‘This Book is Not for Everyone’: Camille Paglia Talks ‘Provocations’

Sex, politics and religion are widely considered taboo topics for polite conversation. Yet that's exactly what Camille Paglia tackles in her latest book, “Provocations: Collected Essays.”

Paglia has made a career out of sharp, intellectual and controversial criticism. “My mission is to be absolutely as painful as possible in every situation,” she writes in her 2017 essay collection “Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism.”

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The author and university professor calls herself a gay pro-sex, pro-pornography, pro-strip clubs, pro-prostitution feminist. “I’m a Libertarian. That’s why I’m always freely offending both sides,” she told Salon in an April 2016 interview.

Paglia is professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She's the author of a number of books including her surprising best seller, “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson,” a scholarly text based on her 1974 Yale graduate school dissertation. It was published in 1990 after seven publishers passed on it. 

On Tuesday, Paglia joins “Chicago Tonight” in conversation. This article will be updated with video following our broadcast.

Below, an excerpt from “Provocations.”


This book is not for everyone.

It is not for those who believe that they and their friends, allies, political parties, or churches have found the absolute truth about mankind, present or future.

It is not for those who believe that language must be policed to serve what they view as a higher social good, nor is it for those who grant to government and its proxies on college campuses the right to require and enforce “correct” thinking.

It is not for those who believe that art is a servant of political agendas or philanthropic goals or that it contains hidden coercive messages that must be exposed and destroyed.

It is not for those who see women as victims and men as the enemy or who think that women are incapable of asserting their rights and human dignity everywhere, including the workplace, without the intervention and protection of authority figures deputized by the power of the state.

It is not for those who see human behavior as wholly formed by oppressive social forces and who deny the shadowy influence of evolution and biology on desire, fantasy, and anarchic impulse, from love to crime.

This book is instead for those who elevate free thought and free speech over all other values, including material considerations of wealth, status, or physical well-being.

It is for those who see art and the contemplation of art as a medium of intuition and revelation, a web work of meaning that should be enhanced and celebrated and not demeaned by teachers who cynically deny the possibility of meaning.

It is for those who see women as men’s equals who, in their just and necessary demand for equality before the law, do not plead for special protections for women as a weaker sex.

It is for those who see nature as a vast and sublime force which mankind is too puny to control or alter and which fatefully shapes us as individuals and as a species.

It is for those who see life in spiritual terms as a quest for enlightenment, a dynamic process of ceaseless observation, reflection, and self-education.

A premise of this book, following the great cultural revolution of the 1960s, which was thwarted by the reactionary and elitist forces of academic postmodernism, is that higher consciousness transcends all distinctions of race, class, and gender. Sixties multiculturalism was energized by a convergence of influences from world religions—both Buddhism (a legacy of the Beat writers) and Hinduism, which suffused popular music. Standard interpretation of the radical 1960s in exclusively political terms is a common but major error that I address in detail in an essay collected here, “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s”.

Although I am an atheist, I have immense admiration and respect for religion as a comprehensive symbol-system, far more profound in its poetry, insight, and metaphysical sweep than anything currently offered by secular humanism. In my Cornerstone Arts Lecture at Colorado College, “Religion and the Arts in America” (also collected here), I demonstrate how central religion has been to American culture and how its emotionally expressive and multiracial gospel tradition remains the principal reason for America’s continued world dominance in commercial popular music.

I have argued for decades that true multiculturalism would be achieved in education not by splintering the curriculum into politicized fiefdoms but by making comparative religion the core curriculum of world education. An early piece on this subject (published in my first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture in 1991) was “East and West: An Experiment in Multiculturalism”, a chronicle of an interdisciplinary humanities course that I co-taught with artist and social activist Lily Yeh at the University of the Arts. In the present volume, the same theme is addressed in my opening statement for a 2017 debate at the Yale Political Union, “Resolved: Religion Belongs in the Curriculum”.

Provocations covers the two and a half decades since my last general essay collection, Vamps & Tramps, in 1994. Some of my articles and lectures on sex, gender, and feminism were published separately a year ago in Free Women, Free Men. The latter volume contains my 1991 New York Newsday op-ed on date-rape that caused prolonged controversy as the first public protest against an escalating hysteria around that issue on college campuses and in the media. I continue to espouse my code of “street-smart feminism”, which frankly acknowledges the risks and dangers of life and encourages women to remain eternally vigilant and alert and to accept responsibility for their choices and adventures.

However, as the generations pass since the sexual revolution launched in 1960 by the release of the first birth-control pill, discourse about sex has become progressively more ideological, rigid, and banal. The feminist rejection of Freud as sexist has eliminated basic tools of psychological analysis once standard in cultural criticism. Few young adults with elite school degrees today appear to realize how romantic attractions and interactions often repeat patterns rooted in early family life. Nor do they seem to have heard of the complex principle of ambivalence, which produces mixed messages that can disastrously complicate social encounters.

In my first book, Sexual Personae (1990), I wrote extensively about the tormented fragility of male sexual identity—which most feminist theory, with its bitterly anti-male premises, seems incapable of recognizing. Too often, women fail to realize how much power they have over men, whose ambition and achievement in the public realm are often wedded to remorseless anxiety and insecurity. Canonical feminist theory has also missed the emotional and conceptual symbolism in sexual behavior—as in the infantile penile displays of entertainment industry moguls who appear to have routinely chosen as targets women who would show embarrassment, confusion, or fear and not those who would laugh, scold, or whack that tender member with the nearest shoe, purse, hairbrush, or lamp. Interpreting such pathetically squalid scenes in exclusively political rather than psychological terms does not help women to make their way through the minefield of a professional world that will always be stressful, competitive, and uncertain for aspirants of both sexes.

The masculine dream of sexual freedom is writ large in the drawings of Tom of Finland, who heavily influenced gay male iconography after World War Two and directly inspired photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (whom I defended in Sex, Art, and American Culture). My essay, “Sex Quest in Tom of Finland”, which was written for the massive Taschen edition of Tom’s collected works, stresses the pagan energy, vitality, and humor of Tom’s pornographic all-male world, with its panoply of archetypes borrowed from Hollywood and Nazi-era Finland.

The initial theme of my work, however, was not masculinity but androgyny, the subject of my doctoral dissertation at Yale. (Its title was Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art.) When the prospectus for my thesis was accepted in 1971, it was the only dissertation on sex at the Yale Graduate School. While completing its writing at my first teaching job at Bennington College, I was electrified by David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase, which seemed to encapsulate everything that I had been thinking about gender. Forty years later, Bowie would put Sexual Personae on a list of his 100 favorite books. It did not surprise me: that great artist was sensing himself mirrored back from my pages. It was a tremendous honor to be invited by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum to write the article on gender for the catalog of its mammoth 2013 exhibition of Bowie costumes, which then toured the world. That essay, “Theater of Gender: David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution”, is reprinted here.

As I have often said, my own protest against gender norms began in childhood with my flagrantly dissident Halloween costumes: Robin Hood at age five; a toreador at six; a Roman soldier at seven; Napoleon at eight; Hamlet at nine. (A photo of me as Napoleon appears elsewhere in this book.) From college on, I adopted the gender-bending styles of Mod London, which were effectively transvestite. However, despite my lifelong transgender identification, I do not accept most of the current transgender agenda, which denies biological sex differences, dictates pronouns, and recklessly promotes medical and surgical interventions. An excerpt from an interview with the Weekly Standard, where I condemn the use of puberty blockers on children as a violation of human rights, is collected here. When Sexual Personae was released, I called it “the biggest sex change in history”. Gore Vidal rightly said that the voice of Sexual Personae was the voice of his transsexual heroine, Myra Breckinridge. Aggressive, implacable, and scathingly satirical, that voice is a transgender construction, using the materials of language and mind. To questioning young people drawn to the siren song of hormones and surgery, I say: stay fluid! Stay free!

It is surely my sexually dual perspective that has allowed me to understand and sympathize with Alfred Hitchcock’s awed and quasi-mystical view of women, which so many other feminists have reductively condemned as “misogynous”. I defended Hitchcock in my British Film Institute book on The Birds (1998), as well as in essays such as “Women and Magic in Alfred Hitchcock”, written for the BFI’s 2012 Hitchcock retrospective and collected here. Other pieces on film in this book celebrate movie music and lament the waning of European art film as well as the decline of film criticism.

One of my principal ambitions since my student days has been to develop an interpretative style that could integrate high and popular culture, which had exploded during the 1960s. I call myself a Warholite: Andy Warhol’s improvisational, avant-garde short films (starring gay hustlers and drag queens) and his conversion of publicity photos of Hollywood stars into radiant Byzantine icons provided an inspiring template for my work. In contrast, I detest and oppose academic media studies that monotonously recycle judgmental, politicized terminology from the passé Frankfurt School, which has no feeling whatever for popular culture.

Provocations, I submit, demonstrates the range and flexibility of my system of interpretation, which fiercely attacks when necessary but which respectfully illuminates both the artist and the artwork, from Old Masters like Shakespeare and Leonardo to modern music stars like Prince and Rihanna. In college, I was impatient with the New Criticism, which I felt was too narrow and genteel and had to be urgently expanded with history and psychology. But I have continued to apply the New Critical technique of close textual analysis to everything I write about, as in my pieces here on Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” or on what I call the “psychotic mysticism” of poet Theodore Roethke. One of my long-range goals in college was to break down the barriers between genres, and I believe that my interdisciplinary method has in fact done that—extending the same minute focus and dramatic commentary to all of the arts but also to contemporary politics.

My columns and op-eds on politics over the past quarter century are too numerous to reprint or even catalog. I think I showed special facility for analyzing the horse race of presidential primaries, when my reviews of televised debates, for example, were usually far more attuned than those of the major media to how the candidates were actually being perceived by mainstream voters. I consider the cover-story Salon.com interview (collected here) that I did with editor-in-chief David Talbot in February 2003 to be a supreme highlight of my career: I was virtually alone among political commentators in condemning the imminent invasion of Iraq. Other leading media, including the New York Times and the New Yorker, had shockingly surrendered to tissue-thin government propaganda.

Full columns have been reproduced here on three political figures: Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump. I have written so voluminously and variously about Hillary Clinton since the Clintons’ arrival on the national scene in 1992 that there was no one piece that could be considered representative. Hence I have interwoven excerpts about her from numerous articles in the Media Chronicle at the back of the book. (It lists articles in English only. My extensive articles and interviews on politics, art, and other subjects in the foreign press, particularly in Italy and Brazil, have been omitted.) The reader should be forewarned that I began as a Hillary fan but became steadily disillusioned over the years.

I was speaking, writing, and crusading about the first woman president throughout the 1990s, when most other feminists were absorbed with policy issues. Reproduced in this book is a poster advertising my appearance at a 1996 debate at the Yale Political Union (“Resolved: America Needs a Female President”), which was recorded for national TV broadcast by C-SPAN. The Media Chronicle also contains excerpts of then-controversial columns or articles where I was notably prescient, as a registered Democrat, about developing problems and evasions in my own party that would eventually lead, many years later, to its stunning surprise defeat in the 2016 presidential election.

Education is a major theme in this book. As a career teacher of nearly half a century, I have watched American universities miss their epochal opportunity for radical curricular reform in the 1970s and descend decade by decade into the balkanized, bureaucratic, therapeutic customer-service operations that they are today. High scholarly standards and deep erudition (as admirably exemplified by the stiff, stuffy, old-guard professors at Yale when I arrived as a graduate student) have so vanished that their value and indeed their very existence is denied by today’s bright, shiny, and shallow academic theorists. The real revolution would have been to smash the departmental structure of the humanities, reunite the fragmented fields of literature and art, and create an authentically multicultural global curriculum.

A principal piece in this volume is “The North American Intellectual Tradition”, which was given as the Second Annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture at Fordham University. There as in my long exposé, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders” (published by Arion in 1991 and reprinted in Sex, Art, and American Culture), I reject European post-structuralism and call for a reorientation toward North American pragmatism, grounded in nature. The academic stampede toward pretentious, abstruse French theorists in the 1970s was a grotesque betrayal of the American 1960s, which was animated by a Romantic return to nature and a reconnection of art with the sensory—the dynamic life of the body. Michel Foucault’s primary influence, by his own admission, was playwright Samuel Beckett--whose depressive postwar nihilism was swept away by the communal music and dance of the 1960s. Today’s jargon-spouting academic postmodernists with their snidely debunking style are not the heirs of Sixties leftism but retrograde bourgeois elitists, still picking through the shards of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land.

This book contains multiple examples of my early involvement with the Web. “Dispatches from the New Frontier: Writing for the Internet” documents the process by which I developed the unique format of my long-running Salon.com column. Because articles written for the Web are viewed on a screen rather than a page, adjustments must be made in syntax, diction, and visual design. A continuing failure to recognize this has produced the rafts of slack, verbose, meandering prose that currently clogs the Web on both news sites and blogs. Historically, it will eventually be recognized that my lengthy, multi-part Salon column, with its variety of tone and topics, was the first blog, a new literary genre of the digital age. When I began writing it, only Mickey Kaus was doing anything comparable, but his Slate.com column was wholly focused on politics. My autobiographical diary approach was so new that Salon’s editor-in-chief relayed complaints from other staffers that there was too much of me in my columns. In retrospect, it is clear that my work for Salon prefigured today’s universal social media.

“Dispatches from the New Frontier” also describes how the geographically scattered, maverick founders of the Web instantly understood and supported my libertarian and multi-media ideas. In the early 1990s, while my work was being ostracized by the academic establishment, the dissidents on The Well were discussing it from coast to coast. Stewart Brand, a co-founder of The Well, interviewed me in 1993 for the premiere issue of Wired, which called me “possibly the next Marshall McLuhan”. I co-hosted early online chats, an innovative interactive genre whose format was, by today’s standards, strikingly primitive.

Included in this book is the transcript of a collaboration I did on “Oscar Style” with Glenn Belverio (in his drag persona as Glennda Orgasm) for an America Online “CyberPlex Auditorium” in 1996. The print-out format of our dialogue with real-time questioners, as the Academy Awards unfolded on TV, has been reproduced as exactly as possible. Before the Web, people had to wait more than a full day before there could be newspaper coverage of the Oscars, with their climactic late-night finale. Hence I lobbied David Talbot about the Web’s potential for rapid response to the Oscars broadcast, and the result was a yearly feature on Salon, “Camille Does the Oscars”. I also campaigned in Salon and Interview magazine for comprehensive reporting on Oscars fashions—another of my prophetic themes: the red carpet would eventually win epic coverage by Joan Rivers and become a media staple, currently on the verge of excess.

Finally, two interviews here focus on my philosophy and practice as a writer. My writing has always been motivated by the search for a voice—or rather for many voices, keyed to the moment. There is nothing more important to me than the power of words to describe, recreate, entrance, and provoke.

Excerpted from Provocations by Camille Paglia. Copyright © 2018 by Camille Paglia. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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