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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

At a time when some people blame Ronald Reagan or Michael Milken for social and personal disasters (often making a convincing case), this hyperactive observer blows the whistle on, of all people, Susan Sontag. According to Paglia, Sontag, the pre-eminent social critic of the '70s, would not help her get published in the prestigious Partisan Review after Paglia had arranged for Sontag to speak at Bennington College in Vermont when Paglia was teaching there years ago. "I wanted to say, 'I am your successor,' " Paglia says, " 'and I'm going to topple you.' She didn't have the wit to see it. I realized then that I could not count on women to help me."

Paglia went on to tough out a tumultuous eight-year gig at Bennington (more on that later), a job drought and seven book rejections. Although many academics complain of the difficulty in achieving tenure and of the pressure to "publish or perish," Paglia believes that she was graded more harshly than others. "I am the greatest woman intellectual since Simone de Beauvoir," she says, now in her Muhammad Ali mask. "At some point I realized I would not be understood in my time." She began to take pleasure in the idea of posthumous recognition, but there was to be no such satisfaction from the land of the white light.

In 1985, Yale University Press purchased "Sexual Personae," reportedly for a small sum. When it was published in 1990, the controversy Paglia had hoped for was a tempest in a book bag, confined to academia and the small world of off-campus American intellectuals. Generally, this group can be defined as subscribers to the Nation, the Village Voice, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the New Statesman, the New York Times, the New Criterion--a lot of periodicals with the word new in the title.

Then, Paglia scored a career-boosting triple, and she went on to snag more column inches of ink than bad weather. With the exception of the New York Review of Books, the Village Voice and Mother Jones magazine, nearly all the articles about Paglia have been uncritical. This elevation of the academic provocateur to media star tells us more about how the press works than it does about the woman behind the mask of "Sexual Personae."

The first thing that happened was this: Paglia was asked by the New York Times Op-Ed section to weigh in on Madonna. In December, 1990, "Madonna: Finally, a Real Feminist" appeared on that widely read page. Here, Paglia donned her Scud-launching mask and drafted her sister Italian-American in the holy war against other presumably less fun-loving women: "(Madonna) exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent, whining mode . . . rejecting (Freudian) ideas of ambiguity, contradiction, conflict, ambivalence. Its simplistic psychology is illustrated by the new cliche of the date-rape furor--'No' always means 'no.' Will we ever graduate from the Girl Scouts? 'No' always has been, and always will be, part of the dangerous, alluring courtship ritual of sex and seduction, observable even in the animal kingdom," she continued. (It comes as something of a surprise to Paglia that, for many women, the only time "no" means "yes" is on the California ballot.) "Feminism," she concluded in her article, "says no more masks. Madonna says we are nothing but masks."

Having hitched her Pontiac to Madonna's star and invoked the spectacle of a cat fight with supposedly monolithic left-leaning felines, it's not surprising that Paglia received a call from another newspaper. This time it was Newsday. Would Paglia write a piece about date rape?

And so occurred event No. 2--the publication in January, 1991, of the Newsday piece: "Rape: A Bigger Danger Than Feminists Know." "What marital rape was to the '70s," Paglia wrote in her Phyllis Schlafly mask, "date rape is to the '90s. . . . College men are at their hormonal peak. . . . A girl who lets herself get dead drunk at a fraternity party is a fool. . . . Feminists call this 'blaming the victim.' I call it common sense. . . . The date-rape debate is already smothering in propaganda churned out by Northeastern colleges and universities with their . . . uptight academic feminists and spoiled, affluent students. Beware of the deep manipulativeness of rich students who . . . love to turn the campus into hysterical psychodramas of sexual transgression, followed by assertions of parental authority and concern."

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