THUS SPAKE CAMILLE PAGLIA
You can consume, absorb, experience a remarkable number, amount,
and diversity of culture products, music, art, architecture, interior
design, fashion, whatever, right?
Just a very prosaic question, in terms of your own time management,
how is it that you do what you do? What is your method, so to
speak? What is your diet?
It’s a lifestyle of observation. I feel that the basis of
my work is not only the care I take with writing, with my quality
controls, my prose, but also my observation. It’s 24/7.
I’m always observing. I don’t sit in a university.
I never go to conferences. That is a terrible mistake. A conference
is like overlaying the same insular ideology on top of it. I am
always listening to conversations at the shopping mall.
I adore radio. The radio is fantastic, any show on radio, the
talk shows, political talk shows, but also the sports shows. The
sports shows are the only place that you can hear on radio actual
working class voices calling in. “I want to talk about what
happened in the game on Monday,” and what they would do
if they had $2 million, and who they would hire.
It’s fantastic. My writer’s voice is actually very
-- rather than these novelists with their recherché lingo
and so on, my actual writing voice is very influenced by the way
English is spoken today by people and often men on radio. You
get this high impact sound, you see. On lamb vindaloo, LSD, and
other mental stimulants
You once wrote, I quote, “My substitute for LSD was Indian
food,” and by that, you meant lamb vindaloo.
You stand by this.
Yes, I’ve been in a rut on lamb vindaloo. Every time I go
to an Indian restaurant, I say “Now, I’m going to
try something new.” But, no, I must go back to the lamb
vindaloo. All I know is it’s like an ecstasy for me, the
How would you describe your views on astrology? A reader wrote
to me, asked me to ask you.
Wait! Wait! You mentioned LSD, can I say something else about
Sure, LSD, please.
Now, LSD, I never took it, thank God. I never took drugs. I didn’t
believe it. I thought “What is this untested thing?”
I thought, “A little wine, beer, all these things have like
thousands of years behind them.”
Right. And so LSD, I’m so glad I never took it. Everyone
around me was taking LSD. People who did take LSD and survived
will still say things like, “Well, I’m really glad
I did because I.” Everyone who says that, I feel, actually
never attained the level of accomplishment that they should have
in terms of whatever their vision had been. I think LSD gave vision.
It gave vision, but then it deprived people of the ability to
translate that vision into material form for the present and for
posterity. But I still remain very oriented toward the LSD vision.
I feel I took LSD because I have the music. With “Bathing
at Baxter’s,” Jefferson Airplane, the first people
to be using [makes sound] like this. Distortions of The Byrds,
“Eight Miles High,” I adore that song.
I’m in that psychedelic world. I’ve sometimes said
that what I do is psychedelic criticism. Because it is metaphysical,
it is visionary. I have a vision. I have a vision that’s
bigger than society. That’s the problem with the Marxist
approach. I believe the Marxist approach is useful. Arnold Hauser’s
The Social History of Art is one of the most influential
things on me. It’s a Marxist perspective.
my work is always very attentive to the social context of anything.
But what Marxism lacks is that larger vision of the universe.
There are all kinds of questions and issues about human life that
Marxism has no answers for. It doesn’t see nature. What
kind of a vision doesn’t see nature, could only see society?
This is what’s happening. We have all these graduates of
the elite schools, whereas my generation was all into cosmic consciousness,
that is the true multiculturalism. I’ve been arguing for
that for 25 years. I’ve been saying that if you want true
multiculturalism, you have to present world cultures, including
religion. Religion is extremely important. The most complex systems
human beings have ever devised were the great religions of the
Past Arnold Hauser, past Norman Brown, who are the contemporary
writers and thinkers who influence you now who are writing serious
books on either the world cultures or anything else?
Is there anyone left writing serious books?
trying to think who has written a serious book I’m interested
in right now. Listen, there’s no one I would say, “Oh,
so-and-so’s book is coming.” What? They’re dead.
The people who I admire are long dead.
it’s a terrible destruction. My work looks very strange
and idiosyncratic because I’m alone. I’m alone and
all the people who should have been writing interesting, quirky
books, as I do, are dead or their brains were destroyed by LSD.
one or the other. I knew so many, to me, brilliant minds in graduate
school and early in my teaching career at Bennington College,
really brilliant minds. I had great hopes for them and for what
they would do. Then they couldn’t get anything done. For
whatever reason, they couldn’t. They didn’t have the
resilience to continue against obstacles.
their work would get rejected, they would become discouraged and
would stop. Rejection simply infuriates me. I’ll say, “Well,
I’ll have my revenge on you in the afterlife.” I’ll
be around, and you’ll be dead. I don’t know, it’s
an Italian thing. What can I say?
This is Sexual Personae, your best known book, which
I recommend to everyone, if you haven’t already read it.
It took 20 years.
Read all of it. My favourite chapter is the Edmund Spenser chapter,
by the way.
Really? Why? How strange.
That brought Spenser to life for me.
Oh, my goodness.
I realized it was a wonderful book.
Oh, my God.
I had no idea. I thought of it as old and fusty and stuffy.
And 100 percent because of you.
We should tell them that The Faerie Queene is quite forgotten
now, but it had enormous impact, Spenser’s Faerie Queene,
on Shakespeare, and on the Romantic poets, and so on, and so forth.
The Faerie Queene had been taught in this very moralistic way.
But in my chapter, I showed that it was entirely a work of pornography,
equal to the Marquis de Sade.
The cover image is Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin.
Recently in the news, we’ve seen that someone has scanned
Oh, that’s awesome.
And it will soon be possible using 3-D printers to print out your
own ‘copy’ of Nefertiti. How do you feel about this?
To me, archaeology is one of my master tropes. What can I say?
“The Bust of Nefertiti,” discovered in 1912, and it’s
amazing. We’ve known it for like a century. It’s extraordinary,
isn’t it, how it’s become such a symbol of art.
say that the push of countries like Greece and Egypt to recover
their masterpieces from where they were taken and scattered around
the world, I think with what’s been happening with ISIS,
and the demolition of Palmyra and all kinds of things that have
happened, my attitude now is keep Nefertiti in Berlin, please.
Don’t send it back to Cairo.
Of all the aesthetic judgments in your writings, and you’ve
covered a lot of ground, but are there any where you really fundamentally
regret an earlier judgment and have revised it? Not in a marginal
way, which happens all the time, but really just thought, “Well,
I was wrong about that?”
Interesting. My early work, I’d worked on for so long that
it was like I had plenty of time for second thoughts and third
thoughts, and hundredth thoughts, so no. I can’t think of
anything offhand. Can I get back to you about that?
Sure. If you could travel to one place you haven’t been,
where would it be and why?
I’m like Huysmans’s aesthete, des Esseintes. I am
not a great fan of traveling. I just feel like it’s become
too onerous. No, I’m a mind traveler.
What is your unrealized dream in life?
My unrealized dream, to meet Catherine Deneuve. But I met her
once. I ran into her, smack ran into her once on 5th Avenue in
front of Saks. I know this is kind of bizarre.
It’s a realized dream?
Yes, but it was odd. I pursued her into the glove department and
forced her to sign my ticket envelope for the Fillmore East, where
I was seeing Jefferson Airplane. To have a conversation with Catherine
Deneuve, shall we say. A civilized conversation.
On that topic, one of your books, The Birds, about the Alfred
Hitchcock movie – a great book, one of my favourite movies.
Going back to that time, if you had the opportunity to date either
Suzanne Pleshette or Tippi Hedren -- .
I don’t date. I’m just a mad nun.
Dating is so banal.
Tea with Suzanne Pleshette or Tippi Hedren.
Tippi Hedren invited me to lunch on Rodeo Drive after that. I
was, I don’t know, giving some speech on Shakespeare at
the Los Angeles Public Library. She invited to thank me for writing
this and I met her. She had a stack of 12 of these books, and
I signed them for her. She was the most elegant and wonderful,
have much time. She invited me to go to the ranch and see all
the animals and the lions that she collected and so on.
Pleshette, I think, was absolutely underutilized by Hollywood.
What an intelligent, knife-sharp character, she was. In fact,
I recently, in one of my Salon columns, compared her to Lena Dunham.
Lena Dunham is the product of exactly the same world. If you want
to see the difference between Suzanne Pleshette, the sophisticated
Suzanne Pleshette, and Lena Dunham. You want to see the decline
that we’re in the middle of right now, there it is.
I wrote this. The British Film Institute asked me to write on
a film and I said, “How about The Birds?” and I did.
I wrote this book, and it was universally panned by the film journals,
which said about it, “This book does nothing. This book
does nothing.” By which they meant that it wasn’t
poststructuralist, it wasn’t postmodernist.
wasn’t a lot of theory. I wasn’t citing, you know,
the male gaze, and et cetera, et cetera. All this book does is
go through the film The Birds from beginning to end, scene by
scene by scene, and pays attention to the film itself.
it’s made its way. Now here it is. It was 1998 when that
came out, and it’s starting to happen now. Routledge is
a publisher that’s done nothing but this theory stuff. They’re
starting to go, “Hmm. Maybe there was something in her --
just trying to inspire graduate students to rebel against this
horrible fascism that forces theory onto them before they expose
themselves to everything that’s wonderful and imaginative
in the history of literature and art. I believe that paying minute
attention to the actual work itself is the mission of criticism.
I am hopelessly old-fashioned. Because that’s not what you’re
supposed to do. You’re supposed to mention Foucault 59 times
in one paragraph. What a windbag that guy is, I’m telling
you. Foucault is nothing. He’s nothing. He pretends to be
such a mastermind, but in fact he’s just a collection of
influences and one of the biggest influences on him was Erving
Goffman, of Philadelphia, who was the great sociologist -- originally
Canadian -- who wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday
Life. All the things that were an influence on me influenced
all these people thinking Foucault was some sort of innovative
figure in the history of modern sociology or intellect, and he
wasn’t. It is a disease in these people. Everywhere, every
single university in the United States, every single gender studies
department, they’re impregnated with Foucault. That’s
why we have graduates who know nothing.
Do you like Marnie, the Hitchcock movie?
Do I like Marnie? Certainly, there are parts I like.
But it goes askew in a way The Birds doesn’t.
Yes. There are problems with it. So much was toxic going on on
the set between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren at that point, and
so on. But there are wonderful things in Marnie. On the simple
If you were to take someone who had read all or almost all of
your work, and they had a sense of you and read a lot of your
columns, watched some of your talks online, whatever, and they
get a picture of you, but you wanted to tell them one thing about
you that maybe they wouldn’t get from any of that about
what motivates you, what drives you, what your life is actually
like, what is -- ?
My life is completely mundane. I’m a schoolmarm. That’s
all I am. I had the wisdom, having been raised Catholic, that
once I finally became known, at age 43, I didn’t change
one thing about my life. Not one thing. I didn’t move to
New York. I didn’t go chasing around. I didn’t get
a speakers’ bureau. All that stuff. I have a cousin who’s
a nun, and I have all these bishops and priests and sextons and
so on in the family.
try to keep to reality. Because I know that the basis of my work
is the closeness with which I live to ordinary life. I hate the
elites. I hate parties. I don’t have any book parties or
anything like that.
I think that people, they want success and they want material
advantages and so on. Being a writer is just scut work. Being
a teacher, that’s what Susan Sontag also did wrong. Susan
Sontag began in graduate school. “Oh, it’s so boring.”
She did a little teaching and then went off and became a luminary.
She was a big luminary, a big giant dirigible luminary her whole
Nothing that she said made any sense actually over time, eventually.
She loved to hold court at parties. It’s notorious. People
who remember her, “She was so brilliant. I saw her at this
dinner party. Everyone was in awe.”
who go to dinner parties to impress other people, it is such BS.
Susan Sontag over time, her work got less and less meaningful,
even though people worship at the shrine of Sontag. You try to
quote her on anything. What can you quote her on? There’s
Quote a sentence from Susan Sontag, a great sentence. You can’t.
The only sentence was the one she regretted, “The white
race is the cancer of history.” That’s the one she
retracted finally when she got cancer. Remember? She realized
how horrible that was. That’s the only thing that you can
quote her on. She’s not quotable, because there’s
all this sleight of hand that she’s doing. She’s taking
material that she borrows from others, or places that she’s
been personally at a time when downtown New York was very exciting,
so basically it was a kind of transcription of her everyday life.
the best thing she did probably was for me, she wrote a very witty
thing, “The Imagination of Disaster.” I like that
essay a lot, which is all about the horror films of the 1950s.
I thought if she only had stayed like that, unpretentious and
really engaging with actual materials. But Susan Sontag, basically
her life became going from lecture to lecture, being hailed as
the Great One, and being so detached from ordinary life. Whereas,
when you’re a teacher, like a classroom teacher, as I’ve
been for 40 years, the kids have no idea that I write books. Now
and then, someone’s father will say, “She writes books,”
and they’ll come and say, “My father is a fan of yours.”
“Oh, really? That’s so nice,” I’ll say.
the point is all these professors at Harvard and Princeton and
Yale, they have the graduate students are paying court to them,
because they need letters of recommendations. Hello, they want
something from you. They’re so used to “They’re
so grand” and so on.
in, and it’s like, “We need more chairs.” “What’s
wrong?” “The curtain is wrong.” I’m always
in touch with the janitors, infrastructure, condition of the buildings.
I deal with everyday life. I’m not treated like a queen.
I’m just like an ordinary schoolmarm working like a horse,
pulling the plow. I think that’s a really good idea for
writers is to have a job where you’re dealing with constant
frustrations, and problems, and so on. I think that’s really
good for you.
Like Herman Melville, right?
Hunting whales is not easy.
Or Wallace Stevens. He kept going to the office, the insurance
company, every day.
My last question before they get to ask you, but I know there
are many people in this audience, or at least some, who are considering
some kind of life or career in the world of ideas. If you were
to offer them a piece of advice based on your years struggling
with the infrastructure, and the number of chairs, and whatever
else, what would that be?
Get a job. Have a job. Again, that’s the real job. Every
time you have frustrations with the real job, you say, “This
is good.” This is good, because this is reality. This is
reality as everybody lives it. This thing of withdrawing from
the world to be a writer, I think, is a terrible mistake.
one thing is constantly observing. My whole life, I’m constantly
jotting things down. Constantly. Just jot, jot, jot, jot. I’ll
have an idea. I’m cooking, and I have an idea, “Whoa,
whoa.” I have a lot of pieces of paper with tomato sauce
on them or whatever. I transfer these to cards or I transfer them
just constantly open. Everything’s on all the time. I never
say, “This is important. This is not important.” That’s
why I got into popular culture at a time when popular culture
there’s absolutely no doubt that at Yale Graduate School,
I lost huge credibility with the professors because of my endorsement
of not only film but Hollywood. When Hollywood was considered
crass entertainment and so on. Now, the media studies came in
very strongly after that, although highly theoretical. Not the
way I teach media studies.
believe in following your own instincts and intuition, like there’s
something meaningful here. You don’t know what it is, but
you just keep it on the back burner. That’s basically how
I work is this, the constant observation. Also, I try to tell
my students, they never get the message really, but what I try
to say to them is nothing is boring. Nothing is boring. If you’re
bored, you’re boring.
Wherever you are, it’s exhausting. It’s frustrating.
I don’t know what. The plane has been cancelled and whatever.
After you get over your fury, you realize what opportunity is
there here to absorb something more from this experience, from
observing other people or whatever it is.
there’s really no experience that you can have that there’s
not something in there that eventually you can’t use as
a part of your developing system.
thing I have to say, anyone interested in ideas, do not read any
of the current books like Pierre Bourdieu and all that stuff.
Oh my God, it’s so incomplete. It’s really boring.
I believe in the library. The library is my shrine. It was my
shrine when I was researching Amelia Earhart. When I got to Yale,
Sterling Library was my shrine. I ransacked that building, oh
the thing, is that I’ve learned more from the old commentators.
James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, which was considered
completely gone but had a huge impact on “The Waste Land”
and other works of modernism. I’ve learned a great deal
from the commentators of the past, the historians of the past.
when I did Glittering Images, the actual nullity of current scholarship
became very exposed to me. Of course, I already knew about it,
but I really got objective proof of it. There’s 29 chapters
in it. Each artwork that I chose, I did a full research of what
had been said about that particular artwork, so I began chronologically.
work, if it was an older work from the late 19th century, moving
through the decades to the present. There, oh my God, could you
see it, could you see the fall in the quality of scholarship in
our time from the 1980s on. I would move from these incredibly
erudite and wonderful sentences, beautiful stylus about art, late
19th century moving into the 20th century.
solid into about the ’60s. And then the ’70s is kind
of holding there. All of a sudden comes the ’80s, ’90s,
2000s. All these people are pygmies. Pygmies, the people at the
elite schools. Let me say, the big art survey courses are being
dismantled. Hello? It used to be you had a two-semester course.
It would begin with cave art and move, in two semesters, down
structure, now abandoned wholesale except when students have protested,
like at Smith. My sister is a graduate of Smith, and was part
of the protest that got the survey restored.
students in art history and art historians no longer have the
ability to teach the big picture, because all narratives are regarded
as fictional now, imperialistic fictions. The entire story of
art is not possible, and therefore, people know nothing.
MEMBER: Hi, thanks for coming. You mentioned your incident with
Catherine Deneuve, and you also talked about that in 1995 and
Playboy following her, and also having 599 pictures of Elizabeth
Taylor. You also mentioned how David Bowie had reached out to
you and wanted to meet you, you talked about how you weren’t
sure you would have wanted to, because you have to keep a respectful
distance from an artist of that towering stature.
mentioned in that interview that obsession and genius are pretty
much the same thing, so where would you draw the line between
– let’s say you have an opportunity to meet someone
who’s very important to you, or contrive a meeting, or just
seek them out. Where do you draw the line between the obsession,
and I mean the Paglia kind of obsession, not the John Hinckley
I personally have never had this great desire, necessarily, to
meet the figures that I most admire in the arts, because I understand
that what they represent onscreen is something that is an artificial
construction. It’s not the reality.
been working in art schools also my entire career, so I know.
I have dancers in my class. I have actors in my class, and I completely
understand the difference between the fallible real self, the
mundane real self, and the artistic self suddenly emerges within
what I call the temenos, which is the sacred precinct that I regard
when I encountered Catherine Deneuve by accident that day, and
I was at the peak of my obsession with her, it really almost ruined
my interest in her, because it’s like, “Oh, my God.”
It’s not the real Catherine Deneuve that I was so intent
on. It was this magical creation that is a result of her talent,
but also of the director’s own magical skills, and so on.
Elizabeth Taylor, I have 599 pictures, yes. People often say what’s
odd about that is not the number, but that I had counted them.
She represented to me everything -- the pure sexuality that had
been repressed during the Doris Day 1950s and early ’60s.
Butterfield 8 still remains for me a great pagan exhibition. Here
is Elizabeth Taylor as a high class call girl. Oh, my God, and
I had Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti and Anouk Aimée and
were so many phenomenal images that I was inundated with when
I was in high school and college, and what do these kids have
today? Taylor Swift? Oh, my God. She is such a fake. She poses
in things that she imagines are sexy and sultry, and it’s
so fake. Awful. At least Rihanna, who’s on dope most of
the time, and that’s why she looks so sultry. Rihanna’s
Instagrams are, to me, like a work of art. That’s the only
thing I’m following right now, I have to say, that’s
of equal importance, is Rihanna floating from one nightclub to
another, and yet some other fashionable thing, but back to your
David Bowie. I wrote this essay called “Theater of Gender:
David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution.” I wrote
it for the Victoria and Albert exhibition catalog for the costume
show that they did that is now touring the world, and I consider
it one of my most important pieces, but it’s in the catalog.
to get into my next essay collection, but with Bowie, see, Bowie
is different than Deneuve. Bowie is truly like a creative artist,
whereas Deneuve and Taylor are performers in other people’s
fictions. But Bowie was truly a master creator of a level that
just is staggering.
I did the research for that essay, I knocked out all over again
at the enormity of what he achieved, and also at how little has
been acknowledged, his deep knowledge of the visual arts, and
how he had been influenced by that. I found all kinds of little
details that showed his deep knowledge, his erudition about that.
to be that he did tell the V&A to invite me. That time, people
don’t know. What you’re talking about is where --
it was earlier in the 1990s, and a message came to my publisher
saying -- and it was conveyed to me by the publicist and my publisher
-- saying, “David Bowie wants your phone number,”
and I burst out laughing. I said, “That’s ridiculous.
Oh, boy. It’s just some fan trying to get it.” They
said, “David Bowie they claimed really wants your phone
number.” I said, “Is that the way David Bowie gets
in touch with you when he wants your phone number?” I laughed,
and I didn’t believe it. It was all so shadowy.
now, only after I did the research for this Victoria and Albert
thing, did I realize that the reason it was so strange was that
he had fired his entire staff. He had fired his management. He
had fired his company, and dealing with the record companies and
so on after Berlin, and he only dealt with the world via friends.
That’s what was so strange about it. It was strange. I made
he wanted was he wanted to use an excerpt from Sexual Personae
on a record album in one of his lyrics. I’m like, “Oh,
my God.” It’s very embarrassing that that happened,
but that’s OK. I think there should be a distance, or a
sense of respect and reserve, with great artists.
MEMBER: My question is do you ever have any concern that modern
literature and eventually all the classics will have to be rewritten
so that in order to be understood, every fifth word will have
to be the word “like”?
Unfortunately, the sense of language in general, or just a respect
for language or interest in language is degenerating. I’m
someone who used to write down, always, I’d write down any
word I don’t know in what I’m reading. I would make
lists, and I would study the dictionary and etymologies, and now,
young people have no concern for language, per se.
they communicate with each other and the email format now in text
is very truncated, and it’s why the writing on the web has
also degenerated horribly.
It used to be with newspapers and magazines, there was a space
limit, and that imposed a real kind of format. It forced you to
condense, and it gave a crispness to language. We’re in
a period now, I’m afraid that the ear for language is degenerating.
MEMBER: In my view, feminists have made a lot of progress in the
Western world in the last century, and I’m curious to know
if you think we’re close to basically achieving the goals
that were set out, or if the feminists will ever feel like the
fact that more women go to college these days, for example, is
a symbol of progress, or that they’ll never feel like the
job has been done?
Oh, no. I’m an equal opportunity feminist, by which I believe
that all obstacles to women’s advancement in the political
and professional realms should be removed.
I’m also saying is that there are huge areas of human life
that are not political that have to do with our private spiritual
nature, and that is a place where legislation will always be helpless
and hopeless and indeed, intrusive, so I think that feminism has
made enormous gains in terms of -- there was a time that women
were totally dependent on father, on husband, on brother, for
women can be self-supporting, can live totally on their own. It’s
part of this whole Western world powered by capitalism that our
university curricula are now habitually always demeaning. Capitalism
made women’s emancipation possible.
that the problem right now is that young women have been taught
that to somehow identify their own sense of personal unhappiness
with men, and men are responsible for our unhappiness, when in
fact, part of the issue is that we have lived as a species for
tens of thousands of year, where mating occurred early, where
you left your parents’ house, and had your own household,
and your own children.
in Romeo and Juliet, is 13 going on 14, and already,
she’s ready for marriage. In this life, we have a very long,
an unnaturally long period here, before women can attain some
sense of who they are as women.
not men. It’s not the patriarchy, and it’s ultimately
not a feminist issue. It has something to do with this very mechanical
system of the modern technological, professional world that has
emerged to replace the agrarian period, when there were multiple
generations living with each other, and women had a natural sense
of solidarity, being all together.
was the world of women, and the world of men, once. They didn’t
have that much to do with each other once. All the problems have
happened since we started having to deal with each other.