Streetwise Scholar Camille Paglia Defies Categorization
Oct. 31, 1991
NEW YORK (AP) _ Speaking with the speed of an Uzi, cracking jokes like Joan Rivers and dropping politically incorrect statements like bombshells, Camille Paglia packed the halls at MIT last month and recently entertained an overflow crowd in New York.
''I'm pro-prostitution, pro-pornography, pro-homosexuality and pro-drag queen,'' Paglia announced cheerfully. ''I seem to do my best to offend everyone.''
But she's not doing stand up, she's not a politician with a death wish or a warped evangelist. And even though people tried to cadge tickets to her sold- out appearance in New York, she's no rock star.
Paglia, a diminutive 44-year-old woman from Philadelphia, is a rapidly rising star with a gimmick - she's a scholar. Her brand of in-your-face sexual politics has appeared to catch fire with a public glazed over from efforts to save the whales or Walden Pond.
She found her ticket onto the world stage with her book, ''Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson,'' a controversial and exhaustive exploration of sexual philosophy.
The book was rejected seven times by New York publishers before coming out last last year. Since then, ''Sexual Personae'' and its author slowly have gathered steam.
Paglia has been on the cover of New York magazine (pro) and the Village Voice (con) and is weighing a flood of offers to do TV talk shows. She has hesitated to go on TV only because she might hit those who disagree with her.
''I am so obnoxious,'' she says. ''I am so physical that I might ... rip their wigs off. So I want to be sure I know who I'm going to be on with. I'm an intellectual and a scholar. I don't want to seem like a crazy hoyden.''
Paglia sees her growing fame as vindication after 21 years spent in academic obscurity, shunned by big-name universities and occasionally collecting unemployment.
Though she studied at Yale University, Paglia was never accepted by the Ivy League and now teaches at Philadelphia's University of the Arts. But she says she realizes that ''early success ruins you'' and prefers teaching in a low- key atmosphere.
''It's like one of the great stories on 'Oprah,''' says Paglia. ''It's a great human interest story about overcoming every obstacle. I'm like David beating all the Goliaths. It's a great feminist saga.''
It's tough to summarize the book - or Paglia. Much about her is a paradox.
She vacillates between childlike merriment and ferocious militancy. She peppers her speech with references to everything from Plato, the Marquis de Sade and Spenser's epic poem, ''The Faerie Queene,'' to Fleetwood Mac, the film ''Psycho'' and Madonna.
But her ability to mix turgid academese (repeated references to ''social construction'' or ''lit crit'') with cutting-edge pop culture and a plethora of one-liners has struck a chord with audiences and readers.
Both at her lecture at the New York Public Library, and during an interview at the Algonquin Hotel, Paglia called herself a feminist. But she blames women for many of their own problems, decrying what she sees as a plague of ''victimology'' sweeping the land.
''To imagine a woman as a pawn, as a victim throughout history, is negative,'' Paglia says.
Paglia dismisses women's issues such as date rape as the products of white middle-class naivete. Though she says she is the ''first one'' to condemn rape, she terms the current focus on date rape ''sex-phobic propaganda.''
''Women have to take personal responsibility,' she says. ''No more of this whiny, weepy stuff. I'm calling for an end to this shrewish mob hysteria.''
Paglia scorns mainstream feminists such as Gloria Steinem and believes all women's studies courses at universities should be eliminated.
''Women's studies departments are all run by a bunch of 1950s ladies who were teaching in the English department when they moved over,'' she snarls. ''Young women today are being taught by 4th, 5th, 10th-rate minds by an incestuous, solipsistic teeming little group who only read and teach what they agree with.''
She reserves her greatest derision for Naomi Wolf, the 28-year-old author of ''The Beauty Myth,'' who believes women are being forced to adhere to impossible standards of beauty in atonement for new economic gains.
Paglia suggests - no, INSISTS - that men are responsible for much of the great work of civilization. But she says their drive to erect sweeping structures and create works of art and music is a reaction to what they feel is the omnipotence of women.
Men fear being swallowed up by women and are secretly overwhelmed by the fact that women create life, she says.
Paglia calls her own philosophy, ''Italian Pagan Catholicism.'' Though she says she developed her beliefs based on ''10,000 years of sex theory,'' they also jibe with what has been a difficult personal life.
Paglia is a bisexual who has had lesbian relationships but prefers men, only she says she can't find any who are strong enough to handle her.
''Sex is much more hot with men but the sexual misery of my life is that I'm very attracted to men but I can't submit to them,'' she says. ''And I'm not attracted to men who are submissive.''
Paglia calls ''Sexual Personae,'' which she wrote in longhand at her kitchen table a decade ago, her ''life's work.'' There are plans for a second volume.
''I'm pricking the balloon of propriety,'' she says. ''I'm going to continue to be very annoying. My job as an intellectual is to attack little knots of thinking and force you to face things you don't want to.''
But for all her theories, Paglia does not offer any magic solutions.
''Men and women are always going to be different,'' she says. ''There's always going to be a battle of sexes. That's what makes it interesting.''