Thursday, March 22, 2012

Favorite Critic Series: Camille Paglia

Ancient mythology, with its sinister archetypes of vampire and Gorgon, is more accurate than feminism about the power and terror of female sexuality. -- Camile Paglia ("No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality")
If the only thing Camille Paglia ever wrote was her BFI The Birds book, she'd still make my list of top critics. It's easily the best of the entire series (Paglia alone covers the film the way a BFI book should, by delving into the rich symbolism and archetypal protean punch behind every aesthetic and dramatic element, rather than lumber through pointless behind-the-scenes anecdotes, synopses and historical critical responses, the way some less insightful authors do). And alas, that's as far as she has really gotten, film criticism-wise, but she delivers a damn good commentary track on the Ultimate Edition DVD of Basic Instinct (1999), and (I think, Showgirls) and occasionally she'll cover a film or filmmaker for Salon. Most importantly though, if you're up to tackle Sexual Personae she'll blow you wide open using an array of art and poetry as her explosives. 

She did it for me, blew m'brain wide open, and I am forever in her debt because of it. She broke the spell I was under from my  mid-80s liberal arts PC brainwashing and lifted me from my embittered, desperate shyness and self-poisoning misandry. Before Paglia, I had no way of knowing the tonnage of self-loathing being dumped on me (by myself, mainly, but academia sure helped) for being a straight white middle class American male wasn't necessarily deserved. I'd have to get super drunk to muster the gall to hit on any woman, even if she was already in my goddamned bed, gazing at me dewily, lest I somehow 'cross the line!' Hell, I'm still that way, but Paglia sure helped me get over my rationalizations for it. Now I know my hesitancy is based on shyness and karma-related intuition (more than likely I would have regretted it otherwise), and not at all that I'm just waiting for her to make the first move 'cuz it's 'the right thing to do.'
"Ambitious young women today are taught to ignore or suppress every natural instinct if it conflicts with the feminist agenda posed on them. All literary and artistic works, no matter how great, that document the ambivalence of female sexuality they are trained to dismiss as “misogynous.” In other words, their minds are being programmed to secede from their bodies … there is a huge gap between feminist rhetoric and women’s actual sex lives, where feminism is of little help except with a certain stratum of deferential, malleable, white middle-class men."  (No Law, p. 28)
"Malleable white middle-class men," that was me! I first found out about her via a compilation of her essays a friend (a SWM!) had loaned me, which included the above quotes. I shared at once his staggered awe-we were both feeling finally liberated. Having been at Syracuse U. together from 1985-1989, my friend and had seen first the carte-blanche license to date-rape enjoyed by reprehensible fraternities, and then the wearying, tar every male with the same brush, overreaction by the extreme left. I had even had a comic strip censored in the alternative newspaper 'the Alternative Orange" because angry literal-minded feminists couldn't tell I was joking when I portrayed the big baseball cap-sporting orange mascot of the SU football team as a sexually frustrated endomorphic frat pledge.
Campus speech codes, that folly of the navel-gazing left, have increased the appeal of the right. Ideas must confront ideas. When hurt feelings and bruised egos are more important than the unfettered life of the mind, the universities have committed suicide. 
Of course, mainstream feminism has done great things, and I do not think campus speech codes should be an end to themselves. The trouble in my mind comes from a class I call "PC carpetbaggers" i.e. they didn't fight in the war that liberated (in this case gender) slavery, but now that it's gone, they strut around taking full advantage as if they were one of the heroes of the hour (i.e. threatening to accuse a teacher of sexual harassment unless they give them an A). The good that's come of it all is that frat parties are now well known to be date rape zones (girls my freshman year had no clue and their misery after their first experience 'sleeping over' at frat parties after drinking 'the punch' - was epidemic) and now everyone knows to keep their drink in their hand (I hope) and not let the guys serve you the grain alcohol punch;  and men know that the behavior they consider harmless workplace banter may well be perceived by co-workers as sexual harassment, so they check themselves, and all that's good stuff. But back in 1990-92, when I was a young unemployed recent graduate with a serious drinking problem, PC fever was still a new craze and no one knew how bad they really were, most of all myself, tortured with sexual frustration and alcoholism and guilt for both. 

All these elements cohered in my soul and reached a nadir in the summer of 92, one of the hottest summers ever. I had nearly died of alcohol, several times in the last week, and was trying to get sober, single, broke, and was unemployed.... shaking alone in my bed, my only relief from my solitary torture was when the central air clicked on again with as nerve-rattling whoosh. What I needed to distract me was a book... a big book.

And like a gift from heaven, Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae appeared in a thick paperback.
Heavy, packed with words and references I had no familiarity with, but that summer I needed to have a big, thick book to anchor me, like a hot air balloon tether, as I writhed and convulsed through the days and nights. Paglia snapped me out of my first bout of delirium tremens with a dominatrix whip snap.
As I've written before and I'm sure I'm not alone, hearing about the rape of a woman I know makes me, as a man, feel responsible. If I don't find the guy and kill him, I can never let it go. I feel the same way about animal cruelty. But like animals, women respond to power and displays of feathers. How else to explain why I'd get so mad after being a shoulder to cry on for some cute girl at a party, listening patiently to her complaining about some jerk who'd wronged her, only to have her start making out with that same jerk within minutes of his late arrival? Until I read Camille, I had no idea why that happened. Why I put up with it. Why I couldn't blame her, or him, only me. Why getting mad at her for doing that made me madder for getting mad, like being nice to someone creates some sexual obligation? What a tightening gyre of self-hatred fueled by hormones and peer pressure!

Paglia smartened me up, and gave the finger to my feminist brainwashing. She freed me, cutting through guilt tripping bullshit like a chainsaw sculptress. Her way of incorporating her own Catholic Italian heritage and personal detail into her writing was revolutionary, harkening her back to Emerson and Whitman. She had the same brazen stance against the machine of superegoic self criticism. Women, Paglia's book told me, would be all right with or without my help. I had been falling for the sticky sweet messages purred by the chthonic Venus flytrap. It was time for me to stop wringing my hands and instead join in the merry, eternal battle of the sexes. Not to forget the lessons learned and the sensitivities needed to go forward, but not to overreact and/or let it turn me into a self-lacerating prude. 
"The most threatening thing about her, from the American viewpoint, is that she refuses to treat the arts as an instrument of civil rights. "   -- Clive James (Break Blow Burn Review for NY Times)
Of course she catches a lot of shit for these ideas but she dishes it out as well. Her writing encourages active dissent, almost asks for it, uses rhetoric to raise impassioned responses. Even a fan like me gets mad when she bashes 'blog writing' as generally worthless (even this post, Camille?), and I think she gives way way too much credit to Madonna, but I dig that her media persona is deliberately confrontational and that she believes in the theater of sexual politics rather than the pulpit, and would rather provoke a visceral negative response than a piss-warm liberal head nod. I'm not sure of course if her writing is ever discussed in any liberal arts course today, it seems like a teacher might get fired for even mentioning her name. I had already graduated before I'd heard of her but I've seen firsthand how liberal bandwagon jumping has left the liberal arts canon lopsided with 'safe' writers spouting the revolutionary stance on one hand while submitting to a tyrannically conservative core of 'approved' western thought om the other. Where once openly gay literature like Burroughs was banned now it's Rush Limbaugh. Meanwhile, Paglia is out there singing the praises of governor Sarah Palin! 
 I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism. Pro-life women will save feminism by expanding it, particularly into the more traditional Third World. (Salon, 2008)
 She's so wrong (nothing could be worse than pro-life women allowed to control the reproductive rights of the third world) it's like she's answering a whole different question. She's looking past such trivialities as abortion rights and into the paradigm of pro-sex post-feminism. Her pro (straight) sex stance makes her shocking to modern liberal arts faculty, where showing gay porn in class is beyond reproach (anyone who complains is homophobic) but championing straight sex may well be read as harassment or coercion and get you fired.
The problem with America is that there's too little sex, not too much. The more our instincts are repressed, the more we need sex, pornography and all that. The problem is that feminists have taken over with their attempts to inhibit sex. We have a serious testosterone problem in this country. . Men are suspicious of women's intentions. Feminism has crippled them. They don't know when to make a pass. If they do make a pass, they don't know if they're going to end up in court.
(1995 - Playboy Interview)
I was cured all right.

Hitchcock's 'blonde' films and camp classics like Verhoeven's Basic Instinct and Showgirls are where her stance comes to bear in film criticism, exonerating the reputation of the icy blonde femme fatale as pagan goddess, and the war of the sexes akin to a forest slowly swallowing up the Eiffel Tower. Film criticism may not be her main thing, but it could be, and I'll tell you this, without her words to guide us, would we be able to truly savor the chthonic nightmare films of Lars Von Trier? The apocalyptic pagan desperation of Suddenly Last Summer? Here she is praising Elizabeth Taylor and lamenting the relative remoteness of modern stars like Angelina Jolie:
... Despite all her children, no one would ever call Angelina Jolie maternal. But Elizabeth Taylor’s maternal quality is central to her heterosexual power. Elizabeth Taylor could control men. She liked men. And men liked her. There was a chemistry between her and men, coming from her own maternal instincts. I’ve been writing about this for years, and it was partly inspired by watching Taylor operate on-screen and off. The happy and successful heterosexual woman feels tender and maternal toward men — but this has been completely lost in our feminist era. Now women tell men, you have to be my companion and be just like a woman; be my best friend, and listen to me chatter. In other words, women don’t really like men anymore — they want men to be like women. But Elizabeth Taylor liked men, and men loved to be around her because they sensed that. (Salon - 3/11)
Paglia taught me above all that academic writing can be thrilling, that it needn't bow to the unwritten edict that one must always use obscure terminology to mask that one has nothing to say, reiterate the party line hook and sinker and then add one tiny microbe to the canonical dogma while thesis advisors sniff over your every footnote. Instead, one can combine personal details with theory, and indeed should to provide insight into the writer's unique subjective position (Paglia's working class Catholic Italian background anchors her unflinching eye for blood and paganism, her comfort in the arena of conflict), vs. the draining of all autobiographical blood from a text as done by most academes who genuinely believe that, with enough time clocked at the library, there can be gleaned such a things as an 'objective truth.'
I am popular with certain people, but I'm still blocked out of the establishment. I hate that incestuous world. It makes me sick. It's impossible for anything truly original to get done. Thinking is not allowed. It's all PC. It is so horrible because it is a fossilized, parasitic version of Sixties philosophy.
 While most academes flee from it, Paglia actually courts controversy, rocks the boat, flips it over, and laugh maniacally choking and stabbing the now senseless drowned Phoenician sailor of safe mainstream academia. The dearth of like-minded voices in the academic mainstream testifies to the accuracy of her picture, and most academics I know, agree, but not always publicly, that this guarded PC conformity is choking cultural progress. That's why Camille is such a one-of-a-kind natural treasure, and I place her in my personal canon of inspirations and hope and pray that one day she'll live up to that promise she makes all over, up and down, the pages of Sexual Personae but even now, over twenty years later, she's yet to follow up on: Sexual Personae 2, i.e The Rock and Roll Edition.

1 comment:

  1. Erich, Sexual Personae was definitely an essential undergrad reading experience for a certain generation, and as I'm thinking about Paglia again, she may have been this generation's counterpart to H.L. Mencken by combining an amoralist perspective with defiance toward political correctness and thus offending right and left at once by standing outside their bipolarity. But equating the rhetoric of Gov. Palin to bebop is an insult to jazz -- I just wonder whether it was a conscious one.


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