“One test of un homme sérieux,” Christopher Hitchens wrote, “is that it is possible to learn from him even when one radically disagrees with him.” By this measure, Camille Paglia is une femme sérieuse indeed.
Her best book remains her first, “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson” (1990), a surprise academic-press best seller about decadence in Western art. It grew out of her doctoral dissertation at Yale, where her mentor was Harold Bloom.
If you’ve forgotten “Sexual Personae,” or have never read it, Paglia helpfully reprints a few chunks of it in her new essay collection, “Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism.” These chunks are fiercely erudite, freewheeling and sex-drenched. Nothing else in this collection can touch them.
Paglia’s second-best book is “Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems” (2006). Her exegeses are prickly and acute, the Helen Vendler-meets-Patti Smith grad seminar you wanted but never quite got.
One reason Paglia gets under people’s skin is that she has no sacred cows. Reviewing “Break, Blow, Burn” in The New York Times Book Review, Clive James got at why she made some readers uncomfortable.
“The most threatening thing about her, from the American viewpoint, is that she refuses to treat the arts as an instrument of civil rights,” he wrote. “Without talent, no entitlement.”
It’s worth recalling how good Paglia can be, because in between major books, she does her best to help you forget. Her essay collections – “Sex, Art, and American Culture” (1992), “Vamps & Tramps” (1994) and now this one – display her worst qualities (we will get to these), which swamp her obvious intellect.
The pieces in “Free Women, Free Men” have two primary targets. One is modern feminism, at least the spongy wing of it she considers to be puritanical and man-bashing. Here is the tightest and liveliest summation of her position I can find in this book:
“Women will never know who they are until they let men be men. Let’s get rid of Infirmary Feminism, with its bedlam of bellyachers, anorexics, bulimics, depressives, rape victims and incest survivors. Feminism has become a catchall vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses.”
Tell us how you really feel, Camille.
Her second primary target is groupthink at America’s coddling universities. A free-speech absolutist, 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?”
In the wake of their violent treatment of a professor of international politics and of Charles Murray, an author of “The Bell Curve,” students at Middlebury College, my alma mater, could do worse than invite Paglia to speak while on her book tour.
Paglia considers herself, depending upon her mood, a libertarian feminist, a pro-sex feminist or an “Amazon” one. What she is really committed to, she writes in one essay here, is this: “My mission is to be absolutely as painful as possible in every situation.”
Paglia’s arguments are incisive and worth tangling with. The problem, for the reader of “Free Women, Free Men,” is that she repeats the same arguments and anecdotes over and over again. Reading this book is like being stranded in a bar where the jukebox has only two songs, both by Pat Benatar.
Paglia’s petitions grow fuzzier with each iteration, as if they were documents smudged from being photocopied 300 times. Her prose can be electric. Yet too often in these pieces, you sense she’s written them while in line at the bodega.
For The Wall Street Journal, for example, she composed a piece in praise of football. It’s included here, and it begins: “This week, after being written off for dead in a monthlong flurry of grumpy magazine articles, the National Football League stormed back and retook center stage.” Three clichés! In the first sentence!
Paglia’s temperament, in her essay collections, has much in common with that of our commander-in-chief. Like Donald Trump, Paglia is paranoid and never forgets a slight. She speaks more than once here of “coordinated” campaigns against her work.
Like our leader, she is vainglory on wheels. This book’s introduction is strewed with honeyed nuggets, like “my signature one-liners” and “my flamboyant media presence” and “my cheeky use of slang.” (Readers can weigh a writer’s cheekiness on their own home scales.)
Declining an invitation to go on “Oprah” with Naomi Wolf, she asks, “Would Caruso appear with Tiny Tim?” She’s striding into Norman Mailer territory here, but this kind of guff dented Mailer’s career as well.
Like Trump, with his displays of steaks and Time magazine covers with his face upon them, Paglia also fills this book with her own clippings and glossy magazine covers. She’s a lawyer who wears her diploma around her neck.
“I don’t fit in anywhere!” Paglia cries in one of these pieces. “I’m like this wandering being, the Ancient Mariner.” When she bears down and worries about sentences more than poses, she doesn’t wander at all. Then she’s a fearless public intellectual and more necessary than ev
Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism
By Camille Paglia (Pantheon, 315 pages)