Interview with the Vamp
Why Camille Paglia hates affirmative action, defends Rush Limbaugh, and respects Ayn Rand
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, controversialist, 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 conservative 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 achievement and independence. She has, however, been tempered by time and experience, forced to recognize 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 humanities. 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.
To say in effect: We uphold the great liberal and progressive principles of the '60s, which would be racial harmony, equal rights for women, toleration of gay lifestyles, and so on. But at the same time, to acknowledge the excesses of the '60s—the way there was a total breakdown of law and order, a self-destruction by drugs. (And I support legalization of drugs even while I can see the damage that was wrought to my generation through drugs.) How the sexual revolution ended in AIDS. Again, I uphold all pagan expressions of sex. And at the same time I say that this is the way nature reacts toward unrestrained promiscuous sex, that the evidence was there in the history of syphilis. It's not true that AIDS came out of nowhere. I feel that Clinton was beautifully positioned to lead a kind of national discussion on these issues.
Leftism should be about the people. That's how it began. Instead, what it has become in the last 20 years is a white upper-middle-class elitism which preaches to the people and says, "Oh, you don't agree with us? You're homophobic, you're so uneducated. You're in the darkness. You need us to bring light and truth to you." I hate that paternalistic, condescending kind of stuff that's coming out of this lawyer-heavy elite structure of the Democratic Party in Washington.
Reason: You also call yourself a libertarian. What do you mean by that?
Paglia: I consider myself not a conservative libertarian but a radical '60s libertarian.
Reason: How would you differentiate those two categories?
Paglia: I believe that government should confine itself to the public realm and that it should be as stripped down as possible, within reason. It should not be burdened by excess bureaucracy.
I feel that government has no right to intrude into the private realm of consensual behavior. Therefore, I say that I'm for the abolition of all sodomy laws. I'm for abortion rights. I'm for the legalization of drugs—consistent with alcohol regulations. I'm for not just the decriminalization but the legalization of prostitution. Again, prostitutes must not intrude into the public realm. I think it's perfectly reasonable to say that civil authorities have the right to say that prostitutes should not be loitering near schools, or on the steps of churches, or blocking entrances to buildings and so on. Prostitution should be perfectly legal, but it cannot interfere with other people's access to the public realm.
Furthermore, the public realm is not owned by Judeo-Christianity. It is shared by people of all cultural and religious backgrounds. Therefore, I'm arguing for the Greco-Roman or pagan line, which is very tolerant of homosexuality and even of man-boy love. I've argued controversially for a reduction in the age of consent to 14—there are some countries in the world that do have that. I'm open to considering even lowering it further.
That's the way I would be separate from a conservative libertarian, who would not necessarily take the position of the legalization of drugs or the very positive attitude I have toward prostitutes and pornographers and drag queens. I take a celebratory attitude toward them. Similarly, I think that most conservative libertarians would not agree with my idea of lowering the age of consent and so on.
Reason: Most libertarians, however you modify the word, would include other issues also, including free markets for things besides sex, drugs, and popular culture.
Paglia: In the first chapter of Sexual Personae, I made a defense of capitalism. I feel that capitalism has a very bad press with the pseudo-leftists who clog our best college campuses and that in point of fact capitalism has produced modern individualism and feminism. Modern capitalism has allowed the birth of the independent woman who is no longer economically dependent on her husband. I despise the sneering that our liberal humanists do about capitalism even while they enjoy all of its pleasures and conveniences. I just despise it.
However, I do believe that capitalism is inherently Darwinian and that a totally free market is ultimately inhumane, because you'll have what happened in the 19th century—a kind of piling up of profits at the very top, with working-class people falling way below. I do think that there should be some kind of safety net, that we should not tolerate, in an affluent society, extreme levels of poverty or deprivation.
At the same time, I think that the way that the welfare state has developed is just atrocious. It's part of the condescension and paternalism and the guilt of the affluent white upper-middle class to say: "Oh, they'll be taken care of." And so we have that huge culture of dependency which is suddenly, shockingly being broken, just like affirmative action. I never dreamed of the speed with which these issues which have been so long suppressed have come to the fore, and it seems like anything is possible now.
I think it's a very exciting time; I only regret it's not my party, the Democratic Party, that started this whole process. Because Clinton was elected for change. I wish that he had taken the aggressive tack the Republicans have of really investigating every single bureaucracy, stripping it down.
I despise bureaucrats. I despise administrators. That has been one of the most pernicious effects of the post-war years in academe. There has been an overgrowth of an arrogant master class of administrators on college campuses who are being paid twice the level of the salaries of the faculty and regard themselves as being in charge and everyone else as being their lackeys. What the Republicans are doing in Washington, looking at the federal government, I want people to be doing on the college campuses—to have a thoroughgoing review of this parasitic class of administrators.
Reason: One of the strangest things about the response to you is how you've been embraced by conservatives—not libertarians, actual conservatives, even those who would abhor many of your views.
Paglia: I wouldn't say I've been totally taken up by them because after all I'm attacked in Commentary—Elizabeth Kristol attacked me. I love the way Vamps & Tramps was attacked by both Commentary and The Nation, from right and left.
But I think that many conservatives, like many priests, seem to like me. I don't think it's because they agree with my views but because they are just invigorated by my discourse. I've constantly said, about Rush Limbaugh, for example—even though he and I don't agree politically, I have always respected him because I feel that he is a principled thinker—I think that any true intellectual finds it stimulating to listen to a principled thinker, a person who has a vigorous independent mind, a new way of approaching contemporary issues. It helps you to reexamine your assumptions and firm up your assumptions. And I think that's what's missing from our culture right now.
For example, in early 1994 I was invited to speak at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and there was a dinner with the policy fellows, about 50 people in the room. Highfalutin' media people and academic people. During this meal, Rush Limbaugh came up casually—some woman who was a radio person in Connecticut mentioned that her competition was Rush Limbaugh, and there was a snicker throughout the entire room.
Well, I lost it, I went totally bananas. I lit into them, and I said: "This is outrageous, this kind of demonization of Rush Limbaugh! How many people in this room have actually listened to his program?" One hand, all right? "How many people here have looked at his books, which are bestsellers?" No one. "You are supposed to be here at the Kennedy School of Government as experts in contemporary politics, contemporary cultural issues, right? Do you understand that when you have that attitude toward Rush Limbaugh, you are insulting and demeaning and excluding the millions of his listeners? There's an entire world out there in America that you have no knowledge of!"
Of course, everything I said that evening was a prophecy, because later in the year when the Republican sweep went through and Rush Limbaugh was celebrated in Washington, I'm sure my words came back to haunt many of those people. Suddenly all the media were like, "What happened? We don't understand any of this at all!"
Anyone who had been listening to Rush Limbaugh, monitoring what was going on on The Rush Limbaugh Show with an open mind, would not have been surprised with the Republican sweep. One saw it building for years. There was no surprise in that sweep to anyone who had been intelligent enough to be interested in the general culture outside of this Washington-New York-Cambridge insular, arrogant little coterie.
Reason: You're proud to say you watch television.
Paglia: I love television. I love soap operas. I love The Young and the Restless. It's my favorite show. I love everything about television. The ads. I love the glitzy part of TV. I love Hard Copy. I learn a lot of things from Hard Copy. You'd be surprised. Television to me is the culture.
In point of fact, that is where politics is being decided, for good or for ill. The TV screen is now like the national community forum. It's a way that people test out candidates. Without television, Clinton could have never won the presidency. We watched him being tested over time.
I just don't believe that television has been negative. In fact Marshall McLuhan quite correctly pointed out—a thought I had independently—that Hitler could never have risen if television had existed, because Hitler would not work well on TV. He was primarily an orator. If you really look at him up close, he looks ridiculous. So I think especially now with C-SPAN—my God, what a change! C-SPAN has allowed us to really look unedited at major news events, even minor news events, and then to compare how they're reported on the major network news shows. We see that kind of naked bias and manipulation of the news that I was very aware of as a student of TV and an admirer of TV.
Reason: In a lot of your writings, you have at best an ambivalent and at the extreme a very hostile view of the professional workplace, of office life. I'm curious about that.
Paglia: I've had a tremendous struggle, just because of my personality type, with doing well in that kind of a group situation. I feel very claustrophobic in an office environment. One of the first jobs that I got fired from was at a payroll office. I hated being in this large room with other people. I got fired because I wasn't good at it.
What I am talking about is the committees that I have been forced to sit on in the academy. I do not work well in meetings or committees. I'm an inflammatory type. I get very impatient. I think people are wasting time. My attitude toward committees is, "Just give me all the work and I'll do it! I'll do it in less time than it takes us to talk about what we're going to do!" I'm terrible.
It's not that I have a hostility to office life, it's just that I'm personally temperamentally unsuited to that kind of just sitting there for hours letting your rear end go dead. I'm very restless physically. I want to be moving. I don't like to be kept in a room with people for that long.
I'm also very aware why very masculine men are not represented in academe. Very masculine men cannot sit still long enough. And so all the ideology of feminism is coming out of these women who are married to wordsmith men, who are not that combative or confrontational to begin with, because the really masculine men, the high-testosterone men, are so restless they can hardly sit still in class.
I'm very, very worried about this new kind of bourgeois imperialism which predicates the ultimate human type as someone who is good at sitting still at a desk.
Reason: Schools have rewarded that for a century.
Paglia: Well, here's the point. My father's generation, the Italian immigrants—my father was born here but my mother was born in Italy—they were leaving school earlier. The boys who were really restless were leaving school at 14.
Reason: People who were leaving school at 14 were not becoming college professors.
Paglia: I know that. What I'm saying is that in terms of ideology, sexual politics, we're getting a biased view.
People of the white upper-middle-class professional elite have very little direct contact with working-class men, even though the working-class men are everywhere around them and are keeping everything going. They are the ones who are the janitors, the construction workers, the plumbers, the police and firemen, and so on. It's everywhere.
But the world that those men have created works so well, they maintain it so assiduously, that there has been a contempt on the part of these complacent, pampered, coddled upper-middle-class people who are spouting a lot of this rhetoric. There's this arrogance that masculinity isn't something that we need anymore—this is the Gloria Steinem line: Masculinity is something that is pernicious and is the cause of all wars and destruction and violence and battering against women, and slowly we're going to be programming it out of our youth.
I said it in the Playboy interview: All it takes is one natural disaster for that entire artificial world to come crumbling down, and suddenly everyone will be screaming and yelling for the plumbers and the construction workers. Only masculine men of the working class will hold the civilization together.
Reason: Since you're always ragging on WASPy middle-class people, let me ask you about two different feminists in the public eye. One is your friend and mine, Christina Sommers [author of Who Stole Feminism?], who is a very nice, WASPy, bourgeois, conventional academic. And the other is Naomi Wolf [author of The Beauty Myth and Fire with Fire], who is the ethnic daughter of Berkeley bohemian leftists, who insists on telling the world in the pages of The New Republic the details of her sex life and who doesn't have a regular job. Yet it is Christina Sommers who is the rigorous critic of victimhood feminism, and Wolf is its darling. How does that fit into your anti-middle-class schema?
Paglia: Number one, there are two different generations. Christina Hoff Sommers is my generation, so she's coming out of the '60s revolution. She's a very independent-minded woman. Christina Sommers, as I made clear in the introduction to Vamps & Tramps, was out on the scene before my first book ever made it into print. In the late '80s, she was already out there, fighting hand-to-hand in the professional philosophers association against the encroachment of a certain type of propagandistic feminism.
She was one of the earliest people who wrote to me to express her support of my work and to pass on to me all these documents about her struggles in the American Philosophical Association. She is one of the most courageous women of my generation. She went out single-handedly without even Paglia out there to take some of the abuse.
Her spirit is actually the '60s spirit. She's someone who believed when she entered professional philosophy that women should achieve at the highest levels that had been established by men of the past. She believes with me that the proper education for young women is exposure to the greatest that has been thought, the greatest that has been written or achieved in the history of the arts, in philosophy, and so on. One does not go around finding fifth-rate works by women or 10th-rate works by women and using up precious college time in women's education for that.
Secondly, Naomi Wolf. One of my criticisms of Naomi Wolf is that, excuse me, the portrait of her parents as left-wing is one of her pieces of propaganda. Her father, if you just read his prose, is a very sober, learned man, a traditional scholar. And this is part of Naomi Wolf's propaganda about her life.
Next, one of my major criticisms of Naomi is that she has drifted from any kind of ethnic affiliation. I have constantly said this about her, Susan Faludi, or Gloria Steinem: that these women are not identifiably anything. Feminism has become their entire metaphysical, religious, and cultural world view. But feminism is not sufficiently developed as a system yet—at least it wasn't before me! What I'm trying to do is add aesthetics and psychology to the very narrow kind of ideology that these women are fanatically promulgating.
That's one of my criticisms of Naomi, that she's so WASPized. She has adopted this WASP manner, OK? It's a completely bland, white-bread, upwardly mobile manner, OK. There's nothing Jewish about her. That's one of my charges against her—that she's simply a yuppie.
Meanwhile—in fact, I couldn't believe Playboy put this in—they cut my whole philosophy of feminism to leave space for my theories about Naomi Wolf's hair! I'm saying that without her hair she would never have gotten attention at all. There were a million books like that, The Beauty Myth—a lot of books. It was only her hair that gave her cachet. People remembered her hair, and the male reporters thought she was hot, and she spent a lot of time sticking her boobs in people's face. She's done this seductive number on men for her entire career. Her primary style of approach is seduction.
Her thinking is completely incoherent, as opposed to someone like Katie Roiphe [author of The Morning After], who in my view is a true intellectual who has a very, very fine book. She is the first intellectual of her generation, and I hope she can survive psychologically after the devastating and malicious attacks on her by the feminist establishment, like that bitch Katha Pollitt, the biggest Stalinist of them all, in The New Yorker—a lying piece of defamatory prose that I hope she burns in hell for. I have constantly said that Katie Roiphe's book is a wonderful description, from the inside, of the American bourgeois mind. I think that's the way she should have been packaged by her publisher.
Naomi Wolf—whatever the prevailing wind is, Naomi Wolf will go with it. So she was pushing P.C. feminism, and all of a sudden it turned out, "Gee, the Paglia brand of anti-P.C. feminism is more popular. I think I'll go in that direction now!" So then her next book completely reverses the last book. No one notices, because her readers are all nincompoops—they don't notice anything.
So when New York magazine did a story on her and asked me about my many ideas that are running throughout her work now, I said, "As a teacher, I am happy to be completing Naomi's education, which was so deficient at Yale." And I said, "Look at what Yale and Harvard are doing to young women! They produced Naomi Wolf—a Rhodes scholar—and look at Susan Faludi: Her mind is a mess, and she's a Harvard graduate."
Christina and I—we are in despair, really, about the younger generation, because we thought that women were moving forward. I have worked and worked, and so has Christina, to hone our analytical skills; again by absorbing the great masters of rhetoric and analysis, whether they're male or female.
We have truly mutilated the minds of a whole generation of young women, and it's going to be another generation before we can recover.
Reason: You shouldn't exaggerate. It's a very small percentage of young women who are going into these women's studies programs. Lots of young women are studying science, economics, or they're pre-med, etc.
Paglia: I mean in the humanities. The women's studies influence is not just concentrated in women's studies courses: It really has passed throughout the curricula of humanities departments. I'm telling you it is a disaster. People who are in economics or law, fine. Medicine, fine. I'm talking about the arts. The arts have been poisoned by the P.C. rhetoric everywhere.
Reason: You say that your 1960s generation, of which you are very obviously proud, failed to appreciate the positive role of institutions. What do you mean by that? What institutions?
Paglia: When I got my first job at Bennington College in 1972, I still believed in the '60s idea, "Do your own thing." I believed in full self-expression. I was very impatient with institutions, I hated procedures, I hated Robert's Rules of Order, I hated the committee work we were talking about. I was just totally disrespectful of all those processes. I thought, "Oh, these old fuddy duddy things sitting around for hours in boring meetings." I began to learn the hard way about institutions by the fact that I was in such conflict with them from the first semester on of my first job.
It's a small place in the middle of nowhere in Vermont, so everything was magnified. I caused crisis after crisis up there. I would say something—obviously, I have a great skill at soundbites, that's clear, but I didn't know it at the time. Everything I said was instantly quoted, instantly inflammatory; I would get involved in scrapes and scandals, and the institution would come to a halt. The parents would call to complain, or there had to be a committee where I was brought forth in front of the committee and people had to meet on me and what happened and have the people come in and testify. It was, like, endless.
And at one point during one of these inquiries, I said to the committee, "Well, look, I'm an Italian. I'm not going to stand for slights to my honor, insults. We have to avenge things!" And an elderly faculty member said, "Maybe there's a conflict between being Italian and being a teacher that you have to face." I thought, "This is very interesting."
I was forced to realize that even though what I was doing was in the '60s ideal of doing your own thing, total flamboyance, I was causing a great deal of trouble to a great many people. These faculty members were forced to take time from their busy lives to sit for hours and days in taking this testimony and in weighing judgment.
So I began to realize the degree to which I was diverting the institution from its educational mission. That what I was doing, being myself, was obstructing something that I had an idealism about—that is, that I have a vocation as a teacher. I was forced to face this in ways that many other members of my '60s generation did not, those who did not go on into a profession.
I was already in the process of considering the degree to which one has to accept Freud's idea of civilization and its discontents. Everything that is civilization is based on some form of instinctual repression or delayed gratification. And maturity is really about realizing the limits on one's ego, and where social reality begins. I don't believe in obedience, total obedience. I am a '60s social activist. I believe that where there is injustice, one must act out to remedy it, and I'm very confrontational in my life. But I began to realize that I had been very insulting about institutions—that in point of fact, institutions are civilization. They are not oppression. They are civilization.
Reason: When you write about gay men, you seem to appreciate them mostly as exemplars of the dramatic in life, of rebellion against bourgeois society. But I personally know a lot of gay men who want bourgeois lives, and that is very much the cutting edge of at least part of the gay movement today. People want to be themselves but to have committed relationships, to be very bourgeois.
Paglia: It's an argument going on now in the gay world, with Bruce Bawer coming out with his book [A Place at the Table] on that side and so on. What I'm saying is the contribution of gay men to culture, what makes them highly individual in the history of culture, is not that they are settling down and being like everyone else—that is, just responding to their natural and normal human needs—but rather what they have done in terms of the history of consciousness.
That's part of my argument, for example, with my friend Harvey Mansfield, the conservative at Harvard. His argument would be that homosexuality is antithetical to civilization and to culture, that it is disruptive and anarchic. And my argument is the opposite: that gay men—not all gay men, but many gay men—have in fact built Western civilization. That their contributions to the history of consciousness and the creation of art have been major in making the West what it is—for whatever reason.
It is natural to want to settle down. There should be an experimental period in one's life, it seems to me, where one tries everything new, but if you continue in that stage beyond, let's say, age 30, I think that that kind of restlessness is a sign of immaturity rather than creativity.
Reason: Right now there's a lot of nostalgia among people who define themselves as communitarians, on both the left and right, for the 1950s. You portray the 1950s as boring and claustrophobic. What do you think of this current nostalgia?
Paglia: The '50s were a wonderful time if you happened to be a blonde WASP cheerleader. Great! But if you were Jewish or gay or a tomboy, like me, or any kind of dissident, it was a very repressive and conformist period.
David Halberstam's book [The Fifties] is talking about how wonderful the '50s were—it was a very vigorous time. Well, he's a little older than me. So what he is remembering is authentic. There was indeed a very vigorous Jewish culture at that time. I think the New York world for Jews at that time, intellectual Jews, was wonderful.
But please! For my generation, the baby boomers, born just after World War II, the '50s were a horror. I don't care what David Halberstam says about his experience. It is just inaccurate. Certainly there were things going on that led to the '60s, absolutely. I've said this all along that the beatniks were the precursors. But they were the adversary culture—the oppositional culture. They were stereotyped and pilloried everywhere. Anyone who tries to say that mainstream culture was fab in the '50s, they're just not thinking straight.
Reason: Most of the nostalgia isn't of the intellectual, Halberstam variety. It's that families were stable, streets were safe.
Paglia: It is true. Things were very stable. But the point is that we've gone through enormous cultural changes. Just take the example of the automobile. I remember riding my bicycle to school in Syracuse—it was about 1957, '58—and riding quite an enormous distance on this old bicycle, and there were hardly any cars. You wouldn't dream of doing that today. The number of cars has not tripled but quadrupled. In photographs of New York City from the '50s, you can hardly believe how little traffic there is.
All of a sudden there was an enormous explosion of people who owned cars. Cars became very dangerous. Young people were driving cars. Then the '60s unleashed the dangers of assassinations and kidnappings and murders, and all kinds of stuff.
You can't go back again. The idea that we can recreate that, that is just crazy. It's absolutely crazy. We are moving forward, for good or for ill.
Reason: Somebody once described you as "Ayn Rand on mushrooms." I'm curious whether at some point in your life you've had any encounter with Ayn Rand's work or people influenced by her.
Paglia: Ayn Rand was an enormous figure for people who were intellectuals in college in the mid-'50s and late '50s. I entered college in '64, so I never heard her name in college. She was just gone.
I never read Ayn Rand until people started to compare me to her. Since I came on the scene it has come up repeatedly—people have asked me about Ayn Rand, followers of Ayn Rand. I might be on a call-in show; they always asked. Because I was being asked so much, I went out and I read some of Ayn Rand. And I was struck. I could see what the parallels are.
That is, she was influenced by many of the same works that I was. She was reading Romantic thinkers and Nietzsche and so on. There are certain passages in her where I went, "Oh my God, that sounds like a passage from Sexual Personae." So I was really struck.
At the same time, I saw the differences. First of all, she's a libertarian or a radical individualist as I am, but she is very—like Simone de Beauvoir—contemptuous of religion. I am an atheist, but I respect religion. I respect all the world religions, and I regard them as these symbol systems, belief systems that are like poetry. I love these great mythological systems. I feel that mystical and religious thinking tells you more about the universe in many ways than ordinary prose, or even science, does.
So I'm uncomfortable with that. For both de Beauvoir and Ayn Rand religion is symptomatic of an infantile mind, or of an overemotional mind. I believe in mystery; I believe in both Apollo and Dionysus. So I think that my system is more complete.
And what else? I find both Simone de Beauvoir and Ayn Rand deficient in humor. Comedy is my attitude toward life, and I feel that comedy is the spirit of the last half of the 20th century. The first half of the 20th century would have been the age of Beckett and Waiting for Godot and that whole bleak, nihilistic attitude toward the world that Susan Sontag is still carrying around with her like a big black hat. The attitude of the last 50 years is like that of rock and roll—energy, comedy, exuberance, the pleasure principle, improvisation, spontaneity. These are my principles. So I think I have a kind of childlike quality and playfulness that are missing from the dour adulthood of both Simone de Beauvoir and Ayn Rand.
Also I am a little bit uneasy, OK, with the politics. I don't think that Ayn Rand is a fascist particularly, but I think there is a kind of contempt for ordinary people in Ayn Rand—a little bit. I love the high achiever, I am a great worshiper of the high achiever. But I also feel at home with people of the working class. And I think that in Rand there's a little bit of a kind of snobbish elitism about those vulgar masses out there. That makes me a little uncomfortable with her.
But I think if one is looking at parallels, there is no doubt that there are a lot. I'm very happy to be considered one of her successors, even if not influenced by her directly. And I think there is no doubt that my impact on many people is exactly like her impact on many people. That is, we came as kind of a fresh breeze into a period of conformism. She and I say to people, "Think for yourself! Don't be such a toadie! Stop going along with the group! Don't be such a sheep, just going along passively with other people!"
One would think that women's studies, if it really obeyed its mission, would make her part of the agenda. But no, of course not! Women's studies has been oriented toward rediscovering the mediocre thinker, or the writer who talks about her victimization, rather than someone who preaches individualism and independence as Ayn Rand does.
Reason: You always talk about the limitations of nature and you emphasize the imperfectibility of the world—you're anti-Rousseauian—but you do seem to be optimistic, to believe in some kind of progress.
Paglia: I think I am a progressive thinker, ultimately. But I do believe that we go two steps forward and one step back. But there is still a general movement forward.
I'm also a decadent thinker, so far as I see cultures as waxing and waning. I see this cyclic movement in history, where you have a society that grows, expands, overexpands, and collapses. And there's a period of a dark age, and then you have another culture slowly building up.
In that sense I've been going against the grain of a lot of thinking in the post-structuralist-influenced humanities departments: "History is a bunch of meaningless fragments." Well, that's not what I see. And that's not what Jews see, who at Passover remember something that happened 5,000 years ago. So I do think that history is a story, that it's a narrative and that it's our obligation as teachers to try to pull together all the disparate parts—to try to give the students a coherence, a core sense of the cohesiveness of history, without these tired formulas of multiculturalism. I believe in an enlightened multiculturalism based on scholarship, but I hate this kind of moralistic trumpeting about the imperialism of the West and the atrocities of white men versus women and people of color. I'm so tired of that.
I think I'm like this one-man truth squad who goes around and hits, hits, hits on all these issues. At the same time I am basically in agreement with most of the progressive agenda. Sex studies should be on the agenda, not as women's studies but as something else. I have given my career to that, long before anyone thought of women's studies.
Every single issue where the P.C. academy thinks it's going to reform the old bad path, I have been there before they have been, and I'm there to punish and to expose and to say what they're doing—the New Historicism coming out of Berkeley, for example—is a piece of crap.
I'm outside the establishment completely, and no one can co-opt me. They can't get to me. Because I don't apply for grants, they can't punish me like that. And I appear out of nowhere! They think they can avoid having to deal with me, never mentioning me and so forth, and then all of a sudden, the students invite me. And there I am! And I come on campus, and I name names on the podium. And then I leave and create disorder, and they all have to deal with it for weeks. It's great! It's wonderful!