Gore Vidal, a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism (a Council for Secular Humanism program), recently died at the age of eighty-six. Academy secretary Stephen Law said: “Gore Vidal has been an inspirational figure to a great many people, myself included. Of course, he will be remembered for being urbane, fiendishly talented, and terrifyingly witty. But more than this, he was principled, honest, and courageous.” —The Editors
The most remarkable thing about Gore Vidal, in my estimation, was that he was a hugely popular writer who made not the slightest concession to his audience. He never let you forget that he was a member of both the social and the intellectual aristocracy. To say that he did not suffer fools gladly would be a grotesque understatement. But he was one of the few exceptions to the otherwise hard-and-fast rule that everything that appears on the best-seller list is crap.
His notoriety was, in some ways, adventitious. He had become a media celebrity in the 1960s: long before his celebrated tussles with William F. Buckley at the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1968, he had become known to audiences by appearing on What’s My Line?, The Steve Allen Show, and other venues. And it’s likely that Myra Breckinridge (1968), although a very funny and witty book, became a best seller chiefly because it promised a certain pleasurable prurience.
To my knowledge, Vidal wrote only a single essay that directly addressed the issues of religion and atheism: “Monotheism and Its Discontents” (Nation, July 13, 1992). The thrust of the essay is simple: “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism.” But decades before this essay, Vidal had reached an immensely wider audience by embodying his antireligious views in a succession of compelling novels. It is here that his true greatness as a writer shines forth.
The incredibly prescient Messiah (1954) broaches the idea that, with some clever help from Madison Avenue advertising, a religion can sweep the world. The basic thrust of this religion—embodied in the inscrutable figure of one John Cave, whose initials were not chosen by accident—is simple and devastating: “It is good to die.” This message, too, is no accident, for Vidal rightly saw the Christian religion itself as what Nietzsche labelled a “death-seeking religion.” As Cave states at one point, “It never occurred to me that people who like to think of themselves as Christians couldn’t accept both me and Christ at the same time.” Messiah is now regarded as a classic of intellectual science fiction, but the accuracy of its predictions is demonstrated daily by the ever-growing flock of televangelists and megachurches.
Julian (1964) is one of several of Vidal’s novels that fuses a critique of religion with the historical novel, a literary genre that Vidal made his own. This sympathetic portrait of the c. fourth-century Roman emperor who attempted to stop the spread of Christianity adheres closely to the factual record but at the same time vivifies all the protagonists in the drama, including the ambiguous figure of Julian himself, who becomes a religious fanatic in his own right in his attempt to reinstitute the worship of the Greco-Roman pantheon. The fundamental message of the novel is stated succinctly by one of his underlings: “Julian must be obliterated or at least made monster before the Christian Empire can properly be born.”
Vidal’s most outrageous religious satire is Live from Golgotha (1992), which reprises the central theme of Messiah—the power of the media to control human thought. It is futile to describe the plot of this extravaganza—part religious satire, part science fiction, part political commentary, and all good fun unless you happen to be a monotheist. The wickedly blasphemous humor of the novel inspired its predictable recoil of outrage on the part of the pious, most notably from Pat Robertson, who claimed (much to the author’s delight) that Vidal was the Antichrist.
It is perhaps because Vidal excelled in a bewildering diversity of literary and media venues — from the historical novel to the play (The Best Man) to the essay to the screenplay (Suddenly, Last Summer)— that the full scope of his achievement is difficult to grasp. Underlying all his work, however, was a satirical vision that unflinchingly exhibited the moral, political, and intellectual weaknesses of his compatriots. Satirists are rarely popular—precisely because of the uncomfortable truths they expose—but Gore Vidal will be remembered if only because he wrapped those truths with a veneer of flamboyant humor.