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Sex, Art, and American Culture.

"I'm an Annie Oakley figure," she told People magazine. "With reporters ... I'm in my element, like Roz Russell in His Girl Friday, a boisterous, wise-cracking, machine-gun American verbal style." "Most women aren't willing to rupture the fabric of social relationship to the degree that I and Katherine Hepburn have." "What's my sip? Who asked that? Who asked that question? I'm an Aries. What do you think? Bette Davis, Joan Crawford - please!" "I sensed then, and now know for certain, that Madonna, like me, is drawn to drag queens." Speaking of Madonna in the two comically obsequious lead essays in Sex, Art, and American Culture, Camille Paglia is clearly - and never for a minute doubts she is - talking to and about herself. Paglia figures, like Madonna, she's Italian, Madonna's Catholic; so's Paglia. "Like me, she sensed the buried pagan religiosity in disco," says Paglia of Madonna. "I am an American surrealist." "I am an Italian pagan mythomane." "Anti-establishment mavericks like me are back in fashion. It's a classically American story, the loner riding out of the desert to shoot up the saloon and run the rats out of town."

Camille Paglia has a Messiah complex. Her shameless attitudinizing and need for attention are so unacademic - and so howlingly desperate for media attention - that she has become in the process anti-academic in order to shore up the legitimacy of her positions, transmogrifying in the process from the Freudian mythic critic of Sexual Personae (1990) to the singularly self-promoting culture-humper whose cavalier remarks ("Madonna is the true feminist"; "Rape is one of the risk factors in getting involved with men"; "Through his impact on Bob Dylan, Ginsberg changed rock and the world") are basically only about herself Paglia is fascinated with herself. She's regrouped to make mythology of what she has become - in her mind - from what she was, reviewing her childhood with posturing regard like Mr. Pumblechook to regale us with stories of her wonderfulness as if selecting anecdotes out of the Raccolta. Term papers she wrote on Amelia Earhart in high school, her Hallowe'en costumes when she was a toddler take on the importance for her of Buddha sitting under the bo tree or Mohammed's flight to Medina or Demosthenes demoting with mouthfuls of shingle.

I make a lot of Paglia's remark, "I'm like ajack-in-the-box- whaack! Like a vampire out of the grave after 20 years of isolation and neglect. You see, Italians, we invented the vendetta. People have dishonored me. I want revenge" (People, 4/20/92). 1 think it's true. Camille Paglia is a small, homely, middle-aged lady, unmarried and shaped like a stump, who, ignored almost all of her life, has managed with her driving ambition and a few cavalier and hyperbolic remarks, born of a desperate need for any kind of attention, finally to have gotten her wish in the Warholean way anybody can and most eventually do by dint of the sort of topsy-turvified middle-brow society we've created. And she's as angry as a crab. "She's not getting attention because of her theories on romantic imagination," says Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, "but because she's willing to say feminists are hangdog dowdies." Paglia's is a curious Old World revisionism that mocks women today as saps and stooges of their own devising, feminists as mostly uneducated and self-indulgent frumps, unlike Paglia, of course. And it is men, women, and sex that ol' Pags claims to be an expert on. Odd, because she has never lived with a man or joined a group, yet claims to be the perfect role model for women.

Who but a sexless pratt would have the gall to explain Madonna's libido to her? Or be pro-pornography and pro-prostitution; programmatically encourage married men to sleep with other men ("What's wrong with that?"); assert date-rape is a woman's fault; think sex crimes and mass murders "demonstrate the greater conceptualism of men"; bother to collect 599 pictures of Elizabeth Taylor; believe that "to have anonymous sex in a dark alleyway is to pay homage to the dream of male freedom"; collect and reproduce her own interview material; quote and write about herself what she desperately needs to have others say about her and, finding it missing, fill the void? No wonder Paglia was afraid to debate Naomi Wolf when Oprah tried to get the two on television together for a debate. Who could explain, never mind defend, such brainlessness?

Sexy, Art, American Culture only looks like a book of essays. It is in fact only a worried batch of disparate half-lectures, sniping book reviews, TV interviews, rock essays, inconsequential gasconades, a few pointless cartoons, and a media history of her life made up of a series of nitwittish articles all clapped together to capitalize on the recent attention given her book of literary criticism, Sexual Personae. Her Book! The Alpha and the Omega! She constantly refers to it - repeatedly, exhaustingly - the way a Pahktoon cites his Koran. Nothing is more important. Nothing came before it. (The worst bore on earth has to be the one-book author.) I've taught at Harvard, Yale, and MIT, where preening academics line up like birds on a washwire, and swear I've never come across a bigger pain in the ass. A mere opinion of hers she feels sanctifies it. She's her own Boswell, standing beside herself in awe. It's as if she can't get over the fact that she actually wrote a book, who was once just a sad, ignored little lesbian from the State University at Binghamton but who has since gotten her picture in Time, the better now to hector us with her fractious and attention-begging opinions and scowling from a face like muscular dystrophy or the goofy scold on the Old Dutch Cleanser can.

It is significant that her photo's on the cover of this paperback, her name run larger than the title, for with its relentlessly narcissistic cant and uninterrupted self-regard it actually becomes without exaggeration the verbal equivalent of Madonna's recent bum-in-the-air bestseller, Sex, except for the fact that that salacious book with its carny kitsch and hoggish vulgarities is far more honest than this desperate equivalent, and in the end far less pretentious. But what can you expect from a woman who compares herself, favorably, with Bette Davis, Roz Russell, Katherine Hepburn, Annie Oakley, Dorothy Parker, and Madonna, on the basis of nothing more than belittling feminists and liking Jimi Hendrix?

She "worships" rock music and television. She has a "lifelong adoration," she insists we know, for Elizabeth Taylor and Amelia Earhart. (Amelia with her aristocratic grace, gentle mien, and shy manner wouldn't have stayed in the same room with Camille Paglia.) Embarrassingly, Paglia with her penchant for radical chic also wants to be au courant - "Arsenio had on the Fifth Dimension, reunited!"; "Keith Richard is my idol"; "Rock musicians are America's most wasted natural resource" - and to be hip, a headbanger, on the qui vive with current trends and new thought and the latest slang. (Naomi Wolf is right. Paglia is "the nipple-pierced person's Phyllis Schafly.") She tells us she relaxes by listening to Guns N' Roses and watching soap operas. Have you ever watched a short, gray-haired, middle-aged lady at a teenage party trying to jitterbug?

The essays in this indifferent book are the fruity thoughts of an academic, long ignored and deeply aggrieved, come screaming out of a library. In "The Rape Debate Continued" Paglia basically is telling women to stop whining and to "accept the adventure of sex." "What a Drag" is a weak-kneed and obviously envious animadversion against Vested Interests, a recent classic on the subject of transvestism written by Marjorie Garber, Harvard professor, noted Shakespeare scholar, and a mind far superior to murky and muddled pop-Paglia's, who, apparently immune to irony, has the nerve to criticize the book as the kind of academic work - get this - seeking "instant hipness and career cachet rather than deep knowledge and lasting scholarly achievement." Paglia is not only shallow, petty, and tendentious, she has the terrible need like some sort of Disney witch of wanting to be young again. And her hyperbole is so tiresome, her low shock tactics so puerile, that she tries to make up in color what she lacks in insight. Having to defend of course all of him if she mentions him at all, for example, she assures us in "The Beautiful Decadence of Robert Mapplethorpe" that "Donatello, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio were also pornographers." I mean, has latitudinarianism come to this?

I can't begin to tell you how relentlessly dim the book is. "The M.I.T. Lecture" is filled with rich ideas, like "Donna Mills as Abby Ewing on Knots Landing did something for the persona of the American woman. ... I really admire what Donna Milis did" and "The psychedelic element of the Sixties is a joke today, like Donovan or tie-dye shirts and so on. I'm saying it was no joke, OK?" and "Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac said a few months ago on Entertainment Tonight...."

There's a selected bibliography to cut out and save for her pursuivants and devotees, eleven pages listing articles on or about her, which she has enthusiastically annotated, pieces culled mostly from small or college dailies, many from far-flung areas like Antwerp or the Netherlands and often not longer than a paragraph ("Account of Paglia's lecture at Williams College," a piece from the Sydney Australian, reviews of Sexual Personae, etc.). And also provided of course is the full three-part appendix already mentioned of her media appearances, "documenting," as she says, "my strange quick passage from obscurity to notoriety," a section, I might add, helpfully put in chronological order the better to assist the work of any future biographers, since, after all, books have already been done on Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Annie Oakley, Kate Hepburn, etc.

All this, mind you, from a shill who has the hypocrisy, somewhere in one of these turgid essays, to inveigh against the harmless practice, common in the graceful and far more generous past, of writers of books asking other writers for a commendation - a blurb - in the hope of garnering wider attention for their efforts.

It's a book of essays, she claims, on sex, art, and American culture, so how come we come away from it knowing so much about her? That she's short, Catholic, lived in Syracuse, hates Joseph Campbell, dressed up on Hallowe'en like Napoleon at age eight, adores the third Brahms symphony, esteems Freud, can't write poetry except for the passages in Sexual Personae that, she assures us, "are really odes, in the sublime Pindaric style, lofty, celebratory, and ritualistic"? The answer is that the book is a circus of self-promotion, a farce of buncombe, dim lights, and horseshit, where Camille Paglia is P. T. Barnum, Tom Thumb, and ticket-taker all at once. [Alexander Theroux]
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Theroux, Alexander
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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