What’s Making Me Happy: The United States of Amnesia

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final topic, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: The United States of Amnesia, a documentary about Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal’s America.

I’ve been a Gore Vidal fan going on ten years at this point. Once, while working in the library in college, I successfully persuaded one of the library directors that she should read his novel Creation and she liked it well enough that she pitched the idea of a library-staff-led book club where we would take turns suggesting books and leading discussion. The idea fell through (for which I was relieved), but it felt good that she liked my suggestion.

G.V. is a polarizing, divisive, and compelling character. This documentary, which came out in 2013, the year after G.V. died, marries the large number of T.V. pieces V. did in his lengthy public career, with interviews that he did with the producers in the last years of his life. The result isn’t as restricted a scope as Errol Morris’ work on Donald Rumsfeld, but, at the same time, the outside interviews about G.V. (including with Christopher Hitchens) take a backseat to V.’s outsized, yet reclusive personality.

As any good biographical documentary would, it begins with G.V. as a young man and the relationship with his parents and their relationship to the American Elite–his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was one of Roosevelt’s aviation advisors (and may have had an affair with Amelia Earhart) and his mother, Nina Gore, was married from 1935-41 to Hugh D. Auchincloss, whose third wife was Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of Jacqueline Kennedy. This was very much high society. G.V. liked to say that he was desperately trying to escape it.

But other than noting with some regularity, because how could one not, the strata of society that G.V. occupied, the documentary didn’t dwell on these relationships. Nor does it dwell on issues of sexuality and censorship that plagued him. Instead it worked to reconcile G.V.’s intellectualism and aloofness with his charismatic and aristocratic mien and his acerbic wit in the frequent appearances as one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals. The United States of Amenesia touches on all of the prominent controversies (including one where the BBC called G.V. and William Buckley “Controvertialists” rather than commentators) so that it can cover the broad scope of G.V.’s work and appearances, but (at 83 minutes) it doesn’t drag.

I don’t agree with G.V. entirely, but find him to be fascinating. Ultimately, The United States of Amnesia provides one final rostrum for an exceptionally insightful and utterly unabashed public intellectual to speak from. Love him or hate him, Gore Vidal remains worth thinking about.

Assorted Links

  1. When Philosophers Join the Kill Chain-An op-ed by Mark Levine in Al-Jazeera about Bradley Strawser, the philosopher who has been defending the moral imperative of done strikes. Levine is highly critical of Strawser, particularly in his attempts to defend the use of drones through the concepts of just war without considering the implications for actual people. Another academic is less than thrilled at Levine’s blunt use of philosophers, but agrees with his overall point.
  2. Remembering Gore Vidal: A Dying Breed– A blog post on the Economist that points out that Gore Vidal was a breed of public intellectual that is not commonly seen anymore.
  3. Court Rejects Assertion that ‘Tenure’ Means Continuous Employment-A law professor in Michigan was fired after she refused to teach the assigned courses, an act that has now been upheld through a court case and an appeal. I am not entirely clear on what the details of the case were, but it seems that she tried to make the claim that tenure entails continuous lifetime employment, something that the court explicitly did not uphold. It seems that this will just help define the parameters of behavior that warrants termination, but it is a definition that bears watching.
  4. Survival Strategy for Humanists: Engage, Engage– A piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how humanities can survive in the future. Not much new here, but it is nice that this sort of argument seems to be slowly picking up steam. The idea is that communication, writing, teaching skills need to be taught and then we should stop writing books that are utterly incomprehensible.
  5. Writers and readers on Twitter and Tumblr-An article on Slate that implies that “coddling” (my words) has a negative impact on art and artistry, so the feel good back-patting that takes place between authors and readers online only serves as a cheap form of therapy, but does not improve literature. I think that the author is not totally wrong.
  6. The “Immeasurable”– An enlightening graph about grading.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. The Land of Big Groceries, Big God, and Smooth Traffic-a note in The Atlantic about a number of misconceptions and American idiosyncrasies that people visiting for the first time experience. Some speak highly of the United States, some are funny, some are depressing.
  2. Gore Vidal obituary – From the Guardian. Vidal is one of my favorite authors, from his essays to his novels (of which I have only read five or six). My favorite is Creation, in which Vidal discusses politics and religion, but mostly tries to break free from the conception that the Greeks were the spark that lit civilization. Since I am working on my doctorate in Greek history, this is a particularly pertinent reminder and something I subscribe to. A final project for a course I took at graduate school we had to write a world history syllabus, and Creation was an assigned reading on mine.
  3. Syria: Lamp in the Storm– An article about Syria (originally posted by Will), non-violence and what the UN can do to stop combat. He is critical of the limited numbers and limited mandate of the UN contingent preparing for Syria, and argues that what is happening in Syria is not merely a limited conflict that only matters to Syria, but is something that does concern the world at large. If only Syria had nuclear weapons.
  4. Siri, Take This Down – An article in the Atlantic about the next possible evolution in writing, namely the widespread use of voice to text. Right now it is not that widely used, and the use of dictation has fallen by the wayside, too. I personally prefer writing by hand, as I have written here and here. This article cites Heidegger’s lectures on Parmenides where he touches on some of the same issues, and so I may revisit the topic.
  5. How to save an independent bookstore-An article in the Washington Post about some innovative and ambitious plan to save an independent bookstore in San Fransisco.
  6. Faces of Hope– Some pictures on The Atlantic from Afghanistan.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?