December 1, 1994
Camille Paglia first blazed across the American firmament in 1990 with Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson a dazzlingly erudite, fantastically ambitious reinterpretation of practically the whole of Western culture. Her master categories were “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” (the latter renamed “chthonian”) -— borrowed, of course, from Nietzsche, but applied with originality and brio. Rationality, individuation, form; art, science, law: these Apollonian pursuits perpetually seek to tame and order the seething, murky, formless welter of chthonian nature, both internal and external. Sexual Personae tracked this eternal dialectic from classical Egypt and Greece through Roman, Byzantine, medieval, Renaissance, and Romantic visual and verbal art, and into the Victorian age and the fin de siecle ending with Emily Dickinson, “Amherst’s Madame de Sade” (high praise, in Paglia’s vocabulary).
Her goal was a “general theory of culture.” Apollonian and Dionysian are “a cyclic pattern of expansion and retraction, of the shapeless and definitive. Everything implicit in the Iliad the first great Western book, returns in a historical wave in modern popular culture, which I view as an eruption of our buried paganism.” Paglia sought to rehabilitate paganism, the Greek (and Romantic) view of life as tragic and agonistic, as heroic self— assertion against the ultimately overpowering indifference or malice of nature. At 700 charged pages, Sexual Personae was an impossible book to digest fully, but rich -- sometimes overrich -- in suggestion.
Susan Sontag once remarked plaintively on “the speed at which a bulky essay in Partisan Review becomes a hot tip in Time.” And that was thirty years ago. Paglia was an even more instantaneous celebrity. By now virtually everyone in America has heard her -- most of us with at least initial disbelief -- discoursing at nearly infinite velocity about nearly everything. It’s fun (after the first shock, anyway), but it’s also misleading. Like George Bernard Shaw, domesticated as “GBS,” his society’s licensed jester, Paglia is a serious thinker who is too often and too easily dismissed as merely a clever provocateur.
Vamps and Tramps like her previous essay collection Sex, Art, and American Culture is applied Paglia. She’s not, of course, famous as a philosopher of culture but rather as a bravura polemicist and critic of feminism. Liberal feminism of the Ms./NOW variety seems to her bland and shallow, unmindful of the depths and contradictions of sex. Academic feminism is trivial, cliquish, careerist, and theory-addled. Radical feminism of the Dworkin/ MacKinnon stripe is pathological in the intensity of its fear and loathing. In her own, defiantly contrary view:
"Equality of opportunity, a crucial political ideal which all must support, should not be confused with sexual similitude, which remains a wishful fiction. ... Maleness at its hormonal extreme is an angry, ruthless density of self, motivated by a principle of “attack.” Femaleness at its hormonal extreme is first an acute sensitivity of response, and secondly a stability, composure, and self-containment, a slowness approaching the sultry. Biologically, the male is impelled toward restless movement; his moral danger is brutishness. Biologically, the female is impelled toward waiting, expectancy her moral danger is stasis. Androgen agitates, estrogen tranquillizes. ... Most of us inhabit not polar extremes but a constantly shifting great middle. However, a preponderance of gray does not disprove the existence of black and white. Sexual geography, our body image, alters our perception of the world. Man is contoured for invasion, while woman remains the hidden a cave of archaic darkness. No legislation or grievance committee can change these eternal facts."
Sound like one-hundred-sixty proof D.H. Lawrence? It is. Like Lawrence, Paglia is a fiery prophet, chastising her contemporaries’ mental and emotional sluggishness and preaching a new balance between reason and imagination, science and myth, community and individuality, security and risk.
Like Lawrence, she has been widely misunderstood, and it’s worth correcting a few misconceptions. She does not (nor did Lawrence) oppose political and economic equality for women. On the contrary: “the [proper] mission of feminism is to seek the full political and legal equality of women with men. There should be no impediments to women’s advance.” But we are much larger than our social selves. In the sexual and emotional spheres, disharmony, even violence, is inevitable.
Nor does she condone rape. Before anyone utters another foolish word on this subject, she or he should read “No Law in the Arena,” the major essay in Vamps and Tramps which will clear up this and other confusions.
Finally, she is not conceited. She’s just pulling your leg.
I do, however, have one large reservation about Paglia’s cultural philosophy. She is a notorious glutton for popular culture -- rock videos, daytime TV, Hollywood movies, you name it -- and celebrates, as a pagan revival, the expansion of our collective sensorium. Fine, in principle. But she may be a little too enthusiastic about the onrush of new media, new cultural forms, new modes of being. Most of the human race hasn’t mastered the old ones yet. The treasures of high culture are very unequally distributed. If we barrel ahead into the electronic millennium now, most of humankind will end up having skipped the stage of full print literacy. I suppose we’ll survive that somehow, but at a grave and unnecessary cost. Global political and economic equality ought to come first.