Gore Vidal is not a man of faith. And the American Humanist Association’s new honorary president ain’t no poster child either. So it goes (as his predecessor Kurt Vonnegut used to say) that Gore Vidal , who still likes to speak his mind and still garners large audiences, will occasionally say things that give humanists pause. Even so, to question his humanist credentials runs counter not only to the kind of individualism we hold so dear, but to our pragmatic need to embrace a humanist of his stature.
Vidal was recently honored for his distinguished contribution to American letters at the National Book Awards, an honor presented by his lifelong friend, Joanne Woodward. She shared the tale of her daughter’s christening, at which Vidal held the child and remarked, “Always a godfather, but never a god.” Surely, as the AHA’s new honorary president, Vidal can act as a supporter and patron for the humanist movement. And just as surely, we can never expect him to be divine. (Although I will say, as someone who sat star-struck with him for three hours, he’s downright elysian, quoting Macbeth with bone-chilling tone and pause, reenacting a party conversation between Tennessee Williams and Greta Garbo, and letting us in on the story of just how those two White House torchiers ended up in his living room.)
As I went over the transcript of the interview with Gore Vidal and the rest of the issue at hand developed, I noticed a more rebellious and even malcontent humanism emerging, quite noticeably in the profile of Albert Camus. Some may find it odd to drop Camus and Vidal into the same camp, but listen as the former outlines his absurdist philosophy and you will recognize the latter: “Living the absurd…means a total lack of hope (which is not the same as despair), a permanent reflection (which is not the same as renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which is not the same as juvenile anxiety).” This may not be de rigueur humanism, but I’d argue it’s a brand of humanism no less. It’s the idea that we may not succeed, but our best efforts count for everything. We may not always agree with others, and often don’t, but as Vidal sees it we must preserve our values and keep to the cause of enlightenment.
This defiance emerges again in Robert M. Price’s examination of why it’s not only foolish but unnecessary for believers to fight against the evident truth of evolution. He channels the late Claude Levi-Strauss in digging up the “deep structure” of Genesis in order to understand the anxiety that produces the fundamentalist position. He also looks at how other religions deal with the question of human evolution, ultimately concluding that “grace is the religious euphemism for chance. “ This brand of humanism can also be interpreted in Lillian Moats’s provocative Letter from Death (excerpted with a foreword by Howard Zinn). Here, it’s Death personified who’s cantankerous, revolted that we humans ignore the truth about war (our aversion to it) and peace (the need to celebrate its potential), which brings me to a disappointing but not exactly unanticipated conclusion. As of this writing President Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, has dedicated 34,000 U.S. troops and military trainers to Afghanistan, launching an “endgame” to the war effort. This isn’t a game and it isn’t a myth about the good fight. Could it be the most realistic path to peace? I can’t say I’m hopeful, but I wish you all a happy new year nonetheless.
Jennifer Bardi is the editor of the Humanist.