More Q&As: Read recent interviews with Christopher Hitchens, Seth, Lynda Barry, Michael Pollan, Reif Larsen and Pasha Malla.
From her magnum opus, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
to Break, Blow, Burn
, her recent anthology of 43 poems accompanied by close readings, Camille Paglia has become renowned for her irascibility, her indignation, and her blistering wit. Few public intellectuals have been able to squeeze more out of a half-hour — which is what she gave me a few weeks ago, the day after her lecture
at the Royal Ontario Museum in June — a talent that speaks to her militancy in the face of a culture that has turned swiftly from the kinds of towering aesthetics and muscular analysis she holds so dear.
It is no coincidence, then, that her talk, on the occasion of the ROM’s Dead Sea Scrolls
exhibit, concerned “Hollywood and the Bible,” specifically Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments
. Clearly in reverence of the old American tradition of female Moseses like Elizabeth Cady Stanton
and Aimee Semple McPherson
, Paglia is bombastic and contentious in front of a crowd, inviting fans and detractors alike to listen and testify. Billed as an atheist who had come to defend religion, she spoke first of her Italian-Catholic upbringing, using it as a springboard for an argument about teaching religion in the classroom as a historical compass and a commanding cultural presence. In response to a question on Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great
, she said defiantly of its title, “I am willing to let my entire legacy rest on one sentence from Sexual Personae
: ‘God is man’s greatest idea.’ Let his entire legacy rest on that.”
This is not mere grandstanding. What Paglia advocates above all is humility, whether in response to the Western canon or to nature’s unshakable dominion over humanity. Indeed, she may be arrogantly firm on topics ranging from Public Enemy to opera to Facebook, but she is quite sober about the flickering singularity, and, in turn, the transformative power, of her voice amid a contemporary critical discourse that has tried its best to ignore her.
The Walrus: I must say I hoped De Mille’s film would be the subject of your talk.
Because I know you are a huge fan. It’s a propos.
I wanted a chance to say more about the film but I was constrained. I wish I could’ve talked about acting and how, at the time this film was released, the Method was the prestige style, which is the opposite style to this.
The Ten Commandments is much more in the silent-film tradition.
Yes, melodramatic, gestural, and so forth. I’ve always loved it. Actually, this film has lasted and lasted. The obelisk scene is unbelievable: the excitement, the architecture, and of course seeing it in widescreen. They have to go to the two ends of the screen to pull the curtain back on that colossus. I wish some day this film could return to theatres so audiences could truly appreciate its design.
How do you get postmodern audiences to consume artworks like this without laughing, which is so often what happens?
It’s a horrible problem. We’re in a period of what Northrop Frye would have called the winter phase of irony and satire.
I have a great sense of camp. I love camp. And I do think that the gay-male way of looking at things is the best way, because with true camp, you actually do take it seriously, but you also have a distance to find it amusing. But this snickering, this David Letterman, adolescent, frat-house thing, is something different. My point would have been, if I had had more time last night to talk about it, is that this is the style of grand opera. It’s something that gay men have always taken very seriously. We’re in a time now, in the post-Stonewall age, where gay men no longer need that kind of culture as an identity marker. Gay men used to be conservators of the extreme, extravagant gesture. You can see Gloria Swanson doing it in Sunset Boulevard
, and Bette Davis in All About Eve
. And while gay men still find it amusing they don’t treat it as seriously.
The exclusively mocking aspect of camp has also become understood by the heterosexual mainstream as the only way to approach gay- and female-identified culture.
It’s dismissive. On that note, in terms of your statements on religion and pedagogy, how is it possible to allow religion to enter back into curricula if we are, as you say, in the winter phase of irony and satire? Can religion ever be taken seriously from a secular-humanist point of view?
Well, this is what’s wrong with education right now. It’s what’s wrong with post-structuralism. I don’t go in the direction of the cynical, looking for ways to question, to undercut, to dissolve meaning. As an Italian-American, as a very hot personality born under the sign of Aries, I’ve tried to drift things towards emotional extremes. That’s why I’ve been just ecstatic at my recent discovery of Brazil, where I’ve been going to give lectures. Last year I ended up in Salvadore de Bahia, which is heavily, eighty per cent, of African heritage. The emotional level of everybody there and the openness have taught me even more about the ills of Anglo-American society, where you have this inhibition of expressiveness. This is going to affect the performing arts. In live performance, you have to project to a theatre, as opposed to in a contemporary movie, in which you have to undercut, to downplay, or else it looks hammy. People have lost the ability to reach large numbers of people—in a free setting as they do in Brazil, not in a big-ticket arena. We really are entering a very bleak period.
Education should be about remedying whatever the needs are in society at a particular moment. So what do we need now? Emotion. I’ve seen in young people today a fear of being uncool, of making a fool of yourself. In the ’60s we had no problem making fools of ourselves. We were coming out of the ’50s, which was very repressive, uptight. That’s why the guys of my generation were influenced by black musicians; you can see in the film of Woodstock
, young men trying to use their bodies in a very relaxed manner, in an almost feminine manner. They’re able to accept emotions: “Wow, far out,” etc. That was the period, and then it was gone. Men were wearing—look at Hendrix—feather boas, different colours, jewelry. Heterosexual men were wearing jewelry! Then all of a sudden it passed. Women went on to experiment with pants and everything, but the men lost it, all of that possibility. Then I began to notice something in the ’80s: whereas in the ’60s we would say, “wow,” “groovy,” or “far out,” young people began to say, “really?” I started hearing that [skeptical] tone. And I thought, “Oh no. We’re going back to the ’50s again. This is not good.”
Last night you mentioned Facebook and Twitter, derisively. Some would argue that these outlets allow for more self-expression than ever before.
Every new development in culture always comes as a surprise. It’s like a dislocation. And it’s always that something is lost and something is gained. Obviously Facebook and Twitter are giving people a sense of community and connection that they lack in their lives. What I’m concerned about, especially with Twitter, is that we don’t need any more fragmentation of discourse. There’s already this telegraphic style in email.
People of my generation were exposed to a different kind of public education. We were asked to express ourselves in long, reasoned form. That’s going. If you’re looking for new, young, cultural critics, you’re not going to find them on Twitter. It’s got to come from people reading, looking for things. That’s why at Salon I try to go long with my pieces, because editors say that on the web people don’t want to read anything long. Oh yeah? I’ll show you long!