Sue Wilson talks to maverick American academic Camille Paglia.
However much you disagree with her, you have to admire Camille Paglia. Rarely has a woman of letters been such a motormouth, so unashamedly upset so many people, been so unafraid to hold unfashionable views. ‘Five foot three of New York Italian intellectual Semtex’, she is an academic andf feminist who delights in attacking academia and feminism, a classicist who is an avid fan of popular culture. Her new book, Sex, Art and American Culture, is a collection of journalism and miscellanous writings, on subjects including Madonna, Marlon Brando, the ‘crisis in the American universities’ and sexual politics. Her style is up-front , aggressive, funny and infuriating; j her views a bewildering mixture of the profound j and the simply provocative.
While a good half of the book is devoted to a refreshingly no-nonsense critique of trends in higher education, particularly the pernicious, jargonistic inﬂuence of French structuralist and post-structuralist theory, it is Paglia’s stance on gender issues, particularly date-rape and prostitution, that has caused the biggest furore. The feminist ‘establishment’ is perhaps her favourite béte noir, and most of her statements on date-rape run directly counter to conventional feminist wisdom. ‘Every woman must take personal responsibility for her sexuality, which is nature’s red flame. She must be prudent and cautious about where she goes and with whom . . . The only solution to date-rape is female self-awareness and self-control . . . The minute you go out with a man, the minute you go to a bar to have a drink, there is a risk.’
i l i i
Camille Paglia: a bewildering mixture ofthe profound and the simply provocative
Her arguments about sex as a primordial,
unpredictable and very powerful force, and about
feminism’s tendency sometimes to de-sexualise the whole debate, do carry some weight. But her
; ‘solution’ - that women should be more assertive —
seems dangerously simplistic. ignoring the fact that passivity and ‘femininity’ are closely culturally intertwined. She also denies women the right to take sexual situations so far and no further, implying that every time you flirt with someone you have to accept the possibility of sleeping with
Paglia describes herself as ‘radically pro-prostitution’, a celebrant of ‘the whore’s ancient rule over men’. She argues that the feminist view of prostitutes as (mostly) victims of
. poverty creates a false picture. ’I honour the
prostitute as an outlaw who lives by her wits,’ she says. ‘The most successful prostitutes are precisely the ones who are beyond the reach of any survey - they’re invisible because they’re so intelligent. I want to liberate the image of prostitution from this very depressing, melancholic and, it seems to me, very condescending view that white middle-class feminists have created. What I’m doing, what Madonna has done, what a lot of the pro-porn feminists are doing is going back to the old pagan view of the power of the whore, embracing that sluttish aspect of female sexuality.’
‘Prostitution is this massive worldwide phenomenon, it goes all the way back to ancient times, and certainly there are abuses within it, but I personally believe that the exploitation factor is a minority of the totality of prostitution in the world. Though when you have a situation like we have now, where you have a slave trade, girls getting brought in under force from Thailand or wherever, because most prostitutes today will only have sex with condoms, so the only way men can have sex without condoms is to purchase these young girls — there you are getting into civil rights violations, but that to me is not typical of prostitution.’ The possibility that prostitution has always existed because sex is the one thing women have always had to sell, to gain a measure of economic independence, or that, despite the existence of high-class courtesans, abuses like the ‘slave trade’ are inherent in the business because supply is dictated by male demand, doesn’t seem to enter Paglia’s picture.
Though she is often guilty of over-simplification, outrageous exaggeration, of speaking from the privileged middle-class perspective she so frequently lambasts, not to mention more than a touch of hubris, Paglia does often make a lot of maverick sense. And even when she doesn’t, she forces you to re-examine your views on many subjects — sex, feminism, sexism, education, art — which are all too often reduced to rigid right-on cliches.
Sex, A rt and American Culture is published by Viking at£16. 99
Deborah Levy isn’t yet what you’d calla household name, but at 33 she is building an enviable reputation as a bold and multi-talented writer. She has written several well-received plays, an opera libretto, an Angela Carter adaptation and Man Act’s Call Blue Jane, seen last month at the 60A in Glasgow. Her two previous books - Ophelia and the Great Idea and Beautiful Mutants -were warmly praised by the likes of Jeanette Winterson and Mary Gaitskill. In the promotional blurb for her latest, Swallowing Geography, she is described as ‘one of this country’s leading experimental writers’, but the five ‘linking flctlons’ (stories sharing a common narrator), though they eschew
far more accessible and readily absorbing than the ‘e’ word tends to suggest. The central theme of the book is travel - physical, emotional, , metaphorical - and the way different i
I ‘I think I got interested in the psychology of feeling displaced,’ says Levy, ‘yearning for a place never
I visited or a person never met, feeling
j homesick in your own home.’ The
‘ book’s spare, dense, delicate prose 9'
succeeds in evoking the ambivalence
Following the narrator as she moves restlesst through countries and cities, encountering lovers and strangers, 3 hearing snippets of news (a friend , dying of AIDS, the Gulf War playing
? itself inexorably out), it evokes and ’ explores the sense of dislocation many : experience In the modern flux of the : global village and the new Europe. 0n j an emotional level, in the age of
self-fulfilment and feminism, it
questions how contemporary multiplicity of choice, while offering the excitement of freedom, has also . eroded the securely defined roles and , identities provided by a less flexible :
the move, the nagging sense of uprootedness that comes with the realisation that no destination is final. lts passages sometimes seem disconnected, but in the end create a kind of fragile whole, embodying Levy's belief that such fragmentation can be highly creative. ‘Rather than
feel melancholy about it, I’m saying embrace It, as one of the best things you've got going for you.’
On a banal level, Swallowing Geography is striking for its brevity - a mere 85 pages. Not that it feels g incomplete, but why does Levy choose to work within such tight margins? ‘I : suppose I’m interested In saying as : much as I can in as little as I can,’ she
says, ‘hoping to open up rafherthan
close the themes and feelings I'm
exploring; l have a horror of ; over-explaining.’ (Sue Wilson)
' Swallowing Geography is published by
astraiohﬂorward realistannroach. are 1 Jonathan Cape at 212.99. I
ioumeys influence each other.
of travel -the exhilaration of being on
The List IS - 28 January I993 65