Camille Paglia has come a long way since the late 1960s, when, as a fledgling firebrand, she went head to head -- if not fist to fist -- with the defenders of American academic feminism, whose ideas she considered puerile, prudish, and puritanical.
Inspired far more by Katharine Hepburn, Amelia Earhart, and Simone de Beauvoir than Gloria Steinem or Catharine McKinnon, Paglia developed a personal brand of cultural criticism in her books and essays, including Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), Vamps and Tramps (1994), and Glittering Images (2012).
At 69, the University of the Arts professor is now a grand dame of lipstick feminism, a movement she anticipated in an infamous 1990 piece in the New York Times about Madonna that declared the pop singer “the future of feminism.” The essay was slammed by academics, but it put Paglia on the map as a public intellectual and made her catnip to journalists and pundits looking for acerbic commentary on everything from philosophy to bondage. (See Paglia discuss the effect of the Madonna essay on her career in a video posted by the New York Times.)
The Madonna piece is included in Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, a collection of 35 short pieces published over the last 25 years in newspapers, magazines, and general interest journals. Paglia brings that book to a free event at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Library. She spoke to me recently in her famous rapid-fire delivery.
You are due to publish a collection of weightier -- dare I say more academic -- essays next year. So why this book?
We are [still] preparing for that book, but my editors at Knopf Doubleday thought that the material on sex and feminism is absolutely as fresh now as it was 20, 25 years ago and as prophetic … as the pieces about the decline of the universities and my warnings about political correctness. … So they asked me to cull out the most forward-looking ones and to write an introduction demonstrating the continued topicality and relevance of the material.
You once declared, “I want to save feminism from the feminists.” Two decades have passed. How fares that project now that you’re no longer considered Enemy No. 1?
The most important for me to keep stressing is that my feminism predated second-wave feminism [of the mid-1960s]. That’s why I was so out of synch with so many fellow feminists. I came to it earlier through my passion for Amelia Earhart. … Through her I discovered that great period of the 1920s and ’30s of very high-achieving women that followed the gain of women’s right to vote in 1920. I was getting, at the age of 14 and 15, a real bolt of energy from first-wave feminism.
Why should that have alienated you so much from the movement in the ’60s and ’70s?
There was a real inability by some feminists to accept alternate views. There was just an appalling closed-mindedness to it. ... Now, I’m an atheist, but I believe that, psychologically, people need religion. And some people who drift away from religion become committed to a political movement. They feel they have to become feminists, or progressives, or whatever it is. And the tenets of the movement will become their dogma. That’s why you cannot reason with anyone who is part of a movement, ultimately, because their identity becomes so intertwined with the dogma, with the doctrine.
You write that the ’60s are being remembered for all the wrong reasons.
To say the 1960s should be addressed only in terms of political movements is to say the ’60s are incompletely understood, that they are misunderstood. I lived it. I was there.
I know you were.
It wasn’t all about politics. It was about religion and spirituality, and it was about a cosmic vision, and all of that has dropped away, and we’ve been left with this endless sermonizing about politics. The 1960s vision was far more comprehensive. It wasn’t about bourgeois entitlements, and it wasn’t about careers. The hippies were dropping out of the system, they were going back to nature, and there was a whole … search of spiritual enlightenment. The boldest of my contemporaries … were the ones most interested in a cosmic perspective and in world religions and so on. And they were the ones who took LSD and … their minds turned to Jell-O, so the books that should have been written by them ... don’t exist.
You weren’t part of the drug scene?
I call my work psychedelic criticism, but I never took any psychedelics. Thank God I didn’t. … Today, instead of that cosmic point of view, there’s this perpetual state of anger and entitlement, and this sense that if things don’t go the way people want politically speaking, they have a nervous breakdown because they have no larger perspective about the cosmos.
You feel that your peers also have overpoliticized art and literary criticism. In a sense, you accuse them of trying to rub out beauty. Surely, you don’t deny there’s a sociopolitical dimension to artworks?
It’s absolutely important to situate the artwork in its historical context and to ask certain material and economic questions around its production. But that’s an incomplete way to understand art. ... You also need to appreciate the artistic and aesthetic values of art. What’s happened today is that the capability to respond to aesthetic issues in art has dropped away, and all that’s taught is how art is nothing but ideology. And that’s garbage. It’s just garbage. ... You actually hear from people today that every work of art has a secret ideological formula. Every work of art! That … every work is used by a power group to assert its own power. … The problem is that, once you accept that art is nothing but politics, then you start getting demands that the artwork must convey the currently approved social message. And that’s how we get political correctness.
So how do you define art?
Beyond the social context, there’s a spiritual dimension. The importance of the artwork is how its inner meaning ultimately makes it transcend its social context.
You’ve used all these words that I think would surprise some readers, such as “spirit” and “transcendence.” You want more talk of spirituality from your peers?
Look, I was calling for this 25 years ago. True multiculturalism and true multicultural education would be teaching the world religions and comparative religion to everyone. If people had listened to me back then, then you wouldn’t have all this confusion today about Islam. … I feel that the central legends and tenets, the ideas of all the great religions, should be taught everywhere in the world. That would be the No. 1 way to understand other cultures. Not political science.