A caller to C-Span’s In Depth on Sunday, August 3, accused the show’s guest, Camille Paglia, of being a reactionary conservative and wanting to take us back to the days of “lynching.” What exactly did Paglia say to merit this criticism? She issued a plea for educational reform, for a return to “fundamentals” and “great books.” The caller’s non sequitur was almost as outlandish as imputing the conservative label to Paglia, a devotee of the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Appearing for a marathon three-hour session, Paglia’s rapid-fire speech seemed to refute the thesis of Marshall McLuhan, one of her intellectual heroes, that television is a cool, rather than a hot, medium. The alacrity of speech is a direct reflection of the darting of her mind from one thing to another and from one pole of the political spectrum to the other.
Mostly, Paglia argues against things — against the war in Iraq, against the foreign press, and the American academic establishment that sees the U.S. as an agent of evil in the world, against calls for censorship on the right and the left, and especially against entrenched bureaucracies at every level in our education industry.
Paglia cuts against the grain of standard cultural oppositions. A feminist herself, she decries the feminist critique of Western capitalism and insists that “capitalism produced the modern independent woman.” Despite embracing much of the program of libertarian capitalism, she expresses reservations about Ayn Rand. An emphasis on capitalism and strong individuals is insufficient without an attention to culture and education, to the sources of human excellence found not just in reason but in art and religion, the latter of which Paglia refuses to construe as fairy tales of consolation for the weak. She blames the American academy, especially its trendy fascination with French thinkers, for alienating the mass audience. The effect of the “trashing of great art and literature” from within the humanities has been the marginalization of the humanities.
Although she has not produced a substantive book since the publication of Sexual Personae in 1991, Paglia remains a voice worth hearing. Why? Because, as her C-Span appearance made evident, she is one of the few who continues to talk publicly, with conviction and clarity, about the nature of liberal education. Now, one can object to all sorts of things in Paglia’s work — to the haste with which she thinks and speaks, to the fact that since Sexual Personae she seems to have devoted herself less to great texts and foundational issues than to occasional ruminations on pop culture, and to her penchant for the same sort of sexual theorizing so popular among the French-style academics she detests. Sexual Personae contains the sentence: “Male urination really is a kind of accomplishment, an arc of transcendence.”
But Paglia continues to be worth hearing on education. In her work with today’s students, Paglia finds confirmation of McLuhan’s observation that we now live in an electric medium, a medium of image, sound, and movement. The chief task for educating youth is to teach them to appreciate and critically examine images. She proposes the study of classic American and foreign films, literature, and the history of art, which encompasses rather than excludes the great religious art of the past. During her C-Span appearance, Paglia made the marvelous suggestion that parents ought to educate their children through art-history books, books such as E. H. Gombrich’s magisterial, Story of Art.
In recent years, Paglia has grown skeptical not just about academic, but also about popular culture, on which she has been a regular and often-astute commentator. On In Depth, she asserted that Western civilization is not in good shape; our schools fail to satisfy the thirst for spirituality palpable among today’s youth. She is especially impatient with the education establishment, which uses the classroom for “social engineering” and reduces education to lessons in toleration and how not to offend. Labeling this as “day-care center stuff,” she urges fighting the “calcified public-education system” by any means necessary, including vouchers.
As is clear from the broad sweep of Sexual Personae, which ranges from Greek art to Emily Dickinson, Paglia has a penchant for precisely the sort of writing and intellectual investigation that postmodernism eschews, grand narratives and comprehensive myths. On In Depth, she was touting her article in the classics journal from Boston University, Arion, an article entitled, “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s.”
The essay contains all sorts of interesting anecdotes about the religious elements of 1960s’ culture but it ends with the unsurprising judgment that New Age religion is unable to bring about any kind of great awakening in American consciousness. Paglia’s remedy is a return to “origins, to primary texts of sacred literature.” How does Paglia understand these texts and their role in contemporary education?
Paglia senses that liberal education is about inducing wonder, informing and disciplining the imagination and the intellect, and immersing students in grand visions of human life in stories, images, and texts. She sees that the arts here overlap with religion and that the “sacred” is not necessarily an enemy of the imagination or the intellect. Yet, at times, she sounds a bit like a New Ager herself; she commends the “cosmic expansiveness” of the world religions, which contain “vast symbol-systems more challenging and complex” than the works of post-structuralism — not much of a contest there, one must admit.
The problem is that the way she describes religious texts risks distorting them before inquiry even gets started. For example, she wants religious texts to be taught as culture rather than as morality, a bifurcation utterly foreign to religious texts. Paglia’s dilemma here is instructive. She faces the obstacles of the modern, self-conscious pagan, someone who cannot believe in the pagan gods in the way an unreflective ancient Roman once did, but is nonetheless attracted to its mythic structure and its rich symbolism. Paglia finds herself in a position similar to that of Nietzsche (on the central tensions in Nietazsche’s thought, see the fine work of Peter Berkowitz, Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist). In a model that Paglia follows throughout Sexual Personae, Nietzsche divides human culture into the Dionysian — the chaotic, orgiastic, violence at the heart of being — and the Apollinian — the human impulse to give order and structure to the chaos through art and reason. Like Nietzsche, Paglia attributes the great achievements of culture to a delicate balance between the two gods. But if her Dionysian-Apollinian account is correct, then reason and civilization are revealed to be at best noble lies, inspiring illusions. But does it make sense to pursue the cultivation of that which one knowingly admits to be but a veil over the violent, irrational undercurrents of nature?
What gets downplayed in Paglia’s educational program is the notion that human inquiry aims at truth; indeed, her writing and curricular suggestions are remarkably thin in the area of philosophy. In Truth and Truthfulness, the philosopher Bernard Williams has recently argued, against the deconstructionists Paglia reviles, that what ails the humanities is an erosion of the habits of truthfulness in research and in argumentation. Paglia herself often calls for more honest appraisals of our intellectual and political history. But, when it comes to her big program, the return to the study of religious texts, she seems to let truth drop out. This may be an oversight but it is also fitting, given her commitment to Dionsyius, the god of excess and revelry, the god who mixes truth with falsity, good with evil, the god of violent sexuality, the god who reveals “what nature is up to.”
Whatever may be the difficulties with her specific account of the origins or art, religion, and civilization, we should be grateful that she continues — bluntly, irreverently, passionately — to take education seriously and to insist that Americans from every background and at every educational and economic level should too. Paglia has an acute sense of today’s students, of their cultural milieu, and their educational needs. And she is offering detailed and ambitious proposals for curricular reform. Hers is a lonely voice in an arena increasingly abandoned by folks on both sides of the political spectrum.
— Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.