Camille Paglia is a libertarian shock trooper brandishing her tongue as if an Uzzi, mowing down the sacred cows, the false icons, the politics of gay activism, the humorlessness of modern feminism, the "nursery school" mentality of higher learning. She takes no prisoners: in a jolly mean-spirited attack against Susan Sontag, published in "Vamps and Tramps," a pompous bore is finally labelled one. It's a killer read -- poison penmanship that, if honest, we'd give anything to have executed. The piece, entitled "Sontag, Bloody Sontag," shows Paglia's best strengths are in tackling single subjects and sticking to them; conversely, it also shows one of her weaknesses -- plunging the dagger into one of her disappointments (and no one can argue that Sontag is more than that these days) while applauding herself as her victim's successor. Who needs a second Sontag? For all of her slam bang erudition, wrapped in gross but spectacularly entertaining generalizations, Paglia's hell bent on honoring herself as clone. The comic tragedy of Paglia is that she's an original and doesn't know it -- yet.
As an original, Paglia defrauds herself when she brags that she derives her feminism from drag queens. The jolt in this flippancy is intentional; it's meant to produce dramatic anxiousness -- Beware, Reader, you're about to enter Paglialand, where gay men are "heroes," most lesbians are "planning the next softball match," and where straight women "are the real butches." (American men rightly get it too: in the May, 1995 NetGuide, she blasts, "Men are shriveling, becoming less attractive. One of the ironies of the feminists' complaints about men is that the men they complain about are the biggest eunuchs in the whole culture.") In Gatling gun style Paglia unloads -- without betrayal to her allegiances -- on ACT UP's tactics, but then goes on to claim AIDS is nature's punishment for gay sex. Troubling: while she claims gay activists are playing into the hands of the right wing Christers, she is doing likewise by a lack of facts and verbal prudence. She doesn't consider that the HIV virus, first spread by the sexual majority, has been around for more than fifty years (some scientists think 200 years), and that same-sex sex has been going on since the beginning of recorded history. She doesn't instruct that SDTs have killed throughout the ages but Civilization, despite dire predictions, didn't end, and according to the most respected statisticians -- those rarely given a chance to publicly counter the fear mongers -- AIDS will not only not destroy mankind, it will not affect the vast majority of gays. In attempts to assuage supporters, Paglia's made a concession: it's certain sex practices, not same-sex unions, that's killing her heroes. When she writes that "we must honestly admit gay men's attempts (in the after-Stonewall era) to create a world without women failed catastrophically," there's no proof but in gay baths and sex bars that gays ever abandoned admiration for the "female principle." There was retreat -- helped along by women like Friedan, Steinem and Smeal, who don't represent a gayish paragon of female principle. What makes so much of Paglia's ExLaxxy commentary alarming and controversial is that she's a self-proclaimed bisexual who doesn't have many heterosexual episodes to gossip about as much as lesbian and, not surprising, most of those admitted failures. Lesbians get thrashed -- for their women's bars' "defanged disco, with (its) monotonous tick-tock beat ideal for bad dancers," for their immature role models like Navratilova and k.d.lang ("a baby-faced desexed Wayne Newton"), for being "mournful sentimentalists, dragging around ancient family baggage." But Paglia's solution to homophobia is refreshing: that even if we can't yet embrace the physical act of bisexuality because of social fear and religious constraints, we should be able to emotionally, spiritually embrace it. This is what makes Paglia so readable: attacks aside, she's unafraid of loving all the sexes.
If Oprah Winfrey has become TV's Ann Landers, a role she has openly grown into, Paglia's the feminist intellectual's Nancy Friday but the fit is less comfortable. Friday hides behind the anonymity of surveys and interviews to produce books that pretend to shock us with, for instance, the revelation that many women enjoy fantasies of rape, but she steers away from the subject of violence against women. Paglia does not; abhorring physical violence, she's emphatic that "victimization is a dead end." This is where she gets into shouting matches with others: in her showpiece "No Law in the Arena," a title which comes from Hugh Griffith's sheik in "Ben-Hur," Paglia's almost apologetic about men's sexual dominance, cajoling women to broaden their narrow views about the nature of men. She writes: "Sex crime is revenge against women as an abstract class of wounds already suffered by men as a class -- the wound of birth and its galling dependencies. Until we widen the lens to take in nature, women will not know what is happening or how to control it. Better to mediate instead on the great pagan archetypes of the mother, with her terrible duality of creation and destruction. Women must accept their own ambivalence in order to wield their birthright of dominion over men." So the female crotch is both cause & effect and weapon. Using her paganized Freud as basis, and granting the use of generalization, I will take an opposing view: the male penis is the dominion over women, including lesbians, and especially over other men. Myth and very few exceptions aside, men don't go to war over wombs; they war against each other's crotches. War is the outward manifestation of internalized penis worship, and sex crimes against women (and men too) are the violent expressions of its power. And women's rape fantasies the enjoyment of its power. Do I really believe that? If for the moment we accept that the frigid and lesbians haven't a worship of the male member, and the sheer numbers of all the rest -- men, women, gays -- do, then I'd be so inclined.
"No Law in the Arena" is a wild ride, but because Paglia's chariot is all over the track, the inciting declarations and insightful perceptions coming out of her whipping confirm what's most irritating about her writings: she will state her aesthetics more as dare than as worthy consideration. An avowed pornographer, she's of course anathema to the anti-porno crowd; she believes that heterosexual (and I'd extrapolate lesbian) pornography is far less exploitive to women than it is an exaltation of the sexual power of the Goddess. (What she suspiciously avoids is that the camera zeroes in on explosive emissions of males.) She's cogent and persuasive about how anti-smut laws are self-defeating, especially to feminists. For example, banning public sales of Playboy is a promotion of discrimination against women by women themselves. What magazine has more responsibly glorified the female anatomy and the joys of sex? Yet, simply because the models are baring all, anti-porn feminists think they're being degraded. The real degradation is in their own minds, Paglia slyly infers, partly because these particular feminists have neither a healthy lust factor nor pride in their own bodies. The degradation results in overt falsity of feminist propaganda: Linda Lovelace and her "Ordeal" in the participation in the filming of "Deep Throat." Though not in "Vamps and Tramps," nor in "Sexual Personae," nor "Sex, Art and American Culture," surely Paglia would have by now set her sights on how the feminists ate up Lovelace's garbage that she was forced at gun point to be filmed committing fellatio. Paglia missed her chance to be the first to note that if Lovelies had been threatened into submission, then the "terror" mirrored on her face has to be the best oral acting ever seen.
Light years ahead of his viseral obsessions, Paglia could still be justifiably pegged the female intellectual's Ken Russell: she sees in everything the homosexual. In "Sexual Personae," a blockbuster of high-flying, often scandalous purple-prosed opinion, she dares to interpret Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" as sinister gay mystification -- the ghosts Quint and Miss Jessel being "evil into which they threaten to abduct the children... Their lust is for homosexual capture, not contact. They entice their victims into a world of sexual anti-matter." Antipathetic, more like it. While the meaning of James' self-described "pot boiler" remains consciously elusive, while there are homosexual implications and overtones in other James novels, especially "The Bostonians," putting an elaborate inversional spin at the heart of "Turn" is obsession. She doesn't generalize, though: she painstakingly lifts portions of James's text and conjectures what to the nonreader might be persuasive homosexual subtlety. It's shocking, refreshing, but the grandstanding, like so much of Russell, ridiculous, and, even given the right to be a maverick, and acknowledging that the cumulative effect of her sentences is like being stoned on Oxford Gold, finally exhausting. And her homo-lesbo obsessions get in the way of her of critique of "The Bostonians." She fails to get at the center of the novel -- that James uses an anti-lesbian position to attack "the woman question," i.e., equal rights. Whatever his private demons, James made manifest his contempt for the Olive Chancellors who try to usurp the power of the penis. Paglia's "chthonian realilty," the very Goddess foundation on which she builds her sexual aesthetic, is Blake's "sick rose," Tennessee Williams' "dyin' orchid," and she doesn't really hanker for it herself: how can she when most of what she worships is homosexual erectus?
Sometimes she generalizes without warrant of probability: not knowing what his sex life was really like, she's in accordance with art historians -- in their hopeless search for the mythically incorruptible -- that Michelangelo didn't have much overt sex experience. "Monastic strain runs deep in the Italian temper," she embarrassingly writes. Appalling that she mainlines her own lack of sex into her conclusions, and jolting that she fails to perceive the origins of Michelangelo's sense of perfect male anatomic proportion, which could hardly come out of a study of cadavers or virginal observation of male models. Analyzing Greek art, Paglia observes the feminization of male genitals, but she's suspiciously silent on David's -- shaped by the expertise of caressing hands. "Michelangelo, by titanic masculine athleticism, tried to hammer matter into servitude...(he) was locked into a pattern of endlessly renewed anxiety." Initial labors doubtlessly "remorseless, hyperbolic," but the polishing true acts of fondling, his "renewed anxiety" his perfected promiscuous ejaculation. Sometimes Paglia betrays her mile-a-minute expressiveness: when cavalierly expounding that "sleekness in a male is usually a hermaphroditic motif," she says, "Movies from the 30s through the 50s used actors...to illustrate a singular male beauty, witty and polished, uniting sensitivity of response to intense heterosexual glamour: Leslie Howard, Rex Harrison, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, David Niven, Michael Wilding, George Hamilton." What's "intense" about their "heterosexual glamour"? Macaroni, I'd say, pendulous, questionable of straight idealization. Roughly the same period did bring out intense unquestioned heterosexual glamorization -- like John Garfield, Kirk Douglas, William Holden and, though it's a stretch, Gary Cooper in "The Fountainhead." (It's not Hugh Grant who'll likely inherit Cary Grant's "gleaming tuxedoed hirsutism" but Pierce Bronsnan.)
The essence of Paglia's screaming eclecticism is in her love of high and low trash. Reading that she digs Rozsa's frenzied scores, I felt a kinship; when I came across her reactions to one of Liz's costumes in Losey's "Secret Ceremony," I connected with her lunatic fringe: "I cried out...as the star abruptly appeared in a violet suit and turban against a wall of sea-green tiles...the aesthetic epiphany in which joy and pain were equally mixed." What she's describing can be pleb-translated as having the effect of Welch's Grape Juice in your mouth. (For Lizaholics, the quintessence comes eighteen minutes into "SC" - when Mia Farrow serves "mummie" breakfast.) Paglia's crazy about trampy Jill on "The Young and the Restless"; she's got Madonna fever; she's hot for Sandra Bernhard; she's gaga for Jackie Susann's camp escapsim; respects Gore Vidal's pungent sagacity; and writes public love letters to Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." A bitch supreme with a flair for drama, she has on more than one occasion ordered know-nothing interviewers out of her presence; she's dressed down feminists as Stalinists at gatherings and on national TV talks shows; she says of Jackie Oh! that "her later years made us forget or forgive her shopaholic jetset period, when she spun out of American orbit and married a Mediterranean Minotaur." How can you not love Paglia for all this? She wants more: she wants to mold gay activism and feminist movements in her own image. But what, exactly, is the image? Years ago, on a Cavett show, guests included cast members of the Katharine Hepburn "Coco," and in their chattiness, the audience was reminded that one of the characters in the musical says of an obvious homosexual, "Oh, he's beyond that." When Cavett asked what's beyond being gay, I think it was Eddie Albert who said, "A male lesbian." Little did the guests, the host or the audience know that only a few decades later, Camille Paglia would become the ultimate lesbo barbata -- academia's empress of psychoiconicism. Just about as high and as low as you can get.