What Camille Paglia understands about the Trump era

camille
Camille Paglia

On the day I met Camille Paglia for lunch, I arrived early at the Greek restaurant she had selected and let the hostess guide me to a table in the back. To me this seemed like a perfectly fine table. Paglia, who arrived a few minutes later, disagreed.

It was a booth. And there were people right beside us. There was a table near the front, Paglia said, where she had taken meetings before; perhaps we could sit there. Accompanied by the hostess, we walked to the new table and considered it. Paglia allowed that probably the hostess could not grant the two of us this six-top. We needed a smaller table — but one that was quiet, and private. A second restaurant employee had joined us. Another booth was proposed, another booth rejected. Paglia felt it imperative that we have real chairs. Sitting on a booth’s cushions might lull us into a state of haremlike drowsiness, she felt. We needed to be alert.

I found myself swept along by her willingness to be difficult, which did not manifest itself as rudeness or a sense of entitlement but as a perfect, inviolable comfort in pursuing exactly what she wanted. She was going to get the right table. And what was I going to do, apologize for Camille Paglia? If it is possible to possess immunity to the unspoken expectations of female behavior — to be impervious, on a cellular level, to the will of the patriarchy (to use one of her least favorite terms) — then Paglia possesses that immunity.

At last we were seated at a small table a few yards from the first. We would remain there for the next 4 hours and 45 minutes. In the grand scheme of Paglia interviews, mine was brief. When Francesca Stanfill profiled her for a New York cover story, in 1991, their conversation lasted ten hours, long enough for Paglia to consume two steaks: one for lunch and a second for dinner.

“Normally I would order meat, but I think it’s going to interfere,” Paglia explained, as we considered the menu. “Because I’ll be talking nonstop.” She selected moussaka and a Corona, and began.

Here are some things of which Camille Paglia — perhaps the most famous alleged anti-feminist feminist in American history — approves: football, Bernie Sanders, Katharine Hepburn, Rihanna, the Real Housewives franchise, taramasalata. (It tastes like lox, not like nova, which is good, because nova is too refined; it’s missing all the fish taste.) Here are some things Camille Paglia scorns, and should you have a problem with her scorn, know that she enjoys a fight: Michel Foucault, Doris Day, Lena Dunham, Elena Ferrante, college students who are always whining about date rape. Here are some things of which Camille Paglia used to approve, but has since exiled from her esteem: Bill Clinton, Madonna. She continues to believe in both the ’60s and rock and roll.

Paglia’s new book, out this month, is called Free Women, Free Men, and it compiles writings from throughout her career addressing sex, gender, and feminism — in other words, her most cherished and contentious themes. Paglia first came to prominence with the 1990 release of Sexual Personae. It was a 700-page book based on her Yale Ph.D. thesis, and the rare academic volume that might be described as swashbuckling. Sexual Personae cut an eccentric, interdisciplinary path across Western culture from antiquity onward, recounting what Paglia viewed as the ceaseless battle of nature (which is violent, irrational, untamable, and female) versus culture (aesthetic, logical, ever struggling and failing to tame nature, and, yes, male).

Amid the culture wars of the early ’90s, she presented a seductive alternative to liberal pieties, and to an academy in thrall to deconstructionism and multiculturalism. A self-described libertarian advocate of sexual freedom and free speech, she thought that second-wave feminism had become a homogenized, repressive force for ill (also, that it was intellectually bankrupt). What if, she demanded, Western civilization and the white men who built it deserved some credit? What if feminists were ignoring everything that was important not just about art but about sex? What if she, Camille Paglia, was the true feminist, because she believed women shouldn’t be asking some sexual-harassment grievance board to protect them from the world’s dangers? In her pop-culture-friendly tastes and in her noisy, splashy flair for performance, she offered herself as the populist foil to the liberal elite — she was, for a time, irresistible to the press, winning airtime and magazine covers, and claiming the throne of anti-PC provocateur par excellence. She made her name scorning all that the left held sacrosanct. “Her calling herself a feminist,” Gloria Steinem said back then, “is sort of like a Nazi saying they’re not anti-Semitic.”

Read more: New York Magazine http://nymag.com/thecut/2017/03/what-camille-paglia-understands-about-the-trump-era.html

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