I have a soft spot for curmudgeons, especially when their disaffection with things as they are provide real insight into why things are the way they are. Gore Vidal was one of those—a brilliant, articulate, savage man whose honesty so many people found offensive. Not that he didn’t relish giving offense: he did, but he did so almost always with intelligence and wit. In the wake of his death, the Web is already awash in Vidal quotes, some accurate, some not. The way of the world, as he well knew.
My favorite Vidal quote doesn’t come from any of his clear-eyed, passionate essays, but from my favorite of his novels, Julian. The book, set in 380-81 CE, deals with the three-year reign of the Roman emperor Julian and the aftermath of Julian’s death 17 years earlier, in 363. Julian was the last direct relative of Constantine the Great, who had assisted in the demise of the old Roman world by embracing Christianity. As Vidal puts it in his introduction, “[Julian’s] attempt to stop Christianity and revive Hellenism” is at the core of his book. As we know, that attempt ended in failure; the old pagan world passed away and the new, Christian West arose, the world whose twilight we are living in today.
At the end of Julian, one of the dead emperor’s confidants, Libanius, Quaestor of Antioch, realizes that the old world—Julian’s world, to which he himself was devoted—is over. Christianity, which Libanius views as a barbarian religion, is destined to win out. “The barbarians are at the gate,” Libanius writes. “Yet when they breach the wall, they will find nothing of value to seize. The spirit of what we were has fled. So be it.” Vidal, of course, is using Libanius here to create an historical echo of his own views on the American experiment, which he felt was similarly coming to a bad end because of the twin influences of political corruption and religious fanaticism. (Vidal wrote the book between 1959 and 1964.) Here are the last words Vidal puts into melancholy old Libanius’s mouth:
I have been reading Plotinus all evening. he has the power to soothe me; and I find his sadness curiously comforting. Even when he writes: “Life here with the things of earth is a sinking, a defeat, a failing of the wing.” The wing has indeed failed. One sinks. Defeat is certain. Even as I write these lines, the lamp wick sputters to an end, and the pool of light in which I sit contracts. Soon the room will be dark. One has always feared that death would be like this. But what else is there? With Julian, the light went, and now nothing remains but to let the darkness come, and hope for a new sun and another day, born of time’s mystery and man’s love of light.
It occurs to me that if I’d never read Julian, I probably would never have read Plotinus. It’s just one of the gifts Gore Vidal sent my way. And there are countless other gifts scattered throughout his work. The only response to Vidal’s passing, I think, is to read him.