The Mencken of Feminism
Though Camille Paglia is an unwavering Nietzschean, every person even marginally libertarian or conservative should appreciate the personality of this bizarre iconoclast. I first encountered her writings around 1990, shortly after she released Sexual Personae, an intensive study of gender roles. I’d just graduated from the University of Notre Dame, and I was absolutely fascinated by her writings, her way of thinking, and her unique take—so counter to the then-emerging political correctness movement—on any number of issues. And, let me be clear from the outset, I found her conclusions more repulsive than not. Twenty-five years and seven children later, I find her conclusions even more disturbing.
Yet I find it hard to keep custody of my eyes and not gawk when Paglia writes or makes a media appearance. As anyone not living under a rock knows, she’s back in the limelight this season, commenting in Salon and elsewhere on everything from Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton to Planned Parenthood and recent Republican presidential debates.
Why would someone like myself—I’ve just written a biography of Russell Kirk, for heaven’s sake—appreciate this intellectual libertine? For many reasons, actually. First, she speaks her mind, and her mind is as far from politically correct as imaginable. Second, she can write with the best of them.
But third, we should love her for the enemies she has made. She makes all conformists—whether of the leftist variety or the modern-day Puritanical and fundamentalist sort on the right—uncomfortable in a way that no one has done since H.L. Mencken.
Trained in the classics of the Western tradition and a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Paglia embraces libertarianism to the fullest extent possible in her most controversial subject, sexuality. (She calls for a complete decriminalization of all sexual acts with the exception of rape.) Her view of the proper powers of the state is generally minimalist. Liberalism, she writes, foolishly “expects government to provide materially for all, a feat manageable only by an expansion of authority and a swollen bureaucracy.” Consequently, she continues, liberals see government as a “tyrant father” but still hope it will act as a “nurturant mother.” This, she correctly notes, is an impossible combination of desires that can only result in societal tragedy.
A woman, she argues, is naturally very different from a man and must be recognized as such:
I have found the words masculine and feminine indispensable for my notations of appearance and behavior, but I apply them freely to both sexes, according to mood and situation. Here are my conclusions, after a lifetime of observation and reflection. Maleness at its hormonal extreme is an angry, ruthless density of self, motivated by a principle of ‘attack.’ Femaleness at its hormonal extreme is first an acute sensitivity of response, literally thin-skinned (a hormonal effect in women), and secondly a stability, composure, and self-containment, a slowness approaching the sultry. Biologically, the male is impelled toward restless movement; his moral danger is brutishness. Biologically, the female is impelled toward waiting, expectancy; her moral danger is stasis. Androgen agitates; estrogen tranquilizes—hence the drowsiness and ‘glow’ of pregnancy. Most of us inhabit not polar extremes but a constantly shifting great middle. However, a preponderance of gray does not disprove the existence of black and white. Sexual geography, our body image, alters our perception of the world. Man is contoured for invasion, while woman remains the hidden, a cave of archaic darkness. No legislation or grievance committee can change these eternal facts.
Some critics decry Paglia as an anti-feminist feminist. Certainly her view of feminism is unusual. A feminism that calls for equality between the sexes is merely wishful thinking, she claims, and ultimately is just another form of Puritanism. Like all systems of equality, a feminism of this sort only makes all of us weaker.
Paglia wants a society of excellence and competition. Her heroes are Elizabeth Taylor—endowed by nature with a goddess’s body and charisma—and Madonna; each has taken the pagan and exploded it to a form of divine madness. To Paglia’s mind, art should be edgy, creative, unrestricted by the market or social norms. Art should be a liturgy that demands full immersion by artist, witness, and critic. “The greatest honor that can be paid to the artwork, on its pedestal of ritual display, is to describe it with sensory completeness,” she writes.
In Sexual Personae, a work in painstaking scholarship infused with a myriad of opinions, Paglia argues that “society is an artificial construction, a defense against nature’s power.” Nature thinks poorly of humanity, it seems, and humans developed the rituals of religion as a way to placate and attenuate the wrath of the elements. In particular, Christianity is little more than a repackaged “sky cult.” Paglia lists Sade, Nietzsche, and Freud as the greatest thinkers of the modern era. These three, she believes, are the true men of the West.
Let me be absolutely clear. I reject nearly everything Paglia believes. I find her ideas nothing short of repulsive. But in a world that inches ever closer toward a bland conformity of life and opinion, Paglia’s spirit inspires me, even as her views disgust me. The Western world would be so much the healthier with a number of Paglias, all eccentric, rather than merely the one. Long may she rage.
Bradley J. Birzer is the author of Russell Kirk: American Conservativeand co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative website.