Gore Vidal’s Bully Republic
August 6, 2012 | by Henry Giardina
A few years ago, fresh off a diet of Wilde, Maugham, and Saki, I was beginning to feel disappointed by the gay pantheon. Not the actual writing—no one could find fault with that. It was the example of their lives that depressed me, ending more often than not in loneliness and/or despair, if not complete exile.
I remember having a conversation with my father about it. I told him what I’d really have liked to find, in my exhaustive search of the canon, was a gay superhero. You know: fucking dudes, saving the world. Never mind the fact that superheroes, with their notoriously contour-hugging apparel, are usually assumed gay by default. I wanted something that had existed, something from history. My father considered my criteria.
“I think what you want is Gore Vidal.”
I think it took me all of one day to read Myra Breckinridge in full and possibly a month to process it. The cartoon version of gender deviance it put forth was one that, against all odds, enraptured me. From its famous opening (“I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess”) to Myra’s core, radical aim in life (“the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes…”), to the lengthy rape scene three quarters through, wherein Myra rapes a guy with a strap-on, comparing herself to an Amazon and making him say thank you afterward, the message was clear. She was the ultimate queer bully, taking no prisoners and getting a comeuppance so ridiculous that Vidal gives the reader no choice but to discount any kind of moral implications it might have otherwise had. Vidal never seems to see Myra as quite a credible character, but rather a walking philosophy—a summary of influences. From her view of the world down to the specificity of her erotic desire, Myra seems sloppily, and yet credibly, glued together. If Myra was the queer bully brought to its perfect apotheosis, Vidal himself served as her natural, if slightly less perfect, progenitor.
I discovered Myra in the summer of 2010, the fall of which would bring an onslaught of suicides in gay youth and jumpstart the “It Gets Better” campaign, with its sugary message of hope aimed at queer teen bully victims. But as a member of a generation weaned on Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasies, I felt—both then and now—that such a message was hardly adequate. Though it obviously runs counter to the mature, Gandhi model of behavior, I knew that if I could be assured that there were queer bullies out there, I would feel better about everything, in the way that I would have felt much better about history had the events of Inglourious Basterds magically turned out to be true.
Vidal’s Myra, the militant transgender feminist, was dangerously close to my own idea of an ideal queer: a person so aggressively gay as to be a kind of enemy of the state. The fact that she was created by someone very much a friend of the state—notoriously political and, for lack of a better word, conservative—made it all the more satisfying as a paradox. That the desire to create Myra and the desire to write about the American Civil War could exist in one person was too thrilling—and thrillingly bizarre—for me analyze too closely. What I did start to question was how Vidal—and Myra—had slipped under my radar for so long.
It was probably because I’d assumed he was straight. I knew him only as a political writer of large, crusty tomes about political figures or vaguely named epics: Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, Washington, D.C. With this information in mind, I jumped to conclusions. Surely only a straight person could want to write thick, lofty studies on such a fully unqueer topic as the American empire. The thought that an interest in these things could coincide with a dedication to true, campy queerness in its purest form had never occurred to me. What I discovered later, on closer inspection, was that Vidal seemed to understand that within the world of scholarship and letters was embedded an excuse for the kind of heightened bitchiness that in any other kind of public forum doesn’t quite fly. The world of politics, likewise (nowhere more in evidence than 1962’s Advise and Consent, which amps up this bitchiness to an exhilarating pitch).
Reading Myra made me seek out Vidal’s essays—not the canonical ones, but the later ones, collected in a volume put out in 1999 called Sexually Speaking. In these essays, mostly from the eighties and nineties, and for the most part free from formal state-and-policy political talk, Vidal plumbs the depths of historical queerness, from the half-trashy, half-resplendent novels of Maugham to Christopher Isherwood’s idea of a heterosexual dictatorship and his friendship with Tennessee Williams. Within it, his prose rises to intoxicating heights of cattiness. He is flippant about the touchiest of subjects, dubbing the AIDS crisis “the AIDSy eighties.” In the preface, he calls Philip Roth an “odious homophobe.” He never gives in to free praise, even of the writers he obviously admires. He is irreverent, refreshing, but most of all, totally unwilling to concede to the politics of sexual preference as identity—the thing the gay movement had been striving to do ever since the word gay entered the lexicon in its current meaning and strove so dutifully to stuff everyone everywhere beneath its vast umbrella. “Despite John Boswell’s attempts to give legitimacy to the word ‘gay’, it is still a ridiculous word to use as a common identification for Frederick the Great, Franklin Pangborn, and Eleanor Roosevelt,” He says in 1981’s “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star.” He intensely disliked this word gay, at least, in its use as a noun, opting instead for a definition of homosexuality that is purely circumstantial (“‘An erection has no conscience’ as they used to say in the army” ) and based on isolated acts. In these later essays he’ll employ the self-deprecating use of certain words: the arcane homosexualist alongside smatterings of fag and faggot. This is the language of bullying, exalted and reclaimed, in a way that I don’t think anyone’s even tried to do since. At least, not in the world of letters.
And the beauty of it is that there really is no softer side. The essays are all notes on a similar theme, distilled in a kind of venom that, unlike much criticism, doesn’t actually lose anything by transparently stemming from anger. In the entire collection, the only time anything can be said to really penetrate Vidal’s humanity is a profile written by Larry Kramer, himself a militant activist, for QW Magazine in 1992. Kramer does not mince words.
“But Gore, you are gay.” He says at one point, “You’ve lived with a man for forty years or something.”
Vidal responds by saying he doesn’t believe in those kinds of categories. “It’s like saying ‘I’m a carnivore.’ Well, yes, I am a carnivore, but I’m very fond of the movie Airplane.”
What this actually means is anyone’s guess. Kramer, however, seems to know. They go on to discuss the dietary associations of Airplane (Vidal considers it “more vegetarian”) and whether or not Vidal’s anger excludes him from being a romantic (according to Kramer, it doesn’t.) What’s important—what’s interesting—is the ability to speak in code, to assume that everyone has read certain things or understands certain references, to act as if one sets a certain standard which others must inevitably follow. A kind of snobbery, a definite elitism. A sort of bullying. Or at least the kind of behavior that, in more politically unsavory times, gets associated with bullying.
Vidal’s brand is deft and cutting. His “Sex as Politics,” which he wrote for Playboy in 1979, amounts to a list of the obvious fallacies at work in our culture, and, unsurprisingly, leans liberal. He breaks down the political coding of “protect the family” campaigns, points out that pornography is free speech, and gives the Bible, and its interpreters, a proper reaming, pointing out the selectivity its followers exercise in obeying it. He also, true to form, describes getting distracted on a televised debate not so much by his conservative opponent’s simplistic jargon, but by the hideousness of his toupee:
I knew that I could never explain myself in the seven in-depth minutes of air time. I was also distracted by that toupee. Mentally, I rearranged it. Pushed it father back on his head. Didn’t like the result. Tried it lower down. All the while, we spoke of Important Matters.
The facts were the facts, and Vidal knew they were on his side. This is presumably the reason for his uncomplicated acceptance of his homosexuality from the first, even to the point of writing about it openly in 1948’s risky The City and the Pillar. What this confidence afforded him, then, was the ability to draw blood. This was Vidal’s superpower, as I saw it. The very thing that made me pass him over in the first place—the assumption that gay and conservative or interesting and conservative or even liberal and conservative—as Vidal sort of was, after all—could not exist in the same person.
So why isn’t he thought of as a queer icon? Was Vidal’s work abrasive to people who did use the word gay to describe themselves? To the gay community at large—the community that, to him, was no smaller than the community of the entire human race—did he help, or hinder? For all his contempt for the word, he fought to the death, in his essays, for the things it stood for. But gay icon, somehow, doesn’t fit the bill for Vidal—not the way it does for his notable contemporaries: Truman Capote, whom Vidal termed a “filthy animal,” Tennessee Williams, with his self-loathing plays. Even the closeted work of Thornton Wilder somehow escapes judgment. Whereas Vidal, the gay conservative, the liberal conservative, is a serious contradiction in terms. He is both a brilliant novelist and a brilliant essayist (a rarer thing than one might expect). A serious writer and a hack writer (his Edgar Box novels). A bully and a champion.
I remember the period right after C. A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln had just come out, its claims of Lincoln’s bisexuality seeming to shock and amaze much more than such details about a long-dead historical figure really should have. Years later, having read Vidal, I began to think about it more closely, as if pressed to find a connection between the two. I thought about what Vidal’s own development must have been like, and the people he must have at some point counted as heroes—those textbook figures of American history, when they still had credence—and why he had devoted large chunks of his life to writing books about them. What had been the process of his own, completely guiltless development, seemingly free of the detrimental affects of religious teachings and legal oppression. There’s something in a love of democracy, of America in its idealized, mostly fictionalized state, that’s a bit naive—and something of that naïveté is queer also. In the idea that the word gay could encompass such a broad, otherwise unrelated group of people and give them something more than sex in common. The desire, in this same action, to label people from the past as gay in order to create gay superheroes from the heroes that have already existed. I wondered if his obsession with America, with its history, was even subconsciously, a part of this same process for him.
Obviously trying to get into the mindset of a writer is a thankless and inconclusive task. Yet it’s something I do all the time, against reason, in order to find out just what version of “normal” exists for someone whose writing I admire—if it’s a reality further away, or closer toward, my own. In the case of Vidal, I like to think that the anger Larry Kramer noticed in him, the anger that comes bubbling up in the most subtle ways in his writing, is real and not projected. After all, bullying, like sex, is politics. Asking why we bully is the same as asking why we fight. And the answer, I think, is the same for both.