Babylon Sister


Vamps and Tramps, by Camille Paglia, New York: Vintage Books, 532 pages, $15.00

A sign on the street in Hollywood warns of construction ahead: "Vermont Ave. congested between 3rd St. and Hollywood Blvd. Seek alternate routes." That last phrase nicely sums up Camille Paglia's writing. Academics, like their poor relations in the increasingly incestuous media, are not immune from the general instinct to travel in packs. That instinct has led to some serious congestion in contemporary thought.

Paglia has sought to find a way around the herd. And like those drivers in Hollywood who are now seeking alternate routes, her new paths are not the easiest or most convenient; some are very bumpy indeed. But a girl's got to get where she's going….

Vamps & Tramps is Paglia's latest collection of essays, her second sop (after Sex, Art and American Culture) to those of us who have been waiting sleeplessly for the last half of Sexual Personae to be released. For the uninitiated, Sexual Personae is Paglia's magnum opus, the first part of which surveyed sexual imagery in art from the beginning of time up to Emily Dickinson. Its prickly contrarian energy, flashes of brilliance, and unrelenting wit made Paglia a star. The second half, still being updated, will show how movies, television, sports, and rock music continue to reveal the same recurring themes —that paganism's rich, sexual texture can't be kept down in our nominally Judeo-Christian culture. Jerusalem never conquered Babylon—Christianity and paganism are in eternal tension.

A book by Paglia is a lot like sex itself: When it's good, it's very, very good. And when it's bad, it's still pretty good. Vamps & Tramps is a step above pretty good, a medley of Paglia's writings, musings, and doings since Sex, Art and American Culture was released in 1992, consisting of essays, book reviews, transcripts of films and interviews, cartoons about Paglia, and an index of media references to her, with suitably withering editorial comments for those who unfairly malign our heroine. If these last two seem more than a trifle self-serving, well, Paglia has no problem with megalomania, hers in particular.

The book's title comes from the female personae Paglia sees missing from contemporary feminism: seductresses with "vampiric power over men," women who know how to make men helpless. It's not that these personae are missing from the culture—they can be found in such powerhouse movies as Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, they're scattered everywhere throughout music videos and country/western songs. People can't get enough of the trial of O.J. Simpson precisely because they need to find out if Nicole had O.J. so utterly in her thrall that he murdered her and Ron Goldman in an impotent rage. An accomplished athlete, a beautiful brute of a man, helpless in the face of his feelings for his ex-wife: Now that's female power.

But feminism doesn't know how to account for men who feel they're under women's spell because of feminism's consuming focus on women as victims. Paglia sees social victimization as only part of the picture. Raw nature—sex—has to be accounted for, too. And it is women's sexual power that Paglia sees in action again and again. Female power, not female victimization, captivates our attention. Paglia's analysis of why the Amy Fisher saga warranted three TV movies is typically pithy. That story wasn't about Joey Buttafuoco at all. It was about the women: "When long-haired Amy, spoiled only child, mall chick and part-time call-girl, mounted the Buttafuoco porch with a pistol in her pocket, every power play in the history of love was on red alert. It was high noon on a Tennessee Williams veranda….Amy vs. Mary Jo Buttafuoco on the porch was a trash tango, a clash of the female titans."

The same forces of nature make pornography eternal: "What feminists denounce as woman's humiliating total accessibility in porn is actually her elevation to high priestess of a pagan paradise garden….Modern middle-class women cannot bear the thought that their hard-won professional achievements can be outweighed in an instant by a young hussy flashing a little tits and ass. But the gods have given her power."

It annoys Paglia when feminists deny women's sexual power, since any idiot can see it everywhere. The problem is that feminist academics ignore what's right in front of their eyes. Paglia pays as much attention to tabloids and TV movies as she does to Homer, Wordsworth, and (one of her special favorites) Spenser. She sees a continuity in the great themes regardless of the context. And unlike just about any other feminist academic, Paglia doesn't have a sentimental bone in her body to distract her from the truth.

On the whole, Vamps & Tramps is a carnival. We see Paglia here in all her guises, from the highly serious to the completely loopy. She shines in her analysis of the competing personae of Bill Clinton and Hillary, suggesting that Hillary's persona is probably more suited to being commander-in-chief than Bill's. After that, Paglia is on to a film with drag queen Glennda Orgasm ("Glennda and Camille Do Downtown") in which the two of them encounter a group of dour-faced feminists, Women Against Pornography. It is a moment of sheer comic perfection that comes through even in the transcript. The comedy is matched a little later by Paglia's advice for the lovelorn columns from Spy magazine. Self-described as a "short, fast-talking comedienne with dimples, who imitates Keith Richards to avoid looking like Sally Field," Paglia dispenses her wisdom like Dear Abby on speed.

In fact, her prose is consistently among the most colorful and effective today. No one in the chattering classes can match her when it comes to the punishing reproach. Andrea Dworkin, one of Paglia's demons, "has turned a garish history of mental instability into feminist grand opera." Even Paglia's praise comes with barbs attached. One essay is titled, "Kind of a Bitch: Why I Like Hillary Clinton."

But Vamps & Tramps shows a personal side of Paglia that I don't recall having seen before, and it's a welcome departure. In a lengthy essay on four of the gay men who have been central to her life, Paglia writes with deep respect and affection about friends who have touched her thinking and being in important ways. For once, the writing is not self-centered. In giving the spotlight to others, Paglia demonstrates a grace and generosity few might suspect her of. Similarly, underneath the tirades against academic corruption, we see Paglia's fury is animated by a genuine concern for students, whose struggles with the classics she understands. She wants them to wrestle with the big books as she did, unhampered by the political preconceptions that litter academia. Her lectures end with a mantra for students that stands out as uncharacteristically sweet and hopeful in Paglia's otherwise bitchy writings: "Hate dogma. Love learning. Love art."

The meat of Vamps & Tramps is an essay titled, "No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality," which serves as a good overview of Paglia's controversial politics. In the sexual arena, Paglia argues, "sexual conduct cannot and must not be legislated from above…all intrusion by authority figures into sex is totalitarian." In the absence of physical violence, sex is a force of nature, and legal tinkering is as effective as making gravity a punishable offense.

Her criticism of abortion laws is typical. She refuses to get bogged down in the nit-picking over when life begins. Accept that it begins at conception, she says, and that abortion is killing. To Paglia, it's a primal form of self-defense. To the woman involved, such killing is, or should be, ethically troubling. But government, which guarantees freedom of religion, has no right to interfere with a woman's personal argument against nature. "Under the carnal constitution that precedes social citizenship, women have the right to bear arms. The battlefield is internal, and it belongs to us."

This probably won't get very far as a political argument in what is now the most sentimental nation in history, but it's exemplary of Paglia's straightforward style. She demolishes the "hostile workplace" theory of sexual harassment, noting that "every workplace is hostile… head-on crashes are the rule." Innovation comes from competition, aggression, opposition—it is those qualities that keep corporations, and personalities, from becoming stagnant. By trying to protect themselves from sexually explicit (or implicit) speech, women lose out by keeping themselves disengaged from the surging poetry of rough language: "Middle-class white women have got to get over their superiority complex and learn to talk trash with the rest of the human race." Paglia's models are strong, tough-talking women who knew how to answer cheeky men: her two Italian grandmothers, Rosalind Russell, Tallulah Bankhead. You have to willfully ignore massive parts of the culture to suggest women's role models in the 20th century are confined to the Debbie Reynolds/Doris Day school of blonde, perky submission. Why do women think they can't be like Katharine Hepburn?

When she moves into her major sub-theme of homosexuality, however, Paglia seems to get tangled in her own reasoning. She begins by saying, "Homosexuality may be the key to understanding the whole of human sexuality." There is some important truth here. Opposing ideas enlighten one another, test limits and theses you can't examine in a vacuum. One of the reasons we cling so firmly to the view that gay men are "them" is that it so conveniently distances us from uncomfortable notions about our own sexuality we'd just as soon not face. For example, Paglia shows how the "bacchanalia" gay men in New York and San Francisco went through in the '70s helps illustrate how the absence of women affects male sexuality irrespective of sexual orientation. While a lot of people use that example to prove how uncontrollably promiscuous gay men are, viewing gay men as men reveals deep aspects of men's sexuality that we can't see in heterosexual relationships by definition.

As in the rest of her writing, Paglia has no patience for sentimental arguments about homosexuality. In the context of procreation, Paglia argues that homosexuality is every bit as unnatural as the religious right says it is. But while accepting Biblical proscriptions against homosexuality for this reason, she aptly dismantles the right's objections with the observation that we not only have a right to defy nature, but that the greatest glories of civilization, even civilization itself, are monumentally unnatural. We defy nature all the time, and point to our accomplishments with pride, from the Pieta to the Panama Canal, from Antigone to Fred Astaire.

Paglia views homosexuality as a supreme form of natural defiance, and thus civilization. She points out that "gay male consciousness, as I have experienced it, is stunningly expansive and exquisitely precise. Gay men have collectively achieved a fusion of intellect, emotion, and artistic sensibility." It is from such observations that she suggests a biological connection between homosexuality and art: "Men are not born gay, they are born with an artistic gene, which may or may not lead to an artistic career. More often, they are connoisseurs, aesthetes, or simply arch, imperious commentators with stringent judgments about everything."

I wish. As a highly opinionated gay man, I guess I have always aspired to being an arch, imperious commentator, and I suspect most people would love to believe they fuse intellect, emotion, and artistic sensibility. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever been to a gay rodeo knows, more than a few of us gay men have a rather clunky sense of aesthetics. I don't want to trade anecdotes, but only to suggest that sometimes Paglia lets metaphor leak over into stereotype, with some rather dire results.

As we learned during the gays-in-the-military debate, homosexuality still packs a wallop as an idea. Paglia's triumph has been in locating the idea of homosexuality within the broader context of all sexuality in art and culture. But few of us view our lives in the structured terms of art. Paglia's focus, though, is limited to sex as indicative of something bigger than itself, sex as topos. That literary approach, based on Paglia's reading of Freud, diminishes reality and even diminishes Freud, who recognized that sometimes you can smoke a cigar and not have to think about your mother. Paglia, who rejects nihilism, won't bear the thought that life can't always be shaped and ordered into meaning.

This makes for a real gap between the grand theories about lives and the measly details of conducting a life, and leaves a lot of people baffled. If gay men can't procreate and don't happen to have the wit and style of Noel Coward, they're pretty much useless as metaphors in Paglia's universe, and their defiance of nature leads to nothing. How do you account for all those homosexual farmers and shop owners and assembly-line workers Neil Miller has written about?

The limitations of Paglia's analysis show up most colorfully in her objection to lesbians who use dildos. If dildos are so pleasurable, she posits, why not go on to real penises? If a person's sexual life is simply pleasure-oriented, the conclusion is pretty obvious. But the argument breaks down if you include motives beyond sex. When you move on to real penises, there's generally a man attached to the other end. If you believe, even if you're being a sentimental fool, that sex and other aspects of life are connected, complications arise in the real penis scenario that don't appear in the dildo scheme. Examining the story as an archetype leads to a grand explanation that satisfies intellectually, but when the story is part of someone's real life, different considerations come into play, some of them pretty prosaic.

The danger is that what may be true intuitively, or even statistically, will not be true in individual cases, and the individual case might take exception to being swept into a theory that doesn't include him. In holding gay men responsible for AIDS because of what happened in the '70s and early '80s, Paglia leaves out the vast numbers of gay men who were not in San Francisco and New York during those years, and the many who were but had no personal taste for the goings-on of the smart set. Even accepting the lowest numbers about who is really homosexual, nowhere near a majority of gay men are infected with HIV. The theme of natural defiance and consequent punishment is one thing as a metaphor, but it's something else again when you use it against an ordinary guy in Topeka who got it into his head that he could live his life authentically and not have to pretend he was attracted to women, but who wouldn't know amyl nitrate from Emile Zola. There is nothing worse than being held responsible for lives you are not leading, errors you have not made, failures you are trying to avoid. Anyone who has ever objected to prejudice is saying no more than that.

Paglia is not prejudiced by any means, and critics who make such a charge are willfully misreading her work. But her complete dismissal of all social constructionist arguments leads to that misreading. For example, she believes law cannot affect the prejudice many heterosexuals feel about homosexuals and gays should just accept this. But, that idea breaks down in the face of Paglia's broader and better argument that to some extent we pay attention to cultural cues, sometimes in defiance of our most fundamental natural instincts. Sometimes we can learn better. Murder is a primal urge, something even the most civilized of us might feel moved toward now and then. But we have learned how to resist the temptation, and are better for the resistance. That's what civilization is, "a defense against nature's power."

There is no reason to abandon hope that heterosexuals can resist prejudice, and every reason to believe the contrary. The point of great art is to teach empathy, illustrate the variations and the possibilities, walk us through points of view not our own. And the point of government is to try to move art's best lessons into practice, to enforce against nature what civilization it can. Accepting a little social constructionism (it's not an all-or-nothing affair) means that prejudice isn't something we have to live with, any more than murder.

As Paglia says, defying nature may be the most glorious thing about human beings. It's a little unfair of her to imply that, in this area at least, heterosexuals are civilization-impaired.

David Link is a playwright and lawyer in Los Angeles.