Just finished reading Palimpsest, Gore Vidal’s memoir of his life in the late 40s, the 50s and into the 1960s. Gay and atheist, he’s an inspiration to me, a decidedly heterosexual American male and atheist, myself. I don’t know if he knows it, but all his own frailties show through in Palimpsest. I can see him being from time to time as petty and as vain as those he castigates and reveals in his memoir, but, then, so often, reading him, I also see myself, being the same thing. In fact all humanity is present in his memoir. None of us is free of the vanities Gore writes about. It’s been a long time since I laughed aloud reading a book, but Gore made me laugh, aloud and freely. Interesting—when laughing aloud in an espresso joint, where many tender sensibilities abound, one catches nearby talkers wince as they wonder if one is laughing at them. I noticed that more than once.
“When Orwell writes, ‘Spain,’ or Hazlitt, ‘Napoleon,’ one's eyelids droop, Surely this does not happen when I write ‘Ron and Nancy’.... At least my characters are inherently comic, or so I find them. Today, I wonder why I am so content, inhabiting as I do a body so keen to disassemble. Then I realize why, perfect day to one side: I do not want anything, I am past all serious desire for anything—at the moment, anyway. The Buddha was right: To want is to suffer.” —Vidal, p.174
Today has also been a perfect day for me after a troubled Sunday when everything in my life seemed empty and purposeless. How odd that those days still come at my age of 70, and they always come when I am still taking myself to task for not having succeeded at that or this, when I still think I want something more than a sunny, coolish walk beside the Columbia River in the glittering light. This morning, I was also a Buddhist. Like my wife.
“I recall now, something that Jack [Kennedy] had observed about the great of this world. ‘In this… uh… job you get to meet just about everybody. You get to know all the big movers and shakers, and the thing that most strikes me about them is how second-rate they really are.’ He said this with some wonder, even wistfulness—as if he had really wanted to be impressed and wasn’t.” —Vidal, p. 378
“During my ten years in the wilderness, a good deal had happened in literature. The Beats had for a time flourished, and many of us were alarmed. Was this what writing was destined to be—an endless report on what one had done the night before while listing the names of the all-alike towns that one sped through on the ever-same road? Although, as writers, Kerouac and Burroughs were not much different from such conventional writers as Philip Roth and John Updike, I feared that their imitators would, like the executors of some inexorable Gresham's law, drive literature itself out the window. All this proved to be a false alarm. Their imitators were few, while the originals either died or did not continue, and literature went out the window anyway.” —Vidal, p. 410
The ten years Gore speaks of as “wilderness” are the years during which he vowed to make himself financially independent so that he could write whatever he chose to write and live as he wanted to live. He set himself five years but it took ten, still he accomplished it. And the novel continues to die a slow death. Though opera and classical music are further along in their decline, so the novel, a Johnny-come-lately compared to those two, is following slowly behind, leaving the stage. I would mourn their passing, but, if the hope of life is that someday true peace and prosperity could reign here on Earth, I can see no evidence that the arts have contributed to that peace or prosperity. No more than has religion. Could Plato have been right when he wished to ban poets from his Republic?