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Books & Culture

A review of Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education, by Camille Paglia. (Pantheon, 736 pages, $17.99)

Camille Paglia, Now More than Ever

More than anything, Camille Paglia’s style and élan vital invites readers to think further about culture and ideas and, in a society dominated by ideology, this is something we need now more than ever.


- October 5th, 2019
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Ever since she burst onto the intellectual scene with the publication of Sexual Personae (1990), Camille Paglia has been challenging the norms of what it means to be a public intellectual. Her critiques of culture, art, and society have garnered a lot of attention from friends and foes alike. Love her or hate her, when Camille Paglia speaks, the world listens. As it should. She is a writer of enormous intellect, who has a feel for the nuances and intricacies of how being human works. She is a great synthesizer of the large and great ideas upon which civilizations were built and crumbled, and her views on gender, sexuality, and art are delivered with a verve and speed only a few can match.

Paglia’s new book, Provocations, is a collection of essays written over the course of the last 20 years. As one might expect, the essays cover a multitude of topics: feminism, politics, gender, higher education, film, and art. In many ways, Paglia has continued the approach of analysis and synthesis of ideas she did in Sexual Personae. She has the ability to take a large idea that encompasses one civilization in history and show us that those signs never left us.

Paglia certainly did this in Sexual Personae, in which she brilliantly posited the theory that the Apollonian and Dionysian divide in man never really left us despite the cultural and chronological distance of ancient Greek myths. Men are still thrusting toward the need to conquer and women still nurture but also have an incredible power over men. These are tough pills to swallow in today’s society of identity politics in which the struggle to erase the differences between men and women is all consuming, but according to Paglia, we are still re-enacting the most primal archetypes of humanity.

In the introduction to the new book, Paglia tells us that “this book is not for everyone.” It is not for people who believe to have found an “absolute truth about mankind;” it is not for people who are interested in controlling speech; or “for those who believe that art is a servant of political agendas;” or for people who wallow in victim culture; or “for those who see human behavior as wholly formed by oppressive social forces.” Instead, this book is for people who “elevate free thought and free speech over all other values; for those who see art as a “medium of intuition and revelation; it is for people who support gender equality but don’t demand “special protections for women as weaker sex”; for people “who see nature as a vast and sublime force”; and finally, “for those who see life in spiritual terms as a quest for enlightenment, a dynamic process of ceaseless observation, reflection, and self-education.” In other words, this book is for people who are interested in reflecting on what it means to be a human being.

No matter which subject Paglia writes about, she seems to at once channel Friedrich Nietzsche, Marquis de Sade, and Georges Bataille and yet, out of nowhere, she can become Plato, Shakespeare, and Bernini, chiseling and crafting words that come out of utterly masculine power, and then she throws another curveball and draws inspiration from St. Teresa of Avila—a Spanish Carmelite mystic—whom she calls “a woman of the future, blending practical realism with passionate idealism.”

The intellectual and spiritual openness that resides in Camille Paglia’s being is visible in all of the essays collected in this book. It is impossible to mention every essay here (the book is a whopping 736 pages!) but the overarching theme running through all of them is Paglia’s concern for freedom and individuality.

Today, the most apparent danger to free speech is found on college and university campuses. In “Free Speech and the Modern Campus,” Paglia centers her discussion around the notion of political correctness. For her, political correctness is always borne out of revolution but, inevitably, it turns sour. After the revolution is over, the original “rebels begin to fight among themselves, which may lead to persecution and assassinations. The victorious survivor then rules like the tyrants that were toppled in the first place.”

Inevitably, Paglia claims, the original and well-meaning “revolutionary principles  . . . become merely slogans, verbal formulas enforced by apparatchiks, that is, party functionaries or administrators who kill great ideas by institutionalizing them.” Today, most institutions of higher education ought to have the same advertising slogan: a place where freedom of thought comes to die.

Paglia is emphasizing the irony that institutions that  once were hotbeds for individual and academic freedom are now petri dishes of dangerous and yet boring ideologies. They’ve become places, it seems, with a mission to destroy any authentically wisdom-seeking mind. The problem of higher education is also “intensified by the increasing fixation of humanities and even history departments on ‘presentism,’ that is, preoccupation with our own modern period.” Indeed, everything is seen through the lens of today’s problems and so, reading Plato or Shakespeare or Milton becomes about deconstructing the text instead of understanding it on its own terms. But this isn’t akin to parsing a sentence for grammar and then putting the parts back together. Rather, this kind of deconstruction is an assault on the text with an explicit intention to discredit (as if they can!) the literary and philosophical canon.

Paglia is a great contributor to the elevation of film as an art form while at the same time she rejects the dullness and joylessness of film analysis from an academic perspective. In “The Waning of European Art Film,” she reflects on fond memories of seeing films by Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni and the fact that “Tragically, very few young people today, teethed on dazzling special effects and a hyperactive visual style, seem to have patience for the long, slow take that deep-think European directors once specialized in.” Although this is true, it is highly plausible that even at the time of their release, very few people had the patience for such films, especially in America. Nevertheless, Paglia’s wide-rangng knowledge of film directors, such as Bergman, Truffaut, and Fellini, illuminates her own thirst for cinematic provocations and the probing of the human soul.

Paglia’s writings on gender culminate in her discussion of gender fluidity as seen in the various personae of David Bowie. In “Theater of Gender: David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution,” Paglia’s commentary on the great performer is just as unique and deep as Bowie himself. She rightly recognizes Bowie’s early performative choices as Romanticism and his constant playing with the notion of androgyne. As Ziggy Stardust, Bowie took gender “into another dimension of space-time, where sexual personae of both East and West met and melded.”

Throughout his entire career, Bowie constantly redefined the notion of gender and sexuality but the difference between him and the ideological gender warriors of today, is that for Bowie this was a fluidity that had aesthetic foundations as opposed to the elimination of biological differences between men and women.

Paglia fully supports this, and in “Feminism and Transgenderism” (an interview with Jonathan V. Last), Paglia says that “Although I describe myself as transgender (I was donning flamboyant male costumes from early childhood on), I am highly skeptical about the current transgender wave, which I think has been produced by far more complicated psychological and sociological factors than current gender discourse allows. Furthermore, I condemn the escalating prescription of puberty blockers (whose long-term effects are unknown) for children, which I regard as a criminal violation of human rights.” As we can see, Paglia’s position is unique and does not fit neatly into any existing intellectual categories.

Although she has always supported the Democratic party, Paglia has no problem calling Bill Clinton a “hormonal president.” Of course, her political commentary would be incomplete if she didn’t reflect on Donald J. Trump, whom she calls the “viking dragon.” Trump, according to Paglia, “is his own publicist, a quick-draw scrapper and go-for-the-jugular brawler. He is a master of the unexpected (as the Egyptian commander Achillas calls Julius Caesar in Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra).”

Paglia has always exhibited an aesthetic “disinterestedness”—a writer’s disposition that looks at the subjects (whether persons or ideas) as objectively as possible, and this is clearly visible in her treatment of political leaders and even of moral subjects. Is this a weakness? Not necessarily because Paglia does not pretend to be a moral philosopher. She has always been authentic and straight-forward about her views and positions.

Rather, Paglia is a cultural critic who sees the threads that connect one aspect of society with another and because of this, her perspective is invaluable. Paglia’s own stubborn freedom of thought, as well as her intellectual and spiritual openness, are inspiring. She is and remains a significant voice in the analysis of culture.

At times, her love of popular culture (low art) appears to minimize the importance of high art but it is precisely this unusual way of looking at the world that makes her unique and powerful. More than anything, her style and élan vital invites readers to think further about culture and ideas and, in a society dominated by ideology, this is something we need now more than ever.

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