Hurricane Camille swept into American culture five years ago with the publication of Sexual Personae, a learned 800-page treatise on sex, art, and literature through the ages. After two decades of rejection and obscurity, Camille Paglia was famous. Her demanding master work wasn't exactly accessible to the educated lay reader, but it became a bestseller--as have her subsequent reader-friendly essay collections Sex, Art, and American Culture and Vamps & Tramps.
The secret to her celebrity is Paglia's own persona--a blend of comedienne, scholar, con-troversialist, self-promoter, and performance artist. Her speeches are events, designed as much to entertain as to provoke and inform. And, as she herself has remarked, the times have been friendly to comic-serious iconoclasts who capitalize on their egomania: Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Ross Perot, Camille Paglia. The public is sick of pious discourse.
But not of ideas. Amid Paglia's tirades and comic turns are serious thoughts about art, scholarship, politics, and civilization itself. Some are fully developed, others mostly attitude. But they are all interesting.
Despite the detractors who deride her as a con-servative antifeminist, Paglia is clearly a woman of the left--How many conservatives use "white middle-class" as a term of derision?--and an unreconstructed advocate of women's achieve-ment and independence. She has, however, been tempered by time and experience, forced to rec-ognize the constraints of nature and the limits of radical change.
Amid her celebrity, Paglia still teaches classes and gives exams at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia where she's a professor of humani-ties. Editor Virginia Postrel talked by phone with Paglia in early April.
Reason: Last weekend, feminist groups led by the National Organization for Women held a rally in Washington to protest "Violence Against Women," a category in which they included such things as rolling back affirmative action. What did you think of that?
Camille Paglia: NOW is pretty desperate at this point. One of the things I'm most proud of since I came on the scene five years ago is that I have managed finally to get it fully established to the media that one can be a feminist and fully uphold the great progressive principles of the feminist movement of the last 200 years without being part of NOW or even approving of NOW. I just hate the present NOW.
In terms of affirmative action, I am stunned to see affirmative action, which was one of the great no-nos in the national debate, suddenly come to the fore. When I gave the lecture at MIT in September of 1991, one of my first public appearances--I went on for hours, thousands of people turned out, it was very turbulent, people were yelling--well, that night with enormous trepidation, toward the conclusion of the lecture, I said, "I know this is going to be extremely controversial, but I feel that minority designations are short-sighted and they have outlived their usefulness. They should be dropped." I'm telling you, I was practically in a sweat to raise that issue.
But I regard affirmative action as pernicious--a system that had wonderful ideals when it started but was almost immediately abused for the benefit of white middle-class women. And the number one sign of it is in the universities. The elite schools were destroyed by affirmative action for women, not for blacks. I want to see more African Americans everywhere, but I do not want to see any kind of quota system. The way the Ivy League just absolutely, servilely pursued candidates because of the nature of their gonads, not the nature of their mental life or of their intellectual accomplishments: Every single humanities department faculty in the Ivy League was polluted and destroyed by affirmative action in the '70s and '80s, and we are paying the price for it now.
Reason: You repeatedly call yourself a Clinton Democrat. What do you mean by that?
Paglia: I can't help it. I like him. I know he is a terrible administrator. He has very bad judgment in choosing staff. I'd like to fire the whole staff. I know I just cannot blame the staff, because he's responsible for choosing them.
But I liked the Clintons in the campaign. I thought they were a great power couple. I think that he needed her to be around him, because she is shrewder than he about a lot of things. He needs her to be like the mastermind, to discipline staff and keep him on a schedule. And I think that the fall of the Clintons came the moment he split her off from himself and put her in charge, very hubristically, of health care. A job for which she had no real credentials, a process in which she behaved like Evita Peron and totally lost my respect--the secrecy and the high handedness, the arrogance, the simplistic political judgments that brought down the whole enterprise.
I've never left behind the larger principles of the Clinton Democrats.
Reason: What do you believe are the larger principles?
Paglia: I believe that we are suffering from a false polarization of liberal versus conservative in this country, and what is needed by the '60s generation, to which the Clintons and I belong, is a kind of rethinking.