Audience not impressing me. Goodbye

Let's get ready to rumble! Camille Paglia, the American lesbian, intellectual and agent provocateur, hit England this week, with her gloves off. The Cambridge don Andy Martin was with her and rolled with the punches.

She describes herself as "an Amazonian feminist". Someone else once described her as feminism's answer to Mike Tyson. She has a reputation as a combative, pugilistic bruiser. I say this is ridiculous: I was with her off and on for two days and in all that whole time she hit hardly anyone. In fact, to my knowledge Camille Paglia only really whacked one person during the entire period of her flying visit to England. And that was me.

Monday 9am

Start the Week, Radio 4. "If a man offends," threatens Paglia, "a woman has to deal with him on the spot in word and deed." Fear and trembling: Melvyn Bragg is duly respectful, Alan Sillitoe feebly claims that novels have nothing to say about feminism; visiting American military historian refuses to engage on this field of battle: "I occupy an enclave." Weak stuff - no wonder Paglia comes back with: "Whatever happened to men? We have produced an entire generation of whingeing, whining boys." Maybe Hemingway could have handled her. Or Bogart, or possibly Mailer.

10am Nicky Campell Show, Radio 5. Paglia affirms that she is a penis- loving lesbian and offers advice on the institution of the office party: "I believe that a party should be a dionysian orgy wherever possible. I want people to be free to make a pass." She hymns the male organ. Nicky Campell, taking this personally, brags about his own.

11 am "Gay and Lesbian London" interview. She hits out at lesbians who don't like men. "I'm only attracted to women who are attracted to men." She regrets that heterosexual pornography has been in such a rut and blames "the lack of penises". It's like hearing an atheist praise God.

12.30pm. Queen Elizabeth Hall. A Channel 4 film crew want her to do some riffs on the theme of the "new emotionalism' in England. They get more emotion than they bargained for. "I don't want to have to lose my temper," she says, losing it over a missing radio mike. "I have no time for this!" Paglia is cool and contemplative and non-abrasive on camera. "Can we do it again?" says the director. "This time more the way you attacked me." She erupts. "I am in charge of my image, no one else. I can go from low to high like Maria Callas, but I'm not going to do it." The producer tries to placate her, which enrages her. "That's it! I've had it - I've nothing more to say." Exit, pursued by producer.

7.30pm The Queen Elizabeth Hall. Radio 3's Sounding the Century lecture, "The Modern Battle of the Sexes". The Hall is packed out, 1,000 inside and more trying to get in. She puts a positive spin on history since the Enlightenment, which she sees as a story of the gradual equalisation of the rights of men and women. With only two major blips: (1) the puritanical second wave of feminism, characterised by "male-bashing": "the more men accept what feminists tell them they want, the less women want them"; (2) post-modernism, with its equivocation over gender and just about everything else.

She argues that men are weak and women are strong. Men fear women: "An erection is a kind of achievement: if you take this achievement and put it into a black box, you're bound to worry if it's going to come out again."

Question-time. "That was the lecture of all time," says the woman next to me, Fiona, who is wearing an "I love Camille Paglia" T-shirt. "It is impossible to contradict her. Other women think it is possible. The floor mikes go to three or four women, who launch a series of personal attacks on her, barely veiled in mazy, hazy questions, complaining of patriarchy (no men dare to speak). Paglia at first tries to answer ("I demand the freedom to risk rape"), then claims to be unable to hear, then experiments with abuse ("Madam, do you have any questions or are you just going to stand there and whinge?"), and finally explodes: "This audience does not impress me. There must be some intelligent people out there. No?! Goodbye." She storms off stage. Fiona is distraught: "What a lot of tits they are! Why don't they read her books?" She goes off to have hers autographed by Paglia. In the foyer a woman whips off her top and bares her breasts. It is some kind of protest but nobody is sure what she's protesting about.

11pm Post-lecture dinner. Beatrix Campbell, who has hosted the lecture, but can't take Paglia's brand of militant individualism, makes a bitter departure: "I thought your lecture was banal and conservative." Paglia blames Abigail Appleton, the BBC producer, for letting Campbell loose on her in the first place. Now they are both standing up and Paglia is shaping up to take a swing at her. I wrap my arm around Paglia's shoulder from behind in a would-be arm-lock, masquerading as a propitiatory embrace. It was a dumb move, asking for trouble. Versed in martial arts, she elbows me, throws off my grip, and starts raining blows. "Keep out of this, Andy!" But, having used me as her punchbag, she sits down at the table again. The storm has passed. I miss the last train home and a passing office party reveller throws up over me. As Paglia says in Sexual Personae: "the dionysian is no picnic."

Tuesday

1.30pm. Cambridge. As soon as she arrives in Trinity, Newsnight is on the phone, clamouring to film her lecture tonight, no doubt anticipating more fireworks. She turns them down flat (but they continue to pursue her relentlessly throughout the day). "I'm in Cambridge now, leave the media frenzy to London. I want to concentrate on art."

5pm. Lady Mitchell Hall. Packed again. Professor Paglia moves from the dionysian to the more apollonian mode for her lecture on "Art and Culture". With a bare minimum of notes, she improvises brilliantly on nothing less than everything, ranging over history from sphinxes to the Spice Girls, from Katherine Hepburn to Finnegan's Wake, art and science and urination. She is sweeping and incisive, scholarly and subjective, monumental and visionary. Plus she is probably the only visiting lecturer who has studied exotic dancing at close quarters for Penthouse magazine and has a potent command of body language. She would have made a great stand-up comedian. She's as quick with a punchline as she is with a punch.

6pm. Questions. Paglia has recruited me to act as "moderator", screening potentially hostile questions. But how am I supposed to know if a question is going to be hostile before it is asked? As it turns out, my only real problem is bringing it to a close. Cries go up of, "We want Camille." There are only two real antis: one woman accuses her of being "nostalgic" for learning. She pleads guilty. A man says she is "heartless". When one student inquires whether we need an epistemological revolution to revalidate the concept of knowledge and experience, she agrees but manages to bring in by way of confirmation a cooking programme with Jane Asher and advocates dumpling rolling for the young.

The audience loves her. The faculty love her for her reaffirmation of the virtues of erudition. The undergraduates love her for embracing television, rock music and and the internet.

The audience only leave her alone after I reveal that she can be contacted at www.salonmagazine.com, where she is an intellectual agony aunt offering "online advice for the culturally disgruntled". Having checked her recent stuff, she must be first columnist to write a piece about Iraq that manages to fulminate more against Michel Foucault than Saddam Hussein.

10pm. Post-lecture dinner. She takes out her blood-lust on a plateful of liver this time. She has been ostracised by the academic establishment form Berkeley to Harvard. But in Cambridge she is a knock-out.

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