Estimated reading time: 40 minutes —
Kris’s inclusion of a quote by Naomi Wolf in her last post (see “This is my body!”) immediately made me think of good old Camille Paglia. Like I said in a comment to Kris’s post, I am not the biggest fan of Wolf’s. While I am not entirely “Team Paglia” either, I can somehow relate to her and her philosophy more. Maybe I simply wish I had the balls to say what Paglia says. Any who, I came across this lecture of hers where she talks about Wolf- I simply had to share. If anything PLEASE read the last paragraph on identity. Did I mention that I love this woman?
Crisis In The American Universities
by Camille Paglia
American Professor of Humanities
September 19, 1991 at M.I.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This extemporaneous talk was sponsored by M.I.T.’s Writing Program.
Thank you, Professor Manning, for that most gracious introduction. And may I say what a pleasure it is to be here, a mere stone’s throw from Harvard.
I address you tonight after several sex changes and a great deal of ambiguity over sexual orientation over twenty-five years. I am the Sixties come back to haunt the present.
Now, speaking here at M.I.T. confronted me with a dilemma. I asked myself, should I try to act like a lady? I can do it. It’s hard, it takes a lot out of me, I can do it for a few hours. But then I thought, Naw. These people, both my friends and my enemies who are here, aren’t coming to see me act like a lady. So I thought I’d just be myself–which is, you know, abrasive, strident, and obnoxious. So then you can all go outside and say, “What a bitch!”
Now, the reason I’m getting so much attention: I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re in a time where there’s a kind of impasse in contemporary thinking. And what I represent is independent thought. What I represent is the essence of the Sixties, which is free thought and free speech. And a lot of people don’t like it. A lot of people who are well-meaning on both sides of the political spectrum want to shut down free speech. And my mission is to be absolutely as painful as possible in every situation.
So I’ve been attacking what I regard as the ideology of date rape. At the same time as I consider rape an outrage, I consider the propaganda and hysteria about date rape equally outrageous from the Sixties point of view, utterly reactionary from a Sixties point of view. And I will continue to attack it. And I will continue to attack the well-meaning people who think they’re protecting women and in fact are infantilizing them. Right now in the current SPIN, I’m going after a few other things, like battered women and snuff films. And I’m going to be as painful as possible, until Gloria Steinem screams!
The problem of the last twenty years is that people think that “liberal” and “conservative” mean something. The liberal and conservative dichotomy is dead. The last time it was authentic was in the Fifties, when there really was an adversarial voice coming out of people I really respected, the New York Jewish intellectuals like Lionel Trilling and the people of Partisan Review. There was an authentic liberal versus conservative dichotomy at that time. But my generation of the Sixties, with all of our great ideals, destroyed liberalism, because of our excesses. We have to face that. And we have to look for something new right now.
The situation right now is that we have on one side people who consider themselves leftists but to me, as far as academe is concerned, are phonies, people who have absolutely no credentials for political thinking, have no training in history, whose basic claim to politics is simply that nothing has happened to them in their lives. A lot of these people have money. I’m sick and tired of these New Historicists with trust funds. I’m so sick and tired of it. And because they’re pampered, their whole lives have been comfortable, because they’ve kissed asses all the way to the top, they have to show they’re authentic by pretending sympathy for the poor lower classes, the poor victims.
The whole thing is nothing but a literary game. I’m exposing it. And I’m exposing it from the inside. I attended a public university, Harpur College of the State University of New York at Binghamton, which was sort of like Berkeley East at that time, seething with real radicals. I know what real radicals look like–and they did not go on to graduate school. When I got to Yale for graduate school–I spent four years there and barely survived that experience–it was the last point that scholarship in literary studies was authentic, when it was solid. And it began to wander away from that base in the last twenty years. It’s something I’m trying to reform at the present time.
What we have right now is this ridiculous situation where if you criticize liberals, people say, “She’s a conservative!” Now, what kind of a lack of information is this about intellectual history? Liberalism is only 200 years old. There are other points of view on the world besides that of liberalism in its present decayed condition. We of the Sixties were often in revolt against liberals. Lenny Bruce, when he recited all those dirty words, was trying to offend liberals, not conservatives. So in the present situation I don’t know what to call myself. I would maybe say “libertarian” or something like that. I’m trying to create a new system–I call it “Italian pagan Catholicism.” But that may be too esoteric! I’m thinking that I want to bring about an enlightened center. I would like to call it, maybe, “pragmatic liberalism,” that is, a liberalism that has learned the political lessons of the past twenty-five years.
What I don’t like right now is that there’s a kind of knee-jerk, intimidating way of calling someone “neoconservative” if they happen to criticize the liberal academic establishment–“Right, you’re a neocon.” Now, when people call me a neocon, what kind of idiots are they? I’m someone who is on the record as being pro-pornography–all the way through kiddie porn and snuff films. I’m pro-prostitution–I mean really pro, not just pro-prostitute and against prostitution. I’m pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality, pro-drag queens, pro-legalization of drugs. This is neoconservative? What kind of amateurishness is out there that people in the press–including The Village Voice and Mother Jones and things like that, which should be the voices of liberalism–what kind of stupid amateurish thinking is this to label me a neoconservative?
Now, this just shows you what’s going on and why the situation is as bad as it is, because if people are trying to critique from within the academic establishment, and they’re getting tarred with the word “neoconservative,” you keep on doing that long enough, people will get used to hearing it about themselves, and they will become conservative. We don’t want that situation. My feeling is that a lot of people have been driven toward the neoconservative side by the failure of the liberal academic establishment to critique itself. So rather than blaming The New Criterion or Roger Kimball for all the problems of the world, it’s time for the liberals of academe to critique themselves, to reform it from within. Over ten years ago it was obvious there was a problem, a terrible problem, but the academic establishment just sat on its duff, until the neoconservatives got hold of this issue. The reform of education is not a neoconservative issue! It is an issue facing the entire nation. So what I’m trying to do is to mobilize and radicalize the liberals who have been silent and who have let academe be taken over by these opportunists, these sickening, disgusting, ass-kissing opportunists.
Now, the enlightened center that I envision would mean that I want to pull back toward the middle the people who have drifted toward the neoconservative side. Because I think some of them are really not conservative. I think some of them can be pulled back, if there is an authentic debate within liberalism, an authentic self-critique of the academic establishment. At the same time, I want to awaken and bring out of their silence all kinds of vestiges of the Sixties that I know are out there. They’re writing to me now. It’s very moving to me to get the kinds of letters that I’m getting. Like when this huge, nasty expose I wrote for Arion at Boston University came out, and the San Francisco Examiner magazine made it its cover story this summer. They asked me, by the way, “Would you pose as Madonna for our pages?” And I said, “No, but I’ll do something just as good.” So I posed in a purple miniskirt with a whip and chains in front of a porn store. I thought for San Francisco I should do that–make an extra effort!
So at any rate I got these wonderful moving letters from San Francisco and from the Bay Area–people who said that they were weeping, crying as they read my piece. They said that “for twenty years I’ve seen our Sixties ideals seem to be betrayed–I felt lost and uncentered–and when I read your piece I remember again the fire that we felt in the Sixties, I remember again what we were working for in the Sixties.” Okay, so this is what I’m doing. I’m trying to bring back out of the woodwork all these Sixties people. Come out, come out, wherever you are! Come back. Take over the cultural center again! And as for the Lacan, Derrida, Foucault people, who needs them? Put them on an island and let them float out to sea. This is what I say!
I like very much Blake’s idea of Innocence, Experience, and then Redeemed Innocence. And I think that’s what happened here. We of the Sixties had wonderful ideals, but then we were very arrogant, and God knows–if you think I’m arrogant now–ha! I’m a shadow of my former self! My attitude was that of the Doors: “We want the world, we want it now!” Very impatient; very rude–I’m still rude. I mean, I really had to learn a lot of lessons. I had to learn political lessons. My generation failed in many ways. We have to face that, that we failed. That we had wonderful ideas but that we were naive about the length of time it takes to effect institutional change. It was almost like a great wave came and knocked us down. It’s like a great wave that just smashes you down. That’s what I feel. I’m an astrologer–people don’t mention this! I mean, everyone’s attacked me for everything else. I mean, I’m an astrologer–it’s right in my book. I endorse astrology. I believe in astrology. Will someone attack me for that? No!
So I believe in cycles, okay? And I think that the last twenty years have been hell for those of us of the Sixties. I mean, I feel that I’ve come back from the dead. Honestly, I feel that I in some sense died. I, like, hit the wall. All of us did, I think, in some way, from the Sixties, either from the drugs or from the sex, which led to the sexually transmitted diseases of today. People don’t want to talk about this. They want to say, “No, there’s no connection between behavior and the sexual diseases of today.” But please, let’s not be stupid. Let’s not rewrite history. There is a terrible reality which we must face. I’ve said it again and again: “Everyone who preached free love in the Sixties is responsible for AIDS.” And we must accept moral responsibility for it. This idea that it was somehow an accident, a historical accident, a microbe that sort of fell from heaven–absurd. We must face what we did.
With me it wasn’t sex, it wasn’t drugs, with me it was challenging authority and just being absolutely impossible in every situation. And I just had to learn my lessons. My career has been a disaster, an absolute disaster. I could not get hired anywhere. There was no university that would hire me. And I’ve been teaching at art schools for twenty years. Now, as the Rolling Stones say, “You can’t always get what you want, but you sometimes get what you need.” So that’s how I feel. Having worked at art schools for twenty years, I feel how fortunate I am because I have been spared all these poisons that have swept over the Ivy League and so on, and I’ve been dealing directly with artists, rather than people from prep schools. You know, when I have to cross the river in Philadelphia and use the library at Penn, and I hear those voices, those prep-school voices–well, let me tell you! You know, the kind of students I have are poor, they have a talent, often they are Hispanic or African-American dancers who come out of poor neighborhoods, who’ve been given scholarships and so on. I have them in my classes. I have enormous rapport with them and love of them, and I feel how lucky I am to have this kind of direct experience.
Whereas people like, um, Stanley Fish–whom I call “a totalitarian Tinkerbell”–that’s what I call him. Uh-huh. Okay? How dare he? What a hypocrite! People at Duke telling us about multiculturalism–those people who have never had anyone outside of a prep school in their classes. It’s unbelievable–the preaching! That whole bunch of people at Duke–all of them in flight from their ethnicity–every one of them–trying to tell us about the problem of the old establishment. The problem with the old establishment was that it was WASP. So what’s the answer to that? Be ethnic! Okay? Every one of them–every one of them–look at the style that they write–this kind of gameplaying, slick, cerebral style. Those people have an identity problem!
So, at any rate, my career has been a disaster. And before my book was finally published at Yale Press, it was rejected by seven New York publishers, I could not get published throughout the Seventies and Eighties, I was completely poor. For the first time in my adult life I’m out of debt as of three months ago. I’ve been on the unemployment line. I have taught in factories. I’m probably the only major voice right now in academe who’s actually taught factory workers. As opposed to these people who are the Marxists [makes prancing, dancing, hair-preening gestures], oh yes, these Marxists, like Terry Eagleton at Oxford. Do you know what he makes? Do you know the salary that man makes? Oh, it just disgusts me. This is why he has to wear blue jeans, to show, “Oh, no, I don’t have the money.” These people are hypocrites! They really are. It’s all a literary game. There’s no authentic self-sacrifice, no direct actual experience of workers or working-class people. It’s appalling, the situation. It’s everywhere, it’s everywhere in the Ivy League.
Now, one of the reasons I’m so angry. I really went on the warpath last year, especially about feminism. I consider myself a feminist. I began my revolt when I was just a little child. I was born in the late Forties. And I absolutely could not stand the way the culture demanded that women be feminine. I did not relate to my sex role at all. I have been a totally alienated sexual being since I was a tiny child. And it began with dolls–this was the thing–dolls! My parents learned soon enough not to give me dolls–they knew I didn’t want them. But I think my first experiences of social alienation would have been when we would go visiting or something, and people would say, “Oh, a cute little girl is coming. We’ll get a cute little doll for the cute little girl.” And so my parents wanted me to be polite, you know, they trained me to be polite, and so these horrible surreal scenes would happen, where I would be surrounded by all these, like, glowing, smiling, ten adult faces smiling at me and handing me this lump of humanoid rubber and expecting me to be glad about it, and I would just think, “What am I going to do with this?–UGH!” And meanwhile I have to smile–and this is when I knew I didn’t fit in, okay?
You know, I’m really happy there wasn’t all this talk about sex changes back then, since I probably would have gotten this fantasy that I was a man born wrongly in a woman’s body, and I think I might very well have become obsessed with the idea of a sex change, which would have been a terrible mistake. Because I think I absolutely am a woman, but I was just a woman born ahead of my time. I was a kind of pioneer, and decade by decade I’ve acclimated myself to my sex role–thanks to my friendships with gay men and drag queens! Drag queens have influenced me enormously. Their analysis of the mythology of male and female, and the theatre of gender and so on, I’ve absolutely taken into myself. I used to be–“tomboy” would be underestimating the word. I was an Amazon, an Amazon when I was very young. I mean, I was just so–People remember this. I mean, before feminism was, Paglia was! Out there punching and kicking and fighting with people. No one understood what I was doing, but from my earliest years I had this burning desire to do something for women, to do something so massive for women, to demonstrate that women should be taken seriously.
So by the time I got to college, I had been thinking about sex for years. I always had a scholarly turn of mind. I wanted to be an archaeologist early on. I think that is one of the things that separates me from others in literary studies today. My sense of time-frame is so vast compared to that of people in English departments. When I think about sex, when I think about anything in culture, I’m thinking about a 10,000-year time span, you see, and this is what causes a communication problem with feminists, because most of them, as far as I can see, tend to have their specialties in the late eighteenth century or following. There are a few who have training earlier, but they tend to be very narrowly focused even in that one area. I think my broad expanse of learning and my already world-consciousness–coming from my early passion, when I was, like, four practically, to be an Egyptologist–I was just fascinated with Egypt and began studying it very early on–I think that huge time-frame that I have has been enormously advantageous. And it’s one of the reasons, again, why I’m not understood by feminists, though I am understood by historians. The fan letters–I mean, it’s absurd–the fan letters that I get from historians, from political scientists, from philosophers, from art historians, and so on and so forth. The bunkers are just the literature departments and the feminists–they’re all in league with each other: “Oh, no, she’s horrible! She’s horrible!” Why? Because I’m challenging the scholarship of everything. I’m challenging their scholarship, which I think is absolutely amateurish. It will not serve women to base a sex theory on shoddy scholarship. We cannot have this. We cannot have this second-rateness. It’s epidemic everywhere.
Let me just continue with my little overview here. There was a point where feminism and I agreed. I was thirteen though. It was 1960, okay? That was a time when I said, “Men are terrible. The sexes are the same. Men must change. Society must change. And all the problems between the sexes are coming from the fact that men are so awful.” I was thirteen! That’s an unevolved position. It’s thirty years later, girls! Let us move on! Oh, God! So I continued studying and, at this point, I became notorious in Syracuse, New York, where I was going to high school, for my Amelia Earhart obsession. The newspaper actually reported this. For three years–this looks forward to Sexual Personae–for three years, I did this Amelia Earhart research. The biographer of Amelia Earhart told me I had done more research in the primary sources than he had! I spent every Saturday in the bowels of the public library going through all these materials, old magazines and newspapers, before microfilm. Everything was falling to pieces. I probably destroyed the whole collection! I was covered with grime. Amelia Earhart to me was an image of everything a woman should be. It remains that for me. Amelia Earhart, my obsession. She is woman alone. Not woman hand-holding in a group and whining about men. Woman alone! Okay, all right? Woman goes up in a plane. If she crashes, she doesn’t go, “You men did this to me!” She knows that she is responsible. It’s her skill, her preparation. And then nature. Something that’s not in her control can be her opponent: nature!
No one wants to talk about nature now. Meanwhile, the entire student population of the world is thinking about nature, the environment, they’re thinking globally, but our faculty are off in their little corners talking about social constructionism. They haven’t thought about nature in twenty years, okay, they are so behind. You mention the mere word “nature”–“Essentialism!” That’s it. What–? I mean–! The thing about the Sixties is that we had a comprehensive world-view. We saw the injustices of society, and we wanted to remedy them. We focused our negative energy against society to change it. At the same time we saw the enormity of nature. And we honored the enormity of nature. It is appalling, the situation now, that you could think about talking about sex without thinking about nature. That you could claim that you are an expert in gender without knowing about hormones! The contempt for science that’s going on among humanists is contemptible.
My idea of an integration between science and the arts goes way back to my earliest years. There was a doctor, a Jewish refugee in my hometown of Endicott, New York, Dr. Julius Gattner. He had fled from Hitler. One of my earliest memories is his office. It was a kind of replication of the great culture of the late nineteenth century, the comprehensive culture of German philology that I still esteem. You went to his office, and while you were waiting there were pedestals, Greek columns, with Chinese vases on them. Then inside the office–he would be in his white coat–there’d be the medical instruments, and there were also glass-paneled furniture and books with beautiful bindings. Behind his desk was a bust in black of the Hermes of Praxiteles. This is like Freud, you see. It’s this combination of the sciences plus the arts. “Impossible,” you say, today? “Impossible–we’re too specialized for that, we’re too expert.” No, this is exactly what we need. We have to bring this back, this idea of all of culture integrated. This is what we must do for the next generation of students. We must do this. We must make radical reforms of undergraduate and graduate education, to give students this kind of comprehensive vision of culture.
Back to Amelia Earhart and so on. Okay, so meanwhile, I get to college. I’m, like, the only feminist. People never saw a feminist before. I was already out there. By the time Betty Friedan’s book came out, I was already out there doing all this obnoxious stuff. By the time I got Simone de Beauvoir’s book, I was sixteen. I read that, and I thought, “Yes! Yes! Instead of writing a book on Amelia Earhart, I will write a mega-book that will take everything in.” So there’s the birth, you see, of Sexual Personae.
So by the time the feminist movement broke out in 1969, as an outgrowth of the Sixties, I had so evolved in my thinking because I was in a scholarly way studying the evidence of world history and world culture. To talk about sex, you must do that. You must take personal responsibility for your research. This idea that somehow sex-theory was born from the head of Athena in 1969–“Boom!”–like that–and no one’s worth reading before 1969–this is ridiculous! Because there was nothing for me to read–thank God there wasn’t all this women’s studies crap for me to read. I instead went about systematically absorbing a hundred years of the history of psychology. The idea that all of that is irrelevant is so stupid! Beginning with Krafft-Ebing and Freud and Karen Horney, Melanie Klein, Ferenczi–I mean, there are so many of them–all of the papers of psychoanalysis in the journals and so on. I absorbed all of that. It’s fantastic. It is not completely vestigial stuff that we have to keep in the archives of the library. This was work by people who were learned, who had a sense of history. The disaster of women’s studies today is that women are being prevented from understanding that there’s a hundred-year history of sex-theory, sex-commentary. Instead they’re being forced to read these very narrowly trained contemporary women. And most of it is junk! It’s junk! It’s appalling!
One of the main reasons that I am so angry is that last year at the University of Pennsylvania I went to a lecture–and I’m going to start identifying her. I haven’t for a year, but I just spilled the beans to a Cornell magazine, so I might as well keep doing it. It was Diana Fuss of Princeton, a very prominent feminist theorist. She seems to be a very nice woman. This is the pity of it! She was such a nice woman. I had never heard of her, I didn’t know her. I went to this lecture and I thought, “This is awful, what is happening here! A lecture hall filled with young women from the University of Pennsylvania, okay, and this Diana Fuss, this really nice, very American kind of a woman–we’re not talking, like, cosmopolitan here, and I mean cosmopolitan with a small c!–what she did was show a series of slides that she had made of contemporary ads and pictorials from Harper’s Bazaar and so on.
Let me tell the full story of what happened that night. Now, normally if you’re in a boring lecture, you can, like, tune out. You know, you can plan your meals, do your laundry in your head, and things like that, okay? In this case, it was torture to me, because she was showing these gorgeous pictures up on the screen, beautiful pictures that were stimulating the mind, stimulating the imagination, you understand? And at the same time she was trashing these pictures with this horrible Lacan, labyrinthine thing. So I was just out of my–I was out of control. People turned around and said “Shh!” to me. I was writhing in my seat [imitates electrocution-like spasms]. It was awful. Let me give you an example. There was a Revlon ad of a woman in a blue pool of water, and she was beautifully made up, and there was obviously a reflector being used to shine the sunlight especially intensely on her face. This was a beautiful ad. And Diana Fuss was going, “Decapitation–mutilation.”
Then there was a beautiful picture from Harper’s Bazaar, I think, of a black woman wearing a crimson turtleneck. But instead of the collar turned over, you know, it was up like this, around the chin. It was very beautiful. It was like a flower. And she was wearing aviator glasses that I recognized, from the 1930s! Now Diana Fuss said, “She’s blinded.” I would have said, “She has mystic vision.” Anyway, with the turtleneck, what do you think? “Strangulation, bondage!” It went on like this, picture after picture after picture. I thought, “This is psychotic.” Such radical misinterpretation of reality is psychotic. But it’s a whole system. Psychosis is a system. People within that system feel it’s very rational.
Now, what I hated about this was you had two hundred young women, who didn’t understand a word of what she was saying–it was all that Lacan gibberish–and they’re all going, “Ohhh, wow! The woman from Princeton–a big woman from Princeton. She’s so brilliant!” And I thought, “This is evil.” Diana Fuss is not evil. She’s a nice woman. But if what you’re doing is evil, I’m sorry, it has to stop. This is perverted. It really is perverted. When you destroy young people’s ability to take pleasure in beauty, you are a pervert! So I stood up, I was very agitated–and she was such a good sport. I mean, here was this maniac she never heard of, my book had just come out, and I was waving my arms around. I said I didn’t mean to condemn her, because I understood that what she was doing was the result of ten years of feminists doing this. But nevertheless, I asked, why is it, why is it that feminists have so much trouble dealing with beauty and pleasure, I said, to which gay men have made such outstanding cultural contributions? Why–if gay men can respond? This is why I get along so well with gay men, and I don’t get along with lesbian feminists. This is why my sexuality is a complete neuter! I don’t fit in anywhere! I’m like this wandering being, the Ancient Mariner–it’s just awful.
So anyway, afterwards I went down to speak to Diana Fuss because I wanted to find out how much she knows about art, because she’s a product of English departments. And I spoke to her a little bit, and I could see she knew nothing about art. And I also could tell she knew nothing about popular culture. Now you see the problem here. You cannot just suddenly open a magazine and look at a picture of a nude woman and then free associate, using Lacan. You cannot do that! Because fashion magazines are part of the history of art. These are great photographers, great stylists–and gay men have made enormous contributions to fashion photography. Anyway, I made a huge statement that night–the whole audience gasped. I went, “The history of fashion photography from 1950 to 1990 is one of the great moments in the history of art!” And everyone went, “How can you say that?” Because obviously fashion is an oppression of women.
And beauty, according to, um, Miss, um, Naomi Wolf, is a heterosexist conspiracy by men in a room to keep feminism back–and all that crap that’s going on. I call her, by the way, “Little Miss Pravda.” She and I are head to head on MTV this week, in case you want to know! But I won’t appear with her. Oprah’s tried to get me on with her: I won’t go on with her. A talk show in Italy wanted to fly me over to appear with her. No. I always say, “Would Caruso appear with Tiny Tim?” If you want to see what’s wrong with Ivy League education, look at The Beauty Myth, that book by Naomi Wolf. This is a woman who graduated from Yale magna cum laude, is a Rhodes scholar, and cannot write a coherent paragraph. This is a woman who cannot do historical analysis, and she is a Rhodes scholar? If you want to see the damage done to intelligent women today in the Ivy League, look at that book. It’s a scandal. Naomi Wolf is an intelligent woman. She has been ill-served by her education. But if you read Lacan, this is the result. Your brain turns to pudding! She has a case to make. She cannot make it. She’s full of paranoid fantasies about the world. Her education was completely removed from reality.
Now, I want to totally reform education, so that we get really first-rate, top-level intellectual work by women. We’re not going to get it. There’s a lost generation of women coming out of these women’s studies programs–a lost generation. If you spend your whole time reading Gilbert-Gubar, Helene Cixous, and all the rest of that French rot–thank God, I didn’t have that. Thank God, I only had men and Simone de Beauvoir–and Jane Harrison and Gisela Richter. There were great women writers as well, great women scholars. I held myself to the highest standards. I didn’t say, we’re going to make new standards, women’s standards, and give us women’s awards, the women’s sweepstakes, and all that stuff. No one takes women’s work seriously right now. Do you think that men take it seriously? Do you think anyone reads Gilbert-Gubar? I mean, who reads Gilbert-Gubar? or Carolyn Heilbrun, that mediocre, genteel crap, coming from a woman who’s Jewish and who is still writing in a genteel style. This is feminism? This is feminism? This is third-rate, tenth-rate stuff. It’s appalling that our young women are being assigned to read things like Lacan when they’re sophomores and haven’t read Freud. What good does it do to read Lacan if you haven’t read Freud? All of Lacan is just a commentary on Freud. This is ridiculous. It’s a horrible situation. We need massive reform, at every level.
Now back to my little survey here. So by the time the women’s movement broke forth in 1969, it was practically impossible for me to be reconciled with my “sisters.” And there were, like, screaming fights. The big one was about the Rolling Stones. This was where I realized–this was 1969–boy, I was bounced, fast, right out of the movement. And I had this huge argument. Because I said you cannot apply a political agenda to art. When it comes to art, we have to make other distinctions. We had this huge fight about the song “Under My Thumb.” I said it was a great song, not only a great song but I said it was a work of art. And these feminists of the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band went into a rage, surrounded me, practically spat in my face, literally my back was to the wall. They’re screaming in my face, “Art? Art? Nothing that demeans women can be art!” There it is. There it is! Right from the start. The fascism of the contemporary women’s movement.
Feminism is 200 years old. Ever since Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that manifesto in 1790. It’s 200 years old. It’s had many phases. We can criticize the present phase without necessarily criticizing feminism, I want to save feminism from the feminists. What I identify with is the prewar feminism of Amelia Earhart, of Katherine Hepburn–who had an enormous impact on me–that period of women where you had independence, self-reliance, personal responsibility, and not blaming other people for your problems. I want to bring that back. And my life has been a good example of it. Because my career was a disaster, but I did not blame it on anyone. I took personal responsibility for my own work. If I could not be published in my own lifetime, I would leave it beyond the grave, as Emily Dickinson did, and torture people in the next life!
So in 1969 I saw immediately–and still we have this problem, twenty years down the line from the birth of contemporary feminism–that there are two huge areas that feminism has excluded that need to be integrated within it. That’s what I’m doing. That’s my contribution. One of them that was excluded was aesthetics. Right from the start there was a problem with aesthetics, a difficulty with dealing with beauty and with art. If you think that’s an old problem, it isn’t. The present prominence of Naomi Wolf and her book indicates that what I’m criticizing is still a contemporary problem. The accolades on the back of that book from leading feminists, including Germaine Greer–who said, “This is the most important book–since my own book!”–show that that’s still an issue.
So: aesthetics. Because one of my earliest faculties was my responsiveness to beauty. I think it may be something innate in Italians, I honestly think it may be. There’s an art thing, an art gene that we’ve got. Early on, I was in love with beauty. I don’t feel less because I’m in the presence of a beautiful person. I don’t go [imitates crying and dabbing tears], “Oh, I’ll never be that beautiful!” What a ridiculous attitude to take!–the Naomi Wolf attitude. When men look at sports, when they look at football, the don’t go [crying], “Oh, I’ll never be that fast, I’ll never be that strong!” When people look at Michelangelo’s David, do they commit suicide? No. See what I mean? When you see a strong person, a fast person, you go, “Wow! That is fabulous.” When you see a beautiful person: “How beautiful.” That’s what I’m bringing back to feminism. You go, “What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!” Okay, now I’ll be charged with sexual harassment, probably. I won’t even be able to get out of the room!
We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty. Beauty is an eternal human value. It was not a trick invented by nasty men in a room someplace on Madison Avenue. I say in Sexual Personae that it was invented in Egypt. For 3,000 years at the height of African civilization you had a culture based on beauty. We have two major cultures in the world today, France and Japan, organized around the idea of beauty. It is so provincial, feminism’s problem with beauty. We have got to get over this. Obviously, any addiction–like if you’re addicted to plastic surgery–that’s a problem. Of course it’s a problem. Addiction to anything is a problem. But this blaming anorexia on the media–this is Naomi’s thing–oh please! Anorexia is coming out of these white families, these pushy, perfectionist white families, who all end up with their daughters at Yale. Naomi arrives in England, and “Gee, all the women Rhodes scholars have eating disorders. Gee, it must be…the media”! Maybe it’s that you are a parent-pleasing, teacher-pleasing little kiss-ass! Maybe you’re a yuppie! Maybe you, Miss Yuppie, have figured out the system. Isn’t it interesting that Miss Naomi, the one who has succeeded in the system, the one who has been given the prizes by the system, she who is the princess of the system, she’s the one who’s bitchin’ about it? I’m the one who’s been poor and rejected–shouldn’t I be the one bitching about it? No–because I’m a scholar, okay, and she’s a twit!
The second area where feminism is deficient is in its psychology. Right from the start, Kate Millet banned Freud as a sexist. And so we have this horror that has arisen over the last twenty years of feminism trying to build a sex theory without Freud, one of the greatest masters, one of the great analysts of human personality in history. Now, you don’t have to assent to Freud. I don’t read Freud and go, “Oh, wow, he is the ultimate word in the human race”–that’s not how I read! I follow him, and I go, “This is interesting. Now maybe he needs to be supplemented.” So I’ll supplement from wherever–a little bit from Jung, a little bit from Frazer, whom I very much admire, sometimes from astrology. I mean, I find all kinds of things everywhere. Soap opera–I love soap opera–Lana Turner–I’ll take it from anywhere. I’m very syncretic. I’m very eclectic. But I mean Freud has to be the basis of any psychology. We should be reading him first, not these minor women, and build up from there. All this obsession with “Well, did you read Jeffrey Masson’s thing on the seduction theory?” Oh, please, who cares? All this “Let’s unmask Big Daddy”–this obsession with the weaknesses of big figures. This is infantile. It’s infantile. You read major figures not because everything they say is the gospel truth but because they expand your imagination, they expand your I.Q., okay, they open up brain cells you didn’t even know you have.
So we have these two large areas: we have aesthetics missing from contemporary feminism and we have psychology. It’s an incoherent psychology right now. Another thing, I feel, and others might not agree, is that its politics is also naive, a politics which blames all human problems on white male imperialists who have victimized women and people of color. This view of history is coming from people who know nothing about history. Because when you think of the word “imperialist,” if you automatically just think “America,” then you don’t know anything. Because someone who’s studied the history of ancient Egypt knows that imperialism was practically invented in Egypt and in the ancient Near East. If you want to talk about imperialism, let’s talk about Japan or Persia or all kinds of things. It’s not just a white male monopoly.
What we need, you see, is really systematic training in political science and history. It’s obvious there’s a need for this now. There was, following the Sixties, an appetite for history, but the people in academe were not willing to do the work necessary to master history and anthropology and so on. Instead, it was sort of like, “Hey, we need history! Let’s see. Oh–there’s Foucault!” It was sort of like that. It’s sort of like ducks when they’re born–the first thing they see, you know? So if they see a vacuum cleaner, they think it’s their mother. They’ll follow the vacuum cleaner. That’s what happened. Foucault is the vacuum cleaner that everyone followed.
All I can say is thank God, by the time Lacan and Foucault appeared on the cultural landscape, I had already done all my preparations. I had been reading very deeply not only in college but especially during graduate school in the Yale library, so by the time they arrived I was intellectually prepared to see how specious they are. And therefore it never affected me. And now, of course, there are people who spent twenty years of their lives on these characters, and now, of course, they’re a little irritated when someone says, “Oh, that was a waste.” It’s sort of like a period where people were told, because they had no taste of their own, that they should furnish their house in zebra Naugahyde furniture. So they went heavily into this, okay, their whole house is furnished in it. Then suddenly, twenty years down the road, someone like me appears and says, “Guess what–that’s out now. Not only that, but it was in terrible taste to begin with.” So you can see why they’re mad at me. They’re mad because they’re stuck with that furniture! They have twenty years of furniture!
But time for something new. I think, you know, that there’s something happening. I can really feel it. Like for twenty years, no one would listen to me. I just hit a wall. No one heard what I was saying, no one understood anything about what my book was doing, people just looked at me with blank faces. And suddenly people are listening. It’s not me that’s changed. The culture is changing. Something is happening. It’s a twenty-year astrological cycle that’s happening. I was very moved, a few months ago–Arsenio had on the Fifth Dimension, reunited! The Fifth Dimension, which had quarreled, the catfights, all that, they had reunited, and they were singing “Aquarius” on Arsenio! I was very moved! I said, “Something is happening. The Sixties are coming back.” Some of the lines of that song I really identify with: “The mind’s true liberation.” This is what I stand for: “The mind’s true liberation.”
And unfortunately what’s happening today, with this kind of very sanctimonious and sermonizing talk about sex that’s coming out of the rape counselors and so on, people do not realize, with all their good intentions, how oppressive this is to sex, what a disaster this is to the mind, what a disaster this is to the spirit, to allow the rape counselors to take over the cultural stage. Now the work that they do is good, and it’s wonderful that they’re there. But we cannot have this scenario being projected of male rapaciousness and brutality and female victimage. We have got to make women realize they are responsible, that sexuality is something that belongs to them. They have an enormous power in their sexuality. It’s up to them to use it correctly and to be wise about where they go and what they do. And I’m accused of being “anti-woman” because of this attitude? Because I’m bringing common sense back to the rape discourse?
Now when people say to me, “Oh, you’re always talking about feminists as if they’re monolithic. We’re not monolithic. We’re very pluralistic. We have so many different views.” No, excuse me: the date-rape issue shows that I am correct. Because there is one voice speaking about date rape from coast to coast, one voice, one stupid, shrewish, puritanical, sermonizing, hysterical voice. And where are all these sophisticated feminists supposedly out there? Where are they? Totally impotent, locked in their little burrows wherever they are, whether they’re in the East Village or Harvard. Wherever they are, they’re impotent. There’s not one voice raised to bring some sense into this hysteria. Now, I am an experienced teacher. I sympathize with the problems of freshmen, and so I believe that date-rape awareness is an excellent thing to do when students arrive, not only for the men, to warn the men that breaches of civilized behavior will not be tolerated, but also to warn the women, because unfortunately to me what’s happening is that we have a white middle-class problem. I don’t notice so many Hispanic women and African-American women going around and carrying on like this.
Like just this weekend–I’m getting so sick and tired, so nauseated by what’s been happening–down in Philadelphia, where I work at the University of the Arts, there were two incidents at Temple University, and I think they’re just a disgrace to women, these incidents–as reported–we don’t know what really happened. The girl has met the guy once before, this is the second time she met him, they were at a party, she invites him back to her room, its three A.M., she falls asleep, and then suddenly something happens, and she charges him with rape. Now, pardon me, wake up to reality! This is a ridiculous situation. If a real rape occurs, I will help to lynch the guy from the nearest tree. I will be absolutely ferocious. I will get my switchblade knife–given to me by a reporter, by the way!–I will help track down the rapist and punish him. But this sort of thing is disastrous. We cannot have this, these white middle-class girls coming out of pampered homes, expecting to do whatever they want. They don’t understand what’s going on, that there’s a sexual content to their behavior, that maybe there’s a subliminal sexuality, a provocativeness in their behavior. “Don’t say ‘provocative’! Because then you’re blaming the victim!” Well, women will never be taken seriously until they accept full responsibility for their sexuality.
We have got to let the mind open freely, freely toward sex, and understand that from the moment you’re on a date with a man, the idea of sex is hovering in the air–hover, hover, hover, okay? I’ll tell you what I’m bringing back. I’m bringing back lust! A friend of mine, Robert Caserio, said in a recent lecture at Ann Arbor, “There’s a lot of talk about gender on campus these days, but not much about sex.” And he said there’s a kind of “antisepsis in the classroom.” And I think this is really true. There’s a real Puritanism about the way sex is being discussed and “managed” in the current ideology of women’s studies. Now, you know that recent song, “Sadeness,” from the Euro-pop disco album by Enigma. There’s another great song on there, “The Principles of Lust.” And I thought, “Yes, that’s what I’m doing in my work.” I am discovering and articulating the principles of lust.
And lust should be a positive force. It should not be something that men are directing toward us–“Yuk! Pooh!” It shouldn’t be like that. So I am proud to be in the current Playboy. Yes, I am. I am proud to be there, okay, I am proud to be next to the section, “Women of the Big Ten.” People say to me, “Oh, you must be against Playboy taking pictures of women on campus,” and I say, “Not at all! If Playboy is kidnapping women to photograph them, then I will help you lynch the people from Playboy. But as long as women want to pose, I applaud it.” It’s nice to see a bosom that’s not amplified with silicone, it’s nice to see it. [Imitates leafing through magazine] “Mmm–they look good to me! I’m proud to be there, very proud. And Penthouse will be next!
I’m pro-pornography. I feel that was the liberation of the Sixties. And it’s been lost. I feel that the sexual ideology of current feminism is reactionary and repressive and puritanical and phobic. And it’s being produced by many of these women who have succeeded, you see, in the women’s studies programs and who don’t understand the degree to which their own careerism, their own opportunism is enwrapped with these ideas. They don’t understand. They’re not sophisticated women, many of them. They’re not. They’re not cosmopolitan women. To talk about sex, you have to know about literature and art. Literature and art are the best way into the psychology of mankind, because of the ambiguity and mystery. Because that is where you feel the flux, the flux of our sexual desire, the way our spirit is not in these rigid categories of oppressor and victim. Everything is flowing. Fantasy and imagination and all these things, they’re always flowing. That’s why Freud has been so useful for me, because of the way he is able to study the dream process and to find words to articulate these ambiguous nonverbal phenomena. It’s a very, very good exercise for anyone trying to talk about sex. So the present situation is just appalling–just appalling. The language that is being used by these people, the way social-welfare issues have taken over the agenda. We cannot have this.
What’s happening on campus is–I started feeling it twenty years ago, actually, the way the campus in America was drifting away from intellectual life, the way the campus was becoming a summer camp, the way the universities were beginning to focus their strategies on getting parents to pay money to send their children there, so we’re going to give the kids “a nice experience.” So now, you see, the Student Services departments are taking over. This is leading to speech codes and so on: “Oh, my God, we can’t have a child coming here, with someone paying for them to come here, and then for them to hear a nasty thing about them! We must squelch that.” The universities must be centered around the idea of intellectual discourse, intellectual inquiry. We cannot have any speech codes. This is absurd.
And you know what’s so ridiculous about this is that these people want “multiculturalism,” they want to talk about various ethnic groups. At the same time they want to deny there’s any difference between those ethnic groups. This is insane! It’s illogical. It’s incoherent. If you’re going to have the ethnic groups and if you’re going to draw a firm line separating those groups, then surely those groups have characteristics that separate them and that should be the subject of comment. But no–the amnesiac liberal establishment wants to draw lines and erase all of our mental life within those lines. It’s appalling. It’s appalling. It has to stop.
So anyway I believe, you know, that we should be as nasty as possible, at all times! It serves nothing to just try to squelch speech. It changes no one’s opinion of anything. Now, I am Italian–very Italian. I’m so Italian that this has crippled me in my advance in academe. I noticed this early on, even while in college–although I had a wonderful experience in college. Wherever I’m surrounded by Jews I’m happy–it was a very Jewish college. It was, like, eighty percent poor New York Jews from downstate, and I just feel very happy around Jews because they respect my mind. My mentors have always been Jews, Harold Bloom and so on, and they’re the only ones who can tolerate my personality! But at any rate, when I got to Yale…whoah! culture shock! Because I saw the way the WASP establishment had the Ivy League in a death grip. In order to rise in academe, you have to adopt this WASP style. It’s very laid back. Now, I really can’t do it, but I call it “walking on eggs at the funeral home.” You have to talk like this [lowers voice to unctuous, monotonous whisper], you have to talk as passionlessly as possible, you have to be totally blank and very decorous and never crack a joke. Whimsy is permitted. No belly laughs!
Now, I’m loud. Did you notice? I’m very loud. I’ve had a hell of a time in academe. This is why I usually get along with African-Americans. I mean, when we’re together, “Whooo!” It’s like I feel totally myself–we just let everything go! It’s like energy. This was the Sixties: energy. Energy was the Sixties! Now I really hit the wall of academe, boy, because no one could take me seriously. First of all, a fast-talking woman? Joan Rivers made my life a lot easier, when she appeared on the scene. Now when I talk, people go, “Oh, Joan Rivers.” Before, they went, “Whoah–freak!” And, you see, people would discriminate against me because they thought, “Well, a fast-talking, little woman. She can’t be serious.” Because, you know, to be a deep thinker you have to be slow. So you’d notice this–like the men at Yale were slow. You’d ask them a question and–[long pause, staring]. I could write a chapter in the time it takes them to answer a question!
So at any rate, my ambition as a Sixties person was to utterly transform academe and bring this kind of ethnic intensity and passion to academe. And I flunked miserably. I really was just crushed. I saw many of my peers at Yale graduate school sail onward and upward to big positions where they all are now, at Johns Hopkins and Harvard and Berkeley and Chicago, and they’re just up there at the very top of the profession. And meanwhile I was totally invisible, as obliterated in my own time as I could have been. But I accepted this. I accepted this. Emily Dickinson’s example really was very inspiring to me, you see, because she was not published in her own time. Her few poems that managed to get published, they doctored. They altered the rhyme or tried to smooth them out and so on, and she was appalled by that and never put her poems out to be published again. But she never swerved from her vision of her own voice. And so she died, and they found all these poems in the bureau drawer. And then, because she never swerved from her vision, a hundred years later we read her and now we, her true contemporaries, understand her. So I thought this was going to be my fate. And the point is, a scholar should prepare for the future. A scholar should write for the future, not for the present. See, the problem of the last twenty years is that we have these careerist academics who are simply trying to maneuver for position now and who are writing things for consumption now. That is not scholarship. That’s, like, advertising. And it’s bad advertising.
So–[looks at watch] oh, I’d better keep on moving here, or otherwise this is going to be like The Exterminating Angel–you know that movie where guests arrive at a dinner party and can’t leave? Here’s a major point I want to make. The New Criterion has come into being and has flourished due to the failure of academic leftism in this area of aesthetics. People keep thinking of it in political terms. Hilton Kramer was an art critic. See what I’m saying? The vacuum around aesthetics in academic liberalism has produced The New Criterion. Now I want the liberals to start thinking in these terms. Instead of saying, “Oh, those awful people in Commentary and The New Criterion,” start saying, “What have we done? What have we failed to do that has produced this reaction to the right?” And until the liberals begin to critique themselves and to take control of academe and to admit their sins and to atone for them, the neoconservatives will continue to flourish, which is not good. We cannot have a situation where the neoconservatives are writing literate, lucid, learned prose and you have the leftists writing garbled, labyrinthine junk. As long as that goes on, okay, the neoconservatives deserve to win!
[voice calls out from audience] What’s my sign? Who asked that? Who asked that question? I’m an Aries. What do you think? Bette Davis, Joan Crawford–please!
Now for a series of minor points. The idea that feminism is the first group that ever denounced rape is a gross libel to men. Throughout history, rape has been condemned by honorable men. Honorable men do not murder; honorable men do not steal; honorable men do not rape. It goes all the way back through history. Tarquin’s rape of Lucretia caused the fall of the tyrants and the beginning of the Roman Republic. This idea that somehow suddenly feminism miraculously found out that women were being exploited and raped though history is ridiculous. We have got to remove things like rape from the women’s studies context and pull it back into ethics. It belongs in ethics. We have to ask how should everyone–not just men–how should everyone be trained as a child to behave in society. We must put it in a general philosophical context. This idea of focusing in, suddenly, at the freshman year of college–it’s too late! Guess what–you’re not going to convert anyone with a few films on date-rape education, a few demonstrations, and a few pamphlets being passed out, you’re not going to change anyone’s mind. Look–ethics has always condemned such abuses. You do not have this endless series of atrocities through history. Men have also protected women. Men have given women sustenance. Men have provided for women. Men have died to defend the country for women. We must look back and acknowledge what men have done for women.
Men’s creation of the technological world of today has made me possible. I remember my paternal grandmother on the back porch in Endicott, scrubbing the clothes on a washboard. She had nine children. I remember that. I, her granddaughter, could have the leisure to write this book, thanks to the technological world and modern capitalism, which has such a bad rep. Look around the world, okay, and see what the reality is. Oh, I thank God I was born an American, I thank God. When I got to Europe–I feel the smog of convention hanging everywhere in Europe, even in England, which is a very free-speaking and free-thinking country. In America, woman is at her freest. Never in history have women been freer than they are here. And this idea, this bitching, bitching, kvetching about capitalism and America and men, this whining–it’s infantile, it’s an adolescent condition, it’s bad for women. It’s very, very bad to convince young women that they have been victims and that their heritage is nothing but victimization. This is another perversion.
All right. Here’s something: Germaine Greer. What a loss. What a loss! If that woman had stayed on her original track, all of feminism would have been different. She was sophisticated, sexy, literate. What happened to her? After three years, she turned into this drone, this whining, “Woe is me, all the problems of the world!” Something went wrong in feminism. This often happens in history. Revolutions begin laudably but sometimes almost immediately degenerate into ideology or into partisanship and so on. Every revolution eventually needs a new revolution. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to get rid of feminism. I’m trying to reform it, to save it, to bring it into the twenty-first century, in a way that allows the sexes to come together instead of being alienated from each other, that allows sex to be hot and not have, like, wet blankets of sermonizing thrown over it.
Sontag. Ohhh. Another woman. Both these women, Germaine Greer, Susan Sontag. What happened? When people say, “Oh, men keep women back,” look, in our own time, two major women self-destructed. These women should have been leaders. These women should have been Madame de Staels. Their work should have astonished multitudes. Both these women had the attention of the world, and they lost it. Through their own failings. Sometimes women have failings. Sometimes everything is not because of male conspiracy. Sometimes women do stupid things, okay, and become vain and conceited. In those two cases, those are major losses.
I feel that Susan Sontag should have been a leader in critiquing feminism but instead she just played this role–whatever the role is that she plays–Miss Mandarin in her New York apartment. I don’t know what the hell she’s been doing for twenty years. She thinks she’s a novelist. That’s what she’s doing right now, writing a novel. That’s just what we’re all waiting for, huh? Another novel by Susan Sontag! She has no talent whatever for fiction-writing. It’s just a delusion. This is a woman who should have been a leading intellectual. This is a woman who should have provided that median link between academe and the world of popular culture. She started doing it. And then she pulled back when people attacked her. They said, “What are you doing? You’re not serious!” And now she says silly things to Time magazine like, “Oh, well, I don’t know why people talk like this. After all, I never wrote a whole essay on the Supremes. I merely mentioned them.” Oh, come on! I would love to write an essay on the Supremes. In fact, I have–there’s a whole section on them in Volume Two of Sexual Personae.
Sontag should have provided this link. This is what we need. We have a split between the world of the media and the world of academe that has been bad for both. And we need to bring the two audiences together. She should have done that, and I’m going to be trying to bring serious intellectual issues into the public domain and similarly bring public concerns back into academe. Because for all the talk of academic feminism about how they care for women–they think they speak for women–they don’t speak for women! You go out in the street, most women on the street have contempt for feminists. Why? It’s because of the excesses of feminism. They like to go through this ritual, “Oh, yes, we have such solidarity with Third World women.” They don’t know anything about Third World women! So much of academic feminism today is nothing but the complaining of white upper-middle-class women. They don’t even realize the extent to which they’re trapped in their own class. They don’t realize it. And they just have to be broken out of it.
Let me go on. I have a whole list here of reforms. I’m going to sound like Martin Luther! A couple of things. The abuse of language has got to stop. Throwing around words like racist and homophobic and so on. Now, homophobic has a specific psychological meaning. It means someone who’s obsessed with homosexuality, so that you go out and maybe kill or maim someone who is homosexual because of your own inner fear that you may be having homosexual impulses. It’s a true phobia. We cannot allow the word homophobic to be constantly used for anyone who says, “I don’t like gay people” or “I think homosexuality is immoral, according to the Bible.” We cannot be misusing this word. We cannot condemn as bigotry everything that we don’t agree with. Words like bigotry have to go. Or you don’t get enough money for AIDS: “Genocide!” When you use words like this–this is what they were shouting up in Kennebunkport when Bush was on vacation on Labor Day–“Genocide!” Now what does this do? I mean, you totally destroy the true meaning of genocide as it was authentically embodied under Hitler. That’s what you do. You destroy meanings, you anesthetize people, and you turn people off. You turn the mind off. You kill the brain. We cannot have this. We cannot have this abuse of language going on.
Let me give you another example. There were anonymous posters put up recently all over New York, with Jodie Foster’s picture: “Absolutely Queer.” Absolutely queer? I thought we got rid of absolutes! I thought that’s what Nietzsche had done a hundred years ago. Now we’ve got gay people talking about what is absolute? This is fascism! This is fascism! It’s going to drive people back into the closet. We cannot have this. Jodie Foster–I’m trying to challenge her to come out and to do what I have done. In the New York cover story last March, I tried to make a lead for her. I was trying to influence her. It hasn’t succeeded yet! Because obviously the problem for her is that she also now and then dates men. I would like her to be able to say, “Look, so? I’m not comfortable with the word ‘gay.'” I want her to say this. Because I think it’s necessary to say. The word gay is becoming oppressive. It itself is becoming oppressive. I want her to say this. I want her to say “I’m not comfortable with that word”–and others like Sandra Bernhard must say it too: “We’re not comfortable with that. We don’t feel that word describes what we are. Yes, we’ve slept with women. Yes, we’ve slept with men. But I do not want a word like a badge that tells me what I’m going to be or how I’m going to feel in the next 72 hours!”
Now, you know what I hate? This thing of, say you have a man who’s married, he has children, and maybe every month or every few weeks he goes out and picks up a guy. Today in this fascist atmosphere it’s “You’re gay! You’re gay, and you’re secretly homophobic! You are self-loathing! You are hiding behind the mask of respectability!” What if he’s just married and likes to sleep with men now and then? What’s wrong with that? They’re doing that in the Near East. They’ve done that in China and Japan. True liberation for homosexuals, for lesbians, will happen only when we can break through these stereotypes and allow for the free flow of desire, for spontaneity, for humor. I don’t like the situation because right now it’s bad for gay people! Right now, people are afraid. Often a woman is afraid to go to bed with another woman because she’s afraid that if she does that, even though she’s attracted to her, she’ll be “gay“; she’ll have to have an identity crisis, be gay, and all that other stuff. Why? I’m influenced by the great foreign films of the late Fifties and Sixties where you had Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau and Dominique Sanda floating around from bed to bed with a man, then with a woman, then with a man, then with a woman. I like that! I think that’s sophisticated!
In terms of my history, you know, for a long while in my life I felt that, well, I have to be gay, because I’m so attracted to women, but then in a way it’s living a lie, because then I have to repress my attractions to men. So after a while I thought, well, why do I have to give myself any label? Why can’t I just respond from day to day and just go with the flow in the Sixties way? I think that is healthy. A healthy psychology goes with the flow and responds to situations and stimuli as they occur. It reminds me a little bit of Holly Woodlawn, the great Warhol drag queen, who was on an early Geraldo show. And Geraldo said to Holly Woodlawn: “Are you, like, a man who should be a woman, or are you a woman who was a man, or are you a man/woman?” And Holly Woodlawn said, “Oh–who cares? As long as you look fabulous!”
So part of what I want to do is liberate contemporary sexuality from the new rigidity of gay activism, which I think is getting a little too definite in the line it’s drawing between gay and straight. Because I don’t think that such a sharp line actually exists in real life. Many people deny that bisexuality exists. I happen to feel that women have a natural capacity for bisexuality. I don’t like the situation today where young women are arriving at college, and the Student Services and the deans want to be very “compassionate” and “caring” right now. So when you arrive at college and a girl is sleeping with another girl: “Oh, you’re gay. Isn’t that nice? How nice that you’re gay! This is wonderful. We’re going to help you be gay. Really, there’s no need to–” Maybe she’s just sleeping with the other girl! What’s wrong with that? Stop imposing the heavy burden of “identity” on people. Just let them live and breathe! I feel that life should be an art form. It should not be like a factory assembly line.
Now let me give my list of reforms. In my expose, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders” for Arion, I had these reforms, and then I will have others that are new. The ones I said there are first of all that the present concentration on essay-writing at the heart of the humanities curriculum is actually discriminatory against people of other cultures and classes. I think it’s a game. It’s very, very obvious to me, having been teaching for so many years as a part-timer, teaching factory workers and teaching auto mechanics and so on, the folly of this approach. You teach them how to write an essay. It’s a game.It’s a structure. Speak of social constructionism! It’s a form of repression. I do not regard the essay as it’s presently constituted as in any way something that came down from Mount Sinai brought by Moses.
I feel that learning has to be brought back to the center of the humanities curriculum. I can see what happened. What happened was that the old bibliographical style of literary scholarship had become totally enervated and dead, and then New Criticism rose up in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties–and then it really started dying in the Fifties–as a way to talk about the literary and artistic qualities of a text. And then unfortunately that detached itself entirely from any historical context, and you got a whole generation of critics who came through who have absolutely no historical sense whatever–they haven’t been trained to think in historical terms. So we have a situation today where you’re tested for a literature course on your ability to write an essay. I think again that something’s wrong with this. Sure, perhaps an essay should be part of a larger exam. But I think we should go back to demanding mastery of fact and even rote memory. I think rote learning has a bad press. I think rote learning is one way that you train your mind. It’s almost like weight training, in the physical sense.
Next, in terms of classroom teaching, there have got to be small classes. What kind of education is it, like at Harvard, where you have 800 people in a class? Is this education? People pay all that money to go there, for what? To sit in a huge class–why not get a videotape? Why not go read the lecture? This is not teaching. Teaching is when you have one person, a teacher in a room, doing improv with a class. Looking at the students, looking at them as people. And all faculty should be made to teach freshmen. This idea that “Oh, the freshmen–let’s leave that to the graduate students, the slaves.” That’s absurd. The freshman year is the most important year, especially for people coming from deprived backgrounds. The teacher must confront the student face-to-face. Look at the student, watch the way the students are changing from year to year, care for them as individual beings. This has got to happen. The reform of education will be achieved when we do that, when we give personal attention to the students.
And one of the ways to do that is to cut off a couple of big things. The “publish or perish” thing has got to stop. We should say to young faculty: “We expect you, in twenty years, to produce a work, and we hope that you’re constantly working toward it, and now and then we want to look at maybe chapters or pieces of the work that you’re doing. But your number one responsibility is to teach and to develop yourself, and to expand your learning. You come here, you have an English Ph.D., you know nothing about art? That’s your obligation. Learn about art. Learn about music, dance, history, politics, learn Chinese, go fishing. Do anything, but don’t go to conferences!”
I demand that the profession go cold turkey on the conferences! There must be an accounting. Every college, every university, we must ask for an accounting. The funds that are being used to send people on plane trips to Monte Carlo and around the world should be going to the students and to development. You should give the money to a young faculty member for course development, not to go to a conference. Do you know the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are wasted on these plane tickets and these hotel reservations and all that? It’s appalling. It’s a scandal. It’s mini-vacations, boondoggling. No more conferences! And the MLA can begin by abolishing those stupid sessions, all 800 of them.
And also I’ve said in Arion I expect teachers to be generalists. Merely because you have as a professional scholar an area of specialty does not mean that you should be teaching that specialty to your students. No! Undergraduate education demands general education. It’s no place to be having your students run little errands for you, doing your research for you. That has got to stop. Now, I have in Arion demanded really radical restructuring of the curriculum. And what I’m asking for is a true multiculturalism. Not this phony stuff, where you have these people who say [imitates smug, airy woman professor], “Oh, I’m multicultural because to my novel course I’ve added, yes, two novels by black women and one by a Chinese-American woman. See–I’m multicultural!” That’s not multicultural! If you were really multicultural, you’d be studying, the way we did in the Sixties, Hinduism and Buddhism. You’d be studying other world cultures. These people are lazy, good-for-nothing pretentious people! Hypocrites! Hypocrites masquerading under this flag of multiculturalism.
What I’m calling for is true multiculturalism, that is, a restructuring of the curriculum, so that we have a two-year program. What I’m asking for is to begin in remotest antiquity, begin with archaeology in all the great world traditions. Year one would go from the beginning, from prehistory, all the way to the birth of Islam. And then the second year would go from the High Middle Ages all the way to the present, in all the great world traditions. We must study comparative religion. You cannot understand any other culture until you understand the religion of that culture. Sacred texts of all religions should be the basic readings of the first year, as I see it. This is the true multiculturalism, not that other stuff.
Next I’m asking for an arts-based, arts-centered humanities curriculum. I expect all humanities professors to be conversant with all the arts, a true cosmopolitanism. And what goes with that is that you cannot be graduating from an American liberal arts college without knowing about black music. This is a great art form we have given to the world. Jazz, blues, Billie Holiday, Coltrane, Charlie Parker–there is no true liberal arts education in this country without that. We must do something to the curriculum to build that in. Right now dance, which is this enormous form, the most ancient of all art forms, is off there in the Phys. Ed. department–you go and take an aerobics class! You are not a liberal arts graduate until you know about dance–you know about it. You know about Martha Graham, you know about ballet, you know about the incredible contributions that African-Americans have made to dance. And every week it’s going on and on and on, the sophisticated developments of dance that are going on in the streets of this country, but nowhere is it registering in our liberal arts curriculum. Instead, they’re wasting all that time with Lacan! Who needs that guy? Get rid of him! Get rid of him! And all that stuff! There’s plenty of room in the curriculum for what I’m saying, plenty of room, let me tell you.
Also in Arion I’m calling for an end to women’s studies as presently constituted. That is, I’m asking for a development not into gender studies, because I think the word gender has become this code word for social constructionism, but rather I’m asking for something called “sex studies,” admitting that it’s sex we’re interested in–sex! lust! sex! Yes! And I don’t think gay studies is a good idea. I think we have got to have sex studies, a broad-based curriculum where you have men and women in the program and gay and straight in the program, talking to each other. We have got to have that. I think this ghettoization that is happening is bad for everyone. We cannot have a situation where you say [imitates busy administrator], “Okay, well, all right, we’re going to get gay literature into the curriculum. Let’s find a gay person. Put out an ad. Oh–are you gay? Okay, you can teach!” This is not good. We don’t want this. We want the subject matter of homosexuality to be integrated with the curriculum. We want everyone to be responsible for these subjects.
I think that women’s studies has made an error, because it’s way off on one end. The way women’s studies was thrown together, you see, was very pernicious. That is, suddenly, gender was in the air. My generation of the Sixties put it on the cultural agenda. And then the administrators were absolutely callow and weak in the way they put it together. They said, “Okay, um, let’s see, um, you over there in the English Department, um, you’re an expert in Jane Austen. You could do this, couldn’t you? Women’s studies?” [imitates not-too-bright woman] “Yeah, I could do that. Yeah, sex. I’ve had sex. I could do it.” That’s the way it was put together. It was put together in this ramshackle shanty way, and we’re paying the price for it now. It’s a disaster.
Now, here are the parts that are new, that weren’t in Arion. I’m calling for an end to the corrupt practice of advance blurbs on books. Now, blurbs where you take something from a review, a published review that’s in the open media and so on, and you put it in subsequent ads or the dust jacket of the book, that’s perfectly legitimate, okay? But this advance blurb thing is absolutely appalling, because it means that they send your book around to your friends, they scratch your back, and you scratch theirs. This is part of the coziness of the profession that I think has just been pernicious. Where people say “brilliant!”, “mind-boggling!,” “shakes the foundations of the Western world!” That has got to stop.
Now, this one you’re not going to like, probably. I do not like any kind of “minority” designation. I think the word minority is an insult. I’m speaking as an Italian-American. My mother came over here at six not knowing a word of English, and when she arrived they didn’t say to her, “Oh, you poor person, you poor Italian-American, all you can understand is things about Italian-American culture, that’s all we’ll tell you, and oh, you can keep Italian. Sure–we wouldn’t dream of imposing English on you.” No. They said to her, “This is a disciplined American school. You will learn English.” My mother, not speaking a word of English, and because of the support of her family, got straight A’s all the way through, and look, within one generation, what you get: Sexual Personae. One generation! I write English better than the English! Now, for Hispanics to continue allowing this “minority” designation is extremely shortsighted. It’s a disaster in the long run, because it cripples people to allow bilingual signs, to allow the use of Spanish in schools.
I think what we need is a kind of creative duality as ethnics. I am very proud to be an Italian, very proud. Ethnic people–African-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jews, Greeks, Hispanics, and so on–they should have this sense of duality. I feel that Oprah Winfrey does this very well, the way she has that double sense, the way she uses two voices. She vamps back and forth between her two voices. That’s how I feel. I feel in between. This is the great richness of our country. But we cannot have a situation where people are being crippled because they’re being allowed to retain their native language for years and years. This is a recipe for second-rateness. It is condescending, it’s insulting to them. I think that the “minority” designations have served their useful purpose and should be dumped. And I know that’s very controversial.
Next. Part-time teachers: we should upgrade their status and their benefits to allow for a couple of things. Number one for women to remain home with their children, if they wish, for the first three years. And number two, to allow people who are poets and artists or people who are informing themselves about the history of art, and so on, to give them the time to do that. I feel that the universities will be enriched by this raising of the status of part-timers.
An end of hostility to the media. Right now, the leaders of the MLA are off sitting on their duff and saying things like, “There’s no problem. The media’s making it up. There’s no problem in the profession. And it’s all a neoconservative plot anyway.” The leaders of the MLA say things like [imitates chirpy dowager], “Gee, I mean, when we’re in the media, look at it, we’re like this [makes one-inch pinching gesture]. But we know we’re not that small! We’re large! We’re big! We’re not that small.” Guess what? The media is seeing you accurately! There you have it, the eye of the media, looking at academics, sees them in their true size, okay, and sees the issues in their true absurdity! And people who are removed from the media think, “That can’t be! I mean, why, that’s not true! I’m not that. I’m not that little cartoon figure.” [sotto voce] Yes, you are…
And finally, in terms of the public schools, I feel that the education that was given to the immigrants for a hundred years, and now has collapsed, has to be brought back. There was discipline and order in those public schools. And don’t tell me–those Italian-American boys of yesteryear were the biggest rough-housers. I mean, the principal would stand there with a truncheon, dealing with the boys–slap! slap!–into his palm. Order and discipline in the schools: we have lost the will to insist upon that. Because now [imitates do-gooder bureaucrats]: “We don’t want to harm the socialization of the poor children. We wouldn’t want to expel them–what a shame! We wouldn’t want to expel them–what a scandal! We wouldn’t want to keep them back in their grade, because that would harm their socialization.” This coddling is a disaster! People were not coddled in the age of the immigrants. If you flunked, you flunked! The end result is we’re graduating into college people who cannot read. This is not doing anyone any good. Expulsion used to be used. “Oh, we don’t want to do that, because that just puts the problems out on the street.” Well, why not put the problems on the street? Why not save the schools for those poor, deprived children who would like to, of their own will, make it?
I am very grateful for a public-school education. Look what happens when you have that kind of order, when you have that kind of rigorous, disciplined teaching that I had in the old public-school era. This is what allows you to develop your identity. This idea of “self-esteem”–ugh! The idea that “self-esteem” should be the purpose of education. This is social-welfare propaganda. Development of our intellect and of our abilities has to be the focus of education. Then we can have these extraneous agencies that can pick up the slack of the “self-esteem.”
You build identity. Maybe identity comes through conflict. For example, my struggles with gender, my struggles with sexual orientation, my anguish over so many decades produced my work. We have to understand that, that sometimes conflict is creative. You will not get a book like Sexual Personae again for another thirty years, because now, whatever you want goes. If there’s no pressure on you, there’s no pressure to create. So we have got to stop this idea that we must make life “easy” for people in school, make it nice and easy [imitates soothing, unctuous, paternalistic voice], “We want you to have a pleasant time, we want to ‘make nice’ for you.” No. Maybe the world is harsh and cruel, and maybe the world of intellect is challenging and confrontational and uncomfortable. Maybe we have to deal with people who hate us, directly, face-to-face. That’s important. You develop your sense of identity by dealing with the things which would obliterate your identity. It does not help you to develop your identity by putting a cushion between yourself and the hateful reality that’s out there.
On that note, I will close and let you go.
Copyright 1992 by Camille Paglia. Reprinted from Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, pages 249-285. All rights reserved.