Vidal's Spidery Glee

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Schama

The provocateur brilliantly skewered our self-deceptions.

"Entering, as I am, the springtime of my senility": these were the first words out of Gore Vidal's mouth, uttered in his dark mahogany patrician drawl, when he began the wickedly smart William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard in 1991. Once published, they became one of his sharpest, shortest, and most outrageously enjoyable books, Screening History, a cameo-autobiography filtered through his encounters with the movies. Vidal never really turned autumnal, much less senile. Mellow fruits and ripeness were definitely not his thing, though toward the end, faced with what he considered the unshakably fatuous self-deceptions of a moribund American empire, his irony did develop a frosty rime at its bitter edge.

But a venomous glory it was, nonetheless, from its start to its July 31 finish at the age of 86. Perhaps it takes the passing of an ironist of Vidal's spidery glee to make us realize what a rarity that quality is in an American culture that prizes innocence above worldliness, sentimentality over sarcasm, booming testosterone over gadfly wit--and treats any invitation to national self-mockery as Treason Lite.

America, in Vidal's view, could from time to time, if properly encouraged, face dark truths about itself, and he positioned himself in a genealogy of attack-humorists that included Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. Their mission and his, he thought, was ultimately moral, not cynical: nothing less than the saving of American democracy from the toxic waste of its own humbug. With Twain, who became something of a pariah for his ferocious public flaying of American military adventurism and water-boarding cruelties in the Philippines, Vidal felt a special kinship, and the imagined affinity was not entirely delusional.

Infuriatingly wrongheaded though he could be, and malicious, even occasionally sinister in his prejudices, his passing unquestionably leaves a huge void. For where are the satirical polemicists now when we need them? Precious though the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are, their jabs and stings are confined for the most part to the merry ghetto of late-night Comedy Central. …