Left loses Alexander Cockburn, Gore Vidal

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The left lost United States' writer Alexander Cockburn, one of its most powerful essayists and diarists, on July 21. He was an ironist who, unlike Christopher Hitchens, did not tend to confuse irony with supercilious chauvinism and leaden sarcasm (see The Long Short War for examples of these traits).

In his regular dispatches at Counterpunch, the online journal he edited with Jeffrey St. Clair, there was usually a phrase or riposte that was worth stealing. His “Beat The Devil” columns for The Nation, often consisting of the same material in later years, were just as polished, and just as uncompromisingly hostile to Democratic liberalism.

But this is nothing. If you haven't read his collections from the 1980s and early '90s, you have missed a great deal. His The Corruptions of Empire is most lauded, but also filled with some splendid moments ― articles, letters, diary entries ― is The Golden Age Is In Us.

There will be a great deal said about Cockburn's deviations and mystifying enthusiasms ― for the militias, for global warming denial, for paleoconservatives ― and most likely some unflattering anecdotes amid the bouquets. But I would not be so crass as to piss on the grave of a deceased author.

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Gore Vidal perished on July 31. I suppose most people on the left know the US author through his memoirs or political essays. Most of the best of these can be found in the collection United States, alongside superior studies of Dawn Powell, Italo Calvino and John Updike, and entertaining reminiscences of Orson Welles.

But I am fonder by far of the novels, and then more the “satiric inventions” such as Myra Breckinridge, Myron, Kalki, Messiah and Live from Golgotha than the historical novels such as Julian, Lincoln and Creation. Never mind the ancients and the grand old men and dames of the republic: where were you when Rusty got “balled” by Myra?

It surprised me that in his copious literary reviews, Vidal wrote so infrequently about Oscar Wilde. Not because Wilde was a premature gay martyr (on this, you don't know half the story: see Neil McKenna's The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde on his underground activities), and therefore a “natural” topic for the author of The City and the Pillar.

Rather because in his classicism and Hellenism, his epigrammatic style, fondness for paradox, and hatred for moralising, and his upper class socialism, he was very much the figure Wilde might have been had he been born into American aristocracy and romped with JFK, then lived to his 80s rather than being crushed by prison.

Of course if Cockburn had his failings, Vidal certainly had exceptionally boorish or rancorous moments, particularly in his later years. His comments on the Roman Polanksi rape case were disgusting.

His writing also seemed to lose some of its elan in his later years. Point to Point Navigation was a poor follow up to Palimpsest, and his articles on the “war on terror” were marred by a stridency and a laboured 'Rome Before the Fall' portentousness.

Still, it has been a little saddening over the last decade to see his novels starting to disappear from the bookshops. One can only hope for both of these authors to find new audiences as publishers reissue their classics in the coming months. And a few more young writers might think to purloin their phrases, and emulate their style, and fail better.

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[Reprinted from Lenin's Tomb.]