It’s been twenty years since Camille Paglia became a worldwide celebrity with her erudite doorstop of a book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Hardly a sentence of that ambitious work — in which she argued that civilization is essentially the product of male creativity, which in turn is the product of a fear of women — wasn’t provocative; and certainly nobody on earth agreed with every word of it. But that wasn’t the point. Paglia’s book was sui generis, staggering in its originality. Some of it might make you angry, but, at its best, it also made you think. Though Paglia was (and still is) a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she’d managed to produce a work that broke all the academic rules. It was sweeping in its scope, taking in the whole of Western art and literature from ancient Greece to modern times, and encompassing both the highest of high culture and the lowest of the low. And it was flagrant in its political incorrectness, celebrating Shakespeare, Dante, and other canonical “Dead White Males” while dismissing those obscurantist Frenchmen — Derrida, Lacan, and company — who had become deities in the humanities departments of American universities. Though Paglia celebrated — and identified herself with — the rebellious spirit of the 1960s, she openly deplored the PC dogmas that had grown out of that era, infecting not only the academy but Western society generally.
Paglia outraged plenty of people, but few were more hostile to her than the leaders of the feminist establishment. For not only did she dismiss women’s contribution to Western civilization (“There are no female Mozarts”); she also took aim at the women’s movement under Gloria Steinem, which she accused of puritanism, philistinism, anti-male bias, and intellectual vacuity. In Paglia’s view, people like Steinem and NOW chairwoman Patricia Ireland were ridiculous yet dangerous figures who consistently represented women as victims, reinforcing Victorian notions of them as the weaker sex. For Paglia, the truth was precisely the opposite: women, she argued, were gifted with an innate power over men — the power of sex — and she idolized celebrities, Madonna above all, whose pagan eroticism, as she saw it, embodied that power. It was Madonna, not Steinem, Paglia insisted, who was the real feminist.
Almost overnight, Paglia became both a leading cultural critic and a prominent pop-culture figure. She made good copy and even better TV. She was so full of energy that she came off like a veritable force of nature, a living illustration of her own thesis that it was, indeed, women who were the powerful sex. (A 1991 profile of her in New York magazine was entitled “Woman Warrior.”) On two 1992 installments of Later with Bob Costas, a fervent, fast-talking, and proudly egomaniacal Paglia — who managed at once to be deadly serious and hilariously funny — said that she despised the “weepy, whiny, white-middle-class ideology” of the “Stalinist” women’s movement under Steinem and that she sought nothing less than its “complete destruction.” Unlike Steinem, who, she argued, spoke only for privileged white women, Paglia claimed to “speak for the ordinary woman out there.”
In those first years after Sexual Personae, Paglia seemed to turn up everyplace. By 1992 she had churned out enough irreverent, entertaining essays for a sizable collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture. Two years later along came another grab-bag, Vamps and Tramps. For a while, the pieces just seemed to pour out of her.
But Paglia was too hot not to cool down. As the years went by, her output declined. And what she did turn out seemed increasingly familiar. She was repeating herself. What had once been provocative was now stale. And her determination to inject herself and her personal history into everything she wrote grew tiresome. One became increasingly aware of her recycling of the same old self-referential phrases:
As an Italian-American, my premises are usually Mediterranean.
The Color Purple helped to displace complex, major world texts like Dante’s The Divine Comedy from introductory courses — a process that I, as an Italian-American, am ethnically entitled to protest.
I think the word minority is an insult. I’m speaking as an Italian-American.
As an Italian-American, as a very hot personality born under the sign of Aries, I’ve tried to drift things towards emotional extremes.
I feel Italian Catholic and will be Catholic until the day I die because it is inextricable from my cultural identity as an Italian American.