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The Many Masks of CAMILLE PAGLIA : Part Poseur, Part Philosopher, Part Outrageous Neo-Feminist, the Myth-Making Writer Has Brought Sex, Sensationalism and Rock 'n' Roll to the Temple of Academia

February 16, 1992|DEANNE STILLMA | Deanne Stillman is working on a book about surf culture, to be published by Dell

TO USE THE PARLANCE OF THE time, mythology is making a comeback. I'm not referring to such modern myths as: There's a giant alligator living in the sewers of Manhattan, Jimi Hendrix is alive and living on the same island as Jimmy Hoffa and Jim Croce, or Ted Koppel has no legs. I am referring to the ancient myths of Egypt, Greece and Rome--lore passed through the centuries by oracles, witches and pagans. Recently, these tales have been looked to more and more frequently for clues to the mysteries of human nature, for connections to those who lived in ages of the past.

For instance, have you been to Tower Records lately? Along with the philosophy of Anthrax, you can pick up the collected audio works of the late myth-monger Joseph Campbell, a one-man cottage industry in packaging the ancient. Or drop into any major bookstore. Prominently displayed are the outpourings of such archetype-questers as Robert Bly, Riane Eisler and Lynn Andrews, who have each led thousands of thirsty souls on journeys that are inward bound. And now, from the college campus to the rest of the world, comes humanities professor Camille Paglia with her 700-page historical tsunami, "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson."

Paglia's book sold more than 17,000 copies in hardcover, a respectable showing for a scholarly work that cost $35. The paperback from Vintage Books was the publisher's big fall title and appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list for five weeks. Drawing on the power of myth in both her work and publicity campaign, Paglia launched her own success rocket with a feat of semantic contortion: She calls herself a feminist while simultaneously attacking other feminists who, she says, have attacked her. (Among other things, Paglia resurrects the dusty assertion that feminists are "dowdy," conveniently ignoring dowdy members of other groups, such as the Republican Party.) Since she raised the specter of literary mud wrestling with her claims that she is locked in combat with myriad opponents, Paglia has been the object of generally uncritical analysis and coverage in dozens of venues, having appeared everywhere from Esquire to Spin magazine to Sonya Friedman's TV show, "Sonya Live." Yet, even when factoring in the current craving for prehistory, Paglia's epic does not seem a likely candidate for the mass market. After all, this is an era when even Norman Mailer is criticized for writing a book that weighs too much.

" 'Sexual Personae' seeks to demonstrate the unity and continuity of Western culture," Paglia says in her preface. "I argue that Judeo-Christianity never did defeat paganism, which still flourishes in art, eroticism, astrology and pop culture. . . . My stress on . . . the biological basis of sex differences is sure to cause controversy. I see the mother as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement. I show how much of Western life, art, and thought is ruled by personality, which the book traces through recurrent types or personae ('masks')."

If Harley-Davidson published Cliffs Notes, that would translate roughly as, "Hey, baby, ride on this."

Although she has reached her conclusion not via Barstow but through years of scholarship, Paglia the brain loves to present herself as Paglia the brute. It's one of her masks. The diminutive Ph.D. drives a red Grand Am. She loves Guns N' Roses and football. She is a student and fan of raw power, an intellectual bleacher bum who sees male urination as "an arc of transcendence," a professor who hates it when her heroes cry. Ear to the ground, she lives in the suburbs, hangs out in malls, watches Oprah. One of her most satisfying pleasures came recently when she was endorsed by another face in the crowd, actress-model Lauren Hutton. "She called me the greatest living American philosopher on John McLaughlin's show," Paglia tells my answering machine in an ongoing blitz of briefings, "and she was only on Page 9 !"

Trained on the world of antiquity, her image-rife writing style and her intellectual passion make "Sexual Personae" a stimulating and seductive read--even if you're not interested in Goethe, Coleridge or Swinburne. For instance, of the cat and its high rank in Egyptian culture, Paglia writes, "Haughty, solitary, precise, (cats) are arbiters of elegance--that principle I find natively Egyptian. Cats are poseurs. They have a sense of persona--and become visibly embarrassed when reality punctures their dignity. Apes are more human but less beautiful: They posture but never pose. Hunkering, chattering, chest-beating, buttock-baring, apes are bumptious vulgarians lurching up the evolutionary road. The cat's sophisticated personae are masks of an advanced theatricality. . . ."

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