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Camille Paglia is a second-wave feminist and an American academic specializing in literature and culture, particularly topics around gender, sex, and sexuality. She has taught at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984, but is better known for her books and journalism. In 2005 she was voted #20 on a list of top public intellectuals by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines.
She is known for her extreme and colourful views on gender and sexuality and their centrality to Western culture, and her even more colourful way of expressing herself. Her 1990 book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson catapulted her to fame in literary circles, and was followed by books of essays Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992) and Vamps and Tramps (1994). More recent work includes a poetry anthology with commentary Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems (2005) and Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (2012).
To her fans, Paglia is a very entertaining, erudite, and provocative writer who celebrates sex and sexuality, including female sexuality, and acts as a counterpoint to po-faced anti-sex second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin. She covers an enormous range of cultural reference points from very high to low, showing considerable learning, while being much more fun than other academic superstars (e.g. Judith Butler).
To her enemies she legitimises all kinds of abuse of women and prefers provocation to reason. Her support for pornography is unpopular with many feminists. She dislikes postmodernism and celebrates Western culture. She annoys liberals with other standpoints such as her opposition to affirmative action, cultural relativism, "political correctness", much feminism, and the Clintons. In particular she is not in favour of Hillary, whom she baselessly calls "a woman without accomplishment" and "a disaster".
Paglia is, among other things, a global warming denialist, having called global warming "a sentimental myth unsupported by evidence". She writes: "virtually all of the major claims about global warming and its causes still remain to be proved", painting the theory as a political agenda. "I detest dogma in any area", she explains. Ironically, Paglia dogmatically subscribes to many old-fashioned, outdated theories, including her underlying Freudianism, having stated, for example, that "any person, male or female, who cannot feel the sexual allure of the opposite sex has been traumatized by some early combination of social circumstances".
Paglia was born in 1947 in Endicott, New York, to two Italian immigrants. She studied at Yale under Harold Bloom, known for his Freudian approach and interest in the Western canon (something very unfashionable among liberals and those standing outside the white, Christian, European mainstream). In many ways her work follows on from Bloom, but much more loudly.
Politics and philosophy
Paglia is approximately a libertarian, opposed to restrictions on private behaviour including drugs, abortion, and pornography, although she's more liberal than is common among American libertarians and doesn't seem so hung up on private property/guns/compounds. In recent US presidential elections she has supported Green and Democratic Party candidates, but she is bitterly opposed to Hillary Clinton.
She opposes much feminism as "self-pity". "We are rocketing backwards here to the Victorian period with this belief that women are not capable of making decisions on their own. This is not feminism — which is to achieve independent thought and action. There will never be equality of the sexes if we think that women are so handicapped they can't look after themselves." She blames much of this on American universities and women's studies departments.
In opposition to much of second-wave feminism but more consonant with younger feminists, she believes in glamor and makeup and that "everybody has the right to view his or her body as a palette". She adores Madonna (singer, not saint) and calls female beauty "an eternal human value". Paglia claims that her side won the feminist cultural wars with the death of ugly Andrea Dworkin and the renewed popularity of lipstick and body-waxing.
Difference between the sexes
As a sign of the fount of wisdom she is--In a March 20, 2017 talk at the Seattle Public Library about her newly published book "Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism", she stated that men and women are different because boys have to learn to aim when they pee, girls don't.:
...boys have to learn, because of their genital anatomy, how to aim. If they don't learn how to aim, when they try to urinate, they will soil themselves and the wall and everything else. They must learn to aim. And eventually, that carries over into the sex act....Freud talks about how primative man preened himself on his ability to put out a fire with a stream of urine. And I say that's a strange thing to be proud of, but beyond the scope of any woman.
Published in 1990, Sexual Personae is probably still her best-known and most important book. It acts as a defence of the western cultural canon, taking like Nietzsche a view of Western intellectual history as a constant struggle between the Apollonian (rational, enlightenment) and Dionysian (wild, passionate, romantic, decadent, chthonic). She elucidates this as a struggle between rigid phallic Christian morality and a Romanticism which rapidly slides into decadence; this is explored through "sexual personae" such as the female vampire (e.g. in Coleridge), the beautiful boy (Dorian Gray), and the passive male sufferer. It is obvious her sympathies lie with the catalog of libertines and decadents she discusses (the Marquis de Sade, Shelley, Gautier, Huysmans, to name just a few); although her work covers art from the earliest days of European culture, the 19th century is her chief focus.
As is inevitable for such a wide-ranging work that attempts to reduce all literary history to one thing, it attracted widespread criticism.
Criticism and controversy
Paglia's views on rape differ from the feminist mainstream in suggesting that women need to defend themselves,[note 1] and making claims like "sometimes 'no' means 'not yet'".[note 2] She sometimes seems to devote more energy to attacking feminists than actual misogyny. Despite this, Paglia is a fierce defender of some rights such as abortion, even if she thinks feminists and Democrats get it all wrong.
She is also controversial for her view on female creativity and achievement, expressed in the statement that maybe there is "no woman Mozart because there is no woman Jack the Ripper".[note 3] Drawing on Freud, she sees male creativity as linked with male lusts and desires and violent urges. In contrast, most feminists point to the many institutional barriers preventing women from artistic achievement as an explanation for the historic lack of a female Mozart. The question is still debated by feminists of all stripes, including those who think it's impermissible to even ask it.
She also has a history of storming out of interviews and public appearances. Make of that as you will.
- See the Wikipedia article on Camille Paglia.
- Hark, a libertarian looks to her right, Sydney Morning Herald, 2005
- Camille Paglia — 'I don't get along with lesbians at all. They don't like me, and I don't like them', Christina Patterson, The Independent, 2012
- Paglia attacks political correctness, Reading Eagle - Dec 20, 1992
- ‘The woman is a disaster!’: Camille Paglia on Hillary Clinton, Emily Hill, The Spectator, 20 Oct 2016
- https://www.c-span.org/video/?425137-2/camille-paglia-discusses-free-women-free-men C-SPAN: Free Women, Free Men (see video timestamp approx. 57:30)
- See the Wikipedia article on Sexual Personae.
- Camille Paglia: Feminists have abortion wrong, Trump and Hillary miscues highlight a frozen national debate, Camille Paglia, The Salon, Apr 7, 2016
- "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?", Linda Nochlin, 1971