Saturday, January 16, 2016


I first became aware of Camille Paglia in 1991 when her book Sexual Personae on the history of Western art, culture, and literature in terms of sexual mythologies from ancient times to the present became a surprise hit for the publisher. The book started life as a doctoral dissertation. I don’t remember what brought it to my attention. I recall discussing the book with my sister Sharon, however, so it is possible that she recommended it to me. In any event I was impressed by it. Paglia is deeply erudite, yet is as ready to discuss Elvis and Star Wars as Aeschylus or Jacques-Louis David while invoking thinkers both ancient and modern including. It is not an easy book but it is very much worth the effort.

Camille is impatient with modern post-structuralist criticism in academia and by ideologically driven interpretations of art and literature. It can be, she agrees, useful to analyze a poem or piece of fiction in terms of class, race, or gender, but it is, she insists, absurdly shallow to stop there. Art and culture are much more deeply rooted in the human psyche than that. She is not snobby about what she calls art. There are many analysts of pop culture these days, of course, but unlike most of them she integrates her thoughts on the subject with those on grander cultural traditions stretching back thousands of years. She is an increasingly rare sort of extensively and intensively informed intellectual who demonstrates why the word “intellectual” formerly wasn’t an insult.

I hadn’t thought much about her for a while, but last month Amazon’s “you might also like” algorithm recommended two of Paglia’s more recent books. I’m not sure how the bookseller came up with those, for Amazon didn’t exist in 1991 when I bought the last one. Nonetheless, I decided it might be right. So it was.

Over the past 25 years Paglia has grown ever more glum at the spread of cultural ignorance. In the 21st century it is common for students to graduate American colleges – with degrees in the humanities no less – without ever having read many of the basics of Western literature, without a proper sense of history, and without recognizing names such as Seneca, Donatello, or Rodin. She makes her own small effort to counter this in two books, each much less ambitious than Sexual Personae but still full of insight. In Break Blow Burn Paglia prints “forty-three of the world’s best poems” and appends a critical analysis to each that is accessible, scholarly, and intended to encourage focused reading of the text. Note the difference between “the forty-three of the world’s best poems” and “forty-three of the world’s best poems.” The latter allows for idiosyncratic choices starting with language: she doubts that poetry ever can be translated properly, so she doesn’t try. You’ll find in her book some of the basic English-language authors: Shakespeare, Blake, Dickinson, Yeats, Plath, Yet, in Paglia fashion there is also Joni Mitchell. Paglia does something similar for visual art in Glittering ImagesA Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. Neither book is intended for classroom instruction but rather for literate readers with an interest in Western culture who are dissatisfied with what they did learn in the classroom. Such an audience apparently exists: Break Blow Burn continues to sell well as it has since its release.

In interviews Paglia is frenetic, provocative, undogmatic, entertaining, and – despite her credentials as a gay 60s-era radical registered Democrat who voted for Obama– very un-PC. I’ll provide a link to one, but I urge the reader first to meet her on the printed page before going there. It’s the cultured way.

Joni made Paglia’s 43 with Woodstock. Paglia argues that the well-known Crosby, Stills and Nash version (which she likes) alters the imagery of the original in which the narrator is a young woman on a journey of self-discovery rather than a raucous male rocker on his way to a party.


  1. Good reviews on some books I probably would have overlooked. Some of those anthology poetry books are hit and miss with me, and perhaps that's in their nature as I think they try to expose something that you might otherwise overlook.

    Probably my favorite one though is Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle... and other modern verse by Dunning/Lueders/Smith. It's not that sophisticated, but that's more to my taste. It's filled with known authors (at least to me) like Carl Sandburg, Dorothy Parker, and William Carlos Williams, and lesser known poets (at least to me). But overall it doesn't have any poems that are too, how can I say this, impenetrable?

    As far as the visual arts I might be interested in that one too, but being honest I like viewing art more than reading about it, though I do a bit of that as well.

    That said there was a great series on PBS some time back called The Sister Wendy collection. I'm not sure why, probably my own lack of exposure to the world, but once you get beyond her nun appearance, and listen to her expertise on the art, well, her knowledge and love of art becomes quite apparent.

  2. Oh speaking of books I was going to post this as well. There's a video community on YT as well, and some of the vloggers I enjoy as in this young gent. Again it depends on where someone's taste lies as to whom you might want to follow:

  3. Yes, I am familiar with the impenetrable. I remember being assigned The Waste Land by TS Eliot in Senior year of high school, and for me at the first read it was impenetrable. The reason: I wasn't yet properly grounded in Western culture and mythos, particularly classical. I didn't know who Philomel was or Tiresias, and the notes didn't really help even though they gave perfunctory definitions. Without being familiar with the myths themselves one misses the "feel" of what Eliot was saying. "Why is this man writing in riddles?" I asked myself in annoyance. A few years (and several lit classes) later, it became intelligible as did his reasons for writing that way. I even get what what my h.s. English teacher was aiming at by assigning it to us: he was letting us know that there were things over our heads but that they still graspable if we'd only stretch a little. There still are, of course.

  4. Ohhh, her Glittering Images book sounds like one I'd have to look into.

    Poetry is really tough for me. I appreciate the skill it takes to write poetry, but I find it hard to sit down and just read poetry. I find myself getting annoyed by the whole thing. And when it comes to music, well my 80s and 90s pop/rock sensibilities are pretty much the limit there.

    But yeah, I really admire skilled poets. I've tried writing poetry and it is so difficult. Prose is much more my speed.

  5. I do know what you mean since I have the same reaction to most poets, though I can get lost in a few including Robert Frost (whom Paglia hates) and WB Yeats (whom she loves). Says Camille: "A good poem is iridescent and incandescent, catching the light at unexpected angles and illuminating human universals -- whose very existence are denied by today's parochial theorists."

    I don't have the right mindset for writing in verse. I can write lines that scan and rhyme of course (iambic: Both love and war elicit zeal/But I’m quite sure that war is real) but, as in that example, they tend to clank rather than iridesce. My sister was the poet of the family. I posted some of her youthful poems at my site.