Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 7, No. 6, 2008
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
Sylvain Richard
Robert Rotondo
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somverville
David Solway
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


interviewed by


Does age bring wisdom?" a questioner asked Gore Vidal? There was a short pause. "No, it brings senility."


John Esther is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles. For his blog, go to

When reviewing a recent book for The New York Review of Books, writer Larry McMurtry opened by indulging in the old thought experiment of deciding what one author’s works he would take with him to the proverbial desert island. His choice was none other than Gore Vidal whose 46 books run the gamut from historical novels to satirical plays and screenplays, literary essays, and political memoirs, whose prose style should be the envy of the dwindling few whom style matters.

The book under review by Larry McMurtry (who co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain) was Vidal’s latest, Point to Point Navigation, a memoir that finds the author coming to grips with the loss of his companion of over fifty years, Howard Auster, who died in 2003. As always, Vidal’s personal drama unfolds against the backdrop of a larger political and historical tableau, in this case the spectacle of George W. Bush’s America as it sinks deeper into war, debt, and autocratic rule. The book’s title refers to Vidal’s flight service during World War II -- a method of visual navigation in which one flies from one landmark to the next; it is employed as a metaphor for his life’s course to date. A follow-up to his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest, the new book returns to Vidal’s early years but focuses mostly on the second half of his life.

Now residing in the Hollywood Hills, the octogenarian uses a cane to get around a large house filled with books, art, and a very large cat, who sat with us during the interview.

JOHN ESTHER: In light of your latest book’s concerns regarding memory, life, love, and death, it is considerably shorter than Palimpsest, although they cover the same amount of time.

GORE VIDAL: Books are as long as they are meant to be. When the subject’s done, the subject’s done. Also, my objection to most American writing is that it’s endlessly garrulous and pointless. So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be precise and to the point on what I wanted to cover?”

JOHN ESTHER: You kept your observations about Howard Auster’s life and death to a discreet minimum.

GORE VIDAL: What would be the maximum?

JOHN ESTHER: What was it about Howard that made your relationship last all of those years?

GORE VIDAL: No sex. But nobody believes that. This is America where everybody must have a full sex life all day long. Fifty percent of heterosexual marriages end in divorce. Where does that come from? Exclusivity. “You’re mine, you’re mine. You swore, Agnes, when I married you, that you’d be true to me.” Come off of it. This is a bunch of BS.

JOHN ESTHER: You mentioned in the book that you and Howard had completely separate sexual lives. Could there be a balance between exclusivity and playing the field?

GORE VIDAL: I suppose that somebody 16 or 17 might conceive that, yeah. Reality does not support it.

JOHN ESTHER: You’ve often contended that “homosexuality” is not a noun but instead a verb, an act -- so one can only be a homosexualist or same-sexualist.

GORE VIDAL: Only a country like this one could have thought up [the idea] that sexual tastes, whatever they may be, dictate identity. Only a bunch of morons would have come to that conclusion.

JOHN ESTHER: Yet, despite Kinsey’s findings, we continue with that mindset.

© Eamonn McCabeGORE VIDAL: Kinsey was not only not right about everything, he was just as puzzled as I am. He and I thought very much alike on many lines. He had come to the conclusion that sex is a continuum. It changes throughout life or doesn’t change throughout life. It’s really no big deal. So he approached it, quite correctly, as an expert on fruit flies [actually gall wasps].

JOHN ESTHER: In what way can we apply this same principle to other behaviors such as religious beliefs, race, and gender?

GORE VIDAL: I always find that to use religion or race or sex as identification is folly. After all, once you isolate yourself in a category, Adolf Hitler will come along and say, “I don’t like this category. They’re not voting right so we better get rid of them.”

JOHN ESTHER: I was just about to segué to politics. Most people from your background tend to accept, if not embrace, U.S. dominance in the world, yet you’ve always been critical of “the Empire.” Why did you turn out different from your peers?

GORE VIDAL: I read more books and lived a much fuller life than these people. I was brought up in the engine room of the Republic: the U.S. Senate. I know how we’re governed. I know what the weaknesses are, and I know the things we do very, very badly. One is empire building, nation building, whatever you want to call it. No, we are not suited for any great tasks as a nation. Once we have a civilization -- a civilization begins by knowing the difference between an adjective and a noun -- then reality starts to intrude. But as long as you go along, “Oh he’s a nice man; I trust him with everything” -- this is for the barbarians. Not that we have progressed very far from that state; and we’ve done some regression of late.

JOHN ESTHER: Is there anything positive you can say about the Bush administration?

GORE VIDAL: Yes, it’s all over.

JOHN ESTHER: Do you think it is the worst administration in U.S. history?

GORE VIDAL: There’s no competition. There are failed administrations. There are wrongheaded© Reuters ones. There’s never been one that was disastrous to two other countries who had done us no harm and could do us no harm. There’s no example of that. And a few weeks ago, we lost habeas corpus; after 800 years, we lost the Magna Carta. We’ve got an Attorney General who I don’t think has read the Constitution. Or, if he has, he just blanks it out. To come forward with all sorts of rationalizations for getting rid of due process of law, without which there is no republic -- forget democracy, we never had it and will never have it. We’re not suited for it. But we did have a very well functioning republic, which saw us through a couple of major wars, victoriously. Now we have nothing.

JOHN ESTHER: In the book you mentioned the stolen U.S. elections of 2000 and 2004. Why did Gore and Kerry allow the Bush administration to steal both elections? After all, these are powerful, well-connected men, too.

GORE VIDAL: Powerful is not the word. Well-connected is the word -- at least they knew how to raise the money. That’s well-connected in a corrupt republic. So we’re looking more and more like Paraguay. You must ask them why; I’ll never know.

JOHN ESTHER: Your book deals with death quite a bit. Do you feel that the America you leave will be worse off than the one you entered in 1925?

GORE VIDAL: Prevailing evidence convinces me that it will be much worse. And there’s not one sociologist who will not report that upward mobility, which was always our great thing, stopped some time ago. If your father is a garage mechanic, you’re not going to make much more money than he did no matter what you do. So that is gone. We are a stagnant nation.

JOHN ESTHER: Are there any current politicians you would like to see advance?

GORE VIDAL: Not as much as I would like to see them retreat. The system is totally rotten. How are you going to get good buds on the tree? You’re not going to. You’re going to get the dregs of Eden.

JOHN ESTHER: What should we do about the inherent corruption in our system?

GORE VIDAL: There’s nothing to be done. It’s like asking somebody in Paraguay, “Why do you keep putting generals in office?” “Well, we put them in because they take the office.” “When are you going to stop the corruption?” “Well, when we stop having generals.” It’s circular. Our politics became totally corrupt with the invention of television and the cost of TV advertising. And the only great art form we ever created was the TV commercial. So everything’s merchandising. Anything that comes out of the Neoconservatives is going to be more lies and more hyperventilating and more and more grotesque details, because that’s all they do is lie. I think that’s what the Bushites learned -- how to lie on a grand scale.

JOHN ESTHER: Looking back, what is your greatest achievement?

GORE VIDAL: Anybody who starts to think along those lines is out of the running. I’m still running. Limping.

JOHN ESTHER: What do you think about interviews in which you discuss your work -- do you think it serves the work or should the work speak for itself?

GORE VIDAL: If you notice, I do that almost never. What have we been talking about? Politics. State of the Union. We haven’t mentioned a novel of mine. Somebody said, “Why, you could read all of Palimpsest -- your first forty years -- and no one would know you ever wrote a successful novel.” That’s not for me to write about. It’s rather a plus not to do that, but everyone else is braying like donkeys: “Look at me, look at me.” This is not a congenial culture, you must admit -- to the extent it is a culture.

JOHN ESTHER: Do you write for an audience that would discuss your works?

GORE VIDAL: If you think about the audience you’re writing for, you’ve had it.

JOHN ESTHER: Do you write for yourself?

GORE VIDAL: There’s nobody else around.

JOHN ESTHER: Yes, but you know others will read your novels.

GORE VIDAL: Well, I know they’ll get most of them wrong, but that’s the educational system. The people who write book reviews, write about the arts -- the people who write about these things are nobodies. Often they’re honest enough to know that they are nobodies and they have no right to these opinions. Yes, everybody’s got the same feelings, I know that. And all feelings are equal. [But] when it comes to high culture, everybody’s not equal. Some people know more than other people. If I’m going to be instructed on brain surgery, I’m not going read Stephen King. It’s the first rule of criticism. No one but your mother cares about your opinion. Start with that. You’re a blank slate. Forget the author. He’s at least written on his slate. And you’re going to write about his writing on his slate. And you’re going to pass [judgment]: “Oh, I just hated his work. My god he’s an awful man. I can just tell.” Well, this kind of bogus moralizing goes on. We haven’t had a decent literary critic in my lifetime. We’ve had good critics who bury themselves in the academy and are never seen again, particularly by their students. We occasionally have great explainers like Edmund Wilson, who stopped reviewing novels around 1945. Just when my generation really needed a critic, he’s doing the Iroquois Indians -- which is probably far more useful. So we are adrift. Even the worst newspaper in England has better book reviewers than The New York Times. So don’t pass judgment. Now, what do you do if you have to review a book? The most difficult thing on earth, and most people don’t know how difficult it is, because most people can’t do it: describe what it was that you read. If you do that properly you don’t have to throw adjectives around and make cute noises. Just describe it. The words that you use for the description will lead the criticism. Now if you can plow that into some heads, you will have done great work.

JOHN ESTHER: What current novelists do you admire?

GORE VIDAL: Everybody thinks old novelists go rushing out to get the latest product, to see what the latest models are. I just don’t read them. I’ve never read contemporary fiction unless I realized it was of a very high order, which was not often. But how could you tell? Look at book reviewing. It’s an absurdity. A good review means nothing. A bad reviewer is somebody who feels he’s been cheated and is due by this hustler who’s got ahead of him in line.

JOHN ESTHER: Have there ever been criticisms that hurt your feelings professionally?

GORE VIDAL: No. What I hate is being misquoted.

JOHN ESTHER: Robert Altman recently died at the age of 81. As someone of his age and an ardent filmgoer, what do you think of him and his films?

GORE VIDAL: I had dinner with him two nights before [his death] in New York. I trust it was not cause and effect. He was wonderful. His films are great. I’ve never seen a bad one. I’ve seen ones that were not as good as others.

JOHN ESTHER: You write about power and privilege from what many would perceive as a powerful and privileged viewpoint or position in life.

GORE VIDAL: Well, you write what you know. As Iago says to Othello, who asks why, “You know what you know.” One of the great mysteries of Shakespeare, that line. = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
CINEMANIA(Montreal) - festival de films francophone 1-11 novembre, Cinema Imperial info@514-878-0082: featuring Bernard Tavernier
Couleur JAZZ 91.9
Montreal World Film Festival
2007 Millennium Summit, Montreal, Nov. 8-9, info =  1.866.515.5009
E-Tango: Web Design and lowest rates for web hosting
Armand Vaillancourt: sculptor
Care + Net Computer Services
Available Ad Space
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis