Sunday, June 27, 2010

Camille Paglia on America's Sexual Malaise

Few prose stylists can match Camille Paglia for raw energy and spirited excitement. And yet, the more Paglia gives free reign to her Dionysian instincts, the more her arguments flounder in the heat of her rhetorical fireworks. Link here.

Since Dionysius was the god of wine and theater, it is not surprising that that his cult followers often sound as though they are drunk.

Everyone knows that America is in trouble. The economy is not generating jobs; political leaders have been ignoring public opinion; our president has been ingratiating himself with our enemies while snubbing our allies; and the Afghan war has been going poorly. America has seen better days.

Some of us feel that America will have to work its way out of the ditch it has fallen into. We want people to recover their work ethic, treat their friends and neighbors with civility, act with decorum and propriety, and show more respect for others.

Those of us who favor working our way out of our problems have been critical of the new American decadence that has helped put is there. Over the past few decades America has suffered a cultural revolution that has made us into sybarites, lotus-eaters, and pleasure seekers. When unemployed young people complain most loudly about their unwillingness to work more than the required minimum, you know that something important is afoot.

Camille Paglia sees things differently. For her decadence is not the problem; it's the solution. She does not want us to work our way out of our problems; she wants us to lust our way out of them.

You may think that America is more sexually liberated than it has ever been. For Camille Paglia, it's not good enough. Our distinctly American sensuality simply does not live up to the fine example that was set by the European continent, by Nietzsche and perhaps even the Marquis de Sade.

In Paglia's world, I imagine, we are all going to become like Zorba the Greek, drunk with wine, dancing on the beach, without a care in the world. Until, I must add, the money runs out.

As it happens, today's version of Zorba is likely to be mounting an insurrection against a government that can no longer pay for retirement at age 50. Camille Paglia's spiritual cohorts want to retire with full pensions so that they can enjoy life without having to work for it.

Paglia never considers the possibility that people can enjoy working, that they can feel satisfaction from a job well done, and that there is considerable happiness in being a responsible parent and a respectful neighbor.

In her confused New York Times op-ed Paglia diagnoses the nation's sexual malaise from the fact that the FDA just rejected an application for a new medicine that would enhance female sexual desire.. a Viagra for women.

Paglia considers this rejection to be something of a tragedy, but she goes further and tries to analyze why so many women have diminished libidos. I would mention that Paglia never offers any evidence for the fact that many women feel less lusty than they used to.

Without bothering to demonstrate the point, Paglia goes on to blame it on Queen Victoria. Apparently, our Great American Cultural Revolution has not fully succeeded in overcoming the oppressive weight of Victorian culture. To Paglia we remain a group of respectable middle class burghers who have refused to measure out our lives in orgasms.

The affront... the indignity... the horror of it all.

Based on her op-ed Paglia does not seem willing to grant that biology might have something to do with diminished libido in some cases. Nor does she consider that depression is one of the more common causes of a loss of sexual appetite. Finally, she does not consider that in a culture where sexual stimuli are readily available for anyone who wants it, then people are going to become desensitized to such stimuli. The more you are densensitized to sex the more you are going to have to go to extremes to find sexual pleasure.

Worse than even that, Paglia does not consider the possibility, however remote it may be, that some women may be perfectly contented with the diminished lust that comes with age. You do not have to have been around too much to know that the advent of Viagra was not greeted with open arms by the wives of its first users.

Paglia knows full well that sex is everywhere now. For her, that is not good enough, because, after all, she believes that Madonna was a Dionysian goddess while the current version of Madonna, Lady Gaga, is, to Paglia, "a high concept fabrication without an ounce of genuine eroticism." Take that, Gaga.

I believe that it is honorable for members of one generation to refrain from criticizing another generation's taste in music. Trashing Lady Gaga does not make you sound clever and witty; it makes you sound old.

Paglia's larger point is interesting enough to merit some attention. She defines clearly the nature of the culture wars that have been raging for the past few centuries. She sees that there is a great cultural disparity between Anglo-American culture and continental European cultures, primarily French and German. I suspect that she would happily include the rest of continental Europe in the cultural stew... from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the countries that are currently called the Club Med or siesta countries.

Paglia is happy to regale us with the standard litany of the cultural values that, to her mind, continue to repress our sexual vitality. You have surely seen this list before: bourgeois propriety, Victorian prudery, middle class conformity, British respectability, desexualized white actresses, and that tense, toned Pilates look. All of these horrors have been visited on us by our Anglo-American culture. They have dampened our ardor and made us into chronic consumers of Viagra.

It's easy enough to criticize. Offering an alternative is something else. And Paglia does not seem to recognize that the ongoing assault on Anglo-American culture has produced a number of political, social, and cultural alternatives.

If you want to say that the art and philosophy produced on the European continent during the 19th century was superior to that produced in England and America, be my guest. But keep in mind that there is more to life than art and philosophy.

You can rail all you want about the horrors of Victorian England, but it did, truth be told, produce a Winston Churchill. The great philosophers and artists of Germany produced a failed painter who wanted to make all of
Europe a canvas wherein he could express his aesthetic vision.

[For an excellent study of the way an aesthetic was transformed into a political movement, I recommend Modris Eksteins' great book: Rites of Spring.]

It's not so difficult to understand. If you eliminate the dread middle class, what you get is perpetual conflict between upper and lower classes. You have violent conflict between French aristocrats and peasants leading to the French Revolution. And you have violent conflict between workers and capitalists producing any one of a number of revolutionary movements.

Let us not forget the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. That particular form of Maoist delirium wanted to rid China of all vestiges of middle class propriety, respectability, and Confucianism. It was not, dare we say, a grand aesthetic gesture, except in the sense of channeling the energy of itinerant youth into the effort to remake China as a work of art.

All of these clashes do set one's blood aboil, but they also produced some of the most violent destruction that human history has ever known.

I would never suggest that Camille Paglia supports these horrors. Her taste runs more to Elvis than Mussolini. And yet, she ought to acknowledge that many people have tried to make over the world and human nature, to make it fulfill the requirements of an artistic vision.

For the most part such efforts have produced far more horrors than did Queen Victoria and Lady Gaga.


J said...

She's a pointy head what do you expect.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Point well taken...

vanderleun said...

That column is a beard. What she's probably really on about is an upclose and personal experience with the phenomenon called "Lesbian Bed Death."

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think you are right about that... I had been thinking along those lines but refrained from saying it... thanks for having the courage to say what I didn't.

Meantime, I am wondering why the reaction to Paglia's article has been so positive...

Her ploy is to pretend that she favors lots of sex, and since everyone favors lots of sex, everyone seems to like the article.

And yet, that is not at all what it is about. I suppose it shows how easy it is to deceive people.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, she can't say anything good about the Dope so she is changing the subject.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

But that's the most interesting point about her article, by omission.

You would think that she would have something good to say about a culture that elected Obama... doesn't he represent precisely the values that she has been touting all these many years.

And yet... perhaps because it makes her argument seem even less logical than it already is, she fails to mention him at all.

tinytina3 said...

I enjoyed reading your article very much. Camille Paglia's vision for America reminds me of my favorite (although critically panned) Fellini movie "Satyricon." The movie was a glimpse into the unrestrained horrors of the ancient world—it made me so thankful for the Judeo-Christian tempering of human nature's worst excesses.

Anonymous said...

You're just all a bunch of geeky losers who think you'd be happier if everyone were as impotent and trapped as y'all are.

She didn't say, slack off and there's nothing to be had from hard work. She said, life is TOO SERIOUS among the middle class. She didn't devalue work. She devalued workaholism.

But I suppose your ever-offended anglo saxon xenophobia is just too electrified to consider a bit of fun. Or maybe you feel you're too ugly to have fun and it's easier to be "serious" as an excuse to avoid it (I know I feel that way).

She didn't say go get drunk on the beach forever. It was more like, once before you DIE, in this life, have a couple nights where you danced on a beach with wine and some cute gal.
But we can't have that among conservatives, can we? Nooo, the truth is we take Judeo Christian tempering of amoral excess to mean Judeo Christian banning of all pleasure. Her call for people to "flirt" is a call for the world of the Satyricon? With it's cannibalism, gladiators, torture and legalized slavery for sexual gratification? All that is no worse than a little "flirting" to your ultra repressed minds?
In addition to what an awful and limited Judeo Christian interpretation that is, just what real result do we expect to achieve by promoting it in today's world?

So I'm a neocon who had a positive reaction to her piece. But I probably sound like a lefty loon on this paleo page.

And in case you still haven't figured out, she DOES like Obama's America and his politicking. Haven't you noticed that she never blames the virgin prince of pure intention for ANYTHING, it's always his advisors' and his staff's fault?!!! Although I don't see how mister nerdy nerd, cut-off-at-the-neck lecturer is any kind of Dionesian.

She's just somebody who doesn't have the guts to live her own words. Like most of us.

You can censor my comments. But you'll never censor my thoughts!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It did not even cross my mind to censor your thoughts. The comments section is an open forum. I have never censored anyone's thoughts.

As for the more or less substantive points you make, there is a difference between fun and decadence.

A culture that allows for fun, something that I heartily support, puts everything in its place, and includes work and fun.

A decadent culture, which derives from the aristocracy more than the middle class, devalues work, or wants to limit the time you have to spend at it, because hard work takes away from your time for fun.

And of course there is a difference between hard work and workaholism. To imagine that Paglia is supporting the value of hard work by complaining of the absence of a new female Viagra is, to this reader, laughable.

Anonymous said...

Oh. I heartily suggest you read her article again, in light of your response.

She seems more thankful (as in, praise the heavens) that there is NOT a female viagra. She treads softly at first but the end of the article couldn't be clearer that she believes personal passion should come from within, regardless of what you do or where you are, not from chemical withouts, the catchall solution for upper middle class (ie, money grubbing, workaholics who aim to live like aristocrats, if they can amass enough wealth in the office to elevate themselves above the dirty unwashed of middle and lower class groups).

To wit: "Inhibitions are stubbornly internal. And lust is too fiery to be left to the pharmacist. "

Admittedly she promotes a degree of decadence in the aristocratic sense of la dolce vita. But that is to be taken as an artistic, pleasure affirming fantasy in moderation.

She's hardly promoting a paris hilton style irresponsibiity of crashing your car drunk into the bodies and properties of the little people, who will also clean up your mess, while you saunter away on the parents' billion dollar fortune, mindlessly, amorally and without purpose.
Too many of us make the false choice between total self repression and total amorality. For those who aren't psychopaths (which is most people), the choice of total repression ends up being the one we make.

Lynnette said...

This won't have effect in reality, that's exactly what I think.