Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Camille Paglia's back at Salon: a floundering wallow of self-regard
Erstwhile firebrand Camille Paglia , a maverick humanities professor who chose some time ago to be equal parts genius and fool in an effort to get a general public to think outside their flimsy catagories and frames of reference, has returned to an old writing gig, as a columnist for Salon. She wrote the column from 1995 to 2000, and then left the gig to concentrate on writing her 2004 book, the punchy collection of poetry criticism Break , Blow, Burn, and now returns to Salon's cyber pages, declaring herself in the first column that she was a pioneer of all that internet geeks and pundits and blogoholics take for granted. She essentially provides the "About the Author" box in the column's first paragraphs rather than at the end of the piece, where it traditionally appears. She has written important monographs, she has appeared on C-Span, she was in the advance guard in speculating our the cyber realm will effect politics and culture, she is a lesbian liberatarian Democratic pro choice aethiest, she wants you to know who she is. It is tiresome, of course, and yet you keep reading knowing that parsing Paglia isn't a waste of time. For all the prate and prolix , there are the fabled "flashes of brillance", ' though I fear, as the late Molly Ivins has said about this claim, that any such glimmers are lost in the yammering.
I'm a fan of Paglia when she gets beyond herself and writes about the culture and the arts it produces. It's here, and nowhere else, where the claims of her intellectual virtuosity and originality have merit. Sexual Personae had more outrageous and wonderfully defended propositions than any bit of academic criticism I've read, and Break, Blow,Burn brought an old school rigor to discussions of poetry , prate and self-consuming criticalese and connecting her selection of poems to the world. With those two books she makes the life of the mind exciting and attractive to someone wondering whether they should bother with Great Books and avant gard posturings. As a columnist, though, Paglia tries her hand at being the public intellectual, or worse,the celebrity intellectual,and comes up seeming comic rather than compelling. Doubtless she has Norman Mailer in mind as the self-aggrandizing firebrand, but strange as it seemes she lacks Mailer's charm and musical finess as a prose stylist.
Mailer might have been a boor and a lout, but he could write rings around his peers and segue into a metaphor rich discussion of war, poverty, women's rights, sexuality , theology, architecture with an intoxicating urgency. One need only compare Mailer's essay collections like Advertisements for Myself and The Presidential Papers to realize that Paglia has modeled her public persona on his amazing self confidence. What she lacks in this fast-paced world of instant opinion, though, is grace or a sense of her own absurdity, a quality that Mailer had , expressed and which endeared him even to this critics. He had a sense of irony about his attempts to light a fire in the conciousness of a post war generation he knew had been seduced by television.Paglia, I'm afraid, is just another typing head as this stage; pioneer she may be as an ur-blogger, but her return to Salon is not a return to form. An extended bout of self-congratulation makes her sound like she's interviewing for a entry position in a new media company. The remarks about Hillary, Obama, John Edwards, et al ,are likewise unremarkable.She sounds like she's the last one to have heard the news; she sounds several beats behind the rest of the band she's trying to join. I hope that Paglia's columns yet to come are better than this slogging mass of egomania and trite conjecture. Sad to say for someone of her daunting intellect, but she seems out of her depth.