A Pagan Appreciation of Gore Vidal (1925 – 2012)

Famed American author, essayist, public intellectual, and gleeful bomb-thrower Gore Vidal died on Tuesday from pneumonia at the age of 86. While Vidal’s mind often turned towards the conspiratorial later in life (causing some to dismiss his contributions entirely), his output as a whole has been widely praised for its wit, insight, willingness to cross boundaries, and fearlessness.  Right now obituaries, remembrances, and tributes are pouring out to this lion of letters, but I thought it would be appropriate to give a specifically Pagan appreciation of Vidal’s work.

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal

For many Pagans, Vidal’s most beloved work is his 1964 novel “Julian” which sought to reframe  the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus (aka “Julian the Apostate”) as a heroic, intelligent, humanistic leader, one who experienced first-hand the violence and ignorance of the (perhaps inevitably) rising Christian wave. As a Christian-turned-Pagan, Julian was perhaps the first “Neo-Pagan” of note, and was quickly adopted by many modern Pagans as a venerated ancestor to our own movement. Journalist and author Margot Adler, while writing what would become the seminal 1979 book “Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America,” was heavily influenced by Vidal’s “Julian.”

“I was totally obsessed with Julian at the time I was [writing] DDTM, so much so that I read all of the Emperor’s essays and even thought of including a chapter about him in the book, although realized it was sort of off topic, even if he tried to restore Paganism to Rome. Loved Vidal’s Messiah, Kalki, and interviewed him once for 45 minutes over his less successful book, Creation. And of course loved his ascerbic comments on the fate of American Democracy. All our best critics have died this summer.”

Vidal would return to the ancient world again in works like “Creation” (which dealt with religion in the axial age), and the satirical “Live from Golgotha,” but it is “Julian” that remains a touchstone for many of us. In addition to that novel, Vidal, as an essayist, was a recurring critic of Christianity, and monotheism as a whole. In 1992 he gave a lecture at Harvard that placed monotheism at the root of our modern world’s problems.

“The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved–Judaism, Christianity, Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal–God is the omnipotent father–hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates. The sky-god is a jealous god, of course. He requires total obedience from everyone on earth, as he is in place not for just one tribe but for all creation. Those who would reject him must be converted or killed for their own good. Ultimately, totalitarianism is the only sort of politics that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose. Any movement of a liberal nature endangers his authority and that of his delegates on earth. One God, one King, one Pope, one master in the factory, one father-leader in the family home.”

It’s a paragraph that could have come from the mouths of many prominent Pagans, but because it was Vidal saying it, the message was heard and reported in ways we could not have accomplished in 1992.  The “thoroughly pagan, materialistic, unforgiving eye” of Vidal served, in its time, to help shape our own responses to the dominant Abrahamic faiths. To remind us that we were reviving something worthwhile, even if the dominant religious lens thought our mission folly. Vidal was a complex and often controversial man, but his contributions to our revival should not go unsung or unheeded.

“[T]he Nazarene existed as flesh while the gods we worship were never men; rather they are qualities and powers become poetry for our instruction. With the worship of the dead Jew, the poetry ceased. The Christians wish to replace our beautiful legends with the police record of a reforming Jewish rabbi…. They now appropriate our feast days. They transform local deities into saints. Thy borrow from our mystery rites, particularly those of Mithras.” – Gore Vidal, “Julian.”

What is remembered, lives.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • sunfell

    Now, you’ve done it. I have to go and re-read “Julian”.

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

    “Julian” was a revelation of a novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • PhaedraHPS

    The only flaw in Julian is it reflects Vidal’s prissy attitude towards sex. (They asked him how he managed to stay with his partner for over 50 years. “No sex,” he said.)

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Kind of paradoxical for the man who once quipped, “Never pass up an opportunity to have sex or be on television.”

      • CrystalK

         I had always heard the exact opposite of him.  Just goes to show you never know about someone.

        • CrystalK

           Sorry, my comment above should have been a reply to Phaedra.

      • PhaedraHPS

        The obits all agree that he was not adverse to sex per se, just as long as it was quick and anonymous. To each his own, I suppose.

  • CrystalK

    I loved Julian.  It was full of really great insights and through Vidal’s masterful writing I felt akin to “the Apostate”.   May we always remember Vidal’s contributions.

  • Kilmrnock

    I’m with sun, now i have to read Julian, but i have been a fan of Vidals wit for years . Altho i must agree he got a bit odd torwards the end . Seems i may have seen one of his last interviews on Bill Marr’s show . Yes , he will be missed.      Kilm

  • http://wp.wiccanweb.ca/ Makarios

    One minor quibble with Vidal’s characterization, “From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament. . . .” Actually, it is more likely Iron Age–around the 7th-5th centuries BCE. Much of the supposed Bronze Age material appears to have been backdated.

    • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

      This is correct, most of the Tanakh dates to the ancient Near Eastern Iron Age. A few passages may be genuinely older. Some are also quite younger, the book of Daniel, for example, most likely came out of the Maccabean period (perhaps with parts dating to the Persian era).

  • fyreflye

    You don’t have to be a Pagan to have loved Vidal’s wit, his iconoclasm, his fearlessness and his style; but it helps.  Julian was the first of the many books of his I’ve read.  BTW, Margot Adler’s comment that “all our best critics have died this summer” must refer to Christopher Hitchens (Vidal’s equal in wit and iconoclasm) and Alexander Cockburn, a fierce critic of American imperialism.  Can anyone think of someone else?

    • http://www.paganawareness.net.au Gavin Andrew

      I disagree with Margot – although I am using the term ‘critic’ in a broader sense and she may not be doing so. Noam Chomsky appears to be in rude health (long may it last!) if his most recent forensic dissection of Western Capitalism in the Huffington Post is any indication:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/noam-chomsky/magna-carta_b_1694443.html

      This essay is highly relevant to pagans, too, as he discusses the Charter of the Forest and its implication of stewardship of nature rather than her rape.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Beautifully written, Jason.  Thank you.

  • Fae

     “I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a
    young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?” – Gore Vidal, talking about Polanski’s rape of a 13-year-old girl.

    I must say, Jason, I’m rather disappointed by this “appreciation”. In the past you’ve taken a firm stance against child molestation whenever it crops up, but here, not even a mention of Vidal’s support for those who molest children? This isn’t the kind of thing that should be papered over and forgotten, yet all too many people will do just that because they found Vidal’s writing enjoyable.

    Additionally, the extreme transphobia on display in his Myra novels is worthy of a great deal of condemnation as well. His characterization of trans women as dangerous mentally ill predators has no doubt caused a great deal of very real harm to actual trans women, though it is impossible to say precisely how much.

    The people whom he has harmed should not be forgotten when talking about his life.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      I have always taken a firm stance against all forms of abuse, and I think what Vidal wrote there was monstrous, and I have no intention of defending it. Later in life he, in my opinion, went off the deep end, saying increasingly shocking things to get attention. That Pearl Harbor was an inside job, along with a number of outlandish, and often hurtful, conspiracy theories. 

      I have never read the Myra novels, so I can’t speak to them.

      I’m sorry I disappointed you, I do try to be a good advocate and ally. 

      I think this post was warranted because his work has had a profound influence on many Pagans, it was not meant to be read as a defense or gloss of his prejudices or hurtful statements. Indeed, I have linked to a story arguing that we should not celebrate him at all. I leave it up to each person how they want to respond to Vidal. 

      • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

        Also, since we’re bringing up his noxious, unforgivable, defense of the rapist Polanski, I’d like to point out that a large chunk of the Hollywood elite’s hands are dirty in that respect, from Johnny Depp to Tilda Swinton.

        http://www.indiewire.com/article/over_100_in_film_community_sign_polanski_petition

        http://www.popeater.com/2010/02/01/johnny-depp-supports-polanski/

        It’s sad, and sickening, really.

        • CrystalK

           This was what I was thinking, too Jason.  Most of Hollywood it seemed was up in arms that Polanski was even accused.  I too think Vidal was a little off later in life and he said some horrible things that left a bad taste in my mouth, but I contributed it to maybe a little dementia, as he never seemed that screwy previously.  Aggressively progressive, yes.  Hurtful and callous, no.

  • Ursyl

    Creation was the only book of his that I read, way way back in college.

    Looks like I should read one more, eh?


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