I knew something like this was coming, and I thought I was prepared to control my outrage. A friend alerted me to a one-page squib in the latest Vanity Fair (I intended to wholesale ignore the issue, since it was boring enough to feature a philandering famous athlete the cover) in which Christopher Hitchens – him again! – takes a public potshot at Gore Vidal. I acquired the page in question (a single page! I’m starting to wonder if the brevication bug I spotted over at the Atlantic isn’t as widespread as termites throughout the printed world), and boy, it sure packs a lot of sly vilification and sloppy vituperation into only a few paragraphs.
The tiff – such as it is – arises from the fact that over a decade ago, Vidal apparently began referring to Hitchens as his heir apparent in the realm of literary gadfly-hacks, then 9/11 happened and the Iraq war began, and not only did two writers find themselves on different sides of the issue (Hitchens famously supporting the war, Vidal applying the same ‘Washington must have known’ gambit to 9/11 as he’s done for years to Pearl Harbor), but Vidal began publicly scoffing at the very idea that he ever nominated Hitchens as his successor.
The little squib in Vanity Fair is a decidedly odd production. Hitchens starts off with some tepid praise of the Vidal That Was (I honestly think Hitchens has grown so enamored of his linguistic virtuosity that he thinks he’s the only person who can see when his praise is tepid … like he’s having a good little laugh behind his hand as he fools us all into thinking this is the face of his enthusiasm – it seems impossible, but if it’s true, somebody really needs to remind this guy that you can’t have private little jokes if you’ve published every thought you’ve ever had for the last twenty years) – he’s our Wilde! – then immediately starts in with the pussy-footed knocks:
I was fortunate enough to know Gore a bit in those days. The price of knowing him was exposure to some of his less adorable traits, which included his pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong.
This is only the first whiff of the scurrilous cowardice that animates this little jingle (“very, very minor tendency,” in truth? But not so minor you don’t bring it up, right?)(and if any of you imagine for a second that Hitchens himself has ever forgotten even the smallest slight, real or imagined, I’ve got a lovely bridge in Brooklyn to sell you). Things get worse when Hitchens starts talking about a lengthy interview Vidal recently granted to the London Independent, in which Vidal goes into Full Crank mode, gnawing on about the downfall of America, the dominance of China, and whatever other favorite sawhorses he felt like talking about with the interviewer. Hitchens affects to deplore such rhetoric – “What business does this patrician have in gutter markets, where paranoids jabber and the coinage is debased by every sort of vulgarity?” he plaintively asks, a rather ironic inquiry coming from the in-house apologist for The Nation.
It’s only toward the end of the piece (that is, immediately after its beginning) that Hitchens veers close to what is probably his true motivation. He’s talking about Vidal issuing that repudiation of the very idea that he would call Hitchens his successor:
Many years ago he wrote to me unprompted – I have the correspondence – and freely offered to nominate me as his living successor, dauphin, or, as the Italians put it, delfino. He very kindly inscribed a number of his own books to me in this way, and I asked him for permission to use his original letter on the jacket of one of mine. I stopped making use of the endorsement after 9/11, as he well knows. I have no wish to commit literary patricide, or to assassinate Vidal’s character – a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide.
How about if we call it assisted suicide? Does that make base betrayal a bit easier to swallow?
The sordidness of this business is very efficiently encapsulated in that horrifying line “I have the correspondence” (the equally loud and only barely unspoken second part, “…and I’m happy to publish it” certainly goes a long way toward explaining Vidal’s towering, disillusioned bitterness with the world in general). Hitchens trots out as much of the Independent interview (I'm not sure they’ll appreciate the gesture, gutter market that they apparently are) as he thinks will serve his purpose of charting a mental decline, including this knee-jerk summary Vidal gives of some of his famous writing coevals:
Updike was nothing. Buckley was nothing with a flair for publicity. Mailer was a flawed publicist too, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain.
Hitchens laments: “One sadly notices, as with the foregoing barking and effusions, the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity. Sarcastic, tired flippancy has stolen the place of the first, and lugubrious resentment has deposed the second.” But long-time readers of Vidal will instantly point out that he’s never shown all that much grace or generosity to those of his contemporaries he considers fools (indeed, several of the top-form enshrined quotes Hitchens alludes to are savage – and savagely funny – toward other writers). And there’s also the fact – apparently weightless to Hitchens but perhaps not to everybody – that those three literary assessments, in addition to being flippant, are entirely accurate.
But Hitchens criticisms miss two bigger points by a mile, and a reader looking to understand this little squib will be hard-pressed to understand how this could be. First, sarcastic flippancy hasn’t replaced wit or profundity on the subject of, say, Vidal’s literary peers – we in fact have the wit and profundity, on all three of those writers and hundreds more, fully preserved in Vidal’s essays. What’s the man supposed to do at age 85? Endless parrot his best lines, or endlessly coin new ones? He’s old and intermittently sick and running out of time – perhaps he’s entitled to a little sarcasm, especially if he’s feeling like his interviewer could come up with better questions.
But the second big point is the more important of the two, and it’s one every other eager young(er) literary gun out there should heed before they launch their own little broadsides against the old lion: Vidal is in what we used to call his dotage. This isn’t to say he’s demented, not at all (or at least not necessarily) – but he is, though it seem impossible for such an erstwhile paragon of youth, granddad. Granddad gets cranky (being old is, as is commonly attested by the old and universally disbelieved by the not-old, no picnic); granddad has pet theories that aren’t always sensible; granddad can be abrupt, and his abruptness can hurt feelings. A year from now, two at the most, and granddad won’t be here anymore – and he knows it, and he hates it. The lesson of the story? Once granddad is in his dotage, you suffer him in silence. Period. You don’t justify yourself. You don’t try to win old arguments. You don’t produce his correspondence. You suffer him in silence, and you thereby hope to be treated so well when it’s your turn.
The vital thing to remember when you finish this little squib of Hitchens’ is the relative scale of what we’re seeing here. Yes, the Vidal That Is continually says unworthy things in unworthy ways. But Hitchens has been writing professionally for what? Thirty years? More? And for that he has what to show the year 2210? So far: nothing. Ephemera, often bashed out hung over ten minutes before deadline. Thirty years ago, Vidal had produced a body of work almost unequalled by any 20th century practitioner of English – and that was before he collected United States or wrote Palimpsest. It entitles him to forbearing silence whenever the tawdriness of his dotage makes an appearance. It obliges Hitchens and his ilk to shut their disrespectful yaps about inscriptions on frontispieces.
And that doesn’t even touch on the obligation shat upon by Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, whose typically sanctimonious issue preface revs the readers’ appetite for the squib to come, sarcastically saying, “As you well know, our columnist has never used his soapbox for anything less than a well-turned intellectual inquiry. In this issue, the topic happens to be somewhat personal, but no less intelligent: Gore Vidal. Vidal has written for and appeared in this magazine going back to the first Bush administration …”
Yes he has, and what thanks does he get for it from his editor? The respectful silence I mentioned? No, he gets a squib by an attack-dog greenlighted against him. On the chance that it’ll interest ten people, or better still, draw a response from Vidal himself.
Such a response might come, and no doubt Carter is hoping it’ll be salacious and Hitchens is hoping it’ll be conciliatory (or, lacking that, looney). Me, I’m hoping – though I know it’s impossible – that it’s somehow magically from the Gore Vidal of twenty or so years ago (you know, around Hitchens’ age). Imagining that riposte – and the party-colored carpet-smears that would be all that remained of Hitchens afterwards – is pretty much the only thing that put a smile on my face about this wretched little piece.
We’ll talk about books next time, to cleanse the mental palate.