Pop Goes Paglia: More Noise, Ideas

SEX, ART, AND AMERICAN CULTURE By Camille Paglia, Vintage, 337 pp., $13 paper.

A LOT of Camille Paglia goes a short way. By the vicissitudes of seating arrangements, if you should sit next to her on a flight to Paris, the first 40 minutes of Dionysian discussion about sex, art, and American culture would be intriguing.

Shortly after that you might hanker for escape, or perhaps opt for a vote by those nearby to mandate 20-minute breaks to sift Paglia wheat from Paglia chaff. Anyone who puts actor Marlon Brando in the same league as Byron, Keats, Caravaggio, and Michelangelo for "spiritual conflicts and thwarted ambitions" needs ample quality time to explain.

Explain she does. Paglia is the academically rooted author of "Sexual Personae," a supercharged, eclectic book that took a very small part of the world by storm in 1991 because of its wily mix of pop, sop, and rock. Her premise: "the high development of personality in the West has produced a perverse sexual problematics unique in world culture." .

Her new book, "Sex, Art, and American Culture," is a collection of 21 writings, some mere fragments or short interviews, some essays, but all previously published, and all try to add more to the above premise.

Because she has received, and encourages, notoriety, the inclination is to want to see what all the fuss is about, which, of course, is the reason for the book.

But Paglia's irritating style of splicing puffed-up cultural pronouncements to sometimes-lucid arguments about current issues weakens the desire to try to stay with her.

For instance, in a rambling essay exploring the intellectual origins of "Sexual Personae," she declares suddenly, "Art is ceremony, and so is criticism. Appreciation, a commemorative magniloquence, is inflated psychoeconomic value." Throughout the book her proclamations are as common as sound bites on the evening news.

In sexual matters, Paglia contends that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas survived the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings partly because "If Anita Hill was thrown for a loop by sexual banter, that's her problem."

Contrary to what feminists contend, Paglia says unwanted "conversations about sex" are "not a gender issue." To all women she says, "It is our personal responsibility to define what we will and will not tolerate." Then, pow!, a pronouncement: "Every social encounter is a game being played by two parties."

Not to the thousands of women who are beaten, sexually abused, and murdered by men each year.

In other essays she wants a return to a kind of rejuvenated liberal arts in colleges instead of academic specialization. She says her feminist models are Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn, both "boldly independent and childless."

My guess is that Paglia's value is in her overall challenge to women [and men] to live free of canards and labels, to demand and explore all options. The rest is shuffling the same dozen cards again and again.

Paglia, at her best - at least in this collection - is found in the transcript of her lecture "performance" at M.I.T. in 1991. She is everything she likes to be before a crowd, outrageous, pompous in her "hipness," as politically shrewd and witty as Lily Tomlin or Mort Sahl, and when she explains why she refuses to appear on a TV show with writer Naomi Wolf she says, "Would Caruso appear with Tiny Tim?"

In the end, Paglia is completely earthbound, dazzled by her self as she lives in the mirror of popular culture. She finds transcendent meaning in astrology, flippantly likes pornography, and thinks only genetics and biology rule us. She gets rough with people like feminist writer Kate Millett, whom she says is a "beanbag of poisonous self-pity," and sadly she tells women to accept the consequences if they get raped.

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