Thursday, February 23, 1995

Q&A Camille Paglia: Dualities

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review

HB: The first I knew of your work was the piece you did for Harper's with Neil Postman on media.

CP: The cover story in '91.

HB: In which you manage to link together Santeria and Mt. Sinai in a single paragraph.

CP: Right. The libel is abroad that Paglia got to be famous because she attacks women. In point of fact one of the reasons I got famous is because of that story simultaneous with a New York Magazine cover story. Feminism is hardly mentioned in the Harper's piece, which was about contemporary culture, completely devoid of the sex wars.

HB: Why so much resentment of your celebrity?

CP: This is a very PC place. The feminist establishment here is one of the most powerful in the country, comparable to the Village Voice group in New York, and the pockets of intense PC feminism in Princeton, Santa Cruz, Berkeley. When I came on the scene five years ago, it was like dealing with Stalinists or Christian fundamentalists.

They had the truth. The agenda was all worked out. There were code words like "patriarchy," the "male gaze," "oppression," and so on. I upset the apple cart. People forget that for a year after the publication of "Sexual Personae" (1990) I was completely unknown. The book was simply selling and selling with no publicity from Yale Press. Then all of a sudden I'm in the papers with a Madonna piece for the New York Times, followed by a piece on date rape.

These women say, "Oh if she weren't that way, I could take her seriously." But no one knew who Camille Paglia was for that year. No one had any idea what I looked like, talked like, or anything about my personality So the resistance of the feminist establishment is not to me but to my ideas. They could not take in my ideas. There was, for instance, the feminist faculty member at Yale who marched into one of the New Haven bookstores with her graduate students to return "Sexual Personae" on the grounds that it was incorrect -- this after reading half of a chapter and before I was on the scene as a personality.

You have to accept it was a serious situation. There was a total closing down of free thought and free speech in feminism. It was at a total dead-end. No one talked to them. They were off in a ghetto, with their own lucrative programs and job give-aways.

I gave them the bad news -- "Guess what. You haven't been talking to anybody. There's been no real dialogue. You're mediocrities. Everyone around you says it. You haven't heard it because no one says it to you directly."

HB: Arguments flared up about you all the time, lots of them with people who had never read you.

CP: To criticize the feminist establishment was to be anti-feminist. I'm the one who broke the spell. It's possible to critique feminist ideology and the feminist establishment and still be true to feminist principles. When you criticize the Catholic hierarchy or doctrine you can still be Catholic. The point is a profound anti-intellectualism has settled over the culture.

HB: Your celebrity comes at around the same time as Robert Bly's. Both of you were trying to redefine or reassert the value of masculinity.

CP: Americans totally ignored the similarity but foreigners always brought up Robert Bly to me. The feminists would say, "She would be happy to learn she has been compared to Robert Bly." I would say, excuse me, Robert Bly is going back through the history of his gender and I'm doing the same thing for mine. We are exactly parallel phenomena. The feminists would sneer: "Oh, this man going off into the woods and beating drums." Well excuse me, I'm a fan of rock. What could be more sixties, what could be more elemental than going out to nature and building a fire under the stars and getting your body rhythms in sync with natural rhythms?

There should have immediately been articles written in America -- this is how stupid things are right now -- exploring how Robert Bly and I come out of the same element of the sixties.

HB: "Sexual Personae" melts down departments. It blurs genre, it throws together different areas of learning.

CP: It's the sixties vision. It got lost.

HB: It's a kind of a druggy book, but according to "Vamps and Tramps" you didn't take drugs.

CP: It's a psychedelic book. I like to call my style psychedelic criticism. I loved the art, you know, Richard Avedon's portrait of the four Beatles and the wonderful dayglo rock posters from San Francisco. The San Francisco electric acid rock style -- that is my style. The great searing sounds of the Jefferson Airplane lead guitar -- eeeeaaaaaoooo -- and then you get the reverb, there's a lot of reverb in acid rock. That's my style, and that's the vision of the universe I want to establish in volume two of "Sexual Personae" .

The psychedelic thing has dwindled to the tie-died tee-shirts worn by Dead fans. It was much more than that. It had to do with opening up your perception of the universe. It was a profoundly revolutionary, hallucinatory, and mystic way of seeing. The problem was, people turned their backs on society.

There was a split, a breakdown, total nervous breakdown at the end of the sixties, early seventies. The Dionysians went away and Apollonian nerds took over the culture -- you get the Wall Street Yuppie era of the eighties. Right now, at the end of the century, the culture is a nightmare.

So I'm trying to uphold the sixties -- not just the progressive political ideas but the visionary insights that were beyond politics. Bly shares this vision of the cosmos. I want to reunite that, though, with responsibility to the system and to institutions.

HB: The kind of thing you react against now, the political correctness of feminism, isn't so new. It started back then. The sixties generated its own fundamentalism.

CP: Sure. Almost immediately there was a turn toward group think. The do-your-own thing people were noncombative. They floated off, their brains were lost to the culture. The fanatical ideologues who emerge almost immediately in feminism -- they hounded me out, they hounded out a lot of other people -- took over because they are the ones with endless energy for meetings. If the ones with the vision had produced art or writing, they would still have had an impact on the culture. But the attitude was, hey, life is like a flower, life is like pollen, why exert yourself, the gods will bless us no matter what.

They made the passage to India, but they never came back. The point is to go to India and come back to the West with vision and transform the culture.

HB: You are considered an extremist but in your written work you try to strike a balance. In "Sexual Personae" it's Apollo and Dionysus. In "Vamps and Tramps" it's Judeo-Christianity and paganism, text and the media. You even try to strike a balance in terms of sexuality, writing "Bisexuality is our best hope of escape from the animosities and false polarities of the current sex wars."

CP: And a balance between past and future. My phrase is creative duality.

HB: Is it possible to keep one eye on the great books and the other on television?

CP: I'm a living embodiment.

HB: What happens to text? To language?

CP: It's shriveling. That's obvious. So what the hell are these people at Harvard doing, with their stupid labyrinthine language of post-structuralism? When its under attack by popular culture, language has got to get livelier. It can't be deadened by false syntax, European jargon, stupid essays on Madonna, choked semiotics. Reading culture is falling into ruin.

What are you doing, Ivy League? Why force professors of literature to read Lacan, Derrida, Foucault? We've got to go out there and preach as though we were ministers, we have to be evangelical to save reading, or my god, it's going to go.

I've been teaching in very marginal schools where people don't read and don't buy the books. There's a major crisis on our hands and the Ivy League is totally irresponsible in approaching these matters. We've got to sell reading. I embody this, I believe that language should be used in an sensory and emotional way.

But even if we go enter a period of barbarism where knowledge is lost, the books will survive. That is another principle of my work: works are lost and they are recovered, lost and recovered. We are going through a period now where they are lost -- and the Ivy League has helped to bury them -- but they are still there. They will be on the library shelf.

HB: You compare today's Unites States to the Roman Empire at the time when Rome's classical tradition was coming into conflict with its imperial polyglot culture.

CP: Ethically our culture is split between the old virtues, like the republican virtues in Rome, and the new imperial fast track style, which would be the gay world I belong to, drag queens and so on.

And here's the folly of progressives. They don't realize that the accusations the Christian right makes of decadence is true; the gay male world is decadent. I acknowledge that. We are in a decadent phase. In "Sexual Personae" I redefine decadence as a complex historical mode with specific characteristics. Finally I call myself a decadent, a decadent lesbian.

HB: Today, there's a complete split between religious and political fundamentalism on the one hand, and what you call decadence and others might refer to as postmodernism.

CP: The reason we're talking about fundamentalism is because modernism assaulted belief without putting anything in its place. When the Enlightenment, assaulted beliefs it put something else in their place -- science. Romanticism put poetry and art in its place. The fault of modernism is that it attacks conventional belief without putting anything in its place. The consequence now, at the end of the century, is a world movement back to fundamentalism.

That's what I'm trying to warn people about. Instead of crying, oh, the radical right, they're such fanatics, ask, why are they taking the people with them? There's a hollowness at the heart of progressive politics right now.

HB: In "Vamps and Tramps" you write, "the function of the modern artist is precisely to shatter *all taboos* and that where the subject of the art work causes the most pain, that is where the artist is contributing the most to civilization." Why?

CP: That is the function of the artist in the period of romanticism -- and I think we are still in a two hundred year old era of romanticism. That's what Harold Bloom would say and what I would say.

That's not the function of the artist through most of world history. Normally artists uphold and affirm the fundamental beliefs of their time and their people. The Sistine Chapel was only possible, for example, because Michelangelo was in total agreement with the principles of his own people. Since romanticism, the artist, as we all know, has been in opposition to society. So today, taboo breaking is the road of art.

HB: In your piece about Judy Garland, you write about the sacred monsters.

CP: The stars, the great artists, are always amoral egotists. This is what I'm trying to get women to realize. If you hope to achieve at the highest level of intellect or art or performance then egomania and amorality are involved. You cannot be Miss Nice Girl and hit the top level. This is the trouble with women in rock. It's not that women lack creativity. They have great talent which they have shown in the cello, the piano, the violin, in vocals and so on, but in hard rock lead guitar, which I adore -- to me it's the great romantic voice of self-assertion -- women have achieved absolutely nothing after twenty-five years.

The great stars -- Madonna -- propel their imagination. All of the great creators are in some sense vampires.

HB: You say "We are greater than our social selves."

CP: There are two spheres of life. One is social, one sexual, emotional, spiritual. The part where they overlap is the part where feminists correctly say the personal is political. But contemporary feminism's error is to identify all of life with the social sphere. We are much greater than merely that.

In "Sexual Personae" I'm saying society is a mechanism, an artifice. Males, in flight from nature, constructed this civilized shell. It's an artifice and it's frail. I can see that all things will eventually decay, and all that's left is the great wheel of nature.

The vision of the sixties was about nature. We saw the artifice of society; we saw social injustice and meant to remedy it. But we would never, never make the mistake of imagining that the shell of the social system could be identified with the totality of human existence. We saw the cosmos behind it. And that perception has been lost. So to even raise the word "nature" in academe today, in the Ivy League, gets you called a biological determinist, an "essentialist" -- a stupid word used by people who don't know anything about the history of philosophy. That should be the first two years of your college education -- nature and all the varied definitions of it that every culture has invented.

HB: What is the connection between your literary persona and your media persona?

CP: Bookstores or radio stations will sometimes say, will you read from your book? I say absolutely not. I would never read from my book. The voice of Camille Paglia the person is not the voice of "Sexual Personae". I never read my writing aloud.

I feel like in some ways I have a speech impediment. I have always had one. Short, fast-talking people -- it's well known no one takes them seriously. Leaders are taller and slower spoken. My normal speech has held me back. Now at least people understand what I'm saying. "Sexual Personae" is out there, and here comes my third book.

Until my early forties and before any of these books were out no one understood a word I was saying, not even my friends. I would try to talk with people about my ideas and it was futile. They'd listen to me, listen to me, listen to me, and then everyone would say, oh, that's ridiculous. So I learned to shut up.

So "Sexual Personae" is my inner thoughts. I will say things when I'm writing that I've never said even to my friends. I have found an audience. Still, it's weird, it's very weird, the relation between the writer and the audience.

HB: What are you like as a teacher?

CP: When I first got my first job at Benington College, from which I was later fired, I had great trouble moving from the total silence of writing and researching "Sexual Personae" on weekends into talking mode for the class. Once I start talking I keep talking, but the syntax, I have no syntax to start with, I have no words. So it's a great discipline to force yourself to sell these works to freshman over so many years. Trying to communicate to minds that are completely blank and resistant is a fantastic exercise.

HB: Why so many references to sadomasochism in your work?

CP: I don't practice sadomasochism but it's one of the themes I saw neglected in the culture and one I was finding everywhere in art. This is where "Sexual Personae" was most prophetic. In one of Michelangelo's statues the pin holding up a breastplate bites into the flesh. I wrote it was like the "nipple-piercing pins one sees in sadomasochist sex shops." When I wrote that line, no one would have known what I was talking about. By the time the book came out in 1990, piercing was a fashion statement.

Sadomasochism is a primary principle of nature. It's Darwinian -- sex and aggression. These are the elemental forces of nature that the West or any civilized culture conceals from itself. "Sexual Personae" begins with :in the beginning with nature. Middle class people are removed from the operations of nature in a way their ancestors who worked on farms were not. There's something, it seems to me, ill about this fantastic complex machinery, the modern world.

I'm doing nothing that people in the sixties were not doing but it's all gone. There should be other people like me; there should have been other books like mine. But the context is missing. I seem weird, I seem really weird. Today, you cannot be successful at the elite schools without being conformist in a bourgeois way. They don't care about your ideas, they don't care about your scholarship or your learning. All that matters is that you tow the line and be a person that can fit in, a company man.

How the sixties have collapsed, how the great boldness of the sixties has collapsed into such timorous and time-serving kinds of group-think. 

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