A loud, little woman who talks with her hands (as she has described herself), Camille Paglia is famously scornful of Ivy League feminists—so it is with some trepidation that this reporter ascends from South Broad Street, Philadelphia, to meet her in the lofty Charlotte Cushman conference room at the University of the Arts, where she is professor of humanities and media studies. Briskly she informs us that Charlotte Cushman was "America's first actress." She indicates where to sit around the spacious conference table, then gets down to business. We are seized by a sense of her mission: there is no time to spare! Since her incendiary work Sexual Personae appeared in 1990 ("Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson"), Paglia has been hammering at the towers of academe—albeit more quietly than she did in the early '90s, when she posed in photos with weapons and props. She bangs frequently on the table for emphasis. She is very concerned about America's hostility toward the fine arts—she listens constantly to conservative talk radio and monitors responses. She is worried that media has become "debased and derivative." She is appalled by her students' ahistoricism. She aims to bridge the gap in America between popular culture and the fine arts, to educate the masses in art history and to liberate academic writing from the "spirit-killing" critics entrenched in poststructuralist theory. She is determined to bring back beauty, religion—the legacy of her derailed '60s generation.
Don't let her low profile of the past few years fool you: Paglia is first and foremost a teacher. She has taught for 34 years. Her newest evangelical tool consists of a poem: 43 poems, to be precise, chosen as the best written in English from the time of Shakespeare ("That time of year that mayst in me behold") to Joni Mitchell ("I came upon a child of God"). In her new book, Break, Blow, Burn (Pantheon), Paglia frames each of these poems with a brief, elucidating "explication of text." The poems are presented, unfashionably, in chronological order. Her object is to illuminate the text by her commentary, to elicit pleasure by comprehensive rereading. Each poem builds on the next—a tradition takes shape. A lyric poem, she insists, is like a painting: you see it as a whole, you study the details, then it comes alive. Her title is taken from John Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV," in which God is exhorted, "Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new."
Paglia speaks rapidly: "I choose for the first half of the book what worked best for me in the classroom, what had the most substance and staying power as relatively small poems"—work by George Herbert and Emily Dickinson, for example—"poems that are especially meaningful to me. Once I got into the 20th century, my particular taste goes, I start to veer off, like in the William Carlos Williams and Theodore Roethke—Harold Bloom and I would differ here." Paglia refers to her esteemed doctoral thesis adviser at Yale graduate school (1968—1972) who singly supported the publication of Sexual Personae in the face of repeated rejections. It has taken her five years to put Break, Blow, Burn together: first, she had to scour libraries for poems as perfectly constructed as those by Yeats.
"I was shocked and disillusioned by what I felt was the lack of craftsmanship that has become a kind of tic among the most honored of our poets. I thought the book would surely represent the figures who are most esteemed today! But I couldn't find anything in John Ashbery, Seamus Heaney... they just regurgitate material, and there's no attempt to shape a poem any longer into a real artifact." No great feminist poem, no acceptable war poem from the '60? "Terrible," she declares, "infantile! I found poets just striking poses and sneering—I thought, this is the best you can do? Nothing to give to the future?" She regrets not including Allen Ginsberg, whose Howl deeply influenced her generation. But the performance of poems, she learned, while exciting and innovative, "ultimately began to threaten the actual writing of poems. Poets weren't thinking of the poem on the page anymore."
She attributes her affinity for the arts to her Italian heritage; the physicality of the poem pleases her. "I come out of a factory-workers' tradition, in Endicott, N.Y., where everyone esteemed art—everyone worked with stone, metal, fencing. Everyone worked at the manipulation of the physical world. I have a feel for fabrication." She held Break, Blow, Burn back for two more years to work on her prose. She pounds the table to drive home her purpose: to return writing to a simple, lucid style that has been corrupted by the poststructuralist jargon that invaded academe by the early 1970s. She identifies strongly with a "natural, spoken style" epitomized by Greek scholar Gilbert Murray at Oxford during the 1920s and '30s. For her, the key to learning English as a child was reading Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. "I wanted to make the prose flow, to make it transparent," she explains of her writing. "It's extremely labor-intensive, even wasteful, but that's not the attitude toward books any more. Professors just crank it out like sausages."
Paglia has been at war against "professorial hypertheory" since before the publication of Sexual Personae, a compression of her doctoral thesis that was rejected by eight New York trade houses and five agents before finding a home with Yale University Press in 1990. She was an unknown—43 years old, teaching at the University of the Arts, one of the first of her immigrant family to attend college (Harpur College, SUNY Binghamton, 1964-1968), and already ostracized in academe for her outspokenness—she had been nudged out of her teaching position at Bennington College after eight years for being "a pain in the ass." There were lean years during the '80s when she could not get hired. Yale University Press was a last resort for her and adviser Harold Bloom. Editor Ellen Graham, "a very proper old-style Southern lady," on the verge of retirement at the press, snapped up Paglia's wide-ranging survey of the pagan primacy in poetry, visual arts and media. "I can only imagine there's some Faulkner Southern decadence thing," Paglia notes of Graham's vision, "but she immediately saw the potential of that book and went with it.... No one knew how it sold. There was no publicity—university presses didn't do publicity back then—this was before the Web, in the period when independent bookstores were still strong. Book buyers got a vibe and kept putting the book in the front of the store, and by November of that year Yale ordered a second printing." Vintage brought out Sexual Personae in paperback the next year, and it became a bestseller.
"It turned out to be just what people were craving—they wanted an introduction to the arts without any crap, theory and jargon. And then suddenly I exploded on the scene." Her role as the "public intellectual" ensued with her sensational New York Times op-ed piece "Madonna—Finally, a Real Feminist." She joined the controversies on date rape ("I see too many dopey, immature, self-pitying women walking around like melting sticks of butter"), speech codes and political correctness; got screamed down at Brown University ("the bastions of intellect on the campus have been turned into the Red Guards!"), excoriated by the reigning feminists ("The Return of Carry Nation"), and made the cover of New York magazine, among other feats. Her essay on academic reform, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders" (reprinted in her collection Sex, Art and American Culture), called French theorists Lacan, Derrida and Foucault "perfect prophets for the weak, anxious academic personality." She harped on the authentic idealism of the '60s, with its embrace of the cosmic consciousness—true multiculturalism—betrayed by reactionary French faddishness. She was prankish, quotable and dead-on scholarly.
"I was suddenly this crazed menace," Paglia recalls. "I was here, I was there! But the zeitgeist was switching. People were sick of the PC era of the '80s, of the antipornography feminists and speech codes coming down on campus. I came along—I was this"—she makes burbling noises, waving her arms—"person, right? Once people heard me talking they said, Oh you should be on TV! But my life never changed."
Academe is the ocean liner, and she is the tugboat: "I prophesy that I'm going to be pushing and pulling and the whole thing is going to shift." Her ideas are being accepted. Her editor at Random House, Lu Ann Walther, says that every week she gets permissions requests for Paglia's essays. "They're now in dozens of anthologies and student readers. But when all is said and done, she'll always be a bit of a renegade. That's her nature." Walther wonders if a book like On Bullshit could have existed without Paglia breaking open an "ossified academe." The success of Sexual Personae, asserts Paglia, has "emboldened" academic presses to seek wider audiences, while trade houses "strike university publishers when the iron of the market seems warm enough," as Catharine Stimpson has written in the New York Times about the phenomenon. "When I first started out," Paglia remembers. "to think that media could be bridged with the fine arts was really quite scandalous, and I know I suffered in terms of attitudes by professors, who thought I wasn't serious—but now everyone is interested in media. First, they rejected and derided me, then they wanted to be me."
The promised second volume of Sexual Personae, as she envisioned it originally, spanning 1900 to the present and incorporating movies, TV, sports and rock music, is not yet in the works. Instead, she took time out to write a book on Hitchcock's The Birds for the British Film Institute; she plans another collection of essays and eventually a book on romanticism and the visual arts. She speaks regretfully of the decline she has observed in popular culture since 1990: "My whole evangelical way of talking about it is no longer the same. I have to start from the beginning again, because this is the story of my generation. Volume II will eventually come, but I realize it's going to have an elegiac quality.
"The moment is over," she remarks.
She jabs at Break, Blow, Burn. "This is the result of my entire teaching life: working with students and trying to make them understand art in a simple manner. It's the critic's obligation to help art be understood by the mass audience. The artist is not addressing critics or professors. The artist is addressing you."