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Camille Paglia, 1995

Coffee with Camille: Chatting with the Incomparable Camille Paglia

By Owen Keehnen

One of the most controversial figures in contemporary society is explosive critic, art historian, pop philosopher, and author Camille Paglia. Her newest collection of essays, Vamps and Tramps, includes swords drawn and driven deeply into the current direction of gay activism, feminist thought, and academia. Her criticism is fierce, at once educated and adolescent; she is a rebel thinker whose mind seems in constant overdrive. The book also contains her thoughts on all aspects of sex and sexuality, AIDS, prostitution, abortion, rape, and homosexuality. Vamps and Tramps contains a blistering essay on Susan Sontag, an examination of Lady Di's popularity, Foucault body-of-work slams, and much more. Never boring, this often breathless book is a volcanic critique that also contains book reviews, interviews, cartoons, and even her Spy advice column, all executed in her signature bloodthirsty style.

[Paglia, who first came to attention with Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), is also author of Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992), The Birds (1998, a study of the films of Alfred Hitchcock), and Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems (2005). Self-described as an intellectual provocateur, she is University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.]

Recently I had the opportunity to have coffee with Ms. Paglia. She and caffeine are a more than insanely stimulating combination at eight in the morning.

Keehnen: In your writing you often talk about being an Aries. I'm curious how deeply you think that influences your behavior?

Paglia: I never had any consciousness of it. Then my first week in college, I went into the bookstore and picked up an astrology book and read the thing for Aries. It was a revelation. Every single thing about my personality that people had criticized was there: obnoxious, egotistical, pushy, the willful demand to be first, all that stuff. It showed the positive aspects of that and also the negatives. It's not something I passively accept, but I can see it as a tendency.

Keehnen: Your warrior nature has been most visible in your criticism of current feminism. You see the movement as going astray in 1969. If you were in charge of the movement, where would you have taken it?

Paglia: Well . . . the late '60s, early '70s. At that time the Stalinists, the weepy, whiney types who are into groups and consciousness-raising sessions, ran off with the scene. Before Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, there were a number of women interested in feminism; and when that book hit, it was like a bomb. Any truly intellectual person wouldn't go near her--the way she treated D. H. Lawrence and Hemingway with her trashy style. She has the Stalinist way of looking at things, with her checklist, going "Check, check, check. This does not come up to my agenda, my agenda, MY AGENDA!" That's not the way you look at art. That is not done to art. All the great texts of philosophy and art are very complex. They will never conform to any agenda. That is fascism just as much as someone of the Christian right saying something doesn't meet his or her standards.

Keehnen: What's your solution?

Paglia: The Paglia vision is, I came on the scene and said, "I'm a lapsed Catholic. I'm not going to accept what the religious conservatives are saying about art, and I'm not going to accept what Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millett, Marilyn French, and the fascists in the other extreme are saying about art either."

Keehnen: Where do you think the general public lies in this?

Paglia: You saw it with Basic Instinct. I was shocked. Those protests show the complete disintegration of gay politics. It was a pornographic film receiving national distribution. It should have been rightly hailed as extreme and beautiful and bizarre. When I saw the beauty of the movie, I realized gay activism had gone so far into a coterie of Kremlin mentality that they had completely lost touch with the people. The more you get in groups, the more you lose your instincts; you become so truncated by activist philosophy, you can't just enjoy it and say, "Boy, this is a hoot! Wow! Look at Sharon Stone." It was a revolutionary film that pushed a porn style and language into Middle America. It makes me sick that instead of being seen as revolutionary, it was seen as reactionary.

Keehnen: In Vamps and Tramps you blast gay activism as narrow, elitist, and fascist.

Paglia: Leftism should be about the people. We cannot have the situation where we have white middle-class gay activists preaching like they have the truth. "We know truth, and you people out there, you're benighted. You're against homosexuality because you read the Bible, then you're a bigot. We are the hip people." No, that is the opposite of leftism.

Keehnen: So where do you think gay activism should go to have the greatest impact?

Paglia: The whole psychology is wrong. Right from the start I felt gay liberation should be about the liberation of gay eroticism, not about the liberation of gay versus straight people. The focus should have been that there is a continuum of sexuality, and we live in a society right now that happens to forbid us to express these desires. That would include people who want to experiment and go back-and-forth sexually.

Keehnen: So the problem is in the Western definitions of sexuality itself?

Paglia: If a man is married and has children and now and again likes to go pick up a hustler, he's gay. In our culture he's gay, he's homophobic, he's hiding. In history that is actually more the fact of homosexuality. In the Greek and Arab worlds, everyone marries and many still have beautiful boys. There is no distinction--there is a full range of sexuality. Gay activism has gone way overboard and has marooned gay psychology by saying, "You're gay, and you can never play around or indulge in heterosexual sex if you want because that's denying your sexuality." Gay activism and feminism are so far off. It is forcing people to define themselves in a very sterile and overly politicized way.

Keehnen: The core essay in Vamps and Tramps is "No Law in the Arena," which spans all your controversial opinions on various sex themes. Do you still receive the greatest criticism over the date rape issue?

Paglia: It's started to subside. That's certainly where I've taken the most abuse. But I think my side is starting to win. The publisher tells me that for college request material, that my date rape essay is the most requested. It's enormous for stimulating conversation!

Keehnen: As a social critic with an expansive historical perspective, is that stimulation the impact you would like to have?

Paglia: I'd like to liberate the kids of the '90s. It's not like I want them to follow me, but I want to give them permission to follow their instincts. I give students permission to love things. In academia five years ago, it was unfashionable to express enthusiasm. In the '60s we were very enthusiastic: "Oh wow!" "Far out!" The kids of the '70s and '80s had this very cool laid-back style--very bad in the Ivy League. They are bright kids, but they're afraid not to be cool. You cannot be creative if you aren't willing to make a fool of yourself. People said to me, "Oh, do you think they'll take you seriously if you do the column in Spy or act like that?" I say the minute you moderate your behavior, you lose. The rock stars didn't do this--it is the worst of yuppiedom.

Keehnen: Many of your essays fondly recall the '60s. What about that decade do you think needs to be transplanted into the '90s?

Paglia: I want to bring back the openness to emotion and the sensual. In the '60s we believed in free thought and free speech, but we also believed the body had to be liberated. The sexual revolution was actually the sensual revolution; it was more than the genitalia. The '60s mentality caused people to throw scarves over lamps to light a room red, or burn incense . . . there was an appeal to many senses. You would eat with your fingers. All that body awareness seems lost.

Keehnen: Where did that sensual appreciation go?

Paglia: It collapsed. The '60s failed because of its own excesses. We of the '60s are responsible for bequeathing the disasters of the '90s, not only AIDS but a lot of other stuff. Everything collapsed in the early '70s, almost like the '60s had a nervous breakdown. The worst of the '60s has survived with the PC agenda, but in the '60s you would never run to authority figures to tell a grievance or ask about the way that man behaved. This "Oh, authority figure, please help us" stuff is pathetic.

Keehnen: What's your interpretation of the culture's current appetite for lurid sensationalism with Tonya and Nancy, O. J., Amy Fisher, the Menendez Brothers?

Paglia: My interpretation is that the tabloids tell the pagan truth about nature, about sex, and about aggression. I love the tabloids and have ever since Confidential. The reality of sexuality is this sleazy thing. Our cultural leader, Judeo-Christianity, cannot deal with sex or aggression. It can explain neither one fully so, for me, paganism has been able to do that. My argument has always been that the twentieth century is the age of Hollywood. It rose and gave us those pagan answers, like the Renaissance and Romanticism had done previously. We needed both sides. We need the Judeo-Christian side to surmount it, and at the same time it can't explain all of reality or the way we really are. Therefore, the popular imagination is fascinated by all of this.

Keehnen: Is that elemental and pagan fascination the root of star quality?

Paglia: I believe star quality is always narcissistic and that the great stars have always been androgynous. That's why their sex lives were a mess--Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Madonna, Streisand, Callas. Major stars deal with so many people on a daily basis that there is no way they can be a nice person in everyday life. You have to be a monster . . . Judy Garland. These people are geniuses and monsters; they are fantastic egomaniacs. It's the pagan principle of me, me, me. That's why I hate the way young women are raised to get in groups and look to authority figures, whereas drag queens and many gay men know that you make your own stardom and you fight for your territory. It's war, and you have to have a killer instinct.

Keehnen: There's your warrior side again. Thanks, Camille.

Paglia: Thanks, Owen. It's been very entertaining.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Dworkin, Andrea

Foucault, Michel

Garland, Judy

Hemingway, Ernest

Lawrence, D. H.

Leibovitz, Annie

Millett, Kate

Sontag, Susan

Treut, Monika



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