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Sean SalaiFebruary 25, 2015
Camille Paglia (Michael Lionstar/Penguin)

Camille Paglia is an American cultural critic who serves as the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since 1984. She received her B.A. from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1968 and her M.Phil and Ph.D degrees from Yale University in 1971 and 1974, respectively.

Her six books are Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990); Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992); Vamps & Tramps: New Essays (1994); The Birds, a study of Alfred Hitchcock published in 1998 by the British Film Institute in its Film Classics Series; Break, Blow, Burn:  Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems (2005), and Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (2012). Her third essay collection is currently under contract to Pantheon Books.

Professor Paglia was a co-founding contributor and columnist for Salon.com, beginning with its debut issue in 1995.  She has written numerous articles on art, literature, popular culture, feminism, politics, and religion for publications around the world—most recently including TIME and the Sunday Times of London. Her essay, “Theater of Gender:  David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution,” was commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum for the catalog of its major exhibit of Bowie costumes, which opened in London in 2013 and is currently touring internationally.

Although raised Catholic in an Italian-American family, Professor Paglia left Catholicism in her youth and embraced the sexual revolution. Nevertheless, she still cites Italian Catholicism as the strongest influence on her personal identity. On Feb. 22, I conducted the following email interview with Professor Paglia about her secular work and its Catholic influences.

You’ve been teaching at University of the Arts since 1984. What do you love most about your job?

There is no doubt that my commitment to the vocation of teaching is part of my Catholic heritage. I view classroom teaching as a discipline and duty, a responsibility to convey the legacy of the past to the next generation. As I strictly monitor attendance and enforce order, I sometimes ruefully feel like a teaching nun from the over-regulated era of my upstate New York youth! I have a powerful sense of the descent of modern education from the medieval monasteries and cathedrals, whose Gothic architecture has been imitated on so many college campuses here and abroad. My faith in that nurturing continuity is certainly diametrically opposed to the cynically subversive approach of today's postmodernist theorists, who see history as a false or repressive narrative operating on disconnected fragments.

Despite your teaching schedule, you’ve found time to speak and write a great deal, including your last book in 2012. What’s your next big project?

For the past five years, I have been researching Paleo-Indian culture of Northeastern America at the end of the Ice Age, as the glaciers withdrew. I am particularly interested in Neolithic religion, which was focused on elemental nature, a persistent theme in my work. I have been studying Native American tribal history and doing surface collecting of small stone artifacts. Professional archaeologists and anthropologists have tended to gravitate toward Indian lifestyle issues like kinship patterns, governance, hunting strategies, food preparation and fabrication of tools, clothing, and shelter. I have found surprisingly few attempts to approach Native American culture from the perspective of world art and world religion. There is a puzzling gap in the record, and I hope to be able to make a contribution. However, this challenging project will be long in the making. In the meantime, I am preparing for my third essay collection, which is under contract to Pantheon Books.

Identifying yourself as a “dissident feminist,” you often seem more at home with classical Greek and Roman paganism than with postmodern academia. How has this reality affected your public and professional relationships?

I feel lucky to have taught primarily at art schools, where the faculty are active practitioners of the arts and crafts. I have very little contact with American academics, who are pitifully trapped in a sterile career system that has become paralyzed by political correctness. University faculties nationwide have lost power to an ever-expanding bureaucracy of administrators, whose primary concern is the institution's contractual relationship with tuition-paying parents. You can cut the demoralized faculty atmosphere with a knife when you step foot on any elite campus. With a few stellar exceptions, the only substantive discourse that I ever have these days is with academics, intellectuals, and journalists abroad.

In your view, what’s wrong with American feminism today, and what can it do to improve?

After the great victory won by my insurgent, pro-sex, pro-fashion wing of feminism in the 1990s, American and British feminism has amazingly collapsed backward again into whining, narcissistic victimology. As in the hoary old days of Gloria Steinem and her Stalinist cohorts, we are endlessly subjected to the hackneyed scenario of history as a toxic wasteland of vicious male oppression and gruesome female suffering. College campuses are hysterically portrayed as rape extravaganzas where women are helpless fluffs with no control over their own choices and behavior. I am an equal opportunity feminist: that is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women's advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women, which I reject as demeaning and infantilizing. My principal demand (as I have been repeating for nearly 25 years) is for colleges to confine themselves to education and to cease their tyrannical surveillance of students' social lives. If a real crime is committed, it must be reported to the police. College officials and committees have neither the expertise nor the legal right to be conducting investigations into he said/she said campus dating fiascos. Too many of today's young feminists seem to want hovering, paternalistic authority figures to protect and soothe them, an attitude I regard as servile, reactionary and glaringly bourgeois. The world can never be made totally safe for anyone, male or female: there will always be sociopaths and psychotics impervious to social controls. I call my system "street-smart feminism":  there is no substitute for wary vigilance and personal responsibility.

Briefly put, what is post-structuralism and what is your opinion of it?

Post-structuralism is a system of literary and social analysis that flared up and vanished in France in the 1960s but that became anachronistically entrenched in British and American academe from the 1970s on. Based on the outmoded linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and promoted by the idolized Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known. By undermining meaning, history and personal will, post-structuralism has done incalculable damage to education and contemporary thought. It is a laborious, circuitously self-referential gimmick that always ends up with the same monotonous result. I spent six months writing a long attack on academic post-structuralism for the classics journal Arion in 1991, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf" (reprinted in my first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture). Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students, who were forced to mouth its ugly jargon and empty platitudes for their foolish faculty elders. And the end result is that humanities departments everywhere, having abandoned their proper mission of defending and celebrating art, have become humiliatingly marginalized in both reputation and impact.

What audience do you write for?

I have always written for a general audience interested in ideas. I believe culture critics should address the reader in a lucid, vivid and engaging manner. In college, I was very drawn to the lively, transparent writing style of early 20th-century British classicists like Gilbert Murray and C.M. Bowra. Academic writing needs to purge itself of its present provincialism, insularity and pseudo-French preciocity and recover the colloquial robustness and earthy rhythms of natural English.

In your view as a classicist, what can the ancient Romans and Greeks teach us as human beings?

Following my culture-hero, Oscar Wilde, I do not subscribe to the implicitly moralistic assumption that literature or art "teaches" us anything. It simply opens up our vision to a larger world—or allows us to see that world through a different lens. Greco-Roman culture, which is fast receding in American higher education, is one of the two foundational traditions of Western civilization, the other being the Judeo-Christian. These traditions twined about and influenced each other for centuries and produced the titanic complexity of the West, for good and ill. To ignore or minimize the Greco-Roman past is to put intellectual blinders on—but that is exactly what has been happening as colleges are gradually abandoning the big, chronological, two-semester freshman survey courses that once heavily emphasized classical antiquity. The trajectory is toward "presentism," a myopic concentration on society since the Renaissance—a noble, humanistic term, by the way, that is being ruthlessly discarded for the blobby new Marxist entity, "Early Modern."

You grew up as an Italian-American Catholic, but seemed to identify more strongly with the pagan elements of Catholic art and culture than with the church’s doctrines. What caused you to fall away from the Catholic Church?

Italian Catholicism remains my deepest identity—in the same way that many secular Jews feel a strong cultural bond with Judaism. Over time I realized—and this became a main premise of my first book, Sexual Personae (based on my doctoral dissertation at Yale)—that what had always fascinated me in Italian Catholicism was its pagan residue. I loved the cult of saints, the bejeweled ceremonialism, the eerie litanies of Mary—all the things, in other words, that Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers rightly condemned as medieval Romanist intrusions into primitive Christianity. It's no coincidence that my Halloween costume in first grade was a Roman soldier, modeled on the legionnaires' uniforms I admired in the Stations of the Cross on the church walls. Christ's story had very little interest for me—except for the Magi, whose opulent Babylonian costumes I adored! My baptismal church, St. Anthony of Padua in Endicott, New York, was a dazzling yellow-brick, Italian-style building with gorgeous stained-glass windows and life-size polychrome statues, which were the first works of art I ever saw.

After my parents moved to Syracuse, however, I was progressively stuck with far blander churches and less ethnic congregations. Irish Catholicism began to dominate—a completely different brand, with its lesser visual sense and its tendency toward brooding guilt and ranting fanaticism. I suspect that the nun who finally alienated me from the church must have been Irish! It was in religious education class (for which Catholic students were released from public school on Thursday afternoons), held on that occasion in the back pews of the church. I asked the nun what still seems to me a perfectly reasonable and intriguing question: if God is all-forgiving, will he ever forgive Satan? The nun's reaction was stunning:  she turned beet red and began screaming at me in front of everyone. That was when I concluded there was no room in the Catholic Church of that time for an inquiring mind.

You’ve certainly written a lot about your early experiences of Catholic art, iconography and saints. Who were the Catholic artists and personalities who most inspired you as you grew up in the America of Doris Day?

It's no coincidence that the first women intellectuals who impressed me in adolescence had been raised Catholic and wrote eloquently about it: Simone de Beauvoir (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) and Mary McCarthy (Memories of a Catholic Girlhood). Later, Germaine Greer, another rebellious Catholic girl, became and remains my favorite feminist. Catholic doctrine, however personally limiting, trains the mind with its luminous categories and rigorous discipline. Medieval theology is far more complex and challenging than anything offered by the pretentious post-structuralist hucksters. For most of his career, my father taught Romance Languages at a Jesuit school, LeMoyne College, where I took a course in logic from a Jesuit professor one college summer. For centuries, the Jesuits have been world-famous for their keen and penetrating minds and their agile argumentation. My familiarity with Jesuit analysis must surely have helped produce my later instant scorn for the confused and pointless morass that is post-structuralism.

What is your impression of Pope Francis so far?

Francis seems like an affable gust of fresh energy after the near-sepulchral persona of the prior pope, who seemed strangely stiff and reserved for a Bavarian. So that's a big positive, in terms of captivating young people around the world and inspiring them toward charitable social action. However, I am somewhat baffled by the cat-and-mouse game that Francis seems to be playing with the media. Is he or is he not signaling his support of revolutionary reforms in Catholic doctrine?—particularly as it applies to sexuality. As a veteran of the 1960s, I of course strongly support the sexual revolution. But as a student of comparative religion, I have to say that when the Catholic Church trims its doctrine for politically correct convenience, it will no longer be Catholic.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Kenneth Wolfe
9 years 4 months ago
The last four sentences are powerful in their honesty and clarity, a rare thing from the far left. In fact, it's a rare thing from many on the center-right, too, over the last two years, as conservatives (yet not traditionalists) have repeatedly attempted to read Francis through Benedict instead of admitting there has been obvious rupture. At least Paglia is blunt with simple observations, particularly her conclusion that Pope Francis governs the Church as a center-left politician.
David Eveld
9 years 4 months ago
Camille Paglia is one of my favorite current writers. Her intellect is obvious reading this article. She's a great writer, she's very funny, and, most importantly, she's relentlessly intellectually honest. I wish she would forgive the poor nun who scolded her and consider coming back to the Catholic Church. We need her. It would probably take divine intervention, though, so I suggest we all pray for Ms. Paglia to connect with Christ.
David Chu
9 years 4 months ago
Camille's discussion of the ceremonialism and pagentry of the Church is interesting. While I'm sure there's been a lot of scholarship on the origin of such, I suspect that some of it derives from syncretism with pagan Rome during the period of the early Church.
Louis Pizzuti
9 years 4 months ago
In fact, there is scholarship that it does not derive in any way from sycretism with pagan Rome, but rather, Christianity is a revival and broadening of the theology and worship of Solomon's temple, a faith which was suppressed by Josiah's reforms. I recommend the work of Margaret Barker on this, particularly her "Temple Theology: An Introduction"
Joseph Sciambra
9 years 4 months ago
I was at Berkeley, an Art History student, when Paglia's book came out - it's influence and reach was enormous; by then, although I was already an ex-Catholic, and fully immersed in the gay lifestyle as a would-be porn star, what Camille wrote about the beauty of porn and the courageous endeavors of gay men who discarded the establishment and forged their own ways, spoke to me on a level that no academic ever did – it made me believe that the road I was on was the right one; only, this sense of freedom came at a very heavy price. After 10 years in the gay lifestyle and after losing most of my friends to AIDS, drugs or suicide, near death myself – I left and went back to the Catholic Church. While I praise her breadth of knowledge and her fearlessness, I take issue with many of her conclusions regarding homosexuality – for, I found it, in its modern form, neither beautiful nor noble, for, most of us were wounded little boys still looking for daddy – and, never finding him in the promiscuity of gay sex – we left the whole thing unsatisfied and disenchanted. I wrote about my experiences in the gay scene of 1990s San Francisco in my book “Swallowed by Satan.”
Isadora Mary
9 years 4 months ago
I left the Church and lived a bi-sexual lifestyle and my observations are the same as yours "wounded people looking for mommy or daddy". After years of searching and reading I found myself back at the Catholic Church. All the things I was never taught about the Church, the theology, the history, the reverence, the Mass of all ages are now an integral part of my life. I couldn't be more grateful.
Isadora Mary
9 years 4 months ago
Ms. Paglia, I so admire your intellect and the honesty that accompanies it. I hope soon you let go of the sexual revolution and become a full time student of the Catholic Religion which has been infected by the liberal left marxists. We do need you and I'm going to pray for you and your family. In no other place will you experience God manipulate time so that the singular event of Calvary over 1980 years ago on the linear timeline, is made to intersect and touch today at Mass. Is anything on earth so beautiful? If you go to Mass today the 2/25/2015 point on the timeline will be looped back over the altar at the consecration of the Host and Chalice such that the two points in time touch each other. Albert Einstein, whenever he would see a Catholic priest, would stop him and ask the priest questions about the Eucharist. Because even though Einstein was an atheist, he knew that time was not linear, and had an inkling that the non-linear nature of time was somehow a dynamic in the Mass and the Eucharist. "And, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself" John 12:32
Edward Mikol
9 years 4 months ago
I've been curious what Camille Paglia's view on Islam is, and its iconoclasm concerning Art, which has followed Mohammad's prohibition of representational works, based on his saying that "An angel will not enter a house where there is a picture on the wall or a dog on the floor". And, also, what she might think of the hypothesis that, as a belief system (of the self-identified "children of Ishmael" -whose patriarch historically resented his brother Isaac for being given the family honors and inheritance rights- by the Lord -even though Ishmael was the true elder son), the Muslim faith could be seen as a (unrecognized by its believers ) savage parody of monotheism and a cosmic "revenge on God" ( equally unconsciously), more than a traditional "religion"; a kind of Supreme payback for God's "cruel and unjust betrayal" of the real founder of the sanctified line. Taking on the trappings of the Judeo-Christian creeds and covertly inverting them ("Deus est Demon inversus", in effect) for verisimilitude.In short, could Islam itself be a subterranean Satire? (Even though its own founder might remain doggedly unaware of this- for reasons a Nietzsche might suspect?) To put it baldly, "Submission" could be a revenge disguised as a "religion", id-designed to make "God" look bad. (A book of real "Revelations".) I'd love to hear her thoughts on this. As someone who learns toward Taoism, I have no theological "dog in this fight" except that I am also an artist who finds representational art as essential to our nature as music (also forbidden by Islam). Ms. Paglia always scintillates and stimulates, and I look forward to her next book.
Karen Heiby
9 years 4 months ago
Dr. Paglia, you have left the Church because of one nun. Please don't let one nun stand between you and the Church! Of course there is room for questions of all kinds. Check out the web for a lot of Catholics having discussions and questions for each other. We are out there, and we are many! Benedict was portrayed by the media as some kind of stiff dictator, but in reality, he has the innocence of a boy and the intellect of twenty cardinals. He is a grandpa figure and very sweet. He loves his flock. I shook his hand and that moment was one of the greatest in my life. Pope Francis is not going to change doctrine. A pope simply can't change what the Church teaches. That's why, since Christ's time, the teachings of the Church have remained the same over two millennia. The baby boomers did not invent sex; homosexuality and contraception were accepted by previous cultures, yet Church teaching did not bend due to popular opinion. And it's not going to bend in our time or any time just because a culture wants disordered behavior to be accepted by the Church. Pope Francis said he wouldn't judge a homosexual who was seeking God, to paraphrase. He didn't say that he approved of homosexual acts. Listen carefully to what he says and what he doesn't say. There is no left and right, liberal or conservative Church. The Church is above politics, and is simply "Catholic". It is wrong to try to place the Church on a left-right spectrum. It teaches and does things that liberals tend to like, and teaches and does things that conservatives might like, but to the Church, left and right are irrelevant. Thank you for reading.
Bill Mac Iver
9 years 4 months ago
"Jesus loved the pagans. Humanly speaking one might even say that he longed for them; obedience alone held him within the close boundaries of his mission." -- Romano Guardini, The Lord
Morton Abercromby
9 years 4 months ago
Paglia is a well-educated and smart woman. I love what she has to say and I love that she disturbs conservatives and liberals. She's a solid thinker… But it's too bad her blind spot is she thinks the sexual revolution is something new: the 1960s was an explosion of thoughts fomented in the late Victorian era that were aborted by the first two World Wars. Eugenicists like Havelock Ellis and Bertrand Russell offered their free love arguments, as did a sundry of other kooks, like Bolsheviks such as Madame Kollantai. All the 1960s Sexual Revolution did was try to codify and legalize what polite company didn't talk about, like making it a "right" to go hookup in a closet during a keg party, to give a ridiculous analogy. Paglia the scholar should know that God doesn't need to forgive Satan; Satan needs to seek forgiveness. I guess those deft Jesuits were too busy ruminating over that blowhard Teilhard de Chardin? But yes, I agree whole-heartedly with Paglia: the Catholic Church should not bow to the politically correct nonsense that poses as "equality" and "social justice." This stuff is all thin thinking and is scattered with holes.
Patrick Chisholm
9 years 4 months ago
Why doesn't God forgive Satan? Based on what I've read, even if God did forgive Satan, he wouldn't come back to God. Angels' intellects are far superior to those of humans, and once they make a decision - which Satan did when he chose to rebel against God - they accept and embrace that decision as final, with full knowledge of the consequences. It's silly to leave the faith because a nun couldn't adequately answer that question. I'm sure Ms. Paglia had other reasons, but one should not join or leave a religion based on personal preferences. One should do so based on whether that religion is true. There's abundant circumstantial evidence, as outlined in several recent books, for the divinity of Christ and authenticity of the Gospels. There's also a very strong case to be made that the Church that Jesus established upon Peter's rock was the Catholic Church. By rejecting that Church, Ms. Paglia is taking an extreme risk. Best not to set oneself up for a rude awakening when it's time to plop down on that judgement seat.
Kathleen Wimmer
9 years 4 months ago
Thank you for your very thoughtful and clear commentary, you are absolutely right.
enzo barovnica
9 years 4 months ago
God did not provide a plan of redemption for the angels as He did for mankind. The fall of the human race necessitated an atoning sacrifice for sin, and God provided that sacrifice in Jesus Christ. In His grace, God redeemed the human race.
L Fabry
9 years 4 months ago
I'm embroidering "American and British feminism has amazingly collapsed backward again into whining, narcissistic victimology" onto a throw pillow.
Timothy Bauman
9 years 4 months ago
Because of one nun's reaction to a question Professor Paglia concluded the Church is not the place for an "inquiring mind"? That's stunning. I've got to believe she misspoke.
JR Cosgrove
9 years 4 months ago
No, I have to believe it is an excuse not a reason. Her incredibly shallow reaction to the nun's response to a question that no one can really answer is what is telling. So my guess is that there is much more there which she does not want to talk about. Maybe all her reasons were just as shallow.
Mary Flynn
9 years 4 months ago
When I was ten in 1952 our priest bombastically preached "There is NO salvation outside the CHURCH! I remember clearly saying to myself, "God won't send grandma and grandpa to hell" (they were Lutheran). Now at age 72 that was a pivotal moment in my Faith journey;always a discernment to put Christ at the center of my life. I am a among all the sinners who God in his great mercy loves and saves. I find my spiritual center still is the regular reception of the sacraments, social justice practices (specifically I am a Vincentian) frequent daily prayer and forming my own conscience with discernment to find God in all things. Childhood experiences, negative or positive associated with faith formation are not shallow!. They are sources of grace. I still find it easier to experience Christ near by remaining active in the Roman Catholic Church, flawed as she, and as we all, are.
William Sutton
9 years 4 months ago
Timothy Bauman: It is all about tipping points. The nun's reaction was an explicit and hard attempt to shutdown an enquiring young mind. I could easily see that happening.
Kathleen Wimmer
9 years 4 months ago
A reaction one would expect from one looking for a way out. I can identify with her experience myself, but fortunately for me, my beliefs and Faith in The Words of Jesus Christ, were and still are strong. Christ gave us many examples in the Bible regarding sexual morality as well as God gave us the 6th Commandment. Progressives wish to see changes in Church doctrine to absolve their responsibility to comply. All that is happening in our world and Church has been prophesied.
Jude Rodriguez
9 years 4 months ago
Outstanding. Just wonderful. Thank you for saving me from having to go to GQ or Rolling Stone to read a feature piece on another sad, immoral person that flaunts her proclivities, tempting and convincing others to follow suit like her with one breath (see comment below), and make a couple of well-aimed jabs at the catholic faith in the next. How pleased I am to find a Catholic publication, would so quickly and proudly give voice, time and validation to such a person, even though she has all of the secular world promoting her views and her lifestyle. No, why would we ever want to find a faithful, moral, Catholic (layman, priest, etc.) art and culture academic- after all, if Playboy would not be interested in such a boring scholar, why should we? What I really mean: After being bombarded by secularism at work, in the news, on the radio, and every other which way I turn… A catholic publication should be a moment of rest for our soul and conscience from the sin surrounding us. Our priests, our shepherds, no matter how cerebral they feel they are should be using the great gift of journalism to offer comfort and respite from our world. Our priests should look and write like priests, not like worldly men.
Mary Dearing
9 years 4 months ago
I am very disappointed in Paglia. I am surprised at the extent of the narcissism and self-indulgence she reveals here. "Her" feminism is the only valuable feminism, as opposed to the Marxist or Stalinist feminism of others. One wonders if she knows what Marxism is? "Her" Italian Catholicism is superior to Irish Catholicism... as if the Roman Catholic Church were not, in concept, a unified body of believers. A great deal of what she says seems rooted in generalized assumptions about ethnic identities that in anyone else would be called out as prejudices. Her statement that only European thinkers are worth conversing with, as if no American academic is capable of intellectual integrity. I am truly disappointed and appalled. No doubt Dr. Paglia would find fault with my 'PC' values, yet what I see here is a woman who is almost entirely self-referential in her judgments.
Sean Salai, S.J.
9 years 4 months ago

Thank you, everyone, for reading. I'm glad you found the interview engaging. It's hard to read Paglia without agreeing and disagreeing with her in equal measure, but that's partly why she's so good at what she does.

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