Pagan deities in drag

VAMPS & TRAMPS Camille Paglia Viking £17

Camille's back. She thinks that feminists can learn a thing or two from drag queens and prostitutes ("the ultimate liberated woman") - the vamp female and the tramp female. As we'd expect from Paglia, she finds a number of ancient and archaic precedents - from temple prostitutes to the emasculated priests of Attis dressed in women's garb. Yet she also admires the streetwalkers in her home town of Philadelphia (they are "goddesses"), and spends quality time with the New York drag queen Glennda Orgasm. Paglia doesn't, as earlier feminists did, think of drag queens as a grotesque parody and mockery of the female self. She thinks them guardians of a sacred flame with the same bitchy but vulnerable quality of those camped up actresses, like Elizabeth Taylor, whom Paglia so envies and admires. Drag queens have preserved the idea of women as "dominatrix of the universe"; Paglia goes so far as to claim that she has "learnt how to be a woman" from these men masquerading as film stars.

Paglia's enemies are still the puritans, the "unholy alliance" of the politically correct with the far right. She especially loathes the "tenured radicals" of the campus, who, bereft of real power, police language instead. She saves most of her bile for the anti-pornographers. "I'm an extreme advocate of the most lurid forms of pornography," she enthuses in the essay No Law in the Arena - by far her most substantial work since Sexual Personae, and one which might well prove a new rallying cry for sexual dissidents of all kinds. For she is a sexual dissident first, and a feminist second.

Those who censor, generalise. There is no art in the generalisation, and this is at the heart of Paglia's profound antipathy to it. "Go and read some books," she yells at a group of hard line lesbians protesting against pornography on the streets of New York. "Anti-art! Anti-sex! Anti- everything!" she thunders in a scene of sublime human comedy, casting herself in the role of an Amazonian warrior queen.

Paglia's talent for the "controversial" soundbite is her Achilles' heel, since she is doomed to have them endlessly removed from their context and quoted. Thus a series of apparent generalisations issue from her lips: "Homosexuality is necessary to heal the fissures of the western psyche", "there should be no censorship of any kind", "boy-love is universal", "Aids is a gay disease". Quoted like this, it's comparatively easy to make Paglia sound dangerously mad; in fact, she's a very specific and orderly theorist who just doesn't happen to fit in. She's damaged by the "free radical" quotes floating round; context is all, the basis of all her arguments. It's where aesthetics has an influence on morality.

She's part-anarchist, part-feminist, part-lesbian; she's a street brawler capable of melting and sophisticated tenderness towards her friends; she's a sexual propagandist who by her own admission is not successful at getting partners; she exalts gay men (who, she believes, have an artistic rather than a gay gene - how old fashioned!) but chides them for rejecting the feminine principle; she loves Madonna and Kenneth Clark; she reaches back into pagan times for contact with nature deities, yet suggests that a rejection of the breeding imperative is a healthy thing - the origin of art, even.

It's easy to dislike Paglia for the wrong reasons - that she's loud, abrasive and recklessly self-aggrandising. The British are always uneasy with people who reject irony as a useful tool. I find her pleasure in her own achievements refreshing; she's like a boxer before a fight, making vaunting claims for herself. Andrea Dworkin and Susan Sontag are verbally dispatched before the blows even arrive.

Her worst piece of writing (that Princess Diana is a "corn goddess" - puurleese!) for Channel Four has shrewdly been omitted here; instead, we have a more ambivalent appraisal of Andrew Morton's book (a photo of the very young Diana looks like "a boy prostitute"). Vamps & Tramps is filled with channel hopping ephemera - from Alice in Wonderland to Hilary Clinton to Sandra Bernhardt. But there are some brilliant, hard-working essays in the book too. Her tribute to the four gay men who shaped her thinking shows a new side to her and No Law in the Arena is little short of a marvel, a clarion call for the gods to return to an earth whose soil should be dark with freedom. Paglia is an icon of the sexually disenfranchised and a champion of the underdog. She is, quite simply, Wonder Woman, whose magical lassoo paralyses her enemies.

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