilles triggered by his lover’s death. But, finally, the Old Testament natural lawyer in him won out. Cock plus cunt equals baby is what it’s all about. He took that as a bedrock even though he himself had sex with his sister-in-law, and no baby-making was on either adulterer’s mind. The invention of the word “heterosexuality” occurred at about this time (I leave to Katz the essential date).
At first heterosexuality meant an unseemly interest in the opposite sex — in other words, baby usually got douched away. At the turn of the century, the rising middle class was into nonmature sex and, lacking a Greek concept, they came up with a Latin-Greek neologism to describe something that every other culture described simply as “sex.” Meanwhile, as the brain is binary (source of our either/or way of “thinking”), there had to be another word to denote the opposite, and thus “homosexuality” was invented and Katz now shows how the words got frozen into their present usage. Good team: hetero. Bad team: homo. Straight versus gay. Either one or the other; no Mr. In-Between. This division has led to endless trouble for many men and women while giving vast joy to the rulers of those lands that accept these unnatural categories — for they can then proscribe the bad team, thus maintaining control over much of the population, the aim of every government everywhere in every history we know.
By analyzing the stages by which these sloppy words became concepts that then became “facts,” Katz nicely undermines the whole false division. I have often — perhaps too often — made the point that there are no homosexual people and no heterosexual people, only hetero or homo acts, and most people, at one time or another, despite horrendous taboos, mess around, as we used to call it in my Washington, D.C. boyhood. Katz, rather wearily, repeats my monotonous refrain, noting that this was also the general view of Dr. Kinsey, whose report on sexual behavior in the male was published a month or two after my novel The City and the Pillar, in which two “straight” boys have a love affair with dire results, thanks to the time and place where they were lingering: the United States, once hailed by Spiro Agnew as “the greatest nation in the country.”
I do take some exception to the reverence with which Katz handles the “thoughts” of that eminent preacher and friend of mine, James Baldwin. In 1949 Baldwin did indeed have some sensible things to say about the ridiculousness of one-dimensionalizing human personality: “It is quite impossible to write a worth-while novel about a Jew or a Gentile or a Homosexual, for people refuse, unhappily, to function in so neat and one-dimensional fashion.” As the French say, this goes without saying. But then he assaults my novel of the previous year in which the “avowed homosexual … murders his first and only perfect love when at length they meet again, for he cannot bear to kill instead that desolate and impossible dream of love.“ This nicely misses the point. The City and the Pillar. Biblical title. What city? Sodom. Fag life. Pillar? Lot’s wife could have been saved from Sodom’s destruction if she had not looked behind her for one last glimpse of glamorous old Sodom. She takes a peek. Is turned into a pillar of salt. My protagonist, Jim Willard, is not “an avowed homosexual”— Baldwin was not the most attentive critic of our time — Willard hated fairies and only hustled to stay alive until he was reunited with his “first and only perfect love.” I agree with Baldwin that this was probably “impossible,” but hardly “desolate.” It was high romanticism taken to a terrible extreme. Instead of moving on (no, not to Freud’s mysterious high good place, heterosexuality, where the air is too thin for too many to breathe), he spent his life looking backward to a perfect conjunction with another boy, and, when he does meet him again, he finds that the other is now living where the air is thin, and so rejects him and, in the best obsessive romantic tradition, the perfect lover is killed. Even the title of the book is a warning to the romantic temperament. But Baldwin sees this violent resolution as “compelled by a panic which is close to madness. These novels [Charles Jackson’s The Fall of Valor is included] are not concerned with homosexuality but with the ever-present danger of sexual activity between men.” This might be true of Jackson but not of me. I argue throughout the book that homosexual acts are a very good thing indeed and for some men and women, permanently preferable to heterosexual acts. This was a new concept in 1948. But romantic heroes usually come to tragic ends, as Shakespeare demonstrates with his two intellectually challenged teenagers from Verona. In any case, a few years after Baldwin’s assault on me for “panic,” exactly the wrong word, he wrote Giovanni’s Room, a perfect panic of a book that ends with the beloved one’s head chopped off in Paris.
Katz not only has a good time with all this but he manages to deconstruct two nouns whose invention created false categories, thus making it possible to control the people at large through legal taboos that must now be revoked, as any nonsuperstitious reader of Katz will conclude.