Friday, 03 August 2012
ELDER WRITINGS: Gore Vidal
Even if you do not hold Gore Vidal in the esteem I do, you have probably heard some of his witticisms - particularly the political observations that have become so widely used that no one remembers Vidal said them first. Here are a handful:
•"The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven't seen them since."
•"What we have in this country is socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor."
•”I’ve been around the ruling class all my life and I’ve been quite aware of their total contempt for the people of the country.”
•"Fifty percent of people won't vote, and fifty percent don't read newspapers. I hope it's the same fifty percent."
•"The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return."
There are dozens more on as many topics and I will undoubtedly subject you to them from time to time in the future. But today, so soon following Vidal's death on Tuesday, I want to quote several short passages from his second memoir, Point to Point Navigation.
It was published in 2006, when Vidal was about 80, three years after the death of Howard Austen, his partner of 50 years. The book begins in 1964, the year his first memoir, Palimpsest, leaves off.
Vidal knew just about everyone who was anyone during his lifetime and was a shameless name-dropper. There is plenty of that throughout the book but it is clear that endings were on his mind – which is what I have chosen to quote. (Page numbers reference the first edition hardback.)
“Like most children, I often used to imagine what death must be like. But unlike most, I had no belief, or even interest, in an afterlife.
“To me...death is not being; and that is why for us who know only being, death is literally unimaginable, try as hard as one might to imagine – what? An empty room where one is not? Put out the light and then put out the light?
“For the young, death is supremely unnatural. For the old, it is so natural that it is not worth thinking about.” - p.26
During Austen's final illness as he lay in Cedar-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles:
”Near the end he asked me, How old am I?' I told him he was seventy-four. He frowned. 'That's when people die, isn't it?' I said that I hadn't and so far he hadn't.
“I was sitting beside his armchair looking out over the tile roof opposite. For a moment he looked puzzled; then he said: 'Didn't it go by awfully fast?'
“Of course it had. We had been too happy and the gods cannot bear the happiness of mortals. Montaigne paid for his wisdom with agonizing kidney stones.” - p.85
This is a scan of a photograph of Vidal at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. His ashes will be interred there next to those of Howard Austen.
This is Vidal's caption to the photo on page 73:
“Here I am next to Saint-Gaudens's Statue of Grief which Henry Adams had commissioned in honor of his wife, Clover. Two or three yards away Howard is buried as I shall be in due course when I take time off from my busy schedule.”
Soon after Austen's death, Vidal found himself in the company of writer Joan Didion whose book on grief following the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne had recently been published:
”We compared notes on the subject. The worst, we agreed, was having no one to talk to as well as the blankness of familiar rooms, lacking their usual occupant.
“Certainly at one's age there are no substitutes, no replacements, recently attested to by Nancy Reagan: we both attended Sidwell Friends School in Washington at the same time during the thirties but we never knew each other then or, indeed, until quite recently when we joined the ever-increasing company of widows and widowers cluttering Los Angeles.
“'Don't you hate it,' she said, 'when they tell you how time is the great healer?' I agreed that I hated it because, 'after all, time is the great constant reminder of things lost and gone for good.” - p.75
In an effort to distract himself following Austen's death, Vidal accepted an invitation in 2003, to star for a week or so in Trumbo, a stage reading of letters written by Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era.
”On the night when many of the actors in town come to see a play, I saw most of the cast of the recent revival of The Best Man as well as Elaine May and her gentleman friend Stanley Donen whom I knew from our days at MGM. Afterward, Elaine at her most Mayish, said: 'I didn't know you could do this.'
“'You never asked,' I was modestly precise. Stanley who had been making musicals at MGM for years before, during, and after the blacklist summed it up: 'What you've done is prove that you can act, but the big surprise is that Trumbo could write.'
“There we were, freezing backstage, marooned in 2003 and it was like the great studio was still functioning and all was right with the world and, presently, Arthur Freed will find a musical for Donen to do and Elaine is still doing comic impressions with Mike Nichols while I – There are these strange slips of time, away from bleak present to a past present where everyone is suddenly what they were and the dead live.” - p. 91
At 8PM eastern U.S. time this evening, Broadway theaters will dim their marquee lights for one minute in memory of Gore Vidal. A new revival of his play, The Best Man, is currently on Broadway.
There is no new post at The Elder Storytelling Place today. New entries will resume on Monday.