Sex, Art, and American Culture, by Camille Paglia, New York: Vintage Books, 337 pages, $13.00
"The thing about Camille Paglia," a friend of mine recently remarked, "is that she's really a performance artist." Indeed, the latest work by the author of Sexual Personae, who has been called a maverick feminist, a woman-hater, an intellectual terrorist, and "Ayn Rand on mushrooms," is best understood as performance art—circles above Karen Finley.
A collection of essays, op-ed pieces, and reviews, Sex, Art, and American Culture also includes excerpts from Paglia's interviews and a transcript of a lecture at MIT (complete with "ums" and "likes" and stage remarks such as "imitates smug, airy woman professor"). An appendix features "cartoon personae" of our author/heroine and an 11-page bibliography of Paglia-related media items ("Moody photos of a warlike Paglia at the Providence airport"). It's a tribute by Paglia to the Paglia phenomenon.
This relentless self-aggrandizement and egocentricity—references to "the author as Amazon epic quester," descriptions of her "transsexual" childhood Halloween costumes—would be unbearably obnoxious if Paglia weren't so charmingly candid about it, characterizing herself as an "egomaniac." Underneath the histrionics, there is a wealth of dazzling ideas about sex, art, American culture, and anything else that comes along—ideas that make you want to cheer one minute and scream the next.
As befits a "pagan mythomane," Paglia displays enough personae to justify every label. There's the rugged feminist invoking Amelia Earhart as a symbol of "female freedom, thought, and movement" ("She is woman alone. Not woman hand-holding in a group and whining about men"). There's the misogynist who extols male homosexuality as "the ultimate point on a track of intensifying masculinity shooting away from the mother" and sees culture as a product of man's "revolt from woman." There's the neocon who fears that the dismantling of social controls leads to barbarism: "We painfully discovered that a just society cannot…function if everyone does his own thing….Everyone of my generation who preached free love is responsible for AIDS." There's the sexual radical, "pro-pornography, pro-prostitution, pro-abortion" (no "pro-choice" wimp-out for her!), sneering at the narrow-mindedness of gay activists who label a married man with occasional male lovers as a closeted gay: "What if he's just married and likes to sleep with men now and then? What's wrong with that?"
Paglia also calls herself a libertarian, opposed to "intrusions of the state into the private realm" of sexual behavior and drug use (though she strongly condemns the latter as destructive to body and mind). She is obviously less interested in state intrusions into the marketplace, and she offers a few wacky ideas like federal subsidies for rock music. But she also pooh-poohs leftist whining about heartless American capitalism ("I know that, in America and under capitalism, I am the freest woman in history") and warns that a risk-free society cannot exist "except in a totalitarian regime of bloated centralized authority."
When Paglia criticizes modern American feminism, "trapped in a princess mentality of snippy entitlement," she is on target most of the time. Having recently attended an academic feminist conference, I can vouch for the accuracy of Paglia's assessment: "Women's studies is a comfy, chummy morass of unchallenged groupthink….Feminists are always boasting of their 'diversity' and pluralism. This is like white Protestants…when they controlled American politics, finance, and academe, claiming diversity on the basis of their dozens of denominations."
If her goal, as she claims, is to save feminism from itself—from the whine of victimization and the puritanical suspicion of beauty and sensuality—I'm with her. Nor am I fanatically opposed to the possibility that some sex differences are rooted in biology and hormones. But Paglia's endeavor to revive sexual archetypes comes close to biological determinism (a charge she denies). We are all, she says, a mix of male and female traits—but basically men are aggressive, creative, ego-driven while women are passive, placid, mysterious. Forgetting her own rapturous description of feminine glamour as "a supreme artifact of civilization," she pronounces, "A woman simply is, but a man must become."
The irony of this view coming from a woman of so macho a temperament does not escape Paglia. Yet her own experience, she says, has forced her to "acknowledge that even a woman of abnormal will cannot escape her hormonal identity." A lifelong rebel against conventional sex roles, she finds that in some irreducible ways her self is female. If this means that Paglia is the outer limit of liberation from traditional femininity, then we shouldn't worry about it too much; most of us still have a long way to go.
Feminists are lambasted for ignoring "woman's cosmic dominance" through motherhood and sex. Urging contemporary women to recover their power as bewitching objects of male desire, Paglia strangely equates this power of seduction with assertive female sexuality—though I would think that the freeing of female desire gives men a similar power to bewitch women. (Indeed, discussing her idol Madonna, Paglia seems to suggest that the fully sexual woman is both dominatrix and slave.) Moreover, as Paglia's own discourse amply shows, the "cosmic dominance" is a double-edged sword for women. It can be used to explain, if not rationalize, both the historical subjugation of women and modern sexual violence as something like male self-defense.
Actually, much of what Paglia has to say about "date-rape propaganda" is sensible. She mocks claims that sex must involve "consent as explicit as a legal contract" or that a woman has a "right" to act as provocatively as she likes: We also have the right to leave a car in New York with the keys on the hood, but it would be dumb. Nowadays, that sort of commonsense remark is enough to stir up accusations of condoning rape, which is idiotic.
Unfortunately, Paglia doesn't stop there, charging onward through a thicket of contradictions. "Rape is an outrage" and should be reported to the police; however, if she were raped by an acquaintance, she wouldn't press charges: "I would say, 'Oh well, I misread the signals.'" She repeatedly asserts that "ethical men" do not rape and that a civilized society must teach men to curb their violent instincts. But wait a minute: "We cannot regulate male sexuality. The uncontrollable aspect of male sexuality is part of what makes sex interesting. And yes, it can lead to rape." So be a good Amazon and accept that risk as the price of sexual freedom, or "stay home and do your nails."
To Paglia, liberal delusions about rape stem from a naive view of sex as nice and nurturing, a blindness to the turbulent dangers of Eros. Here, too, she has a point. "The Joy of Presbyterian Sex," in which she takes on the 1991 report of the Presbyterian Church committee on sexuality—its mushy egalitarianism that locates all evil in bad social institutions, its sanitized "vanilla sex, smothered in artificial butterscotch syrup"—is one of the most lethally brilliant pieces in the book.
But in her fight to take sex back from the "Betty Crockers," Paglia overemphasizes its dark side. She turns anonymous sex in men's restrooms into a transcendent act of freedom and speaks with barely concealed scorn of "tender, safe, clean, handholding" gay couples. Her kindest reference to marriage is reserved for wife beating, which, she argues, is really about "hot" and "kinky" sex: "If gay men go down to bars and like to…have their asses whipped, how come we can't allow that a lot of wives like the kind of sex they are getting in these battered-wife relationships?"
The wacky, fire-eater aspect of the Paglia persona is hugely entertaining, but it cannot fail to have a deleterious effect on her ability to be taken seriously. And that's too bad, because Paglia has some very serious things to say about contemporary culture, and she can say them magnificently. She is a crusader striving to cure the arts and humanities of "the disease of the small"—minimalism, overspecialization, fragmentation. She rejects "the modernist view of the 'discontinuities' of experience and of a meaningless universe," and the aridity of modern scholarship, "passionless and humorless." She wants to reclaim both the sensual pleasure of art and its ability to speak to us about the universe and about ourselves.
She is at her best when she trains her sights on modern universities ("the bland leading the bland"), particularly in "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders," which starts as a review of two books on ancient Greece—persuasively exposing their shoddy scholarship and politicized pretensions—and turns into a full frontal assault on the dominance of deconstructionists, poststructuralists, and other followers of French intellectual fads in American academe. (The word-game literary method of deconstruction guru Jacques Derrida is, Paglia quips, "masturbation without pleasure.") She argues for a scholarship that combines passion for the subject and rigorous intellectual discipline, a solid grounding in the great works of the past and a capacity for truly radical thought and exploration.
Paglia's proposals for academic reform include requiring humanities professors to have "overall mastery of the Western artistic and intellectual tradition" and "ability to relate [it] to other world traditions," instead of the current narrow specialization ("non-dramatic literature, 1660–1740"), and expanding contacts between the academy and the outside world: "Instead of schmoozing with other academics at conferences, faculty should be required to do outreach work via general-interest community lectures at public schools, libraries, and churches."
Some have been tempted to dismiss Paglia's meteoric rise to celebrity as a sensational flash in the pan. I happen to think she has enough intellectual substance to last. But when you are saying controversial and unpopular things, it hardly makes sense to expose yourself to ridicule. In her MIT lecture, pointing out that sometimes women are held back by their own flaws rather than male conspiracy, Paglia laments the way two major women intellectuals of our age, Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer, have "self-destructed." Surely, being an avid student of Freud, she has heard of projection.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a freelance writer in Middletown, New Jersey.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Paglia’s Personae".