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Gore Vidal has led more lives than an alley cat, all the while somehow churning out vast quantities of words. Over the past half-century, he's worn the mantle of novelist, literary critic, screenwriter, playwright, politician, socialite aristocrat and leftist cultural critic, while simultaneously living an openly if discreetly gay life in Italy. Meanwhile, he has managed to maintain the profile of a highbrow intellectual within the very establishment he regularly denounces for its hypocritical moralism and ignorance. America, he's fond of saying, is "not yet a civilization."
How has he done it? Money and talent, of course, have both helped. Born into a patrician Washington, D.C., family, the grandson of a senator, Vidal never needed to hitch himself to a job or a university. He was still a precocious 22 years old when his second novel, The City and the Pillar, became a bestseller. Within a decade, he had established himself not only as a novelist but also as a screenwriter for Hollywood and television.
But more decisive in the development of his ideas than either his background or his success was his taste for classical Greek and Roman culture. Its ruins lie scattered everywhere in his prose -- and it's not hard to see why. Classical culture offered him a perch from which to survey the laws and morals of his native land with an expatriate philosopher's cool eye, a lofty height that matched his lofty social background. Besides, it lent his writing an intellectual heft, and as a popular novelist and essayist he could use it for his own ends without having to sweat the academic details.
From the late '50s on, Vidal pitted the intellectual virtues of classical culture against the ignorance and repressive conservatism bred, in his view, by 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian morality. A favorite target of his social criticism was American attitudes toward sex, especially its heterosexism. His efforts on the subject have now been gathered in Sexually Speaking, a collection of literary and cultural essays first published in the New York Review of Books and other journals and magazines starting in the '60s, as well as of more recent interviews Vidal has given to gay publications.
Some of the essays -- on Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt and Christopher Isherwood, all people he knew and admired -- are Vidal touchstones. He is at his best in these, interweaving steely denunciations of America's conservatism with lyrical celebrations of the people he knew. The collection also includes several less personal, more directly political essays on such topics as sex and the law, pornography, feminism and gay liberation. These pieces combine hard-nosed social analysis (documenting the absurdity, for example, of anti-sodomy laws) with Vidal's hilariously unsentimental characterizations (the nuclear family: "man plus woman equals baby"; Sigmund Freud: "the Viennese novelist and classics buff"; men: "shootists"). Vidal's pugnacity is always refreshing.
A key weapon in his attack on American sexual mores is his oft-repeated insistence that sexual preference isn't an essential characteristic -- that, as he puts it, "there are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts." For many lesbians and gay men who have depended on group identity in the fight for legal rights over the past three decades, that's a controversial statement; still, Vidal's refusal to recognize the polarity of homo- and heterosexual offers a healthy corrective to the contemporary academic obsession with identity politics. In the face of criticism, Vidal has stuck to his guns, insisting that sex is a biological fact without moral consequences. Foisting morality onto it is, in his view, always a form of social control. For Vidal, "sex is politics" -- all ideas about sex are political maneuvers.
But despite Vidal's intelligence and exuberance, after several decades, the Olympian distance he has cultivated has begun to work against him. I'm now willing to listen to the objection a friend of mine voiced: "Anyone who produces that much copy can't be thinking too hard." In fact, the later essays, for all their fire, wit and writerly ease, hit the same anti-Judeo-Christian note over and over. What was once a provocative insight has turned into little more than a refrain.
Vidal has become too comfortable in his ideas (though his high-minded scorn is preferable to the mealy-mouthed conservatism that often afflicts aging liberals). His reliance on the easy opposition between classical and Judeo-Christian societies seems to have blinded him to the complexities of his subject. Some subtleties -- and there are subtleties even in a worldview as awful as Judeo-Christian morality -- can't be seen from the lofty heights of Olympus.