Camille Paglia tried to stage a production of Hamlet when she was only nine years old, but her actors wouldn’t learn their lines.
From then on, she depended only on the most reliable mind she knew: her own. An acerbic, abrasive, aggressive, outspoken, brazen, witty, exhaustively, fiercely intelligent dyke, it’s always a surprise to those who haven’t met her how soft and diminutive and almost lady-like this bulldozer is in person.
While many Sapphic sisters have been called spiteful names, few have been publicly insulted as “Hitler” or as “asshole.” But the controversial academic takes it all in stride. Those are probably some of the more flattering accusations she’s had hurled at her. It’s been nearly twenty since she first exploded into public consciousness with her unpopular views about rape, but that’s still what she’s most famous for.
Problem is, too many of us bellyached and blamed the bold babe for blaming the victim. Meanwhile, we continued to play victim ourselves, instead of seizing our deepest powers in the first century of history where we had a hope in hell of equality. Some of us just weren’t smart enough to plow through her rigorous, expansive oeuvre, Sexual Personae, or open-minded enough to pursue her full essays on the rape topic. If I had done so then, I would have known sooner what I concluded two decades later on my own: that women’s sexual power is devastating to men; that it is an exhilarating tool to have; that it is a renewable resource; that I must be strong enough to protect it and shield it if I don’t want to share it, which means not traipsing around drunk and sending signals to every man in sight that I’m hungry if I’m not; that rape is indeed a crime of sex AND of power; and that rape should be properly punished in society and in court.
Most of us in those early ‘90s thought feminism was about going vegetarian and not shaving: we saw red when a brilliant lesbian told us that the world of sex was dangerous. We didn’t want it to be true. In the end, it might be a surprise to the lot of us what Camille actually said about rape. “Sex is dark and turbulent power,” Camille wrote. “Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in civilized society. Yet feminism, which has waged a crusade for rape to be taken more seriously, has put young women in danger by hiding the truth about sex from them.” Far from defending the rapist, Camille went on to say, “(Rape) has been a horrible problem for women for all of recorded history. Once fathers and brothers protected women from rape. Once the penalty for rape was death. I come from a fierce Italian tradition where…a rapist would end up knifed, castrated, and hung out to dry.”
By no means is rape the only controversial topic in Professor Paglia’s arsenal. She’s that rare atheist who devoutly respects religion, which she views as a necessary constraint of civilization and the inspiration for great works of art. She’s queer herself and loves drag queens almost as much as she loves Madonna. She largely subscribes to biological determinism; however, she’s not in favor of gay marriage, believes that homosexuality is rebel love, and that the born-gay thesis is “a crock.” She believes that politically correct speech and quotas have actually handicapped special interest groups and contributed to racism by watering down the quality of work, art, education, and other cultural contributions.
Though she writes constantly about the brute, wild biology of men, and is lesbian, she finds male sexuality ‘hot.’ She champions the sexual theatre of pornography, because no matter how far off and ridiculously it veers from reality, it actually tells the truth. She views porn and prostitution as emblems of women’s power, not of oppression. The prostitute, in her mind, is not the lowest of the low, but the “ruler of the sexual realm,” and “the ultimate liberated woman, who lives on the edge, and whose sexuality belongs to no one.” She believes adults have the right to wild sex, drugs, S and M, and rock’n'roll, but should also bear personal responsibility for the consequences of said freedoms. She believes lady leaders should learn military history, not women’s studies. She loves Obama’s warmth and intelligence, but also praises Palin’s plucky “feminism.”
It’s true that Camille’s work can put our knickers in a knot: she’d recede into the boring backwater of academia if her spunky words weren’t so confrontational. Though she’s practically a senior citizen, she writes about sex from every angle whenever she can. But her first major appearance was the unparalleled 700-page tome Sexual Personae, a fascinating read that spanned the entirety of Western art and literature, the history of humanity against nature. Clearly, she has read every single work of English literature ever written, and studied thoroughly every piece of art.
Her essay collections are just as provocative and outspoken, showing a love of popular or mass culture. As a literary critic, her seminal work Break Blow Burn surveys 43 of the ‘world’s best poems.’ And whether you disagree with every sentiment, or hang onto her every word, her formidable intellect, razor wit, and supreme writing ability is undeniable. She has a way with words and knows most of them.
Today, the manic/maniac Paglia is co-parent to her leading lady’s child, media studies professor at the University of Philadelphia, contributing editor for Interview Magazine, and a columnist, off and on, for salon.com since the ‘90s. She’s also at work on a companion to her poetry criticism, and a third book of essays on pop culture and art.
The disco-loving libertarian was born in small town New York State, in 1947, to Italian immigrants of modest means. Her dad was a teacher, and later a language professor. Her parents encouraged high culture and intellectual pursuits, and Camille was listening to opera very early. Though she was a rabble rouser from day one, she was a gifted student, and by high school she was spending weekends in the library, researching and studying. Camille started to notice her crushes on women when she went to Scout Camp, where she gender-bendered a bit by asking her friends to call her various names, from Anastasia to Stanley. At camp, she was known for her bizarre antics, including making an outhouse explode. This apparently “symbolized everything I would do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness.”
Paglia began work on a book about her heroine Amelia Earhart when she was only thirteen years old, and this was no haphazard, doodling affair. “I wrote nearly 300 letters of inquiry and spent Saturdays in the bowels of the Syracuse public library ransacking volumes of sooty old newspapers and magazines. I visited sites like Earhart’s birthplace in…Kansas and… where she took off on her last flight.” The project was abandoned three years later when Camille decided instead to begin a big book about “everything.” And that’s exactly what she did: by age 21, she was graduating as class valedictorian from Binghamton University. Already a published poet, her senior thesis was on Emily Dickinson, who would be an integral figure in the Sexual Personae.
Besides learning about metaphysical poetry, Latin, and literature, Camille’s real life education also proved important. She was a TV junkie and devoted fan of Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. She did not fit into socially constructed gender roles, and was fag hag to three gay men on campus. She still continued with her prankster sensibilities, often getting into trouble with college probation. One of these “pranks” was coming to the defense of a shy girl who was being rudely groped by a few drunken men, Camille knocked out one of the assailant’s teeth. By the time she was in graduate school at Yale in 1968, Camille was the only out-of-the-closet lesbian.
An extremely outspoken feminist who was well read on every topic, Camille grew by leaps and bounds and throughout her masters and PhD wrote critically of many ‘experts’ whose intellectual rigor paled next to hers. She did not make friends with those she called on their shoddy theorizing or inability to keep up with her academic pace. Much later, popular writers embarrassed themselves publicly for criticizing what they could barely understand. Molly Ivins, for example, claimed Paglia’s Personae work showed that “sweeping generalization is her signature.” In Mother Jones, Ivins said, “What we have here, fellow citizens, is a crassly egocentric, raving twit…. That this woman is actually taken seriously as a thinker in New York intellectual circles is a clear sign of decadence, decay, and hopeless pinheadedness…Sheesh, what an asshole.”
Her review meant more readers for Camille’s book, and those readers did not need to make it halfway through to realize that poor Ivins was not even close to being in Camille’s league.
The professor met with resistance long before publishing: she was physically assaulted on the job and disgraced by parents who did not want some dyke teaching their kids. Camille pressed charges with the police for the battery, and resigned after a year-long battle with the college administration. Then she began teaching part time at Yale and publishing essays in academic journals. She shopped her massive work, Sexual Personae, to various publishers but encountered similar intellectual impasse, Finally, the Yale University Press printed the book: meanwhile, her college companion and another dear friend died of AIDS. Camille was also trying to find the girl of her dreams in lezzie bars, which proved frustratingly futile until she met Alison Maddex, three years after her book was published. Alison has weathered Camille’s hurricane career at her side ever since.
Ms. Paglia’s erudition and wit make for compelling reading, regardless of one’s views on her favorite outrageous themes. Though her extremism is not everyone’s cup of tea, it must still be noted that it takes extremism to stretch social mores: Paglia has paved the way for hookers and homos to hold their heads up high, as well as for women to be recognized as guerrilla scholars. Though she can be infuriatingly inflexible, superior, and in-your-face, our Grandma dyke is also funny, true to her conviction, and impossibly intelligent. Love her or hate her, you can’t forget her. Camille herself, as crone, adrogyne, as her rigorous, vigorous celebrity, is among the important sexual personae of all time. Though she offends and stirs, much of the time she is simply telling truth that we are not ready to hear, that we don’t want to believe.
Like always, Camille’s tough as nails. She says, “The only thing that will be remembered about my enemies after they’re dead is the nasty things I’ve said about them.”
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Lorette C. Luzajic is a Toronto writer and artist, the girl behind thegirlcanwrite.net. A journalism grad, she has published hundreds of poems, and her reviews, profiles, columns, and features have appeared everywhere from Adbusters to Dog Fancy. Her favourite thing in the world is getting to know interesting people, so she started a project called Fascinating People: gossip for smart people at www.fascinatingpeople.wordpress.com. She writes Fascinating Writers for Bookslut.com. She is also The Spice Girl at Gremolata.com, a foodie’s paradise. Lorette’s first book was The Astronaut’s Wife: Poems of Eros and Thanatos. Her second, Weird Monologues for a Rainy Life, is also available, and her third, Dendrite Pandemonium will be released later this year. Lorette lives in her library with her cats.