I caught a documentary on Gore Vidal last night on the TV, in the hour before lights out and sleep. It’s the sort of program you expect to find broadcast on the ABC late on a Sunday night. Not quite obscure, but certainly learned, and perhaps not mainstream because of that.
I watched with interest. In actual fact I’m reading a Gore Vidal novel right now for the very first time (1876). My interest in him is less as a novelist than it is as a character, commentator and essayist. While he lived he was a regular on American TV and print, commenting in his singular and mostly perspicacious way about the politics and current affairs of the day. He made his name for his acerbic wit and unrepentant, larger than life persona. He was someone worth listening to, whether you agreed with him or not.
Gore Vidal’s story is closely entwined with American history of the last 60 years. He was born into a political family. He became a popular, acclaimed, and later controversial novelist. He knew JFK intimately and ran for congress in 1960. He became a regular on the American talk-show circuit, a strident commentator, and often outspoken critic of the politics of the day. He was defiantly of the left, though I suspect he would refute any labelling – quite rightly too. Although some of his opinions could be outlandish, he was also a very shrewd observer of current affairs. His essays are the best things he ever did in my opinion. He could be scathing in his opinion of others, particularly the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. He was a man of unabashed opinion.
Two things occurred to me as I watched. The first was a surprising sense of melancholy. Programs like these concatenate the times, the events, and the years. It cut back and forwards, though moving in rough chronological sequence. We saw Vidal young and old, handsome once then craggy and broken. The theme throughout was of railing against the mainstream opinion, but it was portrayed as if a collection of snapshots in an album.
Here he is with sideburns dressed in the fashion of the early seventies confidently expostulating to a bunch of celebrity friends in his Italian villa. There he is giving an impromptu speech to some unemployed in the eighties. Then again he is shown in his wheel chair, grown plump with age but his mind lively still talking about the last days of his partner of nearly 50 years. We see him at his wicked best on the Dick Cavett show; in still shots we see him cavort with his good friend Paul Newman; and later again sitting outdoors at a cafe in Rapallo with his much beloved partner.
Moments that were current and ‘real’ in that moment are shown like that, true as they were at the time, but now forever locked into place and given a different perspective by the passage of time. History occurs, he comments, now, again, again, again, he ages and grows young again before seen once more in a wheelchair. Time passes, the things that were important once are not now, while other things remain as relevant now as ever. And throughout all of this him, his voice, those eyes, that life in pictures and video, a history unspooling then to now, and regardless of mind the loss of things that are not worth recovering so late, and the deterioration that can’t be fought because it remains inevitable. And then he too, for all this, despite all this, is dead as well, gone, remembered in a documentary.
Perhaps it caught me at a particular moment, but I can’t remember watching a program and been so aware of the mortality of men. I am of an era that will one day end. This too shall pass, as did so many that appeared in this documentary, as did the man himself. As will I.
I don’t know if I’ve described it well. It’s a bunch of thoughts that are hard to give shape to. You feel it creeping in you and try to figure it out afterwards.
I read something the other day which maybe gives a better sense of what I’m talking about. This is by John Williams novel Augustus, and this is Augustus, the great Roman emperor, commenting near the end of his life:
I have come to believe that in the life of every man, late or soon, there is a moment when he knows beyond whatever else he might understand, and whether he can articulate the knowledge or not, the terrifying fact that he is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself.
Does it make sense now? For all we do, the people we meet, the love we feel, the things we join with, everything leads to a dwindling point we paper over with these experiences.
The other thought was in some ways in contradiction to such a bleak outlook. Regardless of how it ends that is the life worth living, I thought. To be active of mind, curious, inquiring, restless, engaged with the world beyond the front gate and the margins of the family group. This is the life I want and, watching this, felt how much I missed it.
That must be my goal, I thought. One goal of many perhaps. I’m not Gore Vidal, and can’t aspire to his influence, but it isn’t about that. It’s not about peddling influence, it’s about engaging with the intellectual, cultural and societal issues and trends of the day. The choice is between being a passive observer of these things, and seeking to both understand and act within them. Be the earth, rather than the moon. You could argue that is who I have been most of my adult life – and sure, I’ve always had an opinion and been happy to share it. The evidence is before your eyes.
It goes beyond that now I think. In the past I’ve accepted that much of the world about me is more interested in getting by than it is in seeking understanding. I’ve had the odd interesting dinner party conversation, but for the most part those parts of me are kept mute because the audience for it is not there. To be that person and remain silent about it seems a denial of self. What good if I only speak out here?
These are old thoughts in many ways, though recycled might be a more apt term. That’s how we live, things drop in and drop out, press and fall back. In my case I’ve had other things to occupy me, and so notions like this drop from the forefront of your mind to somewhere at the back of it. I understand the why of that, but surely if we are to live truly then we have to remember what means, and not forget it again.
For a long time I’ve been living nowhere but in the here and now, and higher notions have been pushed to one side. There’s been little choice in that because there has been so much for me to deal with and manage daily, day after day. It’s been survival mode, and when you’re in that mode it’s hard to look too far ahead. You’re just scrambling all the time.
I need a break from that, and that will come, and maybe sooner than I thought. When that happens I need to know who I want to be. This much I know, but there is much more that is still to be pieced together. I suspect in many ways I am a different man to what I was before, but will not know that properly until things stop and I can be that person completely. I need to look beyond the here and now to what can be. Hope lives in the future, and if you never look to it sometimes you miss it.