Picks and Pans Review: Sex, Art, and American Culture
Anyone who opens this book expecting a sedate examination of contemporary culture is in for something like the shock of flicking on Masterpiece Theatre to find Don Rickles sitting in for Alistair Cooke. Over the past year Camille Paglia has become the reigning motormouth of American letters. Her pugnacious essays and public pronouncements have made her name familiar to millions who never read her imposing 1990 study, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Even people who never finished the title know something about how Paglia feels about Madonna (loves her), Keith Richards (l-o-o-ves him) and conventional feminists (hates 'em—too sexless). They know that she approves of Robert Mapplethorpe's S&M photographs for dramatizing the links between sex and danger and regards date rape as an avoidable peril stumbled into most often by women who fail to make the same connections. They may also know that while she's good at demolishing cant she's also apt to produce some of her own.
In this best-selling paperback collection of her recent short pieces, Paglia argues again that the values and rituals of the ancient pagan world were never fully extinguished by Christianity. They live on in art, rock music and movies.
Paglia's affirmation of our primal natures and her scorn for society's attempts to come to grips with it can make her thrilling to read—and in places, exasperating. When she dismisses the idea of date rape with the observation that "aggression and eroticism are deeply intertwined," you want to say, OK, but sometimes we ask the law to confront our tangled natures with straight lines. And when you come to a ripe chestnut like this, "A woman simply is, but a man must become," you wonder if Paglia is being ghostwritten by Hemingway in his hammiest phase.
Even so, Paglia's take on contemporary culture is so eye-opening at times that we're willing to overlook much. It's true that this book feels in places like something rushed into print to keep the Paglia pot boiling while she completes work on the second volume of Sexual Personae. But so what if it's a holding action? What a hold! What action! (Vintage, $13)