Camille Paglia Contra Mundum
Cultural battles whose ideological roots were planted in the 1970s by American academics under the influence of French post-structuralism, and which percolated in various forms throughout the 1980s, came to a crushing head by the beginning of the 1990s. What emerged was a new intellectual orthodoxy, characterized by a stance of permanent victimhood applicable to any group felt to fall outside of the privileged position occupied by white western males; widespread suspicion of, if not outright hostility to, the heights of the great Western cultural traditions and its makers; and rejection of a biological human nature. Social and linguistic constructivism, accompanied by global relativism regarding truth and knowledge, replaced them. Mired in the shallow puddles of linguistic puzzles and affecting chic political postures, the new dogma rigidly circumscribed the range of acceptable inquiry within its ideological constraints. Deviations from doctrine routinely resulted in condemnation for perpetuating past systems of oppression. Indeed the value of free inquiry and free expression came under fire from these quarters, on the grounds that they aided injustices. The result was an enforced intellectual conformity, severely straitening the bounds of free thought and talk—the very value of which began to look suspect from such angles.
Against this broad background, Camille Paglia first burst onto the scene in 1990 with the publication of her magnum opus, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a peerless study of perennial themes in Western art and literature. Her pro-sex, pro-freedom provocations against the prevailing PC culture helped stem the tide. As the 1990s unfolded, the stridency and stranglehold of that culture seemed to subside. During the last decade, too, these totalitarian tendencies appeared to have at least lain dormant. While the wider culture was otherwise concerned with war, terrorism, the development of a dominant digital age, and other Bush-era preoccupations, its agenda receded from prominence in the public consciousness. The present decade, by contrast, bears witness to the return of the repressed, as this familiar Kulturkampf from the recent past has re-emerged with a vengeance. Just so, it is within this current cultural context that Paglia now presents her new book, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, and Feminism.
The book begins with an original introductory essay covering Paglia’s chief themes, followed by ten chapters culled from her early books. Choice selections from Sexual Personae comprise the first three chapters, followed by seven chapters previously published in her subsequent collections Sex, Art, and American Culture and Vamps and Tramps. Like those latter two volumes, the twenty-six chapters that follow collect material that has since appeared in an international array of publications and lectures, serving variously to amplify and qualify Paglia’s defining themes. Unlike her two earlier collections, which included sustained, systematic statements alongside short, topical chapters, the new book is designed exclusively as an assemblage of shorter pieces ranging widely over its titular topics. This is no shortcoming, however, as the content of the first ten chapters contains all the background needed for understanding the whole. The scope of the selection allows for a more expansive treatment of its topics. Readers longing for elaboration will be richly rewarded by turning to their detailed development in the earlier work. For old readers, the early chapters reward re-reading—in both the joy of the writing and the continuing challenge of the ideas put forward. For new readers, the condensed selection makes for a most manageable package of Paglia’s message. In this combination, Free Women, Free Men becomes the best single-volume introduction to Paglia’s thought.
Her primary target is the return of “the plague of political correctness and assaults on free speech that erupted in the 1980s.” As a result of which, she observes, “[W]e are plunged once again into an ethical chaos where intolerance masquerades as tolerance and where individual liberty is crushed by the tyranny of the group.” Defining her stance in opposition to this, she writes: “The premier principles of this book are free thought and free speech—open, mobile, and unconstrained by either liberal or conservative ideology.”
Here we see two of Paglia’s central themes, viz. freedom of the individual and a rejection of rigid ideology. The first forces us to fight back against its encroachments on free expression, while the second prevents us from falling into the pitfalls of parochial ideology and groupthink. Instead Paglia promotes an openness to the empirical world, which might profit from one type of thinking or another, as particular cases present themselves. She finds the traditional division between liberal and conservative to be woefully outmoded, originating in historical contexts ill-equipped on their own to make sense of our global, technological world. To readers familiar with the conservative intellectual tradition, Paglia’s relaxed anti-ideological stance might recall Russell Kirk’s anti-ideological conception of conservatism as a cast of mind open to reality as it is revealed in tradition, religion, and history rather than as it is driven by the dictates of dogma.
Paglia’s pushback against politicization allows her to embrace the revelations of the natural world, as opposed to those who insist on complete social constructivism. Her epistemic openness affords a more empirically informed understanding of the role of nature. Even as she espouses a humanism hospitable to the realities of human biology, Paglia equally avoids collapsing it into any crude biologistic reduction. Rather, freedom remains fundamental, as the individual exercise of it in action thwarts the total tyranny of nature. We combat its dominance, with some success over the course of civilization, issuing in the creation of culture, technology, inquiry, and so on. This elicits the ineliminable place of freedom in overcoming the force of nature, as society and morality operate as safeguards against some of its abominable aspects. The extent to which these efforts are successful is a measure of our resistance against nature’s thrall.
Along these dual axes of freedom and nature, Paglia develops a fluid framework for humanistic inquiry. Human sexuality exemplifies this admixture: “Sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture.” In applying this insight, Paglia reaches a host of trenchant conclusions. Perhaps most infamously, she rejects the feminist dogma that declares rape to be solely an act of violence rather than also an act of eroticism—however debased. This confers two immediate advantages. First, it fits the findings of evolutionary biology; second, from a practical perspective, it encourages a street-smart sensibility to stay out of danger.
Paglia urges us to resist encroachments in this other direction as well. Her self-described “dissident brand of feminism” or “libertarian feminism” originates in her childhood rebellion against adherence to artificial sexual roles found in the 1950s, and later her aversion to the paternalistic controls imposed by old college parietal laws. In demanding freedom from these constraints, she also acknowledges the greater risk and responsibility any expansion of freedom, whether in the pursuit of sexual liberation or otherwise, necessarily brings in its tow. She demands that the debate over college date rape acknowledge this too. On these grounds, she also opposes the gross intrusion of university bureaucracy in student’s sex lives, which she views as an infantilizing regression. The new volume reproduces her most notorious statement of this view, her commitment to which she unreservedly reaffirms in the introduction. As university bureaucracies’ paternalistic regulation of student lives has only risen since its original publication, its reprinting here is as pressing as ever.
It would not be in keeping with Paglia’s message of free thought and her aversion to dogma to avoid any criticism of her views; even Paglia votaries like myself must work through her ideas rather than uncritically accept them. Lest this laudatory review amount to a mere encomium, then, allow me to register one kind of complaint with the new collection. In several places, one finds Paglia making a richly suggestive remark that remains underdeveloped, such as when she contends that the narrow conformist categories of 1950s sexual identity were in part a response to the historical trauma endured over the course of the Depression and WWII. After she scouted this point in the Introduction, I found myself waiting for its development with more historical detail. In fairness, Paglia does buttress it indirectly in her illuminating accounts of the great female figures of the 1920s and 30s, and one can further piece together some ancillary details from indirectly related discussions, yet her claim remains merely a promising point crying out for elaboration.
Irrespective of topic, Paglia executes her inquiry with a humanism harnessed by the deliverances of the natural world, maintaining the independent force of freedom and nature. She is backed by deep learning in a mode which embodies the best of her forbears in the traditions of the old German high historicism and the early-20th-century Cambridge school of anthropology. All of this is presented in a stunning prose style, moving between terse and elegant constructions of the kind enshrined by Tacitus, on one end, and the flowery purple prose of Walter Pater on the other. Combining Latinate adjectives evocative of baroque French and Italian styles with hard Anglo-Saxon nouns, her writing is eclectic in its blend of styles—splendidly lucid and utterly unpretentious. Her pen captures the cadence of everyday speech without being strained or sloppy, and coming at no cost to rigor.
What this amounts to is a non-stop intellectual barrage. No one with the slightest interest in its issues can afford to overlook Paglia’s treatment of them here, which compels the consideration of her shrillest critic and ardent devotee alike. The wider significance of Free Men, Free Women is the promise, implicit in its approach, to help pave a path forward for those now reeling from the unintended consequences of the continuing culture wars.
Nick Goldberg is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. You can find him on Twitter at @chavezcamacho1.