Who else but Gore Vidal, a ferocious Wildean wit, could have started a conversation by stating the three most dispiriting words in the English language were Joyce Carol Oates? Christopher Hitchens said of Vidal that he had the rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones and that Vidal had a way of saying the things that one wished one had said oneself. Take for example, Vidal, when speaking of the red-faced and engorged Teddy Kennedy: “he possesses all the charm of three hundred pounds of condemned veal.” While still on the subject of charm, Vidal had choice words for William F. Buckley Jr. while on Firing Line: “…like Hitler without the charm.” Gore Vidal had a way of employing tough-mindedness, sharpness, and a subversive wit in his writing as well as his rhetoric. He wrote that the four most beautiful words in the English language were “I told you so”, that anytime a friend succeeds “a little something in me dies”, and that “no good deed will go unpunished.” During a panel reviewing the life and works of Oscar Wilde, the inevitable question arose, could there be an Oscar Wilde for the 20th century? Gore Vidal was immediately proposed and the name passed without any dissent. This immediate proposition should come as no surprise, the two queens shared an acerbic and mordant wit and a peculiar taste in sex; however, it should not go unnoticed that after 2001 began the fall of the Wilde and the rise of the wild for Vidal.
In Lady Windermere’s Fan, the titular Lady Windermere asks Lord Darlington, “Why do you talk so trivially about life, then?” To which the Lord replies “Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.” Oscar Wilde was, at his core, an epicurean and this philosophy is the basis of the Wildean style and is reflected in Wilde’s writing. So if it was true of Vidal’s character to be serious about amusing matters and amusing about serious ones, then it is true that Gore Vidal held in him the essence of the Wildean wit. And if one is to believe that, as Oscar Wilde wrote in Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, wickedness is merely an invention by good people to account for the attractiveness of others, then Vidal certainly was wicked, and immensely attractive. He, like Wilde, was a critic of whom one would not want to be on the other side of their pen. In the Scots Observer in 1890, Charles Whibley wrote a review of The Picture of Dorian Gray accusing Wilde of “grubbing in muck-heaps” and writing for “outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys.” To which Wilde replied:
Your review[er], sir, while admitting that the story in question is ‘plainly the work of a man of letters’ the work of one who has ‘brains, and art, and style,’ yet suggests, and apparently in all seriousness, that I have written it in order that it should be read by the most depraved members of the criminal and illiterate classes. Now, sir, I do not suppose that the criminal and illiterate classes ever read anything except newspapers. They are certainly not likely to be able to understand anything of mine… If my work pleases the few, I am gratified. If it does not, it causes me no pain. As for the mob, I have no desire to be a popular novelist. It is far too easy.
Wilde’s riposte was sweeping; Wilde knew what the critic did not: that good writing was not meant to be read widely. Wilde continues mercilessly stating the critic “commits the absolutely unpardonable crime of trying to confuse the artist with his subject matter.” (To further prove the guilt of Wilde’s critic, Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, after having the Fatwa placed on his head by the Ayatollah Khomeini, accused the Ayatollah of the same crime, that is, of condemning the author for the acts of his characters.)
Gore Vidal’s critiques were brutal; take for example his feud with novelist Truman Capote. In June 1979 Vidal set in motion a libel lawsuit against Capote for the claim that Vidal was thrown out of the White House for drunken behavior. With mordant wit and pen in hand, fueling his feud with Truman Capote, Vidal wrote that “Truman made lying an artform – a minor artform.” Vidal in an interview with The Independent said that Capote he truly loathed, the way one might loath an animal. Finally, after Capote’s death, Vidal wrote that it was “a good career move.” Mordancy is innate in the Wildean wit. This particular type mordancy comes not as a practiced artform, or as something attained from years of work. This mordancy is born, (or perhaps borne?) into the soul, if it can be phrased that way, of the Wildean inspired man. Perhaps the soul is too narrow a term though; a man who chooses to identify himself with the Oscar Wildes, the Gore Vidals, the Christopher Hitchens’ of the world must identify within himself at least one physical or sexual trait: pansexuality. With this in mind Wilde wrote it quite right; “those who see any difference between soul and body have neither.”
The sexuality of the two queens, queens being a title perhaps not-too-telling or vulgar given their profession, is well known and arguably essential to their historical characters. Vidal was of the mind that there are no heterosexual men or women and that all men and women were in fact capable of purely gay thoughts. For Vidal, there was only the pansexual human being. In 2005, Vidal wrote an article for Vanity Fair bringing into the spotlight President Lincoln’s affair with Joshua Speed, the shopkeeper Lincoln has roomed with for four years before his political life. Vidal writes,
What the Kinseyites [referring to those who subscribed to sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey’s teachings] and I had in common so long ago was the knowledge that homosexual and heterosexual behavior are natural to all mammals, and that what differs from individual to individual is the balance between these two complementary but not necessarily conflicted drives. So, what has all this to do with our greatest president? The young Lincoln had a love affair with a handsome youth and store owner, Joshua Speed, in Springfield, Illinois.
No one was exempt from Vidal’s ruling of universal sexuality. For Wilde, before his jail time and before De Profundis, there was only pleasure, the aesthetic, the epicurean life. However, in 1895, the Marquess Queensberry had left his calling card at Wilde’s club, the Albermarle, on which the Marquess scribed “To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” Notice the poor spelling of an insecure man. After a libel case against Queensberry that had turned against Wilde’s favour, an arrest warrant was filed for Wilde under the charges of “sodomy” and “gross indecency.” Wilde was eventually arrested for “gross indecency”, almost farcically were it not historical, under a section of an amendment that classed his crime as homosexuality that did not result in “buggery.” During the trial Wilde was probed by his prosecutor, Charles Gill, to answer the question; “what is ‘The love that dare not speak its name?’”, a phrase that originates from Two Loves by Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s friend and partner. As eloquent as a forbidden lover, Wilde replied,
The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.
Or, the love that dare not speak its name can be found in the pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert starts his letters, creepily and provocatively, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Bearing his love down even on the pronunciation of the young girl’s name, Lo-lee-ta. Humbert’s love though is a love that is far more justly forbidden than Wilde’s and Douglas’. Wilde continues,
It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo… It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name,’ and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
Wilde could only compare the convictions of his crime to that of a charge of blasphemy, that is to say, both are victimless.
By the time Vidal had left the Army after the Second World War, sodomy was no longer a crime, but still seen as morally corrupt by those who deemed themselves authorities on the matter. In 1948, Gore Vidal had published his novel The City and the Pillar, about the affair of two star crossed, young, “normal” male athletes which had evidently shocked America, or at least The New York Times. This pseudo-news outlet had compared the book to pornography, saying it was too immoral to be worth reading, and blacklisted the next five of Vidal’s books. The shock was due to Vidal making the boy’s affair completely natural despite the convictions and superstitions of Bronze Age religions. Alfred C. Kinsey, who at the time had recently published his Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, applauded Vidal on his “work in the field” because of his novel The City and the Pillar. It was because of the uproar that Vidal saw his sexual preference had caused that he migrated to Italy and lived essentially in exile with his partner Howard Austin. Vidal saw his sexuality as the wall dividing him from popularity, though the literary critic Harold Bloom attributed it to Gores unfashionable association with historical fiction. After 11 September, 2001, Gore Vidal’s popularity rose not because of his literature, or his sexuality, Vidal’s popularity hit a spike because of his criticism of the Bush administration and his pandering to conspiracy theories regarding that day. For Vidal, it was the fall of the Wilde and the rise of the wild.
If one were to know Gore Vidal in his good days, which were most before 2001, he, like Wilde, was rarely ever “off”, then one was to know Vidal’s less adorable traits. Christopher Hitchens wrote that he had a pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts it did not belong, and that one was made aware that he suspected Franklin Roosevelt of playing a greasy role in the attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as a tight hold on his admiration for the American isolationist Charles Lindbergh. If it is true to say that September of 2001 changed us all, it is easier to say it accentuated a crack pot strain that always existed within Vidal and eventually became dominant. To put it simply, in literary terms, it drove him mad. That year for Vidal was equivalent to Wilde’s non-buggery trials. Where at least Wilde had written the striking and stylish De Profundis, Vidal’s writings after 2001 were muddy, charmless, and uninventive, pushing cheap paperbacks with the slightly disappointing titles of “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace,” or “Dreaming War.” Take for example this sentence Vidal penned in November 2002: “Meanwhile, media was assigned its familiar task of inciting public opinion against Osama bin Laden, still not the proven mastermind.” Vidal once wrote of the Indian novelist Idries Shah that his books were a great deal harder to read than they were to write, and it seems Vidal had taken Shah’s writing advice for his “polemics”. These were small anthologies that tried to argue, though one had to wonder from where he was arguing, that the Bush administration dealt the same sleazy hand in the September 11th attacks that F.D.R. had dealt over half a century before in Pearl Harbor. In 2008 Johann Hari of the London Independent interviewed Gore Vidal, where Vidal had said the American experiment had failed, we would soon end up somewhere between Brazil and Argentina where we belonged. We would soon be the “yellow man’s burden.” This from a novelist who could at one point summon Abraham Lincoln to the pages as if he knew Lincoln himself. Asking about Vidal’s recently deceased rivals, Hari wanted a few words on John Updike, William F. Buckley Jr., and Norman Mailer. Vidal interrupted before Hari could finish and uttered the following: “Updike was nothing. Buckley was nothing with a flair for publicity. Mailer was a flawed publicist, too, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain.” Again, the reader is left wanting any grace, charm, or wit. Vidal had traded his Wildean mind for that of the likes of Michael Moore; cheap, sleazy, and painfully mean spirited. Oscar Wilde was never crude, even while writing his charged and dramatic letter “De Profundis,”
One who is entirely ignorant of the modes of Art in its revolution or the moods of thought in its progress, of the pomp of the Latin line or the richer use of the vowelled Greek, of Tuscan sculpture of Elizabethan song may yet be full of the very sweetest wisdom.
Wilde’s charm was pervasive even while writing in a jail cell and writing a letter that was meant to condemn his former lover. Wilde blamed Douglas for Douglas’ negligence and putting Wilde in a situation to be tried and jailed.
The similarities were strikingly obvious between the two novelists and playwrights, even to the point of dramatic life events. Certainly the adjective of Wilde-like, or Wildean, was borne upon Gore Vidal fittingly and for a while he did well to keep the spirit alive, subversively tying life, love, and sex into fiction in a manner and at a level attained only by a select few in all of literary history. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he said as someone who wrote the best sentences in his time. While he still had some of the Wildean instincts, he certainly lived up to the memory.