Camille Paglia - 'I don't get along with lesbians at all. They don't like me, and I don't like them'

The warrior feminist intellectual with a glorious history of spats with interviewers and rivals has mellowed. But not a lot

Christina Patterson
Saturday 25 August 2012 00:00
Camille Paglia
Camille Paglia

The last time I met Camille Paglia, she stormed off the stage. The questions from the audience, she said at the event I'd helped to organise, were too "unintelligent" to take up her time. A few months later, on live TV, she did it again. Jonathan Dimbleby, she told a newspaper afterwards, was "the worst-prepared popinjay of a reporter" she'd ever met.

When you're preparing for an interview, these aren't the kind of stories that cheer you up. It's one thing to laugh at footage of Susan Sontag telling a TV interviewer that she has "never heard of" Camille Paglia, and at footage of Paglia saying in response that Sontag is "boring," "solipsistic" and "dull". It's one thing to giggle over the "fax war" between Paglia and Julie Burchill, where Paglia tells Burchill that she's in "a bit of a decline" and Burchill tells Paglia that she's a "crazy old dyke". It's one thing, even, to feel a tiny stab of pleasure when you read Paglia telling Naomi Wolf that she has "marginalised" herself as a "chronicler of teenage angst". But it's quite another to walk into a very smart suite in a very smart hotel and wonder what state you'll be in when you come out.

The Paglia I met, in 1997, and saw on TV, looked as fierce as it turned out she was. The hair was short. The suit was sharp. The eyebrows arched over eyes that blazed. The red lipstick on the Cupid's bow of a mouth was a reminder, if you needed it, of danger. And the cheekbones, on a face that seemed to be fixed in a sneer, were almost as sharp as the tongue.

The Paglia I meet today, in a hotel in Mayfair, doesn't look fierce at all. The hair is longer, and looser. The face is softer, and more lined. There's no lipstick. There's no sharp suit. There's no sign, in fact, of the woman who always seemed to be dressed, and coiffed, and primed, for a fight. This woman, who shakes my hand and orders a beer, looks like what, in many ways, she is: a 65-year old scholar who spends more time in libraries than out in the big, wide world.

But she still moves in the way you might move if you were trying to avoid a bullet. And she still speaks as if she had a machine-gun in her mouth. She speaks so fast that it's very, very, very hard to lob a question, or even a word, into the gap. So does she, I ask, thinking that the best thing to do with a fear is sometimes to name it, like being interviewed?

"Yes," she says, "I enjoy it. Except," she adds, "when there are hostile interviewers". Except when there are "hostile interviewers"? Surely those are the interviews that a woman who has described herself as a warrior should like? "The most hostile ones," she says, not quite answering the question, "were in London. I remember throwing someone out of my hotel room, a prominent feminist journalist who was reading to me something she claimed I had said. I became absolutely enraged, and said "get out!"." Paglia gives a throaty laugh. I look down at the seven pages of quotes I've planned to quiz her about, and smile weakly back.

"But the feminist culture-wars were at their height at that time," she says. "A lot of that's completely gone now. Some of the principal antagonists are dead, like Andrea Dworkin. Basically, what happened is that my side won that war. The younger women of the Nineties rose up and embraced this. I," she says, with a sudden spurt of generosity, "credit Madonna. For decades, feminism had rejected Hollywood, sex symbols and fashion magazines and so on. Younger women have no problem in reconciling beauty with ambitions as a professional woman."

This, I'm relieved to say, since I don't want to be "hostile", is true. The feminism that Paglia represented, and which caused such rows with Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millet, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, has won. Nobody now thinks a woman has to wear dungarees and flash armpits that make her look like a gorilla. Quite a few people seem to think women should have no body hair at all. And quite a few seem to think they should have nice plastic breasts to go with their very high heels.

"The plastic surgery issue is really looming," says Paglia when I raise it, "because girls in the US are getting it in their teens". She won't say they shouldn't, but then I didn't think she would. Paglia has been described as a "radical libertarian". She thinks people should be free, in the private realm, to do what they like. They should be free to take drugs if they want to, and enjoy porn if they want to. And they should certainly be free to change the way they look. "I believe," she says, "that everybody has the right to view his or her own body as a palette. However, I think intellectuals should at least try to be role models. I'm going to really try to avoid it unless I get to the point where I'm actually scaring the horses."

Scaring the horses? The woman Susan Sontag said made Norman Mailer look like Jane Austen is worried about scaring the horses? So how much, I ask, does she care about how she looks?

"Well," says Paglia, looking a bit surprised, "I just want to look passable."

But "passable" surely isn't the point. It might be for me, or for any number of us, but for the woman who wrote Sexual Personae, and Sex, Art and American Culture, and Vamps and Tramps, the woman, in fact, whose entire body of work suggests that history, culture and the whole of "civilisation" is based around the sexual allure of women, "passable" can never be the point. She is, after all, in London to talk about Hitchcock's "dazzling" women", and the "agonised complexity" of the response they provoke. So what, I ask, about her looks in relation to the sexual marketplace?

"I feel," says Paglia, with a laugh that sounds just a little bit nervous, "completely outside the arena". She was, she reminds me, with the artist Alison Maddex for 14 years. They had a child (Maddex's child) and they're now "harmonious co-parents" who live two miles apart. "My romantic life," she says "is non-existent. Except," she adds, in the way that maybe only she could add, "that, for the past four years, I've had a kind of cult for a Brazilian superstar." The "superstar" is the singer Daniela Mercury. Paglia went to Brazil to give a lecture and fell in love with the music, and the star. Mercury is happily married, and the relationship is platonic. And, says Paglia, "voyeuristic". Fans post phone footage of their idol on the web, so she can, she says, "follow exactly what she's doing every day".

Before Paglia met Maddex, and before she started stalking Brazilian superstars, she used to get regular applications for the post of her girlfriend. Maddex applied and got it. Is she still getting applications? For a moment, she is actually tongue-tied. "I, er, there's absolutely no one I can remotely imagine being interested in me." What? The woman who has said she sees herself as the heir to Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker can't imagine anyone being "interested" in her? "My problem," she says, "is that I do not get along with lesbians at all. They don't like me, and I don't like them."

Well, you can see that that would be a problem. But then Paglia always knew she was "odd". The eldest child of Italian immigrants in upstate New York, she was "five or something" when she saw Ava Gardner in a film, and was "knocked out." As a graduate student at Yale, she was the only person who was openly gay. "I had no sex life," she says, "but I was writing a dissertation on sex." The dissertation turned into Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a 700-page study of Western culture which argued that "civilisation" was all about sex. It was rejected by seven publishers, but when it was finally published, when Paglia was 43, and teaching in the art faculty of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, it made her an international star.

It's beginning to sound, I say, as if most of the sex in her life has been in her books. Has it? "Yes." And does she wish she'd had more? "Yes, I do." But surely, I say, suddenly feeling protective, it isn't too late? "Well," she says, "I was always cautious. I was also cautious about drugs and I'm glad I was, because my generation destroyed itself on psychedelic drugs. If my work looks odd, or sui generis, it's because people whose work should have been a context for my work lost the capacity to write."

It's an interesting idea, but I don't, I say, think her work looks odd. What it looks like is the product of a massive amount of work. If you only knew about the magazine pieces on Madonna, or Princess Diana, or date rape, you might just think that this was a maverick wanting to set the world, or at least its media, on fire.

But when you read the books, which are all, apart from the one that's coming out in October, big and fat and packed with references to art, and culture, and philosophy, and religion, and written in prose that makes it all seem urgent, you can't just dismiss her as a maverick. When I read them (or bits of them, because you'd need a sabbatical to read every word) the thing that shocked me most wasn't how shocking her views were. The thing that shocked me most was how many of her views seemed to me like common sense.

I agree with Camille Paglia that many feminists have underestimated the power of hormones in human behaviour and the creative power of sexual desire. I agree with her that many feminists have a Rousseau-ian view of human nature where they expect to be able to dress as they like, and go where they like, and drink as they like, and never come to harm. I agree that women who stay in abusive relationships are complicit in the violence. I even agree with her about the link between male obsession and achievement. I think it's quite possible that there is "no woman Mozart because there is no woman Jack the Ripper". And I absolutely agree about the damage postmodernism and its boring theories have done to culture and art.

"In the 21st century," she says in her brilliant new book, Glittering Images, "we are looking for meaning, not subverting it. The art world, mesmerised by the heroic annals of the old avant-garde, is living in the past." We are living, she says, "in the age of vertigo". We must, she says, "relearn how to see". And so, as you might expect, she shows us how. In a survey of artworks from ancient Egypt to contemporary America, she argues for the need to bring history and scholarship back into the teaching of art. "What I'm trying to show," she tells me, "is how it's possible to combine everything in one form of approach, to literature and art."

She did something similar seven years ago, in Break, Blow, Burn. A close reading of 43 of "the world's best poems", the book was described by The New York Times Book Review as "exemplary". Paglia, it said, "flies as high as you can go". The book wasn't published here, she tells me, because it went "against the grain" in England. " I completely rejected the pantheon," she says. "People like John Ashbery, who I think are philosophical phoneys. Turgid nonsense!"

Ashbery's a bit too turgid for me too, but you can't miss the relish in her words. Does she enjoy criticising people? Paglia shrugs. "Well," she says, "I guess I'm just a natural warrior." She seems, I say, to spend a lot of her intellectual energy attacking academe, but surely culture is largely shaped by other things. Like, for example, the media. What does she think will happen when this "vertigo" digital culture kills professional journalism?

"Students," she says, though this doesn't really answer my question, "are very gullible about the web. The only way you can really sort out information on the web is if you've had a prior training in book culture. People who are very grand professors," she adds, because she can't seem to resist bringing uppity peers into everything, "don't go to the library. That," she says, "is why their work is getting worse and mine is getting better." Oh good! Finally, a proper flash of proper ego. A Brit, I tell her, would have trouble telling someone that their work was "getting better". Paglia laughs, but it sounds like quite a nervous laugh. She has also, I remind her, said that she's "one of the smartest people in the world". Paglia laughs, a little bit nervously, again. "I don't think," she says, "that's what I said. I probably made some boastful statement, but not like that." Well, is she? Is she, I say, just to make it clear, one of the smartest people in the world? "Well," she says, "in the humanities I am."

And why, I ask, because I can't resist it, did she want the attention so much? When I see the expression on her face, I wish I hadn't. "My first book, Sexual Personae," she says, as if she was explaining something very complicated to one of her less bright students, "was rejected by seven publishers and five agents. My dissertation was the only dissertation on sex at the time, because I was, like, way ahead. So you'd think that the women studies programmes that were invented in the Seventies would be hospitable to me, but they weren't."

So she was angry about that? "Yes, my sense of grievance came when I was excluded. First, I couldn't get a job. I was a gay feminist, and I was lucky to get a job at Bennington College, when everyone else was employed." Well, OK, I say, but then Sexual Personae came out and then she became famous, but she carried on trying to seek fame. "No," she says, and now she sounds quite cross, "this is just not right. My publisher sent me on book tours, and I was on TV, but that's all it was." It was, she says, when New York magazine put her on the cover, and when Newsday asked her to write a column about date rape, that everything went "crazy". "What I'm trying to say," she says, and she sounds as though she really wants me to understand, "is that this fame was accidental. The reason I was angry all the time was that Gloria Steinem and all those people, without reading my work, were saying all these horrible things against me. Woah!" she says. "I'm Italian, OK. So I went on the warpath."

"There was," she says, "a moment at Brown university and I was giving my talk and these people were hissing and I went on the stage…" and Camille Paglia stops just waving her arms and actually leaps out of her chair. "And I went," she says, as she looms over me and stretches out her arm like a Messiah trying to calm the crowds,

" 'Where are the forces silencing free speech? There they are! There they are!' That," she says with another throaty laugh, "was from the movies. That was from Cleopatra!"

Camille Paglia has been in love with the movies all her life. She has always loved Hitchcock. She loves, she says, in an essay commissioned by the BFI for this summer's Hitchcock season, "their sparkling lucid surface and their secret sorcery". She thinks of him, she tells me, as "a true visual artist". The more you see his films, she says, the more you see in them and that, she says, is "the test of great art". But she doesn't just love his films. She identifies with him, too. "He remembers sitting in a corner as a boy just watching, watching, watching, and that," she says, "is my experience".

I think this is probably true. Camille Paglia may have tried to make herself the star in her own film, for a few short years in the Nineties, but I think she found being a star was a role she didn't quite fit. When she talks about things that have happened in her life, she sounds like someone who's preparing for, or recovering from, a fight. When she talks about art and culture – when she talks, for example, about the essay on David Bowie she has written for an exhibition of his costumes at the V&A in London next year, or about work she's planning on Native American art – she sounds like someone in the first flush of love. She sounds like someone who wouldn't have space in her life for more love than she's got.

"I am," she says, "a very reclusive, private person. Nothing about my life has ever changed except, after Sexual Personae, I could finally get out of the two-room attic apartment I was in and buy a small house. I don't go to New York. I don't go to parties. I just do my business and study nature. My career is 28 years in an obscure art school, with limited staff and no perks. All I am," she says, "is a teacher".

A teacher? Sure, she's a teacher. She is, I'm sure, a damn good teacher. But that thing she said about being one of the "best in humanities"? I think she's right.

'The Genius of Hitchcock' season is at BFI Southbank until 19 October ( 'Glittering Images' will be published by Pantheon in October

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