Cassandra and the Encylopedia

“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.”

Gore Vidal has died.

In reading the various obits online, I cannot help but notice the difference in tone between the coverage here in the U.S. and Europe. I cannot help but wonder whether the author of biographical novels (Burr, Julian, Lincoln, Washington, D.C.), other novels (1876, Empire, The City and The Pillar, Palimpsest), essays (Empire, United States, Imperial America, and Inventing a Nation) and plays will be best remembered as either the writer who had had a public feud with William F. Buckley in 1968 or that nasty man who had dared to criticize his country, most notably, say his detractors, in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.

I’m not a fan of Vidal the writer, although I acknowledge that the man had an extraordinary command of the language and an enviable education. I admire Vidal the thinker. In terms of education, social standing, but differing in dispositions, Gore Vidal was a contemporary of that other prolific writer, Louis Auchincloss. Vidal was, as an obit called him, the Alexis de Tocqueville of our day, a man who observed society wherever he went. Those who lambasted Vidal for writing Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace after 9-11 claimed that he was elitist, a man who looked down at other Americans while riding in his horse and carriage, shielded from daily reality because of his privilege and circumstance. He was accused of being un-American, unpatriotic. Mind you, Vidal could not find any American publisher for the first essay in the book: his response to 9-11. Elitist and unpatriotic? Vidal was an unapologetic member of the elite, but I doubt that he was unpatriotic, as the titles of his publications show that America was at the center of his imagination throughout his prolific writing career.

Readers had taken exception to Vidal’s collection of essays on 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing. This is where I think Vidal was gravely misunderstood. He saw it as a citizen’s duty to question society. An essay, for him, was an art form and not the teacher’s assignment of  ‘state a thesis, prove or disprove it in five cogent paragraphs, and end the essay with a strong, concluding paragraph;’ yet, for many readers of Perpetual War, the America of his essays was more Foe than Friend.

Vidal saw the essay as a traditional form: essai, as in the French word for ‘to attempt’ or ‘to try.’ Vidal was pointing his pen at Montaigne. He was asking questions a thinking man thinks in order to explain and understand the world around him. He was not justifying what he saw; he was analyzing and connecting dots. He was explaining the guiding principles of the American republic, as he saw and understood them. Vidal disdained ignorance and reminded readers that America is not a democracy. The rights you and I have are the result, more often than not, of the work of elites who went against class interest. FDR is a case in point. The social reformer and the history-altering figure, like Lincoln, is an exception to the rule in American history. I’d argue to the contrary: America’s historical consciousness owes more to Puritan theology and the collision between Catholic and Protestant theology, especially the Calvinist concept of predestination, than it did to French philosophes of the Enlightenment.

In Perpetual War, Vidal marshaled page after page of footnotes of examples of ‘American imperialism,’ for which he was roundly attacked as being insensitive to the tragedy of 9-11. He imploded the mythology that America is loved around the world and that everyone envies our material success. Vidal corrects the myth to say: the American people are admired, their government is not, and then exposed the lies that Americans had been told. Vidal’s inexcusable audacity was to suggest that 9-11 was not a tragedy but the logical outcome of decades of foreign policy. He was bold enough to say that more Americans die daily from alcohol and tobacco use, those ‘lifestyle choices,’ and in car accidents than had in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Like any of his footnotes, he simply put down the fact and left his readers to draw their own conclusion. Vidal was the American version of Cassandra speaking in the temple.

Vidal’s exploration of war and peace imploded the myth of freedom. For that he was never forgiven. He argued from all sides that America is not a place of freedom; it is a place to make money, consume goods, and be a good citizen because, make no mistake about it, if you were so foolish as to contravene myth, the populace will pitch you over the side of the cliff. It wasn’t governmental power that bothered Mr. Vidal. He understood Power – the mere shine of the partially withdrawn sword from the scabbard. He was a member of the elite after all, with an extraordinary pedigree. He was a student of history. He read Machiavelli in the original. What bothered him was the use of language in the hands of power. Vidal assumes that all Americans know that the first and foremost lie in America is that there are no social classes. As a writer he was concerned with how power used language, how his fellow elites created the machinery where they did nothing but tell lies and the anxiety and fear among the masses did the rest. Language became ultimate artifice and rhetoric became a true tool of power by perpetuating self-regulating tyranny. There is no freedom; there is slavery, the here and now of instant gratification, the vulgar disregard of the future, and the absence of chains. Why enslave others when they can do it to themselves and still believe that they are free?

Vidal may have left readers with the sense that the “chicken will come home to roost,” that American is indeed a violent society, but he seemed to fall short, in my opinion, in explaining why Americans kill other Americans. He had had extensive talks with Timothy McVeigh; and he reminds us that McVeigh went to his death unrepentant, quoting about the need for the blood of martyrs. Vidal was educated enough to know that McVeigh had been quoting Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson himself had been paraphrasing Tertullian.

Gore Vidal was not writing In Cold Blood. He saw Timothy McVeigh as profoundly misguided. Had he written a book that explained nihilism and self-hatred in America amongst Americans, looked inside our borders rather than abroad, and articulated some insight into Columbine or revisited the Bath School Massacre of 1927, then I think Vidal might have found more sympathetic readers.

In what one online writer called the “Summer of Death,” I noticed that the death of another writer went largely unnoticed. Donald Sobol, author of the Encyclopedia Brown series died on July 11, 2012. His protagonist Leroy Brown first appeared in 1963. His short, entertaining whodunits where a young detective solved petty crimes using reason and facts entertained me when I was in elementary school. In my school, teachers allowed us to read any one of the books sets aside on the shelves after we were done with our assignments. Homework was meant for home, so Encyclopedia Brown was fun reading. More importantly, it demonstrated that it was OK to be a nerd and intelligent. Encyclopedia Brown was translated into numerous languages and earned Sobol a special Edgar Award in 2007. He was 87 years old. Gore Vidal was 86 years old.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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One Response to Cassandra and the Encylopedia

  1. katwalk65 says:

    Great blog…and thank you for finding my blog (that’s how I found you — you liked something I did on — and I thank you for that. I look forward to having the time to actually digest this post fully — I am off to work the day job!

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