Camille Paglia: Personae Non Grata

By John "Birdman" Bryant


Camille Paglia's book Sexual Personae (Random House 1990) has been highly praised by such mainstream publications as the Washington Post Book World, New York Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Times Literary Supplement and The Nation, and yet her book is, plainly and simply, a pile of crap. I base this opinion on reading only the first few pages, and yet there is no other conclusion to be drawn. Take, for example, the first paragraph of the first chapter:

"In the beginning was nature. The background from which and against which our ideas of God were formed, nature remains the supreme moral problem. We cannot hope to understand sex and gender until we clarify our attitude toward nature. Sex is a subset to nature. Sex is the natural in man."

Now I ask you, Is there a coherent statement in this paragraph? I don't think so. Take the first sentence: While Paglia obviously intended to mirror the first sentence of the Gospel of John ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God ...), the sentence is not a meaningful statement -- there is simply no idea being expressed save the reference to John. Likewise, in the second sentence -- which is not even coherent -- what can possibly be meant by saying that "nature remains the supreme moral problem"? Perhaps this statement could be meaningful if "nature" were somewhere later defined as, say, the tendency of man to be selfish, or the tendency of life to be brutish to even people of the highest character; but no such definition is offered, and hence no meaning can be attached to the second sentence. As to the third sentence, what can possibly be meant by "clarifying our attitude toward nature"? Indeed, what does it mean to say we have an attitude toward nature? In fact, what is meant by nature, particularly in the context of speaking of nature as "the supreme moral problem"? As for the next sentence, this, too, cannot be fathomed until we know what is meant by "nature", tho the context suggests it is human nature that is being referred to -- a hypothesis far less than certain because it would seem to conflict with other uses of the term in the same paragraph. And as to the final sentence, this, too, is unclear, since while it seems to be saying that man is made up of both "the natural" and "the artificial" (instinctive and learned behavior?), by using the phrase "the natural" it seems to assert that sex is the totality of instinctive behavior, which is absurd.

It is clear from reading only a few pages of her book that Paglia is learned, tho more in the sense of a computer which can store great gobs of information without being able to understand any of it. Paglia evinces the sort of pedantry that I gave up in the twelth grade -- a show-off sort of reference-dropping which at best obfuscates and at least irritates. It is a childish sort of intellectual tin-cup banging that says, Look at me, Mommy! Ain't I sumptin'! In this age of information overload, and in the grand isolation of her academic ivory tower, she has never gotten the message that clarity is a sine qua non for those with a message -- if indeed she has one. But Paglia may perhaps be forgiven for her turgidity if we realize that academia has always cultivated obfuscation as a way of keeping its monopoly on knowledge, of excluding outsiders which have not endured its rigors and its fees, and -- most importantly -- of disguising the fact that, at least in the "soft" disciplines like literature and sociology, where Paglia operates, it doesn't really have any knowledge at all.

I was wrong to say that Paglia's work is a pile of crap -- it isn't even worth that. It wouldn't even fertilize my garden, to say nothing of my mind. But in spite of this, Paglia's book is important, not in itself, but rather because it demonstrates the corruption of the book review process: An obviously worthless, unreadable and meaningless book has been praised to the skies by a large number of influential publications. While the reason for the corruption is unclear -- solicitousness to a female academic feminist by left-leaning publications, an incestuous financial relation between reviewers and major publishers, or perhaps other crimes -- the corruption itself is indubitable. I find it especially galling because my own books have never been reviewed in mainstream publications, in spite of the fact that -- in my exceedingly humble evaluation -- they are far superior in both content and form to most books of their type. But in spite of my disappointment in never attracting the attention of national reviewers, I can see from Paglia's book that I, too, would be tinged with corruption should I be praised by any of these kept cockroaches. Better, I think, just to let them snooze in the stink of their latrines and be done with it.

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