From Two Sisters, by Gore Vidal, 1970.
Two Sister is a novel in memoir form. I significant portion of it is written as a screenplay. The novel includes, in the words on the dust jack of the first edition, "Gore Vidal's singular speculations on love, sex, death, literature, politics." Portions of Two Sisters appeared originally in the May 1970 issue of Esquire and the Winter 1970 issue of Partisan Review.
Marietta was one of the first to realize that in an age of total publicity personality is all that matters.
The book of mine which had been such a success that year had been thought to be artless autobiography. No one seemed aware that its art was to seem true and artless and this it was, in fact, a work of the imagination, and therefore a rare thing in our letters. Since then I've accepted the fact that my countrymen are literal to the point of--the hand pauses on the page. What shall I say of the country I was born in? Well . . .
For a long time it was hoped that as the civilization whose absence drove Henry James to Europe came slowly to be born in America, the diversity of life might yet be understood and so make possible interesting art. But it was not to be. Civilization has not taken hold even in our alabaster cities.... [L]iterature...has no relevance to the young who were brought up on television and movies, and though they are doubtless happier for the whole experience, they are also quite unable to comprehend and doubleness of things, the unexpected paradox, the sense of yes-no with which there can be no true intelligence, no means, in fact, of examining life as opposed to letting it wash over one.
Without history, without art, with a memory that begins with each morning's waking and ends with the night's sleep, they are able to achieve a numbness far more comforting to the spirit than the always dangerous and sometimes fatal exploration of self and world which was the aim of our old culture, now discarded.
Discarded? Never known.
This is realistic if crudely put. People who obtain power do so because it delights them for its own sake and for no other reason. The American fantasy that politicians represent, at best, Ideals or, at worst, Interests is nonsense but one is not loved for saying so. In fact, whenever I discuss contemporary politicians I am called cynical (my fourth century portraits, on the other hand, are acceptable since that was a long time ago). One despairs of ever communicating to people what it is all about, the grim jockeying for position, the ceaseless trading, the deliberate use of words not to communicate thought but to screen intention. In short, a splendidly exciting game for those who play it. That little good comes of any of this--often as not much human suffering--seems never to distress the believes who choose to see in the politicians or that true virtue, and so take comfort in the cosmetic radiance of his smile. No good men? No, nor bad either, at least not often. Just men at play. With us as counters to be moved about.
Of all the power-lovers I have known Eleanor Roosevelt was the most divided and so the most interesting. One the one hand, she possessed the Puritan conscience: she really believed that one ought to be good and help other less fortunate. But she was also a spirited gamesman driven, like the rest, to prevail at any cost.One hot summer night, there was a small dinner in her cottage at Hyde Park, a few miles from where I used to live. Mrs. Roosevelt had just led to victory a Reform movement in New York City; she had brought down the leader of Tammany Hall, restored democracy. It was a high-minded campaign, and successful. Our little dinner was to celebrate the victory. Her son Franklin was particularly delighted by what had happened because the leader of Tammany Hall had, some years before, helped end his career in the Democratic party.
As we toasted our hostess, an angelic smile quite illuminated the beautiful luminous gray face with its swift shy glance (she would giggle nervously if you caught those small, clear, gray, pebbly eyes looking at your), and in her hesitant fluting voice, she answered our toast. "Years ago when Mr. De Sapio did what he did to my Franklin I vowed that I would bide my time and one day I would 'get' him. Well, I have!" So much for Reform.
Yet perhaps it is just as well that the people do not understand their masters and are drawn to support or attack them on frivolous grounds... For even if they knew what it was all about, they could change nothing. As it is, they are reasonably content. After all, slavery is the usual condition of our race as noted by--of all people--the emperor Tiberius. When the Roman Senate passed a law validating all his decrees thus far as well as any he might in the future make, he was horrified--what happens if the emperor goes mad?--but the Senate was insistent and so he accepted this carte blanche with the comment, "How eager they are to be slaves." Naturally, the ideal of the American republic was something else but it is not the first ideal to have been quietly abandoned.
American writers want to be not good but great; and so are neither
I find restful the wicked and the grand in whose houses I was brought up and though I fled them early, I still return from time to time, pretending that my presence unsettles the magnates when indeed I am at best comic relief so great is their confidence in their rich world.
Image: The Artemis of the Ephesians. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.