Friday, April 29, 2005

Inventing A Nation, by Gore Vidal

Complaint: I don’t find Gore Vidal’s essays particularly easy to read. He’s a clear enough writer all right, but he tends to ruminate so much I find it almost infuriating. It’s like listening to a brilliant person mumble and chuckle to himself. You constantly feel like you need to seek clarification. Vidal likes to throw in lots of little question marks and ‘what ifs’, as if he’s constantly trying to entertain himself. Obviously he has been over this material so many times, knows it inside out, and feels free to make many of his asides, most of which are left up in the air. Some of his sentences I read several times over and still could not understand what point he was trying to make.

I haven’t read a lot of his essays, so can’t say if his work is like this over all, but the fact that he admires Christopher Hitchens says a lot. Vidal’s novels are very accessible. Myra Breckinridge I read in a day and thought brilliant. The City and the Pillar I thought very impressive for someone so young. Why are his essays so tricky?

Okay, that’s enough of my complaining. Despite my problems with Vidal’s writing style, his book kept me intrigued enough to read on to the end, and I dare say if it had been double its short length I would have finished that too.

Essentially Inventing A Nation is a short look at all the major characters who created American democracy: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. It shows their human side, money problems, political squabbling and a host of other human frailties. The description of Washington dieing was very moving. On his deathbed he says, ‘I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead.’

The most interesting part of the book was a quote from Benjamin Franklin. At eighty-one he was too feeble to address the constitutional convention, but had a friend read for him the following:

‘I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government what may be a Blessing to the People if well-administered; and I believe farther than this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years and can only end in despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.’

Vidal claims this has now come to pass, with Enron and other corporate scandals and the launching of various overseas wars. For myself, I was fascinated by the bit ‘People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government’. Have we all become so corrupted by consumerism, as Scott Ritter seems to believe?

Another very arresting quote comes from General George Washington. Reading it makes you realise how far America has drifted from its original principles:

‘Nothing is more essential than that antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be avoided and that instead of them we should cultivate just and amicable feelings towards all. That nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to animosity, or to its affection – either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and interest. The nation urged by resentment and rage, sometimes compels the government to war, contrary to its own calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in this propensity and dons through passion what reason would forbid it at other times; it makes the animosity of the nations subservient to hostile projects which originate in ambition and other sinister motives.’

Think of the neo-conservatives Project for a New American Century. Could you get any further away from George Washington’s warning?

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