Gore Vidal’s “piety”


"a one-man great society"

That’s it.  I’m in love with Gore.

No, no, not that Gore.  Gore Vidal. I know, it’s sudden…  I was watching the interview I posted a few days ago.  It uncovered a Vidal I didn’t know existed.  He is moved almost to tears recalling Italo Calvino‘s death.  He, the disdainful mandarin, notorious for his literary fights and insults, humbly drops to one knee before someone he considers his better.  Didn’t know he had it in him:

“I have studied the landscape of literature all my life, and he was the only great writer of my time.”

“Let’s use a word that is often misused – universal.  Where Calvino was, there was literature. Like it or not.”  “He was it. He was the real thing.”

We don’t live in a great time for writers or writing, he said, “but Calvino was a one-man great society.”

“Calvino was there, everyone who knew about him admired him, read him, wrote about him.”

The interviewer, Riz Khan, asks Vidal what passed through his mind at Calvino’s funeral.  The author’s eyes seemed to mist up, as he answered: “When will there be another?  With Italo, I thought literature had died.”

“It was as if a great prince had died. The whole nation went into mourning,” he said in slow, emphatic syllables. “What American or Brit or Frenchman would have that audience in his own country today?”

Vidal was not, apparently, a great fan of the literature of Eastern Europe.  Otherwise, he would have recalled one funeral in 2004 where thousands lined the streets of Kraków.

Czesław Miłosz came to my mind for another reason.  I remembered speaking to the Polish poet about his friend and fellow laureate, Joseph Brodsky, and his description of what Miłosz called the Russian poet’s “piety.”  From my Georgia Review interview a dozen years ago:

There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life. … When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect.

For me, the value of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.

Brodsky was very sensitive to the sacredness of being. Yes. That’s why I call him pious. I didn’t ask him if he believes in God – you felt in him that openness to the sacred.

“Piety.”  It’s an impressive quality.  And I thought of that as I listened to Vidal speak.  The sense of  “hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.”

Khan asked Vidal what impressed him most about Calvino’s character.  Vidal, one short year before his demise, gazed straight ahead as if staring down death: “Truth.”

Watch the video for yourself, here.



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