Feminist professor adopts aggressive style


May 19, 1991|By Diane Winston | Diane Winston,Sun Staff Correspondent

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia

A Small woman in high white pumps leans against the library wall while a photographer hovers with a light meter. She wears mauve eye shadow, a touch of blush and a hint of lipstick. She wants to strike the right pose. She seems eager to help, happy to please.

Until she opens her mouth.

A screaming peals through the halls and Camille Paglia -- warrior woman of academia -- is on the rampage. A torrent of words sweeps down the corridors of the University of the Arts. Students tiptoeing past the camera equipment smile indulgently. They are familiar with the now-famous humanities professor and her dramatic flourishes.

"Baltimore? Johns Hopkins University? They're the worst," cries Dr. Paglia, her glass-cracking voice shattering the silence. "That's where lacanderdafoucault (her shorthand slur for French theoreticians Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault) came in to the U.S. from. They're anti-woman, homophobic, cut off from the waist down. It's terrible, terrible.

"I'm not a crackpot, I am a crackpot. I need more clothes. I run out of everything and I don't want to wear the same thing twice for photographs. I liked the sword in the New York magazine photograph. That was a good touch. Don't show this spaghetti spot on my blouse. Can you see it? I was poor for 20 years, and I never went shopping. Should I look serene? Angry? What image do I want to project?

It only takes a few seconds of fast-flying, free associations to unwrap the unruly universe inhabited by Dr. Paglia. The Yale-educated author of "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson," is angry, angry, angry. She is also smart, smart, smart. She is print-hot and broadcast cool. She is making the most of the ire raised by her 700-page opus on sex, history, art and culture ("If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts") by sassing on the "Dick Cavett Show" and in the New York Times, New York magazine, Harper's and Rolling Stone.

Dr. Paglia's rap is academic, but the shtick is show biz. She believes in a thorough, classical education, which cleaves to standards, maintains discipline and encourages the individual voice. That in itself, flying against the current rage for free-for-alls, political correctness and groupthink, is striking.

But what really sells is her style. Dr. Paglia's words fly, sputter and spurt. At a time when people seek to "share" and "affirm," she zaps and zings. She grabs the tape recorder, faces off with the camera, picks words for shock value. She adores Madonna ("Madonna and I are always on the same track"), loathes multiculturalism ("You can't just add a book by Alice Walker or Toni Morrison to your reading list"), ridicules women's studies ("a scandal -- not one major contemporary achievement,") and lambastes the idea of date rape ("No does not always mean no -- that's stupid").

With her in-your-face, shotgun-style delivery and her '60s crusading arrogance, Dr. Paglia is equal parts Joan Rivers, Jett and Arc.

Her forte is "academic terrorism," decrying what she calls the inferior work of current luminaries -- including Helen Vendler of Harvard University, Frances Ferguson of Johns Hopkins and Stanley Fish of Duke.

"Part of my mission is to not just state ideas but, as an independent thinker, to prick balloons. There hasn't been anyone to do it for a long time . . . and in order to get my aims achieved one must punish people who have risen to the top by politics not by scholarship," she explains in her rambling, rambunctious style.

"What goes around comes around, that's my attitude. I believe in the old law -- an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I believe that Old Testament thing. This New Testament thing, turn the other cheek, I don't believe that. Italians don't believe it, we really don't."

Dr. Paglia's latest mission sprang out of an 80-page take-no-prisoners book review in Arion, a Boston-based classics journal. Asked to write on two books by gay scholars, Dr. Paglia said she was shocked by "the lies" perpetrated by the books' shoddy scholarship and limp intellectual underpinnings. The review evolved into a rant (excerpted in the New York Times Book Review and the Chronicle of Higher Education) as Dr. Paglia ground out 20,000 words praising Motown, the 1960s and the United States; denouncing schmoozers, specialists and sycophants; and -- in summation -- calling for total academic reform.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.