When the patrician (1) essayist, novelist, sometime political candidate and inveterate talk show guest Gore Vidal died July 31st, a body of funerary recollections were exhumed by obituary writers. Among them is a curious aside he uttered on March 12th in 1981 during an interview with NY Times book maker/breaker, Michiko Kakutani. They were discussing Vidal's eagerness to travel the literary lecture circuit, a populist streak that, back then was still considered surprising in someone of Vidal's pedigree. Half-ironically adopting Kakutani’s presumed snobbery, Vidal quipped, “Some authors take to drink; others take to audiences.”
The witticism feels “true” in some way. But why? In what sense (or senses) does an analogy between hitting the bottle and hitting the podium hold water? After all, although Vidal was hardly abstemious when it came to alcohol, (and although he frequently described his mother as having been a raging alcoholic), he didn’t see compulsive drinking as an affliction from which he, personally, suffered. Yet “taking to” audiences as if they were some sort of moonshine suggests, however humorously, that his enthusiasm for public life posed for him some sort of risk.
The statement is all the more intriguing in light of Vidal’s confession, on another occasion, that “The attention of the great audience” is “the sort of honor…that I do lust for…” (or, similarly, his remark to Dick Cavett when asked his philosophy of life: “Never turn down an opportunity for sex or being on TV.”) (2)
Something about engaging audiences, whether---live or mass---brought to his mind vices of immoderation---drunkenness and promiscuity respectfully. But it's hard to say exactly what. When Vidal interacted with his audiences---readers, gawkers, accidental tourists---did he really experience a potentially addictive rush, a pleasure spike that felt dangerously intense? What broken feedback gizmo did he fancifully imagine might hook him (or anyone) on a life-warping compulsion to speak to readers? Did he have cravings? Experience post-lecture withdrawal?
Now that Vidal is no longer with us to explain what he meant, his precise meaning must remain mystifying. But I thought it might be worth kicking around, (fondling?) a few of the questions that proliferate in such vagueness:
Unlike Vidal, when most of us think of either intoxication or lust as a component of audience-addiction, we don’t usually distinguish between mass audiences and live ones as the stimulous; it’s the amount of love being injected, not its source, that matters.
What we imagine as the drug or turn-on for the crowd junkie isn’t the rustling, coughing presence of bodies enduring uncomfortable chairs for a chance to listen to a living author, and it’s not the pornographic objectification of blogging fans as willing slaves of one’s marketing machine, either. What we most commonly imagine gets performers high is a love-without-boundaries, almost a placental substance, emanating from what Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard called “those wonderful people out there in the dark.” That primal love, as encompassing and forgiving as a mother’s, can release a jigger of dizzying uppers, opiates and endorphins into a victim’s brain. Such adoration will waft as easily through a Twitter feed or fan page as through the breath-filled air of a theater where, huffing the aroma of greasepaint, performers bliss out on the roar of the crowd. (3)
But while it makes some kind of dime-store psychoanalytic sense that Vidal, whose mother can safely be imagined as less than “good enough,” would seek love anywhere he could get it, other facets of his personality make it hard to imagine that gushing adoration would please him. By his own account, Vidal explored sex with over a thousand partners of all genders (a different kind of gushing, surely) while enjoying a contractually celibate marriage (love minus gushing). He might easily crave rooms full of listeners seated at his feet, but it’s hard to picture him either lusting after or drunk on the kind of I-Thou literary love a writer like David Foster Wallace inspired. One believed Vidal when he told Kakutani: ''Most people who are rich or famous are trying to sell themselves to be loved. I don't care whether I'm loved or not. I'm the one keeping the score.''
He wasn't at risk for an addicton to money, either. When he told Kakutani “I’m not selling anything,” it was entirely believable. Vidal, though he wrote prolifically and for a general reader, skipped around from genre to genre, seemingly less bent on making a killing than on scent-marking every stump in the cultural landscape. (4)
Promiscuous as to the sort of readers he sought, it would be fair enough to describe Vidal as something of a message drunk, a disseminator of controversial positions who liked to sink his fangs into the hearts and minds of numerous target audiences and vampirize their reactions---whether agreement or outrage---with indiscriminate gusto. (Vidal’s favorite of his own works, Myra Breckenridge, was a satirical revenge fantasy on behalf of someone damaged by the gender role tyrannies of mainstream culture.) But of all the possible obsessions Vidal was giddy with, mark-making---the desire to tag history---put his footprint on the moon---is the likeliest candidate. By his own admission:
“..the novelist, by the very nature of his coarse art, is greedy and immodest; unless he is read by everyone, he cannot delight, instruct, reform, destroy a world he wants, at the least, to be different for his having lived in it.” (5)
Audiences both live and virtual are merely instrumental to such an enterprise; they themselves aren’t what excited and aroused him. It was the opportunity they provided to build and demonstrate efficacy and power. If you revisit Vidal’s famous set-to with Norman Mailer on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 you can see plainly that he was too self-possessed to go ga-ga for any sort of audience at all. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8m9vDRe8fw
At first you see him sparring with Mailer, who arrived drunk and bellicose, no doubt evoking a few faded memories of Vidal’s mother. Mailer is angry that Vidal, in a review of Prisoner of Sex in The New York Review of Books, compared him to Charles Manson and alluded to an unfortunate occasion in which the anti-feminist author stabbed his wife with a penknife. The two writers wrangle, trading insults until the New Yorker’s venerable war reporter, Janet Flanner, (who for some strange reason is never mentioned as this brawl’s winning combatant), cuts in and accuses both men of being worse than rude. They are ignoring everyone else in the room, she says, as if they are alone. But they are not in fact alone. “The audience is here,” she declares, “I’m here; and I’m getting very, very bored!”
Her put-down gets the biggest laugh so far that night.
The audience’s bid for civility doesn’t stop Mailer, who, like true addict, keeps slugging himself into the ropes; but Vidal, who, for all his talk of drinking and lusting after audiences, retreats strategically into Flanner’s corner and starts chatting collusively with her. By his body language and behavior he tactically corrects his error (no longer ignoring her, though continuing to ignore the audience), and re-aligns himself deftly with Mailer’s strongest opponent, castling his queen. If he is feeling at all tipsy or sexual toward his audience it certainly doesn’t show. In the moment, at least, he seems delirium-free, a player above all.
So, coming back to the original question: Why use the language of addiction and compulsion to describe a way of being-in-the-world that, however immoderate, is so remarkably self-directed, productive, goal-driven and resilient? Possibly because every analogy or metaphor is a coin with two faces: the top side is the uncanny alikeness of two disparate things, but the flip side is their stubborn incongruity. Maybe what Vidal was getting at wasn’t the similarity between hitting the bottle and hitting the lecture circuit at all, but rather what was for him the enormous difference between them.
Nowadays the language of addiction is used wantonly---we use it to describe anything from a drug overdose to a fondness for kitten heels. But in Vidal’s world, “taking to drink” meant becoming people like his mother or Norman Mailer, people whose egos routinely crashed to the floor like dropped trays of hors d'oeuvres at a World Hunger fundraiser. Without denying that a writer taking to drink was one very real option, Vidal was suggesting to Kakutani that he relentlessly, maybe compulsively, had chosen a different path, one of world conquest rather than personal implosion. Maybe he wasn’t comparing the pleasures of these two paths at all; maybe he was saying that the thrills of dissipation and the satisfactions of discipline were not only not comparable, but not relevant, and it was only his grandiose desire to enlighten minds that was analagous in its uncontrolled intensity to his mother’s desire to get lit. The quip seems less facetious if you hear it that way, and besides, can you think of any other way to make sense of it?
(2) ...also quoted (somewhat differently and better) as: “Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television.” In: Was It Good For You, Too?Quotations on Love and Sex (1983) by Bob Chieger
(3) In her Oscar acceptance speech of 1985, (for Best Actress in Places in the Heart, 1984) Sally Fields http://www.spike.com/video-clips/nmhmna/sally-fields-1985-oscar-acceptance-speechinterpreted the award as signifying more than the professional recognition authenticated by her previous Best Actress Oscar (for Norma Rae, 1979). She took the second golden statue as proof that the Academy’s appreciation was personal. Fields’ effusive cry, “You like me!!!!” betrayed a dependency on the fondness of strangers with which millions could both squeamishly identify and mock. The acceptance speech quickly became viral parody fodder. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TKK6d3-h2U
(4) ---Mark Feeney of The Boston Globe counted “two dozen novels, a dozen essay collections, two memoirs, two short story collections, and three detective novels (published under the name Edgar Box),” not to mention scores of scripts for stage and screen…” http://www.bo.st/R6aNBz
(5) fromThe Selected Essays of Gore Vidal ---Vidal, Gore; Parini, Jay ----Kindle Location 1000-1004