News & Politics

Camille Paglia Is Still Provoking

Camille Paglia’s new book, Provocations, is a banquet, and most poor students of what passes nowadays for literary, social, and cultural studies are starving to death. In her first soup-to-nuts compilation of essays since Vamps & Tramps – which, astonishing as it may be to realize, came out twenty-four years ago – Paglia brings together seventy-four pieces under the rubrics “Popular Culture,” “Film,” “Sex, Gender, Women,” “Literature,” “Art,” “Education,” “Politics,” and “Religion.” How many American academics (Paglia’s official title at the University of the Arts, where she has taught for decades, is Professor of Humanities and Media Studies) could write with consistently broad knowledge, deep understanding, and drollery about a wide range of subjects that fall into one or another of those categories? Who else can entertain and illuminate in equal measure? How many books can make you laugh out loud dozens of times and also make points about Shakespeare that you find yourself pondering for days?

Paglia has had her enemies from the beginning, and still has them. They’re the right ones. While she’s making a sage observation from which they could profit, they choose instead to fasten onto some aperçu that offends their tender sensibilities. An anecdote: her first book, the magisterial Sexual Personae (1990), came out when I was on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. I immediately recognized it as the most consequential new work of criticism in years; but when I tried to convince my fellow directors that it deserved an award, several of them took turns opening the giant tome to this or that page, reading a politically incorrect (but incisive) sentence aloud, and then sputtering in outrage that “we can’t give an award to a book with that in it!” Which tells you all you need to know about awards.

So much did I have vested in Paglia as a key cultural voice that, some time after 9/11, I started worrying about her, fretting that she was repeating herself and retreating from serious issues. This collection testifies otherwise. And, yes, I’ve disagreed with her. Who hasn’t? That’s how these things work. What’s important is that she’s exactly what a critic should be – a thoroughly honest broker and original thinker who gives off stimulating insights the way a chunk of plutonium emits radiation. Minor quibbles aside, I’ve always concurred with her on most of the big things, sharing her contempt, for example, for totalitarian second-wave feminists (she prefers, quite reasonably, the pro-male trailblazers of an earlier generation, such as Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn) and her rage at the damage that the disciples of such charlatans as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida have done to the study of literature. It matters less to me that she esteems the poetry of Lynn Emanuel more than I do than that she disdains the modern-day Parnassification of such utter mediocrities as John Ashbery and Jorie Graham. I’m awed by Paglia’s ballsy, bracing dismissal of almost all postwar American literary fiction, although she’s apparently always been on the lookout for a colossal masterwork on the order of Ulysses, whereas the signal accomplishments in the American novel during these decades have been smaller-scale works. Especially delicious are Paglia’s sneers at Joyce Carol Oates’s “tin ear”: referring to “the blatant lack of attention that Oates pays to her prose style,” Paglia exclaims, “I can’t believe she just throws that stuff out there!” Neither can I.

At this late date, does anybody have anything fresh to say about Shakespeare? Remarkably, Paglia does. He’s a major preoccupation here. Making the familiar point that today’s audiences can have a hell of a lot of trouble following his language, Paglia reflects that his own contemporaries may have struggled with it, too. After all, the Bard “was writing at the dawn of modern English, when the language was still in flux. He was making up words and usages as he went along….What this suggests is that much of Shakespeare’s audience too may have had only a dim idea of what was happening onstage.” That makes perfect sense, but I’ve never heard anybody else say it. Paglia, many of whose students are aspiring actors, approaches the plays largely from the perspective of performance. To help millennial stage-strutters get a hold on Orlando in As You Like It, she compares him (in classic Paglia fashion) to the character Joey on the sitcom Friends; she also usefully points out that respected British film actresses who engage in “mannish arm-swinging” and “flash their teeth” and “grin like Huckleberry Finn” when appearing in adaptations of Shakespeare (or , by the same token, in Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde parts) are being wildly anachronistic.

Reading this book, I was struck more than ever by how many personal pop-culture touchstones Paglia and I have in common – among them the films Spartacus, The Women, All about Eve, and The Philadelphia Story. Then there’s Joan Rivers, whom I still regret not stopping on Fifth Avenue that time to convey my admiration, and who, Paglia writes, “has a better ear than most living poets for the spare, sinewy rhythms of modern English.” I share Paglia’s fascination with the 1920s (if not her nostalgia for the 1960s), and I second her thoughtful praise for Helen Gurley Brown (“a fearless bulldog” who survived feminists’ assaults and spurned their toxic man-hatred) and Hugh Hefner (who “reimagined the American male as a connoisseur in the continental manner,” putting sex “into a continuum of appreciative response to jazz, to art, to ideas, to fine food”). Paglia notices fascinating things about the themes of food and death in the movie The Godfather, and her explanation of why the French love Jerry Lewis makes more sense than any other I’ve encountered.

As for politics, it matters less to me that Paglia was a Bernie Sanders supporter in the 2016 elections and that she still has significant reservations about the presidency of Donald Trump than that she sees the Clintons for exactly what they are. In May 2016, referring to “the massive size of Hillary’s imperialist operation,” Paglia hilariously contrasts Trump, who “is like a raffish buccaneer, leaping about the rigging like the breezy Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn,” with Hillary, who is like “the stiff, sequestered admiral of a bullion-laden armada of Spanish galleons, a low-in-the-water easy mark as they creak and sway amid the rolling swells.” I also cheer Paglia’s takes on climate change (“a sentimental myth unsupported by evidence”) and on the gender wars (“liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warming flee all reference to biology when it comes to gender”).

In recent years, to be sure, I’ve regretted the infrequency with which Paglia has written about the number-one social, political, and cultural challenge of our time – namely, the rise of Islam in the West. Given how much she knows and cares about religion, and given how wide an audience she commands, I’ve long felt that she’s in a position to make a major – and desperately needed – contribution to the public’s understanding of just what we’re up against on that front. Then again, it’s not the critic’s job to tell a writer what she should write about, even in times of existential crisis. In Provocations, surely, Paglia serves up so much wit and wisdom about so many topics that it would be ungrateful to respond with anything but a hearty chorus of cheers.