Hopelessly devoted to men
VAMPS AND TRAMPS by Camille Paglia, Viking £17
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 26 March 1995
The chisel "symbolises for me the Italian love of labour and our genius for stonework and construction". The carving knife is "honed and dangerous as a scythe, souvenir of the kitchen, the centre of the domestic cult". And the clothesline reel? What else but an "instrument of the old sun- blessed rituals of purification"?
Reading this passage halfway through Paglia's new book of essays and fragments, my nascent impression of a mind becoming more and more detached from the real world hardened into certainty. Her exhortations and excoriations, mainly touching on her twin obsessions of sex (good) and contemporary feminism (bad), make sense only in terms of a symbolic order whose existence most of us acknowledge whilst also - thank God - intuiting its limitations. For instance, it isn't much comfort to a woman who is being raped to reflect that she is merely experiencing one of those inevitable upsurges of pagan, Dionysian sexual energy which the Apollonian forces of order, abetted by Judaeo-Christian theology, have sought and failed to repress.
This ghastly, vituperative volume does at least make clear the extent to which Paglia's controversial views are predicated on her ability to take refuge in metaphor - to visualise archetypal men and women, demi- gods and goddesses, locked in timeless, titanic conflict instead of grubby, imperfect people making a mess of their lives. It's a curiously sanitised vision, one which blanks out the nasty reality of coercive sex and substitutes for it a kind of dated, technicolour glamour.
In the book's keynote essay, Paglia visualises men and women as gladiators, circling and goading each other in some highly-charged sexual arena, and makes one of her characteristically combative pronouncements: "I say to women: get down in the dirt, in the realm of the senses. Fight for your territory ... Take your blows like men."
Almost immediately we have arrived at the central, self-destructing paradox at the heart of Paglia's work. On one hand she is goaded to fury by women who don't take her advice and behave like men. On the other, she cannot stand feminists who emphasise the similarities rather than the differences between men and women.
It's war, war, war and guess which side she's on? "I exalt the pagan personae of athlete and warrior, who belong to shame rather than guilt culture and whose ethic is candor, dis-cipline, vigilance and valour." "Because of my history of wavering gender and sexual orientation, I feel I have a special insight into these matters: I see with the eyes of the rapist."
Or this, from an impossibly pretentious film showing Paglia and Lauren Hutton in conversation: "So my motto for men is going to be this. Get it up! That's my thing. Get it up! And now my motto for women: Deal with it."
These admonitions are snappy and short, as Vamps & Tramps would be if it wasn't padded out with undistinguished book reviews, vicious attacks on rivals like Susan Sontag - "She is literally being passed by a younger rival, and she's not handling it, I'm afraid, very gracefully ... I am the Sontag of the 90s" - and a self-aggrandising "media chronicle" showing what a celebrity Paglia has become.
Why, though, does she want to be famous? She set out her stall, so to speak, in the first volume of Sexual Personae in 1990: since then, the greater part of her published work has consisted of repetition. Her views on date rape, feminism, homosexuality, Mad-onna, Andrea Dworkin, American universities, are tiresomely familiar, the only difference being that the decibel level of abuse rises with every project.
Vamps & Tramps exposes more completely than ever before the source of Paglia's rage. Despising other women, ranting at lesbians, prostrating herself before the phallus, Paglia is perpetually excluded from the only category she longs to inhabit: gay men. But her plight is worse than that. In her craving to pass as a homosexual man, she has absorbed the strain of virulent mis-ogyny which is rarely spoken about but undeniably present in gay culture. She is thus doubly unfortunate: not just excluded from her chosen group, but physically incarnating what some of its members most revile.
One of the most telling moments in Vamps & Tramps is Paglia's recollection of her attempt to enter a New York gay bar in drag - leather jacket borrowed from a male friend, hair slicked back. "But mannish as I am," she recalls, "I made a unconvincing male ... I had to accept the fact that, as a woman, I was persona non grata in the new gay garden of earthly delights." Suddenly the reason behind her obsession with myth, a realm whose seductive mutability is summed up in the title of Ovid's Metamorphoses, becomes startlingly apparent. Biologically denied the sexuality of a gay man, Paglia has settled instead for sex in the head - running round Manhattan porn shops with a drag queen and a camera crew, pulling sex magazines off the shelves and spouting admiration for the Marquis de Sade. When she spots a group of anti-porn protesters in the course of this outing, Paglia sticks out her tongue and brands them "feminist bitches".
None of this would matter were it not that self-publicists are often taken at face value and in Vamps & Tramps Paglia repeats her claim to be a feminist. It can hardly come as a surprise if some of us who genuinely like sex, men and ourselves are unwilling to share the designation with her.
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