Hostile Questions: Camille Paglia
Posted by: Daniel Kraus
I’m not the first to be hostile to Camille Paglia. As the author of Sexual Personae; Break, Blow, Burn; Sex, Art, and American Culture; and Vamps & Tramps, Paglia is something of an expert at ruffling feathers. (Speaking of feathers, she also wrote The Birds, a study of Alfred Hitchcock.) The worlds zigs; Paglia zags. The world says this here; Paglia says no, that there. She’s pretty much unafraid of anything or anyone . . . which is why I received that 3 a.m. phone call. I’m ready, captain. I’ve been training for this for years. Just a second while I finish hyperventilating and then we’ll proceed.
Just who do you think you are?
I’m a boisterous gal from the Snow Belt of upstate New York, where fighting your way through icy, wind-blown drifts was the norm. I was born in an enclave of Italian immigrants in the factory town of Endicott, where very few members of my grandparents’ generation spoke English. There was a very concrete, wham-bam sound to their rural Italian dialect that I’ve preserved in my own writing in English. And were those old ladies feisty! They could knock people down like bowling pins. Plus they were colossally opinionated on every subject—a trait I inherited and wear proudly. It’s why I have no problem in attacking the entire art world—as I do in my new book.
Where do you get off?
I have the soul of a warrior. It’s no coincidence that the name Camilla descends through my maternal family, who came from the Volscian region in Central Italy. In Vergil’s Aeneid, the fierce Amazon Camilla is a Volscian—a tribe who were historically the most implacable of Rome’s enemies. The high citadel of the village where my mother was born, Ceccano, rests on huge and still visible blocks of stone laid down by the Volscians in 600 B.C. The puny Mayflower be damned—this is my heritage!
What’s the big idea?
In Glittering Images, my sixth book, I trace the dazzling evolution of artistic styles in art from Egyptian tomb-paintings to George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith. People are way too visually overloaded these days with fragmented e-mail and Twitter and with dizzyingly flashing and lousily designed websites. This book, which I spent five years writing, is intended to focus and enhance readers’ power of perception as well as give them a concise overview of the thrilling drama of art history.
I hate post-structuralism and postmodernism and anything that stinks of pretentious jargon. I want people to use their instincts and intuition and respond naturally and freely to art again. I’m a 1960s baby-boomer who was heavily influenced by the Beat movement in college. I think writing in English should have force, rhythm, and directness. But parents have bankrupted themselves to send their kids to elite universities where they were poisoned with pointless ideological crap. Humanities departments in the U.S. have gradually shrunk in importance and prestige over the past three decades—it’s a self-induced cultural tragedy. With Glittering Images, I’m trying to persuade young art lovers to rebel and think for themselves.
Haven’t you done enough?
Unlike the clone professoriate of the elite schools, I can’t turn out books like sausages. I write books very, very slowly because I take them so seriously. I regard nonfiction as the primary literary form of our time and devote immense labor to basic matters of argumentation and style. My 700-page first book, Sexual Personae, which was published in 1990, was probably the last big book written without a computer. Everything was done in longhand and typed up later. I still always write serious work in longhand first. It’s as if I’m a wage-slave in my own factory!