That people die, authors included, is no strange fact—but it is made strange by the deaths of authors so large they seem immovable, pillars of the craft exempt from time and its draw. As I tack on more years to my own life, I’ve come up against the reality of its duration with increasing frequency (as I suspect I will from now on); the most close-to-home reminders are meted out in the losses of writers I never imagined could die. It feels odd, writing that, but it’s true; when you’re a teenager with a hundred strong feelings to every well-put-together phrase, those who can do what you can’t do seem untouchable. They seem to be writing, living, fighting—being furious, loved, unloved, excellent, lackluster—in a vacuum not subject to the same laws of consequence, free of the tyranny of cause and effect. Their work drips with self-evident, but not cocksure, importance: in that way that objects, like rare fossils and manuscripts, can be oblivious to their beauty. Each piece from such a writer is a Spicerian dispatch from the Martians, a transcription of some structureless truth that could be lent structure, a mineshaft into another subterranean layer of the human that I had no idea I wanted to visit until, pages later and without my consent, I was delivered there.
And then I woke up one day to read these people have died—to find that the conduits, if they endure, do not endure past the message; that the Martians will transmit through other radios, and the truth (if it’s out there) will enlist other workers with pickaxes. That these people, too, are touchable. I had felt this sensation before last year—of witnessing the timelessness of those I admired give way to biology—but never as strongly as then, when I heard about two deaths that unnerved me the way one looks at the calendar to find, suddenly, that the month has given over to the next without warning. First went Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and intellectual whose commitment to realism both offended and informed. I didn’t agree with everything he said—he said too many things for that—but that didn’t matter: it was the principle of his discourse, which insisted on accountability in an era of equivocation and relativism. And then Wisława Szymborska, who had her own way of demanding the same, passed in February. I’d first learned her name from her poem “Photograph from September 11,” and it stayed with me from then on. “Nothing can ever happen twice,” she proclaims in “Nothing Twice.” Therefore “the sorry fact is / that we arrive here improvised / and leave without the chance to practice.”
The recent deaths of Ray Bradbury and Gore Vidal were Hitchens and Szymborska redux: two personas I’d taken to be perennially existent transitioned into nonexistence. What either writer left behind is not for me to say; like scanning for the earth’s curvature at sea level, my interaction with each—in the arenas of individual texts—has been too myopic to allow me to gauge the impact of their departure. But what both had in common was an inexorable dedication to scrutinizing society and its metaphysics. Though the verdicts were often gloomy, part of this scrutiny was the result of an insatiable quest for something better. Writing out of any true nihilism, after all—one that extends to language, and language’s capacity to mean—is impossible. No matter how hot the books burn in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or how bankrupt the believers in Vidal’s Messiah, each was written with a particular reader in mind: someone who might comprehend the gravity of the quagmires deliberated behind each volume’s thorny veneer, someone who might solve them. At the very least there would be readers who remembered moments from the work of each, moments they paused as something inscribed itself—revelation, advice, syntactical brilliance; all memory now.
The first pages of Messiah deserve that phrase so often abused by overrated B-movies and schlocky thriller novels: “tour-de-force,” the same phrase I would use to describe the beginning of Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star or Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land. Each is a prelude to the plot that comes after but at the same time its own beast, more akin to a poem in a collection than a page from a novel. Messiah begins thusly:
I envy those chroniclers who assert with reckless but sincere abandon: “I was there. I saw it happen. It happened thus.” Now I too, in every sense, was there, yet I cannot trust myself to identify with any accuracy the various events of my own life, no matter how vividly they may seem to survive in recollection… if only because we are all, I think, betrayed by those eyes of memory which are as mutable and particular as the ones with which we regard the material world, the vision altering, as it so often does, from near in youth to far in age.
It’s hard not to commit the intentional fallacy and read this passage in Vidal’s voice. But maybe it’s a worthwhile exercise. For all of his cantankerousness and refusal to couch his opinions in qualifiers, the narrator of this passage sounds both wistful and destitute, sure of the truth’s existence but unconfident in his ability to seek it. The two eyes of the body are no more trustworthy than the third eye of the mind, though overcoming this hurdle to certainty is a requisite for every testimonial, every sworn account, every oath: “I was there. I saw it happen. It happened thus.” What Vidal’s narrator—or Vidal himself—prompts us to consider here seems, at first, the self-assigned finality of meaning as it makes it way to a new status as propaganda; Messiah takes up this topic through the doorways of organized religion and mass culture, which were favorites of their author. The thirst for sustainable narrative is what such claims to certainty satisfy: the comfort to be found in a story with no unknown variables. But it also prompts a consideration of the act of writing itself. It asks what such an act presumes, and what it requires. Is it necessary to skip over the handicaps of memory and the fickleness of our senses when testifying to an experience, whether fictional or not? Are even the most gradated and nuanced expositions broken by the realities of their conveyance? Age proves itself an arc, but not one that swings toward focus or accuracy: farsightedness and nearsightedness merely swap places; we can’t rely on years for wisdom. Taken to its furthest extreme, this statement is a sort of Socratic renunciation of knowledge—one that eats every form of certainty before turning its teeth on itself. What survives vividly in recollection, to paraphrase Vidal, may have very well happened—but memory is no pedestal on which to set history. “I am tempted to affirm that historic truth is quite impossible,” the narrator continues, “although I am willing to accept the philosophic notion that it may exist abstractly, perfect and remote in the imagination.”
But that which exists abstractly often fails to stand up and be counted when the time comes. This narrator chides those assertive chroniclers as “reckless” but also concedes their “sincerity”: they themselves lend their words credence, through their voices and (if applicable) their beliefs. Regardless of the objective verity or falsity of their claims, no matter how grandiose or risible, they have their bodies to back them up—they have made themselves vessels for their messages. Vidal, by prefacing Messiah with this disclaimer, seems to be aware of the paradoxes of testimony, the conundrum of truth’s un-locatable location. He envies the proselytizing, but not to the point of emulation. He sets them aside, and then commences one of his most unwittingly prophetic novels—one written, as the back cover reminds, before “the excesses of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and ‘Do,’ the guru of Heaven’s Gate.” These instances of cult violence are the freshest in cultural memory, but they aren’t otherwise exceptional; there were cult leaders before the novel’s 1954 publication, and there will be cult leaders in the future. Messiah isn’t as purposefully comedic as Live From Golgotha or as deadpan as his essays; what’s oddest about the book is its self-consciousness as it skewers and prods that perennial savior-seeking nerve which seems to be integral to the human genome. It doubts itself, but not too much. Vidal, after all, finished the book.
Ray Bradbury’s engagement with authorial certainty was undeniably different than Vidal’s, but no less sophisticated; like Vidal, his ire was honed to a needle-point, one that you didn’t know was sticking you until it had already entered your vein. And both questioned the master narratives of history, religion, and jingoism—Vidal especially with his 1973 book Burr, a re-interpretation of some fundamental pivots of American history via the imaginary memoirs of Aaron Burr: a subversion of the fable of one man’s life and, by extension, that of the nation he helped mold. Both authors wrote satirically, and the satires of both shone blackly with the mortal humor of the morbid. (Like the iconic masks of Greek tragedy: laugh, or else cry.) But Bradbury, despite the didacticism implicit in his work, insisted vigorously on the autonomy of his intellect and his writing hand, as he did in a 1979 afterword to Fahrenheit 451:
The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.
Let them eat cake. Bradbury’s echo of a phrase attributed to Marie Antoinette (falsely; it appeared in a French political cartoon) hints toward the devil-may-care attitude of a man with the guts to do what he knows needs doing. It is a credo of neo-American self-reliance, a combination of disgruntlement and disinterest: you do your thing, and I’ll do mine, and never the twain shall converge. It is a manifesto of sorts, a reconfirmation of the act of writing and of the page as spaces, both, “to make and unmake laws”—to experiment with the creation of worlds that might either destroy themselves or show us the secret to saving our own. It’s telling that he leaves his various targets with a way out, offering them the same liberty he requires instead of slewing them with denunciations: the Mormons can write their own plays, the Irish can rent their own typewriters. There are no ad hominems—not here, at least—against either group, no assumptions or surmises as to why they might reject his work. Bradbury’s assertion of authority over his work doesn’t even touch upon the issue of certainty in narrative or authorial voice, really, because it doesn’t need to; demanding one’s right to total creative freedom merely allows one to begin negotiating such issues. Before then, there can be no singular voice, no meaningfully free creation. And this seems to be Bradbury’s point, which he reiterated in a 1996 interview with Playboy. “Whereas back then I wrote about the tyranny of the majority, today I’d combine that with the tyranny of the minorities,” he said. “These days, you have to be careful of both.” The tyranny of anyone whatsoever, it seems, is problematic; the author cannot condone any sort of interference. Literary audiences, “the people,” the academy—anyone seeking to revise or sway the manuscript-in-progress would do well to stay away. “I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me,” he said in an interview with The Paris Review in 2010.
No work, however, can live in a vacuum. Even if the writer is the only person who ever reads it, the work is still a mirror by which he or she sees their reflection: a part of the self has left the self, and exists outside it. But this is an odd case, and mostly irrelevant. Any published work, on the other hand, immediately invites conversation in virtue of its being published, an offering-up of itself for digestion and interpretation. And there is no work of literature without an audience that, in turn, defines for both themselves as individuals and for the collective not just what that work “means” but its context, its importance, and its place in the canon (if it has one). This not to conflate the audience and the text a la reader-response theory, but to be realistic about the social conditions in which works of literature arise. Bradbury’s call for a renewed respect of the individual creator arrests the impulse of those social conditions to intrude and mitigates the public from trampling over what will be, in time, a component of the public mind. This isolationism can’t hold forever, and one can’t imagine Bradbury thinking he has nothing whatsoever in common with, say, the Mormons. But before any discussion can happen, one needs to be able to spit one’s words out, to finish a sentence, to work uninhibited in one’s own confines. Neither Bradbury nor Vidal were strangers to the thought police: both had their books banned at various points in their careers, for enormities ranging from the use of “God damn” to depictions of homosexuality. Bradbury knew the hottest flame books had to fear wasn’t a flame at all, but an empty space on a library shelf where each used to be.
Toward the end of Messiah’s first chapter, Vidal writes of the milieu in which a psychological despot can emerge:
…Dubious art was fashioned, authorities were invoked, dreams given countenance and systems constructed on the evidence of private illumination… And that, finally, was the prevailing note of the age: since reason had been declared insufficient, only a mystic could provide the answer, only he could mark the boundaries of life with a final authority, inscrutably revealed. It was perfectly clear. All that was lacking was the man.
Except the man wasn’t lacking. (Nor has he ever, historically speaking, been lacking; our cup of self-proclaimed leaders runneth over.) This last sentence, which ends the chapter, does all the work a last sentence should. After as decadent and guttural a meditation as what Gore pours forth on those first pages, a cliffhanger—one that invites itself to be read two ways. The first is through the furtively elegiac tone of the passage itself, and the second with the knowledge that there is such a man. This latter option is the premise that Messiah builds its whole world on: John Cave, the mortician who amasses hordes of followers after announcing that death is inestimably superior to life. The irony here is clear: the mystic is so trusted in virtue of his being a mystic that whatever his pronouncement, no matter how ridiculous—here we sense Vidal reaching a bit; the Freudian thanatos comes on a bit strong—like that of the proposition that existence is irredeemably inferior to nonexistence. But for him, these bizarre sentiments aren’t just likely, but already adopted as (pun or no pun intended) gospel.
“Unfortunately,” Vidal wrote in a 1992 article for The Nation titled “Monotheism and its Discontents,” “there are two subjects that we are never permitted to discuss with any seriousness: race and religion, and how our attitudes toward the first are rooted in the second.” His analysis of the national tendency toward one-god religions then takes on a tone reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: “We are like people born in a cage and unable to visualize any world beyond our familiar bars of prejudice and superstition.” We can’t turn toward the sun; its light is too bright. We’ll spend our lives, instead, watching the shadows we cast on the cave wall. There’s no sanguine prognosis here; Vidal isn’t interested in prescribing medicine. He’s interested in the diagnosis: what’s wrong, where it’s wrong, why it’s wrong, and how it’s wrong. Only once we get that straight, his methodology seems to say, do we have any hope of a positive outlook. But how can we reconcile this position with the choice to actively undertake a work of art, which appears in its own “revelatory” way? Vidal might dissuade the comparison, might say that it matters not who the author is or that the book “manifests” itself as a vending machine for some brand of truth, but what the book actually contains. There are two tendencies, and they split: one to take down scripture, and another to insert new (and ostensibly better) scrolls in its place.
What can literary culture learn from Vidal? The ethos of “revelationism”—the dispensation of wisdom from pen-wielding anthropoids with access to some Olympus—can take notes, for sure. Aesthetic pleasure of a certain order, whether derived from another or for oneself, is not unlike a culinary experience of a certain order: fast food. Everything is prepared behind the scenes and commoditized; nothing vestigial remains from the actual process of creation. Resources that would never be able to have been conjoined without the axle-driven feet of transportation find spots on the same plate. One walks into a chain bookstore and sees the culture fitted nicely with a grid; upon closer inspection, it’s found to be a net, one straining its contents into perfect little cubes. Vidal, by nature or by affect, took a Lovecraftian tone in many ways, and was no fan of heroes: “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise,” he wrote in 1956. But the bingo machine of chance stokes the revelatory fire. This was the case with Bradbury, whose debut in American letters was marked by the publication of his short story “Homecoming” in 1947. As Gerald Jonas writes in The New York Times, it was Truman Capote who pulled Bradbury’s manuscript from the pile, a manuscript which later earned an O. Henry Award. Lightning-strikes such as this do nothing to counteract the myth.
Perhaps most seriously, a mind always looking toward the next revelation-bearer, the next quick fix, is apt to forget its own past—and with it, the context against which new claims to truth are measured. For Vidal, this ailment affects the bookworms as well as the faithful. As he writes in his 1988 essay collection At Home:
The average “educated” American has been made to believe that, somehow, the United States must lead the world even though hardly anyone has any information at all about those countries we are meant to lead. Worse, we have very little information about our own country and its past. …Our writers today, in common with the presidents and paint manufacturers, live in a present without past among signs whose meanings are uninterpretable.
Uninterpretable, that is, until when they’re replaced with new signs, the meanings of which will be immediately decipherable, mystically revealed, authorized by necessity. Though no optimism about history is warranted except—as Vidal’s narrator argues—in the abstract, we still need its shattered pieces. Without them, continuity of identity is lost; without continuity of identity, the potential for ascertaining our evolution (or devolution) is nil. “Happily for the busy lunatics who rule over us, we are permanently the United States of Amnesia,” he wrote in The Nation in 2004, words that must’ve been tinged with the memory of the era-altering events three years earlier. “We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” And then we wait for the curtain to be drawn back, as it has been and always will be.
One anecdote lends some credibility to the image of an artistically-totalitarian Bradbury. Present at a UCLA class to talk about Fahrenheit 451, he walked out when the students insisted that the book was about censorship while Bradbury insisted it was about the prevalence of television and its effects. True to form, Bradbury grew irritated at any external imposition of “meaning”; others could go off and manufacture their own semantics, but tampering with his was not an option. He even posted a video on his website to correct this purported error in interpretation. His disdain for television is apparent elsewhere, too; in the same interview with Playboy, he said, “I tell my lecture audiences to never, ever watch local TV news.” He held that no amount of gadgetry or sci-fi chrome would ever supplant the fundamental skills of reading and writing, just as he held that many forward-looking works of fiction were actually critiques of what precedes their imagined futures: “Science fiction is also a great way to pretend you are writing about the future when in reality you are attacking the recent past and the present.” Just as in Messiah, history takes a hit.
But for all the seeming ill-temperedness of either Vidal or Bradbury, there was a sense of energy in each—a sense of reaching toward something worthwhile. What this was in either case would be hard to say: a more egalitarian social scenario, perhaps; a more rational communal consciousness. Each had their slipups and dustups, but these never shipwrecked their brilliance. Each was hitched, however imperfectly or problematically, to some Enlightenment permutation of reason; this commitment never stood in the way of their taste for the fantastical. Vidal churned out alternative histories, and Bradbury lent verisimilitude to the unlikeliest personas. Neither seemed to care about the likelihood of success; branching off from the mainstream was its own reward. “Digression is the soul of wit,” Bradbury told The Paris Review. “Take the philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton, or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones.” A refrain from Ezekiel, there, but also a validation of the tangential, the intricate, the improbable. It is here their revelations lie—revelations that aren’t revered for their one sake but for what follows them, a sort of misanthropic virtue that insists on the possibility of progress but maintains its drollness. Sam Weller, in Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, transcribes an anecdote that is at once revelation and creation story for Bradbury. The author himself begins:
I was in love with circuses and their mystery: I suppose the most important memory is of Mr. Electrico. On Labor Day weekend, 1932, when I was twelve years old, he came to my hometown with the Dill Brothers. …He was a performer sitting in an electric chair and a stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end. I sat below, in the front row, and he reached down with a flaming sword full of electricity and he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose and he cried, “Live, forever!” And I thought, “God, that’s wonderful. How do you do that?” The next day, I had to go to the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, “Stop the car,” and he said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “I have to get out.”
What happened next involved no blueprinting an apparatus designed to achieve immortality, but the utter surrealism that accompanies moments of epiphany. After asking Mr. Electrico to help him master a magic trick he’d struggled with, the performer introduced him to the rest of the circus staff, including the tattooed individual who’d later become the Illustrated Man in Bradbury’s eponymous short story. The two sat by a nearby lake, and a conversation ensued; Mr. Electrico said he was glad Bradbury was back in his life. When prompted to explain himself, no simple answer came. “You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918,” he said. “You were wounded in the battle of the Argonne Forest and you died in my arms outside there, twenty-two years ago. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.”
After this, Bradbury says, he stood by the carousel and cried; days later, he began a writing habit that fueled him through 600 short stories and 27 novels. Perhaps what I feel, looking at the lifelong project of such a prolific writer, is awe; perhaps it’s envy. In part, it’s the wish that maybe I might be able to carry forth, by inches or by miles, the same enterprise. Both Bradbury and Vidal destabilized the certainty of perception and moral imperatives; both, though not sinless themselves, went ahead and cast the first stone. The conversations that followed weren’t panaceas, and sometimes they weren’t even salves. Sometimes they were shouting matches. The pieces they wrote were contrarian, and—not accidentally—influential. But this is no eulogy, and the texts of either author aren’t sacred objects: I have my own Mr. Electricos to find, my own screeds to shred. The works of these aggressively unique writers won’t likely be replicated, replaced, or even closely imitated. But this doesn’t mean that their task won’t be handed down; it will, but in the form of risk and rigorous scrutiny as praxis. If adopted, this risk will inevitably take the form of a theory, an ethos, or a novel, and will enter the social bloodstream where writers disappear but their works circulate in perpetuity. Szymborska’s passing saddened me in the way that one is saddened when the tally of good things in the world slumps lower, but her poem “Photograph from September 11” stays with me. It is, as Charles Wright might say, a mental tattoo. The poem talks about a picture of those who jumped from the Twin Towers, but it also seems fitting as a makeshift memorial for two skeptics who professed their own convictions: “I can do only two things for them— / describe this flight / and not add a last line.” Then, maybe, we might step out of the cave and into the sun.