Camille Anna Paglia (//; born April 2, 1947) is an American academic and social critic. Paglia has been a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, since 1984. Paglia is critical of many aspects of modern culture, and is the author of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990). She is a critic of American feminism and of post-structuralism as well as a commentator on multiple aspects of American culture such as its visual art, music, and film history. In 2005, Paglia was ranked No. 20 on a Prospect/Foreign Policy poll of the world's top 100 public intellectuals. Her eighth, and second-largest book, Provocations, will be published by Pantheon in October 2018.
Paglia was born in Endicott, New York, the eldest child of Pasquale and Lydia Anne (née Colapietro) Paglia. All four of her grandparents were born in Italy. Her mother immigrated to the United States at five years old from Ceccano, in the province of Frosinone, Lazio, Italy. Additionally, Paglia has stated that her father's side of the family were from the Campanian towns of Avellino, Benevento, and Caserta. Paglia attended primary school in rural Oxford, New York, where her family lived in a working farmhouse. Her father, a veteran of World War II, taught at the Oxford Academy high school, and exposed his young daughter to art through books he brought home about French art history. In 1957, her family moved to Syracuse, New York, so that her father could begin graduate school; he eventually became a professor of Romance languages at Le Moyne College. She attended the Edward Smith Elementary School, T. Aaron Levy Junior High and William Nottingham High School. In 1992 Carmelia Metosh, her Latin teacher for three years, said, "She always has been controversial. Whatever statements were being made (in class), she had to challenge them. She made good points then, as she does now." Paglia thanked Metosh in the acknowledgements to Sexual Personae, later describing her as "the dragon lady of Latin studies, who breathed fire at principals and school boards".
She took a variety of names when she was at Spruce Ridge Camp, including Anastasia (her confirmation name, inspired by the film Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman), Stacy, and Stanley. A crucially significant event for her was when an outhouse exploded after she poured too much lime into the latrine. "That symbolized everything I would do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness. I would be someone who would look into the latrine of culture, into pornography and crime and psychopathology... and I would drop the bomb into it".
For more than a decade, Paglia was the partner of artist Alison Maddex. Paglia legally adopted Maddex's son (who was born in 2002). In 2007 the couple separated but remained "harmonious co-parents," in Paglia's words, who lived two miles apart.
Paglia entered Harpur College at Binghamton University in 1964. The same year, Paglia's poem "Atrophy" was published in the local newspaper. She later said that she was trained to read literature by poet Milton Kessler, who, "believed in the responsiveness of the body, and of the activation of the senses to literature... And oh did I believe in that". She graduated from Harpur as class valedictorian in 1968.
Paglia attended Yale as a graduate student, and she claims to have been the only open lesbian at Yale Graduate School from 1968 to 1972. At Yale, Paglia quarreled with Rita Mae Brown, whom she later characterized as "then darkly nihilist," and argued with the New Haven, Connecticut Women's Liberation Rock Band when they dismissed the Rolling Stones as sexist. Paglia was mentored by Harold Bloom. Sexual Personae was then titled "The Androgynous Dream: the image of the androgyne as it appears in literature and is embodied in the psyche of the artist, with reference to the visual arts and the cinema."
Paglia read Susan Sontag and aspired to emulate what she called her "celebrity, her positioning in the media world at the border of the high arts and popular culture." Paglia first saw Sontag in person on October 15, 1969 (Vietnam Moratorium Day), when Paglia, then a Yale graduate student, was visiting a friend at Princeton. In 1973, Paglia, a militant feminist and open lesbian, was working at her first academic job at Bennington College. She considered Sontag a radical who had challenged male dominance. The same year, Paglia drove to an appearance by Sontag at Dartmouth, hoping to arrange for her to speak at Bennington, but found it difficult to find the money for Sontag's speaking fee; Paglia relied on help from Richard Tristman, a friend of Sontag's, to persuade her to come. Bennington College agreed to pay Sontag $700 (twice what they usually offered speakers but only half Sontag's usual fee) to give a talk about contemporary issues. Paglia staged a poster campaign urging students to attend Sontag's appearance. Sontag arrived at Bennington Carriage Barn, where she was to speak, more than an hour late, and then began reading what Paglia recalled as a "boring and bleak" short story about "nothing" in the style of a French New Novel.
As a result of Sontag's Bennington College appearance, Paglia began to become disenchanted with her, believing that she had withdrawn from confrontation with the academic world, and that her "mandarin disdain" for popular culture showed an elitism that betrayed her early work, which had suggested that high and low culture both reflected a new sensibility.
In the autumn of 1972, Paglia began teaching at Bennington College, which hired her in part thanks to a recommendation from Harold Bloom. At Bennington, she befriended the philosopher James Fessenden, who first taught there in the same semester.
Through her study of the classics and the scholarly work of Jane Ellen Harrison, James George Frazer, Erich Neumann and others, Paglia developed a theory of sexual history that contradicted a number of ideas in vogue at the time, hence her criticism of Marija Gimbutas, Carolyn Heilbrun, Kate Millett and others. She laid out her ideas on matriarchy, androgyny, homosexuality, sadomasochism and other topics in her Yale PhD thesis Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art, which she defended in December 1974. In September 1976, she gave a public lecture drawing on that dissertation, in which she discussed Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, followed by remarks on Diana Ross, Gracie Allen, Yul Brynner, and Stéphane Audran.
Paglia wrote that she "nearly came to blows with the founding members of the women's studies program at the State University of New York at Albany, when they categorically denied that hormones influence human experience or behavior". Similar fights with feminists and academics culminated in a 1978 incident which led her to resign from Bennington; after a lengthy standoff with the administration, Paglia accepted a settlement from the college and resigned in 1979.
Paglia finished Sexual Personae in the early 1980s, but could not get it published. She supported herself with visiting and part-time teaching jobs at Yale, Wesleyan, and other Connecticut colleges. Her paper, "The Apollonian Androgyne and the Faerie Queene", was published in English Literary Renaissance, Winter 1979, and her dissertation was cited by J. Hillis Miller in his April 1980 article "Wuthering Heights and the Ellipses of Interpretation", in Journal of Religion in Literature, but her academic career was otherwise stalled. In a 1995 letter to Boyd Holmes, she recalled: "I earned a little extra money by doing some local features reporting for a New Haven alternative newspaper (The Advocate) in the early 1980s". She wrote articles on New Haven's historic pizzerias and on an old house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
In 1984, she joined the faculty of the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, which merged in 1987 with the Philadelphia College of Art to become the University of the Arts.
Paglia is on the editorial board of the classics and humanities journal Arion. She wrote a regular column for Salon.com from 1995 to 2001, and again from 2007 to 2009. Paglia resumed writing a Salon.com column in 2016.
Paglia cooperated with Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock in their writing of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, sending them detailed letters from which they quoted with her permission. Rollyson and Paddock note that Sontag "had her lawyer put our publisher on notice" when she realized that they were investigating her life and career.
Paglia participates in the decennial poll of film professionals conducted by Sight & Sound which asks participants to submit a list of what they believe to be the ten greatest films of all time. According to her responses to the poll in 2002 and 2012, the films Paglia holds in highest regard include Ben-Hur, Citizen Kane, La Dolce Vita, The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, North by Northwest, Orphée, Persona, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Ten Commandments, and Vertigo.
In 2005, Paglia was named as one of the top 100 public intellectuals by the journals Foreign Policy and Prospect. In 2012, an article in The New York Times remarked that "[a]nyone who has been following the body count of the culture wars over the past decades knows Paglia". Paglia has said that she is willing to have her entire career judged on the basis of her composition of what she considers to be "probably the most important sentence that she has ever written": "God is man's greatest idea."
Though Paglia admires Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex ("the supreme work of modern feminism... its deep learning and massive argument are unsurpassed") as well as Germaine Greer, Time magazine critic Martha Duffy writes that Paglia "does not hesitate to hurl brazen insults" at several feminists. In an interview, Paglia stated that to be effective, one has to "name names"; criticism should be concrete. Paglia stated that many critics "escape into abstractions", rendering their criticism "intellectualized and tame".
Paglia accused Greer of becoming "a drone in three years" as a result of her early success; Paglia has also criticized the work of activist Diana Fuss. Elaine Showalter calls Paglia "unique in the hyperbole and virulence of her hostility to virtually all the prominent feminist activists, public figures, writers and scholars of her generation", mentioning Carolyn Heilbrun, Judith Butler, Carol Gilligan, Marilyn French, Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, Susan Thomases, and Hillary Clinton as targets of her criticism. Paglia has accused Kate Millett of starting "the repressive, Stalinist style in feminist criticism." Paglia has repeatedly criticized Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women, calling her a "sanctimonious", unappealing role model for women whose "smug, arrogant" attitude is accompanied by "painfully limited processes of thought". Paglia contends that under Ireland's leadership, NOW "damaged and marginalized the women's movement".
In 1999, Martha Nussbaum wrote an essay called "The Professor of Parody", in which she criticized Judith Butler for retreating to abstract theory disconnected from real world problems. Paglia reacted to the essay by stating that the criticism was "long overdue", but characterized the criticism as "one PC diva turning against another". She criticized Nussbaum for failing to make her criticisms earlier while accusing her of borrowing Paglia's ideas without acknowledgement. She called Nussbaum's "preparation or instinct for sex analysis...dubious at best", but nevertheless stated that "Nussbaum is a genuine scholar who operates on a vastly higher intellectual level than Butler".
Many feminists have criticized Paglia; Christina Hoff Sommers calls her "Perhaps the most conspicuous target of feminist opprobrium," noting that the Women's Review of Books described Sexual Personae as patriarchy's "counter-assault on feminism". Sommers relates that when Paglia appeared at a Brown University forum, feminists signed a petition censuring her and demanding an investigation into procedures for inviting speakers to the campus. Some feminist critics have characterized Paglia as an "anti-feminist feminist", critical of central features of much contemporary feminism but holding out "her own special variety of feminist affirmation".
Naomi Wolf traded a series of sometimes personal attacks with Paglia throughout the early 1990s. In The New Republic, Wolf wrote that Paglia "poses as a sexual renegade but is in fact the most dutiful of patriarchal daughters" and characterized Paglia as intellectually dishonest. In a 1991 speech, Paglia criticized Wolf for blaming anorexia on the media. Gloria Steinem said of Paglia that, "Her calling herself a feminist is sort of like a Nazi saying they're not anti-Semitic." Paglia called Steinem "the Stalin of feminism". Katha Pollitt calls Paglia one of a "seemingly endless parade of social critics [who] have achieved celebrity by portraying not sexism but feminism as the problem". Pollitt writes that Paglia has glorified "male dominance", and has been able to get away with things "that might make even Rush Limbaugh blanch," because she is a woman.
Paglia's view that rape is sexually motivated has been endorsed by evolutionary psychologists Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer; they comment that "Paglia ... urges women to be skeptical toward the feminist 'party line' on the subject, to become better informed about risk factors, and to use the information to lower their risk of rape".
In an essay critiquing the Hollywood/celebrity fad of "Girl Squads", made popular in 2015 by pop-icons like Taylor Swift, Paglia argued that rather than empowering women the cliquish practice actually harms the self-esteem of those who aren't rich, famous, or attractive enough to belong to the group, while further defining women only by a very narrow, often sexualized stereotype. She challenged that to be truly empowering, these groups need to mentor, advise, and be more inclusive, for more women to realize their true, individual potential.
Paglia is critical of the influence modern French writers have had on the humanities, claiming that universities are in the "thrall" of French post-structuralists; that in the works of Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault, she never once found a sentence that interested her; and that post-structuralism has broken the link between the word and the thing, and thus endangers the Western canon. François Cusset writes that Paglia, like other major American public intellectuals after World War II, owes her broader recognition mainly to the political repercussions of polemics that first erupted on college campuses, in her case to a polemic against foreign intellectualism. He says she achieved phenomenal success when she called Foucault a "bastard", thereby providing (together with Alan Sokal's Social Text parody) the best evidence for Paul de Man's view that theory should be defined negatively, based on the opposition it arouses. However, Paglia's assessment of French writers is not purely negative. She has called Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) "brilliant", and identified Jean-Paul Sartre's work as part of a high period in literature. Paglia has praised Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957) and Gilles Deleuze's Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty (1967), while finding both men's later work flawed. Of Gaston Bachelard, who influenced Paglia, she wrote "[his] dignified yet fluid phenomenological descriptive method seemed to me ideal for art", adding that he was "the last modern French writer I took seriously".
Paglia characterizes herself as a libertarian. She opposes laws against prostitution, pornography, drugs, and abortion, and is also opposed to affirmative action laws. Some of her views have been characterized as conservative. She is critical of current transgender discourse and has long rejected what she describes as "the political agenda that has slowly accrued" around the issue of climate change. In a 2017 interview with The Weekly Standard, Paglia stated, "It is certainly ironic how liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warming (a sentimental myth unsupported by evidence) flee all reference to biology when it comes to gender."
Paglia criticized Bill Clinton for not resigning after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which she says "paralyzed the government for two years, leading directly to our blindsiding by 9/11". In the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign she voted for the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, "[because] I detest the arrogant, corrupt superstructure of the Democratic Party, with which I remain stubbornly registered."
In the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Paglia supported John Kerry; and in 2008, she supported Barack Obama. In 2012, she supported Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Paglia was highly critical of 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, calling her a "fraud" and a "liar". Paglia refused to support either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, indicating in a March Salon.com column that if Hillary Clinton won the Democratic Party's nomination she would either cast a write-in vote for Bernie Sanders or else vote for Green Party candidate Stein, as she did in 2012. Paglia later clarified in a statement that she would vote for Stein. In 2017 she stated that is a registered Democrat, who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and for Jill Stein in the 2016 general election.
Paglia's Sexual Personae was rejected by at least seven different publishers before it was published by Yale University Press, whereupon it became a best seller, reaching seventh place on the paperback best-seller list, a rare accomplishment for a scholarly book. 'Paglia called it her "prison book", commenting, "I felt like Cervantes, Genet. It took all the resources of being Catholic to cut myself off and sit in my cell." Sexual Personae has been called an "energetic, Freud-friendly reading of Western art", one that seemed "heretical and perverse", at the height of political correctness; according to Daniel Nester, its characterization of "William Blake as the British Marquis de Sade or Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as 'self-ruling hermaphrodites who cannot mate' still pricks up many an English major's ears".
In the book, Paglia argues that human nature has an inherently dangerous Dionysian or chthonic aspect, especially in regard to sexuality. Culture and civilization are created by men and represent an attempt to contain that force. Women are powerful, too, but as natural forces, and both marriage and religion are means to contain chaotic forces. A best seller, it was described by Terry Teachout in a New York Times book review as being both "intellectually stimulating" and "exasperating". Sexual Personae received critical reviews from numerous feminist scholars. Anthony Burgess described Sexual Personae as "a fine disturbing book" that "seeks to attack the reader's emotions as well as his or her prejudices".
Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays (1992) is a collection of short pieces, many published previously as editorials or reviews, and some transcripts of interviews. The essays cover such subjects as Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, rock music, Robert Mapplethorpe, the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination, rape, Marlon Brando, drag, Milton Kessler, and academia. It made the New York Times bestseller list for paperbacks.
Vamps and Tramps: New Essays (1994) is a collection of 42 short articles and a long essay, "No Law in the Arena: a Pagan Theory of Sexuality". It also contains a collection of cartoons from newspapers about Paglia. Writing for The New York Times, Wendy Steiner wrote "Comic, camp, outspoken, Ms. Paglia throws an absurdist shoe into the ponderous wheels of academia". Michiko Kakutani, also writing for The New York Times, wrote: "Her writings on education ... are highly persuasive, just as some of her essays on the perils of regulating pornography and the puritanical excesses of the women's movement radiate a fierce common sense... Unfortunately, Ms. Paglia has a way of undermining her more interesting arguments with flip, hyperbolic declarations".
In 1998, and in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, the British Film Institute commissioned Paglia to write a book about the film. Paglia's book interprets the film as "in the main line of British Romanticism descending from the raw nature-tableaux and sinister femme-fatales of Coleridge". Paglia uses a psychoanalytic framework to interpret the film as portraying "a release of primitive forces of sex and appetite that have been subdued but never fully tamed".
Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems (2005) is a collection of 43 short selections of verse with an accompanying essay by Paglia. The collection is oriented primarily to those unfamiliar with the works. Clive James noted that Paglia tends to focus on American works as it moves from Shakespeare forward through time, with Yeats, following Coleridge, as the last European discussed, but emphasized her range of sympathy and her ability to juxtapose and unite distinct art forms in her analysis. Christopher Nield remarked that Paglia has "a rare gift to capture a poem's mood and scene in terse, spiky phrases of descriptive insight" and exhibits brilliance, but also notes that some of her selections from recent writers fall flat. He also praises her pedagogical slant towards basic interpretation, suggesting that her approach might be what is required to reinvigorate studies in the humanities.
Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (2012) is a series of essays about notable works of art from ancient to modern times, published in October 2012. Writer John Adams of the New York Times Book Review was skeptical of the book, accusing it of being "so agenda driven and so riddled with polemic asides that its potential to persuade is forever being compromised". Gary Rosen of The Wall Street Journal, however, praised the book's "impressive range" and accessibility to readers.
Paglia's Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, and Feminism was published by Pantheon in 2017. It is a series of essays from 1990 onward. Dwight Garner in the New York Times said Paglia's essays address two main targets: modern feminism, which, Paglia writes, "has become a catchall vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses," and modern American universities, of which she asks, "How is it possible that today’s academic left has supported rather than protested campus speech codes as well as the grotesque surveillance and overregulation of student life?"
Her fourth essay collection, Provocations: Collected Essays, is to be published by Pantheon on October 9, 2018. It will cover topics from "Picasso to punk rock, from religion to Rihanna," and according to the publisher will present her take "on the rise of the right, the death of Prince, developing a writing style, the state of LGBT activism, and presidents past and present (to name just a few topics)."
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|By Camille Paglia|