Saturday, March 15, 2008

My favorite lesbian atheist

I only read the leftist cyber-rag Salon once a month ... on the Wednesday that Camille Paglia's column runs. In fact (stopped clock alert!!!) Andrew Sullivan said the following last year:
Sorry, I can't help it. Like many non-lefty homos, I just can't get enough Camille (as enraged former New Republic readers in the 1990s will recall).
I've never met a man like myself (regardless of how we react to our same-sex attraction) who doesn't absolutely love her combination of erudition and bitchiness. Here she is this week on the Hillary "it's 3am ... do you trust" ad:
Would I want Hillary answering the red phone in the middle of the night? No, bloody not. The White House first responder should be a person of steady, consistent character and mood -- which describes Obama more than Hillary. And that scare ad was produced with amazing ineptitude. If it's 3 a.m., why is the male-seeming mother fully dressed as she comes in to check on her sleeping children? Is she a bar crawler or insomniac? An obsessive-compulsive housecleaner, like Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest"? And why is Hillary sitting at her desk in full drag and jewelry at that ungodly hour?
If you're familiar with her talk-show performances, you can just *hear* her say this. This is what makes Paglia such a singular writer: she writes as she speaks. But to why I post about her here now, I was recently rereading her book "Sex, Art and American Culture," which includes her brilliant essay "The Joy of Presbyterian Sex." But the thing I found inspiring this time was from a speech she gave at MIT, in which she crystallizes, from the other end of the sexual-morality spectrum, how uncritical the acceptance of a link between same-sex attraction and "gay identity" has been:
Now, you know what I hate? This thing of, say you have a man who's married, he has children, and maybe every month or every few weeks he goes out and picks up a guy. Today, in this fascist environment it's "you're gay! You're gay and you're secretly homophobic! You are self-loathing! You are hiding behind the mask of respectability!" What if he's just married and likes to sleep with men now and then? ...
I don't like the situation because right now it's bad for gay people! Right now, people are afraid. Often, a woman is afraid to go to bed with another woman because she's afraid that if she does that, even though she's attracted to her, she'll be "gay"; she'll have to have an identity crisis, be gay and all that other stuff. Why? I'm influenced by the great foreign films of the Late Fifties and Sixties where you had Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau and Dominique Sanda floating from bed to bed with a man, then with a woman, then with a man, then with a woman. ...
In terms of my history, you know, for a long while in my life I felt that, well, I have to be gay, because I'm so attracted to women, but then in a way it's living a lie, because then I have to repress my attactions to men. So after a while I thought, well, why do I have to give myself any label? Why can't I just respond from day to day and just go with the flow in the Sixties way? ...
It reminds me a little bit of Holly Woodlawn, the great Warhol drag queen, who was on an early Geraldo show. And Geraldo said to Holly Woodlawn: "are you like, a man who should be a woman, or are you a woman who was a man, or are you a man/woman?" And Holly Woodlawn said, "Oh — who care? As long as you look fabulous!"
Obviously, Paglia is not a champion of Catholic sexual morality (though her relationship to it is mature and ambivalent, not hate-filled and infantile like so many of today's gays). But she's making an important point about sexual identity, how it's actually repressive and constricting, even to someone like her who thinks homosexual acts are not immoral. She refuses to be boxed in and sees her true liberation as moving beyond gay identity. She had feelings, but asserted her freedom not to be defined by them (though she's certainly acted on them).

Honestly, and counterintuitive though it may seem ... Camille Paglia, "a bisexual radical libertarian and fulltime scold of the feminist establishment" (to quote Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes, from memory) and Andrew Sullivan helped me get through American universities in the early 90s, at the height of political correctness and about the time I was starting to become fully conscious of "That." Though neither could be called an orthodox Catholic, they both kept me away from the gay establishment of a time when I might have been quite vulnerable to it.


Fr. J. said...

About Camille. I don't read her generally though I have noticed her during her moments in the media sun at book-selling time.

Yeah, she beats up the group think dished out by those who claim to represent her as a woman and a lesbian. You and I can agree. I am all for that.

But, it seems to me that she often has an overwrought, overwritten style. This bothers me. Style should not be taken over substance, I know. But that dense over-tilled soil of her prose always seems on the verge of pointing to some new orthodoxy with which I am sure to disagree as well. New orthodoxies are often the product of such fertile minds over-trained on narrow subject matter too close to the subject for objectivity. And this is Camille.

As a Catholic, I am glad we don't have too many thinkers like this in the Church. It would be unbearable. No, as Catholics, the whole of creation is our oyster and we can let the mind go freely to where it will rather than confine it to the narrow party politik of a specific self serving agenda.

Those who get trapped into narrow identity politics no doubt lead narrow intellectual and spiritual lives. Ideology kills the spirit. And so does an ideology of anti-ideology such as Camille's.

John Jansen said...

I think I see what you're saying about Camille, and I'm inclined to agree with you.

Generally speaking, I find it refreshing to hear someone who is part of a movement (broadly speaking) whose moral beliefs are at odds with my own but who is not afraid to challenge the orthodoxies of said movement.

Credit ought to be given where credit is due.

Anonymous said...

Great informative post..

Renee said...

Over the years I've enjoyed her work also, trying to come to terms what is authentic feminism. It seemed in high school and college to be a feminist or gay for that matter, was no different then just to be apart of another clique. Being more like a clique, there was a social uniform where there is no room for discussion or disagreement. There is a bit of an irony when these individuals say that the teachings of the Catholic Church are too restrictive.

Marcus Aurelius said...

I once had a minor com box discussion with someone regarding whether or not A. Sullivan is a 'faithful son of the church'. I sort of think so, but I am not really sure. He certainly rejects article 6 of the catechism in its entirety, and the only thing keeping him away from the episcopalians is his anglophobia. But yet he still loves catholicism, identifies as such, loves films such as 'Into Great Silence' (and advertises them) ... et cetera. He doesn't care too much about chastity though from the sounds of it.

Pauli said...

You might want to check out David Benkof if you like Paglia. He's an observant Jew, has a Ph. D and he is a bisexual. IMO he has the erudition of Paglia without being overwrought and self-impressed.

David Benkof said...


Thanks for the plug. But I don't have my Ph.D. yet. 3.5 years of graduate school down, and at least as many to go, alas.

Also, if you could let my mother know that I'm neither overwrought nor self-impressed, you'd do me a lot of good.

Anonymous said...

My goodness!
I love Camille Paglia too! You are spot on about traditionalist people with same-sex attractions and this woman. I love, love, love her!

Uncle Morgie said...

Camille is a bit of a Secular Goddess to me.