For nearly three decades, Camille Paglia, Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has been one of America’s most controversial and consistent public intellectuals. Her writings have covered topics ranging from Aeschylus to Madonna; from Baroque art to liberal Presbyterian attitudes to human sexuality. A truly independent thinker, she is an avowed atheist who still has a deep appreciation for religion; a committed feminist who is yet hated by the feminist establishment. Her work on both the problems of post-structuralism and on the role of aesthetics in ethical thinking has had a profound influence on my own understanding of those disciplines. In a world of cheap wannabes, she is the real thing: a truly learned cultural commentator and critic whose unpredictably provocative opinions are always worth pondering.
Her latest book, Provocations, consists of her collected essays and media interviews from the last twenty-five years of her career. Wide-ranging in scope, they represent her polymathic brilliance at its best—she is as comfortable commenting on Homer and Aeschylus as she is on David Bowie and The Yardbirds. It was therefore a great pleasure to have the opportunity to interview her about this new volume and (hopefully) to introduce her work to a new audience.
Carl Trueman: In a couple of the essays in Provocations you make the intriguing and rather startling statement ‘Better Jehovah than Foucault’—something you first said, I believe, in your major review article ‘Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders.’ Why do you as an atheist think that the God of the Bible offers a more realistic approach to reality than post-structuralism?
Camille Paglia: Post-structuralism is a cynical, reductive, and monotonously simplistic methodology that arose from the devastated landscape of twentieth-century Europe, torn by two colossal world wars. It has nothing whatever to do with American culture, American imagination, or American achievement in literature, art, music, and film. The trendy professors who imported post-structuralist jargon into U.S. academe were fools and frauds, and they deserve to be unmasked and condemned for their destruction of the humanities.
The worship of Michel Foucault (called “Saint Foucault” in the title of one sycophantish book) has been the worst kind of idolatry, elevating a derivative writer of limited historical knowledge to godlike status. Foucault borrowed from a host of prior writers, from Emile Durkheim and Max Weber to the great Canadian-American sociologist, Erving Goffman (a major influence on my work). For three decades, young professors have been forced to nervously pay homage to Foucault’s name, as if he were the Messiah. Elite academe likes to insult religion and religious belief—except when it comes to the sacred names of post-structuralism, before whom all are expected to kneel.
I am an atheist who takes religion very seriously and who believes (as I argue in Provocations) that the study of world religions should become the core curriculum of global education. I call comparative religion the true multiculturalism. Who is better prepared for life and its inevitable shocks and losses: the faddish Foucault acolyte or the devout Jew or Christian? The Bible is a masterpiece of world literature, an archive of Hebrew poetry of the very highest level. Its hero sagas have saturated Western literature and flowered in epic Hollywood movies still broadcast at every holiday. The parables of Jesus (with their vivid metaphors drawn from everyday life) strike to the core of human experience.
As I have repeatedly insisted, Marxism, of which post-structuralism is a derivative, has no metaphysics. It sees nothing bigger than society, which constitutes only a tiny portion of the universe. Marxism does not perceive nature, nor can it grasp the profound and enduring themes of major literature, including time and fate. Marxist social analysis is a useful modern tool that all scholars should certainly know (Arnold Hauser’s 1951 Marxist epic, The Social History of Art, had a huge impact on me in graduate school). However, in its indifference to the spiritual, Marxism is hopelessly inadequate as a description of human life and its possibilities. By externalizing and projecting evil into unjust social structures and prophesying a paradise-like utopia via apocalyptic revolution, Marxism evades the central issue that both religion and great art boldly confront: evil is rooted in the human heart.
Carl Trueman: Your Roman Catholic upbringing clearly shapes your aesthetics and your cultural analysis, from your reading of the significance of food in The Godfather to your striking commentary on Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. The latter particularly interested me because it struck me that Protestantism could never produce such a work of art, or indeed such a woman. Do you have thoughts on why that should be the case?
Camille Paglia: Yes, despite being an atheist, I remain (as I like to put it) Italian pagan Catholic—which has very little to do with Christianity as it first emerged from ancient Palestine. The Northern European Protestant reformers were quite right to condemn how far the Church of Rome had strayed from the Bible. My people of the Italian countryside never really surrendered their paganism. They simply renamed their gods (the Roman Janus became Saint Januarius—San Gennaro) and re-crowned Isis and Magna Mater as the Madonna. My mother’s baptismal church in Ceccano in Southern Lazio, Santa Maria a Fiume (“on the river”), sits on the foundations of a temple to the Empress Agrippina, which in turn replaced a temple to the goddess Minerva. Ceccano’s massive hilltop stonework is Volscian, preceding Rome’s early expansion and domination of the peninsula. That Camilla, the Amazon of Vergil’s Aeneid, was Volscian suggests that women of our region were already known for their ferocity.
Latin Catholicism—Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Mexican—is flamboyantly image-laden, its churches and shrines encrusted with statuary and symbolism. The Counter-Reformation, that militaristic pushback by the Vatican against the Protestant insurgency, literally invented propaganda and escalated the lavish image-making that Martin Luther and company had condemned as unbiblical idolatry in medieval Christianity. Bernini (whom I celebrated in my art book, Glittering Images) escalated religious pictorialism to surreal dimensions. The Roman Baroque, typified by Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, set stone into hectic motion, a whirlwind of operatic drama and emotion. Iconoclastic Protestant rebels smashed church statues and stained-glass windows and whitewashed paintings and mosaics (producing the classic, stark, luminously all-white Protestant church interior).
The first art works I ever saw were the polychrome saints’ statues and stained-glass windows of my baptismal church, St. Anthony of Padua, in the factory town of Endicott, New York (to which my family had emigrated to work in the Endicott-Johnson shoe factories). I was obsessed with St. Michael the Archangel in his silver armor and fascinated by the gory statues of pretty, half-nude St. Sebastian pierced by arrows and St. Lucy calmly holding her eyeballs out on a plate. Protestant iconography might take in a placid nativity scene or a benignly glowing Jesus as Good Shepherd, but it has never embraced the emotional extremes or grisly physicality of Catholic Baroque art, which nakedly show the travails of the flesh, including life-size Crucifixion scenes of sometimes horrific explicitness.
The fiery Spanish reformer St. Teresa of Avila has always been an inspiring role model for me—a counter to the exasperatingly mild-mannered St. Therese of Lisieux who was constantly forced on us young Catholic girls in the Doris Day-Debbie Reynolds 1950s. It is indeed interesting, as you note, that St. Teresa would be virtually inconceivable in early Protestant history, which called for a coolly rational encounter of the mind with the word of God, newly available to all via the printing press. St. Teresa’s visionary ecstasy and quasi-erotic thrills (as projected by Bernini) truly belonged to another spiritual universe.
Carl Trueman: In 1995, you declared that ‘until gay activism gets over its adolescent scorn for religion, gays will continue to lose ground in the culture wars.’ Over two decades later, it would seem that this ‘adolescent scorn’ is a near universal and unquestionable presupposition of the left and has, in fact, become a central part of the triumph of LGBTQ activism. What do you think has caused this (from your perspective, unexpected) development?
Camille Paglia: After the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, which gave birth to the gay liberation movement, homosexuality emerged from underground and became far more open. One unforeseen consequence of that otherwise positive absorption into general society was that a distinct gay male sensibility and culture began to recede and at this point may be close to extinction in the U.S., except in the drag and voguing worlds. There was an old tradition of gay connoisseurship in the fine arts and music (above all, opera) that descended from the nineteenth-century Art for Art’s Sake movement and peaked with Oscar Wilde. It was a shared language that drew gays together during a long period of overt persecution. (Lesbians, alas, rarely evinced such art devotion and mainly bonded over golf or softball.) Roman Catholic ritual, iconography, and artifacts were a persistent theme in the long period of aestheticism and decadence that I surveyed in my first book, Sexual Personae.
The refined, residually aristocratic, and borderline effeminate persona of the gay aesthete was one of the first casualties of the post-Stonewall 1970s, with its swaggering cult of machismo: the proletarian lumberjack look and the black-leather flash of Tom of Finland’s priapic s&m musclemen were the new ideals in the gay male cosmos. (My tribute to Tom of Finland, written for Taschen’s collected works, is reprinted in Provocations.) The next chapter was a cataclysm: the arrival of AIDS, which took a tremendous toll worldwide. ACT UP, co-founded by Larry Kramer in 1987, adopted a street-style, near-anarchist, combat-boot militancy toward all political and religious institutions. I continue to feel that ACT UP’s invasion of a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in December 1989, when a Communion host was thrown on the floor, was a major misstep in the gay rights movement. I fail to see how the gay cause is advanced by fanaticism and vandalism—in this case insulting and profaning the beliefs of so many working-class New Yorkers of every race and ethnicity.
After antiviral protease inhibitors finally reached the market in 1995, making long-term survival with HIV possible, gay activism shifted focus to the campaign for gay marriage, which has succeeded throughout most of the Western world. I myself felt that an opportunity was lost to force state power out of governance of private relationships: in my libertarian view, the state should be restricted to guaranteeing equal economic rights via civil unions, with marriage (if sought) conferred separately by religious entities. I’m afraid I still cannot understand the longing of so many otherwise free-thinking gays for the imprimatur of traditional marriage, which seems to mimic and valorize heterosexual formulas and precedents. Nor am I sympathetic to the conspiratorial ambushes unleashed on small bakers (whom I respect as independent artisans working by commission) for their resistance on religious grounds to producing cakes for gay weddings. These manufactured confrontations are illiberal and intolerant, suggesting in their parochial promoters a strange lack of confidence in gay identity. Furthermore, spiteful tactics of intrusion and entrapment are foolishly counterproductive insofar as they ultimately strengthen a conservative reaction at deep levels beyond media awareness or scrutiny. As I repeatedly warned in my Salon.com column decades ago, when legitimate issues or grievances are ignored and suppressed on the Left, they go underground and resurface with renewed force on the Right—which is exactly the process that has taken so many journalists by surprise in the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Silencing dissent on either end of the political spectrum destroys democracy, which cannot exist without the free flow of ideas.
Carl Trueman: Professor Paglia, it has been a great pleasure to talk to you about your work and I am very grateful that you were willing to take the time to offer such thoughtful and provocative responses. I’m sorry we never got around to discussing another mutual interest—classic English rock bands of the sixties—but despite that obvious lacuna, you have still provided our readers with tremendous food for thought. Many, many thanks.
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is the author of Provocations; Free Women, Free Men; Glittering Images; Break, Blow, Burn; The Birds; Vamps & Tramps; Sex, Art, and American Culture; and Sexual Personae.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.