Back in the 90s, cultural critic and best-selling author Camille Paglia was slated to interview Madonna for a Penthouse story. Paglia — who had championed the iconoclastic entertainer when the media saw her as a mere “pop tart” — was eager for the assignment. There had been numerous attempts to get the two provocative women together, with both HBO and Esquire taking their shots. But there was a problem. Madonna was uneasy.
“You know who I blame?” says Paglia when I get her on the phone. “Kurt Loder. Remember him from MTV? He was a nice guy, but he is the one who caused this.” The author dishes the dirt. Apparently, Loder had asked Madonna if she’d read Paglia’s hugely popular, brainy and enormous 1990 book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. It’s a 712-page swan dive into art, religion, literature, philosophy, gender differences and much more. The singer hadn’t read this pioneering work and apparently felt that would put her at a disadvantage.
“I would never expect Madonna to read my book!” Paglia exclaims. “I’m not some Harvard elitist who would challenge her with literature. I feel subordinate to the artist!”
Brilliant and inflammatory, Paglia has devoted her career to art and the artist through a blaze of dissension. In the wake of Sexual Personae, she became a media sensation for her tireless, very public resistance to political correctness, along with her libertarian individualism and dissident views on feminism. Attacked from multiple quarters, she never backed down in the slightest, continuing to advocate for a pro-sex, pro-pornography, pro-art, and pro-free speech agenda.
Today, at seventy, Paglia’s lost none of her fire. Her latest book, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, caused a ruckus — and that was fine by her. A humanities and media studies professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Paglia, when not teaching, speaking and training her penetrating gaze on today’s world, is writing her eighth book, due in the autumn of 2018.
In a wide-ranging, spirited conversation, Paglia and I talked sex, male-bashing feminists, American politics, the Roman Empire, nature, freedom and the future of American culture.
CAMILLE PAGLIA: It’s a busy school day. I normally bellow because I’m a teacher, okay? I’m just very loud. I’m talking to you from my office at the university. It’s going to be a struggle not to be bellowing! I’m going to try to be as quiet as possible while we talk.
MISH BARBER-WAY: Don’t worry, I have the same problem.
MBW: I played in a punk rock band my entire life. My whole career has been based on being loud. I think it’s good to be loud. What’s wrong with having a loud presence?
CP: Yes, for women absolutely. This is my entire complaint! For over 25 years I’ve been saying that this whole generation — now two generations — has a way too girly and bourgeois speaking style. When push comes to shove and they have to deal with confrontation, their voices and personalities are incapable of communicating what they want.
Existence is war. There is danger and conflict at every level. Young people today are not prepared for that.
MBW: I think the way young people speak today is awkward. The word “like” is shoved between each word. You must notice this as a professor.
CP: It’s a very self-interrupting style of speaking, which often ends in a question mark. It’s getting worse because young people are so tethered to their iPhones. I’m very concerned about this. I see a slow disappearance of body language and facial expressions. This is a disaster for many reasons. It’s going to worsen and complicate the communication problems in sex scenarios where oafish men are increasingly unable to read the intentions or desires of the women they’re flirting with. It’s going to lead to one disaster after another.
Of course, it gets me into trouble when I talk like this, but half the time, young women today don’t really know what they want. That’s another thing — they project uncertainty and thus invite into the vacuum this boorishness by infantile male personalities. Because that’s often what we’re talking about — infantile male personalities like Harvey Weinstein. The type of people who are hopelessly klutzy their entire lives but finally get into a position of power and abuse it.
MBW: I am concerned that our culture will end up reverting back to a 1950s style of courtship, where permission, consent and protection trump personal freedom. But instead of asking a woman’s father for permission to date her, you will have to ask the woman herself. Have you seen the sexual consent forms that have been drawn up?
CP: I’ve heard about them, but I haven’t seen one yet.
MBW: I saw one and thought it was a joke. It looks like something you would fill out at the doctor’s office.
CP: It’s utterly depressing because sex is a transaction of the body, not of the mind. It has very little to do with words. It’s subliminal. The whole point of sex is to escape the rational realm! My generation of the 60s created the sexual revolution, but we have left chaos for the generations that came after us. We were raised in a very strict environment, so we had very strong personalities. Now all these young people — white upper-middle-class people — are raised permissively.
It’s a whole different world. I’ve been complaining for decades that the young women in the original date-rape hysteria of the late 80s and early 90s all had a very naïve view of reality. They think that a perfectly safe and protected existence is possible for human beings. I’m sorry, it’s not!
Existence is war. There is danger and conflict at every level. Young people today are not prepared for that. Everything has come to them automatically. Flip the switch, the lights turn on. They’ve never experienced the chaos of war, or any catastrophic natural disasters, so they actually believe that a perfect world is possible where they don’t have to risk anything and yet they can be eternally protected.
Demanding equal rights for women is crucial, but mischaracterising men as oppressors and brutalisers throughout history is such a distortion!
That is just not how I see existence. Period. I see the world as a dangerous place — which is also part of the excitement of it. That is how I was raised. But now, young people want perfect protection and safety even if that means total surveillance by those proxy parents, the intrusive university administrators. It’s just terrible that these young women — including young feminists — are surrendering the freedoms that my generation won for them!
MBW: Furthermore, self-policing and the policing of others through social media has created an alert, hostile, and paranoid environment. I wanted to get your take on what has happened to culture’s view of men. How did masculinity become “toxic”?
CP: What really gets me furious is the bourgeois, liberal, elitist rhetoric surrounding gender. I am speaking here not as a conservative but as a registered Democrat who voted for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein — that has to be made clear when I criticise liberal rhetoric.
Demanding equal rights for women is crucial, but mischaracterising men as oppressors and brutalisers throughout history is such a distortion! Of course, there have been brutes, but it’s a minority of men who have behaved in a dishonourable way. Overwhelmingly, when you look at world history, it’s men courageously giving their lives and their energy — sacrificing themselves for women and children!
All these young, bourgeois kids today have no imagination whatsoever for the infrastructure that is making their comfortable lives possible. They have no understanding of the complex system of electricity, plumbing, paving and manual labour. It makes me furious!
Just a year ago in the suburbs where I live outside of Philadelphia, there was a massive sewage break under a road. There was a huge eruption and a pool of raw sewage. Workers were there in hazmat suits trying to control the unbelievable mess and fix the problem. Who were those people? Men! Not a single woman. I’ve never seen a single woman working a job that filthy and dangerous. Never. How many times do you see women tending the giant, smoking tar kettles and brushing out hot tar onto city roofs? Men are doing these stinking, horrible, dangerous jobs! Never once have I seen a woman doing that — even though a woman technically could do it. Women don’t want those types of jobs. They want the men to do the dirty work. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, more than 92 per cent of fatalities on the job happen to men. How many times do we have terrible ice storms that cut off electricity for thousands of people? Who goes out in the freezing cold night to handle the live wires? Who? The men! Is there a woman anywhere doing that? If there is, please put her on the cover of your magazine!
MBW: I would — happily!
CP: It’s a well-known fact that, on average, women prefer a safe, clean work environment, even if it’s lower pay. Men will go for the higher pay and risk serious injury or death. It’s men who keep this fabulous infrastructure going! In my first book, Sexual Personae, I wrote a celebration of the great construction cranes: “When I see a giant crane passing on a flatbed truck, I pause in awe and reverence — because these are the works of men!”
A woman could probably operate a crane — sure. But it was men who conceived the idea of that crane. It was men who designed and built it. I admire men! I am as strong a woman as you’ll ever meet, but what I’m saying is that strong women want strong men. Only weak women want weak men. All these middle-class women who are so unhappy all the time, they think they want men to be like women — but they don’t.
MBW: My husband is a metal fabricator and a craftsman. He was raised in a working-class family from Arkansas and since meeting him, I have developed a different appreciation for this kind of work that I once took for granted. I think that’s why your writing has resonated with me. Why do you think our culture has become so blind to these essential male contributions?
CP: I’ve been calling for decades for vocational training to be reinstituted. I want a restoration and re-valourisation of the trades. For all of my career, I’ve been teaching in art schools, so a lot of my students work with their hands. Some have already been earning good money from making furniture and so on. In rural Italian culture, it’s assumed that you show true character by your willingness to do physical work.
However, now we’re in a period where manufacturing has fled overseas. Over the past 50 years, we’ve moved into a service-sector economy, which has been a disaster for working-class men who used to be able to walk into a factory off the street and earn a very good living working with their hands.
Look, in Italian culture we pay attention to infrastructure. That’s just the way I was raised. Workmanship is important. When my grandfather came home from the shoe factory he’d relax by working on a project in the garage. My uncle made these fantastic nut bowls — magnificent works of art with different-coloured wood. My grandfather made baskets. You never paid anyone else to do anything! You did it yourself — including concrete and stonework.
The Romans developed concrete. In my family — oh my God — they could talk about concrete forever! The right way to pour it, the wrong way to pour it. My whole life I would hear the men in my family evaluating craftsmanship. My mother sewed — all the women did. Among my earliest memories is women fingering my sleeve or lapel and complimenting my mother on the stitching!
Here’s another reason that young people are so free-floating — because they’re in this digital world where everything is virtual work. They’re so removed from the actual making of tangible things. This comes back to sex. The body is deactivated in the digital world. That means that sex has become merely an idea — not something grounded in instincts in the body. The whole energy of the body has been erased. Your physical body rarely moves. You use one finger to type. Even with a typewriter, you’d use your hands, arms and shoulders!
We’re now raising children as if they have no bodies, yet they live in a sex-saturated world. No wonder everything is such a mess. We must reorient back toward the body. The way that manual trades are no longer honoured, compared to the centrality of the digital world, is related to this tyranny — this leashing of the body’s natural, useful energy.
MBW: I love working in the garden. Getting down on my hands and knees and ripping out plants, seeing the seeds sprout up, and then cooking with the vegetables I grew. There is something almost spiritual about working with your body like that in nature. You feel connected to the world.
My position has always been that pornography shows the truth about sexuality, which connects us to the animal realm of primitive urges.
CP: Reconnection to nature is really important, and unfortunately even that is being politicised. The only way you can relate to nature these days is by saying that nature is a victim of human greed and destruction. Because in Marxism, which has saturated higher education, people can only see society. Society is important; social and political reform are important. I’m a political analyst — I’m not discounting these issues. But society is a very tiny, ever-changing portion of existence. You will discover a deeper identity and a wider existence by connecting with the concrete world of nature!
Not nature as victim — that drives me crazy! I contribute to the Green Party. I want environmental issues to be honoured. But don’t think for a second that we’re on the verge of collapse because of all the CO2 in the air!
MBW: Doesn’t that kind of thinking assume that humans are so powerful that we actually have the strength to destroy the planet? We are so miniscule compared to nature.
CP: Exactly! That’s how I ended the first chapter of Sexual Personae. I said that even nuclear warfare that destroys humankind will be a mere blip compared to the vastness of nature. Even though all remnants of human life will be gone, nature will remain. The grandeur and enormity of nature are fantastic. But today people have to politicise even the massive expansiveness of the cosmos.
MBW: Why has everything become so politicised?
CP: Because human beings need religion. I’m an atheist, but I respect all religions. As the upper middle class became secularised, the tie to traditional religion was lost, but nothing else was put in its place. Religion gives you a huge vision of the universe and human existence. If you take away religion, you have to replace it with something else. So today the educated class worships politics.
MBW: You have made some interesting and allegedly inflammatory predictions about the inevitable collapse of Western culture. Can you explain?
CP: [Laughs] I’m a student of history, and I see history as cyclic. I originally wanted to be an archaeologist, so I’ve always studied ancient civilisations — how great and powerful they were but how they all collapsed! It was only a few hundred years ago that wealthy, aristocratic families in England would send their sons on a ‘grand tour’ to contemplate the ruins of Rome: “Here is one of the world’s greatest empires, and look how it fell!” The big lesson is that no civilisation lasts.
Unfortunately, our civilisation has become so dependent on electricity and power to run everything. Computers, gas stations, banks — everything requires power. It won’t be long — and I believe there have already been test runs by terrorists — before someone figures out how to paralyse the power grid of this country. All of North America will go down fast! Unless you study history, you don’t understand how quickly a civilisation can collapse into barbarism.
We don’t have an army or police force big enough to contain the total anarchy that would unfold. We’re an artificial entity right now — and incredibly vulnerable. It’s like we’re living on Mars and relying on some nuclear reactor in a science-fiction fantasy!
Meanwhile, these so-called liberals often behave with vicious ruthlessness toward anyone who disagrees with them, including on their own side. Utopians are some of the most punitive, amoral people on the planet. I was first introduced to Oscar Wilde in high school after I found a book of his quotations at a secondhand bookstore. One quote stuck with me, but I didn’t understand it.
It’s taken me a lifetime to finally see what Wilde meant. In the 1890s, Wilde was complaining about moralistic, vainglorious Victorian philanthropists. He said, “Philanthropic people lose all
I saw the Trump thing coming, even though I voted for Jill Stein. It had virtually nothing to do with racism, sexism or homophobia.
MBW: We’ve come full circle.
CP: Exactly. Anyone who thinks and votes differently is evil. How could they vote differently than us? All of us in Manhattan, Cambridge, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the enlightened ones and the rest of the world out there are the deplorables! They must be racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic, as Hillary said.
That’s how the liberal elite think! So they were dumbfounded when Trump won. [Laughs] They’re going to be really surprised when he’s re-elected in 2020!
MBW: I wasn’t shocked when Trump was elected. He was speaking to a group of people who have been ignored by politicians and the culture at large for a very long time. It doesn’t matter if what he promised would happen or not. For his voters, it was about being acknowledged.
CP: The problem is that people of the educated upper middle class see no-one but other members of their own social class. I saw the Trump thing coming, even though I voted for Jill Stein. It had virtually nothing to do with racism, sexism or homophobia. It happened because there were serious issues in the country that my party, the Democratic party, was not facing! Democrats and the partisan media would not even admit there was a problem. They were stuck in their elitist bubble of arrogance, and they still don’t get it!
MBW: Finally, because it’s Penthouse, what value does pornography bring to sex and art?
CP: My position has always been that pornography shows the truth about sexuality, which connects us to the animal realm of primitive urges. Sexual desire and sexual fantasy are perpetually churning on the subliminal and unconscious levels, surfacing in our dream life.
However, the public display of pornography can and should be reasonably limited. Pornography is the pagan bible and should not intrude on city streets except in designated red-light districts. But pornography is vital to freedom of the imagination.
It’s only in pornography that we can discern the shifting, shadowy structure of contemporary taboos. We call something “hot” when there is a subtle or not so subtle violation of taboo beneath the surface.
Hence, I view pornography as both art and anthropology — an alluring cultural projection that also reveals the hidden compulsions and conflicts of sexual relations in every era.
Camille Paglia’s latest book is Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, published by Pantheon (2017). Her next collection of essays is released in Autumn, 2018.