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Polemik - scharfzüngig, stilbewusst

Gore Vidal ist tot

Von Irmtraud Gutschke *

Er war politisch hellwach, bis zuletzt auf dem Sprung, das Zeitgeschehen zu kommentieren - scharfsinnig, scharfzüngig, dafür war er berühmt. Nun kommt die Nachricht, dass der Schriftsteller Gore Vidal am Dienstag in seinem Haus in Hollywood Hills nahe Los Angeles an einer Lungenentzündung gestorben ist.

Er entstammte der alten amerikanischen Oberschicht, mit enger Verbindung zum Kennedy-Clan. Im Privaten standesbewusst, ja elitär, hatte er zugleich Sinn fürs Allgemeinwohl, nicht nur der Menschen in den USA, sondern in der ganzen Welt. Das schwarze Schaf in seiner Familie - offen lebte er seine Homosexualität aus, als andere das noch versteckten. Im Persönlichsten zum Mut gezwungen, übertrug er diesen auch auf andere Bereiche. Da bewunderten die einen ihn vielleicht als Paradiesvogel, die anderen beschimpften ihn als Nestbeschmutzer, weil er sich als »herrischen Störenfried des nationalen Gewissens« begriff, so die»Los Angeles Times«. »Ich sehe meine Herausforderung darin, Menschen klar zu machen, warum etwas geschieht«, sagte er von sich. Die USA seien ein Land, in dem jeder von klein auf angehalten ist, nie nach dem Warum zu fragen.«

Ein Freund absoluter Formulierungen, wie man sieht, einer der aufhorchen lassen will. Der also Zuhören ebenso herausfordert wie Weghören. Ein Polemiker und Aufklärer, der sich in über 20 historischen und satirischen Romanen mit der Geschichte und Gegenwart der USA beschäftigt hat. Darunter in einer Folge von sieben Romanen eine USA-Chronik schuf - von »Burr« (1836) bis »Das Goldene Zeitalter« (1939-1954). Er verfasste Theaterstücke - gerade läuft »The Best Man« wieder am Broadway; von Gore Vidals Website gibt es einen Link zum Tickettverkauf. Von ihm stammen auch zahlreiche Filmskripte. So war er am Drehbuch zum Oscar-gekrönten Kino-Klassiker »Ben Hur« beteiligt. Er betätigte sich als Schauspieler und bewarb sich 1960 als Kandidat der Demokraten erfolglos um einen Sitz im Repräsentantenhaus, später war er Mitbegründer der linksliberalen People's Party und trat bei Kundgebungen gegen den Irakkrieg auf.

Stefan Dornuf, ein Freund Gore Vidals, der jüngst auch seinen Band »Amerikas Traum vom Fliegen« herausgab, ist es zu danken, dass Texte dieses Schriftstellers mehrfach als Erstveröffentlichungen ins »nd« kamen. Dort war auch ein Interview von Reiner Oschmann zu lesen, in dem Gore Vidal das Weltmacht-Gehabe Washingtons kritisierte und die amerikanische Bevölkerung als »unglaublich fehlinformiert« bezeichnete.

Lust an polemischer Zuspitzung, gepaart mit der aristokratischen Haltung eines Grandseigneurs - das ist eine seltene Mischung, faszinierend vor allem für jene, die selbst ein gewisses Selbstbewusstsein pflegen. Dazu ein schönes Zitat von Gore Vidal: »Stil heißt zu wissen, wer man ist, was man will und sich nicht darum zu kümmern.«

* Aus: neues deutschland, Donnerstag, 2. August 2012

Gore Vidal Remembered

by Andrew Tonkovich **

Almost everybody in Southern California has, or should have, a Gore Vidal story, because if you have been in any way active in anything here --- anti-war or civil rights or environmental activism, you would have encountered - and I use the word pointedly, admiringly - Vidal, at a debate, lecture, reading, demonstration, book fair, any public celebration of the life of the mind, and of civic participation. He lived here, in the Hollywood Hills, and regularly attended marches and gatherings, in fact was one of the small, reliable group of local Left stalwarts who'd add their names and deliver their bodies to a cause. As an undergraduate years ago at Cal State Long Beach, and as a young, eager and impressionable student activist, I met him. I'd been invited to join a small group meeting with the candidate when he visited campus during his 1982 run for US Senate. Sincere, good-hearted liberal and progressive faculty, staff and other students were there, with their questions for the Great Man, who seemed to only put up with the responsibility of listening to his presumed constituents, the whole tiny opera of expectations a farce of course, since we were all there to listen to him, to be delighted, impressed, instructed, amused and, yes, empowered to imagine, absurdly, that an American man of letters, of history, a radical gay public intellectual and literary artist might stand a chance of being elected to one of nation's highest offices as a Democrat.

I recall two questions from that meeting or, more to the point, two of Vidal's answers. First, he was solicited for his thoughts about engaging the rightwing (and other) religionist crowd, just then reaching the apex of their dark political hazing party of the entire nation as organized by those shabby prophets Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan and direct mail henchman Richard Viguerie. The questioner seemed to want Vidal to offer a plan for working with these creeps in their own terms, implying some foolish, even to me then, possibility of somehow bringing into our Lefty fold those with a "spiritual" worldview, as if that were desirable.

You might know that Gore Vidal had a practiced rhetorical habit, quite effective, of pausing before skewering. It was like watching somebody about to enjoy a very good meal. This behavior, this affect, perhaps gave his fans courage and his opposition the doomed opportunity, fleeting, to pretending that they stood a chance. They didn't. Vidal waited, and then said something that day which has stayed with me for 25 years since. The moment that the believers mention a miracle, a "spiritual" dimension, a god, you should know, said Gore Vidal, running for California's Senatorial seat, that "these people" are delusional, and you should say so right there. There was, he insisted, no talking with them. No need to elaborate and, of course, he was not elected, not with that level of candor about the confusion between religion (a monarchy) and representative democracy, and contempt for anybody who would waste time with, as he called them, "holy rollers" or giving a damn about getting their vote.

Then, in response to a solicitation regarding the problem - even then! - of the nearby San Onofre Nuclear Generating Plant (yes, that one - today offline after decades of both predictable safety failures and grassroots protests), Vidal again paused. The room quieted, eager to be slapped on the nose with the rolled-up newspaper, a chance to be collectively chastised, encouraged, empowered all at the same time. Sometimes it feels good to be put in one's place.

"What you should do," Vidal offered, "is hold a press conference in which you threaten to detonate a device." He chuckled, as I recall, for emphasis of that ridiculous and explosive euphemism for terrorist and/or statist bomb. The corporate press corps would come, he said, correctly, because they love sensationalism and are "vultures," he said, thus providing anti-war and disarmament activist, and our own scientist organizers the opportunity to both embarrass them and to educate news readers and local residents on the real scenario if the nuke were threatened by attack.

Prescient, unwilling to suffer foolishness, impolitic, funny, I recall today the sly, generous grin on Vidal's face, which I often looked for, and always found, on the many occasions on which I saw him speak. And, yes, I could almost see it when I heard his voice on the radio, most often on KPFK, the Pacifica Radio station in Southern California where he was frequently interviewed, his talks played and played again. And which will, I trust, be played in the coming weeks. It is possible, I believe, to actually become smarter, more skeptical, a better thinker and writer and listener just by listening to him construct an analysis, an argument, to answer a question. All this, and I haven't even mentioned the art: his actual speeches, reviews, essays, screenplays, novels, memoirs.

Finally, I saw Gore Vidal in person most recently at, of all unlikely places, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda. Its then-chief Timothy Naftali had recently organized a gentle coup d'etat, taking the Nixon narrative away from the apologists and Tricky Dick boosters, an Orange County GOP corporate-sponsored guerilla army of revisionist non-historians. He'd forced the federally-supported Nixonland to embrace actual historical analysis and not just present a Disneyesque hagiography of the man about whom Vidal composed the play "An Evening with Richard Nixon." Not a pleasant evening that play, not for RN, but an especially fun read today. Vidal, wheeled in for the occasion to the faux White House East Room, Teddy Roosevelt glaring from his portrait on the wall, the now disabled writer was elevated courtesy an ADA-required ramp to the podium and mic, where he introduced delightedly an elected official who'd been on Nixon's "enemies list." He was the biggest "loser" in electoral history, former South Dakota Senator, putative 1972 anti-war presidential candidate and author-statesman George McGovern, also a very, very old man. Jokes galore from Vidal, about Nixon turning over in his grave, just yards from where hundreds had gathered to hear McGovern talk about Abraham Lincoln and also got Gore Vidal as bonus prize.

By way of introducing a man whose presidency might, he offered, have changed the course of US and world history, Vidal read from the prologue to George Bernard Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra," a whimsical tale which, in case you haven't read it lately, involves the old god Ra, wearing his Egyptian's hawk's head helmet, appearing in Memphis. He talks to us, his modern audience, scolding and offering a warning, a cautionary tale based on the political choices of old vs. new Rome, between the soldier Pompey ("The way of the soldier is the way of death") and Caesar, whom the gods seemed to favor. Pompey, who represents "Mammon" (and, for our purposes, Northrop Grumman and McDonnell Douglass) makes war on Caesar, who runs away to learn a lesson from the gods, eventually gathers his wisdom and beats Mammon's army, which runs off to Egypt, which is basically a colony of Rome.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Bush-Cheney, get it? Hubris, war, empire. Lucius Septimius seems to embrace Pompey in Sphinxville, but instead "welcomed him with one hand and with the other smote off his head, and kept it as if it were a pickled cabbage to make a present to Caesar." Vidal read nearly the entire prologue, one of his final opportunities, it turns out, to once again both set the scene and steal it. He was courageous, fearless really. He was consistently provocative, but usually, it turns out, he was also correct. And he knew it, which perhaps annoyed some people, jealous of him or unwilling to sit there and be read to, or unable to appreciate life as art as politics that was this lovely man, citizen, writer and provocateur.

Here, then, the final lines of the prologue to "Caesar and Cleopatra," by way of never, ever forgetting Gore Vidal, and wishing that he were only pausing before delivering his next and necessary slap-down of power and its acolytes: "And fear not that I shall speak to you again: the rest of the story must ye learn from them that lived it. Farewell; and do not presume to applaud me."

** Andrew Tonkovich teaches writing at UC Irvine and edits the West Coast literary magazine Santa Monica Review. He hosts Bibliocracy Radio, a weekly books program on Pacifica Radio KPFK in Southern California, and is President UC-AFT Local 2226.

Published by Portside, August 1, 2012

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