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.
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.