The Divine Miss P.
- 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.’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 15 No. 5 · 11 March 1993
Elaine Showalter’s review of my new book, Sex, Art and American Culture, was generally fair and accurate in its detailed overview of my career (LRB, 11 February). However, her account of my appearance in December at her own institution, Princeton University, is a dismaying collage of distortions, malice and wishful fantasy.
I have never in fact been invited to lecture at Princeton, partly because of the solipsistic insularity of the feminist establishment that Elaine Showalter represents. I was not giving a lecture at Princeton on the day in question. I had been invited by Alisa Bellettini, producer of MTV’s House of Style, to sit on a 40-minute panel with her, supermodel Cindy Crawford and Linda Wells, founder and editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, to help defend them against the insane feminist charge (obsessively pushed by one-note Naomi Wolf) that the fashion industry causes anorexia.
As one of four panelists focused on a single issue, I could hardly jump to my feet, take over the occasion, and regale the audience with my usual Joan-Rivers-meets-Jane-Harrison comic monologue. Had I done so, I expect Professor Showalter would have used that as evidence of my dreadful selfishness and daffy narcissism. Here, as in her books, she shows her inability to read simple cultural symbolism. At Princeton I was dressed in casual butch blue jeans, rather than my usual ultra-femme, high-maquillage, Auntie Mame performance drag, to signal that I was not the central focus: Cindy Crawford was. It was for the gorgeous, willowy Crawford, not me, that the huge crowd paid a $5 entrance fee.
I suggest that Professor Showalter, who was clearly stung by the respectful coverage my attendance at the conference received before and after the event in the New York Times and New Jersey newspapers on and off campus, should concentrate her energies on the deplorable condition of Princeton education. We visitors were shocked at the mediocrity and inarticulateness of most of the student questioners, who seemed to have no command even of syntax, much less thought, aside from their parroting of passé feminist clichés. Ivy League education in the humanities is obviously in the pits.
In conclusion, Professor Showalter tries to make a grand point of my refusal to ‘debate’ other academic feminists – as if I had ever been invited by anyone anywhere in the country to such a debate (except for a Madonna panel at this student-organised conference). The unpleasant truth is that the American feminist establishment categorically refused to read my book or to take me or my ideas seriously until now, three full years after the release of Sexual Personae.
I’m afraid it’s too late, ladies. You have abundantly shown your true character, in all its vicious, Kremlin-walled Stalinism. The reform movement that I helped launch is at your gates. Your desire for debate is touching, even pathetic. But the time for negotiations is long past. History has moved on and left you behind.
University of the Arts, Philadelphia
Elaine Showalter writes: Incredible as it may seem to Camille Paglia and her clipping service, I missed the coverage of her Princeton appearance in the New York and New Jersey media, apart from the pre- and post-conference stories in the university newspapers. But I did attend her panel discussion, and my description of her comments and behaviour is accurate. As she parenthetically acknowledges, Paglia was originally invited by the student conference organisers to appear on a panel about Madonna with Professor Carol Cook of the English Department. However, she refused to participate in a discussion with Cook or any other feminist professor.
The Daily Princetonian reporter, Howard Gertler, gave the following account of the occasion: ‘The question-and-answer session turned confrontational when Cook attempted to ask Paglia why she refused to appear with other academic feminists. Paglia cut off Cook several times, finally stating: “There is no academic feminist I consider of my league, okay?” Cook responded, “You are a sadly deluded woman,” before returning to her seat.’ At a subsequent press conference, Gertler reported, ‘Paglia’s temper flared again … when she shoved a photographer whom she had warned just moments before not to take a flash picture. “I said no flash, asshole … I’m not Cindy Crawford, I’m an academic talking ideas here,” Paglia said’ (Daily Princetonian, 7 December 1992).
Readers can draw their own conclusions about Paglia’s motives with regard to debate. For myself, although I was prepared to hear her freewheeling attacks on Naomi Wolf and Princeton women faculty, I was surprised by the way she publicly belittled and insulted undergraduates who persisted in asking their questions with courtesy and dignity despite her heckling interruptions. While Cindy Crawford was obviously a major attraction (I watched two male students rush to the podium after the discussion to capture her water glass), an equal amount of publicity and most of the questions were addressed to Paglia.