Huw Christie: You've written, "My admiring memory of [gay men's] revolutionary, philosophe-like iconoclasm makes me most regretful about recent infringements of free speech by a few overzealous AIDS activists, who made themselves the arbiters of a new dogma and enforced it with terrorist tactics." What do you see as the dogma and what have been the tactics?
Camille Paglia: Well, I think it's somewhat better now, okay. But when I came on the scene, which was not very long ago -- I mean, it seems like centuries, but when my first book ["Sexual Personae"] was finally published it was only 1990 so it's really 1991 that I started encountering these people -- ACT UP in its earliest incarnation was an absolutely fascist organization. I know that they did do some good, but I have felt very directly the irrationality of AIDS activists, at one of my first appearances. The most insane and vicious and intolerant people I have ever met in my life are AIDS activists. I came into direct confrontations with them. If I would be speaking, sometimes lecturing, these people would pop up and be screaming, I mean SCREAMING at me, okay? The way they controlled the discourse, their arrogance -- they were like little Hitlers, stormtroopers, who believed that they had the truth, and anyone who tried to have a different view of AIDS, or the origins of AIDS, or anything like that, that we should not be permitted to speak.
It took me quite a long time, even a number of years, before I was even able to speak openly. My God, "Sexual Personae," which is a great scholarly book for Heaven sakes, "Sexual Personae" was treated, was called...let me give you an example of this: in the MLA [Modern Language Association] Gay and Lesbian Newsletter, so overcontrolled was the discourse on homosexuality and AIDS that I got a review there of "Sexual Personae" that called it the most evil book ever written, compared me to a Nazi, compared me to Hitler, okay? This was going on constantly, in fact it happened in London -- with one of your prominent gay activists on the stage of the Institute of Contemporary Art. You know these people, they're enamoured of [French gay cultural theorist Michel] Foucault, enamoured of the most rigid kind of post-modernist discourse, which I believe comes from their own discomfort with their own sexuality, their early alienation from their bodies. There again it's much much better now. As I say I was constantly compared to Hitler. The Advocate did it. And now of course, the changes are so much abroad that I am a columnist for the Advocate.
The speed with which the discourse has opened up has really amazed me. Let me give you an example. When I was reviewing these books on classics, on Greek antiquity, that the scholarly journal Arion asked me to do -- I would have been doing it late 1990, 1991, and these books which came out from Routledge had on their cover, "Half of the profits from this book will be donated to the San Francisco AIDS Organization," something like that -- now I spoke out against that. I felt that that was absolutely outrageous. You cannot have advertisements for charities on the back of scholarly books. There should be no political agenda attached to any scholarly book of any kind. Plus, I thought it was the worst kind of Pharisaism, saying, "Look how charitable I am -- half my profits." Now why not 100 percent of the profits, why only half of the profits? And in effect also it was coercive of the reviewer, saying in effect, "If you give this book a bad review, you are letting people die. You will reduce the profits of this book and fewer monies therefore will go to the care of the sick and so on, the terminally ill." So I spoke out against it. But the thing is, I remember at that time, to even dare to do that, to even dare! I remember I went through agonies about it, knowing how I was setting myself up for the worst. As it happens, there were a few voices like mine that would not tolerate this kind of overcontrol of the discourse: people were absolutely intimidated to silence.
There was only one view of the epidemic. Only one view. And that was that this was an accident that happened, it just fell out of the sky, okay? The people who really caused AIDS? Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan caused AIDS, okay? He is the cause of AIDS. There would be no AIDS if Ronald Reagan had given much more money for AIDS. There was never any connection with behavior, okay, and if you said, "Gee, there was a connection between the sexual revolution and the sudden upsurge in promiscuous sex, gay and straight. That is the reason for this epidemic," you were called every name in the book. There was absolutely no connection whatever. You must not allege there was any such connection. At this point it became ridiculous. So many gay voices have now come out and said, "Well of course you have a situation where people are having forty men per night, in the baths and so on, in that period or on Fire Island." For Heaven sakes there are houses on Fire Island where [people were] vacationing at the time, where everyone is dead! Everyone is dead now. Thirty people who were at one weekend are totally dead. At this point it's hard even to imagine what it was like in the early 1990s in America in this question of the AIDS discourse. So now it's much much better. So my writing, whatever the date was that I wrote those things, that was true at that moment.
But I will never forget one of the first times I went out, one of the first times I was invited to a conference, at the State University of New York at Purchase, and I saw for the first time the incredible pressure. There's this fellow who's very active still in gay activism in New York City, a prominent gay activist there, I'd never heard of him, I had never had this experience before, and I gave my presentation whatever it was, it was on various topics, it wasn't on AIDS, it was on things like feminism, there was this screaming. I have never in my life seen a character out of Dostoevsky, right, this man burning with rage! This man mentally occupied the borderline between rationality and irrationality. I, as a person who is very keyed to psychology, could clearly see that his rage, you know, had nothing to do with me, had nothing to do with AIDS, had nothing to do with homosexuality, it had to do with his own problems with his own family, okay? I say this again and again: these fanatics who took over the political discourse are in fact trying not to think about themselves, not to analyze themselves, and they're projecting outward all their rage against Mommy and Daddy and everything else. But it was unbelievable, you could not believe the poor people in that room. The academics in that room, the people who came to the conference, were shrinking. No one would speak. That man effectively silenced an entire auditorium of people. I will not tolerate that, because I have been out there. I was out there before Stonewall! Before Stonewall was, I was openly gay when it cost me something in my career. I was the only openly gay person, male or female, at the Yale Graduate School from 1968 to 1972! I will not tolerate that! I have been out there. I was madly unpopular for years! Now it's much much better.
I don't know what the situation is in England, of course. All I know is that obviously one of the main reasons you're calling me is that even the scientific discussion on AIDS has been very much crippled by this kind of intimidation, so that truly neutral and rational scientists have stayed away from this entire area. You want to talk about counterproductive!? People have fled this field of research, because there's no way to conduct yourself in a dispassionate scientific manner in it because of its overpoliticization. The attitude is: it's due to homophobia. The reason why there was not enough money? Homophobia! Excuse me? This was a brand new disease. What are they talking about? It's only recently people have started to realize how many more deaths occur yearly among women from breast cancer, and how little there was research in that area for Heaven sakes. It was like, "Me, me, me! We demand, we demand! We want an entire rearrangement of the apportionment of money for other diseases! Now! This minute! Us! We, we! We middle class men, who have this one disease. If you don't listen to us immediately then you are homophobic, you are this, you are that."
All that did was, yes, there was more money, but the investigation of this disease was very much held back by the flight from it of truly, it seems to me, talented scientists, the most talented scientists, the ones, especially later, the ones who would have been most likely to come up with working theories, working hypotheses, they have fled. Any rational people would flee from the craziness, okay, and the solipsism and the infantile, infantile attacks on science itself. The AIDS activists would say simultaneously, coming with their stupid Foucault ideas, post-modernist ideas, "We demand that science think only about us." At the same time, "Science is completely ideological and science is meaningless." How can you simultaneously be attacking science and demanding that it produce an instant cure for you? Everyone knows we can't even solve the common cold.
Huw Christie: You wrote, "Science and society are our frail barriers against the turbulence of a cruel indifferent nature." Careful scientists, particularly Dr. Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos and her group and others, are saying HIV doesn't exist, its proteins and enzymes are products of toxified cells. If a big mistake has been made, what hope is there for science and how reliable are these barriers against nature?
Camille Paglia: Well, the point is we are just at the very beginning of understanding what AIDS is, much less what causes it or how to cure it or anything of that sort. Now without comitting myself to any of the hypotheses that have been put forward, I as a scholar have been completely skeptical right from the start about everything.
It's not that I'm saying HIV does or does not exist. It's just that whenever I would see reports in the news media, even in the New York Times, in the news magazines and so on, I would say, "There's something madly wrong with the way this material's being gathered." I have always been skeptical about it. I have never accepted anything, anything about this, at any point from the beginning. And the way in which you almost immediately got a kind of received opinion and a received attitude about this disease seemed to me just a form of superstition.
Huw Christie: You have the idea of an integration of science and history going way back.
Camille Paglia: Well, I feel that I'm a product of the Graeco-Roman side of Western culture and I feel that it is the fount of our thinking about the world. What I see in the fifth and fourth centuries coming out of Greece is an extraordinary kind of virtuosity of artistic thought and scientific thought -- our whole idea of the scientific method, of gathering evidence, examining it. I think that to be a great scientist or to be a great doctor you have to be a kind of artist. That is, you have a series of suggestions merely in the evidence and it's up to you to come up with a hypothesis that is only a working hypothesis. It lasts only until someone has a better hypothesis, which is usually a more economical explanation of the available evidence.
I've always been interested in internal medicine, which is definitely artful. A person presents with a series of symptoms, and I've seen again and again, in my own experience and among people I know, the way a doctor can be madly wrong. Totally wrong about something. Whereas it might be a lay person might be able to guess better. It's like a policeman coming to the scene as well, where a crime has been committed, and you have clues, and you have a whole number of spectacular scenarios that are in your head. And there could be twenty different possible scenarios and you're always comparing them. The idea that we're going to immediately find a cure for AIDS, and the only reason that we haven't found a cure is because of homophobia and insufficient money is absolutely crazy!
Huw Christie: People seem too ready to allege homophobia.
Camille Paglia: The reason why "Sexual Personae" upset people was just a few remarks in there about AIDS that were declared to be politically incorrect and unacceptable. I stand on the remarks in there and I believe in a hundred years from now, people will look back and realize that I knew what I was talking about. I said that the idea that this disease came out of nowhere, that all of a sudden in 1981 it was like, "Oh, my God, what happened here?" -- I believe that the signs that something bad was happening were already there in the mid-Seventies.
I have written and spoken about this. That period just after Stonewall when the men's bars exploded suddenly in number and in luxury -- the women's bars always remained much poorer compared to that -- I describe this moment when I had been used to going with my male gay friends into bars and I suddenly was no longer welcome. And this was a tragedy for me, it was like a break in my life, when male gay friends who had been my confederates in anguish and in questing, you know, for love and so on, all of a sudden I as a woman was persona non grata in the men's bars, and it was exactly the moment when the orgy rooms came into existence, and when there were only now these black or dark rooms with people rolling around with very poor sanitation there, okay? You began to have sex shows, and fist fucking was coming in, men in swings, that kind of thing. I was no longer welcome. That's how I remember it, very accurately. I suddenly had this sense of abandonment by my male friends who went off into this paradise garden of earthly delights.
And almost immediately, this was in the mid-Seventies, I remember reading this in the New York Native or something like that, and it reported -- now also, my friends started talking about having this -- trouble with amoebas, these parasites that would not go away. I started hearing about this from my friends. And then I saw this -- this is in the mid-70s -- this article that said a parasite had been identified in the intestines of gay men in New York that had never been identified in human medicine before. Only veterinary medicine was able to recognize it. It was an animal parasite. A chill went through me. This cannot have been more than six or seven years after Stonewall. I'm saying that the signs that something terrible was about to happen were already obvious within a few years after Stonewall. The idea that this came out of nowhere -- this is a piece of historical nonsense.
Huw Christie: You're saying the pagan promiscuity of the '60s was responsible?
Camille Paglia: Yes, yes. What I did say was, "Okay, I don't want to blame gay men. Let's go back to the Mamas and the Papas!" It's my generation, the free love, which I myself tried to practice, and indeed was not very good at particularly. This sudden upsurge in promiscuity -- I compared it to the Roman Empire. People said, "Oh, that's terrible! You shouldn't be doing that!" Well, of course! The social conditions and historical changes were similar.
What happened in my generation, the sexual revolution, was the biggest thing in terms of numbers of sex acts by the greatest number of people since the time of the Roman Empire. And if we do not look back at that and realize that there are parallels there! Normally it's only conservatives who talk like that. I, however, am a student of history. I am an admirer also of decadent phases in history.
It was a tremendous experiment attempted by my generation, and I'm still committed to all the great principles of my generation, that's the subject of my work. But I'm saying, "Wow! We hit the wall!" We hit the wall of reality in a lot of ways, and AIDS is one of the ways we hit that wall. There's been an absolute slaughter of the talented men of my generation.
Huw Christie: You're saying that the moral responsibility should be accepted?
Camille Paglia: I've constantly said of the gay men of my generation that they challenged Nature and lost. But I'm saying that that is noble and worthy! It's like the great Romantics. It's like Keats, Byron, and Shelley. It's like Captain Ahab, I constantly say, in Moby Dick, who shakes his fist at the heavens. That's fantastic, that's the way the human imagination gains. Humanity gains from risk-taking. But then, accepting the consequences of your risk. This idea of blaming what happens to you on Ronald Reagan, blaming it on homphobic authority figures, is infantile! We must take responsibility for our gambles, okay? We gamble and we lose, we must take the cost to ourselves and not blame it on others.
Huw Christie: I think in Europe there's been less tendency to blame the paternalistic figures perhaps because the paternalistic figures aren't so overwhelming. I think it's complex. There is more than one book coming out now showing there are at least very serious questions about whether a human immunodeficiency virus exists.
Camille Paglia: Well, I'm not at all surprised. I think there has been a rush to judgment in terms of the working hypothesis they had. The working hypothesis about this disease was accepted as confirmed fact, and the people who were doing that in the media and among AIDS activists are just incompetent in terms of science or how science works.
Huw Christie: There's something potent about the fiction of invisible transmission that almost helps a community define itself in the absence of other parameters.
Camille Paglia: I do feel what we see here in point of fact is repeated insults to the immune system. The original theory about poppers, amyl nitrate, was excluded! First people suspected it, then they excluded it. And I thought, "Why are they so quickly excluding this?"
Huw Christie: Just two days ago, poppers were confirmed illegal in this country. There was an important case, and the medical case against recreational amyl nitrate is tragically convincing.
Camille Paglia: Absolutely. It really happened at that very moment. Poppers were coming into the scene at that very moment when the bars suddenly went wild. Men were staying up all night, and drinking. I think that women, just by virtue of the menstrual cycle and so on, learn very early on how to conserve the body. I've always felt that gay men were pushing the limits of the human body throughout that period, also keeping thin and trim at that period, eating very little and drinking a lot. I would see this manic lifestyle. And now we hear more and more -- people used to whisper this -- how they would get gonorrhea or whatever they might get, and they would go get penicillin month after month after month. These infections were signs that something was going wrong in their bodies.
Now women seem to have this instinct for preservation. You have an infection? Wow, pull back, conserve the body, save the body. I have no idea whether there's something biological or cultural here, but I who have defied every possible cultural pressure in terms of my identification as a woman and so on, I have this sense about the body. There's like a little signal, something's wrong, pull back, okay? Go slow. Conserve. And I notice men don't seem to have that. There was this wild, wild scene. It was like the "Masque of the Red Death," and the wild party scene in that play, it was very much like that. And the band played on, as Randy Shilts says.
Huw Christie: What did you mean when you said of Michel Foucault that if what you'd reliably heard of his public behavior after he knew he had AIDS is true then he should be condemned by any ethical person?
Camille Paglia: People say this was not true, blah blah blah. I'm sorry, I happen to believe it. This information came to me very reliably. There were only two people between me and Foucault. Foucault told a famous gay writer, who told my close friend, who told me, that when he realized he had AIDS, he was so angry that he determined he would take as many with him as he could. He would take as many to death as he could. That he deliberately went to bars and would deliberately have sex with people and not tell them and try actively to take them with him.
Huw Christie: I've heard this about other people and I don't think it's an uncommon response. If there's no virus, it's absurd, however. You're on the record as being pro-pornography, pro-prostitution, pro-drugs. I think one of the things Foucault did before the end of his life was use a lot of drugs. What practical social measures could bring about responsible drug use?
Camille Paglia: Well, now, I'm someone who doesn't take drugs, you see. My view of drugs is that it's an age-old privilege of humankind to alter the mind for expanded consciousness or for a sharper perception about existence. Priests have done this in rituals from time immemorial. I myself do not take drugs merely because of a physical antipathy to it, but I regard liquor, which is the ancient drug of my people, as equivalent to other people taking marijuana or LSD.
Now, I'm very committed to the psychedelic view of reality even though I have never taken LSD myself. And I feel that the international war on drugs is the biggest waste of money in the world. Any attempt to deny people what they really want in sex or in drugs simply leads to an underground economy and drains the world's resources. It's destroyed the inner cities in America because obviously young people can earn a thousand dollars working the drug trade as opposed to like $3.95 an hour, or whatever it is, working in MacDonald's flipping hamburgers. I think this is just a massive delusion to ever imagine that we can stop what is clearly a human craving to alter consciousness.
At the same time, I think we must all face the reality that drugs can destroy. They can indeed destroy. I think that LSD did indeed destroy a lot of my generation. Many people, their brains are pudding after too much taking of LSD. I think that similarly heroin is of tremendous concern now in the music industry. In fact, there's a rising pressure about that in America after Kurt Cobain's suicide. I don't want to minimize that. I do think that drugs play their role in weakening the immune system in some way that also is related to what appeared to be such a sudden emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s.
Huw Christie: In Britain recently, the Medical Research Council has come under the auspices of our Ministry for Trade and Industry. What do you think that means about the future of independent research?
Camille Paglia: Well, that's been the case for a very long time in America where the pharmaceutical companies invest heavily in research and they're only interested in drugs which are essentially synthetic and that therefore they can control. Whereas things that come from natural plants, like marijuana and so on, they have no interest in.
Huw Christie: In gay activism, and in AIDS activism, what may be the effect of the dramatic resignations and realignments we are now seeing?
Camille Paglia: I think that AIDS activism has pretty much lost its steam here in America, anyway. It's staggering. The principal AIDS organizations like AmFAR and so on are trying to revive themselves. They've got Sharon Stone now to be a spokesman and so on. I think that they were pretty much set back on their heels in the last few years. I think there's a kind of dispirited vacuum that's occurred here in the last few years. I don't think it's going to be as big a change here. People are just not as arrogant. There was a moment when the AIDS organizations had a kind of stranglehold on the media. They were able to coerce the media. There was a lot of media attention given to AIDS and it's really receded here, I think.
Huw Christie: Liza Minnelli in the States has built a career on it. Liz Taylor, Princess Diana, now Sharon Stone. And yet the CDC is saying that there was a conscious attempt to encourage people to believe there would be a heterosexual problem far beyond what there ever would have been or has been.
Camille Paglia: There was a period of absolute hysteria, cover stories just constantly in the public eye. And that would have been in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I think there's been a slow decline in the attention paid to the issue at all here. Part of it was that ACT UP was very, very active at that time. The turning point may well have been the election of Clinton. The AIDS groups were very politically partisan. That's another way I think they damaged themselves. They were very politically partisan and there were ways to mobilize against Republicans, and the gay activist organizations in general were of course 100 percent behind the Clinton election when he was a fairly unknown figure.
So the thing is with the election of Clinton everyone thought, "Oh, now there's going to be Nirvana for the liberal organizations," and so on. Within two short weeks there was the gays in the military controversy that was mishandled by Clinton. Very badly mishandled. And suddenly everything fell apart. I think that the morale of the gay organizations in America never recovered from that. We're talking about two weeks after the inauguration of Clinton. Let's see, that would have been in January 1993 then. He was elected in the fall of '92. That's when everything started to unravel. The arrogance of the media, leading up to that election in the fall of 1992, their arrogance, the prancing around, the parading of the gay activist organizations, they all felt they had mobilized the gays to vote for Clinton and they felt they had maximum power over politics and they felt it was going to be a tremendous change.
And then when the gays in the military thing was a fiasco -- [David] Mixner [Clinton's number one gay advisor] had given very bad advice to Clinton in terms of how to handle it and so on -- they essentially became exiles, they all became exiles. The administration then realizing the damage, the fallout from this, from the gay issue, how flawed their information was coming from the gay activist organizations, the whole administration turned its back on the gay establishment, okay?
And then what we had was a rapid disintegration of all the gay organizations here. That is, the leadership. There was this woman whom I despise, Urvashi Vaid, who's written a recent book, terrible book, and so on, these people were like Stalinists but in charge of these organizations and they lost all power so fast in that one year when they lost their access to Clinton. There have been a lot of articles in the gay press here about that. The way that gay leaders here in America, all the ones that were very prominent in that period leading up to Clinton's election, have lost status. This is the very period in which I have gained. I mean, I'm in no way a gay leader. I mean there's no way. I'm a very controversial thinker. I have many followers, but there are many peple who hate me and so on. But there is no strong leader who has emerged.
So that's what's happened here. AIDS, the way AIDS has gone to the back burner here in America, is simply a part of the general loss of prestige of the gay leaders. We don't have a Martin Luther King. There's been no figure who's been particularly talented. And I think again it's because of the ignoring of the cultural aspect of human lives by the gay political leadership.