Paglia, Camille 1947–
Paglia, Camille 1947–
(Camille Anna Paglia)
PERSONAL: Born April 2, 1947, in Endicott, NY; daughter of Pasquale (a professor of Romance languages) and Lydia Paglia. Education: State University of New York, Binghamton, B.A., 1968; Yale University, M.Phil., 1971, Ph.D., 1974.
ADDRESSES: Home—Swarthmore, PA. Office—Department of Humanities, University of the Arts, 320 South Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19102. Agent—Lynn Nesbit, Janklow and Nesbit, 598 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Bennington College, Bennington, VT, faculty member in Literature and Languages Division, 1972–80; Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, visiting lecturer in English, 1980; Yale University, New Haven, CT, fellow of Ezra Stiles College, 1981, visiting lecturer in comparative literature, 1981 and 1984, visiting lecturer in English, 1981–83, fellow of Silliman College, 1984; University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA, assistant professor, 1984–86, associate professor, 1987–91, professor of humanities, 1991–.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Book Critics Circle Award nomination for criticism, 1991, for Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.
Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Vamps & Tramps: New Essays, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Birds, BFI Publishing, 1998.
Break, Blow, Burn, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Camille Paglia's unorthodox feminist views on the role of sexuality in the development of art and culture in Western civilization became the subject of heated debate with the publication of her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, in 1990. In the book, and in her subsequent media statements and campus appearances across the country, Paglia has aroused controversy by accusing the contemporary feminist establishment of suppressing the aesthetics of art and beauty and the dangers of sexuality; she warns that historical reality is being ignored in the push for change. Paglia has in turn been criticized by some for her statements on issues such as date rape, pornography, and educational reform. A selection of her many articles, interviews, and lectures appears in the 1992 publication, Sex, Art, and American Culture.
Paglia posits in Sexual Personae that "the amorality, aggression, sadism, voyeurism, and pornography in great art have been ignored or glossed over by most academic critics." She highlights the appearances of such themes in order "to demonstrate the unity and con-tinuity of Western culture" and disprove the modernist idea that culture is fragmented and meaningless. Terry Teachout in the New York Times Book Review stated that "to this end, Sexual Personae serves as an illustrated catalogue of the pagan sexual symbolism that Ms. Paglia believes to be omnipresent in Western art." Paglia outlines a number of sexually-charged figures which she calls "sexual personae," a term that Nation contributor Mark Edmundson defined as "erotic archetypes, figures that compel sexual fascination from all perceivers, whatever their professed erotic preferences." These archetypes include the femme fatale, the Great Mother, the vampire, and the hermaphrodite.
Paglia's application of her theory to authors such as the Marquis de Sade, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson proved interesting to many reviewers. "Her fascination with 'perversity' in literature brings her to some startling interpretations," acknowledged Lillian Faderman in the Washington Post Book World. The reviewer also observed that Paglia's "discussion of the sexual ambiguities and obsessions that critics have ignored or minimized in major American writers is especially compelling." Walter Kendrick, in his Voice Literary Supplement assessment, applauded Paglia's "detailed, subtle readings of [Oscar Wilde's] The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest and a delicious hatchet job on Emily Dickinson, whom Paglia reads as 'that autocratic sadist,' 'Amherst's Madame de Sade.'"
The author's interest in the sexual element throughout Western history is based on the basic duality or struggle she sees underlying this culture. Using a comparison based on Greek mythology, Paglia comments that the rational, Apollonian force of humanity that creates the order of society is constantly striving to protect itself from the Dionysian, or dark, chaotic forces of nature. She describes the Dionysian element as "the chthonian [earth-bound] realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long slow suck, the murk and ooze." And despite all the grand scientific and philosophical achievements of Western logic, this irrational pagan force of nature continually wells up, revealing itself in sex, art, and other aspects of popular culture, theorizes Paglia. Sex, especially, reveals these tensions: "Sex is the point of contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges."
This unwieldy instinct unleashes the darker forces that Paglia claims are ignored by mainstream feminists and others who idealize sex as inherently pure, positive, and safe. The perversities that occur in sexual behavior are not caused by social injustice, maintains Paglia, but by natural forces that have not been properly contained by society's defenses. The artifice of society, which is exemplified in the classic works of art, literature, and philosophy of Western culture, is given the highest status by Paglia for this role of protecting and advancing humanity. "Much of western culture is a distortion of reality," she says in Sexual Personae. "But reality should be distorted; that is, imaginatively amended." Mark Edmundson summarized Paglia's idea that "the glory of art lies in its power to extemporize fictive identities—the personae—that swerve away from biology's literal insistence on what we are…. Decadence ritualizes, and thus subdues, erotic violence."
This favorable view of decadence and pornography has set Paglia in direct opposition to the opinions of many in academic and feminist circles. Feminist thought that condemns pornography as the imposition of social prejudice on the inherent goodness of sexuality is decried by Paglia as naive. She accuses feminists with these beliefs of uncritically accepting the ideals of eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who paired nature with freedom and nobility and considered the structures of society oppressive. Paglia's view is that "feminism has exceeded its proper mission of seeking political equality for women and has ended by rejecting contingency, that is, human limitation by nature or fate." Paglia's own brand of feminism, which she outlined in a lecture given at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as published in Sex, Art, and American Culture, is not based on the Rousseauian idealism which she says was revived in the 1960s, but on the practical realities of sex and culture. She cites as her formative feminist heroes pilot Amelia Earhart, actress Katharine Hepburn, and French theorist Simone de Beauvoir.
Paglia also asserts that "nature's burden falls more heavily on one [the female] sex," that women's natural identity does not create the same type of tension that is found in men. Overwhelmed by the powerful psychological domination of the mother and her relationship with the life and death forces of the earth, men turn to cerebral achievement in an attempt to establish a separate identity from the female and protect themselves from the primal elements, posits Paglia. Statements such as Paglia's widely quoted line, "If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts," were interpreted by some reviewers to be a rationalization for limiting women's role in society to that of a passive object. Lillian Faderman, in her review of Sexual Personae suggested, "Paglia believes that there is indeed a basis for sexual stereotypes that is biological and firmly rooted in the unconscious." Helen Vendler was also concerned that Paglia's theory does not allow for women to participate in cultural achievement equally with men: "To Paglia, women writers remain 'chthonic,' earthbound, and swamp-like, unable to rise to such inventive Apollonian designs," she declared in New York Review of Books.
Anticipating such reactions in her introduction to Sexual Personae, Paglia asserts that women actually hold a privileged status of power in relation to men: "I reaffirm and celebrate woman's ancient mystery and glamour. I see the mother as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement." In addition, she argues that the power of Apollonian society is, or should be, just as accessible to women as to men. Responding to Vendler, Paglia claimed in the New York Review of Books that Sexual Personae had been misread and misunderstood by Vendler and others. "From first chapter to last, my thesis is that all writing, all art is Apollonian. Every woman who takes pen or brush in hand is making an Apollonian swerve away from nature, even when nature is her subject."
The untraditional subject and style of the Sexual Personae, despite the reservations of some critics, was widely praised. Faderman called Sexual Personae "a remarkable book, at once outrageous and compelling, fanatical and brilliant. As infuriating as Paglia often is, one must be awed by her vast energy, erudition and wit." Teachout commented that Paglia "is an exciting (if purple) stylist and an admirably close reader with a hard core of common sense. For all its flaws, her first book is every bit as intellectually stimulating as it is exasperating." Edmundson concluded that in exploring the issue of sexuality and sexual personae in culture Paglia "has found a part of the story that no one is telling. It's a splendid and exhilarating find, and makes for a brilliant book." In Sexual Personae, Paglia promised a second volume that will focus on similar themes in popular culture since the turn of the century, particularly Hollywood films and rock music.
In addition to pursuing this work, in 1992 Paglia published Sex, Art, and American Culture, a collection of her articles, interviews, and lectures. Included are commentaries on pop-star Madonna, whom Paglia considers "the true feminist" for the street-smart brand of sexuality that fills her rock songs and music videos. "Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising control over their lives," Paglia asserts in "Madonna I: Animality and Artifice." In other essays she discusses actress Elizabeth Taylor, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, professor Milton Kessler, and others in the public eye. Also included are Paglia's further indictments of certain academic trends, particularly women's studies and French deconstructionist theory, as found in the essays "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders" and "The M.I.T. Lecture."
Two chapters of Sex, Art, and Modern Culture are devoted to date rape, which Paglia contends is an ethical violation that contemporary feminists do little to prevent. "Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in civilized society," she posits in "Rape and Modern Sex War." "Yet feminism, which has waged a crusade for rape to be taken more seriously, has put young women in danger by hiding the truth about sex from them." Rather than relying on grievance committees to solve the problem of rape on campuses and elsewhere, Paglia feels the solution lies in informing women about the "what is for men the eroticism or fun element in rape" so that by understanding rape, women can learn to protect themselves from it by using "common sense." In other essays, Paglia, a libertarian, outlines her beliefs that the state should not intrude into the private realm; she is pro-choice and supports decriminalization of prostitution and legalization of drugs. Arguing that Paglia's is an unconventional but important voice, a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that in Sex, Art, and Culture the author presents "an ambitious range of art and ideas, her invocation of primal sexuality adding a missing element to critical debates."
Vamps & Tramps: New Essays is "a hodgepodge of just about everything [Paglia] has written, filmed and said in magazines, newspapers, movies and television" since the publication of Sex, Art, and Culture two years earlier, states Suzanne Fields in Insight on the News. The book "is paradoxically dazzling and dull, sensuous and senseless, reactive and repetitious," according to Fields. Mary Beard notes in New Statesman & Society that the book is "generously subtitled 'new essays.'" Beard explains that there is "nothing remotely new about the ideas" and "very few of the pieces are what most readers would call 'essays' either." Instead, Beard believes the book is "an ill-stitched compilation of book reviews, some (lusty but thin) bits of journalism plus a routine encyclopedia article on the history of love poetry…. This is megalomania on a lunatic scale." Beard continues: "Had [Paglia] listened to Carol Gilligan, Marilyn French, Elaine Showalter and the others, she might have learned that she was not the first to wonder about these problems, and that the issues are a good deal more complex than her monomania allows." In a similar vein, Commentary writer Elizabeth Kristol writes: "The challenge in reading so melodramatic a writer is figuring out which ideas are genuinely new (and not just unexpected departures from an otherwise predictable ideological platform), which are genuinely original (and not simply designed to shock), and which are sufficiently valuable as to make all the other stuff worth wading through."
Critics noted that Vamps & Tramps is a "hodgepodge" in several ways: content, tone, and quality. According to Fields, Vamps & Tramps is "a gold mine of theory and intelligent criticism, but be warned. Reading it requires sifting and sorting amid water, dirt and gravel to get to the shining mettle." Steve Sailer remarks in the National Review: "Unfortunately Vamps & Tramps suffers from the mixing of its author's three discordant personae: scholar, polemicist, and celebrity role model. While never dull, this unabridged compilation can be repetitious. Because Miss Paglia ties every topic into The Theory, most of her opeds include a rushed recap of the tragicomic world view she elucidated with supreme clarity in Sexual Personae's first chapter." "On the whole, Vamps & Tramps is a carnival. We see Paglia here in all her guises, from the highly serious to the completely loopy," writes David Link in Reason.
Several critics remarked that a "quieter," less "self-centered" side to Paglia briefly surfaced in Vamps & Tramps. "Paglia dispenses her wisdom like Dear Abby on speed," writes Link. "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." However, Link continues, "Vamps & Tramps shows a personal side of Paglia that I don't recall having seen before, and it's a welcome departure." As an example of Paglia's softer side, Link cites an essay on four gay men whom Paglia claims have been central to her life. "For once," Link argues, "the writing is not self-centered. In giving the spotlight to others, Paglia demonstrates a grace and generosity few might suspect her of." In Time, Richard Corliss comments: "There are also quieter pieces, notably a loving memoir of four homosexual friends who helped her shape her sensibility. But it's silly to ask this brainy pipshriek to calm down; shouting is her form of conversation."
"A book by Paglia is a lot like sex itself," remarks Link, "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." Fields concurs, "Vamps & Tramps is not a book for the squeamish or smug, but it's fun to read and watch the author scorch her enemies with the concentrated power of a white-hot mind."
Rather than scorching her enemies in her next books, Paglia offers two close, critical explications instead. The Birds is an examination of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece of the same name, and Break, Blow, Burn is a diverse anthology of forty-three poems accompanied by critiques in Paglia's famously irreverent style. The selected poems range in tone, theme, and origin, from sonnets by the sixteenth-century poet and playwright William Shakespeare to lyrics by the twentieth-century singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Paglia gives a brief historical context to the poems preceding each essay and composes her analyses using New Criticism, a close-reading method for evaluating and interpreting poetry that was popular in the mid-twentieth century. This approach was met with mixed reviews. "Paglia has here deliberately suppressed much of her own speed, her wit, her wide-ranging intellect, and her fierce energy," lamented Contemporary critic Sam Schulman. Yet others disagreed, and Sarah Bramwell, writing in the National Review, stated that the essays are "vintage Paglia: bracing, opinionated, and deliciously enjoyable. In her hands, poetry has the seductive scent of forbidden fruit."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 68, Gale, 1991, pp. 303-20.
Paglia, Camille, Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, Vintage Books, 1992.
Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Yale University Press, 1990.
Cineaste, fall, 1999, Tony Pipolo, review of The Birds, p. 59.
Commentary, February 1995, pp. 68-71; July-August, 2005, Sam Schulman, review of Break, Blow, Burn, p. 72.
Insight on the News, November 21, 1994, p. 28.
Nation, June 25, 1990, pp. 897-99.
National Review, December 31, 1994, pp. 58-59; May 9, 2005, Sarah Bramwell, review of Break, Blow, Burn, p. 43.
New Statesman & Society, April 14, 1995, p. 43.
Newsweek, September 21, 1992, p. 82.
New York, March 4, 1991, pp. 22-30.
New York Review of Books, May 31, 1990, pp. 19-25; August 16, 1990, p. 59.
New York Times Book Review, July 22, 1990, p. 7.
Poetry, October, 2005, Daisy Fried, review of Break, Blow, Burn, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, August 17, 1992.
Reason, February, 1995, pp. 60-63.
Time, January 13, 1992, pp. 62-63, December 12, 1994, p. 90.
Times (London, England), April 13, 1991, pp. 10-11.
Times Literary Supplement, April 20, 1990, p. 414.
Village Voice, September 29, 1992, pp. 92-94.
Voice Literary Supplement, March, 1990, p. 7.
Washington Post Book World, February 18, 1990, p. 5.