Paglia, Camille

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PAGLIA, Camille

Born 2 April 1947, Endicott, New York

Daughter of Pasquale J. and Lydia Colapietro Paglia

Camille Paglia, Professor of Humanities at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, is one of the most celebrated and castigated scholars of the late 20th century. She is a self-proclaimed feminist who has been criticized for deploring traditional feminist viewpoints and a self-proclaimed lesbian who has been shunned by much of the gay community. Many who admire Paglia's controversial scholarship are offended by her brazen self-confidence. Paglia has proclaimed herself "the greatest woman scholar since Jane Harrison" and a "Joan of Arc willing to burn others at the stake." She claims never to have received a bad review because she agrees with those who praise her works and looks upon poor reviews as a celebration of her misunderstood, outcast status in academia.

Paglia was born in upstate New York, where her father, Pasquale, was a professor of Romance languages at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. She admits she had a "violent outlaw quality" as a child and rebelled against her parents' and church's teachings. She graduated with highest honors from the State University of New York in Binghamton with a B.A. in English in 1968. She earned a Ph.D. in English from Yale University in 1974 and was a faculty member in the Literature and Languages Division of Bennington College until 1980. She taught briefly at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, before accepting part-time positions as visiting lecturer in English at Yale University and at the University of New Haven from 1981 to 1984. She has been a professor of humanities at the University of the Arts since 1984.

It was not until 1990 and the publication of her 700-page surprise bestseller, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, that Paglia became nationally known. In Sexual Personae, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award, Paglia argues that "the amorality, aggression, sadism, voyeurism, and pornography in great art have been ignored or glossed over by most academic critics." She recounts example after example of figures she calls sexual personae who represent these attributes in Western art, from ancient history to the late 19th century. She states her purpose is "to demonstrate the unity and continuity of Western culture" and to challenge the contemporary theory that culture is isolated and without meaning. Among the sexual personae she discusses are the femme fatale, the vampire, the beautiful boy, the hermaphrodite, the dandy, and the Great Mother.

As the title of Sexual Personae suggests, Paglia applies this theory to literature as well as art. The Marquis de Sade, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Dickinson are all discussed. Her favorable view of decadence and pornography created a furor in feminist and academic circles. Paglia wrote 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 writings are informed by her adherence to the Apollonian-Dionysian dualism affecting everything from art to male-female relations. She believes all the major achievements of Western civilization stem from the human being's need to challenge nature, which is represented by the female, or chthonian/ Dionysian, element. She once stated "there is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper. Great art and great crime are similar deviations from the norm that require a megalomania, an utter obsession. Most women have too much empathy to want to be involved in anything like that."

Paglia's second book, Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992) is a collection of 21 lectures, articles, and interviews culled from national magazines and newspapers, including Playboy, New York Newsday, Publishers Weekly, New York, Mother Jones, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reason, and the London Sunday Times. Different chapters are devoted to various topics, including Elizabeth Taylor, the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Madonna, whom Paglia considers "the true feminist" for teaching "young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising control over their lives."

The core of the book is a long essay in which Paglia reviews and rips apart two books on homosexuality in ancient Greece while decrying the poor state of American higher education that would encourage such poorly researched scholarship. Paglia discusses date rape in two chapters and describes it as an ethical violation modern feminists cannot prevent. She argues "rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in civilized society," but also states that women should be able to use "common sense" to protect themselves from it. Other chapters reveal Paglia's libertarian beliefs of nonintervention by the state. She is against welfare, capitalism, and affirmative action but supports abortion and the legalization of both drugs and prostitution.

Paglia's third book, Vamps & Tramps: New Essays (1994) is a collection of similar articles, interviews, and lectures published since Sex, Art, and American Culture. Popular culture figures like Jackie Onassis, as well as the infamous Amy Fisher and Lorena Bobbitt, are discussed along with writers Andrea Dworkin and Susan Sontag. The longest new essay, "No Law in the Arena," covers topics like rape, harassment, pornography, and abortion. A few quieter pieces are also included, one of which was written for four homosexual friends who helped Paglia shape her views. One of Paglia's most recent projects is a BFI Film Classics series scene-by-scene analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1998). Paglia discusses the making, production, and meaning of the film and provides quotes from both Hitchcock and previous essays on the movie. Additionally, in Sexual Personae, Paglia spoke of a sequel to this work to focus on similar themes in 20th-century popular culture, particularly movies, television, sports, and rock music. She told an interviewer recently that the work was finished, but no publication date had been set. Whether her next book is a continuation of Sexual Personae or something else entirely, it will undoubtedly claim the attention Paglia's earlier works received and add to the debate about this controversial scholar.


Reference works:

CANR (1999). CBY (1992). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Who's Who in America 1999 (1998).

Other references:

Commonweal (4 June 1993). PW (12 Sept. 1994). Time (12 Dec. 1994).