The kitchen-sink correction that ran with the obituary for Gore Vidal in The New York Times may be the best commentary yet on the life of Vidal, the larger-than-life writer and TV personality who died on July 31 at 86.
In 1968, Gore Vidal, it seems, had savaged a prominent right-winger as a “crypto-Nazi”—not, as his obituarist had erroneously reported, a “crypto-fascist.”
Vidal was not a cousin to Al Gore, though he often liked to dilate on their kinship. And although Vidal publicly credited the longevity of his relationship with his companion Howard Austen to their practice of never having sex, the couple did copulate, at least once, on the night they met. That encounter was robustly described in Vidal’s memoir, “Palimpsest.”
Taken together, these earnest Times-style corrections suggest that Gore Vidal led a rich, florid and glorious life being Gore Vidal—advertising himself and dismantling others and then fleeing into umbrage, smugness, pedantry, fake innocence or actual exile when his audience went bananas. He also—as the wonderful correction demonstrates—got the last laugh.
He got to take a last posthumous jab at William F. Buckley, the formidable intellectual he must have deeply envied. He got to raise again the pet subject of his in-bedness with prominent American political families. And, from beyond the grave, he got to crow about his sex life in the pages of the Times. To say “well-played” would sell the achievement short!
Fortunately, the 21st century has bestowed on us a name for figures like Vidal, the garrulous tricksters who are as necessary to politics and culture as buffoons, beetle-browed commenters and tender-hearted artists.
It’s plain: Vidal was a virtuoso troll. A 20th-century, pre-Internet troll. An analog troll of the first rank.
Trollism has only come into its own with the Internet, though it’s a time-honored set of intellectual stratagems. Now, of course, it’s far easier to do than ever. Success in the massive multiplayer game of social media requires skill spotting trolls in our midst—thus, more trolls seem to exist because more are caught. With Google, emotional sweet spots—sensitive subjects like abortion or Israel on which freaking people out is easiest—are a cinch to find. Anyone with a smartphone can post “James Eagan Holmes is hot” on a site for mourners and savor the lulz from a smug, safe distance as the outrage rolls in.
But imagine in Vidal’s time! Take just one famous example from Vidal’s trolling life. To splendidly troll, he had to get booked on “The Dick Cavett Show.” He had to bait pugnacious, crypto-homicidal Norman Mailer with a snippy review in a prominent publication, get Mailer fired up and booked on the same show. And then Vidal would have to get Mailer to go nuclear as he nastily but elegantly goaded him.
No wonder Vidal is most famous for having said, "I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television." On TV was where one trolled in those far-off pre-Internet days.
And saying Vidal never missed a chance to have sex—well, that was perhaps his way of trolling that chaste live-in boyfriend. On second thought, Howard Austen probably was untrollable. Another type that was before his time. Maybe, living so close to Vidal, Austen was the original practitioner of “DNFTT”—“do not feed the troll”—the idea that trolls like Vidal live on the emotional spasms of other people, and the way to fight them is to deny them our spasms.
No worry. Vidal found spasms aplenty on which to feed himself for decades on decades. And that cycle—trolling and spasms and trolling and spasms—was intellectually fruitful in that it engendered memorable quips, mad showdowns and a cultural pose that’s now deeply embedded in our intellectual dialogue. A YouTube commenter on the Cavett show video recently described Vidal as both a “troll” and the nation’s “asshole laureate.” Maybe so. But he was awfully fun to watch and will be missed.