Explaining the ‘creative side’ to LSD, the defining psychedelic drug of the American counterculture movement in 1960s, Tim Doody writes in The Morning News: “Francis Crick confessed that he was tripping the first time he envisioned the double helix. Steve Jobs called LSD ‘one of the two or three most important things’ he’d experienced.”
Perhaps LSD can explain some of the genius of the celebrated American writer Gore Vidal who confessed to having sampled “every major drug, once.” Vidal, an inveterate experimenter, avowedly found it hard to abstain from LSD.
Despite his hedonistic life – most of it spent in drug and alcohol-induced torpor while he was not chasing women – Vidal lived to be 86 before succumbing to pneumonia at his home in California on July 31.
One of the most acerbic critics of the American government in his final few years, Vidal first came into prominence with the publication of his third novel “The City and the Pillar” (1948), which is considered the first major work of fiction to deal with the issue of homosexuality, no-holds-barred.
The book was considered so prurient by most of its reviewers that they vowed never to review any of Vidal’s future books in the future. Incidentally, and I have to admit with much regret, it is one of only two of Vidal’s novels I have read; the other one being the Kathmandu-based “Kalki.”
Although I had heard a lot about Vidal, I had not read any of his major works until one day around a decade ago I came upon this tattered purple hardcover while browsing secondhand books in front of the Royal Nepal Airlines building. I was intrigued. I had no idea Vidal had penned a novel based in Nepal.
The 1978 novel revolves around James J. Kelly (the self-proclaimed Kalki) who is a former soldier in the US Army and now leads a religious cult in Kathmandu. (In Hindu mythology, Kalki is the tenth avatar of Lord Bishnu who will end the present age of darkness, Kaliyug, to usher in a new epoch based on righteousness, Satyayug.)
Photo Courtesy: Jerry Cokke/Time & Life Pictures
In the apocalyptic book, Kelly plans to end the human race by killing off everyone in the world, save himself and his wife Lakshmi. The goal is to populate the world with their offspring in order to give birth to a new world order. But a cruel final twist puts paid to Kelly’s earthshaking plans.
It was after reading Kalki that I got interested in Vidal’s non-fiction writing and started following his polemical essays against (chiefly) the American political establishment and its tendency to ride roughshod over the rest of the world.
In his final few years, he made a relentless attack on what he believed was the mindless wars set in motion by the ‘stupidity’ of the George W. Bush administration. He didn’t stop there.
As Christopher Hitchens, another astute polemic on American power, alleged, he indeed did take it a step too far when he blamed the Bush administration’s “incompetence” for the 9/11 attacks in his 2002 book “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated.”
He went as far as to argue that the attack was provoked by “our government’s reckless assaults upon other societies.” Barack Obama (whom he at one point blamed of running a ‘police state’ at home) too failed to live up to his high expectations.
Though perhaps best remembered for his anti-establishment political polemic (wrongly, many believe, given the rich oeuvre he covers in his fiction, everything from homosexuality to transcendentalism), there was no area of literature Vidal didn’t try his hands in: he has to his credit 25 novels, two memoirs, multiple volumes of essays, television dramas and screenplays.
Never shy of a bit of publicity, he even acted out his part in The Simpsons. Vidal had no qualms about projecting a larger-than-life public image of his flawed self.
As he liked to say, “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
Besides Kalki, I will best remember Vidal for his unswerving belief on the causes he championed—although Vidal did fit into Michel Foucault’s mould of a polemic, one who confronts his target of derision not as partner in the search for truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. Bush Jr. would vouch for it.