Camille Anna Paglia (born 2 April 1947 in Endicott, New York) is an American author, teacher, feminist and social critic. Her book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, published in 1990, became a bestseller. Since 1984 Paglia has been a Professor at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Paglia describes herself as a feminist and as a Democrat who campaigned for John F. Kennedy as an adolescent and later voted for Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader. She has broken with liberal orthodoxy by taking controversial stances such as rejecting the idea that homosexuality is an inborn trait and being skeptical about global warming. Her views on issues such as date rape, pornography, gay rights and educational reform have led to accusations of misogyny, homophobia and neoconservatism. Paglia's embrace of fetishism, pornography, prostitution and male homosexuality puts her at odds with American social conservatives. Her views on recreational drugs, prostitution and sexual consent laws tend to be libertarian. She has expressed admiration for U.S. Presidential candidate John McCain's running mate Sarah Palin.
Paglia is critical of the influence modern French writers have had on the humanities in the U.S. Paglia has singled out Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida for criticism, and has also made dismissive remarks about Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, Georges Bataille, and Jean Baudrillard. Paglia has condemned Foucault because she believes that he deliberately spread HIV. However, Paglia's assessment of French writers is not purely negative. Paglia has called Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex "brilliant" and "the only thing undergraduate sex study needs", and identified Jean-Paul Sartre's work as part of a high period in literature. Paglia has made positive comments about parts of Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze's early work, while finding their later work flawed. Gaston Bachelard has influenced Paglia. Paglia wrote that she "loved Bachelard, whose 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 wrote a column for Salon.com from its inception in 1995 until 2001. Paglia rejoined Salon in February 2007. She is a contributing editor at Interview magazine and is on the editorial board of the classics and humanities journal Arion. Paglia is currently writing her third collection of essays and a companion volume to Break, Blow, Burn dealing with the visual arts rather than poetry.
Despite their modest means, her parents exposed her to classical Western art and culture. The first music to make an impression on her was Bizet's Carmen, an opera which, in her words, "struck me with electrifying force. She was three when she first heard the opera, but was still enamored of it in her writing more than 40 years later.
Paglia spent her primary school years 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. 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.
By all accounts, she was an excellent student at Nottingham High School. She spent her Saturdays in the Carnegie Library, absorbed in books and manuscripts. 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. She was very alert, 'with it' in every way. 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 attended Spruce Ridge Camp, a Girl Scout facility in the Adirondacks where, by her later account, she had crushes on the woman counselors. She took a variety of names when she was there, including Anastasia (her confirmation name, inspired by the Ingrid Bergman film), Stacy, and Stanley. An iconic experience was the time the outhouse exploded when she poured too much lime into it. "It 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.
Paglia discovered Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in 1963. It led Paglia to stop working on the book about Amelia Earhart she had been writing for three years, and to resolve to write a "mega-book that will take everything in", the beginning of what later became Sexual Personae. On July 8 1963, Newsweek magazine published her letter about equal opportunity for American women. On November 24 1963, Syracuse's Herald American profiled her outstanding achievements as a student, noting her longtime study of feminist icon Amelia Earhart.
She had been writing poetry prior to entering college (her poem "Atrophy," had been published in her local newspaper in 1964 ), but it was at Harpur that she received an education in it, taking courses in Metaphysical poetry and John Milton. She later wrote that the biggest impact on her thinking were the classes taught by poet Milton Kessler. "He believed in the responsiveness of the body, and of the activation of the senses to literature... And oh did I believe in that. Probably from my Italian background — that's the way we respond to things, with our body. From Michelangelo, Bernini, there's this whole florid physicality leading right down to the Grand Opera, the great arias.
She wrote her senior thesis on Emily Dickinson, and aspired to be a poet, inspired by the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Gerard Manley Hopkins. She submitted a reconfiguration of the Dido episode of Virgil's Aeneid to the college literary magazine, but its editor, Deborah Tannen, rejected it, saying that "Poets don't write like this anymore.
At Harpur she befriended three gay men who have had a lifelong influence on her thinking: Bruce Benderson (a classmate at Nottingham High School), Stephen Jarratt, and Stephen Feld. Her father got her a summer job working the night shift at St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse as an emergency ward secretary. "It was unbelievable, like being in a war without any danger to myself," she later said. "I forced myself to look at every single horrible thing — once, OK? After a while, you start to adjust. It was pivotal because it's one of the reasons I'm not sentimental at all about death or disease.
At Harpur, she did not fit the typical gender roles. Seeing a defenseless female student being groped on the street by two drunken men, she hit one of them in the teeth; she was 19 at the time. She was once put on probation for committing 39 pranks, a fact in which she takes pride. She told an interviewer in 2003 that she follows the model of the "Hindu gurus, the aging masters and sages" because they're "actually very funny. They're funny, they're prankish. Zen masters are known to be prankish." She said, "To me, comedy is a symptom of a balanced perspective on life, and people who are going around, like gloomy gusses, in that Sontag style of intellectual, these people are suffering from something coming from their childhood, it has nothing to do with the proper intellectual response to life...
A few months after beginning her studies, she attended a party in the home of R. W. B. Lewis, one of her teachers, and ended up being insulted by Robert Jay Lifton and his wife for being a lesbian. Lifton was, at the time, the Foundations' Fund research professor in psychiatry at Yale, a position he held until 1984. This verbal attack seems to have emboldened her not only to be out as a lesbian, but also to be in everyone's face about it. She has repeatedly noted she was openly lesbian while at Yale Graduate School, even claiming to have been the only open lesbian there from 1968 to 1972.
While at Yale, Paglia quarreled with Rita Mae Brown, whom she later characterised as "then darkly nihilist", and argued with the New Haven, Connecticut Women's Liberation Rock Band when they dismissed the Rolling Stones as "sexist". She also "had two close encounters with Kate Millett (author of Sexual Politics) just after she became famous, in New Haven, Connecticut, and in Provincetown, Massachusetts, but she was too morosely self-absorbed to notice." Because of what she saw as Millett's "careless" attitude toward scholarship, Paglia became critical of her and those who supported her work.
Her study of sexuality in Western literature continued to develop with her reading of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1920) and Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590). In 1970, she wrote a 160-page paper for her last graduate seminar at Yale entitled "Male and Female in Virginia Woolf." Her original plan for her book "Sexual Personae" was that it would end with a study of Woolf and Lawrence.
In 1971, she discovered Kenneth Clark's The Nude (1956) , a book which would have a profound impact on her dissertation and later work. "If ever I was in love with a book, it was with this one," she wrote in Sex, Art & American Culture; and in an article for Women's Quarterly in 2002, she called it "the best introduction by far to representation of the human figure in art.
In 1971 Paglia received an M.Phil from Yale, a degree awarded when all coursework and examinations towards a Ph.D. have been completed but the dissertation has not yet been written and accepted, and began her dissertation under the supervision of her mentor Harold Bloom. It 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. While reading a draft of her thesis in 1971, Bloom wrote in the margin that a passage was "Mere Sontagisme!" Paglia later wrote, "It saddened me, but I knew Bloom was right. Susan Sontag, who could have been Jane Harrison's successor as a supreme woman scholar, had become synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing.
In a letter dated February 13, 1972 to Carolyn Heilbrun at Columbia University, Paglia inquired about her forthcoming book on androgyny; Heilbrun wrote back saying that her book could not deal with all available material on the subject. When asked about Paglia's letter years later, Heilbrun could not remember it. When Heilbrun's "Toward a Recognition of Androgyny" came out, Paglia panned it in a review for the Summer 1973 issue of the Yale Review. "Heilbrun's book is so poorly researched that it may disgrace the subject in the eyes of serious scholars," she wrote. She noted that "the most distinguished commentators on androgyny are Mircea Eliade and G. Wilson Knight"; and criticized Heilbrun for her reliance on the work of Joseph Campbell, and for including "four flattering references" to Kate Millett while making "fifteen glib jibes" at Sigmund Freud. The author of the review was clearly an expert on the history of androgyny, but as it was the journal's policy for reviews to be published without attribution, few knew that Paglia wrote it.
Writer Heidi Schmidt, who attended her classes, recalled in 1996:
Yet another Bennington student from Paglia's time there was Judith Butler, who went on to a successful academic career. In a 2005 interview, Paglia said of Butler:
Paglia's first scholarly publication was "Lord Hervey and Pope," published in the 1973 18th Century Studies. (A Times Literary Supplement cover story on Lord Hervey, November 2, praised the paper as "brilliant."). The article was a revision of a term paper she wrote. In April 1973, she attended a Susan Sontag lecture at Dartmouth College and later invited her to Bennington to speak there on October 4. The event proved controversial because Sontag read a short story instead of giving the expected cultural lecture. Paglia later commented, "I was stunned because I thought she was going to be a major intellectual", later writing at length about their meeting in an essay entitled "Sontag, Bloody Sontag", published in Vamps & Tramps. Susan Sontag said of Paglia, "We used to think Norman Mailer was bad, but she makes Norman Mailer look like Jane Austen.
Another intellectual disappointment for Paglia was Marija Gimbutas, who published The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe in 1974. At the same time, Paglia launched "a detailed attack on an exhibit at Bennington's Crossett Library, 'Matriarchy: The Golden Age,' which used appallingly shoddy feminist materials alleging the existence of a peaceful, prehistoric matriarchy, later supposedly overthrown by nasty males.
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 Gimbutas, Heilbrun, Millett and others. She laid out her ideas on matriarchy, androgyny, homosexuality, sadomasochism and other topics in her Yale Ph.D. 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 Faerie Queene, followed by remarks on Diana Ross, Gracie Allen, Yul Brynner, and Stephane Audran.
In March 1975, she saw Germaine Greer speak in Albany. She was disappointed, reporting later that "During the question period, I nervously raised my hand from the crowd and asked if Greer, a former English professor, would be writing on literary subjects again soon. Her reply was stern and swift: 'There are far more important things in the world than literature!'"
Paglia's appraisal of Greer remains ambivalent. In her MIT lecture, she said of Greer, "What a loss. What a loss! If that woman had stayed on her original track, all of feminism would have been different. She was sophisticated, sexy, literate. What happened to her? After three years, she turned into this drone, this whining, "Woe is me, all the problems of the world!" Something went wrong in feminism. Paglia also published a scathing review of Greer's The Whole Woman in the New York Times, calling it "shot through with unhelpful and passe invective against men. In contrast, Paglia said in an interview, "I am a huge admirer of Germaine Greer and consider her a paragon of the erudite and fiercely combative feminist intellectual. The exclusion of her work and life from the overwhelming majority of women's studies curricula in the U.S. is an absolute outrage.
In another disheartening experience, Paglia "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. These women (whose field was literature) attributed my respect for science to 'brainwashing' by men. Similar fights with feminists, lesbians, chauvinists, homophobes and academics culminated in a 1978 incident that led her to resign from Bennington a year later.
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. She taught night classes at the Sikorsky Helicopter plant. Her paper, "The Apollonian Androgyne and the Faerie Queen," 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 at a time when her peers were moving on to important positions at major universities. 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. While travelling in Europe, she wrote about German women as follows: "The women, stern-faced, melt the submissive heart...All look like Lotte Lenya!
For some years, Paglia has shared a residence with the artist and teacher Allison Maddex. Paglia legally adopted the son Maddex bore in 2002.
In Sexual Personae, and in media statements and campus appearances made after its publication, Paglia criticized leaders of the American feminist movement. Paglia claimed that they were ignorant of art, science and history, were hostile to men, and were harming young women by teaching them to see themselves as victims. Paglia compared feminists to cults such as the Unification Church. Paglia's stance aroused controversy. Paglia has been associated with the term "postfeminism", but rejects this label.
Molly Ivins wrote a scathing review of Sexual Personae in which she accused Paglia of historical inaccuracy, demagoguery of second-wave feminists, egocentrism, and writing in sweeping generalizations. Ivins concluded her polemic against Paglia with this passage: "There is one area in which I think Paglia and I would agree that politically correct feminism has produced a noticeable inequity. Nowadays, when a woman behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, 'Poor dear, it's probably PMS.' Whereas, if a man behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, 'What an asshole.' Let me leap to correct this unfairness by saying of Paglia, Sheesh, what an asshole."
Betty Friedan said in an interview, "How can you take her seriously? She is an exhibitionist, and she takes the most extreme elements of the women's movement and tries to make the whole movement antisexual, antilife, antijoy. And neither I nor most of the women I know are that way.
Naomi Wolf traded a series of sometimes personal attacks with Paglia throughout the early 1990s. In The New Republic, Wolf labeled Paglia, "the nipple-pierced person's Phyllis Schlafly who poses as a sexual renegade but is in fact the most dutiful of patriarchal daughters" and called Paglia's writing "full of howling intellectual dishonesty.
Her paper "Oscar Wilde and the English Epicene" was published in 1988 in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, edited by Bloom; '"Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art", was published in 1988 in Western Humanities Review; and "Sex," was published in the Spenser Encyclopedia by A. C. Hamilton in 1989.
After the release of Sexual Personae on 15 February 1990 the book received little publicity from its publisher as was typical of university presses at the time, but it sold well for months, prompting Yale University Press to send it for a second printing by November 1990. It was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award that year, and then reprinted in paperback by Vintage Press in 1991. It became a best-seller, as did her subsequent books Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays (1992) and Vamps and Tramps (1994).
Throughout the 1990s, Paglia said that a second volume to Sexual Personae would be forthcoming, and was to include her thoughts on sports and popular culture. Eventually, she decided not to proceed with the book as planned, as it would need to undergo too many revisions in order to reflect her changing attitude towards popular culture.
Paglia's controversial piece on Madonna, which was originally published in the New York Times in 1990, would be the first of several articles, reviews and other commentary about her.
In Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood's Pagan Queen, Paglia called Taylor Hollywood's only living queen and wrote of her devotion to her, mentioning the fact that she at one point had collected five hundred and ninety nine pictures of Taylor.
The Beautiful Decadence of Robert Mapplethorpe defended Mapplethorpe's cultural importance and talent while criticising activists and liberals for playing down the disturbing aspects of his work.
The Strange Case of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill denied that Anita Hill had been sexually harassed and criticized her for not having responded properly to any incident that may have occurred between her and Clarence Thomas. Paglia wrote, "I suspect Hill's behavior was compliant and, to use her own word about a recent exchange with a Thomas friend, "passive.""
The ninth and tenth chapters of the book (Rape and Modern Sex War and The Rape Debate, Continued) were mainly about date rape, which in Paglia's view contemporary feminists had been incapable of preventing. Paglia wrote, "Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in civilized society. Yet feminism, which has waged a crusade for rape to be taken more seriously, has put young women in danger by hiding the truth about sex from them."
In a long article titled Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf, Paglia critically reviewed books about homosexuality in ancient Greece by classicists David M. Halperin and John J. Winkler. Paglia criticised Halperin and Winkler for what she regarded as their shoddy scholarship and careerism. Paglia attacked Michel Foucault at length in this article, questioning his learning and denying his originality as a thinker. Paglia wrote, "Foucault is the Cagliostro of our time. Nowhere is this more evident than in his treatment of Émile Durkheim, his true source...An entire book could be written applying Harold Bloom's theory of anxiety of influence to Foucault's desperate concealment of his massive indebtedness to Durkheim, to whom he barely, dismissively, and inaccurately refers."
Paglia explained her title this way: "I want a revamped feminism. Putting the vamp back means the lady must be a tramp. My generation of Sixties rebels wanted to smash the bourgeois codes that had become the authoritarian totems of the Fifties. The 'nice' girl with her soft, sanitized speech and decorous manners had to go. Thirty years later, we're still stuck with her — in the official spokesmen and the anointed heiresses of the feminist establishment...Equal opportunity feminism, which I espouse, demands the removal of all barriers to woman's advance in the political and professional world — but not at the price of special protections for women which are infantilizing and anti-democratic."
Vamps and Tramps included "No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality". In it, Paglia discussed controversial sexual issues such as rape, abortion, sexual harassment, prostitution, pornography, and homosexuality. In the section on homosexuality, Paglia wrote that no one is born gay, calling the idea "ridiculous", and adding that "it is symptomatic of our overpoliticized climate that such assertions are given instant credence by gay activists and their media partisans." Paglia mentioned neuroscientist Simon LeVay's research on the hypothalamus, writing, "Media reports, manipulated by gay activists, trumpeted that LeVay, despite his careful qualifiers, had incontrovertibly established that gay people were born that way and that moral opposition to gayness would hence cease, since homosexuality is not a matter of choice."
Vamps and Tramps also included transcripts of Paglia's previous TV and film appearances, including her 1993 collaboration with Glenn Belverio in his short film "Glennda and Camille Do Downtown," which played at the Sundance Film Festival and won first prize for best short documentary at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and The Return of Carry Nation, an article reprinted from Playboy, attacking anti-pornography feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.
In analyzing what she calls "the strange sexual world of Basic Instinct" she notes that "Sharon Stone's performance as the vamp, Catherine Tramell, is in the mainline of femme fatale portrayals in old Hollywood from Theda Bara and Marlene Dietrich on." She praises almost everything about the film, even the credits and score, which she says are an "homage to Alfred Hitchcock, one of the master directors of the 20th century, and the one who first fused gory crime drama with scintillating, titillating, sexual intrigue and glamour." The lyrical music by Jerry Goldsmith "seems to record mystery, ambiguity, sexual pursuit of female by male, and then the stalking of male by female."
In this book, she wrote essays on poems by William Shakespeare, John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara, Paul Blackburn, May Swenson, Gary Snyder, Norman H. Russell, Chuck Wachtel, Rochell Kraut, Wanda Coleman, Ralph Pomeroy, and Joni Mitchell.
While speaking at events during the 2006 promotional tour for the paperback version of her book, she attacked the positive reputations that poets John Ashbery and Jorie Graham have enjoyed in academe. Of Graham she said, "Maybe she had some talent early on... She is like a mirror to the professors; they look into her and see themselves.
Paglia also spoke of how she regretted not including poems by Allen Ginsberg in the book, since she has been a fan of his since reading "Howl". She said that she tried to excerpt the first hundred lines of "Howl", but that it gave the wrong impression of the work. The poem also did not entirely meet her standards. Paglia told a reporter for the Toronto Star: "'Howl', when I reread it, came across as so garish, stagey, hammy. It didn't work for this book."