Poetic License:
Camille Paglia Verses The World

by Tony Phillips

One can hardly expect to discuss academic terrorist Camille Paglia — let alone have a discussion with her — without also mentioning a certain pop singer. After all, one of the ways in which the Philadelphia-based humanities professor put herself on the intellectual map was by reinventing Madonna for the critical theory set. She also used the singer to retrench her own bad-assed self in relation to American feminism with sound byte friendly lines like “Madonna is the true feminist.” The fact that she did this in the pages of Playboy is testament to the out cultural critic’s pluck. So when the pint-sized powerhouse swept into the bar room of a swank midtown Manhattan hotel with a smart, blood red silk pantsuit billowing behind her, we naturally started with Madge. “There was a time when Madonna was the avant garde in pushing the sexual envelope,” Paglia announces, “but we’re past that now.” Surprisingly, even before she parks it at the bar and orders a Brooklyn Pilsner, Paglia’s onto Moira McFarland.

Ms. McFarland is ephemera from Madonna’s childhood who turns up in the 1991 doc Truth or Dare to doggedly pursue her old pal and press her into service as her child’s godmother. Madonna was icily cordial to McFarland in person, but later turns to the camera to remember being “finger fucked” by McFarland during childhood. Paglia, an admitted pop culture junkie, remembers the moment well and still feels for Detroit everywoman McFarland and her inexcusable diss on the very public pop culture landscape. In fact, the story cuts to the heart of what Paglia’s all about: more populist than theorist as skeptical of the left as she is of conservatives. Basically, Paglia’s looking out for the Moira McFarlands of this world. And one thing she won’t do on her watch is engage in the rarified grad speak she calls “high priests murmuring to one another.”

The only ivory towers Paglia guards are her Jimmy Choo pumps, which The New York Times had the audacity to cite in a review of her latest book as endemic of Paglia’s “inherent credibility problems posed by looking too much at ease on top of a pair.” Imagine discussing Harold Bloom’s choice of footwear in a review of his Western Cannon, but Paglia hasn’t got time for what she calls “the general flattening out of the culture” epitomized by The Times dig. She’s too preoccupied with academia, which she says has become a mishegash of “post structuralism and post modernism.” Again, Paglia’s looking out for the Moiras when she frets about real people forced to read Jacques Derrida and choked by the pretentious jargon. “Who’s left are the drones,” she states, “the humanities have become mediocre and it needs a revolution to sweep it all clean.”

And though she’s talking faster than a Howard Hawks heroine and ordering a revolution before lunch, she has been off the scene for the last five years writing and compiling a book she hopes will dismantle both liberal and conservative assumptions about culture. It’s called Break, Blow, Burn and collects 43 of her favorite poems she’s been teaching for the last 34 years and pens an essay after each. Emily Dickinson sits side by side with Joni Mitchell. The writing is clear and concise and couldn’t be considered post-anything. “I don’t want show off poems,” Paglia announces, “I want a poem that directly engages the reader in some way. You should feel someone in a real space talking.” Consider her writing on poet Sylvia Plath’s seminal work Daddy which she calls “a rollicking nursery rhyme recast as horror movie” that “seems to be having a nervous breakdown” on the page.” If that’s not practical enough, she goes onto compare Plath to Pat Benatar. The kids are going to eat it up.

“It’s one reason I wrote this book,” she says of the $20, hot pink, student-friendly tome, “the fine arts are slipping away. The young people are not paying attention to traditional fine arts even at the elite schools where parents are bankrupting themselves to send them. They’re emerging without any real connoisseurship because they’re forced to look at literature and art through a lens of politics. The sense of how to respond to directly to literature and art is gone. The kids are encouraged to have a style of hip cool detachment, which I detest. Young people in America need to be introduced to art and instead arts programs are being gutted. In Europe, young people get arts education early.”

And if that sounds like the typical left leaning lament, consider Paglia on the inevitable Janet Jackson breast, but remember she insisted on being photographed in one of New York’s few remaining dungeons for her new book jacket. “I’m a fan of Janet Jackson and I’m a fan of football,” Paglia states, “but the idea that Justin Timberlake tore off too much material and exposed her breast is a lie. What was exposed was an S&M solar burst pin: a piercing of her nipple. I’ve seen the close up of it. We all have. And I support her right to have S&M explorations, that’s fine, but it’s a liberal lie to say that conservatives were scandalized by the site of a naked breast.”

“What she did was decadent,” Paglia continues, “I wrote a whole book about decadence, Sexual Personae, I am a decadent. I applaud decadence. But it did not belong in that moment. Janet Jackson had no right to unilaterally expose all those families to her sadomasochistically pierced breast. That has been erased in the liberal argument. This is not healthful. Piercings are decadent. Again, whoever wants to do it has that right, but let’s not lie. This was not about nudity, this was about S&M exhibition.”

It’s easy to see why some people don’t like such straight talk, but Paglia lost one of her greatest detractors, the writer Susan Sontag, late last year. She admits the pair modeled their ongoing feud on Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. She won’t say who was who, but does call Sontag “a party animal corrupted by her own fame. I don’t think her work was very strong because she abandoned popular culture and didn’t really work at her writing.” She even goes so far as to call Sontag’s famous one liners “vulgar and slack.” And while she doesn’t comment on the late architect Philip Johnson’s flirtation with Time Magazine’s closet while designing his signature AT&T building, she excoriates Sontag for a similar tactic with The New York Times Magazine. “It’s corrupt,” she says simply.

It’s harsh, even for her, but she also mentions mourning the death of your friends along with the death of your enemies, but that’s as generous as she gets, chiding Sontag in the afterlife for her “jeering cynical tone,” party going and “speaking from on high.” It still seems like she hasn’t fully absorbed the loss, taking Sontag to task for her “reflex anti-Americanism,” adding, “she chose to live here, but went around the world speaking out against America to applauding audiences. My Italian immigrant family came her from poverty: the countryside of Italy. And the idea that America is all bad, it’s a form of mental illness in itself.” She then compares this idea to her latest book. “I’m trying to show the Anglo-American tradition,” she says, “certainly criticize imperialism and political abuses, but stop bad mouthing western civilization as the worst place in the history of the world. People who talk like that really have no knowledge of what it would be like to be in China, where there is no free speech.”

So life for the last five years — two alone in writing the accompanying essays for poems as diverse as William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 and Langston Hughes’ Jazzonia — has been marked by such candor. But there were also revelations along the way. “The surprise for me was including Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock,” she remembers, “I realized it is the strongest and most influential poem written in English by anyone, male or female, since Sylvia Plath’s Daddy. Now that’s a big statement because I just wiped out about three decades of prominent poems including all of today’s living poets.” Another surprise? “I had to pay reprint rights for Emily Dickinson,” she moans, “why Harvard Press is still charging for Emily Dickinson is beyond me. What right do they have to charge for Emily Dickinson?” But the nicest surprise of the day comes at the close of our meeting. True to looking out for the Moira McFarlands of this world, Paglia picks up the check. And promptly hands it to her publisher. Thanks, Camille.