Rich conversations of the silent type

Jo Pires-O’Brien

Review of the book Provocations by Camille Paglia. Pantheon Books, © 2018, 712pp

I still recollect the first time I ran across the name of Camille Paglia, the Italian-American woman of letters.  It happened in Brazil in 1992, when a one-page article by her, probably one of her syndicated columns, was published in a Brazilian weekly magazine, inside a larger article covering the troubles on the celebrations in Brazil of the 500 anniversary of Columbus epic voyage of discovery due to opposing activism. Paglia was the only public intellectual who dared to criticize the twin activism in the United States, which explains why her article was used in Brazil. After that, I began to pay attention to her name wherever it would appear in the media, and soon discovered that Paglia was a household name in the Anglophone world, and more recently, that she has many admirers in Brazil.

Paglia has been at the centre of the culture wars at the American colleges and universities, on the side that stands for tolerance to ideas and authentic scholarly principles. Her new book Provocations (2018) starts by listing the contraindications and indications, determined by people’s ways of thinking, before getting to the point of what the book is about. The collection of essays and short interviews in Provocations covers two and a half decades since her last essay collection was published in her 1994 book Vamps & Tramps. However, Provocations also includes essays on her previous books and interviews. According to Paglia, since her student days she wanted to develop an ‘interpretative’ style of writing that could integrate high and popular culture, which is how she describes her style in Provocations. Although she doesn’t say there that the biology of human nature is a crucial component of the interpretative’ style, this is implicit in many of her essays.

The essays and interviews in Provocations are organized into eight categories: popular culture; film; sex, gender, women; literature; art; education; politics; and religion. The eight categories required to organise these essays are revealing of Paglia’s encyclopaedic knowledge. However, her way of thinking is best revealed by the threads of ideas she interweaves in each category. They are things like art, historical timeline, Shakespeare, post-structuralism and postmodernism, nature, biology and freedom of expression.

The essays on ‘popular culture’ include such topics as Hollywood, song lyrics, Rihanna, Prince, David Bowie and his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, punk rock, favourites popular songs, Gianni Versace and the Italians’ way of seeing death.  The essays on the category ‘film’ talk about Alfred Hitchcock and his female characters, ‘the waning of European Art film’, ‘the decline of film criticism’, ‘movie music,’ and ‘Homer on film.’ The essays on the category ‘sex, gender, and women’ starts with the essay ‘Sex Quest in Tom of Finland’, the story of a Finnish homoerotic artist (actual name Touko Laaksonen) which was turned into a movie. The essays on the category ‘literature’ start with one telling off publishers for sending out unsolicited manuscripts accompanied by a request of a ‘blurb,’ a short description of a book written for promotional purposes; the remaining are properly framed on literature. These include essays on play writers such as Shakespeare, Tennessee Wiliams, Norman Mailler, and about why it took her five years to select the world’s best poems of all times for her book Break, Blow, Burn. The essays on the category ‘art’ covers Andy Warhol, the Mona Lisa, and the power of images. The essays on category ‘education’ covers a variety of themes associated with the aforementioned culture wars at the American colleges and universities, inclusive the intrusive federal regulations aimed at enforcing politically correctness on campus activities. The category of ‘politics’ starts with an interview for Salon magazine about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and then go on to analyse political figures such as Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. The last category is ‘religion’, and it includes essays on the Bible, ‘that old-time religion’, the cults and cosmic consciousness in the sixties in America, ‘religion and the arts in America’, and one essay on why religion should be part of the curriculum of higher education.

One essay I found especially intriguing was that on the Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand’ (1905-1982), whose objective was to clarify similarities and differences between Rand and herself, after some of her readers pointed out that they had noticed parallels between Hand’s writing and her own. When Paglia finally decided to read Rand she was astonished in finding similar passages to those in her own books. However, she also stresses the main differences between herself and Rand. Paglia describes Rand as an intellectual of daunting high seriousness she describes her style as playful, emphasizing her belief that comedy is a sign of a balanced perspective on life. There is a paradox in this assertion in the fact that Paglia excludes herself from the category of ‘serious thinkers’ and yet displays a kind of self-knowledge that is typical of serious thinkers.

The essay ‘Women and Law’ caught my attention due to her description of the statue of Justice placed in front of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court. Like most Brazilians, I know what the statue of Justice looks-like. It is a seated woman holding a sword with her eyes blindfolded, signifying the impartiality of the law. However, I did not know that it was the work of the Italian-Brazilian sculptor Alfredo Ceschiati (1918-1989), using a ‘rugged block of creamy granite from Petropolis,’ and neither the historical lineage of the ‘allegorical personification of justice’ that this statue represented. She explains: “Ceschiati has strangely flattened the head of Justice, as if he is alluding to the bust of Nefertiti, with her conceptually swollen wig-crown, or to the Meso-American Chack Mool, who oversaw with alert eyes the ritual of blood sacrifice, guaranteeing the rise of the sun”. Really? I always thought that the flat head of the statue of Justice in Brasília was due to the sculptor’s decision to make his sculpture as tall as his block of granite would allow. However, Paglia was simply allowing her imagination to wander, for she soon returns to the known facts, when she clarifies that the iconic blindfolded goddess of Justice, “was not an ancient motif, but appeared first in the Northern European Renaissance”. Following that, she takes a side step to raise the question whether gender, or any other basic descriptor of a group of people, should be visible or invisible to the law. Women made gains in the law only in piecemeal way, in a long saga that started in Sumeria, under the Code of Hammurabi, passing through Egypt, Judaea, Athens, Rome, Christianized Europe, China and Japan. The contemporary call for special concessions to women would require making them visible, and that this would trample the idea of the impartiality of the law.

The essay ‘Erich Newmann: Theorist of the Great Mother’ reveals where Paglia gained her perspectives art, women, religion, and higher education. Newmann (1905-1961) was a member of the Weimar culture and a product of what Paglia considers “the final phase of the great period of German classical philology, which was animated by an ideal of profound erudition”. Newmann obtained his PhD in philosophy at the University of Erlangen in Nuremberg, and after that he began to study medicine at the University of Berlin, although the discrimination to Jews introduced by the Nazis prevented him from doing the internship necessary to obtain the medical degree. Nevertheless, he carried on his research, which took a new turn after he met Carl Jung (1875-1961), known for his work of archetypes.  Under Jung, Newmann created the archetype of the Great Mother, “a dangerously dual figure, both benevolent and terrifying, like the Hindu goddess Kali”.  It is also from Newmann that Paglia learned to appreciate things like alchemy and the I Ching. On page 439 of this essay she writes that “Authentic cultural criticism requires saturation in scholarship as well as a power of sympathetic imagination”. Paglia’s fondness of Neumann is due to two things: the quality of his scholarship and the fact that it represented last authentic period of learnedness in higher education, before everything was spoilt by post-structuralism.

It was in the category ‘education’ where I found the essays I liked best. Paglia’s essays on education cover the various problems of colleges and universities which triggered the culture wars of the 1980s, from their traditional mission to protect the free flow of ideas to the circumstances that drove them to be swamped by intrusive federal regulations campus aimed to enforce politically correct policies. In the essay ‘Free speech and the modern campus’, Paglia remembers her old-guard professors at Yale Graduate School, in the late 1960s, as the last true scholars. Here is how she describes how it was then and how it is now:

They believed they had a moral obligation to seek the truth and to express it as accurately as they could. I remember it being said at that time that a scholar’s career could be ruined by fudging a footnote. A tragic result of the era of identity politics in the humanities has been the collapse of rigorous scholarly standards, as well as an end to the high value once accorded to erudition, which no longer exists as a desirable or even possible attribute in job searches for new faculty.

In this same essay Paglia states that it was during the five years she researched her book Glittering Images: A journey through art from Egypt to Star Wars (2012) when she noticed the sharp decline in quality of scholarship in the humanities. She conducted a small experiment to detect when this decline started. That experiment involved selecting 29 images from a period extending offer 3,000 years, starting in ancient Egypt and ending in the present, and compiling the scholarly literature on each image. She found that the big drop off in quality happened precisely in the 1980s, which is when post-structuralism and post-modernism encroached into the colleges and universities.

What caused the scholarship of the humanities to slacken according to Paglia was political correctness, for it stunted the sense of the past and reduced history to a litany of inflammatory grievances. She also points out that this problem became worse when colleges and universities decided to embrace the wrong type of multiculturalism, which started to blame all g social inequalities on Western colonialism. Most conservative thinkers now dislike multiculturalism altogether, but Paglia believes in a right type of multiculturalism that incorporates Western civilization alongside the others. She favours a reform in higher education to prompt the return of authentic scholarly principles. To her, the introduction of popular culture in universities should not occur at the expense of the past. Colleges and universities must have an atmosphere of tolerance, and for that to happen, the spectrum of permissible ideological opinion must be broadened, rather than narrowed. The best way that colleges and universities can fully become a place for learning is by allowing free speech and the free flow of ideas; their departments should not become fiefdoms; no group should have a monopoly on truth; and students should be encouraged to be resilient and to accept personal responsibility.

The last category of essays is religion. Paglia admits being both an atheist and having a ‘1960’s mystical bent’ that fuels her interest in astrology, palmistry, ESP, and the I Ching.  Her essay ‘Cults and cosmic consciousness’ is the longest of this book, with 48 pages. In it, she talks about ancient and modern cults and traces the rise to the New Age movement during the 1980s and 1990s to the spiritual yearnings of her generation. In the essay ‘Resolved: Religion belongs in the curriculum’, the penultimate in this book, she argues the importance of the understanding of religions to the understanding of civilization. She believes that “every student should graduate with a basic familiarity with the history, sacred texts, codes, rituals, and shrines of the major world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaeo-Christianity, and Islam”. She recalls the religious overtone of her 1991 book Sexual Personae. Here is Paglia’s justification for this:

Judeo-Christianity never did defeat paganism, which went underground during the Middle Ages and erupted in three key moments: the Renaissance, Romanticism, and modern popular culture, as signalled by the pantheon of charismatic stars invented by studio-era Hollywood and classic rock music.

If universities had to choose between the teaching of religion and the teaching of the cult of Foucault – Postmodernism, they would be much better off with religion. Here is how she completes her argument:

Veneration of Jehovah brings vast historical sweep and a great literary work – The Bible – with it. Veneration of Foucault (who never admitted how much he borrowed from others – from Emile Durkheim to Erwin Goffman) traps the mind in simplistic, cynical formulas about social reality, applicable only to the past two and a half centuries of the post-Enlightenment. The highest level of intellect, conceptual analysis, and rigorous argumentation in the collected body of ancient Talmudic disputation and medieval Christian theology far exceeds anything in the slick, game-playing Foucault.

Postmodernism, including the poststructuralism which was rooted in the field of literary criticism, is one of the various threads of thought that weaves in and out of the eight categories of this book. Paglia threats the two terms as synonymous. In her essay ‘Scholars talk writing’ she describes the Yale she knew during the period as a graduate student there, from 1968 to 1972. It was a time when “French post-structuralism was flooding into Yale”. This is how she ends this same essay: “I’ve spent 25 years denouncing the bloated, pretentious prose spawned by post-structuralism. Enough said! Let the pigs roll in their own swirl”. In the essay ‘Free speech and the modern campus’ she describes the simultaneous rise of deconstruction and poststructuralism:

The deconstructionist trend started when J. Hillis Miller moved from Johns Hopkins University to Yale and then began bringing Jacques Derrida over from France for regular visits. The Derrida and Lacan fad was followed by the cult of Michael Foucault, who remains a deity in the humanities but whom I regard as a derivative game-player whose theories make no sense whatever about any period preceding the Enlightenment. The first time I witnessed a continental theorist discoursing with professors at a Yale event, I said in exasperation to a fellow student: ‘They’re like high priests murmuring to each other.’ It is absurd that elitist theoretical style, with its opaque and contorted jargon, was ever considered leftist, as it still is. Authentic leftism is populist, with a brutal directness of speech.

Poststructuralism or postmodernism was the major cause of the weakening of scholarship in the colleges and universities. In her aforementioned essay on Erich Newmann Paglia shows how important nature was in Newmann’s time and how things have changed.

The deletion of nature from academic gender studies has been disastrous. Sex and gender cannot be understood without some reference, however qualified, to biology, hormones, and animal instinct. And to erase nature from the humanities curriculum not only inhibits student’s appreciation of a tremendous amount of great, nature-inspired poetry and painting but also disables them even from being able to process the daily news in our uncertain world of devastating tsunamis and hurricanes.

As I started to read Camille Paglia’s Provocations I soon understood that the word ‘provocations’ is used in the sense of inciting thought. Although inciting thought is not the same as inciting rage, the first can lead to the second. Paglia has made some foes on her campus, who would like to see her pushed aside. History repeats itself when its past lessons are forgotten. During the trial of Socrates in 399 BCE, the philosopher told the Athenian people that although they saw him as a pesky ‘gadfly’, he was ‘a gadfly given to them by God,’ and one which will be difficult to replace.’ Paglia is the modern-day ‘gadfly’. She too will be difficult to replace.


Jo Pires-O’Brien is a Brazilian-Brit and the editor of PortVitoria.