She's smaller than the heft of her ego would have you believe, and also more delicate looking than the Amazon feminist persona that glares from the cover of her books. And even though she calls herself a devotee of Oscar Wilde, who once declared that appearances can tell you everything, Camille Paglia is nothing if not big and forceful.
When she arrives (late) for her interview at a downtown Toronto hotel, the 47-year-old feminist author comes in like a hurricane, albeit one dressed head to toe in black. Her handshake is firm; her gaze direct. In town to flog her new book, a collection of essays called Vamps and Tramps, Paglia orders me to get her a drink while she retires to the ladies' room. "A scotch and water - Evian would be nice - with a twist of lemon." She's queen. I obey. I also sit and listen to her rapid-fire monologue when she returns. Her mind races. Her painted mouth moves this way and that, like a minstrel in white face improvising a tune. The ice in her drink begins to melt as the heated words continue to flow, never abating, for 45 minutes, except for a brief moment spent berating a photographer who comes to snap her picture. Can he shoot the desktop diva in her room?
"No way. I don't invite men to my room. You're not coming up to my room. Find someplace else to take the picture."
He leaves. She pontificates.
"I'm not like Naomi Wolf," she declares, referring to the bestselling author of The Beauty Myth and a major nemesis of Paglia on the New-Age Feminist circuit. "I'm not like Naomi Wolf who, when she was being interviewed by a reporter, received him alone in her apartment wearing orange see-through harem pants, okay?, now ex-cuse me, okay?, and then he writes it, that she's wearing orange see-through harem pants and the feminists got furious. How could he write that? But, ex-cuse me, I've made a policy, okay?, right from the start, of meeting people in restaurants. I don't let any male reporters come to my house. I don't give mixed messages. And I also don't engage in fake, seductive things.
"Naomi, like, she's the perfect example to me of what's wrong with white middle-class girls, batting her eyes at men, never able to live a day without a man, not for one day has she been without a man, and I, on the other hand, an open lesbian with a bisexual history have never used men as an escort service, never taken advantage of men, never lived with a man, and I've hit men on the head, I respect them, and I'm open in my confrontations with them, because of that I can admit everything that men have done, what great things they have done, what grief they have done. I don't have to get back at men in this covert way. Gloria Steinem was never like this. I mean, the very moment that she was saying a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle she was constantly at parties with men, having her hair streaked at Kenneth's, and wearing low-cut dresses, all kinds of stuff. And I just don't play that game. It's this gross hypocrisy of the American feminist leaders that I hate. And that I'm determined to change."
And she is. As the silver-haired bestseller is wont to say herself, that tide of self-righteous North American feminism that is anti-men, anti-sex, anti-art seems to be reversing and, shoot, don't I have something to do with it? For Paglia, feminism is about personal responsibility and unbridled self-expression. That's why she stands for political change and popular culture and pornography. "I'm an equal opportunity feminist," she says. "I believe that feminism should be about options."
Her declaration of independence has won her many friends - witness the hundreds who packed Toronto's MacMillan Theatre late last week to hear her speak about herself, her book and her ideas. The crowd laughed, applauded, and ultimately bought out the evening's supply of Vamps and Tramps. Paglia revelled in the attention, which she saw as proof that yes, indeed, her side is winning the war.
Her insistence on a "me-versus-them" mentality, one that pits her against what she calls the Stalinist Feminist Establishment, has also earned her a number of enemies. As much as she detests Naomi Wolf ("a little pouty") and Gloria Steinem, they detest her. Loud, outspoken, proudly obnoxious, she also has alienated some of her public. Indeed, one young woman who came to hear the controversial professor of humanities speak the other night in Toronto said she did so because she hates Paglia. "I despise her politics. I mean, anyone who says that date rape is a feminist whine is a crack pot." Ironically, at the end of Paglia's two- hour talk, the same woman is bowled over: "She's much more open in her thinking than I thought."
Paglia's mind is like a large net tossed out over the vast sea of cultural history. She is as interested in pop culture as she is in pagan mythology and the Papacy of the 17th century.
A scholar who claims Marshall McLuhan as her mentor, Paglia first showed off her all-encompassing intellect four years ago in Sexual Personae, a doctoral thesis on the primitive in western art that was so revolutionary, she says, it took 20 years to be published. Sex, Art and American Culture, her second book, followed in 1992. As in her previous writings, Vamps and Tramps looks to replace the epidemic of political correctness now raging across the campuses of North America with a maverick spirit of intellectual inquiry inclusive of sex, drugs and . . . Madonna (both the singer and the mother of Christ). Covering everything from the penis to the history of love poetry, the essays are potent, pithy, pleasurable. Like their author they are also immensely quotable.
"We are in a period where it has become fashionable to attack great classics of art. A debunking cynicism passes for sophistication theses days," she writes. "Greatness is not a white male trick. Every important civilization has defined its artistic tradition in elitist terms of distinction and excellence," she continues. "The task of the artist and intellectual at the end of the century is to rework the discontinuities of our lives into new wholes."
Her mental acuity is bracing, even when her verbal excess and narcissism threaten to bore.
Realizing she may be losing her listener in her torrent of words, she sends out a wake-up call: "Hey, if you want to know where feminism is going to be in five years from now, just listen to me."
She's queen. I obey.