Camille (Anna) Paglia (born April 2, 1947 in Endicott, New York) is a social critic, author and avowed feminist. She is University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Paglia is an intellectual of many apparent contradictions: a classicist who champions art both high and low, with a classical view that human nature is inherently dangerous, and yet who also celebrates dionysian revelry in the wilder, darker sides of human sexuality.
Paglia came to attention with the publication of her first book, "Sexual Personae", in 1990, when she also began writing about popular culture and feminism in mainstream newspapers and magazines. In early 1991, she was the subject of a New York magazine cover story, "Woman Warrior". She reached the height of her fame in 1992 with the publication of Sex, Art and American Culture, which was much read on college campuses. Her next book, Vamps and Tramps (late 1994), was a collection of short pieces along with new material such as a theoretical manifesto about sex, "No Law in the Arena". In 1998 she published a short volume about Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds in the British Film Institute Film Classics series.
She is currently (2004) writing a third essay collection for Vintage Books, and in 2005 Pantheon Books will publish her study of poetry, entitled Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems. The title is from a line of poetry by John Donne.
Paglia was a columnist for Salon.com for six years from its first issue and is now a contributing editor at Interview magazine. She continues to write articles and reviews for media and scholarly journals, such as her long article, "Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s", published in the classics and humanities journal Arion in Winter 2003.
Her significance in the 1990s intellectual world was two-fold:
- The seventies had seen the rise of a particularly rigid, doctrinaire "feminism" that many were finding stifling but only a few were challenging (e.g., the "sex positive" S/M lesbians, perhaps typified by Susie Bright).
- The left was pushing for a change in the traditional focus of western universities on western culture (sometimes derided as the study of "dead white males"). For example, Stanford University was dropping its well-regarded undergraduate requirement of a year-long course in "Western Culture" in favor of a more broadly-focused study of "Cultures Ideas and Values" or CIV.
Against this backdrop, Camille Paglia appeared on the scene as a female intellectual who enjoyed challenging the left-wing position in these areas, but far from being the usual conservative, she did so by arguing from an unusual position that also embraced homosexuality, fetishism, and prostitution. She describes herself as a "libertarian," as she speaks out in favor of individual freedom, which fits well with the libertarian position, and the consternation she causes in crossing back and forth between the dominant political camps. She is also an atheist, though she thinks comparative religion should be at the center of world education.
- Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art (Dissertation: 1974)
- Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990)
- Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays (1992)
- Vamps and Tramps: New Essays (1994) ISBN 0679751203
- The Birds (BFI Film Classics) (1998)
- Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems (2005) ISBN 0375420843
Camille Anna Paglia was born April 2, 1947, at 6:57 PM in Endicott, New York. She was the first child of Pasquale and Lydia Anne (Colapietro) Paglia, who was born in Italy, and was raised in an Italian immigrant family.
(The name "Paglia" specifically describes the color of the straw that is produced in Italy, the same color that George Eliot had in mind in Daniel Deronda when she wrote of "the pale_golden straw scattered or in heaps.")
The Paglia household had little money, but the parents exposed their daughter to the best of Western art and culture. She has said that the first music to leave an impression on her was Bizet's Carmen, an opera which, in her words, "struck me with electrifying force." She was three when she heard it. That same year, she also became enamored with the witch in Walt Disney's Snow White, a character she later described as elegant and imperious. Throughout her childhood, she would be drawn to several charismatic and powerful figures in art, popular culture and history, setting a precedent for her adult career as culture critic and scholar. She studied them, emulated them and even dressed as them for Halloween (she dressed as Alice from Alice in Wonderland at the age of four, followed by Robin Hood at five, the toreador Escamillo at six, a Roman soldier at seven, Napoleon at eight and Hamlet at nine.) When she was four she became fascinated with the Egypt collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Later that year, her father visited France to study at the Sorbonne and returned with a copy of Art Treasures of the Louvre, a book which puzzled her with its numerous depictions of nude figures. Around this same time, she saw the movie Show Boat (1951), and fell in love with Ava Gardner.
Her primary school years were spent in Oxford, New York, a farming community where, at the Oxford Academy, her father taught high school students. At the age of nine she tried to produce the play Hamlet (based on the Classics Comic Books) in school but became frustrated because some of her classmates hadn't learned their lines. The experience taught her that she couldn't depend on other people, and she soon became a rather aggressive child.
Her family moved to Syracuse, New York, where her father entered graduate school at Syracuse University and then taught as a professor of romance languages at Le Moyne College. Paglia attended the Edward Smith Elementary school,T. Aaron Levy Junior High and William Nottingham High School.
During the summers, Paglia went to Spruce Ridge Camp, a Girl Scout facility in the Adirondacks. She spoke of it many years later in the New York Observer as a "prelesbian heaven. It was just so romantic. I had mad crushes on all the counselors." She took different names when she was there, including Anastasia, her confirmation name, inspired by the Ingrid Bergman film, Stacy, and Stanley. In one formative experience, she exploded the outhouse by pouring in too much lime. She said, "It symbolized everything I would do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness. I would be someone who would look into the latrine of culture..."
The year 1959 was an especially important year in Paglia's development, as it was the year her family got both a telephone and a TV set. It was television which exposed her to the movies of the 1930s for the first time, especially those of Katharine Hepburn, who made a big impression on her. She also fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor, and obsessively collected every photograph of her that she could lay her hands on. In 1961 when Taylor won for Best Actress at the 1960 Academy Awards for Butterfield 8, Paglia's reaction was "feverish excitement the whole next day at school."
While in high school, she began research on Amelia Earhart. The research lasted three years, ending when she was 17. She said, "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." She planned to write a book on Earhart, but the project never came to be.
She was an excellent and devoted student at Nottingham High. Carmelia Metosh was her Latin teacher for three years, and in 1992 recalled that "She always has been controversial. Whatever statements were being made (in class), she had to challenge them. She made good points then, as she does now. She was very alert, `with it' in every way." Paglia thanked Metosh in the acknowledgements to "Sexual Personae," and in January, 2000, described her as "the dragon lady of Latin studies, who breathed fire at principals and school boards."
In many ways, 1963 was the beginning of her career. For her birthday that year, she received a copy of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex from a Belgian colleague of her father's, Josphina van Hal McGinn. The book had a tremendous influence on her and furthered her resolve to be an important feminist writer. On July 8 of that year, Newsweek published her letter about equal opportunity for American women. And on November 24, she appeared in Syracuse's Herald American in a short profile about her outstanding achievements as a student.
She graduated high school in 1964 and began attending SUNY Binghamton, Harpur College. There she became friendly with Bruce Benderson (who had also attended Nottingham High School), Stephen Jarratt and Stephen Feld, three gay men who would have a big influence on her. During a summer break, she worked the night shift at St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse as a secretary in the emergency ward.
One semester at college she was put on probation for committing 39 pranks. When she was 19, she hit a drunken young stranger in the teeth with her right fist, protecting a small woman whom he and a friend were groping on the street. Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls was released that year. Paglia saw it and was particularly taken with actress Mary Woronov. She later remarked that "She was one of the most original, stylish, and articulate sexual personae of the royal House of Warhol. I never forgot her, and I followed her subsequent movie career with great fascination." Many of Paglia's memories of the 1960s are linked to movies. For instance, in 1968 she and her friend Stephen Jarratt saw Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony, and Mark Robson's Valley of the Dolls, and continued to write about the experience years later. She graduated from college in 1968, valedictorian of her class.
One day in New York that summer, she happened to run into Catherine Deneuve on Fifth Avenue and found herself "stalking" her through Saks Fifth Avenue. Paglia ran into the St. Regis Hotel and phoned her friend Stephen Jarratt, then working at a laundromat in Binghamton, to tell him about it. In her book Vamps & Tramps she wrote that it was "The first major incident I had to endure without my gay legionnaires...." She was a lesbian and alone.
Just a few months later, as a student at the Yale Graduate School she attended a party in the home of R. W. B. Lewis, one of her teachers, and she was insulted by a prominent Yale psychiatrist named Robert Jay Lifton and his wife for being a lesbian. Lifton, at that time, was the Foundations' Fund Research Professor in Psychiatry at Yale, a position he held until 1984. His attack seems to have emboldened her to not only be out as a lesbian, but to be in everyone's face about it. She's repeatedly noted she was publicly out as a lesbian at Yale Graduate School, and was actually the only open lesbian there from 1968 to 1972, a fact which harmed her career. As she told reporter Dan Savage in 1992:
- "I took the career price for that. I shoved my lesbianism down people’s throats when I wasn’t getting any pleasure from it; I couldn’t find anyone to be with! There is the irony, I took all the negatives without any of the positives! I tried. I tried to pick up women, I tried. In 1969 I traveled Europe with the handbook, "The Gay Guide to Europe". I went from place to place, every city, and I thought, “What is the problem here?” All the gay men are finding contacts everywhere! You can’t avoid it! Bus terminals, toilets, diners, everywhere! Finally I had to conclude, after so many decades of frustration, that lesbians are not looking for sex. It’s not about sex. They think it’s about sex. It’s about mommy! It’s about mommy is what it’s about!"
While studying at Yale, Paglia quarreled with Rita Mae Brown, whom she later characterised as "then darkly nihilist", and she fought with the New Haven, Connecticut Women's Liberation Rock Band because they dismissed the Rolling Stones as "sexist."
Her study of sexuality in Western literature continued to develop with her reading of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love and Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. Several of her closest friends, Benderson, Jarratt and Feld all moved to San Francisco. Paglia recalled that she "had two close encounters with Kate Millett (author of Sexual Politics) just after she became famous, in New Haven, Connecticut, and Provincetown, Massachusetts, but she was too morosely self_absorbed to notice." Because of what she saw as Millett's "careless" attitude toward scholarship, Millett became a person Paglia began to define herself against.
In 1971 she discovered Kenneth Clark's The Nude while browsing the shelves of Yale's library. "If ever I was in love with a book, it was with this one," she wrote in Sex, Art & American Culture; and in an article for Women's Quarterly in 2002, she called it "The best introduction by far to representation of the human figure in art." She wrote, "Students who read Clark will be safely inoculated against the worst excesses of feminist theory, with its prattle about objectification and the male gaze __ terms cooked up by ideologues with glaringly little knowledge of or feeling for art." The book influenced her writing in her Yale dissertation and subsequent works.
Of the dissertation, her mentor and adviser, Harold Bloom found one fault in the draft he read in 1971. He cautioned in the margin that one passage was "Mere Sontagisme!". Paglia later wrote, "It saddened me, but I knew Bloom was right. Susan Sontag, who could have been Jane Harrison's successor as a supreme woman scholar, had become synonymous with a shallow kind of hip posturing." She received a Master's Degree in Philosophy from Yale that year.
In February of 1972 she wrote a letter to Carolyn Heilbrun, asking for information about her forthcoming book on androgyny, and Heilbrun responded with a letter saying that her book would not be able to deal with all available material on that subject. When the book came out, Paglia gave a thoroughly negative assessment of it in an anonymous review for the journal the Yale Review the following year, 1973. It was the journal's policy for reviews to be published without attribution.
Later in 1972, she toured Washington D.C. with her mother, where she saw Edward Brooke. She later described the black Republican senator from Massachusetts as "a glamorous, lordly male who, from my one passing encounter with him as he sauntered elegantly down the Capitol steps in 1972, had a distinctly roving eye." She also saw Barry Goldwater on the Senate floor. "After knowing him only in the twisted, demonic form projected by the liberal Manhattan media, I was stunned at his simple, natural dignity and air of integrity," she later recalled. "He was the most charismatic man I have ever seen off a movie screen. With his unexpected height, solid physique and flowing white hair, he had the regality of an aging lion."
In the fall, she began her first semester teaching at Bennington College. There she met James Fessenden, a philosophy instructor from Columbia University, who started teaching at the same time as Paglia. In January 1997, Mark W. Edmundson, now a professor at the University of Virginia, recalled attending Bennington while Paglia was there:
- "She was appointed as my faculty advisor in her first term. I went in for my advisorial visit and she was entirely herself, talking very fast about many things I knew nothing about. I ran in fear. Alas, I was too puzzled to take any of her classes, which seemed to be full of very sophisticated people from LA and from New York."
In 1973, her paper, "Lord Hervey and Pope," was published in the journal 18th century Studies. A Times Literary Supplement cover story on Lord Hervey, November 2nd, praised the paper as "brilliant." On April 9th, she traveled to see Susan Sontag at a lecture at Dartmouth and later invited her to Bennington. Sontag spoke there on October 4th, an event that caused much controversy at Bennington since she read a short story instead of giving a cultural lecture, as she had agreed to. Paglia later commented, "I was stunned because I thought she was going to be a major intellectual," and then wrote about the meeting at length in a catty essay entitled, "Sontag, Bloody Sontag", first published in "Vamps & Tramps".
Another intellectual disappointment for Paglia was Marija Gimbutas, who published The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe in 1974. At the same time, Paglia launched "a detailed attack on an exhibit at Bennington's Crossett Library, 'Matriarchy: The Golden Age,' which used appallingly shoddy feminist materials alleging the existence of a peaceful, prehistoric matriarchy, later supposedly overthrown by nasty males."
Through her study of the classics and her reading of the scholarship of Jane Ellen Harrison, James George Frazer, Erich Neumann and others, Paglia had developed a theory of sexual history that was in opposition to the ideas in vogue at the time, which is why she was so critical of Gimbutas, Heilbrun, Millet and others. She laid out her ideas on matriarchy, androgyny, homosexuality, sadomasochism and many other topics in her dissertation Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art, which she completed in December of 1974, at the age of 27.
At the time she completed her dissertation and was awarded her Ph.D. by Yale, her friend James Fessenden, "after being forced out of Bennington," returned to New York. Likewise, her friend Bruce Benderson, who had also become a writer, moved to New York from San Francisco. But gay culture had changed since the '60s, and Paglia found that she was no longer allowed to go into gay bars with her male friends, a situation which infuriated her.
In March of 1965, she drove from Vermont to Albany to see Germaine Greer speak. She was disappointed, reporting later that "During the question period, I nervously raised my hand from the crowd and asked if Greer, a former English professor, would be writing on literary subjects again soon. Her reply was stern and swift: 'There are far more important things in the world than literature!'" Another time while visiting Albany, Paglia "nearly came to blows with the founding members of the women's-studies program at the State University of New York at Albany, when they categorically denied that hormones influence human experience or behavior. These women (whose field was literature) attributed my respect for science to 'brainwashing' by men."
Similar sorts of fights with feminists, lesbians, chauvinists, homophobes, and academics would continue for years, reaching a high point in 1978. While at Bennington, Paglia had two girlfriends. The second one, a theatrical young woman named Patty, was a former student. The couple went to a school dance one evening when a rich student from Chicago came out of nowhere and physically attacked them. Paglia spoke about this to Heather Findlay in a cover story for Girlfriends magazine. She said, "I went to the police and filed a report. Then her parents went ballistic. There was an enormous to-do from her rich parents telling the administration, 'Open homosexuals shouldn't be employed by a college. We're not sending our daughter to a place where there are gays like this on the faculty.'" After a lengthy standoff with the administration, Paglia accepted a settlement from the college and resigned a year later. The relationship with Patty ended the following year. Karen Young's song "Hot Shot" became a disco hit during this time, a fact Paglia noted decades later when she pointed out that this "classic high disco... was created at the Queen Village Recording Studio" near the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She didn't know it at the time, but the University of the Arts in Philadelphia would become an institution of great importance to her life in the following decades.
In the early 1980s, Paglia finished her book but couldn't get published and was supporting herself with visiting and part_time teaching jobs at Yale, Wesleyan, and other Connecticut colleges. She taught night classes at the Sikorsky Helicopter plant. Her paper, "The Apollonian Androgyne and the Faerie Queen," was published in ELR, Winter 1979, and her dissertation was cited by J. Hillis Miller in his April 1980 article "Wuthering Heights and the Ellipses of Interpretation," in Journal of Religion in Literature, but aside from that, not much was happening with her academic career at a time when her peers were moving on to important positions at major universities. In a letter of March 1993 to Boyd Holmes, she recalled: "I earned a little extra money by doing some local features reporting for a New Haven alternative newspaper (The Advocate) in the early 1980s. There was an article on the historic pizzerias of the town and also one on an old house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad."
In 1984 she got a teaching job at the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, which merged with its next-door neighbor, the Philadelphia College of Art, to become the University of the Arts in 1987. She took some time off to visit Europe, and while in Germany noted that "The women, stern-faced, melt the submissive heart...All look like Lotte Lenya!"
The manuscript for "Sexual Personae" was completed at this time, and then rejected by seven publishers and five agents, before its final acceptance by Yale University Press. Paglia had no romantic relationships during this period and has described her "endless frustration" in trying to meet women in bars. However, she met Alison Maddex, then living in Washington, D.C., in 1993, and the two have been together ever since.
In March of 1985, an interesting letter of hers about the Liberty Bell was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer. An article concerning the conservation of the Liberty Bell appeared in the New York Times, March 27, quoting from her letter ("Philadelphia deserves a classier display of its heritage.") In April, she copyrighted a children's book, The Grocery Store Wars, with drawings by her sister Lenora. A chapter of Sexual Personae, "Oscar Wilde and the English Epicene," was published in the journal Raritan. In 1986, her essay "Nature, Sex, and Decadence," was published in the book Pre-Raphaelite Poets, edited by Harold Bloom; and her essay, "Christabel," was published in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, also edited by Bloom.
For the next few years, she continued to teach while perfecting Sexual Personae for its eventual publication in February 1990, and releasing a few additional portions of it in other journals and books. Her essay "Oscar Wilde and the English Epicene," was published in 1988 in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, edited by Bloom; Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art, was published in 1988 in Western Humanities Review; and "Sex," was published in the Spenser Encyclopedia, by A. C. Hamilton in 1989.
In the early '90s, just as she was achieving success in her career, some of her closest friends died of AIDS, and her father of cancer.
- Camille Paglia Discussion Group (http://topica.com/lists/camillepaglia/)
- Salon Articles by Camille Paglia (http://dir.salon.com/topics/camille_paglia/index.html)