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Gore Vidal’s “Messiah”

In this novel from the early 1950s, Gore Vidal sets forth a picture of what a modern messiah might look like.  Interestingly, as the novel was being written, a new American religion was birthing under the midwifery of L. Ron Hubbard – Scientology.  There are no obvious parallels between Vidal’s fictional religion and that of the “discoverer” of Dianetics, but the coincidence is interesting if not amusing.

Vidal’s novelistic messiah is John Cave, a former mortician who, in a flash of insight, realizes that death is the preferred state to life.  That conviction, coming on him with the force of revelation, prompts the young man to share his realization with others.  Surprisingly, they listen, and even more surprisingly, they think others should, too.

Why?  Because Cave’s earnestness, coupled with a timeless mystical power (which Vidal modernizes as a kind of natural hypnotic talent) immediately persuades audiences that his message is valid.  Not only that his message is valid, but that, somehow, he himself _is_ the message.  His penetrating gaze (normally veiled, hooded, or sheathed), when turned on individuals or crowds, penetrates through all intellectual considerations, questions and doubts.  To see and hear Cave in action is at once to believe – and to be united to him on a deep personal level. It is to know that no thing/nothing is good, that death is no thing, and therefore that death, which is no thing,  is good.

A tightly-knit organization, operating as a marketing company, soon forms around John Cave.  The product?  Cave himself – and his teaching, his “Word.”  Thus we have Cavite, Inc. and Cavesword.  Ultimately, when people – convinced in Cave’s utter probity and under the sway of his live television broadcasts – begin to kill themselves, we have Cavesway: suicide husbanded by state of the art psychiatry and the best-available, most advanced euphoric life-ending drugs.  Humankind, at least in the West where Cave’s broadcasts are widely disseminated, has embraced death over life.  In an ironic contrast to Jesus Christ  – the bringer of “eternal life,” – Cave (though he shares the same initials) is the keeper of death’s gate, and the Way by which to enter therein.

Some few, however, manage to resist Cave’s power – and one resister belongs to Cave’s inner circle.  This is Eugene Luther, who in an obvious reflection of his ecclesiastical counterpart, speaks out against the new suicide cult.  He has hit upon the key element that neither Cave nor his followers are willing to confront:  Cave, death’s messiah, is also by definition and function death’s lover.  He must make love to death, mate with it.  That is, he himself must commit suicide, or repudiate his message.  To be Cave, he must take Cavesway unto himself.

This is, of course, the story’s climax (to remain unspoiled here for those who have not read the novel).

The tale of Cave, the modern messiah, his dark mesmerism, the foundation of a world-changing religion, would all tend to make a grand motion picture.  The only problem – perhaps insurmountable – is the technology utilised by Cavite, Inc. to put Cave across to millions – television.

What was logical for Vidal when writing in the ’50s has, with advances in computer technology, become quaint and nearly obsolete for modern society.  One might imagine the Cavites eventually producing some telecasts, of course, but what about the capabilities of the home, business, school – the ubiquitous – PC, in all its rapidly changing forms?  With the right direction, one can easily imagine Cave and his message “going viral” within a very short time.  The novel gives the Cavite mission almost three years to spread through the world.  Surely today’s communications systems would reduce that time by a ludicrous degree.

Still, the book is worth reading for its mordant wit and its delicate balance between satire and genuine, heart-rending drama.  It makes a fine companion piece toVidal’s other supremely religious novel, “Julian,” about the “apostate” Emperor who attempted to keep paganism strong in the face of a burgeoning Christianity.  In addition the interested reader may consult  “Creation,” “Live at Golgotha,” and “Kalki.”