||The Camille Paglia IMterview
An email exchange with Andrew Sullivan
(The following is the result of email exchanges between Camille Paglia and me. She hasn't gotten around to readers' questions yet, so feel free to send more in.)
Andrew Sullivan: Camille, I should really start by asking you a question so many of my readers have been asking me for the last nine months. What have you been up to lately? Was there some reason that you kept your own counsel during the tumultuous 9/11 period?
Camille Paglia: It's great to talk to you, Andrew. For the past two years, in addition to teaching full-time as usual at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, I've been writing a book about poetry that will be released next year by Pantheon Books. It distills my 30 years of classroom teaching and is intended for a general audience.
Next I'll be pulling together materials for my third essay collection for Vintage Books. I'm also working on the second volume to "Sexual Personae", which is under contract to Yale University Press.
I've written the foreword for a book by my significant other, Alison Maddex, that will be published this fall by Universe/Rizzoli. It's called "Sex in the City: An Illustrated History" and traces the history of sex in New York from the seventeenth century to the present. As an arts curator, Alison has a phenomenal eye for images, and she's found some amazing things.
I resigned from Salon.com last year to focus on my book projects and lectures. For example, a lecture I gave on multiculturalism and education at Santa Clara University in May 2001 was published last fall by Arion. This fall Arion will publish a lecture I gave at Yale University in March on American religion in the 1960s.
I'd been writing for Salon for six years since their inaugural issue in 1995. If I could have written for them every week, I would have. They were very generous in letting me go down to a triweekly schedule, but finally it just became impossible.
It wasn't the actual writing of the column that was onerous: it was the constant processing of news articles and commentaries from the U.S. and abroad that was taking its toll. That much bad prose is toxic! What was hardest was giving up the connection I had with Salon readers all over the world. Their messages, jammed with information and vivid opinion, were a revelation.
Whatever its financial problems, Salon will go down in history as one of the most influential publications of our time. Its tone, style, and format have been massively imitated by web sites across the political spectrum. I'm very proud to have played a role in that pioneering operation from the start.
Last fall I joined Interview magazine as a contributing editor. It was founded by Andy Warhol, and I'm thrilled to be part of it. I've been a disciple of Warhol since college in the 1960s, when I saw his early black and white films. Warhol and Oscar Wilde were the two major figures in the development of my aesthetics.
I commented at length on the horrifying attack on the World Trade Center in my Interview column in the last December/January issue. Aside from that, I've stayed out of the fray. Political debate has gotten extraordinarily divisive in the United States. There's a level of bitterness and hysteria that I've never seen in my lifetime. In the 1960s, the arguments at least had substance. Today's quarrels are petty turf wars - fiddling while Rome burns.
I'm monitoring the international news, which is the only thing that matters. As always, I'm reading ancient history, whose paradigms we are fated to relive again and again. The lessons in the rise and fall of glorious empires are not very reassuring, I'm afraid, to our present situation.
AS: I'm interested by your thoughts about Salon. What do you think of Slate? Did they ever ask you to write for them? Or were you too unpredictable for them? My own view is that the first internet magazines opened up the terrain but failed to see the real potential of the medium - which is its radical democracy! Imagine, a few years ago, if an ego-mad, self-righteous bully had taken over the New York Times and skewed its coverage to lies and propaganda, it would have been very very hard to hold him to account. In fact, Abe Rosenthal's reign of terror was never fully held to account. Now, all sorts of entities and non-entities can reveal to mass audiences the agendas of these media machers. That's a huge gain. A reader pointed out recently that one of Tocqueville's deepest worries about America was its herd mentality, especially in intellectual matters. The internet is like a car-horn in the middle of a pack of lemmings. It disperses the throng; and some of the poor schmucks even avoid going over the cliff.
CP: As for Slate, merciful Minerva! Can anyone imagine that shrinking violet, Michael Kinsley, dealing with an Italian-American Amazon? James Wolcott, my favorite culture critic, has a piquant story about Kinsley's vapors toward me, but I'll leave him to tell it.
Slate has improved greatly since it took cultural lessons from Salon, but I rarely look at it. I'm too busy watching reruns of Knots Landing on Soap Net channel. The problem with early Slate was that it was slow to adjust to the transition from the printed page to the computer screen, a visual medium. It was effete in syntax and tediously verbose (like literary articles in the New Republic).
We insurgents at Salon identified, in contrast, with the punchiness of the populist press. David Talbot and the other founders of Salon were working for West Coast dailies or local TV. I had been writing articles for Talbot when he was arts and culture editor at the San Francisco Examiner. When he left to create Salon in 1995, I went with him. Salon at its height was a mirror of David Talbot's avant-garde sensibility. Unfortunately, financing has been a constant, draining problem.
I've written about my practical work for Salon in an article called "Dispatches from the New Frontier: Writing for the Internet" in "Communication and Cyberspace", a forthcoming book co-edited by Lance Strate of Fordham University. I say there that Salon has already outlasted two short-lived, eighteenth-century London periodicals of equivalent importance and influence, the Tatler and the Spectator.
AS: You mentioned "the fall of glorious empires," as pertinent to our times. But I see no real evidence of traumatic decline here. One of the things that most struck me last September was the extraordinary resilience of American patriotism, and the depth and strength of popular American morality. Three decades of the nihilist left slowly eroding our universities and public discourse didn't seem to have wrought too much havoc among the people who really matter. I know many young students whose heads are filled with nonsense at universities, but within a few years, they seem to regain their moral and intellectual bearings. It's an awful waste of what should be the best years of your life, but not irreparable.
I was up in your old neck of the woods recently - my boyfriend grew up in Troy, New York - and was reassured by the common sense and strong values all around me. But it also makes me wonder whether our elite debates matter very much at all. Maybe you and I are wasting our time.
CP: Regarding the state of the nation since 9-11, yes, I too am delighted by the resurgence in patriotism. The snobbish anti-Americanism of the Manhattan and campus intelligentsia was one of my prime targets when I arrived on the scene with my first book in 1990. Since I'm the product of an immigrant family (my mother and all four grandparents were born in Italy), I have a very clear sense of America's freedoms and opportunities.
And because my father and five uncles had fought in World War Two for the Allies against the Italian motherland, I've always had high regard for the military. Our national security is threatened by the failure of prestige universities to encourage or respect military careers. When our best and brightest expect a servant class to shed their blood in the nation's defense, we're starting to look like late imperial Rome.
As for the bitterness and hysteria I spoke of, I was mainly referring to the degeneration of discourse on TV and radio talk shows. Political positions have rabidly repolarized, and gradations of opinion have vanished. I loathe this trend of anointing partisan campaign consultants to host news shows. Hence two programs I used to watch - ABC's This Week and CNN's Crossfire - have dropped off the map for me. I wouldn't waste two seconds listening to that unctuous socialite, George Stephanopolous, or Paul Begala, a yapping mongoose with the ethical sense of a stone.
I love your description of young Americans you know "whose heads are filled with nonsense at universities". But as a teacher, I don't agree that the damage is only temporary. There is too little available time for the humanities as it is. Students forced to waste their energies on postmodernism and poststructuralism, with its pointless contortions, are graduating from expensive schools with limited or superficial knowledge of the arts as well as history.
Compulsory exposure to bad writing and specious theorizing cripples talented students when they try to develop their individual voices. We've been waiting for a decade for a new generation of credible young culture critics with staying power. It hasn't happened yet. Imagination and taste need to be cultivated. A writer is the product of everything he or she has absorbed.
By my "neck of the woods" (a phrase with resonance from its use in "Auntie Mame") I assume you mean upstate New York. Yes, I was born in Endicott and lived there and in the farm town of Oxford until I was 10. Then we moved to Syracuse. I went to college at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where I got a superb education at bargain-basement rates. (I recently addressed the scandalous costs of American higher education in an appeal in Front Page Magazine.)
Until I left for graduate school at Yale, my entire world was upstate New York, with its frigid winters and magnificent landscapes. I've written about this in an article on Syracuse for Britannica.com for a series they're doing on American cities. The open skies and brisk Canadian air produce strong, independent personalities. My upbringing as an outlander was somewhat parallel to Germaine Greer's in Australia. We share this impatience with hothouse coteries and tend to charge ahead, mowing down everything in our paths.
AS: I agree with you about the tone and nature of contemporary debate. Certainly in the gay world. Wouldn't it be great to have a civilized, non-personal, insult-free discussion among gay intellectuals? Ain't gonna happen. The smart left speaks an academic jargon designed to shut itself off from mainstream debate and enforce its views in its enclaves by naked power. The rest is the curdled ressentiment of gossip columnists and smear artists. So depressing. And having failed to enter into a serious debate in the 1990s, they've now woken up, realized that they've lost the argument and started desperately throwing mud. The good news is that there's a rebirth of moderate, liberal and conservative gay writers out there who also disagree about many things. But the center of debate has shifted so far away from the old paradigm that it's barely recognizable as a culture war debate. More of a cultural nuance debate. Which suits me fine, by the way.
CP: Of course I completely agree with your lament about the debasement of thought among hardcore gay activists - professional gays whose religion is their sexual orientation. Their belief system was flash frozen in the distant past, and they seem incapable of intellectual inquiry or spiritual growth. Their petulant refusal to engage your ideas or mine a decade ago has been one of many factors in their steady cultural marginalization. Their usual tactics of slander and ostracism didn't work with us, since we were already fully formed thinkers and writers, but many dissident gays were effectively silenced.
May I express again my admiration of the courage and fortitude shown by you and Norah Vincent in the gay debate at the New School in June. The C-SPAN tape of that evening (which I reviewed in "The Gay Inquisition" in Front Page Magazine) is a true historical document. The vipers were flushed from the shrubbery for the whole world to see. And thanks to their lifetime addiction to lazy groupthink, they were definitely not ready for prime time.
The peak moment was when you read from your book to prove the atrocious misquotation that's been ruthlessly used against you. It was as if time stopped. One could feel through the TV screen how the hostile crowd fell under a spell as you demonstrated your power of mind and wonderful quality of language.
AS: Tell me something. You were a Nader supporter in 2000. Have you changed or adjusted your view of president Bush since then?
CP: I'm still a Nader fan. His critiques of capitalism can save it. I think Bush is a decent, well-meaning man with simple tastes. He's restored a sense of order and dignity to the White House, which the Clintons treated like a tacky amusement park. It's a relief not to see the president of the United States popping up like a jack-in-the-box at every two-bit, fleabag mini-event.
Military leadership by the Bush administration in the months following 9-11 was strong and confident. But this year there's been an unsettling series of miscues, hesitations, and reversals. The top people look tired, and political skirmishes haven't been skillfully managed. Not that the Democrats are any great shakes! Daschle and Gebhardt are such jackasses.
Bush's speechwriters finally found the right vocabulary and cadence for him, but I still quail when I listen to him, as some malapropism is bound to occur. Bush's lack of ease with spontaneous, non-scripted communication has serious consequences when he tries to calm investors' nerves or explain to the world why we should wage war on Iraq.
Bill Clinton was a glib, seductive, serial abuser of language. Bush has good, plain instincts, but in my view, a president needs greater mastery of language to sustain his authority in a media age.
TO BE CONTINUED ÷ WITH READERS' QUESTIONS
July 31, 2001, andrewsullivan.com
copyright © 2002 Andrew Sullivan