COLUMN: Camille Paglia Serves Up Her Famous Wit (and a Few Tired Battles)

Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia

Pantheon, 352 pages

By Simone Grace Seol

When I was at Wellesley College, with its elite feminism, Foucault-spouting professors, and unintentionally comical "interfaith" events ("imagine yourself as a tree," we were asked in an event designed to welcome first years), it was Camille Paglia who first sowed the seeds of dissent for me. Sexual Personae, her magnum opus published in 1990, kept sending me back to the "dead white men" of the Western canon -- the Bible, Greek philosophy, Shakespeare, Blake and Baudelaire -- against the multiculturalist, secularist grain of coastal liberalism. Dueling with her polemics and studying to decipher her references, which range from Egyptian art to 70's rock, I was rewarded with an openness of mind, an interdisciplinary perspective, and the courage to think freely.

For her service to lay readers like me -- dissident feminists, religion sympathizers, reverers of an ousted canon -- the scholar and cultural critic Camille Paglia retains a cult fan base after all these years. If you have heard of her, you likely know of at least one outrageous thing she's said. She shatters progressive shibboleths with the casual frequency of Donald Trump's tweets, insisting that porn reveals the reality of sex, date rape is a fantasy, and that the same masculine drive enables both the genius of Mozart and the barbarism of Jack the Ripper.

Her thesis -- that all of Western civilization is the triumph of the anxious Apollonian will against the murky chaos of Dionysian nature -- has stayed constant. Since then, she has riffed and expanded on this theme like a jazz musician, bringing her wide-ranging erudition to comment on how to get women elected, fix universities, properly appreciate football and The Real Housewives. Free Women, Free Men is a collection of such essays on cultural criticism.

There isn't much in the book that would surprise her long-time readers, and there isn't much that will soften the legions of haters. Reading it, I am reminded that Paglia is misunderstood and dismissed so often in part because most writers nowadays aim at vastly less. In a world that no longer makes celebrities of intellectuals, she bracingly makes it a scholarly mission to be as blustery and unforgettable as possible.

The trend toward specialization in academia, or even medicine, is ever-worsening. There are few generalists left because the market does not reward them. Having rejected a Judeo-Christian underpinning, which has presented an assured narrative of man's place in history and metaphysical reality for two millennia, the modern scholar seeks refuge in the obscure and self-referential. He cannot be challenged if there are only two other people in the world who care what he has to say!

In contrast, Paglia brandishes nothing short of a master-theory of civilization, drawing a continuous line from prehistoric archaeology to Madonna. Her brushstrokes are both so broad and pigmented, reducing and distilling with a rarely-seen manic confidence, that reading her always feels like a sport. "Sex and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture," she asserts, arguing that feminism ignores the tyrannical truth of nature.

Accounting for the animating force behind male achievement, she says, “Mothers can be fatal to their sons. It is against the mother that men have erected their towering edifice of politics and sky-cult.” Doesn't this Freudian reading positively reek of quaintness nowadays? Where is the qualification, an anthropologist's footnote, for such a grandiose statement? It doesn't matter! One must read Paglia like a poet-oracle, a warrior-orator, for she seeks to incite, provoke and call to battle. She is, after all, a self-proclaimed Amazonian who has been firing at the same enemies for decades.

As ever, she is at her most enjoyable when we watch her make brilliant associations that help us see familiar things in a new way. For example, she sees ancient martial drama unfold in a game of American football: "Football's elaborate, expensive equipment is its Homeric armaments, and its jumble of combatants on the field resembles the chaotic clash of warriors described by the Iliad before the walls of Troy." She spots the Greek goddess Aphrodite when Elizabeth Taylor emerges from water in a white bathing suit in the poster image for Suddenly, Last Summer. The scantily clad, narrow-framed Christina Aguilera rings of Nabokov's Lolita. There is nothing too common or commercial to escape her historian's eye.

Paglia’s signature hectoring tone, in such a long book as this, gets weary, as it did in her earlier 712-page Sexual Personae. But the essays are worth toiling through, if only to catch her scathing slanders. Paglia's underappreciated comic talents truly shine in her insults. Her alliterative, pulsating put-downs, always in short-syllabled staccatos, are delicious to read, whether you sympathize with her victim or not. For instance, poststructuralism is the "stale teething biscuit of the nattering nerds of trendy academe." One imagines a fiendishly mean Walt Whitman in her slamming of anti-porn crusaders, her favorite targets: "[Catherine MacKinnon’s] hereditary north-country, anal-retentive style, stingy and nitpicking, was counterbalanced by [Andrea] Dworkin’s raging undifferentiated orality, her buckets of chicken soup spiked with spite."

All the same, I was disappointed by the whiffs of anachronism in the essays. Paglia is an exciting commentator on the second half of the 20th century -- the era of her own formation -- and the book remains woefully limited by it. One wants to turn back the clock, capture the still-curious Paglia, and plop her down in Silicon Valley, in refugee-torn Turkey and Europe, in Donald Trump's Washington D.C. I would have wanted her to aim her lens at Islam's great literature and art, whose contributions to her beloved European tradition remain largely missing in her body of writing. I would have wanted her to bring her genius for critical association into understanding humanity's relationship to the dazzling, sometimes unsettling advancements in digital technology.

Instead, in Free Women, Free Men, she is still going off on Madonna and fighting the tired battles against second-wave feminism. Surely, not all of her battles are won: today's college campuses and media environment are still -- even more acutely, some may argue -- suffering from threats to free speech and ideological diversity, and the torches must be passed onto the next generation to finish what she started. One hopes that it isn't too late for the 69-year-old scholar to suggest a blueprint to animate future-looking readers who do not see that these times signal the end of Rome --- not yet.