What a woman! Why I love Camille Paglia
Fierce. Honest. Libertarian.
Those are just three of the reasons why author and professor Camille Paglia has fascinated me for years. She speaks her own mind, uses logic rather than histrionics to make her arguments, and is unafraid of blowback from her critics. Though a lifelong Democrat and a supporter of Bernie Sanders, she refused to vote for Hilary Clinton, regarding her as a “liar.” She has called into question climate change, despises political correctness, rejects the postmodernism that has wormed its way into our universities, and has taken to task our current obsession with transgender issues.
Most recently, Paglia has once again aroused the ire of radical feminists, whom she once called “a catchall vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses.” She believes that through their unwillingness to listen to all women and their refusal to allow for dissent in their ranks, they themselves are killing feminism.
In her latest collection of essays, Provocations (Pantheon Books, 2018, 684 pages), Paglia addresses not only these topics, but also the arts, “both erudite and popular,” free speech, sex and gender, education, literature, culture and politics. To each of these topics, she brings wit — sometimes acerbic — knowledge, style and best of all, fearless passion.
Look, for example, at her take on transgender issues. In her “Introduction,” Paglia declares: “…despite my lifelong transgender identity, I do not accept most of the current transgender agenda, which denies biological sex differences, dictates pronouns and recklessly promotes medical and surgical interventions.” In her interview “Feminism And Transgenderism,” she elaborates: “It is certainly ironic how liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warning … flee all reference to biology when it comes to gender …. The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body (except for blood) remains coded with one’s birth gender for life.”
Here she is on writing: “The only way to go forward as a writer is to go backwards — to absorb everything that you most admire from twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago.”
For most of her life, Paglia has taught the humanities and media studies in universities. In “Free Speech And The Modern Campus,” she takes on political correctness and the consequent speech codes. In one long sentence, she gives us a vision of what a true liberal classroom would be: “The teacher as an individual citizen may and should have strong political convictions and activities outside the classroom, but in the classroom, he or she should never take ideological positions without at the time frankly acknowledging them as opinion to the students and emphasizing that all students are completely free to hold and express their own opinions on any issue, no matter how contested, from abortion, homosexuality and global warming to the existence of God or the veracity of Darwin’s theory of evolution.”
Paglia’s power to seduce her readers — and this reviewer — can be seen in my use of quotations in this article. Every one of these 74 essays and the Media Chronicle at the end of Provocations, in which Paglia summarizes her appearances in the media since 1976, contains phrases and sentences vividly making her points. My own copy of Provocations is studded with paper slips and tattooed with pen and pencil marks and comments.
Besides being struck by her marvelous faculty for language, most readers of these essays will find themselves, as I mentioned earlier, entranced by Paglia’s erudition and the sweeping range of subjects examined. Here is just a sampling of those subjects via her chapter titles: “Movie Music,” “Women And Law,” “Teaching Shakespeare To Actors,” “Western Love Poetry,” “No To The Invasion Of Iraq,” “Cults And Cosmic Consciousness,” “Religion And The Arts In America,” “St. Teresa of Avila.” To each topic, Paglia brings her special blend of scholarship and enthusiasm.
She also brings her own bundle of contradictions. Here is an atheist arguing for a reintegration of art and religion. In “Resolved: Religion Belongs In The Curriculum” she lists the benefits of making the “… study of comparative religion the core curriculum of university humanities programs everywhere.” Here is an academic who in “Vocational Education And Revalorization Of The Trades” advocates for shop classes and technical institutions, “optional vocational and technical schools geared to concrete training in a craft or trade.” Here is a feminist and self-described transvestite who is unafraid to defend Helen Gurley Brown, the feminist who “most offended feminists for her tenderness toward men.”
Included in Provocations is a photograph of Paglia at age 8, dressed like Napoleon for Halloween. (Even then, as she points out here and elsewhere, she wanted to dress as a boy, and Napoleon was her greatest hero at that stage of her life.) Until reading Provocations, and based on seeing several of her interviews on YouTube, I had assumed by her build and forceful speech that Paglia was a tall woman. I was stunned to discover from Provocations that she is quite petite. Like her childhood hero, she is short, but fierce and decisive in her thought and opinions.
Let us end by looking once more at her “Introduction.” Here Paglia tells us that her book is “not for those who believe … they have found the absolute truth about mankind, present or future … not for those who see women as victims and men as the enemy … not for those who see human behavior as wholly formed by oppressive social forces ….”
No, Provocations “is instead for those who elevate free thought and free speech over all other values … for those who see women as men’s equals who …do not plead for special protection for women as a weaker sex … for those who see life in spiritual terms as a quest for enlightenment ….”
Discerning readers of this piece will detect that I have written less a review than a thank you note.
And so I have.
Thank you, Ms. Paglia, for your words, your grit, and most especially, your sane approach to culture and society.