Thursday, August 02, 2012

Gore Blimey!

Gore Vidal (1926 - 2012) Image from Wikipedia

I don't recall ever reading a Gore Vidal novel. I remember the film of Myra Breckenridge though - very odd indeed. I am, however, a fan of his short essays. There are plenty available on line. Vanity Fair has an open archive with six or seven pieces and the New Yorker has made a couple available to non-subscribers. 

And then there are the film scripts - it was news to me that by his hand (not literally, you understand), the homo-erotic tension between Ben-Hur and his childhood BF turned ME (mortal enemy) Messala was created. It was, apparently, also news to the homophobe who played Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston. He wasn't aware that oiling up, donning scraps of leather and gazing smoulderingly at another similarly attired male carried a 'subtext'. Vidal is not credited on this film and Heston reacted violently to his claims that he had persuaded director William Wyler that the relationship between the two men had to be a love affair gone wrong to make any sense. It is rather funny in retrospect as you can't have an historic story with two man pals these days without the assumption that they'd had it off at some point.

I don't think I'm alone in speculating that Gore Vidal will be best remembered for being a post-war American cultural icon. Every time one of these stately raconteurs passes on to the great cocktail hour in the sky, it's a reminder that there is no equivalent class to replace them. It's also a reminder of how important these white, alpha-male wits have been to American arts and letters. It is a line only the towering Dorothy Parker was able to successfully cross.

One's beloved Guardian has today published a list of some of Vidal's memorable bon mots. These include the much rehashed, 'every time a friend succeeds, I die a little', and a favourite of my pal Anne O'Dyne, 'no good deed ever goes unpunished'.

Missing from the list is my personal favourite, 'write something, even if it's just a suicide note'. 

I well understand why even the free-thinking Guardian might not want include it. Suicide, like cancer and motoring fatalities, we now think of as whole-of-society failures resulting in needless deaths. Imagined in context, Vidal's lighthearted quip can only have been a plea to humans to express themselves - whether in pleasure or pain. It now translates as a taunt to the vulnerable.*

Readers should note that the Question Why has just entered the conversation  - and provided me with a much needed liquid top-up. TQW posits that there may have been times before antibiotics, superannuation and cosmetic surgery when humans, even in the arrogant and bloated 'first' world, might have had the humility to perceive themselves as, er, mortal? I send him off for peanuts while I try to think.

I've always believed that suicide is a valid answer to the question of life. People whose work I most admire chose it - Virginia Woolf, John Kennedy Toole, Mark Rothko, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Diane Arbus. Who can say why?

To help us try to understand, some conveniently thoughtful person has compiled a list of famous people's suicide notes.

They range from the utter despair of Virginia Woolf's, 

'I feel certain that I'm going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices.'

to the world-weary George Sanders's,

'Dear World, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool - good luck.'

to the pragmatic and frankly uplifting farewell of Kodak founder George Eastman,

'To my friends: My work is done. Why wait.'

He was 76, in chronic pain and departed leaving neither heirs nor debts. Who could think that this had been anything but a good decision on his part?  

I'm going to write more about this in the future because it interests me. I'm wondering why what we used to instinctively know about life and death has been annexed by the medical profession and/or political interests.

Over on Art of Pants I've quoted John Updike. So, let's square the circle with this quip from him,

'We do survive every minute, after all, except the last one.'

* Please note that Gore Vidal did NOT die by his own hand.