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August 5 - 12, 1999

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Haughty libertine

Gore Vidal may want to overthrow compulsory heterosexuality, but he's no liberal

by Adam Kirsch

SEXUALLY SPEAKING: COLLECTED SEX WRITINGS, by Gore Vidal. Cleis Press, 290 pages, $24.95.

Gore Vidal Seen from a distance, Gore Vidal's sexual politics look fair indeed. In the first piece included in this collection of his essays, reviews, and interviews on the subject, we find him arguing that the state should not interfere in private sexual behavior, a position that most right-thinking people would share. The invocation of Mill, the distinction between crime and sin, the insistence that all kinds of prohibition are doomed to failure: these things make Vidal seem like a liberal of a familiar and praiseworthy kind.

But as one reads on in Sexually Speaking, it becomes clear that, with Vidal, fair can quite easily become foul. He is far from a liberal, or even a liberationist, when it comes to sex. What drives his sexual politics is, rather, a kind of haughty libertinism, an impatience with the moral dictates of a majority that he frankly despises. Even when one agrees with Vidal, one cannot like him, so peremptorily ugly are many of his sentiments.

Vidal's sexual speaking dates back at least to his 1948 novel The City and the Pillar, a groundbreaking treatment of homosexuality that got him blackballed from mainstream literary life for several years. And in the essays collected here, ranging from a 1965 discussion of "Sex and the Law" to a broadside issued in the midst of the Lewinsky affair, Vidal enunciates a coherent philosophy about sexual matters that has changed little over time. It rests on three propositions: first, that "everyone is potentially bisexual"; second, that "although our notions about what constitutes correct sexual behavior are usually based on religious texts, those texts are invariably interpreted by the rulers in order to keep control over the ruled"; and third, that "if the race is to continue, we must limit human breeding by law." In other words, human beings, naturally neither hetero- nor homosexual, are bullied into the heterosexual paradigm in order to keep them married, and thus dependent on their employers to support their families; but this state of affairs cannot long continue, because if we keep obediently producing children, we will outstrip the planet's capacity to feed us. The three points dovetail nicely in Vidal's prescription for our sexual ills: to limit the world's population, we must break free from compulsory heterosexuality, which will free us simultaneously from capitalist and religious tyranny.

Putting aside the truth of his claims, one notes right away that Vidal's philosophy will entirely satisfy neither liberals (because it has nothing to say about rights and privacy) nor liberationists (because it rejects the idea that anyone is actually gay, a word that Vidal detests). It takes a bit more scrutiny to notice that Vidal's critique of conventional sexual morality implies an enormous contempt for ordinary people, as well as for the religion that they embrace -- what he sometimes calls "Judeo-Christianity," but which often boils down to Judaism tout court.

Vidal's much-noted distaste for Jews and Judaism comes through most clearly in three essays written from 1970 to 1981. It is rooted in a standard Nietzschean genealogy of morals -- Judaism was a slave-religion that, through Christianity, transmitted its ignoble principles to the whole West -- and flavored with an aristocratic contempt for Jews as arrivistes. Admittedly, when criticizing the outrageously stupid comments on homosexuality made by Jewish neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and Joseph Epstein, Vidal is in the right. But he puts himself in the wrong when he refers to Jewish writers as "Rabbi" and calls attention to "the rabbinical mind" of one; when he mentions "[Alfred] Kazin and his kind," says that Hilton Kramer's criticism of Garry Wills and himself must be "because we are not Jewish," and calls Podhoretz "a publicist for Israel"; when he describes New York Jewish intellectuals as a "new class," and then says that "no matter how crowded and noisy a room, one can always detect the new-class person's nasal whine"; and when he repeatedly insinuates that it is "unwise" for Jews to criticize homosexuals because they "will be in the same gas chambers as the blacks and the faggots." Every individual remark can be extenuated -- at times it even seems that Vidal writes out of a disappointed love of Jews, whom he expects to be liberal on all issues -- but the cluster of hostile, sneering, scornful references leaves a very unpleasant taste. There seems no reason, other than anti-Semitic compulsion, for three of the 14 essays in a book ostensibly about sex to be, in reality, attacks on Judaism and on individual Jews.

Gore Vidal's ideas about sex grow out of his ideas about himself: he is one of the last American aristocrats ("My family helped start [this country], and we've been in political life . . . since the 1690s, and I have a very possessive sense about this country"), and is angry at what new immigrants ("I think the Roman Catholic arrivals here have not been -- how shall I put this tactfully -- a great addition to our Republic") and the national security state have done to erode his patrimony. That patrimony includes a dignified tolerance that extends to sexual matters, and this is the principle that underlies his witty and entertaining polemics against the intolerant masses. But every cause that Vidal embraces has deeper and better bases for support than those he advances in Sexually Speaking. "All men are created equal" may not date back quite as far as the 1690s, but it is a better defense of liberty, sexual and otherwise, than the one presented here.

Adam Kirsch is literary assistant at the New Republic.

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