Gore Vidal on Monotheism

“Monotheism is easily the greatest disaster to befall the human race.”
― Gore Vidal

“It is astonishing to think that millions of people in my time—now, too, I suppose—actually thought that at a given moment in history two human beings had evolved to a higher state than that of all the gods that ever were or ever will be. This is titanism, as the Greeks would say. This is madness.”
― Gore Vidal (from his novel, Creation)

Gore Vidal (photograph by Carl van Vechten)

Today (October 3rd) is the birthday of the eminently quotable Gore Vidal, who recently died this past July.  Gore Vidal has always been one of my heroes and role models, and I daresay his novel Julian should be *required reading* for anyone who identifies as a pagan, polytheist, or Heathen.

Gore Vidal was a remarkable writer and a remarkable man.  His many books and essays are the sublime creations of a true public intellectual, a self-described “gadfly” with razor-edged wit, and the incredible ability to write historical novels that are often more insightful and illuminating than anything you’ll find in a history textbook or in a “nonfiction” book written by a more traditional historian.  I daresay Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series (Burr, Lincoln, 1876, etc.) may be one of the great American epics and certainly one of the best chronicles of this nation’s history.

Many years ago, I had the privilege and the pleasure to meet Gore Vidal after a book reading and lecture/discussion series.  A friend of mine had somehow gotten tickets to the cocktail party following the event, and when Gore Vidal finally entered the room, my precocious 20-year-old self (at the time I was just a pretty blonde slip of a youth), marched right up to him, with my beloved copy of Julian under my arm, and enthusiastically thanked him for writing one of my favorite novels.  I was quick to proudly exclaim that “Emperor Julian is my hero!”  Gore Vidal (who had a remarkable presence – he seemed larger than life, and he absolutely radiated both charisma and gravitas) then stared directly into my eyes, as if he was boring right into my soul.  Having apparently found what he was looking for, he huffed in a deep breath and loudly barked:  “He’s my hero too!  I wish he’d won!”  And then, in a booming voice that could be heard by the entire room, he bellowed out:  “MONOTHEISM!  It’s gotta go!”  I was delighted, especially when he followed with:  “And I have the solution!”

“What’s your solution, Mr. Vidal?”

He took time for a dramatic pause (everyone was listening now), as he proclaimed:  “Tax the churches!”  We then had a relatively brief but fascinating conversation about the separation of church and state, Julian’s life and philosophy (he dismissed Julian’s Neoplatonism as “absurd but harmless,” though certainly preferable to the alternative represented by Constantine and his Christian heirs), and how different the world might be if Julian had lived and found time to solidify his reign and launch a dynasty.  Vidal then signed my battered and well-loved paperback of the novel.  It was a remarkable experience that I will always remember, and I still can’t believe the grand old gadfly has left us.  However,  his words definitely still carry a sting:

Gore Vidal on the United States:

“We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.”
― Gore Vidal

“America started out wanting to be Greece and ended up Rome.” ― Gore Vidal

“Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half.”
― Gore Vidal

“The American press exists for one purpose only, and that is to convince Americans that they are living in the greatest and most envied country in the history of the world. The Press tells the American people how awful every other country is and how wonderful the United States is and how evil communism is and how happy they should be to have freedom to buy seven different sorts of detergent.”
― Gore Vidal

“I believe there’s something very salutary in, say, beating up a gay-bashing policeman. Preferably one fights through the courts, through the laws, through education, but if at a neighborhood level violence is necessary, I’m all for violence. It’s the only thing Americans understand.”
― Gore Vidal

“Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either. ”
― Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal on Writing:

“Write something, even if it’s just a suicide note. ”
― Gore Vidal

“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”
― Gore Vidal, The Essential Gore Vidal

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”
― Gore Vidal

“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head.”
― Gore Vidal

“In America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler. If you think you’re a great writer, you must say that you are.”
― Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal on Life:

“The unfed mind devours itself.”
― Gore Vidal

“The malady of civilized man is his knowledge of death. The good artist, like the wise man, addresses himself to life and invests with his private vision the deeds and thoughts of men. The creation of a work of art, like an act of love, is our one small yes at the center of a vast no.”
― Gore Vidal

“Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge, all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. Nothing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”
― Gore Vidal

“Of course his dust would be absorbed in other living things and to that degree at least he would exist again, though it was plain enough that the specific combination which was he would never exist again.”
― Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar

“There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
― Gore Vidal

***

If you are interested in learning more about Gore Vidal’s life, I highly recommend the documentary The Education of Gore Vidal, which aired on PBS as part of the American Masters series (it also used to be available on Youtube, but it appears to have been taken down).  Though there are also a ton of great clips of Vidal online.  This Youtube user has many wonderful examples.  And here are two more:

***

We’ll end with a few more marvelous quotes, all from Gore Vidal’s Julian:

“How marvelous books are, crossing worlds and centuries, defeating ignorance and, finally, cruel time itself.”
― Gore Vidal, Julian

“We are given our place in time as we are given our eyes: weak, strong, clear, squinting, the thing is not ours to choose. Well, this has been a squinting, walleyed time to be born in.”
― Gore Vidal, Julian

“Nothing human is finally calculable; even to ourselves we are strange.”
― Gore Vidal, Julian

“Never offend an enemy in a small way.”
― Gore Vidal, Julian

“History is idle gossip about a happening whose truth is lost the instant it has taken place.”
― Gore Vidal, Julian

“I have been reading Plotinus all evening. He has the power to sooth me; and I find his sadness curiously comforting. Even when he writes: “Life here with the things of earth is a sinking, a defeat, a failure of the wing.” The wing has indeed failed. One sinks. Defeat is certain. Even as I write these lines, the lamp wick sputters to an end, and the pool of light in which I sit contracts. Soon the room will be dark. One has always feared that death would be like this. But what else is there? With Julian, the light went, and now nothing remains but to let the darkness come, and hope for a new sun and another day, born of time’s mystery and a man’s love of life.”
― Gore Vidal, Julian

A Pagan Walking Tour of Paris – Day One: Garden Nymphs, Hero-Poets, and Divine Allegories (oh my!)

We arrived in Paris on Tuesday after many, many hours of travel and very few hours of sleep.  We’re staying with a friend on L’île Saint-Louis, the little island in the center of Paris, on the Seine and next to L’île de la Cité (where Notre-Dame is located).  We’re about a block away from the tiny apartment we lived in from 2000-2005.  This is my first trip to Paris since Wildstar’s big art show in 2007, but that was a really short trip (and our entire focus was the art show), so I feel like I haven’t really had a chance to experience this beautiful city since we lived here seven years ago.

And yesterday I experienced The City of Lights as I best remember it from our starving Bohemian artist days – by walking.  And walking.  And walking.  I must have walked at least 12 miles yesterday, maybe more (it’s no wonder we were so much thinner when lived here).  Wildstar and I began the day by crossing La Seine (aka Sequona, our beloved River Goddess and one of this city’s patron deities) to the Right Bank and Le Marais (the gay/Jewish neighborhood), where we had our morning coffee with fresh croissants.  There’s nothing like sitting in a Paris café and watching all the people walk by, and there couldn’t be a bigger contrast to our quiet life in our remote woodland cabin in the Northwest.  I love this city, but I definitely don’t miss the stress and the struggle and the constant activity.  That being said, Paris is still such an amazing place to visit.  In my opinion it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

We walked all over the old neighborhood to regain our bearings and prepare for the upcoming walking tour we’ll be leading.  We traversed the same old passageways, passed the same Gothic architecture, and despite the sudden proliferation of Starbucks (there were *none* in Paris when lived here before, now they’re everywhere), we were pleased at how many of our favorite old shops and restaurants are still in business.  This was even more clear when we walked back to L’île Saint-Louis.  It’s almost like nothing has changed.  The same shops, the same two women at the bakery, the same butcher, the same guy making crêpes at our favorite crêpe stand, even the same old woman (who vaguely resembles Quentin Crisp when he was in his 90s) sitting at the same desk looking out onto the street while she works.  It was all very surreal, like walking through a memory . . .

[Note: None of the photos in this post came from me, I found them on the web.  I am a terrible photographer so these will have to do.]

On the island we had to pay our respects at three important places:

1) The benches on the riverbank, where we once spent many days and nights, making many offerings to La Seine/Sequona.

2) The gilded balcony that was once home to the Club des Hashischins, a private club in the 19th-century that was attended by many cultural luminaries, including many of our poet-heroes:  including Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, and especially a poet by the name of Théophile Gautier, who wrote an incredibly surreal story about this club (containing a hallucination of a man with screaming mandrake roots for feet, and which inspired the name of the Rozz Williams album, Daucus Carota).  This place is significant to us because I once had an elaborate and vivid dream about the club, and the name Théophile Gautier, long before I’d ever heard of either of them, and before we’d even moved to Paris.  I spent years trying to understand the dream, and one day I found out about the story, and the club, and that this club was located on the exact block of Paris where we were then living, just a few doors down on the other side.

3) Square Barye, which features a monument/memorial to one of my favorite sculptors, Antoine-Louis Barye. When we first moved to Paris, I fell in love with the work by Barye at the Musée d’Orsay, especially a beautiful series of allegorical figures (who happen to be male, which is rather rare as far as allegories go). I became somewhat obsessed with Barye, started seeing his work all over Paris, and it later turned out there was a full-scale monument to the man in a park about two blocks from our apartment, which included two of those allegorical figures, Order and Force:

We then went over to the Left Bank, stopped by Shakespeare & Co. (the American bookshop and one of my old hangouts), walked through the Latin Quarter and over to the St. Michel fountain, which I have *always* associated with Hermes despite the overtly Christian imagery:

At this point, a severely jet-lagged Wildstar needed to go back to the apartment and rest, but I decided to continue my walking tour and visit a few old haunts.  I headed a long way down the Seine to the gorgeous Jardin des Plantes, a huge botanical garden and park where I would often sit for hours and write.  This also gave me a chance to revisit one of my favorite neoclassical statues, Amour captive (Love Captured) by Felix Sanzel, which stands in the middle of an incredible rose garden:

Another statue, though, which has no title or attribution, has always puzzled me.  Perhaps someone reading this might be able to help me out. The following statue is clearly a classical philosopher, but which philosopher would be portrayed holding an egg?  Any ideas?

There are so many amazing plants and flowers and quite a few very ancient trees which I also spent time communing with.  I daresay there are more dryads and other nymphs (garden nymphs? park nymphs?) in the Jardin des Plantes than almost any other park in Paris I’ve visited.

I then walked to the Fontaine Cuvier (dedicated to the zoologist Georges Cuvier) – a fountain with an allegorical statue representing Natural History, and which features a stern-looking goddess figure surrounded by animals.  I’ve always found something particularly numinous about this fountain and another tiny fountain across the street, so I paid my respects to the fountain nymphs here:

Nearby are the Arènes de Lutèce, the Arenas of Lutèce (Lutèce was the Roman name for Paris, hence “City of Lights”), which are a Gallo-Roman gladiatorial arena and amphitheater from the 1st century CE that is now a public park.  Years ago I remember a bunch of young football/soccer players running around, beating their chests and exclaiming “We’re the lions now!”  I loved to sit in the amphitheater and read or write while the “lions” rampaged below.

The park was packed on this beautiful sunny afternoon, and beneath me were about 50 guys in a tournament playing the jeu de boules (that game so popular in France where metal balls are thrown into the sand . . . I have no idea how it’s played).

After the Arenas, I felt a strange compulsion to stop inside an old church I had never visited before, St. Etienne du Mont.  In the United States I never set foot inside a Christian church unless I absolutely have to for some reason (usually for a funeral).  But churches in Europe, especially in France, are different.  They’re aesthetically far superior to their counterparts in North America, they’re often built on pagan sites and frequently contain many pagan elements. I’ll talk about this more when I discuss Notre Dame in a future post, but yesterday I heard a voice calling me to stop in and pay a visit.  And sure enough, I was immediately led to a side chapel containing a beautiful allegorical statue of Esperance (Hope) holding an anchor. This lovely statue was made in 1826 by one S.-J. Bru (I cannot find a photograph on the interwebs).  Divine Allegories were everywhere yesterday, and so I paid homage to the Goddess of Hope and moved on.

I headed to The Panthéon, (which became the Temple of Reason during the French Revolution), where many French cultural heroes are buried, including  Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Toussaint Louverture, and Marie Curie:

Outside I poured libations to the Goddess of Reason, as well as my poet-heroes Voltaire and Victor Hugo (I was reading Les Miserables on the plane . . . such a wise and beautiful book).  I then sat for a while beneath the temple columns and read a few favorite passages of Plato’s Timaeus in the cool shade.

My next stop was the Luxembourg Gardens, which were originally built at the behest of Marie de’ Medici.  The park is filled with over a hundred different statues and fountains, including many of my poet-heroes (George Sand, Charles Baudelaire, Stendhal, Paul Verlaine, Leconte de Lisle), a series of Classical Goddesses, and many others.  Below are a number of those statues, starting with one that is particularly interesting in terms of hero-cultus – Le Marchand des Masques (The Merchant of Masks) by Zacharate Astrue.  It depicts a trickster-like lad holding up a mask while surrounded by a ring of masks depicting the actual (rather creepy) death masks of a number of 19th-century writers, artists, and composers – Hugo, Balzac, Dumas fils, Delacroix, Corot, Berlios, Fauré and others:

Dancing Faun by Eugène Louis Lequesne

Le Triomphe de Silene (The Triumph of Silenus) by Aime Jules Dalou

Monument in honor of Leconte de Lisle

Musicien by Jean Valette

The Medici Fountain (above) is a particularly numinous spot and a great place to sit in a chair and read or write.  The fountain portrays Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea, and there’s this uncanny mirror-like effect in the water that photos can’t really convey.  It’s surrounded by some particularly large and beautiful trees.  I honored the fountain nymphs and the dryads before I left.

My final stop was the Musée de Cluny, which is primarily known for being a Museum of the Middle Ages, with a lovely medieval Jardin d’Amour and, most famously, The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.  However, what few pagans realize is that the Musée de Cluny sits on top of an ancient Roman bath-house, and is home to one of the two statues in Paris of our beloved Emperor Julian, who is a hero to most pagans I know.  If you’re a pagan and you’re visiting Paris, you should definitely stop by the Musée de Cluny and pay homage to the last pagan emperor of the Rome.  (The other statue of Julian used to be at the Louvre, where I would visit him often, but the Louvre statue has unfortunately either been in storage or on loan since at least 2005!)

And speaking of the Louvre, I spent many hours immersed in the Greek & Roman antiquities section(s) today, which will be the subject of my next post!

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