Commentary Magazine


Vamps & Tramps, by Camille Paglia

Pagan Envy

Vamps & Tramps: New Essays.
by Camille Paglia.
Vintage Books. 572 pp. $15.00 (paper).

Camille Paglia, the self-appointed enfant terrible of the academy, feminism, and the art world, is the author of Sexual Personae, a 700-page scholarly work which in 1990 became a surprise best-seller. She is probably best known, though, for her punchy and controversial op-ed articles, one of which praised the rock star Madonna for her outrageous sexuality and another of which attacked the anti-date-rape movement for misleading young women about the true nature of sexual liaisons. These op-eds were reprinted, along with other articles, in her Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992).

Paglia is also a woman with, to put it mildly, an outsized sense of herself as a public figure. One sign of this is that she is pleased with every review she has ever received—a condition most writers can only dream of. Her trick is simple. If someone agrees with her, she praises his intelligence and integrity. If someone criticizes her, she takes that as confirmation that she is a brilliant iconoclast, misunderstood in her own time. We know all this because at the back of her books Paglia publishes a “media chronicle” excerpting every reference to her that has appeared since her last work, complete with her own annotations like: “One of the best analyses yet of Paglia’s thought.”

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Paglia describes her new collection, Vamps & Tramps, as a “multimedia book, in the 60’s style of Marshall McLuhan,” which is a fancy way of saying that nothing was left on the cutting-room floor. The book includes everything from essays that appeared in major publications to entries in places like American Musicological Association Notes to stray thoughts and witticisms to transcripts of short films starring Camille Paglia playing Camille Paglia discussing the work of Camille Paglia.

By far the most important piece in Vamps & Tramps is a previously unpublished essay entitled “No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality.” Here, Paglia tries to clarify her controversial positions on a number of issues by placing them in the larger context of her libertarianism. She professes herself amused by accusations, leveled by some on the Left, that, just because she has criticized the orthodox feminist line on date rape, sexual harassment, speech codes, and pornography, this makes her a conservative. Rather, she insists, she is attacking these things from the Left.

True feminism, Paglia argues in “No Law in the Arena,” demands that women conduct their lives—professional, social, and sexual—on the same playing field as men. No midnight drinks at a date’s apartment or dorm room unless you are prepared for a sexual advance (or willing to fend one off). No speech codes to protect you from brutish remarks. No censorship of even the most violent and degrading pornography; if you don’t like it, don’t buy it—or, better yet, go publish some raunchy stuff of your own. In short, Paglia is a foe of all attempts to regulate private behavior, and of any and all forms of censorship.

Sexual Personae argued that there are passionate destructive forces underlying even the most bourgeois works of art. “No Law in the Arena” continues this theme to show how society itself is a tenuous balance between “Dionysian” nature and “Apollonian” artifice. This is especially evident, says Paglia, in the area of homosexuality, a subject in which her own interest is far from academic.

Militantly bisexual (she recommends bisexuality as “our best hope of escape from the animosities and false polarities of the current sex wars”), Paglia is nevertheless contemptuous of the lesbian scene, which she finds pathetically lacking in eroticism. By contrast, she is positively effusive on the subject of male homosexuality, particularly the gay subculture. Promiscuity, sadomasochism, role-playing, anonymous sex: here, in Paglia’s view, the dream of the 60’s has been realized; here, Freud’s “polymorphous perversity” has finally flourished openly.

It is because she celebrates these qualities that Paglia rejects the claim, advanced by many gay-rights advocates, that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. This is a dishonest argument, she says, aimed at winning rights for homosexuals on the grounds that what is natural must be valid, and what is valid should be lawful. To the contrary, she insists, homosexuality is thoroughly unnatural, and that is what makes it so attractive. And as for AIDS, in her view that disease has only made the battle between brute nature and human desire all the more poignant:

Of short, intense Romantic lives, represented in our time by gay men and rock stars, it can be said (revising a famous motto of the American Revolution), “Live free and die!”

Prostitutes are another class of rebels to be admired:

Not only are [prostitutes] not victims, they are among the strongest and most formidable women on the planet. They exist in the harshest reality, but they laugh and bring beauty out of it. For me, they are heroines of outlaw individualism.

Finally, Paglia’s celebration of outlawry extends to abortion as well. She chides the pro-choice movement for the same sort of intellectual squishiness that characterizes the gay-rights movement. Of course abortion is killing, says Paglia. One should have the courage to acknowledge this, and to insist that killing is sometimes necessary: “We have not only the right but the obligation to defy nature’s tyranny.”

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Readers who were put off by the sheer pretentiousness of Paglia’s earlier writings will find their sense of her confirmed—and then some—by this latest collection. Where Sexual Personae favored vowel-deprived words like “chthonian,” Vamps & Tramps resorts to a different tactic: incessant references to paganism. It is no exaggeration to say that Paglia uses the word “pagan” like so much Hamburger Helper, tossing it into every outrageous opinion and trivial utterance in an effort to concoct a more substantial dish.

Promiscuity? “A pagan choice.” Sex between strangers? “An act of pagan homage to some archetypal reality.” Prostitutes? “Pagan goddesses.” Drag queens? “Sexual warriors who offer a pagan challenge to bourgeois gentility.” And Paglia would have us believe that her own being, too, is infused with a rare pagan sensibility. She recalls—I am not making this up—that as a young child looking at an advertisement for Tide soap, she “saw that there was a connection between ancient pagan culture and the popular culture all around me.”

Nowadays Paglia calls herself an aggressive and outspoken “Aries warrior” (a phrase she invokes nearly as often as “pagan”), a Nietzschean figure ahead of her time, above the muck, beholden to no one. Thus her proclamations: “I seek no followers. I am an irascible Aries warrior rather than a politician or diplomat. My kind takes the beachhead and pushes the Nazis back. . . .” Thus her efforts to distance herself from “white middle-class style,” “white middle-class feminists,” “neurotic middle-class white girls,” and “simpering white girls with their princess fantasies.” Thus, too, the press release for Vamps & Tramps, which promises “New Headaches For the Establishment” and includes two free tablets of Advil.

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But how anti-establishment is Camille Paglia? The challenge in reading so melodramatic a writer is figuring out which ideas are genuinely new (and not just unexpected departures from an otherwise predictable ideological platform), which are genuinely original (and not simply designed to shock), and which are sufficiently valuable as to make all the other stuff worth wading through.

To begin with Paglia’s claims to being anti-establishment, these seem especially groundless in light of “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” one of three full-length essays written specifically for Vamps & Tramps, This essay’s Fatal Attraction-like plotline is worth summarizing for the light it sheds on Paglia both as a person and as a thinker.

In 1973, Paglia, then a young professor at Bennington College, arranged to bring her literary idol, the critic Susan Sontag, for a lecture. The lecture was a flop; but worse, Sontag seemed wholly uninterested in meeting Paglia. “I wanted to say, ‘I’m your successor, dammit, and you don’t have the wit to realize it!’” recalls Paglia, who has never forgiven Sontag the slight.

Matters only became worse when Sontag’s popularity thrived during the two decades Paglia was most eager to establish herself. By 1990, Paglia had become convinced that Sontag’s lack of interest in her represented a conscious, deliberate rejection: “She could scarcely retain her claim to intellectual preeminence while not having heard of a controversial woman thinker of my international standing.”

Paglia decided to retaliate by fomenting a literary feud in the popular press. In 1992, she told Vanity Fair: “I’ve been chasing that bitch for twenty-five years, and I’ve finally passed her!” (a comment she now describes as a “Homeric boast”). When Sontag refused to pick up the gauntlet, and at one point blurted out, “I don’t know who [Paglia] is,” Paglia responded by escalating her public barrage in the gossip column of the New York Post. “Few things in my career,” she now boasts, “have given me more pleasure than the lightning speed with which I was able to counterattack on this occasion. It was the revenge of pop, which Sontag had abandoned.”

But why should Camille Paglia care so much what a New York egghead thinks of her? The only thing “Sontag, Bloody Sontag” reveals is a near-psychotic obsession with winning acceptance from the very establishment figures and institutions Paglia publicly derides.

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As for whether Paglia’s ideas are ahead of their time, the fact is that neopaganism has been old-hat in feminist and academic circles for some twenty years now. True, Paglia is unique in stressing the darker, more sexist—and therefore politically incorrect—side of paganism, and she is certainly original in steadfastly urging its sexiness.

But when it comes to the substance of Paglia’s ideas, we are on different and trickier terrain. Her most original-sounding notions are those which at first glance sound paradoxically conservative. Indeed, as her critics on the Left have complained, her attacks on contemporary feminism, or on the erosion of standards in the academy, often read like—well, like high-temperature versions of arguments found in this magazine.

At various places in Vamps & Tramps, for example, Paglia maintains à la George Gilder that there are profound biological differences underlying men and women’s attitudes toward sex, and that the purpose of society is to keep the male sex drive in check. She condemns universities for politicizing scholarship and dumbing-down education, and calls for a return to a rigorous curriculum based on the greatest works of art and literature. “We will never get great art from women,” writes Paglia, “if their education exposes them only to the second-rate and if the idea of greatness itself is denied. Greatness is not a white male trick.”

Remarks like this, infuriating to orthodox leftists, have made Paglia intriguing to neoconservatives. But Paglia should be taken at her word that there is nothing conservative about her. The driving force behind her disgust with aspects of the culture that also trouble conservatives is her distinctive blend of 60’s-style counterculturalism with libertarianism. But Paglia is a libertarian because she is a libertine and an aesthete; her hero is not Milton Friedman, but the Marquis de Sade.

Thus, for Paglia, censorship is undesirable not because in a free market good ideas will ultimately triumph over evil ones, but because she would like to see the evil ones flourish. She wants the state out of people’s personal lives not because state interference violates the dignity of the individual, but because individuals should behave in as undignified a manner as possible. She would like to see prostitution legalized not because doing so would curtail the disease and crime associated with its practice, but because prostitution is a good in itself. And she wants the concept of greatness restored to art not because she finds contemporary art offensive, but because she prizes the erotic and demonic qualities in certain works of classical art.

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But if Paglia’s “conservative” positions are actually radical, her “radical” positions, the poses she strikes when she is most trying to shock, are downright conventional. “I feel the function of the modern artist is precisely to shatter all taboos,” she intones—a half-century or more after taboo-shattering became the favorite consumer pastime of the bourgeoisie. And as for her notion of what constitutes taboo-shattering, that may be gathered from her decision to open Vamps & Tramps with the transcript of a short film, The Penis Unsheathed, based on a gallery exhibit she and her lesbian lover put on last year in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit, Paglia crows, was “America’s first group art show since the 60’s devoted to imagery of the penis.” But the transcript itself is a very slight offering compared with “No Law in the Arena,” the major essay on paganism that immediately follows. One can only conclude that the transcript is placed where it is—as the sole item in a section titled “The Year of the Penis”—for its supposed shock value.

If using the “p” word is as original as Camille Paglia can get these days, maybe she should consider passing her sword to another Aries warrior.

About the Author




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