I met Gore Vidal once; or, to be more precise, I talked to him for few minutes at a literary dinner in Hong Kong. I was an ardent fan and he was by then in a wheelchair, so would have found it difficult to get away. After he had delivered one of his colourful and damning put-downs on then-president, Bush Jr, I ventured to complain that my president, the loudmouthed demagogue Ahmadinejad, wasn't any better. Perhaps we could reduce world tension by a straight presidential swap? "My boy," he quibbled with lightening speed. "My boy, it would be kinder to bomb you after all". Sadly, it was the last time in my life I would be called a boy.
Eulogies for Gore Vidal, who died in July aged 86, have been plentiful. And many have been more eloquent than I could ever manage. The best I can do is testify that he was, at close quarters and in an off-guard moment, exactly as impressive as I had always expected from afar. Which made meeting him a unique experience.
Vidal was perhaps the most eloquent commentator on America in the 20th century. An early convert to Kennedy's "House on the Hill" creed of idealised Americanism, the earnest young Gore once ran for office. But he was also the first to diagnose US imperialism and its tendency to betray and work against that ideal. His opposition to the nation's global ambition and adventurism followed in the footsteps of that other great American essayist and storyteller, Mark Twain, who wrote in condemnation of US imperialism in the Philippines a hundred years earlier. Both men were able to prove a love for their country by being its toughest critic - and in the case of Vidal, acting as its polemicist and troublemaker-in-chief.
The end of empires and the west's domain over Asia is viewed from the majority's side in Pankaj Mishra's brilliant and timely new book From the Ruins of Empire (Penguin), which he discusses in this issue with Columbia University's Hamid Dabashi (page 92). The book marks a shift in paradigms for all students of history who are accustomed to thinking in terms of "the West and the Rest". Pankaj restores an intellectual lineage and creed to the Rest.
It is a creed that still dare not speak its name here in the west. But a quick glance at the map of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which is starting its 16th conference in Tehran (nam.gov.ir) as we go to press, should be proof enough that it is time we got used to the new normal, as seen by 90 per cent of humanity.
The trauma of lost ideals suffered by America is a theme and subject that will echo for decades to come. Margaret (2011) is a film by the veteran writer and native New Yorker, Kenneth Lonergan. Ironically for a movie about trauma, and given Lonergan's successful track record, the process of getting the work out has been traumatic to say the least. He risked personal bankruptcy and spent eight years of his life on making it happen. You can read all about it on page 36.
We should all be grateful that he did take the trouble and stuck to his guns. Partly thanks to the fact that Twitter came along while he was working on the project, Margaret is set to be become an American classic. I'd even propose that it will be seen as one of the greatest films of all time. A work of remorseless honesty, it bares essential truths about America and her experience of trauma, loss and bafflement after 9/11. There is no hip, modern detachment or glee about it: with Lonergan you can almost feel the pain of the film-maker as he depicts horrific events and anguished characters. In it, Anna Paquin brilliantly plays a teenager who is surrounded by grown-up institutions - the state, the parents, the legal system - all of whom act like self-involved teenagers too.
Today, it is undeniable that people carry on behaving like solipsistic, narcissistic teens well into middle age, and even beyond. It is also clear that this tendency has been exacerbated by consumerism and amplified by the internet and social networking. From the Me Generation of the '80s to the i-civilisation of today, the trend to collectively see the world more and more from the narrow confines of a distorted self is, I venture, something to fear and worry about.
If the consumerist Self was the bacteria, the world wide web has been the petri dish. Author of You are Not a Gadget (2010), Jaron Lanier has sounded a resonant and eloquent alarm against the dangers of sleepwalking into a digital future world like optimistic, doped-up kids (only to arrive at a dystopia with no return ticket). The brilliant and multi-talented Lanier seems to have been created solely to dispel all the myths about computer programmers as Aspergers-syndrome clones who are brilliant at maths and terrible at people. This programming genius is also a passionate and talented musician and not only has an all-encompassing grasp of intellectual history and philosophy, but is a vociferous commentator on contemporary society. All that is evident in his conversation with the English philosopher John Gray (page 109), where two brilliant minds find a meeting place where they consider where, exactly, we're all going.
I rarely use this letter to gush about the other pages to come in the magazine. But I hope you can sense the excitement about this issue. I'm also confident you'll be able to scent them.
Sissel Tolaas, the Finnish artist and molecular scientist, has created four individual scents - each a brand new molecule, naturally - interpreting the content of this issue. It may be the first time such an endeavour has been approached. We hope we can engage more than your eyes and brains. §