Live from Golgotha: Gore Vidal and the Problem of Satiric Reinscription

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Queer theorizing about the constructed nature of sexuality and poststructuralist theorizing about the discursive nature of history emphasize the manner in which satire reinscribes as it destabilizes. This essay explores these themes focussing specifically on Gore Vidal's critique in Live from Golgotha of Christianity's claims to absolute truth and its attitudes toward sexuality.

All attempts to critique may in fact reinstate or even strengthen their target, especially in the case of attacks on entrenched values or assumptions. This applies not only to traditional satire but also perhaps even to such contemporary modes as queer camp. According to Moe Meyer camp employs the "strategies and tactics of queer parody," and functions to foreground "queer social visibility" (5). As he sees it, the nature of queer itself is "poststructural," having to do with practices rather than with an essential identity, in keeping with Michel Foucault's view of sexuality as something produced discursively rather than being a natural condition (2-3). In Myer's view queer camp is also anti-essentialist (3) and differentiated from "rhetorical and performative strategies such as [[ldots]] satire" (7). The purpose of queer, then, is to destabilize heteronormativity--what Chrys Ingraham calls the heterosexual imaginary or hegemonic heterosexuality (168)--and in doing so also to challenge what Steven Seidman de scribes as "the assumption of a unified homosexual identity" (11). Because cultural meanings are controlled by the dominant ideology, however, queer can enter public dialogue only as parody, and thus as Judith Butler argues, drag and other queer forms are not unproblematically subversive; they may expose heterosexuality as performative and naturalized, but the parodying may "reidealize" without undermining (231). Nonetheless, discursive approaches may be less fragile than traditional ones.

Few contemporary writers better enable one to explore the problems of camp satire than American novelist Gore Vidal. Born in 1925 into one of America's prominent political families, Vidal has maintained a love/hate relationship with the establishment throughout his life. Vidal's stylistic and thematic preoccupations hint at the extent to which his politics are the result of his contentious homosexuality. His criticism of mainstream views makes open use of values traditionally associated with the homosexual lifestyle: elegance, narcissism, sex as power, and wit and ridicule used as verbal weapons. Vidal's The City and the Pillar was perhaps the first major American novel to depict homosexual activity as acceptable. His most camp and controversial work is the 1968 novel, Myra Breckinridge, which along with its sequel, Myron, reduces all life to the phallic. Vidal's satire in Duluth also utilizes these themes, while Messiah critiques Christianity and particularly Saint Paul. Vidal's historical recreations, such as the novel Julian and the trilogy on American public life-- Washington, DC, Burr, and 1876--frequently employ ribald sexual anecdotes. This fictional convergence of sex and politics is duplicated in a number of Vidal's essays, especially "Notes on Pornography" and "Sexuality." While Vidal sees hetero and homosexual as terms that apply to acts rather than to categories of people, these essays reveal his sexual essentialism in that he argues that everyone is naturally bisexual.

Live from Golgotha is particularly apposite for our purposes because in it Vidal continues his critique of Christian doctrine and its ethics of sexual preference. We argue here that although Vidal combines a number of strategies to launch a clever and complex attack on Christian morality, and his work is often called "camp," nonetheless his essentialist orientations exacerbate the degree to which satire always reinscribes as well as destabilizes its targets. They do this, first, by eschewing a constructivist approach to depicting 1st-century Palestine in favor of an unmasking approach revealing the "real" conflict and violence under the facade of religious harmony and virtue, and, second, by adopting a pop camp form that differs from Myer's queer camp and undermines the openness of what Eve Sedgwick calls the "speculative naivete" of queer readings (23). …