The Divine Miss P.

Elaine Showalter

  • Sex, Art and American Culture by Camille Paglia
    Viking, 256 pp, £16.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 670 84612 0

Who is hotter than Mary McCarthy? Smarter than Susan Sontag? Funnier than Harold Bloom? Well, if you take her word for it, it’s Camille Paglia, come to set the world straight on the burning issues of our time: tenured radicals, date rape, the aesthetic evolution of Madonna. The self-styled genius and warrior woman seized public attention with her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), a sweeping, Strindbergian analysis of culture as the war of the sexes. But what really made her famous were her attacks on feminism and academia, coupled with her paeans to pop culture. Naming names and kicking butt, Paglia quickly became a media celebrity, who hit the gossip columns when the model Lauren Hutton took her to the National Motorcycle Show in Manhattan, and posed for Vanity Fair in full make-up and a bulging décolletage, her arms around the bare biceps of the two black bodyguards she calls ‘my centurions’. In the introduction to Sex, Art and American Culture, a bizarre grab-bag of book reviews, interviews, transcribed lectures, classroom notes and personal memorabilia, Paglia gleefully provides an annotated bibliography of all the news articles about herself, and attributes her fame to astrological cycles, the Zeitgeist, and a new Age of Aquarius: ‘At the end of the century and the millennium,’ she writes, ‘the culture has suddenly changed ... Anti-establishment mavericks like me are back in fashion.’

Like her first book, Sex, Art and American Culture is on the American best-seller lists. But although it purports to have various cultural subjects, this book is really about the divine Miss P., her Catholic girlhood in Syracuse, New York; her intuitive feminism (‘Before feminism, Paglia was! Out there punching and kicking and fighting with people!’); her Italian-American identity; her struggles with gender and sexuality; her education; her traumatic rejection by the New Haven Women’s Rock Band for admiring the Rolling Stones; her subsequent alienation from the women’s movement; her failure to make it in the academic world; her long exile in Philadelphia; her triumphant return. As she recently announced to a bemused audience at Princeton (the bodyguards discreetly out of sight), ‘You are in the presence of one of the great woman scholars in the world.’

To be neglected and forgotten and then lifted to fame is a story with universal appeal, and Paglia presents herself as a scrappy Cinderella fighting against the ugly sisters of American academic feminism. In contrast to her own deep learning, personal daring, appreciation of beauty and refusal to cohabit with men, Paglia asserts, feminist critics are ‘poor or narrowly trained scholars’, ‘conventional married women who never rocked a boat in their lives’. These ‘beaming Betty Crockers, hangdog dowdies, and parochial prudes’ don’t appreciate the rough, sweaty appeal of real men, and are so benighted that they admire their ‘nerdy bookworm husbands’, those ‘eunuchs’ from ‘élite schools’ who lack the ‘primordial male sexuality’ of the stupid. They don’t understand the ‘fun element in rape’, they ‘loathe Madonna’, they have no feeling for Beauty and Art. And yet, by dint of toadying and sucking up and being nice, these women have snagged all the best teaching jobs, while Paglia has laboured alone and unheard at the Philadelphia College of Art. Her ethnicity, her integrity, her innocence, her refusal to play the academic game, have kept her back while less talented – much less talented – Ivy League schemers rose through the ranks. Even a trip to the library at the nearby University of Pennsylvania sends her into a rage at ‘those prep-school voices’. Nonetheless, the story has a happy ending, for out of her years of exile, solitude and cunning, out of teaching scholarship students and being spared ‘all these poisons that have swept over the Ivy League’, comes the great work of Sexual Personae.

Paglia’s self-presentation as an academic outcast is somewhat marred by the fact that she received her doctorate at Yale under the direction of the not exactly powerless Harold Bloom, and that Sexual Personae was published by Yale University Press. Although she claims that after Yale she ‘could not get hired anywhere’ because she was such a nonconformist (‘I’m so Italian that this has crippled me in my advance in academe’; ‘In order to rise in academe you have to adopt this WASP style’; ‘I had no idea that to succeed in academe you had to learn the game, the art of rising’; ‘What you had to do to get a job in academe ... was to curry favour with people in power. Oh, that disgusts me!’), she told the Washington Post that she taught at Bennington College from 1972 to 1980, where she got into ‘tons’ of fistfights, ‘tons of them everywhere’, and kicked a male student in the pants – a poor formula for advancement in most professions.

Despite a braggadocio bordering on dementia, Paglia is learned and genuinely provocative, but it is not what she thinks about Emily Dickinson that attracts large audiences to her well-publicised lectures at various Ivy league campuses. Her popularity on the university lecture circuit is largely evidence of the pleasure intellectuals, like everyone else, take in hearing their more celebrated colleagues or teachers get trashed. Invective can be both entertaining and flattering, even when the audience is not exactly sure who is being insulted or why. You might not be totally conversant with the work of the dead Stanford Classics scholar Paglia dumps on in the longest essay in the book, ‘Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf’, or be able to identify the woman professor at Harvard whom Paglia denounces in a lecture as nothing more than a ‘Paul de Man toady’, but how reassuring to hear that they were really ignorant sycophants. If a young woman with degrees from Yale and Oxford has written a feminist critique of the beauty industry which becomes a best-seller, and she’s pretty to boot, how comforting to hear that she’s ‘a parent-pleasing, teacher-pleasing little kiss-ass’. If a Marxist professor with a chair at Oxford writes a very successful book about literary theory, how satisfying to think that he is a hypocrite with ‘no direct actual experience of workers or working-class people’. For Paglia, only remote and glamorous icons of pop culture like Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor (of whom she once collected 599 pictures) are spared this resentment, and courted from afar.

Although Paglia cites Harold Bloom and Milton Kessler (her professor at Harpur College in the Sixties) as intellectual mentors, and Oscar Wilde as her literary idol, her staccato style derives in many respects from American stand-up comedy, the rude and abrasive mode of Lenny Bruce or Don Rickles, which gets a lot of its energy from dealing with hecklers. Paglia frequently cites the comedian Joan Rivers as a model for her kind of loud, fast, one-night stand-up routines. The comparison is apt, for as Rivers reveals in her autobiography, Still Talking (1991) her cruel night-club act, with its Liz Taylor fat jokes, is shrewdly calculated to flatter and reassure her largely female audience. ‘This is a very, very angry country,’ Rivers writes, ‘and women are thrilled to hear another woman articulating their rage.’ Like Paglia, Rivers thinks of herself as a feminist, and has convinced herself that by abusing successful women in public, she does a service to her audience: ‘I think of myself as a leader in a support group.’ While Rivers, like Paglia, is quite open about her own narcissism and competitiveness, for her the female superstars Paglia worships are hated rivals. Elizabeth Taylor is to Rivers as Sontag is to Paglia: the reigning queen, the class act, the snooty diva who has to be diminished and defeated, but who, maddeningly, does not even seem to notice that she is being contested.

Nonetheless Rivers is often very funny, and so is Paglia. Whether she is connecting herself through a ‘like me’ clause to various artists (‘Mapplethorpe, like me, was an admirer of Andy Warhol’; ‘Madonna, like me, is drawn to drag queens’) or praising Sexual Personae as ‘perhaps the longest book yet written by a woman’, Paglia’s tireless self-promotion has a certain mad appeal. Female comics usually compensate for their aggressive humour with self-deprecation, and in her interviews and published lectures, Paglia makes some traditional gestures in this direction by making fun of her sex life (‘I’m such a sexual mutant, I mean, I can’t get a date, let me tell you!’) or her academic career (‘a disaster’). Her voice in the essays is arresting and unique, as in her conclusion to the cancelled preface to Sexual Personae, printed in the new book:

I am an Italian Pagan mythomane. I am an American surrealist: this is a Twilight Zone book, born, like Rod Serling’s eerie tales, in placid, pleasant upstate New York. Cast a cold eye, said Mary McCarthy in 1950, advocating post-war ironic detachment. To which I reply, cast a hot eye, amorously acquisitive and devotional.

This isn’t a totally new style in academic speaking and writing; as David Lodge has famously shown, the performative style of showbiz and avant-garde theatre entered academic cultural life in the Eighties through the very conference circuit that Paglia claims to despise. Jane Gallop’s skirt made out of men’s ties, Terry Eagleton’s Brechtian songs, Eve Sedgwick and Michael Moon’s joint paper on Divine, Gilbert and Gubar’s antiphonal lectures, the jab-and-parry pronouncements of Stanley Fish, Marge Garber’s study of transvestites, brought a humour and imagination to the lecture and essay from which Paglia profits, although these are among the rivals she most detests. Paglia is fun to read, especially in small doses. Her blasts at French literary theorists and intellectuals, while wildly hyperbolic, are also refreshingly rude, and her passion for popular culture is deeply informed and infectious. In a recent piece in the TLS, ‘Camille Paglia’s Revenge’, the neo-conservative philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers reports that she was present at MIT when Paglia gave the lecture reprinted in this book, and that thousands of rapt students hung on her every word. I can well believe it. The MIT lecture is great stand-up: sassy, uninhibited, opinionated, and deft. Paglia’s handling of the questions from the audience is good-natured and clever (‘As a fan of Robert Mapplethorpe I can’t object to being abused in public!’). To MIT students fresh from a day of classes in aeronautical engineering and computer science, it must have been a heady experience.

The confident and witty persona of the MIT lecture, however, is not the Paglia I saw at Princeton in December, when, despite her claim that she is everywhere reviled by feminists, she appeared as part of a student-organised feminist conference on women and the beauty industry. That was a harsh, unpleasant, unfunny performance which startled and alienated the students (fewer than at MIT although the $5 admission charge may have been a deterrent), who had come prepared to laugh at her jokes and applaud her bravado. Even before she arrived at Princeton, Paglia was giving out belligerent interviews to the student newspapers on the subjects of women’s studies (‘this feminist crap’); gay studies (‘this absolute crap’); feminist scholars teaching in the many universities which have not offered her jobs (‘mediocrities’, ‘hypocrites’, ‘reactionaries’). Paglia’s local feminist targets have varied, but her general message is the same: ‘My scholarship is ten times better than any of those women who are there, but they’re there because they are convenient.’ Or: ‘How the hell did Elaine Showalter ever get credentials for being a feminist?’

Paglia had refused to speak on a panel with any feminist teachers from the university (‘No one is in my intellectual league,’ she snapped when questioned from the floor), but she consented to share the podium with the amiable supermodel Cindy Crawford. During the discussion itself, a grimacing Paglia interrupted and heckled undergraduates who tried to ask polite questions about her ideas (‘You people are so juvenile’; ‘Ask a question honey; I don’t have to listen to you’; ‘You are so ignorant’). Many tirades began with the declaration that she was ‘sick and tired’ of some idea. (It’s the same in the book: ‘You know what makes me sick and tired? The battered-woman motif ... when, in fact, everyone knows throughout the world that many of these working-class relationships where women get beat up have hot sex.’) Although she claims to love journalists and photographers, posed with a whip and chains for the San Francisco Examiner, and comments rapturously in her Appendix on various media images of herself (‘Sharp photo by Rita Barros of Paglia in action, waving her fist from the lectern of the New York Public Library’; ‘Moody photo of a warlike Paglia at the Providence airport, looking like a scene from Godard’s Breathless’), Paglia ended her day at Princeton more like Scan Penn than Madonna, shoving a photographer who dared to demean the academic occasion by taking her picture.

Was this an off-day, or is Camille by now merely a sour prima donna? Celebrity does not seem to have assuaged her resentments. In many respects, her self-image as the paradigmatic ‘feminist of the fin de siècle’ is askew. While she professes to believe in Wildean masks and ritual personae, she herself seems unable to be playfully transgressive. Her anger is deadly serious. Paglia claims to represent an Aquarian ‘mind’s true liberation’ from cant, intimidation, repression and political correctness. In one sense, I might agree. Although she has become famous for attacking women’s studies, feminism and literary theory in ways that align her with the conservative agenda of Roger Kimbal, Dinesh D’Souza, and Alvin Kernan, she also advocates many practices which challenge the political correctness of the Right, including prostitution, abortion, homosexuality and pornography. Nonetheless, despite her libertarian views, Paglia’s mind, as reflected in her writing, is anything but open. She issues a barrage of opinions, generalisations, and assertions, intolerant of dissent and nuance, self-righteous and closed to questioning. Paglia’s hot eye is finally more envious than amorous, more vengeful than devotional. The final irony, however, is that her revenge on the academy has inevitably backfired. She has single-handedly done more for Naomi Wolf’s career than any agent could have wished, and appearing on her hit-list has become a badge of academic status. Sex, Art and American Culture postpones the moment of the promised second volume of Sexual Personae; having started as an unknown underdog, Paglia must now live up to the vast expectations created by her own huge publicity machine. No wonder she is afraid to debate with her peers, nervous about her image, and given to cancelling her tours.