Friday, 19 June 2009

Camille Paglia

This is my first post on this esteemed blog.

Continuing the theme of writing about 'People we Like', we come to Camille Paglia. Whilst not exactly a bluestocking, she is certainly a female intellectual, as well as a love-her-or-loathe-her personality. I'll never forget my dear friend Melanie spluttering at Paglia's frequent references to 'My Sixties generation', with her patented brand of fabulous, withering scorn.

It would be fair to say that Camille Paglia arouses strong reactions in people, from those who see her as the saviour of feminism and Academe to those who regard her bluntly as 'a snake in snake's clothing', as a recent American feminist organisation labelled her. Wherever you stand ideologically, she will infuriate you and make you nod vigorously by turns. She's an Italian-American motormouth, a Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, a shameless self-publicist, a bisexual rock-buff, and a massively cultured, hugely learned, and viciously witty Joan Rivers of the lecture hall. Something of a one-off, in other words.

Paglia is a scourge of delusion about human nature, as she sees it. This can be what she regards as Judeo-Christian failure to acknowledge humanity's inner darkness, our emergence from the roiling pit of chaotic 'pagan' nature; or it can be late 20th century feminism's weepy victim mentality, lack of aesthetic sense and parallel blindness to the primal forces of sex and violence that surge inside human beings. A typical quote is as follows: 'It is capitalist America that produced the modern independent woman. Never in history have women had more freedom of choice in regard to dress, behavior, career, and sexual orientation.'

Formidably learned, Paglia also undercuts the theory and jargon that winds around current academia like a serpent's coils. She sees it as frigid and word-obsessed, useless in gaining an understanding of our blitzkrieg electonic visual culture, with its constant barrage of images. By solipsitically contemplating the verbal sign, theory is oblivious to the body and its rhythms, chaotic forces of desire, anger and violence that pulse through art. She brings us back to the body, and out of the head. Part of the problem that contemporary feminism has with her is that they see her as a biological essentialist. In other words, she argues that men and women have fundamental differences which derive from biology, especially hormonal factors, and are not socially constructed. She also accepts as a truth the old identification of Woman with Nature. This is currently a very unfashionable position, but I suspect there is a fair degree of commonsense truth about it. But they point is that Paglia doesn't say women should be limited by their biological nature. She asserts the power of the will, revels in phantasmagoric, decadent disruptions of this simplistic opposition between 'male' and 'female'. No doubt she'd describe herself as a ferocious amazon with a cold, clear male will.

Her first book was the doorstep-sized Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990). I was very lucky (some would said 'permanently tainted') to come across Sexual Personae as the first academic critical book I ever read, aged sixteen. (The chapter on the Marquis de Sade was certainly a bit of an eye-opener.) Based on her doctoral dissertation at Yale, it is a ferocious new reading of western culture, and is simply enormous in scope. As she says: 'Art is a vast, ancient interconnected web-work, a fabricated tradition. Over-concentration on any one point is a distortion.' Building on Nietzsche, she sees culture from the time of Egypt as a battleground between the hieratic, eye-obsessed, rational, chilly and male forces of the 'Apollonian', and the squidgy, chaotic, female, chthonian, order-resisting forces of the 'Dionysian'. Her deepest ambition, she writes, is 'to fuse Frazer with Freud.'

According to Paglia, sex and violence, pain and perversity are at the heart of artistic creation, our human mediation of nature. The book is eccentric, brilliant, strange and dark, zooming from Homer to Byron, Shakespeare, Blake, Balzac, Italian Renaissance art, Virgil, Wilde, and The Faerie Queene...She is fond of startling pop-culture analogies, cataloguing a gallery of shifting sexual personae and archetypes. These include the 'Mercurius': the androgynous woman-boy, verbal, presexual, constantly shifting personae, ungrounded, volatile and harum-scarum - Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Rosalind, Botticelli's Mecury in the Primavera, Auntie Mame. (That Shakespeare's Cleopatra is like Auntie Mame is a brilliant insight, and when I saw Frances Barber as Cleopatra at the Globe in 2006 the rightness of Paglia's aperçu was confirmed.)

To continue on this theme for a moment, another archetpe of western culture which she detects is the 'Tiresias', or 'Male Mother' - this includes the river gods of Italian Renaissance fountains, their massive pectorals echoing female breasts, surrounded by laughing infants--but also American chat-show hosts with their schmoozy manner. Then comes the 'Epicoene', or 'Man of Beauty': Byron's self-presentation is brilliantly compared to that of Elvis Presley. Up springs the Gorgon, the Ephebe...Rita Hayworth rubs shoulders with Spenser's Britomart, the Golden Age of Hollywood with Classical Epic and Euripidean tragedy.

As far as Paglia is concerned, paganism never ended. It continues in the gorgeous sex-and-violence soaked imagery of Catholicism, hieratic and eye-intense, and now appears again fully-formed in Hollywood. She sometimes calls her system of thought 'Italian Pagan Catholicism', meaning that it's ultravisual and packed with sex and violence, that it's about the senses and sensuality, that it's realistic, passionate and not frigid, and that it lacks the chilly Protestant distrust of iconography and the display of the body.

As a close-reader, capturing the mood of a piece, Paglia is astonishingly gifted. 'The greatest honor that can be paid to the work of art, on its pedestal of ritual display, is to describe it with sensory completeness. We need a science of description. Criticism is ceremonial revivification.' This approach has profoundly influenced the way I teach. Brilliant close-reading and a Paterian style (with some amazing purple-prose) combine in this bizarre, fanatical, rather marvellous book. There is a fabled second volume underway, looking at popular culture, and presumably examining Hollywood through the eyes of the ancient world. My favourite personal example which has been rumoured to be appearing in Sexual Personae Vol. II is a comparison of the famous bust of Nefertiti and David Bowie, perfect down to their wierd, mismatched-eyes.

Sexual Personae catapulted Paglia to some fame, and since then she has capitalised on it, making a name for herself as a cultural commentator and wisecracking provocateuse. As an opinionated, even obnoxious, maverick, she crops up everywhere. She mystifies and maddens. Pro-sex, pro-risk, pro-porn, the clash between her and the feminist mainstream was like watching a bunny be sucked back into the blades of a Boeing 747 engine. (And, for the record, Paglia wasn't the bunny.) She waded into just about any argument, laying about her with her verbal broadsword, famously ripping Andrea Dworkin to shreds. She uttered the unsayable, suggesting that the bizarre multiple assaults alledged by the morbidly obese Dworkin, famous for her 'all men are rapists' line, were a sign 'of her own inability to cope with life rather than the Patriarchy's fault.' She also, hilariously, wrote that Dworkin 'neglects to mention her most obvious problem: food...'

A vicious intellectual attack like that will then be followed up by a brilliant miniature article on 'Alice in Wonderland as Epic Hero', or an elegant, sensitive piece on the history of love poetry in Greek, Latin and English. A fax war with Julie Burchill ('Fuck off, you crazy old dyke!' quoth Burchill) came hard on the heels of a scathing and mordant critique of the croneyism and jargon-choked vapidity of modern Academia, 'Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders', delivered as an address to the students of MIT.

It seems to be working. I was delighted to see that Naomi Wolf got roundly booed for her feeble attack on the elderly Harold Bloom, alleging that he touched her thigh--the horror, the horror!--after too much sherry when she invited him over for dinner as a grad student, twenty years before. So what? It doesn't say much for feminism if a (then) supposedly highly-intelligent and confident young woman can't say 'Eew, back off, grandpa' in response to a drunken pass from a professor. (I was once groped as a student by a very drunk, very famous popular historian of dear old London town. So what? I found it hilarious.) To Paglia's delight, and mine, many commentators, most of them women, rolled their eyes and wearily said Grow up, and grow a backbone when the Wolf-Bloom story broke. An amusing commentary can be found here.

Back to Paglia. It's easy to forget that during all this fame (but not, I suspect, fortune) Paglia continued to teach full time, and if her recent book Break, Blow, Burn is anything to go by she must be a truly fantastic classroom teacher--it's unusual for Professors in American Universities to be so hands-on: classroom drudgery is normally left to grad students to do, one of Paglia's major criticism of American Humanities teaching. That book - close readings of 43 poems, from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell's song-lyric 'Woodstock' - is a brilliant introduction to poetry and should be on the English A-Level syllabus. In spiny, terse snippets she captures each poem's atmosphere before carefully teasing meanings from it. She dismisses the word-fetishism of frigid post-structuralism and return poetry to the savage realms of nature and the flesh. It's sharp, earthy, and intellectual - Paglia's vision of poetry showing us 'the interconnectedness of the universe.'

Maddening, crazy, formidable, quixotic, I think she deserves respect. I won't say 'even if you don't agree with her', because no one is likely to agree with her all the time. Or even much of the time. But if you want to be made to think about nature and culture, she can't be bettered. You're unlikely to like what you read first off; it's uncomfortable but compelling. Paglia's furious pagan morality, her acerbic wit, astonishing range and depth of learning, frenetic personality and sheer bloody chutzpah derserve attention and consideration. She can't be dismissed as easily as her numerous critics allege.

Certainly, she inspired me when Academia seemed dead and dry as dust, and made me stand up and say what I think. She introduced me to dozens of brilliant critics and thinkers, including the psychoanalyst Norman O. Brown, the philosopher Suzanne Langer, the sociologist Gillian Rose, the critics Wendy Lesser and Leslie Fiedler, the historians Oswald Spengler and Denis de Rougemont, and many others. She writes with superb clarity on both academic topics and popular culture. Reading her pithy, sinewy phrases honed my writing skills. So - all hail Camille! Give that woman a star in the amazonian--and the blustocking--firmament.


For a sample of her writing, here is an article on the Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann, written for the Classics journal Arion.


  1. I saw a great short documentary of Paglia years ago (mid-90s). She was hilarious and thought-provoking. She expressed some things I had been noticing myself, and even disagreeing with her made me understand my own positions so much better. And I loved watching her observations of pagan passion play out in the bodies of angry feminists trying to reject her out of hand. And she's so much more fun to read than Ayn Rand!

  2. Thanks Bo, great post. I think she counts as a neo-bluestocking (or something) - but I like the idea of her as an Amazon.

  3. What an excellent romp! I've never had much time for Paglia as a public commentator, but you've made me want to read her academic works.

    (Side note: not to sully your blog with academic internecine struggles or anything, but I thought Gillian Rose was a human geographer...)