BOOK REVIEW / Madonna of academe: 'Sex, Art and American Culture' - Camille Paglia: Viking, 18.99

Joan Smith
Sunday 10 January 1993 01:02

Professor of Humanities and author of Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia was born under the sign of Aries. 'I mean, I'm an astrologer,' she says in a speech (reprinted in this new collection of her work) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'I endorse astrology.'

For 20 years, she tells her audience, she was a voice crying in the wilderness. She was 'completely poor', forced to teach outside academic institutions: 'I'm probably the only major voice right now in academe who's actually taught factory workers.' Fortunately, justice has at last been done, thanks to the benevolent planets: 'It's not me that's changed. The culture is changing . . . It's a 20-year astrological cycle that's happening.' Paglia enlarges on this notion later in her speech, explaining: 'I honestly believe in big cultural weather patterns . . . It could have been Mars, or whatever, went into Aquarius]'

Elsewhere in the book, she reveals her partiality for other 'cyclic theories of reality', Hinduism and 'the ever-turning Wheel of Fortune'. She prints lengthy lecture notes from a humanities course taught in Philadelphia by herself and Lily Yeh, Professor of Painting and Art History. A sample extract reads: 'Yeh says we lack rituals of initiation in our culture. Paglia reads list of specialised how-to classes on sado-masochism being offered in San Francisco and compares them to yogic self-lacerations'.

Paglia catapulted to prominence with the publication of Sexual Personae, which tarted up the age-old theory of a war between the sexes with a lot of fancy language about the conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian forces. The surprising thing is not so much that she claims to be a feminist - a fluctuating and incomplete sense of personal identity is the hallmark of these pages - but that it has been taken seriously by others.

Setting herself up as a scourge of sloppy thinking by feminists and academics, Paglia is inconsistent and careless on a grand scale. She lambasts a writer for including an interview with himself in his own book, then prints here not just her conversations with journalists but an appendix listing more than 100 articles about herself in the international media.

Her bizarre view of history is revealed in the cancelled preface to Sexual Personae, printed here for the first time after her editors at Yale University Press wisely decided to drop it. She glimpsed 'the first phase of feminism', she writes, in 'late-night movies from the Thirties and Forties' featuring movie stars like Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. Most commentators, including Paglia herself elsewhere in this preposterous book, date the birth of modern feminism to the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman; most of them, unlike Paglia, know that it was completed and published in 1792, not 1790. But this is to miss the point of Paglia's technique, in which facts and theory are as mutable as the hair colour of her current idol, Madonna. At one point she claims that she is trying to reform feminism 'in a way that allows the sexes to come together instead of being alienated from each other'. A few pages earlier these same sexes are taken to task for excessive intimacy, for the fact that, 'freely mingling, (they) know each other too well'.

One of the most repellent features of Paglia's book is her hysterical abuse of anyone she perceives as a competitor. 'Every year,' she claims, lashing out at Susan Sontag, Carolyn Heilbrun, Marjorie Garber and Germaine Greer, 'feminists provide more and more evidence for the old charge that women can neither think nor write.' Perhaps this is because, according to Paglia, they are simply too enervated: 'From puberty to menopause, women are hormonally mired in the liquid realm . . . my symbol for unregenerate nature. Pregnant or premenstrual, the female body is slowed or even immobilised by oedemic engorgement, a Dionysian dowry. Women with water signs prominent in their astrological charts know what I'm talking about.' Serial killers and sex offenders, by contrast, 'demonstrate the greater conceptualism of men, who have a monopoly on fetishism and perversion'.

Where, then, does Paglia herself fit into her theory of passive, biologically-conditioned females? There is always an exception that proves the rule - the role occupied by female saints in the Roman Catholic church, the faith in which she was raised - and Paglia's shock tactics have already earned her admiring coverage in glossy magazines like Vanity Fair.

But there is room for only a handful of iconic women in this extremely competitive cosmography, and Paglia is eager to protect her own star billing. The scope of her ambition can be gauged by two claims in this book: first that the two volumes of Sexual Personae 'may be the longest book yet written by a woman, exceeding in this respect even George Eliot's hefty Middlemarch'; second that 'before feminism, Paglia was]'. Paglia is truly the Madonna of academe, strutting her stuff for photographers with whips and chains, recklessly exposing the straw woman

under the surface glitter.

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