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Invoking Liberation: A Review of Provocations

We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.

Emerson, The American Scholar

This is the phase of political correctness — when the vitality of the founding revolution is gone and when revolutionary principles have become merely slogans, verbal formulas enforced by apparatchiks, that is, party functionaries or administrators who kill great ideas by institutionalizing them.

Camille Paglia, Free Speech and the Modern Campus

PROSPERO: “What is’t thou canst demand?”
ARIEL: “My Liberty.”

Shakespeare, The Tempest

There have been two great Nietzschean howls in this year of our Lord 2018. The first was Bronze Age Mindset, an exhortation from the mouth of a contemporary Ajax the Great, a roar of defiance and defense against the mundanity of late-decadence, where the frontiers have closed, and where the wild brutality and sublimity of Nature has been replaced by a Simulated Zoo in which everything is “fake and ghey.” The other is the subject of this review, Camille Paglia’s Provocations, a sibylline book of collected prophecies from the last pagan of American academia, our greatest scourging rakehell against post-structuralist omphaloskepsis, a veteran culture-warrior whose collection of scalps is legendary.

Paglia burst onto the scene in the 90s, bearing her greatest work Sexual Personae, a survey of the sexual-chimeras, the charismatic androgenes, which lurk beneath the surface of the English literary canon. It was a revelation twenty years in the making, and simply must be read, if only for Paglia’s ever-lucid prosody. She is a master of placing cutting aphorisms in the middle of her choreographed paragraph like syncopated Shakespeare. Her later works are waves emanating from that boulder which she hurled into the shallow reflecting pool of placid American literary scholarship.

The finest of these waves was Break, Blow, Burn, a collection of poetry that Paglia collected and analyzed, spanning four centuries. It would serve any reader looking for an entry-level survey of English poesy better than anything else on the market.

Which brings me to this brick of a book, which has the presentation of a posthumous release. Last year, Paglia released a book titled Free Women, Free Men which collected her writings on Sex, Gender, & Feminism (as the subtitle indicates). It was released, I surmise, as an attempt to capitalize on the resurrected campus culture war which brought Jordan Peterson into the limelight. There is a lengthy discussion between the two easily available on YouTube, which is worth watching for any “Kekistani” who believes Peterson to be a magnificent intellect. It becomes  obvious over the course of their discussion that Paglia’s power-level is beyond anything Peterson has encountered. But Paglia plays nice, holding him in her palm like an amused cat, with claws withdrawn. Still, it is a spectacle to see this clumsy ever-blubbering boy absolutely pecked into submission by Paglia’s staccato rapid-fire, like Kermit the Frog meeting Woody Woodpecker.

Anyway — Provocations covers more territory than Free Men, Free Women, and incorporates a general overview of Paglia’s pet topics: popular culture; film; sex, gender; and women; literature; art; education; politics; and religion. It is organized, I believe, in an order of increasing significance, with most of the greatest pieces falling in the latter half. The highlights of each collection are: “Theater of Gender: David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution”; “Women and Magic in Alfred Hitchcock”; “Portrayals of Middle Eastern Women in Western Culture”; “Western Love Poetry”; “The North American Intellectual Tradition”; “Donald Trump: Viking Dragon”; and the masterpiece of the entire book is “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s.”

Appended to the book is the lengthy “Media Chronicle,” which collects snatches of coverage of Paglia, as well as samples of smaller pieces she’d published in a wide array of outlets that did not make the cut, from the beginning of her career to the present. It is the presence of this chronicle that gives this tome an air of finality, as if it already includes the retrospective garlands tossed on the grave of a deceased hero. I hope this is not the last we will see of Paglia in print, but if it is, it would serve as a substantial bookend to her oeuvre, which began with a book just as sizable in heft.

Paglia describes herself as a libertarian democrat, which would place her in the lower left-hand corner of that all-pervasive political compass that divides all possible diversity in political stance into simplistic quadrants. This is misleading, in my opinion, considering that her political takes are always on the level of aesthetics and not particularly strong when it comes to policy. However, her recorded anti-war stance from the run up to the invasion of Iraq, an interview from 2003 titled “No to the Invasion of Iraq” has aged very well. The key to that piece is that she understood the destruction of the Columbia space-shuttle as a bad omen of supernatural significance, which is to say, she opposed the war on a mystical-aesthetic level, from the reading of entrails, from her guts and not so much from her brain, on the grounds of geopolitical strategy.

Paglia is no Chomskyan nerd who derives an abstracted anarcho-syndicalist utopia from theoretical first principles. She thinks with her entire body. It is for this reason that she is the greatest female Nietzschean since Ayn Rand, who she admires, but castigates for her dour seriousness, which she opposes to her own comedic-carnivalesque “yes-saying.” This has always made her an enemy of contemporary feminism, with its cliquish hen-pecking nature and its upper-middle-class careerism and codes of politeness. She promotes “street-smart” feminism, an Amazonian code which celebrates brash working class women, knife-wielding strippers, and the women of frontier America who were not afraid to get their hands dirty. Hers is a feminism for the femme-fatales of hollywood’s golden age which appeals not at all to contemporary feminists who “literally shake” at the thought of automatic rifles.

I find her position aesthetically appealing myself, but with some misgivings. These sorts of philosophies are for the elite of spirit, for the self-reliant, and can never wield power or inspire a mass-audience without performing the contradiction that is “Libertarian-Authority.” Someone has to make the rules and set the limits, even when the rules and limits are maintained in the spirit of openness. As Paglia attests herself, the educational establishments of America are a nightmare for anyone sharing Paglia’s temperament. I can attest to the enmity I faced when contradicting an Eve Sedgwick-toting teaching assistant by championing Paglia against her during my time as an undergrad. The frontier closed long ago, and Camille was one of the lucky few who snagged some territory before the market was monopolized. It is improbable that she could repeat her feat today. Any individualist is swallowed in the maw of the tribal warfare that surges around us today the way a man-of-no-country would be immediately captured, executed, or blown to smithereens if he were to walk across a live battlefield littered with landmines and mortars.

The most egregious example of her reasonable inadequacy is her position on abortion, which emerges many times in her writing. She is, of course, pro-abortion, but with misgivings to the framing of the debate. She dislikes the deaf standard of feminist framing which claims a moral high-ground over the “dumb fundamentalists” by interpreting their pro-life concern for the unborn as a disguise for the authoritarian control of “female bodies” (a puerile Foucauldian rhetoric of biopolitics that has become the standard means of liberal-leftist discourse today).

Abortion has been a wedge issue in america since the instantiation of Roe, and has been brought to the foreground once again by Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, which has sent feminists, once more, into the hysterical apocalyptic vision of The Handmaid’s Tale. Paglia could square this circle quite simply if she took the hardline Nietzschean stance of a spartan eugenics, as many on the alt-right have, but she maintains her allegiances with the “working-class left,” that phantasm of the late-19th to early-20th century which continues to haunt public intellectuals in the limelight, leading them astray into a willful anachronism.

What’s worse is that Paglia understands the metaphysical implications of abortion being the primary concern of contemporary feminism, which is that it renders it an alienating cult of sterility. In Provocations, she bemoans the careerist, and thus, shrewdly capitalist foundation of modern feminism, with its inability to establish a meaningful narrative for motherhood that does not render it a male imposition over the autonomy of the female body. She even understands that this inability is what swells the ranks of a religious fundamentalism that she opposes. The far-right, be it christian or pagan, is able, where libertarians, liberals, and leftists of all sorts are unable, to incorporate motherhood and fertility within its narrative structure of iconic meaning formation. There is also the obvious fact that groups that reproduce generationally, and value this reproduction, outlast those that do not.

Where Paglia is strongest is in her rage against the inadequacy of contemporary education, both public elementary and collegiate. Her essays on Columbine and trade school, gay ideology in public education, canon-formation, classicism, and “real multiculturalism” are phenomenal. I suspect that this is due to her long career as an educator. This is her home turf, while issues that surround heterosexual motherhood are foreign territory for her, a staunch lesbian who borders on transgenderism. I would recommend Provocations for the weight of this section alone, in which every piece is strong and relevant.

When it comes to collegiate education, Paglia’s recommendations for a new trinity of intellectuals to undergird a future university curriculum are Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler, and Norman O. Brown in place of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. Further, Adorno, and Marcuse should be replaced by Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom. This is a canon of erudite, witty, and pragmatic media-ecologists from our neglected Anglo-American Tradition against the morose, cynical, snarky intellectual fads spawned by the Frankfurt School and Francophone-Freudianism. Further, Paglia believes that Comparative Religion should be the mandatory backbone of the humanities, to give some spiritual insight to our woefully materialistic and secular society of pharmaceutically numbed neurosis. Everyone should have more than a caricature of understanding when it comes to the great world religions and their eternally relevant symbolic systems.

Paglia’s diagnoses of primary education in Provocations are, perhaps, even more compelling. In “The Columbine High School Massacre,” she writes:

At home, American teenagers are being simultaneously babied and neglected, while at school they have become, in effect, prisoners of the state… the mental energy presently being recreationally diverted by teens to the Internet and to violent video games (one of the last arenas for masculine action, however imaginary) is clearly not being absorbed by school. We have a giant educational assembly line that coercively processes students and treats them with Ritalin or therapy if they can’t sit still in the cage. The American high school as social scene clearly spawns internecine furies in sexually stunted young men.

This essay, published in Salon on April 28th 1999 (back when it was actually, really, good), is prophetic in the age of uproar over “toxic masculinity,” incels, Gamergate, and the yearly cycle of school shootings. None of the underlying causes in the Normie Meme Prison system have been addressed in the two decades since Columbine. The public discourse is still unable to digest the uncomfortable truths that Paglia understood so long ago: “Guns are not the problem in America… these shocking incidents of school violence are ultimately rooted in the massive social breakdown of the industrial revolution.”

Paglia, put on your pine tree emoji, because this is not too far from the infamous introduction to Industrial Society and Its Future. When a public intellectual of such stature and erudition is able to explicate the hidden grounds of wyrd-pagan environmentalism emerging after the 60s, she can be forgiven all minor flaws. The most disappointing element of Provocations is realizing the lost potential of a Paglian twitter account, a medium with which she would have excelled.
Provocations is worth any reader’s time. Whether or not one agrees with Paglia on issues of policy, one cannot doubt the consistency of her vision over all these decades in the spotlight. She can provide eclectic glimpses into the life of the underworld, tours in the red-light districts and Hollywoods of the mind. She can just as easily lecture on the criminally neglected 19th century German philologists or the cinematic depictions of the Homeric epics over the 20th century. What’s most impressive is how easy she makes this look, compared to that coterie of pontificates which surrounds us, calling themselves intellectuals, but straining to state any unequivocal conclusions.

Paglia is the antipode to all unprovocative conversation. Do not read Paglia if you wish to remain comfortably within the realm of normal discourses on the subjects of our times. If you want to see these subjects rendered from a perspective which will likely conflict with your own, read Paglia.

Follow R. Cam on Twitter.