Imperial Dope

Alan Hollinghurst

  • Creation by Gore Vidal
    Heinemann, 510 pp, £8.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 394 50015 6

Creation is a novel that describes, creates and analyses history, and it is not the first of Gore Vidal’s novels to do so. He has already devoted a lengthy trilogy to American history, and Julian, though set some eight hundred years later than Creation, shares the new novel’s concern with history both political and religious in the ancient world. Both books examine critical ways in which ideas of a more or less religious kind impinge on and determine political and imperial growth. Julian’s apostasy could have prevented the development of the Christian Church and radically affected the progress of the Western world, and the novel captures a period of ideological instability. Similarly, in Creation, the counterbalance of emergent oriental religions is caught at the moment when paganism was being overthrown, and the course of world civilisation to a great extent conditioned.

Julian was also technically interesting in going beyond the I, Claudius autobiographical procedure to an autobiography interpolated and interpreted by records written from other viewpoints. The effect of this was both to intensify the feeling of actuality which is one of the main fascinations of the historical novel, and to create, from the plentiful and contrasting sources available, a historiographical demonstration of the merely partial reliability of such sources. It also brought into a challenging proximity the novel’s imaginative liberty and the fairly commonplace notion that historical records are themselves frequently possessed of a covert imaginative element. Though drama and dramatic poetry had been able purveyors of such a dialectic for centuries and had illustrated both the ideological nature of the historical imagination and the more personal cognitive incoherence of events when seen from several different viewpoints, Vidal had opened up the novel to this more sophisticated kind of historical analysis for the first time. In Messiah, too, Vidal had examined the mechanics of religious propagation by inventing Cavesword, a religion of the future whose mundane origins are rapidly mythologised and bureaucratised by being written down.

The narrative technique of Creation is also one which captures the translation of an oral into a written tradition and suggests something of the vicissitudes to which texts are susceptible: the narrator, Cyrus Spitama, a fictional grandson of Zoroaster and Persian ambassador to Periclean Athens, dictates his life-story in blind old age to his great-nephew Democritus. There is no reason to think that Democritus alters anything, but towards the end he does interpolate a passage which alludes to his own opinions as he remembers them many years later, and at the end indicates how he has taken the step of dividing the story into nine books. Cyrus is initially persuaded to relate his history when he expresses his outrage on hearing Herodotus lecture on the Persian Wars. Though the point is not made explicit, the posthumous arrangement of Cyrus’s alternative historical text is presumably an imitation of the way Herodotus’s history was posthumously divided into nine books by Alexandrian librarians. Herodotus’s books were named after the Muses, but in Vidal’s a parodic spiral of initiation takes place in which increase in knowledge and experience brings obfuscation and blindness rather than enlightenment.

Cyrus’s partiality and nationalism as a historian predictably invert Herodotus’s equally unreliable priorities: ‘The Greeks who boast of Marathon and Salamis and Plataea as marvellous victories do not realise that none of these engagements was of the slightest significance to Persia. The fact that the Greeks were able to hold their own in the burned-out cities of Attica is hardly the stuff of military glory. But Persia was hugely shaken by Cimon’s victory at the mouth of the Eurymedon River ...’ The colouring of the view according to a particular dynastic and imperialist persuasion also gives a practical and political function to the history, as many of the subjects it covers are of immediate relevance and are suppressed by a kind of self-imposed official secrets act. He omits to describe his journey to Cathay since he doesn’t want the Greeks to know how he got there, which is a disappointment to the novel-reader, though a cunning indication of how historical texts can be limited by contingency as well as expanded by nationalistic vanity.

Cyrus reapproaches stock subjects which have become ingrained not only in historical record but in art, and he is repeatedly scornful of Greek dramatists, especially Aeschylus, whose death from a dropped tortoise he finds highly comic. The most extreme instance of textual reinterpretation, and the most relevant to the novel, comes in the work of Pigres, a poet who claims to be ‘Homer born again’ and who rewrites the Iliad interjecting a line of his own after each of Homer’s. Here both art and history are threatened, but in a potentially creative way: Pigres’s interpolations into the received text in some respects parallel Vidal’s fictional additions to received history, and Vidal, who like Pigres can see, is pretending through the figure of the blind Cyrus not to be able to, like Homer.

The main function of Vidal’s inventions is to make accessible the religious as much as the historical variety of this critical time. Cyrus Spitama was present when Zoroaster was murdered and heard the voice of the Wise Lord speaking through his grandfather’s dying person. This gives him a position of almost prophetic superiority, but happily his sense of vocation is weaker than his political ambition (‘the way of the golden eagle of the Achaemenid’), and easily succumbs before an intensive curiosity about other religions and other theories of the creation of matter and life. Half-Persian and half-Greek in origin, Cyrus is brought up in Persia with his contemporary Xerxes, with whom he visits Babylon; witnesses the beginning of the Greek Wars, as he calls them; and is then sent by Darius on an embassy to India, to which he travels, for some reason, by sea – perhaps because geographical as well as historical knowledge is unreliable and maps are primitive. In India he sees rivalries and wars between the 16 kingdoms, marries the daughter of a prince, and meets and debates with religious figures, Mahavira, Gosala and, most important, the Buddha. Years later he returns to Persia, Darius dies, Xerxes succeeds, and Cyrus (named after the king and to that extent identified with the Persian dynasty) is sent to enlarge Persian power and wealth by opening a trade route to Cathay. Once there he is made a slave and becomes a curiosity on account of his white skin, taken ‘from place to place like a pet monkey to be shown off, having my cheek pinched so that the Cathay men could see the red come and go’. By degrees and adventures his fortunes improve and he sees a lot of Confucius. Political life in Cathay is as chaotic as elsewhere. Years later he returns to Persia via India, where he meets his children and describes the atrocities of his father-in-law Ajatashatru. Back home Xerxes is murdered and Artaxerxes becomes king; Cyrus retains his respected position through these political tergiversations and is sent in old age as ambassador to Athens. Man is seen throughout to be groping for religious philosophies, and to be possessed by forms of madness – sex, haoma (the Zoroastrian intoxicant and a metaphor for religious experience) and gambling: attempts at loss of self which create chaos and discord of all kinds, but which are essential if civilisation is to develop. In the Cathayan language, which has no tenses, the same word is used for heaven, chaos and creation.

Vidal’s narrative is theoretically a brilliant piece of opportunism, creating the greatest spread of experience within the bounds of historical possibility. The novel shows evidence of massive research, and exposes it by means of Cyrus’s intimacy with prominent figures. These opportunities have at times a chattiness akin to gossip, a junction of life and letters in which Vidal is clearly interested, though the familiarity can seem comic, boastful and implausible: ‘Xerxes was always very good at this sort of thing’; or ‘Confucius was sublimely – and devastatingly – at his ease.’ Cyrus is repeatedly ‘accepted’ into informality by the great: the public mask drops, and we get what Ernest Hemingway would call ‘the dope’. This is rarely the real dope, however, as the great are blinkered by their power: ‘Each sees the world from his own vantage-point. Needless to say, a throne is not the best place from which to see anything except the backs of prostrate men.’ But beyond this, the ironic procedure of Vidal’s technique depends on knowledge held by the reader, external and prior to the experience of the book. Julian concluded with ‘A Selected Bibliography’ as a promise of the authenticity of the author’s research as well as a means of placing the novel together with other treatments of the subject provided by a whole range of historical periods and perspectives. It is even dated, so as to register its own historical moment and place: ‘April 1959 – 6 January 1964 Rome’ – a moment that centred on Vidal’s own attempt in 1960 to enter political history by running for Congress. Creation covers its tracks far more thoroughly: the novel is divorced from its sources, and the challenging proximity of history and fiction narrows until the two objectives become one. As a result, the ironies seem crude and simple-minded, to say the least: if we are not encouraged to compare the minutiae of Cyrus’s account with those of other historians, this immensely long book lays its claim to ironic vision on the inherent contradictoriness of the religions it examines, and on the consequences of these religious positions as seen from our historical viewpoint(s) 2500 years later, when the world is still a mess of irreconcilable beliefs and political atrocities. At its most bald, the message is that an education in history is an education in irony. We knew that already, which wouldn’t matter if we didn’t see the point very early on and didn’t have it repeated and repeated.

The manner of the book doesn’t help to reinterest us in this education: its tone is extraordinarily bland and its language monotonous, the result of Cyrus’s diplomatic smoothness and the intention of being comprehensible to ‘any Greek’. Vidal deliberately starves himself and consequently us too by the facts of Cyrus’s age and blindness, which though integral to the book rob it of colour and immediacy. As Cyrus says, ‘repetition has long since robbed me of true memory,’ ‘most of my memories are without pictures of any kind – in some curious way the blindness seems to have extended to much of my memory.’ He is intentionally not realistic in his report: ‘Needless to say, Caraka did not make a speech at all like the one I have just given. I am trying to distil in a short space a quantity of information that I was to acquire over a number of years.’ This policy conforms with Vidal’s expressed opinion on ‘realistic’ dialogue in which an author can become ‘an uninformative bore’. Equally, Cyrus is a believer in the conventional stylisation of Persian art rather than the new realistic Greek style: this belief is associated with his theory that Greeks are congenital liars, whereas Persians are incapable of lying, a virtue that has often been for them a misfortune. But if realistic visual description is associated with the corruption of art and historical veracity, its exclusion, or circumscription, is also a drastic loss for the novel-reader. Not for Vidal any luxuriance à la Mary Renault. Instead we have a flatness redolent of the travel writings of Edward Heath. A busy market scene: ‘Traders from every corner of the world offered their wares.’ An expedition through a jungle: ‘The journey through the forest was pleasant. Birds of every sort were on the wing ...’ The dialogue, which acceptably wants to avoid mere homeliness, has often the sole purpose of conveying quantities of information: ‘Yes, yes. I remember you as a child with your father. From Thrace, wasn’t he? Yes, of course, the rich Magacreon. Silver mines. Yes, yes.’ With such digests of dope the speakers become merely informative bores. In Vidal’s equation of history and fiction endearing mundanity is crossed out and a ceaseless string of facts written in. One consequence of this is an extraordinary absence of pathos, and though so much of the novel is concerned with time and transience, it is rarely registered in human terms and we are denied access through our sympathies to a lost world. Indeed the human interest of the book could scarcely be slighter.

Cyrus prepares us for this from the outset: ‘For me there is only one subject worth pondering – creation’ (speculation about which is forbidden in Athens). ‘What existed before the Wise Lord? I have travelled the whole earth in search of an answer to that all-important question.’ This concern eclipses an interest in people and restricts the exploratory potential of his travels: ‘I have always found men quite fathomable. They look entirely to their own interest. On the other hand, how men choose to interpret or explain the fact of, let us say, creation is often mysterious to me.’ He can talk of a country ‘like Magadha where one knows little of the people and cares less’, and despite his interest even the wise men of other worlds are ‘hard to take seriously’.

The unflappable tone can be used to chilling effect when arcane or shocking information is purveyed beneath its calm surface: six servants are executed for removing Cyrus’s food before he has finished eating; 500 people are put to death at a Chinese funeral; Ajatashatru’s impaled victims are emasculated and their scrotal sacs become ‘very much the fashion as money purses. Ladies wore them tied to their belts as a sign of patriotism.’ In general, Cyrus resists the Mandevillian edge prominent in history of Herodotus’s period, though the juncture of fact and fantasy is acknowledged: ‘The yellow people of Cathay are simply a rumour to the court, like those two-headed Africans that Scylax says he saw.’

But these amusements are rare, and it is hard in a way to know for whom the book is written. This is partly a problem about history itself. As Vidal has said in a review of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, ‘Americans have always disliked history (of some fifty subjects offered in high school the students recently listed history fiftieth and least popular) and know nothing at all of the Classical world.’ Creation seems unlikely to reverse this situation, being a conflation of historical description and a course in comparative religion, severely over-extended to 300,000 words. Its very opportunism is part of its weakness: for all its fullness, it reads as if compiled systematically and by immense labour but without a moment of spontaneity.

Part of the public will be prepared for Vidal’s impersonality and Cyrus will appear as another device of anonymity, a mask regrettably anonymous in itself. One recalls how Anaïs Nin failed to make Vidal abandon his masks or enrich his sensuality, and sees the result in a literary personality which is both distanced and narcissistic. Much could be accepted if Creation were not so grandiose, and if a peculiar vanity did not make itself felt in the unrelenting impersonality of the narration, and even in the production of the physical book. On the jacket the title appears carved in stone, and on the cloth the author’s monogram is embossed in gold. As Cyrus says, it is always easy to see signs of age in people, except in one’s own mirror, and Vidal perhaps intends some hint at the vanity (in both senses) of historians in making Cyrus’s son, his other ‘creation’, seem a mirror-image of himself, and in Cyrus’s recollection that ‘the last thing I ever saw was my own blurred face in a polished-silver mirror.’ What more personal meanings we disentangle from Creation will be the result of speculation about the personae of Cyrus and Democritus themselves, and about their relationships, not only to each other, but to the empires they observe and serve, as Vidal elsewhere has observed and sought to serve the Empire of America.