Gore Vidal, novelist, playwright, essayist and political gadfly, currently has three books on the market.
The first, The Decline and Fall of the American Empire (Odonian Press, Berkeley, Calif., $5), a collection of six political essays, four of which were originally speeches, is vintage Vidal. Urbane, witty and unrelentingly critical of the American empire, in it he uses language like a sharpened weapon. Here, for example, is his description of the nation's Sunday morning political talk shows:
"The level of chat on those programs is about as low as it is possible to get without actually serving the viewers gin. The opinion expressed ranges from conservative to reactionary to joyous neofascist."
The other two books, which are inching up bestseller lists across the country, both return to a subject that has stirred his imagination (and prompted his condemnation) all his life: the power of moving images.
In Screening History (Harvard University, $14.95), a rambling but insightful memoir, Vidal examines the impact movies have had on himself and the nation. With Live From Golgotha (Random House, $22), a satirical but embarrassingly clumsy novel, he tries to poke fun at the contemporary media culture. Both draw similar conclusions: Movies (and television) have taken the place of books in shaping our lives _ and forming our sense of history.
"Today, where literature was movies are," Vidal writes in Screening History. "Whether or not the Tenth Muse does her act on a theater screen or within the cathode tube, there can be no other reality for us since reality does not begin to mean until it has been made art of. For the Agora, Art is now sight and sound; and the books are shut. In fact, reading of any kind is on the decline. Half the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for president _ the same half?"
As a lover of literature, you would imagine Vidal would be repulsed by this seeming victory of images over words in our society. He, in fact, is currently appearing in Bob Roberts, a movie that savagely satirizes the triumph of image over substance in American politics. Playing a U.S. senator (a position Vidal once tried for but failed to obtain), he is defeated by a right-wing candidate who understands the media and its image-making power.
But Vidal is also obviously fascinated by the power of images. "As I now move, graciously, I hope toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies," he admits in the opening line of Screening History.
The year Vidal was born, 1925, Charlie Chaplin's silent film The Gold Rush was released, he tells us. A year later Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer brought sound to the movies. In the late '40s when his fiction career sagged after the publication of The City and the Pillar, which dealt frankly with homosexual life in America, Vidal worked out of Hollywood, writing television scripts and screenplays (although uncredited, he wrote half the script for Ben Hur).
But Screening History is more than Vidal's personal journey through movie history. It is a disturbing look at just how filtered the past has been for all of us.
"From earliest days, the movies have been screening history, and if one saw enough movies, one learned quite a lot of simple-minded history," writes Vidal. "During my first 12 years, Depression and the threat of revolution dominated our screens, as they did our on-going history. The next seven years were dominated, first, by the seduction of the United States by England, a replay of 1914-1917; and then by war itself."
The result of all this "screening history" has been a skewed view of America's history, says Vidal. Movies just before the outbreak of World War II and during the war encouraged Americans "to empathize with the British totally and with the French somewhat; with the Germans and the Japanese not at all," but few were devoted to America's own history, he points out.
"One wonders, not so idly, what sort of country we might have had if, instead of being bombarded by the screened versions of Nelson and Napoleon and Queen Elizabeth, we had been given films about Jefferson and Hamilton and the Lincoln presidency," asks Vidal.
Of course, he admits, our history, properly screened, is a potential's hornet's nest. Do we tell the story from the Indians' point of view? How do we present the slave-owning founding fathers?
Vidal addresses the question of whose history gets screened in Live From Golgotha. In the novel, television people from the 20th century return via a computer software breakthrough to the time just after the Crucifixion. The television types (who say things like "the name of the game is voter identification") meet up with Timothy, the bishop of Macedonia, in 96 A.D. (who says things like "now you're cooking with virgin olive oil") in order to stop the work of a Hacker from the 20th century who has been systematically destroying the Gospels with a computer virus. Timothy is writing his version of the Gospel, and he seems to be the only hope to maintain the purity of the Good News.
The Good News is not though what it appears to be. The Hacker, it turns out, is Jesus himself, who was never crucified but fast forwarded to the 20th century after putting the blame on Judas, a fat, lisping fellow, who was crucified in his place. Jesus is now poised to rule the world by erasing the Good News. By book's end, however, the film crew (and their anchorman St. Timothy) have returned to the past to shoot the Crucifixion (their version of the Crucifixion, that is) and set history straight. History, after all, belongs to those who can manipulate images, not words.
Live From Golgotha has been attacked as blasphemous (which, unfortunately, will only increase its sales) when it really should be attacked as sophomoric. (You can't help but wonder if Vidal wrote a version of this novel when he was at Exeter reading "the appropriately named Muzzey's History of the United States.") Skewering everything from New Age channeling a la Shirley MacLaine (not to mention every organized religion ever conceived) to network rivalries a la NBC and CNN (not to mention the inane culture of television in general), Vidal had a great chance to satirize the role that media images have on our lives. Amid all the cuteness, goofy dialogue and convoluted plot, however, the point gets hopelessly lost.
Maybe the movie version will be an improvement.
Margo Hammond is book editor for the Times.