Camille Anna Paglia (born April 2, 1947) a self-described dissident feminist, has been a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, since 1984. The New York Times oddly described her as “first and foremost an educator,” though clearly she is primarily a provocateur, paradigm shifter, and public intellectual. Her speech pours forth in torrents of fructifying tangential themes, which barely works in a lecture or long format interview (like the one done this week, below, by reasonTV), but it leaves her an undigestible surd and outlier when she appears on TV panels like Bonnie Erbe’s feminist version of The McLaughlin Group, the PBS distributed To the contrary. Imagine a more deeply educated, more original, maybe more media savvy, more libertarian, less closeted, and way more caffeinated Susan Sontag.
In an interview with reason magazine in the mid 90s, Paglia explained what she means when she calls herself both a libertarian and a Clinton Democrat: “I consider myself not a conservative libertarian but a radical ’60s libertarian. I feel that government has no right to intrude into the private realm of consensual behavior. Therefore, I say that I’m for the abolition of all sodomy laws. I’m for abortion rights. I’m for the legalization of drugs—consistent with alcohol regulations. I’m for not just the decriminalization but the legalization of prostitution. Again, prostitutes must not intrude into the public realm. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say that civil authorities have the right to say that prostitutes should not be loitering near schools, or on the steps of churches, or blocking entrances to buildings and so on. Prostitution should be perfectly legal, but it cannot interfere with other people’s access to the public realm.“I believe that government should confine itself to the public realm and that it should be as stripped down as possible, within reason. It should not be burdened by excess bureaucracy.
“Furthermore, the public realm is not owned by Judeo-Christianity. It is shared by people of all cultural and religious backgrounds. Therefore, I’m arguing for the Greco-Roman or pagan line, which is very tolerant of homosexuality and even of man-boy love. I’ve argued controversially for a reduction in the age of consent to 14—there are some countries in the world that do have that. I’m open to considering even lowering it further.
“That’s the way I would be separate from a conservative libertarian, who would not necessarily take the position of the legalization of drugs or the very positive attitude I have toward prostitutes and pornographers and drag queens. I take a celebratory attitude toward them. Similarly, I think that most conservative libertarians would not agree with my idea of lowering the age of consent and so on.
“In the first chapter of Sexual Personae, I made a defense of capitalism. I feel that capitalism has a very bad press with the pseudo-leftists who clog our best college campuses and that in point of fact capitalism has produced modern individualism and feminism. Modern capitalism has allowed the birth of the independent woman who is no longer economically dependent on her husband. I despise the sneering that our liberal humanists do about capitalism even while they enjoy all of its pleasures and conveniences. I just despise it.
“However, I do believe that capitalism is inherently Darwinian and that a totally free market is ultimately inhumane, because you’ll have what happened in the 19th century—a kind of piling up of profits at the very top, with working-class people falling way below. I do think that there should be some kind of safety net, that we should not tolerate, in an affluent society, extreme levels of poverty or deprivation.
“At the same time, I think that the way that the welfare state has developed is just atrocious. It’s part of the condescension and paternalism and the guilt of the affluent white upper-middle class to say: “Oh, they’ll be taken care of.” And so we have that huge culture of dependency which is suddenly, shockingly being broken, just like affirmative action. I never dreamed of the speed with which these issues which have been so long suppressed have come to the fore, and it seems like anything is possible now.
“I think it’s a very exciting time; I only regret it’s not my party, the Democratic Party, that started this whole process. Because Clinton was elected for change. I wish that he had taken the aggressive tack the Republicans have of really investigating every single bureaucracy, stripping it down.
“I despise bureaucrats. I despise administrators. That has been one of the most pernicious effects of the post-war years in academe. There has been an overgrowth of an arrogant master class of administrators on college campuses who are being paid twice the level of the salaries of the faculty and regard themselves as being in charge and everyone else as being their lackeys. What the Republicans are doing in Washington, looking at the federal government, I want people to be doing on the college campuses—to have a thoroughgoing review of this parasitic class of administrators.”
Paglia is known for her critical views of many aspects of modern culture, including feminism and liberalism. She has been characterized variously as a “contrarian academic” and a feminist “bête noire,” a “witty controversialist,” and a maverick, Margaret Wente has called Paglia “a writer in a category of her own… a feminist who hates affirmative action; an atheist who respects religion” and “a Democrat who thinks her party doesn’t get it.” Martha Duffy writes that Paglia “advocates a core curriculum based mostly on the classics” and rails against “chic French theorists Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan,” and “has a strong libertarian streak — on subjects like pornography — that go straight to her ’60s coming-of-age.” Elaine Showalter has called Paglia a “radical libertarian,” noting her socially liberal stands on abortion, sodomy, prostitution, drug use, and suicide. Paglia has denounced feminist academics and women’s studies, celebrated popular culture and Madonna, and become a media celebrity, writing op-eds and gossip columns, appearing on television and telling her story to journalists.
Paglia has said that she is willing to have her entire career judged on the basis of her composition of what she considers to be “probably the most important sentence that she has ever written”: “God is man’s greatest idea.”
Paglia’s Sexual Personae was rejected by at least seven different publishers before it was published by Yale University Press, whereupon it became a best seller, reaching seventh place on the paperback best-seller list, a rare accomplishment for a scholarly book. ‘Paglia called it her “prison book”, commenting, “I felt like Cervantes, Genet. It took all the resources of being Catholic to cut myself off and sit in my cell.” Sexual Personae has been called an “energetic, Freud-friendly reading of Western art“, one that seemed “heretical and perverse”, at the height of political correctness; according to Daniel Nester, its characterization of “William Blake as the British Marquis de Sade or Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as ‘self-ruling hermaphrodites who cannot mate’ still pricks up many an English major’s ears”.
Paglia is a devotee of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, cherishing “performance, artifice and play rather than earnestness.” She has expressed admiration for Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy, as well as for models, singers and movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, and Barbra Streisand. There are also many parallels between herself and Ayn Rand, Paglia told Salon.com (for which she and Glen Greenwald both used to be both sort of the “left-libertarian” and most popular contributors, before the website’s descent into robotic Obama cheerleading and socialist statism under the editorship of Joan Walsh):
“Many people have noticed the very real parallels between Ayn Rand and me. (I was born in the United States, however; my mother and all four of my grandparents were born in Italy.) A New Yorker profile of Rand several years ago in fact called her ‘the Camille Paglia of the 1960s.’ Ayn Rand was the kind of bold female thinker who should immediately have been a centerpiece of women’s studies programs, if the latter were genuinely about women rather than about a clichéd, bleeding-heart, victim-obsessed, liberal ideology that dislikes all concrete female achievement. Like me, Rand believed in personal responsibility and self-transformation as the keys to modern woman’s advance.
Rand’s influence fell on the generation just before mine: In the conformist 1950s, her command to think for yourself was brilliantly energizing. When I was a college student (1964-68), I barely heard of her and didn’t read her, and neither did my friends. Our influences were Marshall McLuhan, Norman O. Brown, Leslie Fiedler, Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol.
“When my first book finally got published in 1990, a major Rand revival was under way. I was asked about her so often at my book signings and lectures that I researched her for the first time. To my astonishment, I found passages in her books that amazingly resemble my own writing: This is certainly due to the fact that we were inspired by the same writers, notably Nietzsche and the High Romantics.
“The main differences between us: First, Rand is more of a rationalist, while I have a mystical 1960s bent (I’m interested in astrology, palmistry, ESP, I Ching, etc.). Second, Rand disdains religious belief as childish, while I respect all religions on metaphysical grounds, even though I am an atheist. Third, Rand, like Simone de Beauvoir, is an intellectual of daunting high seriousness, while I think comedy is the sign of a balanced perspective on life. As a culture warrior, I have used humor and satire as the most devastating weapons in my arsenal!”
In 2005, Paglia was named as one of the top 100 public intellectuals by the journals Foreign Policy and Prospect. In 2012, an article in The New York Times remarked that “[a]nyone who has been following the body count of the culture wars over the past decades knows Paglia”.
Paglia was born in Endicott, New York, the elder daughter of Pasquale and Lydia Anne (née Colapietro) Paglia. Both her parents immigrated to the United States from Italy. Additionally, Paglia has stated that her father’s side of the family were from the Campanian towns of Avellino, Benevento, and Caserta. Paglia attended primary school in rural Oxford, New York, where her family lived in a working farmhouse. Her father, a veteran of World War II, taught at the Oxford Academy high school, and exposed his young daughter to art through books he brought home about French art history. In 1957, her family moved to Syracuse, NY, so that her father could begin graduate school; he eventually became a professor of Romance languages at Le Moyne College. She attended the Edward Smith Elementary school, T. Aaron Levy Junior High and William Nottingham High School. In 1992 Carmelia Metosh, her Latin teacher for three years, said “She always has been controversial. Whatever statements were being made (in class), she had to challenge them. She made good points then, as she does now.” Paglia thanked Metosh in the acknowledgements to Sexual Personae, later describing her as “the dragon lady of Latin studies, who breathed fire at principals and school boards“.
She took a variety of names when she was at Spruce Ridge Camp, including Anastasia (her confirmation name, inspired by the film Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman); Stacy; and Stanley. A crucially significant event for her was when the outhouse exploded after she poured too much lime into the latrine. “It symbolized everything I would do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness. I would be someone who would look into the latrine of culture, into pornography and crime and psychopathology… and I would drop the bomb into it”.
For over a decade, Paglia was the partner of a younger artist Alison Maddex. Paglia legally adopted Maddex’s son (who was born in 2002). In 2007, the couple separated. A few years back Paglia traveled to Brazil and wrote glowingly of Brazilian divas, before she went on hiatus. In an interview with Salon she wrote: “When have I ever criticized anyone’s fetish? I am a libertarian. Go right ahead — set up plastic figurines of 1950s-era moppets to bow down to in the privacy of your boudoir. No one will scold! Then whip down to the kitchen to heat up those foil-wrapped TV dinners. I still gaze back fondly at Swanson’s fried-chicken entree. The twinkly green peas! The moist apple fritter! Meg Ryan — the spitting image of all those perky counselors at my Girl Scout camp in the Adirondacks. Gwyneth Paltrow — a simpering sorority queen with field-hockey-stick legs. I will leave you to your retro pursuits while I dash off to moon over multiracial Brazilian divas.“
Paglia entered Harpur College at Binghamton University in 1964. The same year, Paglia’s poem “Atrophy” was published in the local newspaper. She later wrote that the biggest impact on her thinking were the classes taught by poet Milton Kessler. “He believed in the responsiveness of the body, and of the activation of the senses to literature… And oh did I believe in that”. She graduated from Harpur as class valedictorian in 1968.
According to Paglia, while in college she punched a “marauding drunk,” and takes pride in having been put on probation for committing 39 pranks.
Paglia read Susan Sontag, and aspired to emulate what she called her “celebrity, her positioning in the media world at the border of the high arts and popular culture.” Paglia first saw Sontag in person on October 15, 1969 (Vietnam Moratorium Day), when Paglia, then a Yale graduate student, was visiting a friend at Princeton. In 1973, Paglia, a militant feminist and open lesbian, was working at her first academic job at Bennington College. She considered Sontag a radical who had challenged male dominance. The same year, Paglia drove to an appearance by Sontag at Dartmouth, hoping to arrange for her to speak at Bennington, but found it difficult to find the money for Sontag’s speaking fee; Paglia relied on help from Richard Tristman, a friend of Sontag’s, to persuade her to come. Bennington College agreed to pay Sontag $700 (twice what they usually offered speakers but only half Sontag’s usual fee) to give a talk about contemporary issues. Paglia staged a poster campaign urging students to attend Sontag’s appearance. Sontag arrived at Bennington Carriage Barn, where she was to speak, more than an hour late, and then began reading what Paglia recalled as a “boring and bleak” short story about “nothing” in the style of a French New Novel.
As a result of Sontag’s Bennington College appearance, Paglia began to become disenchanted with her, believing that she had withdrawn from confrontation with the academic world, and that her “mandarin disdain” for popular culture showed an elitism that betrayed her early work, which had suggested that high and low culture both reflected a new sensibility.
In 1984, she joined the faculty of the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, which merged in 1987 with the Philadelphia College of Art to become the University of the Arts.
Paglia is on the editorial board of the classics and humanities journal Arion and has been writing a monthly column for Salon.com since the late 1990s (currently on hiatus). Paglia has announced that she is currently working on “a study of the visual arts intended as a companion book to Break, Blow, Burn“.
Paglia cooperated with Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock in their writing of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, sending them detailed letters from which they quoted with her permission. Rollyson and Paddock note that Sontag “had her lawyer put our publisher on notice” when she realized that they were investigating her life and career.
Paglia participates in the decennial poll of film professionals conducted by Sight & Sound which asks participants to submit a list of what they believe to be the tengreatest films of all time. According to her responses to the poll in 2002 and 2012, the films Paglia holds in highest regard include Ben-Hur, Citizen Kane, La Dolce Vita, The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, North by Northwest, Orphée, Persona, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Ten Commandments, and Vertigo.
Some feminist critics have characterized Paglia as an “anti-feminist feminist,” critical of central features of much contemporary feminism but holding out “her own special variety of feminist affirmation.” Elaine Showalter notes Paglia’s admiration for Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex (“the supreme work of modern feminism… its deep learning and massive argument are unsurpassed”) as well as Germaine Greer, but Time magazine critic Martha Duffy wrote that Paglia “does not hesitate to hurl brazen insults” at several feminists including Greer, whom Paglia accused of becoming “a drone in three years” as a result of her early success; Paglia also called activist Diana Fuss’ output “just junk – appalling!” Showalter calls Paglia “unique in the hyperbole and virulence of her hostility to virtually all the prominent feminist activists, public figures, writers and scholars of her generation”, mentioning Carolyn Heilbrun, Judith Butler, Carol Gilligan, Marilyn French, Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, Susan Thomases, and Hillary Clinton as targets of her criticism.
Paglia has accused Kate Millett of starting “the repressive, Stalinist style in feminist criticism.” Paglia has repeatedly criticized Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women, calling her a “sanctimonious”, unappealing role model for women whose “smug, arrogant” attitude is accompanied by “painfully limited processes of thought”. Paglia contends that under Ireland’s leadership, NOW “damaged and marginalized the women’s movement”. Paglia has called feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum a “PC diva”, and accused her of borrowing her ideas without acknowledgement. She further contends that Nussbaum’s “preparation or instinct for sex analysis is dubious at best”.
Many feminists have criticized Paglia; Christina Hoff Sommers calls her “Perhaps the most conspicuous target of feminist opprobrium,” noting that the Women’s Review of Books described Sexual Personae as a work of “crackpot extremism,” “an apologia for a new post-Cold War fascism,” and patriarchy‘s “counter-assault on feminism.” Sommers relates that when Paglia appeared at a Brown University forum, feminists signed a petition censuring her and demanding an investigation into procedures for inviting speakers to the campus.
Naomi Wolf traded a series of sometimes personal attacks with Paglia throughout the early 1990s. In The New Republic, Wolf labeled Paglia “the nipple-piercedperson’s Phyllis Schlafly who poses as a sexual renegade but is in fact the most dutiful of patriarchal daughters” and characterized Paglia’s writing as “full of howling intellectual dishonesty”. In 1991, Paglia referred to Wolf as a “twit”.
Gloria Steinem said of Paglia that, “Her calling herself a feminist is sort of like a Nazi saying they’re not anti-Semitic.” Paglia said that Steinem, whom she accused of not having read her, had compared her to Hitler and Sexual Personae to Mein Kampf. Paglia called Steinem “the Stalin of feminism.”
Katha Pollitt has characterized Paglia as one of a “seemingly endless parade of social critics [who] have achieved celebrity by portraying not sexism but feminism as the problem.” Pollitt writes that Paglia has glorified “male dominance,” and has been able to get away with calling the Spur Posse California high school date-rapegang “beautiful,” among other things “that might make even Rush Limbaugh blanch,” because she is a woman.
Paglia’s view that rape is sexually motivated has been endorsed by evolutionary psychologists Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer; they comment that “Paglia… urges women to be skeptical toward the feminist ‘party line’ on the subject, to become better informed about risk factors, and to use the information to lower their risk of rape.”
Paglia is critical of the influence modern French writers have had on the humanities, claiming that universities are in the “thrall” of French post-structuralists, that in the works of Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault, she never once found a sentence that interested her and that Post-structuralism has broken the link between the word and the thing, and thus endangers the western canon. François Cusset writes that Paglia, like other major American public intellectuals after World War II, owes her broader recognition mainly to the political repercussions of polemics that first erupted on college campuses, in her case to a polemic against foreign intellectualism. He says she achieved phenomenal success when she called Foucault a “bastard”, thereby providing (together with Alan Sokal‘s Social Text parody) the best evidence for Paul de Man‘s view that theory should be defined negatively, based on the opposition it arouses.However, Paglia’s assessment of French writers is not purely negative. She has called Simone de Beauvoir‘s The Second Sex (1949) “brilliant”, and identified Jean-Paul Sartre‘s work as part of a high period in literature. Paglia has praised Roland Barthes‘ Mythologies (1957) and Gilles Deleuze‘s Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty (1967), while finding both men’s later work flawed. Of Gaston Bachelard, who influenced Paglia, she wrote “[his] dignified yet fluid phenomenological descriptive method seemed to me ideal for art”, adding that he was “the last modern French writer I took seriously”.
Paglia characterizes herself as a Clinton Democrat and libertarian. She opposes laws against prostitution, pornography, drugs, and abortion. Paglia criticized Bill Clinton for not resigning after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which she says “paralyzed the government for two years, leading directly to our blindsiding by 9/11.” In the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign she voted for the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, “[because] I detest the arrogant, corrupt superstructure of the Democratic Party, with which I remain stubbornly registered.” In the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Paglia supported John Kerry; and in 2008, she supported Barack Obama. In 2012, she supported Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
In Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990) Paglia argues that human nature has an inherently dangerous Dionysian orchthonic aspect, especially in regard to sexuality. Culture and civilization are created by men and represent an attempt to contain that force. Women are powerful, too, but as natural forces, and both marriage and religion are means to contain chaotic forces. A best seller, it was described by Terry Teachout in aNew York Times book review as flawed, but “…every bit as intellectually stimulating as it is exasperating”. Martha Duffy wrote that the book had a “neoconservative cultural message” which was well received, but rejected by many feminists. In a review of Sexual Personae, feminist author Molly Ivins accused Paglia of historical inaccuracy, demagoguery of second-wave feminists, egocentrism, and writing in sweeping generalizations. In his review, Anthony Burgessdescribed Sexual Personae as “a fine disturbing book” that “seeks to attack the reader’s emotions as well as his or her prejudices”.Germaine Greer writes that Paglia’s insights into Sappho are “vivid and extremely perceptive”, but also “unfortunately inconsistent and largely incompatible with each other”.
Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays (1992) is a collection of short pieces, many published previously as editorials or reviews, and some transcripts of interviews. The essays cover such subjects as Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, rock music, Robert Mapplethorpe, Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination, rape, Marlon Brando, drag, Milton Kessler, and academia. It made the New York Times bestseller list for paperbacks.
Vamps and Tramps: New Essays (1994) is a collection of 42 short articles and a long essay, “No Law in the Arena: a Pagan Theory of Sexuality”. It also contains a collection of cartoons from newspapers about Paglia. Writing for the New York Times, Wendy Steiner wrote “Comic, camp, outspoken, Ms. Paglia throws an absurdist shoe into the ponderous wheels of academia“. Michiko Kakutani, also writing for the New York Times, wrote: “Her writings on education… are highly persuasive, just as some of her essays on the perils of regulating pornography and the puritanical excesses of the women’s movement radiate a fierce common sense… Unfortunately, Ms. Paglia has a way of undermining her more interesting arguments with flip, hyperbolic declarations”.
In 1998, and in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds, the British Film Institute commissioned Paglia to write a book about the film. Paglia’s 96-page book interprets the film as “in the main line of British Romanticism descending from the raw nature-tableaux and sinister femme-fatales of Coleridge.” Paglia uses a psychoanalytic framework to interpret the film as portraying “a release of primitive forces of sex and appetite that have been subdued but never fully tamed”.
Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems (2005) is a collection of 43 short selections of verse with an accompanying essay by Paglia.The collection is primarily oriented to those unfamiliar with the works. Clive James noted that Paglia tends to focus on American works as it moves from Shakespeare forward through time, with Yeats, following Coleridge, as the last European discussed, but emphasized her range of sympathy and her ability to juxtapose and unite distinct art forms in her analysis. Christopher Nield remarked that Paglia has “a rare gift to capture a poem’s mood and scene in terse, spiky phrases of descriptive insight” and exhibits moments of brilliance, but also notes that some of her selections from recent writers fall flat. He also praises her pedagogical slant towards basic interpretation, suggesting that her approach might be what is required to reinvigorate studies in the humanities.
Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (2012) is a series of essays about notable works of art from ancient to modern times, published in October 2012. Writer John Adams of the New York Times Book Review was sceptical of the book, accusing it of being “so agenda driven and so riddled with polemic asides that its potential to persuade is forever being compromised.” Gary Rosen of the Wall Street Journal, however, praised the book’s “impressive range” and accessibility to readers.
On the prospects for the 2016 elections, Paglia told Salon: “As a registered Democrat, I am praying for a credible presidential candidate to emerge from the younger tier of politicians in their late 40s. A governor with executive experience would be ideal. It’s time to put my baby-boom generation out to pasture! We’ve had our day and managed to muck up a hell of a lot. It remains baffling how anyone would think that Hillary Clinton (born the same year as me) is our party’s best chance. She has more sooty baggage than a 90-car freight train. And what exactly has she ever accomplished — beyond bullishly covering for her philandering husband? She’s certainly busy, busy and ever on the move — with the tunnel-vision workaholism of someone trying to blot out uncomfortable private thoughts.
“I for one think it was a very big deal that our ambassador was murdered in Benghazi. In saying “I take responsibility” for it as secretary of state, Hillary should have resigned immediately. The weak response by the Obama administration to that tragedy has given a huge opening to Republicans in the next presidential election. The impression has been amply given that Benghazi was treated as a public relations matter to massage rather than as the major and outrageous attack on the U.S. that it was.
“Throughout history, ambassadors have always been symbolic incarnations of the sovereignty of their nations and the dignity of their leaders. It’s even a key motif in “King Lear.” As far as I’m concerned, Hillary disqualified herself for the presidency in that fist-pounding moment at a congressional hearing when she said, “What difference does it make what we knew and when we knew it, Senator?” Democrats have got to shake off the Clinton albatross and find new blood. The escalating instability not just in Egypt but throughout the Mideast is very ominous. There is a clash of cultures brewing in the world that may take a century or more to resolve — and there is no guarantee that the secular West will win.“