Back in the 1990’s when radical feminists were trying to rid the world of the male erection (often succeeding with their ponderous ideology), Camille Paglia was worshiping the phallus! And she had the gall to call herself a feminist! In an interview with Bill Maher she declared: ‘I left the catholic church 25 years ago because I couldn’t stand the dogma. I hate all dogmas’[i]. This didn’t prevent Paglia from worshiping Catholic culture and declaring that in another epoch she would have been a nun. Paglia is a feminist ‘nun’ — and a transgender lesbian, who happens to be pro-pornography!
Why do we need a pagan like Camille Paglia today? Because she is a real individual in an age of bots and algorithms, safe-spaces and toxic support groups. She gives us a good triple-expresso blast of straightforward reality. Today’s PC culture has made people terrified to say what they think — yet strangely entitled to their bile — but Paglia is fearless. She saw through all the contradictions of the age: the intolerance of too much tolerance, the sexism of 2rd wave feminism, the performative contradictions of post modernism (an absolutist view which doesn’t believe in absolutes), the inner perversions of puritan morality codes, et cetera.
You don’t have to agree with Paglia — in fact, it is impossible to always agree with her, which is one of her virtues — she’ll offend whatever groupthink you might identify with. Paglia is too heretical to ever have a cult with followers, too subversive for consensus — she will take you out of your comfort zone. She is like some kind of fierce Hindu deity, taking the energy of hysteria and transforming it into a bright shower of illumination. Paglia is never aloof or disconnected from the body. She in your face, she is brash, and she will bring you down in a flurry of erudition.
I was lucky to have read Camille Paglia’s major work, Sexual Personae [ii], way back in the 90’s when I was a literature student at McGill University in Montreal. Sexual Personae immunized me from the various cults of post-modern theory — saved me from reading Michel Foucault, for example, who I never touched until a couple of years ago.
Paglia told us to read the western cannon faithfully rather than dismantle it, to view art and culture on a continuum; moreover, she thought we should study eastern mysticism, mythology, and world spirituality. I subsequently read Nietzsche, Northrop Fry, William Blake, Carl Jung, Alan Watts, Krishnamurti — but also Shakespeare, Emily Dickenson, and the King James bible — I avoided Jacques Derrida and his gang. It was the poets of the body that Paglia taught us to love, the ones who explored taboo, lust, and danger — the mystics and romantics.
Paglia’s own kind of kind literary criticism isn’t merely literary criticism but is a fierce kind poetry in itself. The sheer explosive energy of her prose was an antidote to the depressed ennui of the grunge era — she wanted people to be brave and heroic again. With sharp bullet-like sentences, she took down the stuffed men and prissy women of the culture: she tapped into the fierce and wild feminine rather than its ‘nice’ and chirpy counterpart. She loved the tough early feminist like Germaine Geer and Betty Freidman, but felt that the movement had become removed from the biological realities of men and women, from traditional people, and respect for mothers especially.
Art for Paglia doesn’t belonged to the upper classes, it wasn’t supposed to be merely conceptual, but was rather a way of transforming the dark energies of lust and violence into something transcendent. Art for Paglia should be full bodied, but also poetic and mystical. Popular culture was never beneath Paglia; for example, she praised Madonna as a serious artist — which I still find surprising — but it was Madonna’s iconic erotic power that she loved.
Paglia’s references were hugely diverse. She mined the esoteric in Astrology and the I Ching, but also in Opera Winfrey and NFL football, she praised television and Hollywood, derived her style in part from talk radio and stand-up comedy. Rock music was important to her as well: Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were on equal footing with Lord Byron and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Paglia wanted us to love poetry — in all its complex and lusty forms, high and low, sublime and trashy, and above all dangerous.
Paglia was passionate about our ‘pagan’ past — including Native American culture, but also Egyptian art and mythology — as a counter-balance to our more Greek or Hebrew concentration on language and logic. Reality also lives in the body, she argued, not just the abstract mind — the eye is as important as the word — the body matters. We need to develop our emotional sensitivity, not just our hyper-rationalism. For this reason Paglia loved opera, fashion, decadent expressions of culture, as a remedies to the grey of consensus of academia. Furthermore, Paglia refused to be seduced the cynical contemporary art world, or the view that that supported ennui and fragmentation. She dared to talk about gender differences as being a reality of human experience, and was tarred a ‘biological essentialist’ among other post-modern slogans.
Of course, in the 1990’s Paglia provoked a certain hysteria among the intellectual elite — much as Jordan Peterson does today. She was controversial because of her insistence that women take responsibility for their sexuality — she was therefore called a rape apologist and other not-so-nice names. Gloria Steinem compared her to a Nazi (“Her calling herself a feminist is sort of like a Nazi saying they’re not anti-Semitic.”[iii]) — the same stuff the now call Jordan Peterson. But Paglia’s critics — and now Jordan Peterson’s critics — project their own intolerance and fascistic tendency: they want to make people behave. And now that this PC policing has reached a pitch of hysteria in the universities, it is good to see Paglia do interviews again — and kick some puritans in the derrière.
If Paglia was hated by the establishment elite, she was loved a lot of people — just like Jordan Peterson today, who grows rich on the disapproval of his detractors. Paglia wanted to bring together the so-called high and so-called low culture, to rescue feminism from being pathetic, from endless wining about men and patriarchy. She wanted women to worship men, and men to worship women — she celebrated strong men and strong women, as the title of her newest book suggests — but also the flamboyance of gay culture.
Paglia was perhaps the strongest proponent of free speech and the biggest critique of political correctness of her times — a mantle which Peterson has since taken over. She realized early-on that liberal Manhattan media was censoring free debate in the name of social justice, and that the hippies of her generation were fast becoming control freaks and Stalinists of language.
Because of her attacks on the tedium of polarized politics, Paglia garnered some sympathy from the right — despite being a Bernie Sanders supporter, environmentalist, and democrat. As a free thinker, she could crossed party lines — she understood both sides. But, Paglia, like Peterson again, was also a serious educator who wanted to expose people to the history of art and the western cannon, as well as to the poetry of the Hebrew bible, which was being radically deconstructed or just trashed. She told us to be real scholars of history, religion and mythology — not to mention biology — rather than to play obscure language games.
Why do some people hate Camille Paglia — and Jordan Peterson for that matter? There seems to be a lot of resentment for popular thinkers who speak to people’s passions and this comes from the envy and frustration of those who live in borrowed concepts but cannot come down the mountain and find their own prophetic voice, as Paglia and Peterson have done. There are whole slews of disembodied intellects who fear working class culture, even as they pretend to champion of it — who fear incarnation and would prefer to stay safe in a tower of abstraction. But Paglia is a philosopher of the body and biology. She is a philosopher of the people — a popular philosopher, but never a cheerleader.
One of my purposes for writing this article is to entreat people, and especially young people, to read Sexual Personae, and also Paglia’s subsequent work. Paglia will cure you of humbug; she’ll lead you down all kind of fascinating rabbit holes — she will arm you against the monstrous machine of disembodied ideology, in all the departments which end with the word ‘studies’ (cultural studies, gender studies, etc.).
If you are a young writer, Paglia will show you how to write like Jimi Hendrix played guitar — to bend reality, to be electric, psychedelic, passionate. Paglia will bend your consciousness rather than turn you into an automaton — and you won’t need LSD to have your limited view torn to shreds. Furthermore, she will save you from hyperational thinking on one end and obscurantism on the other. The fact is: Paglia is the real postmodern — despite writing the most searing and best critiques of post modernism yet — in the sense that she deconstructed the suffocating grand narratives of her time.
If you think that anything I have written here is over-the-top, that is because I’m Channeling Paglia and she is a bit of that. The American continent creates some strange birds sometimes and Paglia is a prime example, as is Peterson. But I’m a fan of dramatic gestures and rock and roll — I like energetic, fiery voices, rather than ponderous ones. Having grown in puritan Canada, I suffer from a revulsion towards the waspy aspects of North American culture — I have a longing for big themes, big works of art, big ideas. And everything about Paglia is big: she represents the brave, but also subversive part of American culture worth loving.
Paglia waged war on the devouring mothers of political correctness and nihilistic resentment; she celebrated the wilder manifestations of human freedom. Today we need Paglia’s Italian-American fighting spirit, which can sting or pack a punch certainly, but is not filled with hidden malevolence.
Take my word for it. If you like Jordan, read Camille — she is a lot better than vitamins. Certainly, the two thinkers come to many of the same conclusions and appreciate each other — but the difference is in emphasis. While Peterson tells us to clean up our room, Paglia tells us to go out into the wilderness.
It is interesting to note that Jordan Peterson has a strange kinship with transgender people, both positive and negative. I have been speculating for some time that his rise to stardom has something to do with this. Perhaps, on an archetypal level, the true ‘philosopher king’ is able to integrate both the male and the female side — and transgender people are a mirror of this. This union of male and female qualities has always been the task of the Yogi, for example.
Certainly, I’m on shaky ground here, and some people will object. However, what I have been doing in this series of essays, which compare Peterson with other thinkers, is not just to be another Peterson fanboy, but to try to find some hidden aspect to Peterson’s thinking — to add something new to the discussion. Like Camille Paglia, I believe a spirit of provocation is necessary when we get too sure of ourselves. I have, for instance, playfully argued that Peterson, is a social justice warrior leading a revolution of the proletariat!
In any case, I am pretty sure Camille Paglia, who describes herself as transgender, would have something to say about this. And when Peterson gets a bit too conservative for my taste — not to say that he is really that conservative — I remember Paglia, who has more far ranging view of sexuality than Peterson does. In any case, she is a necessary voice and a complement to Peterson.
A series of articles that compare Jordan Peterson to different thinkers and public figures:
[ii] Paglia, Camille Anna. Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art. 1974.