Ever since she rocked the academic world with her 1990 battle cry, Sexual Personae, humanities professor-turned-provocateur Camille Paglia has enjoyed wide appeal. Her breathless, cross-disciplinary rants on art, pagan ritual, queer culture and, memorably, Madonna, have endeared her to polymorphous throngs while earning the ire of mainstream feminists.
Now Paglia's sounding off again in her new book, Break, Blow, Burn, in which she offers audacious readings of 43 of the "world's best poems," and finds implications about everything from postmodernism and queer theory to psychedelic drugs and the Doors. WW spoke with Paglia by phone from her Philadelphia office, as she geared up for a 10-city book tour.
WW: You say you like the look of "a shapely poem on paper, surrounded by white," but you didn't include e.e. cummings in your book.
Obviously, he's very important and influential for his experiments, OK, but I didn't find a strong enough poem of his to include.
You didn't include Allen Ginsberg, either.
That was one of my regrets. Howl had a huge impact on me in college in the '60s. I treasured that little book like it was a piece of holy scripture! I thought maybe I should excerpt it, but it didn't quite work. I found another one by him from early on-it was about Marlene Dietrich-but it was so unrepresentative that I thought it would be silly to put it in, and I knew if I put this in, people would say, "Oh, she's putting things in because she's a fan of Hollywood movie stars!"
I like the fact that you include Joni Mitchell as a poet. What do you think of Jim Morrison?
I take him seriously as a poet because he had vision and instinct, and I like his sense of myth. He had a great sense of archetype. He was part of that whole Jungian, Joseph Campbell kind of thing, the authentic multicultural perspective, with serpent imagery and imagery from Mexican mushroom cults. He was inspired. He saw something. Of course, part of it was due to drugs.
Speaking of which, you give a brilliant reading of "Kubla Kahn," which came out of one of Coleridge's laudanum trips. Do you take it as a given that psychoactive drugs can inspire creativity?
Well, the most creative and adventurous people of my generation took drugs in the '60s, and they to this day say it helped them. As for my own experience, during my first weekend at college, I drank seven 7&7's in an hour, and I was violently ill for the next, like, day and a half. I was so burned by that that I've been very careful about drugs. I went psychedelic through the music, though, rather than the drugs. In fact, any drug music, OK, that is my music! I am so totally insane with the psychedelic culture! You know what John Lennon said? He said that while obviously he enjoyed psychedelics, he felt that on some level he hadn't really needed them, because his mind worked like that anyway. I feel that way about my mind: I have a kind of psychedelic mind.
In your reading of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," you write that Whitman's brand of "egalitarian" bisexuality was superior to modern queer theory.
Queer theory today is disastrous, OK? After Stonewall, as male homosexuality become more permissible, there was a withdrawal by gay males from culture as the medium of creating your own identity, which previously had been theirs since the time of Oscar Wilde. So especially with the post-structuralist and postmodernist influence, you've gotten this shrill, strident voice, as if gay people could really segregate themselves from the human race. Queer studies almost immediately became a ghetto, because its leading interpreters, their view of life and of nature is extremely constricted. They don't have the expansiveness of Whitman's vision or Tennessee Williams' emotional outpouring. And this has blighted developing young gay writers and artists with the cheap, cynical irony of postmodernism.
The biphobia or heterophobia in queer theory, you mean?
Right! Everything in queer theory now is so politicized that gay people are stopped from any self-reflection. Know thyself, OK? People who identify themselves as exclusively gay-I'm saying that's a trap. Stop thinking like that! If you say, "I want to be this way for the rest of my life," all right, fine, I endorse it. But you should also say, "I'm going to keep the doors open and allow myself to respond to life as it happens." I believe that every single human is born with a potential for bisexual response. The real mystery is why anyone would be exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual. My ideal universe is one in which people have a primary sexual orientation but feel absolutely free to experiment across gender lines, to respond to the moment, to the person. That's sophisticated! That's truly creative!
Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems (Pantheon, 2005), 272 pages.
Paglia reads at Powell's Books, 1005 W Burnside St., at 7:30 pm Wednesday, April 20. FREE