Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 7 April, 1997


Reflections On April's Interview With Camille Paglia

by Jack Nichols


_____________________________________________________ Camille Paglia, contributor to The Advocate, arts scholar, celebrated author of Sexual Personae, and a long-time darling of the TV talk-show circuit, is the April interviewee in GayToday. Playboy Magazine's interviewer wrote that Ms. Paglia is harder to reach than President Clinton. Click on GayToday's "Interview," for her commentary which, in this following "Viewpoints", is examined and critiqued. _____________________________________________________

Analyzing April's Badpuppy interview with celebrity culture critic, Camille Paglia, opens cans of peculiar worms. First, Ms. P. agrees superficially with many of us on peripheral issues but she may (or may not) become our extreme opposites on life's big questions. What's more, one can detect in her approaches, not the "academic Rottweiler" we've been warned to expect (by her approved publisher's handling of her image) but an often confused thinker, hiding and ducking and, unfortunately for her, being too glib for her own forgetful good.

Asked if she's allowed the "Rottweiler" description to fly to intimidate interviewers, she becomes flustered, never giving a direct answer. Instead she takes time with words to provide non-answers about 20 years at hard intellectual labor, and the absolute realism of the personae she projects.

Her "essential" focus, she says, is 60's free speech militancy. Sixties radicals may resent her repetitious representation of herself as a 60's person. It seems too much a costume. Real 60's folks quote Alan Watts, Theodore Rozak, and Charles Reich, not, as she does, the Marquis de Sade, Neitsche, and Freud. Ms P.'s favorite intellectual mentors were not at all significant in the 60's revolt.

Strangely, because Ms. P. is somewhat transparent, one may find oneself, as she babbles, feeling more pity than anger, even though many of her views deserve to be burned in the pure white fire of anger. Interviewing is best accomplished with friendliness, in her case to get past her Rottweilerian guardposts. Nice doggie, nice doggie. Ms. P.'s defenses would dissolve, I sense, if she's told her interviewer has graduated deservedly only from elementary school. After all, she'd written contemptuously of university undergraduates. She likes the questions, saying they're "great." Not bad, I suppose, for a sixth grader.

Its easy to agree with Ms. P. about the victim-orientation of too much of contemporary feminism (or even of some gay activism) as well as the Kremlin mentality of some of its old guard leaders. More than a few gay men and women have noticed how assimilationist segments of our gay and lesbian leadership have been captured by similar types, activists unaware of old-world affectations they perpetuate. If its true, as she says, that she can credit herself for having opened the debate about feminism's victimology-as-strategy, we must be willing to give her due credit. Playing the victim may be good ammo for stimulating small but apathetic memberships to contribute funds, but only so much of such anger can be absorbed or tolerated by ordinary folks, the larger audience that needs persuading that--as our long-term solution-- we must help shape a new culture. Sooner or later a great movement for social revolution (not "reform" as Ms. P. would have it) demands that activists lighten up, putting their gripes into some good jokes, making fun of the devil instead of giving him too much dignity by bemoaning his existence. Something like a resurrection of Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" to lead the way, perhaps.

On the question of pornography Ms. P. and this Badpuppy interviewer must agree that censorship is never the answer. But from that point onward we part. She likes eerie S&M stuff and genitals minus the rest of the body, a remnant in her soul of that old sexual repression wherein the genitals got too little sunshine. Ms. P. is not bringing much analytic precision to erotic criticism the way neo-Freudian gay author Mark Simpson does in his book Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity (Routledge, 1994). She hasn't read him, but promises she will. Simpson sees old-fashioned dominant-submissive heterosexism in too much of gay male porn. He rightly asks, instead, for same-sex portrayals between self-identified gay males, not between horny hetero males who just happen to collide in the nude. Simpson would ask that the Jeff Stryker types (safely) become actual receptacles instead of always seeming like little more than passive, uninvolved dolphin-sized penises who mumble "Choke on dat fat cock."

Ms. P. says she considerd herself free of ideology. This is her first big error because she was once, in fact (she denies this vehemently while unwittingly confirming it) little more than a guilty Catholic girl who'd been brainwashed by the nuns to think human nature revels in degradation. Granted, she boasts leaving the Roman church years before, but she'd still have been 22 then, plenty of time for rotting dogmas to wreak full psychic damage.

She's written, oh so glowingly, of "an eerie, sultry, tableau of jaded androgynous creatures, trapped in a decadent sexual underground," and she finds sado-masochistic images "hypnotic." Mapplethorpe's S&M images, she thinks, make him her "Pagan Priest of Art."

Yes, she admits, she considers S&M one of the most profound things she's ever studied though she does not consider herself a practicing sado-masochist. Her own sex life, she confesses to one who isn't surprised, "is probably boring". She complains of a ten-year draught in her sex life caused by the humorless, ignorant lesbians of Philadelphia. She never once thought of herself as the cause of her draught. "I follow the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade," she said, "that is that we're not born good." Obviously, she's been a real charmer.

Who's suggested that we were born good? Social Constructionists regard the infant-human-tablet as a blank, not with "good" or "aggressive" written on it, just a bare blackboard waiting for life's hopefully helpful chalk marks. Ms. P. needs chiding for believing, as Roman Catholics do, that we're all victims of Original Sin. As expected, she doesn't call it "sin" but "being born with a tendency to aggression." She assures, however, she believes we must curb our instincts toward barbarism. The trouble with this is that she celebrates these "instincts" for aggression in her artsy-fartsy, but retrogressive interpretation of the human scene. She thus joins such negativists as Robert Ardery (The Territorial Imperative) and Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression) who have used animals for divining rods, predicting nasty human conduct through their studies of baboon-ology. These thinkers see us, as Ms. P. does, as animals rather pointedly fixed in our ways, having a lack of that elasticity needed, as social constructionists argue, for survival's sake. The biological theorists see themselves as "realistic," but their approaches smack of a clinging to the status quo. Social Darwinism (the theory that this is a dog eat dog world and that the fittest dogs get the most money) supports the blatant economic thievery that goes unquestioned because of such bourgeois vampy viewpoints.

Though Camille Paglia claims to be ideology-free she is, in fact, full of it, and though she denies being a Biological Determinist (the academic school that always struggles against Social Constructionism) she damns all constructionists and plays right into the determinists' hands. If humanity is not actually more elastic than Ms. Paglia's aggression theory allows, we must then resign ourselves to universal doom.

Sympathy for Ms. P. is legit when she admits she's simply expressing very personal tastes, writing that Liz Taylor (bless Liz aplenty) is "the greatest actress in film history." Ms. P. sees her own function, she explains, as expressing "personal taste very vividly in order to help others form their personal taste." Yeah.

Truthfully, Ms. P., do you really believe what you're saying, or are you, like the teacher you've been for over two decades, only trying in a wry, friendly, dizzy way, to spark debate by championing the viewpoints of Neanderthals? If so, are you getting the Christ-like martyrdom you've hoped for? Are people who disagree with you simply your intended functionaries, calling you names, names you'd hoped to hear so you'd know your teacher-mode, pointing slyly to a sex life better than your own boring one, actually works? Have you been putting us on with silly nonsense to get a meaningful rise from us in response? It would be nice to think so, but your general approach doesn't indicate you're that swift!

Pressing on, asking Ms. Paglia what she can say to convince us she isn't just another talking head, its asked why has she written that at the very deepest level of human nature lies sado-masochism. How, after all, has this Philadelphia Professor of the Humanities managed to plumb the very deepest level of human nature? Isn't it possible that by pontificating on what lies therein, she speaks only for what lies in the depths of her own psyche? No, she insists. She bows before Dionysus and Apollo, or the urge to both license and to restraint, getting very metaphysical, calling this combo the root of "creative duality," and throwing exotic words around, like Yin and Yang, demanding "balance". How different sound other strong pillars of thought, creative world-views, which, instead, require an equal presence of both love and freedom, each meaningless without the promise of the other. Freedom, in this view becomes not mere license, but neither is love (ala S&M) the "proper" restraint. Unconditional Love, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "will have the final word in reality." S&M sets up strict conditions--scenes-- before it gets started. If these are not present, S&M goes elsewhere looking for its specific sexual object, its fantasy fix.

There's a thrust of deliberate morbidity in Ms. P.'s view of humankind. We are hybrid beings. OK, so? We're unevolved, she says. What else is new? How nice for Ms. P. that she has, even as an atheist, what she calls a spiritual bent, but which some might call being bent. She emphasizes that our inner conflicts have led to the great achievements of the species, that progress is dependent on "our deep neurosis," and "our deep unhappiness." Perhaps, as Kahlil Gibran suggests, she's merely blessing darkness as others bless light. She'd call us to join her in her focus on our darker, aggressive sides. Hasn't there been enough such focus? Why not point to the possibility of some happier, more hopeful climate? Why enshrine deep unhappiness by referring to it as lying at the base of a correct reading of one's work?

Sexuality is an intricate intersection of nature, of culture, Ms. Paglia says. This sounds harmless enough, except that she also insists her major work has nothing to do with biology (i.e. nature) but only about the fabrications and artifices of art. And she's pushing Liz Taylor, the Rolling Stones, Mapplethorpe and Madonna, yet. Her insistence that humanity is innately aggressive is foiled by one discipline she, with all her vaunted learning, ignores: anthropology. One non-aggressive locale, Stornoway, including the Isle of Lewis off the coast of Scotland, knew not one murder in 200 years. When it finally occurred it was the work of a non-islander. Scottish culture has been profoundly touched, many Scots believe, by the poet, Robert Burns, whose stances opposed S&M, being passionately tender.

Since Ms. P. is a non-practicing S&M devotee, perhaps this restrained non-practicing focus of hers has been caused by her strict Catholic upbringing. For too long she must have meditated on her tortured god, spread naked, nailed to the cross. Her Christ's Big Daddy had his awful dungeon, Hell. And what has been the real source for her view of human nature? Did she not once believe, as the Adamic curse insists, that we're all corrupt to the core, and that without the bloody sacrifice of the Daddy God's best loved creature, Jesus, we'd be universally lost? Is not this Orthodoxy or Fundamentalism also? As Ms. P. comes into view, are not her tresses stained by her years of meditations on the "savior's" blood, her general focus shaped by Catholicism's gruesome S&M religious scenerio? Though she denies it, one could say that yes, religious clap-trap once profoundly affected her young mind.

Ms. P. sees, as other thoughtful people do, the tragedy of the shackled heterosexual male. She ignores the gay male here, however, and bemoans only the straight man's desperation, his vulnerability, his sexual anxiety, but her solutions and remedying prescriptions for such maladies can be peculiar indeed. Ms. P. prescribes, under the guise of ancient Egyptian religious practices, the resurrection of Phallic Worship. She does this, strangely, because she complains that masculinity, during the past quarter century, has been badly downsized, and she thinks that placing the penis in a worshipful setting will help remedy the male's many woes. She probably likes the Washington monument, I say. She seizes this joke enthusiastically and compares that structure to Egyptian obelisks. "How can we recover the masculine?" she asks, and she replies "We have this cult of the phallus." Hey, is this hooty lesbian for real? Or are her words nothing more than a tomboy's odd attempt to get accepted by the other guys on the block.

Ms. P. celebrates a photo she's seen in Steam magazine, one showing a "magnificent" thickly veined penis sticking through a hole in the partition in a roadside rest stop. This, she says without embarrassment, is, for her, "the ultimate in eroticism." Really, Ms. P., isn't your outburst about this pure camp? Surely you can't be serious.

"Could it not be instead a mere instance of anatomical overfocus on your part?" it is asked, and she admits that it is, but justifies her taste in a most peculiar way, by placing her vision at the center of her weird save-the-males plan. Her first scornful arrow, while discussing her 90's down-sized males, flies into the very face of the word "sensitive." Sensitivity in males, it seems, she detests. Give her what fascists like best: impersonality, dominance, and control. Uplifting for her is going with "rampaging" young males she so admires for presumably having escaped their mothers (as she may wish--in Freudian terms--to escape hers too--including perhaps the Image of the Virgin Mother, accounting for her Madonna-aping pose--the only seeming alternative for most feisty Italian Catholic girls-- to be Vamps or Tramps.)

One of my learning experiences occurred in 1969 when Ms. Paglia was, at 22, just emerging from Catholicism, and I, as the first managing editor of SCREW, received a photo in the mail showing a singular and unappetizing penis. On the reverse side the sender had written what I saw--in stark terms--as a rather limited personal identity by saying, "This is me." Contemplating Ms. P.'s enthusiasm for a penis, seemingly unattached to a whole person, I was reminded of the late Columbia University Professor Irwin Edman's insistence that those who think themselves free of a specific philosophy (ideology) have one whether they know it or not.

Ms. Paglia is a lesbian who dislikes other lesbians and admires "rampaging" hetero male teens and gay men because they have no female dominatrix standing on their necks. She says she's a real feminist? Oh yeah? Well, if so, she's the weirdest feminist ever. Certainly she's the first lesbian-feminist who proposes Phallic Worship as a worthy mass-fad. Camille insists that the story of men "is not the story of male freedom, it is the story of their servitude to woman's power." No doubt some people do feel that way. But historically it doesn't stand up. Witness the subjugation of women in the Islamic world and in China, Japan, and India. Aren't Ms. P.'s beliefs the reverse of the dreadful subjugation that world-wide feminism perceives? Who's she kidding? Until 1970 women in Florida were forced to prove, before judges, their competence to own their own property or else, once married, their husbands laid claim to it all. That's men's power, or the patriarchal order, is it not? Of course Ms. P. was only 23 then, fresh from under the thumb of the Church, just about the time she got bumped out of feminist circles too for celebrating "Under My Thumb" by her beloved Rolling Stones.

Understandably, then, she announces that "sex is basically war," this ideologically-free woman does, and therefore she goes counter-clockwise against the principal slogan of the 60's, "Make love, not war." Ms. P. confuses the two..., quite satisfied with war, however, since the savior's tortured blood must flow all over everything, even her nicest dress. In this world, as in a Tennessee Williams story where baby turtles get eaten alive by birds, our wide-eyed ex-Catholic experiences a vision of God's Evil Face. Thus, we get a succinct drama-queen's nature-inspired nightmare, but hardly a total truth about life itself.

What about non-rampaging asexuals, known to some as nerds? She sees them as escapees from her detested women too, fleeing in the guise of computer hacks, to techo-land where women dare not follow. She hasn't spent much time in chat rooms, eh?

Irritating us 60's folk again, by poking clumsily into that revolutionary decade, she admits that Woodstock was ideal: a million people enjoying harmony for four idyllic days. But months later, a murder, she almost exults, struck at a Rolling Stone's concert as if to dispel Woodstock's hopeful "myth" of human harmony. No lions lying with lambies are allowed in Ms. P.'s vision, but while murder did, in fact, strike, she fails to mention it happened during the "eerie, sultry, jaded, decadent and trapped" balladeering of her favorite musicians, the "Under Your Thumb" Stones who also warned in their mantra-music that listeners could get no satisfaction, (Viola! Ms. Paglia's sex draught again) not to mention that they sang at "His Satanic Majesty's Request," asking nothing less than "Sympathy for the Devil." The lead singer, of course, is none other than Mick "Mini-Macho" Jagger. What Ms. Paglia fails to tell us is this: Jagger represents the 60's entry of her brand of S&M. The Beatles, equally excellent as musicians, spoke for the 60's counterculture and their spirit stood in direct opposition to Ms. Paglia's favored Stones. Beatles tunes celebrated the possibility of an orgiastic community: "Come together over me," and a borderless world ("Imagine") while the co-dependency troupe, The Rolling Stones, waxed pushy and dour like the Hell's Angels "guard" who sprang forth in their Altamont audience to stab a Stone's fan. At the time a few counterculture folks saw this stabbing as a unfortunate growth, springing directly from Rolling Stones values. Some, in earlier years, had heard Perry Como crooning "Prisoner of Love," and now these English singers were simply updating it.

While Ms. P. insists that human nature is inherently aggressive, she says that Nature on the whole is ambivalent, which seems closer to fact. Somehow ambivalence, including a blank birth-slate, seems closer to what we get with scientific appraisals. But later Ms. P. calls nature "the ultimate fascist," which is hardly an ambivalent image, but rather a value judgment right out of the blue. One hopes this judgment isn't a projection, that it isn't just poor Camille writ large. If it is, she should surely climb up and sit next to the self-aggrandizing Rush Limbaugh, to whom she's gone on record comparing herself, surprise, surprise.

Ms. P. blatantly stereotypes lesbians and cackles wickedly when quoted her nastiest words. Is this homophobic self-hate? When I ask if she's never met an intellectually stimulating, highly-sexed lesbian, she says that her ten-year sexual draught was recently broken by a young woman 19 years her junior. Even so, she insists in Freudian jargon, lesbians "seek a lost state of blissful union with the mother," and are therefore "intellectually enervating." When I posit my own knowledge of lesbians as counting for something, (I lived among them for long periods) she dismisses my experience by insisting I wasn't trying to have sex with them as she was, as if this made some crucial difference to my awareness of lesbian humor. This, I think, helps account for her ten-year draught. When mention is made of several top-name lesbian comedians she huffishly replies that one of those comedians has ridiculed her viciously and is, therefore, "fundamentally humorless." Insisting lesbians are not sexual beings, she seems, as I pointed out to her, unaware that lesbians, as women, have been socialized by old roles to downplay sex. She seems to blame them for being women instead of recommending changes in a repressive culture that shapes their early sexual conditioning.

While Ms. P. heaps praise on gay men, insisting our humor outshines lesbians by a million to one, and that we enjoy a much heightened cultural awareness, such questionable praise as she gives us fails to hide more damning anti-gay-male pronouncements. Yes, Ms. P., as with lesbians, makes brash generalizations about gay men. Since she'd called the 60's Sexual revolt a disaster, the question becomes: Do you mean an unmitigated disaster? She starts her reply insisting she too was part of the 60's revolt, but that everyone who'd preached free love in those days is now responsible for AIDS. No blame here for U.S. government lackeys, for sexual repression, or, even, for possible right-wing creators of this disease. Ms. P. has been quoted elsewhere as saying, "The shocking toll of AIDS on gay men in the West is due to their (gay men's) Seventies delusionism," but with this gay interviewer, she adopts a softer approach, blaming also the Mamas and the Papas, or the counterculture generally. In this respect she plays directly into the hands of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, the Pope and Ralph Reed. Like the good Catholic girl she is, she notes that even birth control tries to frustrate nature's plan. In what she thinks is her "ideology-free" mindset she insists that nature does not want us to be promiscuous and therefore puts obstacles like disease in our way. She sees nature as a fascist, she says, because it provides us with these powerful sexual desires and then refuses to allow use of our genitals as we would wish: a clear bondage scenerio. If this isn't disguised Catholic theory, what is? No wonder media conservatives give this dame lots of happy room on the boob tube. Move that large rear over, Rush.

One must object to her classifying of gay men, putting them into two camps: those who flee their mothers and those who identify with them. Male homosexuality, she is told, is more varied than this. But she replies that she simply wants to make categories, that she desires to make categories. But isn't a characteristic of sado-masochists, this category-making habit. Forgetting she's said she's not a guilty Catholic girl, she replies that category-making is "a characteristic of CATHOLICS, OK, because Catholic theology is highly categorical, the catechism we were forced to learn, OK, see Catholic theology trains your mind . . . ." She suddenly realizes she's tripped, because she stops short --unusual for her--and says, "Oh, I'm being gestured to from across the pool...." But she's said it on tape anyway.... hah hah ...... "the catechism we were forced to learn . . .Catholic theology trains your mind." Indeed, Camille, do go on. Tell us about being forced and trained.

To underscore her academic authority in her discussion of masculinity, she explains she's speaking as a cultural historian. She trips, however, over a proffered Walt Whitman quote, one about historians being either liars themselves, or depending on liars for their information. Whitman is right, she admits. Ms. P. admits, in fact, that all she or other such academics do is to provide competing possible narratives. This answer, of course, puts her in a sensible frame: Camille Paglia, the Talking Head. No failing grade for this loquacious professor, though. Just a D for Dizzy.

Ms. P. has idolized those gay men who've helped provide her--through conversations in Philadelphia bars and at her Art college-- with her viewpoints about masculinity, since she says that there's something specifically masculine --a special entity--and that (based on barfly chatter and that of artsy friends) "gay men know what it is." Really, Camille, do they? What makes you think gay males all go for the same brands of masculinity? Perhaps, instead, gay males owe most of their fantasies about masculinity, just as do women, to early social conditioning, and that the anxieties men experience about their fragile macho stances affects both gays and straights. Following the Stonewall uprising, gay men began to assert that they were just as "masculine" as the next guy. Few realized that straight males were equally worried about living up to so-called "masculine" demands, especially after the onset of feminism's second wave.

Ms. P.'s viewpoints on beauty are telling. She says youthful males are beautiful because their beauty is transient. What she's saying here is simple: beauty equals young flesh. Coming from a cultural historian this is, unfortunately, a woefully unimaginative perspective. Laughingly being told about her famous liking for football, she thereupon gives high praise only to organized team sports, a quite natural enthusiasm from a philosophic fascist opposing individualism in sports, such as tennis, which she excludes.

Rottweiler? OK. Sure. But even when a dumb pit bull buries his bones, he remembers, at least, where they are. This Academic Rottweiler, Ms. P., however, can't recall having written of author Rita Mae Brown that she's got "tunnel vision, lack of hard political knowledge, indifference to aesthetics, and shrill reductiveness." But its there, right on page 112 of Sex, Art and American Culture, her second book of essays. "Rita Mae Brown?" she says, seemingly bewildered, pressed. "I don't remember ever mentioning Rita Mae Brown." Her own work cited as proof, she still repeats, "I really don't remember..." Then, told she'd also mentioned Kate Millet, she waxes grateful as though that solves the whole problem. "In a list, in a list ..." she repeats. Evidently Ms. P. didn't want to offend Rita Mae Brown, so she says "You're just really surprising me, because I do not remember Rita Mae Brown . . .It was Kate Millet I was mentioning." A truly fierce Rottweiller should always remember who she's bitten. Where's the bone, Ms. Rottweiller? Lose it?

The democratic Scottish poet , Robert Burns, speaks over her views on S&M, she discovers. His satirical descriptions of lords and nobles apply equally to sado-masters stalking bedrooms in leather breeches, delivering ominous glances. "The man o independent mind," wrote Burns, "looks and laughs at a' that." She replies that though she's a democrat in egalitarian politics, she's an elitist in the artistic realm or in her sexual imagination. In real life, she insists, she too is a democrat. In other words, Ms. Paglia, like most S&M devotees, or Catholics, for that matter, builds a formidable wall between art and life. So doing, she ignores the 60's axiom that what we encourage in our fantasies and in our personal lives--say in the bedroom-- reflects on a larger scale in our outward political behavior.

Finally, though she may scorn me for it, I tell last about my 1970's book about masculinity, one she's never read, and one that stands in direct opposition to her views. This tidbit gets saved till last because, when confronting a Rottweiller, such news waves a red flag before entering her fenced domain. Instead, why not use a Trojan Horse strategy? Get into the yard first, saying nice badpuppy, nice badpuppy, pat her tail and then wave red flags at her and run for cover.

Recommend Reading: "Camille Paglia and the Problematics of Sexuality and Subversion" by Elaine Craghead in "Lesbian Erotics" edited by Karla Jay (New York University Press.)

_______________________________________________________________________ Jack Nichols is the author of Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity (Penguin, 1975, 1980) Prometheus Books has recently published his latest work, THE GAY AGENDA: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists.

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