Monday, August 22, 2011

In Praise of Gore Vidal

I have to mention She Who Should Not Be Named, Michelle Bachmann, because she has denounced one of my favorite writers: Gore Vidal.  “She” blames some of her switch from Democrat to Repubican on Mr. Vidal, specifically his book on the Founding Fathers, Burr.

I read it when it was published in 1973. “She” says it was “snooty.”  So now I am half way through it again.  Actually, I would now call it “snarky.”  Vidal was a realist about famous people in the past and this made him a bit cynical.  He did TEN years of research on Burr, and learned a lot that does not support a view of the holiness of those great men.  He does reveal a lot about how politics works and worked itself out in the late 18th and early 19the centuries.

E.g., many of the early patriots thought that John Hancock would have made the best commanding general of the Continental Army.  But John Adams, wanting to get the support of Virginians, decided to support Washington for the job.  Burr and others repeatedly remind us of the failures of Washington as a general and his oddness as a person.  Burr was outraged by Jefferson’s hypocrisies and wrote great detail about them.  Burr is outraged again when Hamilton supports the Virginians in creating a capital city in Virginia, in order to get Congress to pay the states’ debts after the revolution is won.

What is revealing in this [and another book I am reading and shall review] is the similarity to political debates and differences to today, and the origin of today’s issues in the distant past.  The debate between Hamilton who wanted a strong federal government and a national bank, and Jefferson, who envisioned a nation of small farmers and tradesmen, is at the heart of the debt crisis and the Tea Party fantasies of today.

I should note that Vidal likes to use as a narrator fictional secretaries who can move about, hear, and report on the various words of different people.  He does this also in Lincoln and Creation.  Lincoln (1984) continues his search for truth in American history.  It focuses not on the Civil War, but the political battles in Washington and Lincoln’s personal life.

Even more impressive research resulted in Creation.  This is truly a marvelous romp through the axial age, that time in the ancient world when a Persian diplomat could have known Zoroaster, Socrates, the Buddha, Mahavira, Confucius, and Lao-Tze!!!!!!  Characters all living at the same time include Xerxes, Darius I, Pericles, Araxerxes I, Democritus, and Herodotus!!!!!! [Each deserves an exclamation mark.]   Creation is a short course in philosophy and religion.  Read the updated and unedited edition of 2002.

I was very interested in reading Julian (1964), which I discovered two years ago.  Alas, I have had difficulty finishing it.  It is promising because Julian was the last Pagan Roman Emperor (360-363 c.e.) AFTER Contstantine.  His love of Dionysian rituals and dismissal of the “Galileans” answers some of my questions – When did people give up on the Greek gods, why and how?  When does a religion “die?”  How did Christianity “win?”  What is the underlying connection between religion and political power?  I guess I have to finish it.

“She” has a lot to learn.  And so do I.  I want to read Vidal’s Empire (our entry into the 20th century), The Golden Age (the 1950's), and Live from Golgotha....

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