another camille paglia binge, with ups and downs

Every now and then I’ll binge some Camille Paglia interviews on Spotify over the course of a couple days’ errands. I do this every six months or so. I fell into another of those streaks over the past few days except this time (for the first time) the streak’s prompted by the fact that I also found one of her books on sale, a 2018 essay collection called Provocations. I read a few of her pieces over a couple beers at American Social the other night and I thought they were terrific. Straightforward and conversational but also eloquent. Academic and scrutinous without being alienatingly verbose.

The essays are a delight but she often irks me in her conversation because she speaks so derisively of those with whom she disagrees, or of the ideas with which she disagrees, and–without villainizing it–I can say that it isn’t quite my approach. I don’t vibe with that sort of abrasiveness. 

On the page, I like her a lot. In particular there’s an essay where she talks about how she structures a class on song lyrics and she dissects this Joan Baez song and reveals it to be something way more poetic and symbolic than I would’ve guessed with a casual listening–she also describes what you can so easily imagine: that she plays a song in the beginning of class, then hands out the lyrics, everybody dissects the lyrics, and then they listen to the song again in like the last ten minutes of class and everybody has this palpable feeling of epiphany.

In podcasts, I appreciate her eloquence and her humor and the blitzkrieg speed of her rapport, but I can only take it in small doses.

Here are a couple things that interested me from the recent binge. 

  1. There’s a public conversation that culminates in a Q&A, I forget which podcast it was, but Paglia talks about telling her students that “nothing is boring. If you’re bored, it’s because you are boring.” In other words: when she’s stuck at an airport or something, or stuck in traffic, yes she’ll be flustered for a little while, but once the frustration abates a little bit she asks herself, “What are the opportunities for absorption right now? What’s going on around me that I’m not paying attention to?” Now, let’s keep in mind, Paglia’s a person with expressive talents and a platform for that expression. Not everybody is so privileged. In other words: it’s easy to find the whole world interesting if you know that you’ll be able to make art out of your casual impressions. It made me wonder: if I weren’t a writer, if I didn’t have any creative platforms, would I be as fascinated by the people in my community as I am? Would I just aimlessly brood about the homeless crisis I see in the area? Would it make me more politically active?
  2. She talks about her somewhat recent fascination with French actor Catherine Deneuve and she says that she was so enchanted by Deneuve, was thinking about her constantly, until one day, quite by accident, she met Deneuve in person. They had a pleasant exchange and then Paglia moved on–at which point her fascination with Deneuve, her self-labeled “obsession,” abated. What Paglia realized is that she hadn’t been obsessed with a human being (Deneuve herself) but with a Hollywood construct (CATHERINE DENEUVE). Now, that’s an interesting observation on its own, sure, but the part of it that brought me solace is the part about Paglia being unabashedly obsessed with a public figure.

If you’ve been following the podcast and blog for a little while you know that I’ve been bending over backwards about Blake Bailey’s forthcoming biography of Philip Roth–which I’ve finally read, thanks to the kindness of folks at W.W. Norton who sent me an early copy–but, leading up to the Roth book, I read all of Bailey’s previous books, biographies of three different writers plus a slim memoir, along with revisiting some of Roth’s own work (of which I’ve read almost every published word)—–it was obsession!

Kind of embarrassing.

But, frankly, it’s the kinda thing I go through. It happens for a few months at a time. I get intensely immersed in some artist’s body of work (and yes I consider Paglia an artist even though she’s technically an academic; her great art work, as Harold Bloom said of Norman Mailer and then Norman Mailer said back to Bloom, is her persona) and then I move on. 

So the upside of my current Paglia binge: she makes me feel better about being so passionately obsessed with public figures.

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