Camille Anna Paglia (born April 2, 1947 in Endicott, New York) is a social critic, author and avowed feminist. She is University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Paglia is an intellectual of many apparent contradictions: a classicist who champions art both high and low, with a classical view that human nature is inherently dangerous, and yet who also celebrates dionysian revelry in the wilder, darker sides of human sexuality.
Paglia came to public attention with the publication of her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, in 1990, when she also began writing about popular culture and feminism in mainstream newspapers and magazines. Less than a year after Sexual Personae was published, she was the subject of a New York magazine cover story, "Woman Warrior".
Her significance in the 1990s intellectual world was two-fold:
- The seventies had seen the rise of a particularly rigid, doctrinaire "feminism" that many were finding stifling but only a few were challenging (e.g., the "sex positive" S/M lesbians, perhaps typified by Susie Bright).
- The left was pushing for a change in the traditional focus of western universities on western culture (sometimes derided as the study of "dead white males"). For example, Stanford University was dropping its well-regarded undergraduate requirement of a year-long course in "Western Culture" in favor of a more broadly-focused study of "Cultures Ideas and Values" or CIV.
Against this backdrop, Paglia appeared on the scene as a female intellectual who enjoyed challenging the left-wing position in these areas. But she did so by arguing from an unusual position that also embraced homosexuality, fetishism, and prostitution. Although her political views are not easily categorized, she often speaks in favor of individual freedom and describes her position as libertarian. She is also an atheist, though she thinks comparative religion should be at the center of world education.
Following the academically-oriented Sexual Personae (1990), Paglia began a series of more popularly oriented works. In 1992 she published Sex, Art and American Culture. Her next book, Vamps and Tramps (late 1994), was a collection of short pieces along with new material such as a theoretical manifesto about sex, "No Law in the Arena". In 1998 she published a short volume about Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds in the British Film Institute Film Classics series.
In 2005 Pantheon Books published her study of poetry, entitled Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems. The title is from a line of poetry by John Donne. She is currently (as of 2005) writing a third essay collection for Vintage Books, and working on a project concerned with visual arts and Romanticism.
Paglia was a columnist for Salon.com for six years from its first issue and is now a contributing editor at Interview magazine. She continues to write articles and reviews for media and scholarly journals, such as her long article, "Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s", published in the classics and humanities journal Arion in winter 2003.
Camille Anna Paglia was born April 2, 1947, at 6:57 PM in Endicott, New York. She was the first child of Pasquale and Lydia Anne (Colapietro) Paglia, who was born in Italy, and was raised in an Italian immigrant family.
(The name "Paglia" specifically describes the color of the straw that is produced in Italy, the same color that George Eliot had in mind in Daniel Deronda when she wrote of "the pale-golden straw scattered or in heaps.")
The Paglia household had little money, but the parents exposed their daughter to the best of Western art and culture. She said that the first music to leave an impression on her was Bizet's Carmen, an opera which, in her words, "struck me with electrifying force." She was three when she heard it. That same year, she also became enamored with the witch in Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a character she later described as elegant and imperious.
Throughout her childhood, she was drawn to several charismatic and powerful figures in art, popular culture and history, setting a precedent for her adult career as critic and scholar. Her writings often draw on the entire history of her experience with these figures, from the moment she first encountered them, through her enjoyment of them as a fan, to her scholarly and critical assessment of them. In this sense, she can be described as an experiential critic; that is to say, her work is less theoretical than other writers and more attentive to her direct experience with the topics about which she writes.
As an example, even her Halloween characters as a child became subjects of her serious writings as an adult (she dressed as Alice from Alice in Wonderland at the age of four; Robin Hood at five; the toreador Escamillo at six; a Roman soldier at seven; Napoleon at eight and Hamlet at nine; and she has been published on all of these topics, with the exception, perhaps, of Robin Hood.)
Her primary school years were spent in Oxford, New York, a farming community where, at the Oxford Academy, her father taught high school students. At the age of nine she tried to produce the play Hamlet (based on the Classics Comic Books) in school but became frustrated because some of her classmates hadn't learned their lines. The experience taught her that she couldn't depend on other people, and she soon became a rather aggressive child.
Her family moved to Syracuse, New York, where her father entered graduate school at Syracuse University and then taught as a professor of romance languages at Le Moyne College. Paglia attended the Edward Smith Elementary school, T. Aaron Levy Junior High and William Nottingham High School.
During the summers, she went to Spruce Ridge Camp, a Girl Scout facility in the Adirondacks. Many years later she described it, in the New York Observer, as a "prelesbian heaven. It was just so romantic. I had mad crushes on all the counselors." She took different names when she was there, including Anastasia, her confirmation name, inspired by the Ingrid Bergman film, Stacy, and Stanley. In one formative experience, she exploded the outhouse by pouring in too much lime. She said, "It symbolized everything I would do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness. I would be someone who would look into the latrine of culture..."
The year 1959 was an especially important year in Paglia's development, as it was the year her family got both a telephone and a TV set. Television exposed her to the movies of the 1930s for the first time, especially those of Katharine Hepburn, who made a big impression on her. She also fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor, and obsessively collected every photograph of her that she could lay her hands on. In 1961 when Taylor won for Best Actress at the 1960 Academy Awards for Butterfield 8, Paglia's reaction was "feverish excitement the whole next day at school." At about this time, she received a lecture from her father regarding Voltaire's poor opinion of actors.
While in high school, she began research on Amelia Earhart. The research lasted three years, ending when she was 17. She said, "I spent every Saturday in the bowels of the public library going through all these materials, old magazines and newspapers, before microfilm. Everything was falling to pieces. I probably destroyed the whole collection! I was covered with grime." She planned to write a book on Earhart, and while the project never came to fruition, she wrote about Earhart for a popular magazine in the 1990s.
By all accounts, she was an excellent student at Nottingham High, devoted to her work. Carmelia Metosh was her Latin teacher for three years, and in 1992 recalled: "She always has been controversial. Whatever statements were being made (in class), she had to challenge them. She made good points then, as she does now. She was very alert, `with it' in every way." Paglia thanked Metosh in the acknowledgements to Sexual Personae, and in January 2000, described her as "the dragon lady of Latin studies, who breathed fire at principals and school boards."
In some ways it appears that 1963 was the beginning of her career as a feminist scholar. For her birthday that year, she received a copy of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex from a Belgian colleague of her father's, Josphina van Hal McGinn . The book had a tremendous influence on her and furthered her resolve to be an important feminist writer. On July 8 of that year, Newsweek magazine published her letter about equal opportunity for American women. And on November 24, she appeared in Syracuse's Herald American in a short profile about her outstanding achievements as a student, noting her longtime study of feminist icon Earhart.
She graduated high school in 1964 and began attending SUNY Binghamton, Harpur College. There she became friendly with Bruce Benderson (who had also attended Nottingham High School), Stephen Jarratt and Stephen Feld, three gay men who would have a big influence on her. During a summer break, she worked the night shift at St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse as a secretary in the emergency ward.
One semester at college she was put on probation for committing 39 pranks. When she was 19, she hit a drunken young stranger in the teeth with her right fist, protecting a small student whom he and a friend were groping on the street. Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls was released that year. Paglia saw it and was particularly taken with actress Mary Woronov . She later remarked: "She was one of the most original, stylish, and articulate sexual personae of the royal House of Warhol. I never forgot her, and I followed her subsequent movie career with great fascination." Many of Paglia's memories of the 1960s are linked to movies. For instance, in 1968 she and her friend Stephen Jarratt saw Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony, and Mark Robson 's Valley of the Dolls, and continued to write about the experience years later. She graduated from college in 1968, valedictorian of her class.
Just a few months later, as a student at the Yale Graduate School she attended a party in the home of R. W. B. Lewis , one of her teachers, and she was insulted by a prominent Yale psychiatrist named Robert Jay Lifton and his wife for being a lesbian. Lifton, at that time, was the Foundations' Fund Research Professor in Psychiatry at Yale, a position he held until 1984. His attack seems to have emboldened her to not only be out as a lesbian, but to be in everyone's face about it. She has repeatedly noted she was publicly out as a lesbian at Yale Graduate School, and was actually the only open lesbian there from 1968 to 1972, a fact which harmed her career. As she told reporter Dan Savage in 1992:
- "I took the career price for that. I shoved my lesbianism down people’s throats when I wasn’t getting any pleasure from it; I couldn’t find anyone to be with! There is the irony, I took all the negatives without any of the positives! I tried. I tried to pick up women, I tried. In 1969 I traveled Europe with the handbook, The Gay Guide to Europe. I went from place to place, every city, and I thought, "What is the problem here?" All the gay men are finding contacts everywhere! You can’t avoid it! Bus terminals, toilets, diners, everywhere! Finally I had to conclude, after so many decades of frustration, that lesbians are not looking for sex. It’s not about sex. They think it’s about sex. It’s about mommy! It’s about mommy is what it’s about!"
While studying at Yale, Paglia quarreled with Rita Mae Brown, whom she later characterised as "then darkly nihilist", and she fought with the New Haven, Connecticut Women's Liberation Rock Band because they dismissed the Rolling Stones as "sexist."
Her study of sexuality in Western literature continued to develop with her reading of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love and Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. Several of her closest friends, Benderson, Jarratt and Feld all moved to San Francisco. Paglia recalled that she "had two close encounters with Kate Millett (author of Sexual Politics) just after she became famous, in New Haven, Connecticut, and Provincetown, Massachusetts, but she was too morosely self-absorbed to notice." Because of what she saw as Millett's "careless" attitude toward scholarship, Millett became a person Paglia began to define herself against.
In 1971 she discovered Kenneth Clark's The Nude while browsing the shelves of Yale's library. "If ever I was in love with a book, it was with this one," she wrote in Sex, Art & American Culture; and in an article for Women's Quarterly in 2002, she called it "the best introduction by far to representation of the human figure in art." She wrote, "Students who read Clark will be safely inoculated against the worst excesses of feminist theory, with its prattle about objectification and the male gaze —terms cooked up by ideologues with glaringly little knowledge of or feeling for art." The book influenced her writing in her Yale dissertation and subsequent works.
Of the dissertation, her mentor and adviser, Harold Bloom found one fault in the draft he read in 1971. He cautioned in the margin that one passage was "Mere Sontagisme!" Paglia later wrote, "It saddened me, but I knew Bloom was right. Susan Sontag, who could have been Jane Harrison's successor as a supreme woman scholar, had become synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing." She received a Master's Degree in Philosophy from Yale that year.
In February of 1972 she wrote a letter to Carolyn Heilbrun, asking for information about her forthcoming book on androgyny, and Heilbrun responded with a letter saying that her book would not be able to deal with all available material on that subject. When the book came out, Paglia gave a thoroughly negative assessment of it in an anonymous review for the journal the Yale Review the following year, 1973 (it was the journal's policy for reviews to be published without attribution.) The review showed that Paglia was asserting herself as an expert on the topic of sexual androgyne.
In the fall, she began her first semester teaching at Bennington College. There she met James Fessenden , a philosophy instructor from Columbia University, who started teaching at the same time as Paglia. In January 1997, Mark W. Edmundson, now a professor at the University of Virginia, recalled attending Bennington while Paglia was there:
- "She was appointed as my faculty advisor in her first term. I went in for my advisorial visit and she was entirely herself, talking very fast about many things I knew nothing about. I ran in fear. Alas, I was too puzzled to take any of her classes, which seemed to be full of very sophisticated people from LA and from New York."
In 1973, her paper, "Lord Hervey and Pope," was published in the journal 18th Century Studies . A Times Literary Supplement cover story on Lord Hervey, November 2nd, praised the paper as "brilliant." On April 9th, she traveled to see Susan Sontag at a lecture at Dartmouth and later invited her to Bennington. Sontag spoke there on October 4th, an event that caused much controversy at Bennington since she read a short story instead of giving a cultural lecture, as she had agreed to. Paglia later commented, "I was stunned because I thought she was going to be a major intellectual," and then wrote about the meeting at length in a catty essay entitled "Sontag, Bloody Sontag," first published in "Vamps & Tramps".
Another intellectual disappointment for Paglia was Marija Gimbutas, who published The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe in 1974. At the same time, Paglia launched "a detailed attack on an exhibit at Bennington's Crossett Library, 'Matriarchy: The Golden Age,' which used appallingly shoddy feminist materials alleging the existence of a peaceful, prehistoric matriarchy, later supposedly overthrown by nasty males."
Through her study of the classics and her reading of the scholarship of Jane Ellen Harrison, James George Frazer, Erich Neumann and others, Paglia had developed a theory of sexual history that was in opposition to the ideas in vogue at the time, which is why she was so critical of Gimbutas, Heilbrun, Millet and others. She laid out her ideas on matriarchy, androgyny, homosexuality, sadomasochism and many other topics in her dissertation Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art, which she completed in December of 1974, at the age of 27.
In March of 1975, she drove from Vermont to Albany to see Germaine Greer speak. She was disappointed, reporting later that "During the question period, I nervously raised my hand from the crowd and asked if Greer, a former English professor, would be writing on literary subjects again soon. Her reply was stern and swift: 'There are far more important things in the world than literature!'" Another time at Albany, Paglia "nearly came to blows with the founding members of the women's-studies program at the State University of New York at Albany, when they categorically denied that hormones influence human experience or behavior. These women (whose field was literature) attributed my respect for science to 'brainwashing' by men."
Similar sorts of fights with feminists, lesbians, chauvinists, homophobes, and academics would continue for years, reaching a high point in 1978. While at Bennington, Paglia had two girlfriends. The second one, a theatrical young woman named Patty, was a former student. The couple went to a school dance one evening when a rich student from Chicago came out of nowhere and physically attacked them. Paglia spoke about this to Heather Findlay in a cover story for Girlfriends magazine. She said, "I went to the police and filed a report. Then her parents went ballistic. There was an enormous to-do from her rich parents telling the administration, 'Open homosexuals shouldn't be employed by a college. We're not sending our daughter to a place where there are gays like this on the faculty.'" After a lengthy standoff with the administration, Paglia accepted a settlement from the college and resigned a year later.
In the early 1980s, Paglia finished her book but couldn't get published and was supporting herself with visiting and part-time teaching jobs at Yale, Wesleyan, and other Connecticut colleges. She taught night classes at the Sikorsky Helicopter plant. Her paper, "The Apollonian Androgyne and the Faerie Queen," was published in ELR, Winter 1979, and her dissertation was cited by J. Hillis Miller in his April 1980 article "Wuthering Heights and the Ellipses of Interpretation," in Journal of Religion in Literature , but aside from that, not much was happening with her academic career at a time when her peers were moving on to important positions at major universities. In a letter of March 1993 to Boyd Holmes, she recalled: "I earned a little extra money by doing some local features reporting for a New Haven alternative newspaper (The Advocate) in the early 1980s. There was an article on the historic pizzerias of the town and also one on an old house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad."
She got a teaching job at the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts in 1984, which merged with its next-door neighbor, the Philadelphia College of Art, to become the University of the Arts in 1987. She took some time off to visit Europe, and while in Germany noted that "The women, stern-faced, melt the submissive heart...All look like Lotte Lenya!"
The two-volume manuscript of "Sexual Personae" was completed in February 1981, and then rejected by seven publishers and five agents throughout the 1980s, before its final acceptance by Ellen Graham for Yale University Press in 1985. For the next few years, she continued to teach while perfecting volume one of the book for its eventual publication in February 1990, and releasing a few additional portions of it in other journals and books.
Her essay "Oscar Wilde and the English Epicene " was published in 1988 in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, edited by Bloom; Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art, was published in 1988 in Western Humanities Review; and "Sex," was published in the Spenser Encyclopedia by A. C. Hamilton in 1989.
After the publication of "Sexual Personae" in 1990, the book was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and reprinted by Vintage Press a year later. It became a best-seller, as did her subsequent books "Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays" (1992) and "Vamps and Tramps" (1994).
In "Sexual Personae," and in subsequent media statements and campus appearances throughout the early 1990s, Paglia aroused controversy by making statements against leaders of the American feminist movement, claiming they were ignorant of art, science, and history, that they were hostile to men, and doing harm to young women by teaching them to see themselves as nothing but victims. Her views on issues such as date rape, pornography, gay rights, and educational reform mostly angered people on the political left, who accused her of such things as misogyny, homophobia and neconservatism. A selection of her articles, lectures and other writings from this period appeared in "Sex, Art, and American Culture."
Whereas the 24 chapters of "Sexual Personae" were concerned with the study of decadence in art and culture from Egyptian history to the late 19th century, "Sex, Art, and American Culture," exposed readers to Paglia's views on contemporary figures such as Madonna ("the future of feminism"), Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Anita Hill.
Two chapters of the book were devoted to date rape, which the author said contemporary feminists had been incapable of preventing. "Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in civilized society," she wrote, "Yet feminism, which has waged a crusade for rape to be taken more seriously, has put young women in danger by hiding the truth about sex from them."
Her next book, also an essay collection, was titled "Vamps and Tramps". This book collected all of her writings since her previous essay collection, and the critical response tended to be that she had written too much on too wide a variety of topics: Suzanne Fields of "Insight on the News" called it "a hodgepodge"; Steve Sailer of the "National Review" said it "suffers from the mixing of its author's three discordant personae: scholar, polemicist, and celebrity role model"; and David Link of the journal "Reason" wrote that "Vamps and Tramps is a carnival. We see Paglia here in all her guises, from the highly serious to the completely loopy." Nevertheless, the book was a bestseller and exposed a wide readership to her views on contemporary matters such as the Clinton presidency, the life of Jacqueline Kennedy, and the career of Barbra Streisand.
In 1998 she published a book about Alfred Hitchcock's classic film "The Birds" as part of the British Film Institute's "Film Classics Series".
- Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art (Dissertation: 1974)
- Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990)
- Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays (1992)
Vamps and Tramps: New Essays (1994) ISBN 0679751203
- The Birds (BFI Film Classics) (1998)
Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems (2005) ISBN 0375420843
Last updated: 07-31-2005 00:54:12