Vidal's Prescience

A couple of weeks ago a long-anticipated book arrived at my office: The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal (Doubleday, 2008), edited by Jay Parini (also Vidal's biographer). It provides an excellent selection of Vidal's criticism and essays from 1953-2004. Unfortunately, having lately seen and read interviews with the aged Vidal, I'm afraid that he's becoming a bit predictable, regularly harping on the Bush regime, which seems like too easy a target and doesn't yield much creativity from Vidal's sharp mind.

However, most of these essays represent Vidal at his best: a participant in the nation's history who, with just a slightly haughty air, offers an incisive take on what's going on because of a keen sense of what's happened in the past (chronicled so well in his historical fiction). He refuses any distinction between "high" and "low" culture; all is fair game. Consider, for instance, the hilarious (but deadly serious) account of the "The Top Ten Best-Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973," in which Vidal explores the Koontzes and Graftons of his day (concluding that, in fact, here was the first generation of novelists raised on television). There is a wonderful recollection of Edmund Wilson, as well as an iconoclastic and irreverent essay on "The Holy Family," the Kennedys, in which Vidal predicts a dynasty--in 1967, just months before RFK's assassination.

And reading these essays now, in some cases 50 years later, one has to be struck by Vidal's prescience. For just one example, I would point to some closing reflections in a long essay on Egypt under Nasser, published in Esquire in 1963:

We [Americans] truly believe that we never wanted a world empire simply because we don't suffer from a desire to see Old Glory waving over the parliaments of enslaved nations. But we do want to make a buck. We do want to maintain our standard of living. For good or ill, we have no other true national purpose. [...] Our materialistic ethos is made quite plain in the phrase 'the American way of life.'

I submit that our lack of commitment to any great mystique of national destiny is the healthiest thing about us and the reason for our current success. We are simple materialists, not bent on setting fire to the earth as a matter of holy prinicple, unlike the True Believers with their fierce Either-Ors, their Red or Dead absolutes, when the truth is that the world need be neither, just comfortably pink and lively. Even aid to such a disagreeable and unreliable nation as Nasser's Egypt increases our sphere of influence, expands our markets, maintains our worldly empire. And we are an empire.

While neoconservatism is defined precisely by its invention of and commitment to something like a "mystique" that Vidal cautions against, the pragmatism of the American empire remains solidly in place. And hence Vidal's closing warning is also prescient:

Ultimately, our danger comes not from the idea of Communism, which (as an Archbishop of Canterbury remarked) is a "Christian heresy" whose materialistic aims (as opposed to means) vary little from our own; rather, it will come from the increasing wealth and skill of other Serene Republics which, taking advantage of our increasing moral and intellectual fateness, will try to seize our markets in the world. If we are to end, it will not be with a Bomb but a bigger Buck.

What Vidal's prescience perhaps did not see is that such a displacing Republic would not be quite Serene, but Red.