What Camille Paglia Understands about Camille Paglia

I was amused by this profile of Camille Paglia in The Cut. Amused because it so perfectly exemplifies the way mainstream culture misapprehends her talents.

But who is Camille Paglia, really?

Camille Paglia the scholar is a fairly unremarkable stooge who’s been grinding along for thirty years in the middle echelons of academia, teaching art history.

Camille Paglia the national phenom is a dynamo who achieved brief celebrity in the nineties and early noughts for lashing out in all directions with controversial opinions on charged topics–global warming, TV, the Iraq War, various pop icons, but mostly the sacred cows of feminism.

Camille Paglia the writer is a peculiar character–not a great critic, not a cynical troll, not a levelheaded pontificator, not quite a contrarian–but a holdover into our time of a kind of antiquated character type, like a Jazz Age flapper or Belle Epoque bohemian transported to our day.

You can feel the writer of this article trying to understand Paglia through the usual good-feminist/bad-feminist interpretive frame. Camille Paglia is assertive and stubborn–no fainting flower, she–and constitutionally impervious to the “will of the patriarchy.” Good feminist! But Paglia embraces poisonous gendered archetypes, like those that portray women as earthy, irrational seductresses. Bad feminist! But she’s a champion of gay rights and women’s sexuality. Good feminist! But she has ardent fans in the alt-right orc pit. Bad feminist! But she approved of the Women’s March. Good feminist! But she …

The list goes on. (The good-feminist/bad-feminist checklist always goes on forever.) The article opens ambiguously, as Paglia digs into a leisurely moussaka, and ends with a good-feminist moment, as Paglia digs into the chauvinist biases of male anthropologists. But the whole tally is beside the point. At one point, Paglia’s interviewer refers to “sex, gender, and feminism” as Paglia’s “most cherished and contentious themes.” Sex and gender maybe, but I’m not sure feminism has ever been a cherished theme for Paglia so much as a convenient forum for her favorite rhetorical posture–which is to approach all of life, from sex and food on up, as a form of impassioned art criticism.

Sex may be the anchor to Paglia’s public reputation, but art criticism is her vocation. Her later books mimic the invitational style of the critic Robert Hughes, offering written tours of assorted great works. More importantly, the mental posture of the art critic–the pose, the stance, the orientation toward the world–has become for Paglia an ingrained habit. React, express, explain, reassess. In her compulsive repetition of this process, Paglia reminds me of no one so much as Rebecca West, whose Balkan travelogue, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon is also, largely, an extended tour of one woman’s aesthetic prejudices. In her writings, West never approaches an object, person, or place without reeling off a long chain of free association, so that every vase or church window she encounters on her travels becomes an image of all that’s wrong or right with the world.

You can see the same attitude at work even in this short profile of Paglia. She fusses over seating arrangements at the restaurant–not, I think, because of any bossy desire to assert her will, but because she enjoys the process of choice itself, forming preferences and acting on them. She disburdens herself of opinions on sports, food, music, fashion, TV, and, yes, politics, but that’s just what a critic does. And if Paglia presents her opinions not as reasoned arguments but as vatic pronouncements, that’s because art critics usually come to their conclusions not through cautious empiricism but through a fascination with emotion, the mysterious internal alchemy that bubbles up into revulsion or joy. That’s also why Paglia revises her judgments so readily and so completely–why Madonna can be demoted in her estimation from brave libertine to tired has-been, Hillary Clinton from Amazonian bitch to neurotic wretch. Paglia is never interested in the truth of a matter, still less in authoritative prediction. Only in the mysterious relation of art (meaning everything) to audience (meaning her).

Paglia’s political positions are always ridiculous. I’ll never forget the time she chided George W. Bush for failing to heed inauspicious omens–e.g. a space shuttle crash–while making political decisions. Her forays into biological determinism are best left unacknowledged–or better, treated as artsy appropriations of scientific errata, like vapor tubes and circuitboards glued into some Rauschenbergian junk collage. (There’s no one I’d trust less than Camille Paglia to elucidate the fine points of molecular genetics.) And her comments on date rape are little more than a kind of misbegotten theater criticism; in discussing contemporary manners, she inevitably asks not whether people are doing the right thing, but whether they’re doing a striking thing. If Paglia were living in 1941 she’d be taking notes on Goering’s collection of paintings and calling for the head of the barber who oiled Goebbels’s hair.

I don’t think, pace the author of this profile, that Paglia has much in common with Donald Trump. As a personality, Trump is all emulous man-child, rushing into every status competition and shouting, “Me! Me! Me! I win!” Paglia’s type is the decadent aristocrat, surfeited on life’s fine things, slumming in search of novel pleasures, testing every new experience against her finicky sensitivities. If she overuses exclamation points, that’s less a sign of bullying aggression than an indication of conviction. She’s taken the measure of her mood, and the verdict is in. Who are we to argue, or reason, or cavil, when each assertion she makes is nothing more or less than a description of a fleeting state-change in Camille Paglia’s endocrine system?

It’s as if Emma Bovary worked up her nerve, came to America, and found herself. I don’t think we should take Paglia’s opinions very seriously. But I do believe we should take the relationship she has with her opinions seriously indeed. Today’s cultural commentary, with its piles of data, its pointilistic explainers, its frantic gestures of partisan affiliation, above all, its grovelling pragmatism (the Democrats need to find a strategy that works!) could use a few more failed aristocrats, willing to present their views as little more than personal eccentricities.

Is Camille Paglia a feminist? Bad question. Here’s a better one: What did she think of the moussaka?

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