Madam speaker

March 3, 1995

Lucy Hodges talks to a loud Italian-American lesbian who knows how to handle herself in a fight, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts, Camille Paglia.

Camille Paglia will not talk to journalists unless they agree to tape her every word. Shorthand will not do. You see why as soon as she opens her mouth. Words pour out in a mad, nervous rush, cascading over one another, as she explains, ridicules, tells her story, and repeats herself, on and on, interspersing frequently with "OK?", rubbishing Derrida and Foucault, women's studies, academic Marxists like Terry Eagleton of Oxford and the Ivy League.

It is a terrific perfomance, witty, erudite, megalomaniac. Clearly Paglia believes it would be a tragedy for the interviewer to miss one peerless bon mot. You cannot get a word in edgeways. The only way to ask a question is to interrupt the stream of theatrical street talk, which is not easy for a bashful Brit. But it does not matter because she asks the questions for you. As in: "If you were to ask how I developed my powers of social analysis, it came from the fact that my earliest memory of my parents is of constantly discussing and dissecting the surrounding American culture, the alien culture, and what was wrong with it, in other words the emphasis on cheerleaders or the emphasis on dating . . . whatever it would be, and so some of my earliest memories are the sense of being an embattled minority."

In case you have been asleep for the past four years, Camille Paglia, 47, is the enfant terrible of American letters, a small, feisty Italian-American with a very loud mouth. Just as she is lauded by some as the most important lesbian intellectual in the United States, she is dismissed by others as inconsistent and sloppy.

Paglia was completely unknown until 1990 when her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, which was her PhD thesis, was published. Aimed at an academic audience, it had been turned down by seven major New York publishing houses, but the public lapped it up.

It is long, 673 pages, peppered with attacks on feminism and liberalism, and comprising a huge, synoptic view of western history and culture, starting in ancient times and moving to the modern. It covers literature, art history, psychology and religion and is full of X-rated sexual material. Sadism, voyeurism, pornography, you name it, it is in the book.

Its theme is the war between civilisation and nature. Civilisation has been created by men rebelling against the forces of nature as personified by women. Paglia sums her ideas up thus: "If civilisation had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts." And while it is immensely learned, it is written in Paglia's inimitable style, short, staccato sentences packed with ideas running off at tangents - "The Rolling Stones, the greatest rock band, are heirs of stormy Coleridge," she writes. "But rock has an Apollonian daylight style as well, a combination of sun and speed: the Beach Boys."

It was deeply unfashionable to be writing a great narrative, however hip the style, at a time when the post-structuralists said it was not done any more. Letters began to pour in from all over the world, from people who would not normally read an academic tome, who said they could not put it down. Slowly the media began to catch on. "Suddenly all at once, by some mysterious law of Jungian synchronicity (sic), suddenly, like, five different magazines or newspapers all approached me, virtually simultaneously, without any contact with each another, and asked me to, like, write a piece on Madonna, who was in the middle of a controversy, or a piece on the current date-rape controversy, or to talk about television and the attack on television by conservative educators in America, and so on. I seemed to burst on the public in this way, OK? Political correctness was also in the news . . . and I attacked French theory. In women's studies, I was the first feminist to say women's studies is an atrocity which is destroying the education of the young."

Until 1991 Paglia's life had been a struggle. She grew up in an Italian-American family in a small town in upstate New York. Her parents were working class, but her father managed to acquire a university education with the help of the GI Bill, and eventually became a professor at a small Jesuit college. Luckily for Paglia, he had advanced ideas (for an Italian American) about women. She was encouraged to get an education, and learnt from him how to defend herself verbally - and physically, a skill that she has put to good use. She is famous for getting into fights. "I have a long history of punching and kicking," she told Playboy in an interview. "I just kicked someone here a few weeks ago. Some guy who didn't know I was a faculty member, because I was wearing sneakers, tried to move me out of the way. I kept kicking him and got into a huge scene."

Paglia read voraciously, did well at school and got her first degree at the local State University of New York at Binghamton in the mid-1960s. It was a flagship campus, full of poor New York Jews, whom she describes as very politically radical. It gave her an excellent education: rigorous, creative, and exciting, she says, particularly compared to Yale where she attended graduate school. She was unusual in college in that she was interested in studying, and had a passionate desire to achieve as a scholar.

Eventually the highmindedness paid off. But, until Sexual Personae, her career was "a disaster", she says. At Yale, where she went in 1968 to study literature, she was the only graduate student doing her dissertation on a sexual topic. "I was considered a freak," says Paglia. No one understood her except Harold Bloom, the eminent defender of a classical education.

At Yale she was even more flamboyant than she is now. "I am a shadow of my former self," she explains. At seminars at Yale she would wear a big, pale blue Tom Jones shirt, purple suede waistcoat, white eye liner, and a hippy stained glass ornament round the neck. And she made no secret of her passion for astrology and popular culture.

She found it hard to get a job. Her personality did not help, she admits. But Paglia was saved by Bennington, the posh, private, liberal arts college in Vermont, which gave her work and where she was able to continue to do her own thing. "I was completely out of control," she says. "I just had this arrogant sense, as did many of my generation, that the world was going to change immediately. We did not conceal our sense of superiority towards the older faculty."

Paglia spent eight years at Bennington, 1972 to 1980, and does not conceal the deep personal problems she had. Without going into details, she says she got into one scrape after another. After becoming embroiled in a fist-fight at a college dance when a female student thought Paglia had called her a lesbian (it wasn't true, says Paglia, she simply said the girl was attracted to another), she was fired. This was a watershed in her life. At the time it seemed disastrous but it forced her to take stock. For the next few years she scraped by, teaching factory workers in night classes, and came away full of provocative ideas about the cushiness of academe.

"When we hear all this nonsense about how we should be teaching poor students about the peasants of Guatemala in Marxist rhetoric, I say, excuse me, the factory workers I have had contact with, black and white, they don't want to read about the peasants of Guatemala. They want Sophocles and Shakespeare. That's why they're taking the damn course, OK? They want to learn about art. It's the height of condescension to teach ghetto sensibility to people who are trying to escape the ghetto." That is why she rails at Terry Eagleton of Oxford, she says. What is he doing there when he is such a Marxist?

Paglia finished Sexual Personae during her period in the wilderness, but still could not get a job. Finally the University of the Arts in Philadelphia picked her up. She is still there today teaching first-year art students about literature and art history. "I am blessedly free of the toxins of post-structuralism here," she says. "I can go the whole year without hearing the names of Derrida, Lacan or Foucault. It's wonderful, it's absolutely wonderful."

Paglia has deliberately kept her life the way it was before fame struck, she says, sharing her office with two other people and teaching the same schedule. The only change is that she moved out of a two-room garret apartment into a small house.

"I have tried to keep absolutely the same, OK?, because I see the terrible lesson of Germaine Greer, OK? and Susan Sontag, because the moment those brilliant women became famous they altered their life style in certain ways that, I think, truncated their continued development as writers.

"Germaine Greer made the mistake of leaving the University of Warwick after seven years there as a Shakespearian scholar. I think that was disastrous for her. She should have stayed."

For her, Greer has become like many other feminists, anti-sex and anti-men. Paglia casts many feminists as whingeing prudes who believe the world would be fine if only men could change their ways. But men will always be savages, she says, so it is up to women to rebuff sexual harassment and to avoid any situation that could lead to date rape.

Thus in her second book, Sex, Art and American Culture, a collection of essays, she criticises Anita Hill for whining about Clarence Thomas 10 years after she alleges he harassed her. "If Anita Hill was thrown for a loop by sexual banter, that's her problem," she writes. "If by the age of 26, as a graduate of Yale Law School, she could find no convincing way to signal her displeasure and disinterest, that's her deficiency."

Such talk incenses feminists. They see her as part of the anti-feminist backlash, a neo-conservative who misrepresents its aims and stereotypes its supporters. As the author Naomi Wolf has written in the New Republic, "By decorating a stale set of values with the baubles of pop culture and postmodernism, she reassures social conservatives - traditionally the dweebs of the intellectual schoolyard - that to hang out in the rearguard of social change is not uncool after all."

Paglia rejects the conservative label. "What are they talking about?" she asks. "I am a radical, 1960s libertarian." She delights in offending everybody, declaring that she is pro-porn, pro-homosexuality, pro-abortion, pro-legalisation of drugs. OK?

She maintains she is a feminist. In a conversation with feminist Suzanne Gordon in the magazine Working Woman, she declared: "I totally support what I consider to be the feminist agenda - the full political and legal equality of women.

"But the movement has drifted into an exclusive concern with white, upper middle-class problems, often involving fast-track, high-achievers' problems."

Paglia advocates a core curriculum based mainly on the classics, and dislikes gay studies, women's studies, African-American studies, and so on. In fact she would end all departmental boundaries between subjects under the heading of humanities.

"My model of multiculturalism is one based on learning, OK?" she says. "I want a world perspective. I want to totally smash the curriculum. I believe I am the only person who is calling for a core curriculum for the world, OK?" Students should learn about the great world religions, and about archaeology, palaentology and geology, she believes. True multiculturalism is opening children to the distant past, to the origins of civilisation.

Today she is writing the second volume of Sexual Personae. The first went from the cavemen to Emily Dickinson. The second will go from Dickinson to The Rolling Stones. She is staying as professor of humanities at the University of the Arts, she says. Not that anyone is trying to steal her away. "I am happy to say that I am persona non grata." There are blessings to being politically incorrect.

Camille Paglia's third book, Vamps and Tramps, a collection of essays, is to be published in Britain later this year.

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