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, et.al. Yet, in Paglia fashion there is also Joni Mitchell. Paglia does something similar for visual art in Glittering Images: A 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.