A Conversation with Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on the brilliance of Bowie, lamb vindaloo, her lifestyle of observation, why writers need real jobs, Star Wars, Harold Bloom, Amelia Earhart, Edmund Spenser, Brazil, why she is most definitely not a cultural conservative, and much more.

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TYLER COWEN: Camille has written the very best essays ever on Edmund Spenser, Alice in Wonderland, and the Marquis de Sade. She understands Bob Dylan and Susan Sontag — .

PAGLIA: [hisses]

COWEN: And she has pursued a career of great integrity. That’s my introduction for Camille.

PAGLIA: Oh! [laughs]

COWEN: I’d like to start with a question from a reader. I asked readers for questions. “How do you feel about the fact that Silicon Valley dominates our economy and culture? Is there any tech guru you’re interested in?”

PAGLIA: Well, no. My last big tech guru was probably Marshall McLuhan. Had a prophetic insight into what was about to happen. He’s kind of the patron saint of my working on the web from the very first issue of Salon in 1995. It’s hard to believe that the web wasn’t taken seriously by already-established journalists.

There was a major political reporter at the Boston Globe, for example, who tried to pressure me not to write for the web. He said, “Oh, no one takes the web seriously.” It’s an enormous thing that’s happened. Which, of course, has also sucked in a whole generation of young people, alas. That’s all they know. I think we’re kind of on the downside of that right now.

COWEN: Take your last book, Glittering Images, and your other work, which emphasized the role of the iconic in Western and Eastern culture, the role of the spectacular. Vivid visual life-giving spectacular events. Now here we have people, they look, they listen on very small smartphones. Is this culture dead? But if the culture was so splendid, why did people give it up so quickly?

PAGLIA: The reason I wrote Glittering Images is because I felt that there’s an avalanche of fragmented visual impressions — disconnected, glaring, tacky, badly designed — that young people are growing up in. I think it really is true that children’s brains are being reshaped. The standard forms for logic and for sequential information and for reasoning, everything’s kind of disappearing. I tried to write a book where people would just stare at an image for a certain length of time.

I think it’s getting worse and worse. Web design, which my school, University of the Arts, teaches — I think web design is in the pits. I thought web design was moving into becoming a major genre of the arts. I think we’re in a kind of swirling vortex — and yes, what you mentioned about the miniaturization of image is terrible.

I was raised in a time, 1950s, when Hollywood was competing with television by doing something which television couldn’t do, with those gigantic screens. Like in The Ten Commandments, there’s a giant thing of Pharaoh, a giant sculpture. It starts at one end of the screen and you watch it go to the other end of the screen. Phenomenal. Lawrence of Arabia, oh my God, the dunes of Lawrence of Arabia with that music.

There’s no sense of the large. Young people have no sense whatever of the expansive, of the big gesture.

COWEN: But do we maybe overrate the large? If the large gave through so quickly, so readily, to what you’re describing as this kind of mediocrity, what was wrong with that culture of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s to begin with?

PAGLIA: I would say that a culture always moves in cycles. You have periods that esteem the colossal, like the Bernini Renaissance and Baroque periods. Then you get the small, the art of the small. The Rococo is a kind of evanescence, evaporation of the big Baroque swirls. All of a sudden it’s little tiny things like on a Valentine’s card.

I think we go back and forth. I just feel lucky, I think, that I have a kind of epic imagination, because I was raised watching The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. Oh my God, Ben-Hur. I could watch that 300 times.

COWEN: It’s one of your 10 favorite movies, right?

PAGLIA: Yeah.

COWEN: It’s the one on the list that’s surprising.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Torment. And the music composed for those things. It directly inspired my writing of Sexual Personae, absolutely. I’m directly inspired by music. I think for women it’s good to have something that’s going to make you assert and trample [laughs] and conquer. It animates me. These are my maxims.

COWEN: Given what you’re saying, do you today consider yourself a cultural conservative?

PAGLIA: No, not at all.

COWEN: Why not? Everything used to be better. Isn’t that — ?

[laughter]

PAGLIA: No, we’re in a period of decadence, a falling off, you see. No, conservative would mean that I would be cleaving to something past, which was great, and no longer is, and I would be saying, “We need to return to that.” Usually I’m not saying we need to return to anything. I do believe we’re moving inexorably into the future. There’s a momentum to that. I’m a libertarian. That’s why I’m always freely offending both sides.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Liberal, conservative. I’m a Democrat, even though I’m constantly criticizing — I think a true intellectual should be always beyond partisanship.

COWEN: And always criticizing.

PAGLIA: Yes, and always critiquing the premises of your own friends and allies.

COWEN: In the back, we were talking about Brazil. You mentioned you’ve been there nine times?

PAGLIA: Yes. Nine or ten.

COWEN: What does Brazilian culture have which North American culture lacks? What’s the draw?

PAGLIA: It’s such a polyglot of cultures and ethnicities. But beyond that, Brazilians understood my work from the first moment I began to publish. Because what they understood was artifice, art — because of Carnival for them, and costuming, masquerade, and that baroque exuberance, and the syncretism of Christianity with the Yoruba cults of West Africa in Salvador de Bahia.

They understood my vision of art and beauty — and beauty as an incredibly important human principle, rather than the way it was being trashed by my fellow feminists at that time.

They also understand nature, the grandeur of nature, the power of nature. It’s much larger.

COWEN: Iguaçu, right?

PAGLIA: Yes, instead of these silly little arguments that, “Oh, climate change is causing the end of the world.” Oh my God. Anyone who talks like that does not understand the grandeur and the power of nature. To imagine that we can make a change in it is so absolutely absurd.

COWEN: What’s your theory of modernity that puts them on one part of the curve, and we’re on another, more decadent part of the curve? What’s the difference? What’s what we would call the structural equilibrium as economists, if I dare invoke such a thing?

PAGLIA: Brazil, it’s in its own world. It’s not been part of the world wars. It doesn’t have this huge militaristic superstructure. It doesn’t have a messianic view of itself politically. The politics are always chaos [laughs] and drama. It’s like in grand opera. It’s like another planet, really, Brazil.

On George Lucas and Star Wars

COWEN: To continue the whirlwind tour of Camille Paglia, you wrote in Glittering Images that George Lucas was perhaps, or maybe definitely, the greatest artist of our time. I do not disagree with that, but now that you’ve written that, The Force Awakens has come out, which is not George Lucas. It’s Disney, who is not the greatest artist of our time.

PAGLIA: It has nothing to do with George Lucas.

COWEN: What did you think?

PAGLIA: I haven’t seen it. I wouldn’t dream of going. When it’s on TV, I’ll look at it. Please. Do you think I want to sit in a theater and be tortured by the contamination of my ideals? I’m not going to do that.

[laughter]

COWEN: You’ve spoken very highly of the prequels, which many people don’t like at all.

PAGLIA: Yes.

COWEN: What is it that people don’t get about the prequels? They say Jar Jar Binks, and they scream, and they run away.

PAGLIA: I can’t tell you.

COWEN: Clutching their head.

PAGLIA: I know exactly what they’re talking about.

COWEN: Tell us what’s good about the prequels.

PAGLIA: It was Revenge of the Sith — after the great volcano planet climax of Revenge of the Sith. I think it’s one of the greatest sequences in all of modern art. The thing is once I had written about it, I realized, as I went out in the world, how few people had actually seen the movie, because people had given up on the prequels long before.

Therefore, I think anyone who dismisses what I say about the sublime quality, the vision, the execution, the emotions, and the passions of that scene, they don’t know what I’m talking about, because they haven’t exposed themselves to it.

On popular music, both past and present

COWEN: Music. Rolling Stones. There are the two albums, Hot Rocks, More Hot Rocks. You wrote about the Rolling Stones some time ago, but if I look at the career of the Stones — they have a new album coming out this year — I find it striking that they’ve kept on going. And I actually count that as a mark against them.

I still think they’re good, but when I go back and listen, I never hear new things in their music. Now that some time has passed, what would you say about the Rolling Stones, and do you agree that you’re a little disappointed with them?

PAGLIA: I haven’t been following them for many, many years. To me, the Rolling Stones were a revolution when they happened, in that period when the Beatles were all upbeat. Then, here come these surly guys sneering, and spitting, and so on.

COWEN: But the Beatles were dark and subtle, too, right?

PAGLIA: Not like the Stones. Here’s the difference. The Rolling Stones are inspired by, animated by, to this day, by the blues tradition. The Beatles really were more almost Broadway and musical comedy.

COWEN: British music hall.

PAGLIA: Yes, British music hall and Tin Pan Alley, and so on. They were tremendous songsmiths, but there’s nothing dark about them. In other words, Paul McCartney is a wonderful bass player, but you’re not getting the big, roaring sounds of Bill Wyman’s bass at the beginning of the Stones’ career.

I really have not been following the Stones. Ever since Bill Wyman left the Stones, I have not felt that this was the Stones I knew. I’m delighted that they go on, and that they perform, and so on, but I have absolutely no interest in exposing myself to those horrible arena conditions for music. Oh my goodness, just the light shows and the this and the that. They’re not musical experiences. They’re social experiences now.

COWEN: What’s the music from classic rock that when you listen to it today, every single time you hear more in it? I would say Brian Wilson and Jimi Hendrix. Every time I hear them, it sounds different and fresher for me. What are your picks?

PAGLIA: Jimi Hendrix is one of the great geniuses of any instrument in the last a hundred years. Obviously, his music has lasted and is still fresh. For me, there’s a whole period there I teach in my Art of Song Lyrics course. I just was doing Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Wooden Ships,” and it still has this incredible power.

I love that entire period of the 1960s, the music. It was a magic moment. Still in the ’70s, Led Zeppelin, “When the Levee Breaks.” It still has enormous power. A lot of that music that Jimmy Page was doing. A lot of it working in the studio, actually. It wasn’t just live music.

COWEN: Fast-forward back to the present. Who would be a musical artist today — I know you’ve written Taylor Swift is a pestilence, so it’s probably not her.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Taylor Swift is like a nightmare.

COWEN: Who would be the musical artist today who stands up to the giants of the past?

PAGLIA: Stands up working today?

COWEN: Working today or close to today. The last 10 years.

PAGLIA: I was really very hopeful about Rihanna for a while there. Unfortunately, she’s not really working with the top producers any longer. The new album is an atrocity. It’s really terrible. It’s sad, because there are so many people with talents who are not being developed.

It’s because our music industry is now very formulaic. Young people can’t really move along studying their instruments and getting their chops over a period of time. There’s nothing to draw on in the way that the musicians of my generation could draw on the folk tradition, the folk music.

COWEN: You’re sounding like a cultural conservative. [laughs]

PAGLIA: I’m just saying there’s certain moments, certain magic moments, of fertility or creativity that happened in many of the arts. You can find certain key moments where there’s a confluence of influences and a certain richness. In that very moment, it’s a great time to be alive, to be young.

For example, Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare if he were alive today. As it happens, he left Stratford — for whatever reason — went to London at a magic moment when theater was flourishing, which was only for a few decades, and then it was out again. There’s a certain kind of luck. If you’re the right person at the right time in any one of the artistic genres.

COWEN: Kanye West? Every album is different. He draws upon a lot of sources from the past.

PAGLIA: Oh my God. The bloat.

COWEN: Inspired by rap, rhythm and blues, no?

PAGLIA: What can I say?

On higher education

COWEN: I understand. Education, some questions about education. There’s a new model school called Minerva, where you take four years, you spend each of the four years in a foreign country. One year in Buenos Aires, one in Istanbul, one in Bangalore, I think.

You work in small classes, but the classes are all online. There’s no library. There’s no formal campus, per se. It’s been around for about two years. What do you think? What’s your prediction?

Nick Donner Photography

PAGLIA: I think the idea of sending young people abroad is great. I think that is a proper use of the money that’s going down the tubes at the major universities right now. For parents to think — it would profit young people a lot to be exposed to the world. Right now, our primary school education is absolutely appalling in its lack of world history and world geography.

I know because I get everyone in my classroom. I’m lucky I teach at a kind of school where I’m getting students from a wide range of preparation. There might be a couple private school people, but people from the inner city, from good schools, from bad schools. I really have a very clear sense, after 40 years of teaching, what’s going on at the primary school level.

It is unbelievable how little they know. It is absolutely shocking how little they know. This is a recipe for a disaster. I say yes, send them abroad. Fantastic idea.

This other thing of the online thing, I don’t believe this online thing at all. I think that you need a live person, and you need a live person who can talk extemporaneously and respond to the moment. Not just people who are reading the same old damn lecture over and over again.

Also, the kind of teaching that goes on in the Ivy League where there’s a flattering. There’s these small seminar things.

COWEN: The A-minus seminar, right?

PAGLIA: There’s all this practice and learning how to talk in a slightly pretentious way about things and impressing each other. So what? They’re all packaging them for the bourgeoisie.

COWEN: Send them to Brazil, right?

[laughter]

PAGLIA: They’re so proud of themselves as they produce all these clones, these polished, bourgeois clones, witless, knowing nothing.

COWEN: Speaking of inspiring teachers, what’s your favorite Harold Bloom story — that you can tell?

PAGLIA: My favorite? You mean personal story?

COWEN: Personal story.

PAGLIA: I don’t know about favorite, but if you want to know the story — .

COWEN: The story, please.

PAGLIA: Here’s the story. I never took a course with Harold Bloom. I was in graduate school at Yale, and I just never took a course with him, so I didn’t know him at all. And then he heard — one time I encountered him — uh-oh, I shouldn’t say this. OK, maybe. Let’s say he would come a-courting with a famous poet, who was a friend of his.

I would see him turning up at a doorway. “Hello, hello, hello,” OK, that’s all. I just knew him to say hello to him. Then, he heard what I was going to be working on and that I was having trouble finding a dissertation director for a study of androgyny in literature and art.

That’s a time when nobody was doing — it’s hard to believe now because everything is sex and gender everywhere — but at the time, no one was doing a dissertation on sex at the Yale Graduate School. It’s hard to believe. He summoned me to his office. That’s really how we met. He said, “My dear, I am the only one who can direct that dissertation,” and I said, “OK.” That was it.

He understood everything. He understood everything I wanted to do with the book, and he understood my ideas. He was a fantastic resource for me in so far as he also supported me or gave me confidence throughout all those decades when I couldn’t get it published. Sexual Personae was rejected by seven publishers and five agents.

By the time it was published, I was 43 years old. I’m a great role model, it seems to me, for people to just soldier through adversity and rejection and just continue to develop the craft. Eventually, hopefully, one will see one’s work in print.

COWEN: What did he think of you and Sexual Personae?

PAGLIA: Of course, he always said I gave him great naches, which is sort of like of a father to a daughter, et cetera. He and I agree about Freud. We have a Freudian psychohistory and so on.

On things under- and overrrated

COWEN: There’s a segment of all of these conversations in the middle. It’s called underrated or overrated. I mention something, and you tell me if you think it’s underrated or overrated by our society.

PAGLIA: By our society or by me?

COWEN: Your opinion relative to the society opinion. Now, don’t hold back on these. Tell us what you think.

[laughter]

COWEN: First one, economics.

PAGLIA: Economics as a field?

COWEN: As a field. Overrated or underrated?

PAGLIA: Probably underrated.

COWEN: Why?

PAGLIA: I don’t know. I just think that economists are figures of fun sometimes in cartoons. I’m just judging by what I sense.

COWEN: William Faulkner.

PAGLIA: He’s totally gone, poor man. Actually, I’ve been commenting on this recently to my friends. I said, “You remember that period when Faulkner was everywhere, and everyone read him? He was just a baseline figure.”

Thanks to Kate Millett and all these philistine feminist types in the early ’70s, there was a great sweeping away of many, many major male figures in the history of literature including Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, who had a huge influence on me.

If you are a resident of Mississippi, Faulkner still lives and is vivid. I think, outside of that, it’s been years since I’ve heard Faulkner mentioned.

COWEN: You’re saying underrated?

PAGLIA: I think he should be on the reading list. I don’t know. Perhaps he was overrated in our time, but he certainly was a major author and a major influence on American literature, for heaven’s sake. Young people aren’t reading him, and they aren’t reading many of the great authors.

COWEN: Yoko Ono, overrated or underrated?

Nick Donner Photography

PAGLIA: Yoko Ono, don’t start me on Yoko Ono. One of my least favorite people in the universe. Yes, I blame her for the breakup of the Beatles.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: All that screechy yodeling that went on. Oh my God, she’s a horror. But, I gave her her due in Glittering Images, because she was a very important figure in the development of conceptual art. She really was very innovative in the 1960s, but what a dreary, humorless person.

COWEN: When I think of a lot of your books, especially if I contrast you to Marxist criticism, I think of your emphasis as being a lot of metaphysics in a very exciting, big-picture way. Let’s say we take a writer, very high quality, but she moves very far from metaphysics. She writes about small numbers of people in rural Ontario, Alice Munro.

PAGLIA: Oh, I don’t read fiction. I don’t read contemporary fiction. I have absolutely zero interest in contemporary fiction. The last contemporary fiction I had any interest in is Auntie Mame, and I’m not kidding. I like plays like Tennessee Williams.

The fiction writers are off in another world. They don’t see the world as it exists now. They don’t use the language of the contemporary world. Their English is utterly stale and cloistered. I cannot read a page of contemporary fiction, I’m sorry. Anything that’s pre–contemporary fiction, I’m a great admirer of. Believe me, these are the kind of books I’ll open like this and like that.


The fiction writers are off in another world. They don’t see the world as it exists now. They don’t use the language of the contemporary world. Their English is utterly stale and cloistered. I cannot read a page of contemporary fiction, I’m sorry.

COWEN: You’re going to pass on Harry Potter, too?

PAGLIA: Harry Potter, no, I don’t. In fact, I refused to write on Harry Potter for the Wall Street Journal once. They said, “Who should we ask next?” and they asked Harold Bloom. Harold Bloom became known for it. He got that because of me. Just like Norman Mailer got to interview Madonna for the cover of Esquire because Madonna said no to me.

People kept trying to bring us together. HBO wanted to do a My Dinner with Andre type of thing with Madonna and me, and she was afraid. I don’t know. I think she thought I was going to be some big intellectual, but it’s not true.

COWEN: Parenthood, underrated or overrated?

PAGLIA: Who?

COWEN: Parenthood.

PAGLIA: No. I don’t have anything to do with that. No, nothing. I don’t watch — no.

COWEN: No, not the show Parenthood, the thing parenthood. Being a parent.

PAGLIA: Oh, that was a big switch.

[laughter]

COWEN: That’s what these are about.

PAGLIA: Good Lord. We need a warning sign: “U-turn.”

COWEN: Parenthood, overrated or underrated?

PAGLIA: Parenthood? Obviously, we’re in a time now where parenting is in crisis, I would think. The reason we have all these whiny, super sensitive girls on campus that’ll run shrieking at the slightest thing that offends their ears or drag mattresses onto the stage at commencement exercises, the reason we have that is because the parents have not prepared them for real life.

In other words, they’ve been raised in this bourgeois, pampered cocoon, so I think there’s been a tremendous failure of parenting, certainly, in terms of young people being ready to take on the real world in their late teens.

COWEN: What’s the most underrated play by William Shakespeare?

PAGLIA: The most underrated play?

COWEN: Yes.

PAGLIA: I don’t know. I really can’t answer that. I’m teaching my Shakespeare course this semester. I simply focus on the really major plays. Perhaps Antony and Cleopatra is starting to recede. I don’t know why.

I think Antony and Cleopatra was a great favorite of my generation, of the ’60s generation, but, for some reason, it’s becoming marginal. I’m not sure. Maybe because it’s about imperialism.

On sexual attitudes, both foreign and domestic

COWEN: May I ask a few questions about sex?

PAGLIA: Of course.

COWEN: You’ve covered this topic before.

PAGLIA: The audience will demand it.

[laughter]

COWEN: Which country comes closest to your vision of having healthy relations between the sexes? Or among the sexes, which may be a better way to put it.

PAGLIA: I would say that Brazil has the healthiest view of sexuality, but I wouldn’t say that the sexes are particularly getting along in the upper middle class in Brazil, as I meet professional women, journalists and so on, there.

I think that the women are magnificent. They’re incredible, the way they look and dress. They have such style, and assertiveness, and so on, but I’m not sure the communications with men are particularly successful right now. There’s a lot of static there.

Nick Donner Photography

The men are like gnomes. It’s strange. They don’t have this thing. In the United States, usually the upper middle class, successful careers and so on, you have the women doing their Pilates, and then the men will be going to the gym also. Not in Brazil. The men just seem to sag and get plumper and plumper, and duller and duller, and lose their hair and nobody minds.

I think because they assume that woman rules. Woman is the cock of the walk down there. I’m still trying to figure it out. Anyway, I love it. I adore it. I love Brazilian women. They’re so bossy.

COWEN: We’ve now had gay men in the military for some time out openly, legally, permissible. How that has run, has it surprised you? Earlier you wrote you expected it could be quite disruptive, and it hasn’t been. In a sense, has male gay culture turned out to be tamer than what you expected in the early ’90s?

PAGLIA: Tamer?

COWEN: Tamer. More domestic. More people adopting children, more people settling down.

PAGLIA: It’s changed. There’s no doubt about it. I think that AIDS was like a Holocaust. The number of interesting, fascinating, talented men and artists and people in fashion and every level. I think that, in many ways, gay culture is still recovering from that. We’re at a kind of holding pattern.

There was an enormous flamboyance and assertiveness to gay male culture once. It had a distinct style and voice of its own. What you’re saying, things are turning out better. Yes, there’s an assimilation going on, but also, to me, a disappearance of that gay aesthetic.

Oscar Wilde is one of the major influences on my thinking and remains that. I teach a whole course on Oscar Wilde. Now, what can you say? Is there anything distinctly gay right now, except there are certainly gay activists who are extremely successful in terms of pushing their agenda. Probably these little cadres of gay activists are the only thing that’s left.

I don’t know. Assimilation is always a loss. Certainly, my culture experienced it. Italian-American culture has kind of vanished, too.

COWEN: For America, what should an ideal of masculinity look like now?

PAGLIA: What should it look like? I don’t know.

COWEN: An older generation, you would have a Cary Grant or a Rock Hudson. You would see the movie Philadelphia Story, one of your favorites. There was some ideal of masculinity on the screen, maybe not your ideal. Today, what is it that’s out there which comes closest to your ideal?

PAGLIA: Well you know many of those images on the screen which would seem to be masculine, often the actual actors were gay, like Rock Hudson — and Cary Grant’s sexuality remains one of the great mysteries. I adore Cary Grant, oh my God, but he’s like a hallucination. All of the great images on the screen are hallucinations. Kim Novak in Vertigo is literally a hallucination.

The problem right now is that the masculine has no honor whatever in our culture. We’re in a period now where young people are being processed for the universities, and the gender norms are said to be that gender is a construct. It is simply the product of environmental pressures on people. There’s no nothing in the body — .

COWEN: We have a big culture. Not everyone goes to university, thank goodness. You can go to a NASCAR race and a few of the people there have not been to the Ivy Leagues.

PAGLIA: Working class culture retains an idea of the masculine. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. But, with that, comes static. So you have to have strong women in order to deal with masculine men.

That is why masculinity is constantly being eroded, diminished, and dissolved on university campuses because it allows women to be weak. If you have weak men, then you can have weak women. That’s what we have. Our university system, anything that is remotely masculine is identified as toxic, as intrinsic to rape culture. A utopian future is imagined where there are no men. We’re all genderless mannequins.

The movie The Time Machine is like one. We’re moving toward that, the Eloi. That’s how I see the upper middle class graduates of the Ivy League. They’re the Eloi.

COWEN: [laughs]

PAGLIA: They’re completely bland. They have no ideas. They all get along very well with each other because they’re nothing.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: They’re eating their fruits which are given to them by the Morlocks, or the industrial class. That’s how I see the future — unfortunately. I began my career talking about androgyny and talking about the imaginative complexity of androgyny and how the artist and the shaman and the prophet have this androgynous component. But today’s androgyny, it’s just boring.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: David Bowie, at his height, was absolutely brilliant, electrifying, kabuki — on and on and so on. Now, all these pallid androgynes of today, there’s nothing creative about them whatever.

COWEN: But to try to cheer you up a bit, what then is the healthiest segment of American society? Because, again, you’ve lived most of your life in the northeast, mostly in colleges and universities, correct?

PAGLIA: Yes.

COWEN: Think outside the box. Where do you see vitality, both culturally, sexually in terms of aesthetics?

PAGLIA: [laughs] No, I don’t. I think it’s been a tremendous flattening. There’s very little culturally right now. There’s very little of substance or interest being produced in art and in culture. We’re in a retro period. We’re chopping up everything, putting everything from the past through the grinder again.

COWEN: How about Canada? Overrated or underrated? Or, do they have all the same problems?

PAGLIA: Canada, they have this ideal of the consensus. That’s why when I go up there, people have said to me actually quietly, “Oh, I love having you here, because everyone’s always forcing us to have consensus in Canada.”

I’ve been told that also when I go to Norway. People say, “Oh, we can’t stand it. We are not allowed to have an opinion in Norway. We all have to have a consensus.” Everyone is very civilized in Canada, but it’s impossible to rise above the herd, also. You can’t make any big gestures; you’re thought to be antisocial. I wouldn’t glorify Canada.

On middle- and late-period Camille

COWEN: Let me ask you a few questions about yourself. There’s a wonderful four-page essay you wrote called “The Artistic Dynamics of ‘Revival’,” where you talked about how creators have early, middle, and late periods.

Beethoven is maybe the most obvious example, but there are many, many others. When you think of your own career, how do you see it as fitting together in terms of a time arc, what you’ve done and what you want to do? What are your early, middle, and late periods? Where are you in it now?

PAGLIA: My early period was total failure, flop, and in the middle to get published. There was that. Then, all of a sudden, I started to burst out, like a jack-in-the-box. It’s been like blabber, blabber, blabber ever since. Like that. I really don’t see phases. I see like nothingness, then everything. It’s like a carnival.

COWEN: What will the late period look like?

PAGLIA: The late period?

COWEN: We haven’t gotten to it, yet. The everything is the middle period.

PAGLIA: Right now, I’m working on something that no one has any interest in, whatever. I’ve been working for eight years on this, my Native American explorations. I’m very interested in Native American culture at the end of the ice age as the glacier withdrew.

I go around and I find little tiny artifacts. I read. Absolutely no one, especially anyone in Manhattan, has the slightest interest in what I’m doing. Everything has been prepared for in my life. I’ve always been interested in archeology. I feel like I make a contribution, even though no one’s interested at all. What I’m trying to do is show how the politicization of ethnic studies, of racial studies, and so on has actually been very limiting.

I find very objectionable this eternal projection of genocide and disaster and so on onto Native American studies. I’d like to show the actual vision of Native American culture which is a religious vision, a metaphysical vision, and — .

COWEN: Cyclical approach?

PAGLIA: Cyclical?

COWEN: Relevance of nature.

PAGLIA: Yes, totally.

COWEN: Metaphysics epicenter.

PAGLIA: It’s almost like an early animism. That’s why I’m interested in Salvador de Bahia, also, because of the Yoruba cults of West Africa that were absorbed into Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. It’s the same, where all of the forces of nature are perceived as spirit entities that can bring you energy or vision.

COWEN: Of the Native America cultures which have come down to us, which is different, of course, from what you had at the Ice Age, which of those do you relate to the most and why?

PAGLIA: All I’m doing is exploring the Native American cultures of the northeast. Because when the settlers came from Europe, the Indians were pushed out, the hunting grounds were limited, then there was general destruction of Native American culture for many reasons during that period.

We know more actually about the Plains Indians and, obviously, Northwestern Indians, and the Navaho than we do about the Northeastern Indians. I believe that there are remnants everywhere — I stumbled on this. I’m very sorry I didn’t notice this when I was living all those years in Upstate New York, where the Onondagas still have their reservation. Probably the remnants of these glacial era cultures were still there as well.

But I find it’s absolutely staggering. It is staggering the actual signs and remnants that are everywhere in the Northeast. I could go out right now, find some dirt, and I’ll find you a broken tool. It’s absolutely incredible. I feel that’s what I should be doing something like this, which no one is interested in. But I feel it’s substantive, and I hope can help to show what was here before.

COWEN: More about you. In Vamps & Tramps, you once wrote that as early as 1981, the second volume of Sexual Personae was more — finished is a tricky word we know as writers. But some version of finished, and do you think we will — .

PAGLIA: It was finished.

COWEN: All ever have the privilege of reading it?

PAGLIA: Yale Press didn’t want to publish those last chapters.

COWEN: I’ll publish it.

PAGLIA: Yale Press ended with the end of the 19th century with Emily Dickinson and it was already a 700-page book. Yes, I put in there the next book was coming. Then what happened, of course, is throughout the ’90s, and since the last 25 years, I’ve been essentially writing in articles everything that I would have written in that sense.

All my writing on popular culture, I’ve continued to do. Like on football, I had a chapter, “Baseball versus Football,” and football is the ultimate pagan sport, etc.

Well I wrote for Wall Street Journal, my football feminism. I have a whole concept and philosophy of that. Now, football is getting more and more boring. It’s gotten more and more technocratic. It’s not in a period right now that I would celebrate.

But I was celebrating that tremendous period when there were still hard hits and there was still defense. There wasn’t all this throwing, flinging the ball down the field, people catching it like ballerinas.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Please, that’s not football. Football is wham, like that.

COWEN: Bring back the football.

PAGLIA: The TV won’t show the great defensive plays. The whole art of defense, the great offensive, defensive lines, and that tussle, it’s gone. I feel lucky that I saw football on TV at its high point.

On Amelia Earhart and feminism

COWEN: You also wrote that when you were in high school, you either wrote or just started a book on Amelia Earhart.

PAGLIA: Oh, yes!

COWEN: What was the appeal of her to you?

PAGLIA: Oh my God. Amelia Earhart, I stumbled on. It was an article in 1961 in the Syracuse Herald Journal. There was always some article about Amelia Earhart. Someone finds a fragment or something.

I became very interested in her. At that point, I was, I guess, 14. I began researching her in the bowels of the Syracuse Library, the things were still not on microfilm yet. All the newspapers were still there from the 1930s.

I did that for three years on this research project. That’s how I became a feminist before feminism had revived, because I suddenly discovered this period just after women had won the right to vote. In the 1920s and ’30s, we had all these career women, like Amelia Earhart, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Thompson, Clare Boothe Luce. There’s so many women, Margaret Bourke-White.

By the time second-wave feminism revived, which was with Betty Friedan’s cofounding of NOW in 1967, I was out of sync with them. When suddenly they revived, began complaining about men, and all that stuff, so on and so forth, I hated it. It was early clashes that I had with those feminists from the start. I tried to join second-wave feminism. They wouldn’t have me because I would not bad mouth men.

These women, like Amelia Earhart, they did not bad mouth men. They admired men. They admired what men had done. What they said was, “We demand equal opportunity for women,” which gave us the opportunity to show that we can achieve at the same level as men who did all these great things.

That was not the tone of second-wave feminism from the start. It’s almost like, “Patriarchy — ” [makes sounds] like this. These women were insane. I found out from the start. I went to this feminist conference at the Yale Law School when I was in graduate school. It was 1971. Kate Millett was there. Rita Mae Brown who later became a lesbian novelist and lives on a horse farm in Virginia came around.

COWEN: Maybe she’s here.

PAGLIA: Maybe she’s here. She’s very rich. At any rate, Rita Mae Brown said to me, she said, “The difference between you and me, Camille, is that you want to save the universities, and I want to burn them down.” What can you say? What a conversation stopper. I had the knock down argument of the Rolling Stones with the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band. I adore the Stones. They hated the Stones.

We had this huge screaming argument. My back was to the wall. They were screaming in my face. I said, “Yes, the Rolling Stones are sexist, but they made great music.” They go, “Oh, no, no, no!”

I said, “All right, let’s take ‘Under My Thumb.’ ‘Under My Thumb,’ yes, it’s sexist, but it’s a great song. It’s a work of art.” These women, they said to me, they said, “Art! Art! Nothing that demeans women can be art!” Now that is a Stalinist view of art!

COWEN: More about you. Less about them.

[laughter and applause]

PAGLIA: Wait a minute. Then there was the argument that I had. This is about Amelia Earhart. You asked about Amelia Earhart, right?

COWEN: Yes.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Then I had my first job at Bennington College in 1972. People said, “There’s this new women’s studies department. One of the first ever at the State University of New York at Albany. Oh, you’ll be one of them.”

I thought, “Well, they’re feminist. I’m feminist. OK. All right.” We had a dinner. We were going to go to a lecture, and so on. We didn’t get through to dessert. Let me tell you about that dinner. Because we had this screaming argument about hormones.

They deny that hormones have the slightest impact on human life. They said hormones don’t even exist. They told me I had been brainwashed by male scientists to believe — these are women who are in the English department. Wonderful education they had in biology.

At any rate, Amelia Earhart — .

COWEN: Yes, of course.

PAGLIA: Never was like this with men. This is the point. In fact, my next book, my next essay collection, I’m going to reproduce the page from Newsweek magazine, 1963, I wrote in a letter to the editor. It was their number one letter. I was 16 years old, at that point.

What was it? They put a picture of Amelia Earhart there. It was Valentina Tereshkova had become the first women in space. The Soviet Union had sent her up. I wrote a protest letter into Newsweek and I said, “That Valentina Tereshkova, the cosmonaut, has became the first woman to be — on the anniversary that Amelia Earhart flew the ocean,” whatever it was. It was some big anniversary.

I said, “Obviously, Amelia Earhart’s lifelong fight for equal opportunity for American women remains to be won.” That’s 1963. Gloria Steinem can lick dirt, as far as I’m concerned. When I was doing that, Gloria Steinem was running around New York in a plastic skirt, I’m telling you. She’s a fraud, that woman. A fraud.

[laughter]

On Camille’s lifestyle of observation

COWEN: You can consume, absorb, experience a remarkable number, amount, and diversity of culture products, music, art, architecture, interior design, fashion, whatever, right?

PAGLIA: Yes.

COWEN: Just a very prosaic question, in terms of your own time management, how is it that you do what you do? What is your method, so to speak? What is your diet?

PAGLIA: It’s a lifestyle of observation.

COWEN: Tell us.

PAGLIA: I feel that the basis of my work is not only the care I take with writing, with my quality controls, my prose, but also my observation. It’s 24/7. I’m always observing. I don’t sit in a university. I never go to conferences. That is a terrible mistake. A conference is like overlaying the same insular ideology on top of it. I am always listening to conversations at the shopping mall.


I feel that the basis of my work is not only the care I take with writing, with my quality controls, my prose, but also my observation. It’s 24/7. I’m always observing. I don’t sit in a university. I never go to conferences. That is a terrible mistake. A conference is like overlaying the same insular ideology on top of it. I am always listening to conversations at the shopping mall.

COWEN: Radio.

PAGLIA: I adore radio. The radio is fantastic, any show on radio, the talk shows, political talk shows, but also the sports shows. The sports shows are the only place that you can hear on radio actual working class voices calling in. “I want to talk about what happened in the game on Monday,” and what they would do if they had $2 million, and who they would hire.

It’s fantastic. My writer’s voice is actually very — rather than these novelists with their recherché lingo and so on — my actual writing voice is very influenced by the way English is spoken today by people and often men on radio. You get this high impact sound, you see.

On lamb vindaloo, LSD, and other mental stimulants

COWEN: You once wrote, I quote, “My substitute for LSD was Indian food,” and by that, you meant lamb vindaloo.

PAGLIA: Yes.

COWEN: You stand by this.

PAGLIA: Yes, I’ve been in a rut on lamb vindaloo.

COWEN: A rut, tell us.

PAGLIA: It’s a horrible rut.

COWEN: It’s not a horrible rut, it may be a rut.

PAGLIA: No, it’s a horrible rut. It’s a 40-year rut. Every time I go to an Indian restaurant, I say “Now, I’m going to try something new.” But, no, I must go back to the lamb vindaloo.

All I know is it’s like an ecstasy for me, the lamb vindaloo.


It’s a 40-year rut. Every time I go to an Indian restaurant, I say “Now, I’m going to try something new.” But, no, I must go back to the lamb vindaloo.
All I know is it’s like an ecstasy for me, the lamb vindaloo.

COWEN: Like De Quincey, tell us, what are the effects of lamb vindaloo?

PAGLIA: What can I say? I attain nirvana.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: I don’t know.

COWEN: How would you describe your views on astrology? A reader wrote to me, asked me to ask you.

PAGLIA: Wait! Wait! You mentioned LSD, can I say something else about that?

COWEN: Sure, LSD, please.

PAGLIA: Now, LSD, I never took it, thank God. I never took drugs. I didn’t believe it. I thought “What is this untested thing?” I thought, “A little wine, beer, all these things have like thousands of years behind them — .”

COWEN: Lamb vindaloo.

PAGLIA: Right. And so LSD, I’m so glad I never took it. Everyone around me was taking LSD. People who did take LSD and survived will still say things like, “Well, I’m really glad I did because I — .”

Everyone who says that, I feel, actually never attained the level of accomplishment that they should have in terms of whatever their vision had been. I think LSD gave vision. It gave vision, but then it deprived people of the ability to translate that vision into material form for the present and for posterity.

But I still remain very oriented toward the LSD vision. I feel I took LSD because I have the music. With “Bathing at Baxter’s,” Jefferson Airplane, the first people to be using [makes sound] like this. Distortions of The Byrds, “Eight Miles High,” I adore that song.

I feel I’m in that psychedelic world. I’ve sometimes said that what I do is psychedelic criticism. Because it is metaphysical, it is visionary. I have a vision. I have a vision that’s bigger than society. That’s the problem with the Marxist approach. I believe the Marxist approach is useful. Arnold Hauser’s one of the great — The Social History of Art is one of the most influential things on me. It’s a Marxist perspective.

Indeed, my work is always very attentive to the social context of anything. But what Marxism lacks is that larger vision of the universe. There are all kinds of questions and issues about human life that Marxism has no answers for. It doesn’t even see it.

It doesn’t see nature. What kind of a vision doesn’t see nature, could only see society? This is what’s happening. We have all these graduates of the elite schools, whereas my generation was all into cosmic consciousness and opening — we were influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and all kinds of Eastern — .

Nick Donner Photography

I feel that is the true multiculturalism. I’ve been arguing for that for 25 years. I’ve been saying that if you want true multiculturalism, you have to present world cultures, including religion. Religion is extremely important — the most complex systems human beings have ever devised were the great religions of the world.

COWEN: Past Arnold Hauser, past Norman Brown, who are the contemporary writers and thinkers who influence you now who are writing serious books on either the world cultures or anything else?

PAGLIA: Is there anyone left writing serious books?

I’m trying to think who has written a serious book I’m interested in right now. Listen, there’s no one I would say, “Oh, so-and-so’s book is coming.” What? They’re dead. The people who I admire are long dead.

Unfortunately, it’s a terrible destruction. My work looks very strange and idiosyncratic because I’m alone. I’m alone and all the people who should have been writing interesting, quirky books, as I do, are dead or their brains were destroyed by LSD.

It’s one or the other. I knew so many, to me, brilliant minds in graduate school and early in my teaching career at Bennington College, really brilliant minds. I had great hopes for them and for what they would do. Then they couldn’t get anything done. For whatever reason, they couldn’t. They didn’t have the — I don’t know what. They didn’t have the resilience to continue against obstacles.

When their work would get rejected, they would become discouraged and would stop. Rejection simply infuriates me. I’ll say, “Well, I’ll have my revenge on you in the afterlife.” I’ll be around, and you’ll be dead. I don’t know, it’s an Italian thing. What can I say?

[laughter]

COWEN: This is Sexual Personae, your best known book, which I recommend to everyone, if you haven’t already read it.

PAGLIA: It took 20 years.

COWEN: Read all of it. My favorite chapter is the Edmund Spenser chapter, by the way.

PAGLIA: Really? Why? How strange.

COWEN: That brought Spenser to life for me.

PAGLIA: Oh, my goodness.

COWEN: I realized it was a wonderful book.

PAGLIA: Oh, my God.

COWEN: I had no idea. I thought of it as old and fusty and stuffy.

PAGLIA: Oh, yes.

COWEN: And 100 percent because of you.

PAGLIA: We should tell them that The Faerie Queene is quite forgotten now, but it had enormous impact, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, on Shakespeare, and on the Romantic poets, and so on, and so forth. The Faerie Queene had been taught in this very moralistic way. But in my chapter, I showed that it was entirely a work of pornography, equal to the Marquis de Sade.

COWEN: [laughs]

PAGLIA: How interesting that you would be drawn to that.

COWEN: Very interesting.

[laughter]

COWEN: The cover image is Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Recently in the news, we’ve seen that someone has scanned the bust.

PAGLIA: Oh, that’s awesome.

COWEN: And it will soon be possible using 3-D printers to print out your own “copy” of Nefertiti.

PAGLIA: [laughs]

COWEN: How do you feel about this?

PAGLIA: Oh well.

COWEN: [laughs]

Bust of Queen Nefertiti

PAGLIA: To me, archaeology is one of my master tropes. What can I say? “The Bust of Nefertiti,” discovered in 1912, and it’s amazing. We’ve known it for like a century. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, how it’s become such a symbol of art.

I should say that the push of countries like Greece and Egypt to recover their masterpieces from where they were taken and scattered around the world, I think with what’s been happening with ISIS, and the demolition of Palmyra and all kinds of things that have happened, my attitude now is keep Nefertiti in Berlin, please. Don’t send it back to Cairo.

COWEN: Of all the aesthetic judgments in your writings, and you’ve covered a lot of ground, but are there any where you really fundamentally regret an earlier judgment and have revised it? Not in a marginal way, which happens all the time, but really just thought, “Well, I was wrong about that?”

PAGLIA: Interesting. [laughs] I’m trying to think. My early work, I’d worked on for so long that it was like I had plenty of time for second thoughts and third thoughts, and hundredth thoughts, so no. I can’t think of anything offhand. Can I get back to you about that?

COWEN: Sure.

[laughter]

COWEN: If you could travel to one place you haven’t been, where would it be and why?

PAGLIA: I’m like Huysmans’s aesthete, des Esseintes. I am not a great fan of traveling. I just feel like it’s become too onerous. No, I’m a mind traveler.

COWEN: What is your unrealized dream in life?

PAGLIA: My unrealized dream, to meet Catherine Deneuve. But I met her once. I ran into her, smack ran into her once on 5th Avenue in front of Saks. I know this is kind of bizarre.

COWEN: It’s a realized dream?

PAGLIA: Yes, but it was odd. I pursued her into the glove department and forced her to sign my ticket envelope for the Fillmore East, where I was seeing Jefferson Airplane.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: To have a conversation with Catherine Deneuve, shall we say. [laughs] A civilized conversation.

COWEN: On that topic, one of your books, The Birds, about the Alfred Hitchcock movie — great book, one of my favorite movies. Going back to that time, if you had the opportunity to date either Suzanne Pleshette or Tippi Hedren — .

PAGLIA: Date? To date?

COWEN: Date.

PAGLIA: I don’t date. I’m just a mad nun — .

COWEN: Hypothetically.

PAGLIA: Is all that I am.

[laughter]

COWEN: Of course.

PAGLIA: Dating is so banal.

[laughter]

COWEN: Tea with Suzanne Pleshette or Tippi Hedren.

PAGLIA: Tippi Hedren invited me to lunch on Rodeo Drive after that. I was, I don’t know, giving some speech on Shakespeare at the Los Angeles Public Library. She invited to thank me for writing this and I met her. She had a stack of 12 of these books, and I signed them for her. She was the most elegant and wonderful, warm woman.

I didn’t have much time. She invited me to go to the ranch and see all the animals and the lions that she collected and so on.

Suzanne Pleshette, I think, was absolutely underutilized by Hollywood. What an intelligent — she’s this knife-sharp character, she was. In fact, I recently, in one of my Salon columns, compared her to Lena Dunham — is, oh — .

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Lena Dunham is the product of exactly the same world. That whole affluent — our entertainment world in Manhattan. I say, “Look what’s happened to culture.” If you want to see the difference between Suzanne Pleshette, the sophisticated Suzanne Pleshette, and Lena Dunham. You want to see the decline [laughs] that we’re in the middle of right now, there it is.

Can I say a word about this?

COWEN: Sure.

PAGLIA: I wrote this. The British Film Institute asked me to write on a film and I said, “How about The Birds?” and I did. I wrote this book, and it was universally panned by the film journals, which said about it, “This book does nothing. This book does nothing.” By which they meant that it wasn’t poststructuralist, it wasn’t postmodernist.

There wasn’t a lot of theory. I wasn’t citing, you know, the male gaze, and et cetera, et cetera. All this book does is go through the film The Birds from beginning to end, scene by scene by scene, and pays attention to the film itself.

Slowly it’s made its way. Now here it is. It was 1998 when that came out, and it’s starting to happen now. Routledge is a publisher that’s done nothing but this theory stuff. They’re starting to go, “Hmm. Maybe there was something in her — ,” I’m hoping.

I’m just trying to inspire graduate students to rebel against this horrible fascism that forces theory onto them before they expose themselves to everything that’s wonderful and imaginative in the history of literature and art.

I believe that paying minute attention to the actual work itself is the mission of criticism. I am hopelessly old-fashioned. Because that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to mention Foucault 59 times in one paragraph, et cetera.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: What a windbag that guy is, I’m telling you.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Foucault is nothing. He’s nothing.

[applause]

Nick Donner Photography

PAGLIA: Nothing. The reason why I know he’s nothing is because he was influenced by — he pretends to be such a mastermind, but in fact he’s just a collection of influences and one of the biggest influences on him was Erving Goffman, of Philadelphia, who was the great sociologist — originally Canadian — who wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. All the things that were an influence on me influenced Foucault.

You have all these people thinking Foucault was some sort of innovative figure in the history of modern sociology or intellect, and he wasn’t. It is a disease in these people. Everywhere, every single university in the United States, every single gender studies department, they’re impregnated with Foucault. That’s why we have graduates who know nothing.

COWEN: Impregnated is an interesting word to use.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

COWEN: Do you like Marnie, the Hitchcock movie?

PAGLIA: Do I like Marnie? Certainly, there are parts — I like most of Marnie. Yeah.

COWEN: But it goes askew in a way The Birds doesn’t.

PAGLIA: Yes. There are problems with it. So much was toxic going on on the set between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren at that point, and so on. But there are wonderful things in Marnie.

On the simple life

COWEN: If you were to take someone who had read all or almost all of your work, and they had a sense of you and read a lot of your columns, watched some of your talks online, whatever, and they get a picture of you, but you wanted to tell them one thing about you that maybe they wouldn’t get from any of that about what motivates you, what drives you, what your life is actually like, what is — .

PAGLIA: My life is completely mundane. I’m a schoolmarm. That’s all I am. I had the wisdom — hello, having been raised Catholic — that once I finally became known, at age 43, I didn’t change one thing about my life. Not one thing. I didn’t move to New York. I didn’t go chasing around. I didn’t get a speakers’ bureau. All that stuff. I have a cousin who’s a nun, and I have all these bishops and priests and sextons and so on in the family.

I just try to keep to reality. Because I know that the basis of my work is the closeness with which I live to ordinary life. I hate the elites. I hate parties. I don’t have any book parties or anything like that. [groans]

[laughter]

PAGLIA: I think that people, they want success and they want material advantages and so on. Being a writer is just scut work. Being a teacher, that’s what Susan Sontag also did wrong. Susan Sontag began in graduate school. “Oh, it’s so boring.” She did a little teaching and then went off and became a luminary. She was a big luminary, a big giant dirigible luminary her whole life.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Floating above the continents. “Here’s Susan Sontag, the dirigible, woo — .”

[laughter]

PAGLIA: “Here she is.” Nothing that she said made any sense actually over time, eventually. She loved to hold court at parties. It’s notorious. People who remember her, “She was so brilliant. I saw her at this dinner party. Everyone was in awe.”

People who go to dinner parties to impress other people, it is such BS. Susan Sontag over time, her work got less and less meaningful, even though people worship at the shrine of Sontag. You try to quote her on anything. What can you quote her on? There’s nothing important. The one thing you can quote her on — .

COWEN: Camp? Photography?

PAGLIA: Quote a sentence from Susan Sontag, a great sentence. You can’t. The only sentence was the one she regretted, “The white race is the cancer of history.” That’s the one she retracted finally when she got cancer. Remember? She realized how horrible that was.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Now she realized. “Now I realize I shouldn’t have said that.” That’s the only thing that you can quote her on. She’s not quotable, because there’s all this sleight of hand that she’s doing. She’s taking material that she borrows from others, or places that she’s been personally at a time when downtown New York was very exciting, so basically it was a kind of transcription of her everyday life.

I think the best thing she did probably was for me, she wrote a very witty thing, “The Imagination of Disaster.” I like that essay a lot, which is all about the horror films of the 1950s. I thought if she only had stayed like that, unpretentious and really engaging with actual materials.

But Susan Sontag, basically her life became going from lecture to lecture, being hailed as the Great One, and being so detached from ordinary life. Whereas, when you’re a teacher, like a classroom teacher, as I’ve been for 40 years, the kids have no idea that I write books. Now and then, someone’s father will say, “She writes books,” and they’ll come and say, “My father is a fan of yours.” “Oh, really? That’s so nice,” I’ll say.

Anyway, the point is all these professors at Harvard and Princeton and Yale, they have the graduate students are paying court to them, because they need letters of recommendations. Hello, they want something from you. They’re so used to “They’re so grand” and so on.

I go in, and it’s like, “We need more chairs.” “What’s wrong?” “The curtain is wrong.” I’m always in touch with the janitors, infrastructure, condition of the buildings. I deal with everyday life. I’m not treated like a queen. I’m just like an ordinary schoolmarm working like a horse, pulling the plow.

I think that’s a really good idea for writers is to have a job where you’re dealing with constant frustrations, and problems, and so on. I think that’s really good for you.

COWEN: Like Herman Melville, right?

PAGLIA: Yes, yes.

COWEN: Hunting whales is not easy.

PAGLIA: Or Wallace Stevens. He kept going to the office, the insurance company, every day.

COWEN: My last question before they get to ask you, but I know there are many people in this audience, or at least some, who are considering some kind of life or career in the world of ideas. If you were to offer them a piece of advice based on your years struggling with the infrastructure, and the number of chairs, and whatever else, what would that be?

PAGLIA: Get a job. Have a job. Again, that’s the real job. Every time you have frustrations with the real job, you say, “This is good.” This is good, because this is reality. This is reality as everybody lives it. This thing of withdrawing from the world to be a writer, I think, is a terrible mistake.


Get a job. Have a job. Again, that’s the real job. Every time you have frustrations with the real job, you say, “This is good.” This is good, because this is reality. This is reality as everybody lives it. This thing of withdrawing from the world to be a writer, I think, is a terrible mistake.

Number one thing is constantly observing. My whole life, I’m constantly jotting things down. Constantly. Just jot, jot, jot, jot. I’ll have an idea. I’m cooking, and I have an idea, “Whoa, whoa.” I have a lot of pieces of paper with tomato sauce on them or whatever. I transfer these to cards or I transfer them to notes.

I’m just constantly open. Everything’s on all the time. I never say, “This is important. This is not important.” That’s why I got into popular culture at a time when popular culture was — .

In fact, there’s absolutely no doubt that at Yale Graduate School, I lost huge credibility with the professors because of my endorsement of not only film but Hollywood. When Hollywood was considered crass entertainment and so on. Now, the media studies came in very strongly after that, although highly theoretical. Not the way I teach media studies.

I also believe in following your own instincts and intuition, like there’s something meaningful here. You don’t know what it is, but you just keep it on the back burner. That’s basically how I work is this, the constant observation. Also, I try to tell my students, they never get the message really, but what I try to say to them is nothing is boring. Nothing is boring. If you’re bored, you’re boring.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Wherever you are, it’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. I don’t know what. The plane has been canceled and whatever. After you get over your fury, you realize what opportunity is there here to absorb something more from this experience, from observing other people or whatever it is.

I think there’s really no experience that you can have that there’s not something in there that eventually you can’t use as a part of your developing system.

Another thing I have to say, anyone interested in ideas, do not read any of the current books like Pierre Bourdieu and all that stuff. Oh my God, it’s so incomplete. It’s really boring. I believe in the library. The library is my shrine. It was my shrine when I was researching Amelia Earhart. When I got to Yale, Sterling Library was my shrine. I ransacked that building, oh my God.

That’s the thing, is that I’ve learned more from the old commentators. James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, which was considered completely gone but had a huge impact on “The Waste Land” and other works of modernism. I’ve learned a great deal from the commentators of the past, the historians of the past.

Now, when I did Glittering Images, the actual nullity of current scholarship became very exposed to me. Of course, I already knew about it, but I really got objective proof of it. There’s 29 chapters in it. Each artwork that I chose, I did a full research of what had been said about that particular artwork, so I began chronologically.

I would work, if it was an older work from the late 19th century, moving through the decades to the present. There, oh my God, could you see it, could you see the fall in the quality of scholarship in our time from the 1980s on. I would move from these incredibly erudite and wonderful sentences, beautiful stylus about art, late 19th century moving into the 20th century.

Still solid into about the ’60s. And then the ’70s is kind of holding there. All of a sudden comes the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s. All these people are pygmies. Pygmies, the people at the elite schools. Let me say, the big art survey courses are being dismantled. Hello? It used to be you had a two-semester course. It would begin with cave art and move, in two semesters, down to modernism.

Magnificent structure, now abandoned wholesale except when students have protested, like at Smith. My sister is a graduate of Smith, and was part of the protest that got the survey restored.

Graduate students in art history and art historians no longer have the ability to teach the big picture, because all narratives are regarded as fictional now, imperialistic fictions. The entire story of art is not possible, and therefore, people know nothing.

[laughter]

COWEN: I need to give them the chance to ask you questions, but thank you for a fascinating discussion.

[applause]

PAGLIA: Thank you. All right. [laughs]

Q&A

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You mentioned Smith. I saw you speak at Smith, or Mount Holyoke, in 1993. It was fascinating to compare that to this, because there was a great deal of booing and hissing at Smith. It was eye-opening to me, being steeped in this — I am going to wrap up — the hegemony of the patriarchy and how we must even dress like men.

You saying something to the effect of, “I teach in a skirt, because I have more control over the classroom that way.”

PAGLIA: Actually, I don’t remember teaching in a skirt, but go ahead.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: In any case, I remember something to that effect. The question is, do you think that feminism has evolved beyond that, or is it just sort of running that same record dry?

PAGLIA: It’s really shocking. When I arrived at Smith, they had papered the walkway, in fact, as people walked in with all these hostile and uncomprehending things. People had no idea what my real ideas were. The whole PC thing was escalating out of control at that point.

It’s really shocking. Here is a woman, a middle-aged woman at that point, I’m in my 40s, who had spent 20 years writing a book that had been rejected, and finally was published by Yale Press. A book on the whole history of the Western civilization, and this is the treatment that I got at Smith College?

This is one of the bastions of the Seven Sisters, one of the most noble names in the history of modern women’s education. That just shows you how ideology really is very distorting.

Feminism is going through phases. I call myself a feminist, absolutely. I simply belong to a dissident wing of feminism, and I think that the error made by all these people was not to understand that my wing of feminism had been suppressed and silenced at that point for 25 years.

Eventually, we won in the ’90s, the pro-sex wing of feminism, thanks to Madonna, who wasn’t a feminist. But because of Madonna’s foregrounding of sexual themes and so on, it allowed us to break through the over-control by the Steinem politburo at that time.

[laughter]

COWEN: I’ll take another question, but you’ll still get to say more.

PAGLIA: OK, but the — .

[laughter]

PAGLIA: The problem is right now that a whole younger generation has risen up, and it’s now Steinem has returned. She’s like a bad penny. She’s back again.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: I feel like I’m back to square one.

COWEN: Next question, here.

PAGLIA: I’m sorry we can’t go on.

[laughter]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, thanks for coming. You mentioned your incident with Catherine Deneuve, and you also talked about that in 1995 and Playboy following her, and also having 599 pictures of Elizabeth Taylor.

PAGLIA: [laughs]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: At the same time earlier this year, when David Bowie passed away, and you mentioned how he had reached out to you and wanted to meet you, you talked about how you weren’t sure you would have wanted to, because you have to keep a respectful distance from an artist of that towering stature.

You also mentioned in that interview that obsession and genius are pretty much the same thing, so where would you draw the line between — say you have an opportunity to meet someone who’s very important to you, or contrive a meeting, or just seek them out. Where do you draw the line between the obsession, and I mean the Paglia kind of obsession, not the John Hinckley kind — .

[laughter]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: And just that respectful distance? Do you stifle creativity with respect for who this person is and their privacy?

PAGLIA: I personally have never had this great desire, necessarily, to meet the figures that I most admire in the arts, because I understand that what they represent onscreen is something that is an artificial construction. It’s not the reality.

I’ve been working in art schools also my entire career, so I know. I have dancers in my class. I have actors in my class, and I completely understand the difference between the fallible real self, the mundane real self, and the artistic self suddenly emerges within what I call the temenos, which is the sacred precinct that I regard as art.

Therefore, when I encountered Catherine Deneuve by accident that day, and I was at the peak of my obsession with her, it really almost ruined my interest in her, because it’s like, “Oh, my God.” It’s not the real Catherine Deneuve [laughs] that I was so intent on. It was this magical creation that is a result of her talent, but also of the director’s own magical skills, and so on.

Oh, yes, Elizabeth Taylor, I have 599 pictures, yes. People often say what’s odd about that is not the number, but that I had counted them.

[laughter]


Oh, yes, Elizabeth Taylor, I have 599 pictures, yes. People often say what’s odd about that is not the number, but that I had counted them.

PAGLIA: She represented to me everything — the pure sexuality that had been repressed during the Doris Day 1950s and early ’60s. BUtterfield 8 still remains for me a great pagan exhibition. Here is Elizabeth Taylor as a high class call girl. Oh, my God, and I had Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti and Anouk Aimée and Melina Mercouri.

There were so many phenomenal images that I was inundated with when I was in high school and college, and what do these kids have today? Taylor Swift? Oh, my God. She is such a fake. She poses in things that she imagines are sexy and sultry, and it’s so fake. Awful, awful, awful. At least Rihanna, who’s on dope most of the time, and that’s why she looks so sultry, but — .

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Rihanna’s Instagrams are, to me, like a work of art. That’s the only thing I’m following right now, I have to say, that’s of equal importance, is Rihanna floating from one nightclub to another, and yet some other fashionable thing, but back to your question.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Wait, did I answer? I don’t know if I answered the question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m not sure, either.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Oh, David Bowie. I wrote this essay called “Theater of Gender: David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution.” I wrote it for the Victoria and Albert exhibition catalog for the costume show that they did that is now touring the world, and I consider it one of my most important pieces, but it’s in the catalog.

I want to get into my next essay collection, but with Bowie, see, Bowie is different than Deneuve. Bowie is truly like a creative artist, whereas Deneuve and Taylor are performers in other people’s fictions. But Bowie was truly a master creator of a level that just is staggering.

When I did the research for that essay, I knocked out all over again at the enormity of what he achieved, and also at how little has been acknowledged, his deep knowledge of the visual arts, and how he had been influenced by that. I found all kinds of little details that showed his deep knowledge, his erudition about that.

It appears to be that he did tell the V&A to invite me. That time, people don’t know. What you’re talking about is where — it was earlier in the 1990s, and a message came to my publisher saying — and it was conveyed to me by the publicist and my publisher — saying, “David Bowie wants your phone number,” and I burst out laughing.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: I said, “That’s ridiculous. Oh, boy. It’s just some fan trying to get it.” They said, “David Bowie they claimed really wants your phone number.” I said, “Is that the way David Bowie gets in touch with you when he wants your phone number?” I laughed, and I didn’t believe it. It was all so shadowy.

Only now, only after I did the research for this Victoria and Albert thing, did I realize that the reason it was so strange was that he had fired his entire staff. He had fired his management. He had fired his company, and dealing with the record companies and so on after Berlin, and he only dealt with the world via friends. That’s what was so strange about it. It was strange. I made a mistake.

What he wanted was he wanted to use an excerpt from Sexual Personae on a record album in one of his lyrics. I’m like, “Oh, my God.” It’s very embarrassing that that happened, but that’s OK. I think there should be a distance, or a sense of respect and reserve, with great artists.

COWEN: Next question?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m a master’s economics student here at George Mason, and I’m told today is Equal Pay Day, so that makes the question I want to ask you about pay disparity even more relevant, I guess.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and it seems to me that it boils down to a problem of culture, to the extent that, for example, Mark Zuckerberg publicizing taking paternity leave does more to alleviate the pay disparity problem that we have than either companies or governments setting a policy.

Because to the extent that the demand for flexibility, to have children and care for children is only used by women, it’s going to hurt us on the margin when it comes to pay. Since you’re such a great and incisive social critic, I just wanted to get your thoughts on that.

PAGLIA: First of all, I think the way that my own party, the Democratic party, is using this rubric of equal pay for women as if this has not been a matter of law ever since the presidency of JFK, for heaven’s sake.

There may be cases of outrageous disparity in pay for doing the same work. Now and then, they’ll find something like in a hospital, a woman doctor, a veteran doctor who’s not being paid the same level. But it’s rare when these actual cases do surface.

There’s all this propaganda being pumped out about this issue, when in fact, women are not — if women are earning 72 cents or 75 cents on the dollar, it’s not for the same job. This is the lie that’s being told. Women doing the same job as a man are not being paid 75 cents for something that the man is being paid a dollar.

What it is, is overall, the averages of women, of their own volition, for whatever reasons, are taking jobs that have more flexibility as opposed to the around-the-clock, seven days a week, night thing.

For example, women tend to shy away from commission sales jobs where they’re on the road a lot, and that is where a lot of men have very high earnings. Women are making choices, and they would prefer to be closer to their children, so yes. These disparities are ultimately based in biological differences.

Susan Faludi and these other feminists of the Steinem kind of credo have one answer. Men must do more. That’s their answer. Men must do more. Susan Faludi has never had a child, so has absolutely no idea.

What I feel is that there is a tie. There is an ineffable, indefinable, biological tie between a child and the mother in whose body the child has developed into a full being, and there are all kinds of impulses and instincts that women may have of protectiveness toward their biologically born children.

I think that to politicize the thing, and to assume that a woman bearing a child is like an automaton, “Yes, here is the baby. Here, to my husband, you are equally fit to be able to nurture this three-month-old child.”

As a child gets a little older and turns into a real human being with a personality and so on, it’s not so dependent, then is when men can do more. I believe personally, from my observation of human life, that there is something going on. An infant doesn’t want the father, hello.

The infant wants the mother. You want the nice, cushy — the smell is the mother. “Who is this person coming closer? Go away.” Freud talked about that. This distraction comes in, the father. “Get out.” Remember?

[laughter]

PAGLIA: This is why Freud said every child wants to kill the father and marry the mother. They don’t want men, and men don’t know what to do. Men are clumsy, and they have the big hands and so on.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: What I have seen from my own observation is that women — because I have a child who I adopted from my former partner and so on. What I have seen is the world of the moms. I have seen the world of the moms from the inside, and what I see is that the minute our children are born, it’s the woman who biologically, I believe, has the master strategist mind.

She is the generalissimo of the household. The man, her husband, who was lasonce her equal, shrinks down to merely one counter.

[laughter]

Nick Donner Photography

PAGLIA: Becomes one. It is she who issues the master plan for the week. He is hopeless. She has the multiple levels. She assigns. She knows what — she’s the one who makes the schedule and so on, and the good father is the one who says, “OK, yes, I will do. OK, give me the plan, give me the sheet,” and so forth.

To ask men to do more, seems to me to ask them to do something that they are not biologically prepared to do.

COWEN: Our next question is from a man.

PAGLIA: Oh, sorry. That was so interesting, I wanted to go on, but it’s all right.

[laughter]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’d just like to preface my question by saying that as a whirlwind, Job’s God has nothing on you.

[laughter]

PAGLIA: How nice. Thank you.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is do you ever have any concern that modern literature and eventually all the classics will have to be rewritten so that in order to be understood, every fifth word will have to be the word “like”?

[laughter]

PAGLIA: Unfortunately, the sense of language in general, or just a respect for language or interest in language is degenerating. I’m someone who used to write down, always, I’d write down any word I don’t know in what I’m reading. I would make lists, and I would study the dictionary and etymologies, and now, young people have no concern for language, per se.

The way they communicate with each other and the email format now in text is very truncated, and it’s why the writing on the web has also degenerated horribly. The writing for blogs is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, but no one has — .

It used to be with newspapers and magazines, there was a space limit, and that imposed a real kind of format. It forced you to condense, and it gave a crispness to language. We’re in a period now, I’m afraid that the ear for language is degenerating.

COWEN: One last question, very quickly.

PAGLIA: Oh, the last one? Oh, no.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ll try to be quick. In my view, feminists have made a lot of progress in the Western world in the last century, and I’m curious to know if you think we’re close to basically achieving the goals that were set out, or if the feminists will ever feel like the fact that more women go to college these days, for example, is a symbol of progress, or that they’ll never feel like the job has been done?

COWEN: You have one minute, 30 seconds to answer this question.

PAGLIA: Oh, no. I’m an equal opportunity feminist, by which I believe that all obstacles to women’s advancement in the political and professional realms should be removed.

What I’m also saying is that there are huge areas of human life that are not political that have to do with our private spiritual nature, and that is a place where legislation will always be helpless and hopeless and indeed, intrusive, so I think that feminism has made enormous gains in terms of — there was a time that women were totally dependent on father, on husband, on brother, for their survival.

Now, women can be self-supporting, can live totally on their own. It’s part of this whole Western world powered by capitalism that our university curricula are now habitually always demeaning. Capitalism made women’s emancipation possible.

I think that the problem right now is that young women have been taught that to somehow identify their own sense of personal unhappiness with men, and men are responsible for our unhappiness, when in fact, part of the issue is that we have lived as a species for tens of thousands of year, where mating occurred early, where you left your parents’ house, and had your own household, and your own children.

Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet, is 13 going on 14, and already, she’s ready for marriage. In this life, we have a very long, an unnaturally long period here, before women can attain some sense of who they are as women. I think that that is — .

It’s not men. It’s not the patriarchy, and it’s ultimately not a feminist issue. It has something to do with this very mechanical system of the modern technological, professional world that has emerged to replace the agrarian period, when there were multiple generations living with each other, and women had a natural sense of solidarity, being all together.

There was the world of women, and the world of men, once. They didn’t have that much to do with each other once. All the problems have happened since we started having to deal with each other.

[laughter]

COWEN: Just to close, Steven Pinker will be coming on October 24th. This summer we’ll have Cass Sunstein, not yet scheduled. Camille, we thank you heartily, so, so much.

PAGLIA: Thank you.


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