April 27, 2005

"Try to survive a tornado with a post-structuralist."

Camille Paglia in Madison.

Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia

I show up early for the Camille Paglia reading at Borders this evening. The place is packed. I find a seat and then, here’s Chris, sitting with Nina, and they’ve saved me a seat in the second row. There are a lot of saved seats. Next to me is a seat saved with a copy of a book called “Wicca – a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner… over 400,000 copies sold.” At first, I think, 400,000? So we’re screwed... And then, I think, well, apparently not. Two women show up and claim the Wicca seats. One says, looking at the book, “Oh, cool. I’m kind of interested,” and the other says, “Me, too.”

A bookstore guy comes out to read us a bunch of rules from “Miss Paglia.” No photos until the signing session. No large bags at the signing. Don’t try giving Miss Paglia any manuscripts or presents. She comes out. She’s quite tiny, even in three-inch heels. She reacts, animatedly, to each line of the introduction. She takes the mike and says she’s avoided Madison until today. In the early 90s, it was “a bit too P.C.” (And now?)

She launches into a 40-minute rant. Films today are “a blizzard of fast editing,” they’re “crap.” Not like when she was young. Soap operas have gone way downhill since when she loved them, when she was young. Young people have migrated to the web, where nothing can be trusted, and everything lingers forever, “like space junk.” The whole culture has Attention Deficit Disorder. We need to “stabilize kids’ eyes,” and that’s the point of her new poetry book. Read some poems, kids. Focus!

She rants against post-structuralism, which, she says, can only -- at most -- be aimed at long, narrative, European texts. It’s hopeless in America and hopeless with poetry. She’s against that theoretical, academic blather and wants to talk to ordinary people and get them to care about art. Actually, she’s a lot like a generic high school English teacher who just wants everyone to pay attention to art, to appreciate it.

Writers need to experience things and not live the bland, featureless life of the writing program grad student. Like this guy who wrote a poem about surviving a tornado. “Try to survive a tornado with a post-structuralist.”

In the question session, one young man asks what she thinks of blogging. She says, “I’m worried about blogging.” There’s “decadence” in the web. Once you’re “swept up in the blogosphere,” you become self-referential. (Afterwards, my colleague expresses amusement that she said other people were being self-referential.) Instead of blogs, she prefers on-line magazines. Mainly, Salon. Do you know she’s returning to Salon? There’s also Slate, but Slate’s “a little bit more wonky,” though it has “some good wonky articles now and then.” Who knows which blogs to read? There are so many! What bloggers need to do is join together and make on-line magazines. Like Salon. Did you know she’s returning to Salon? On Salon, years ago, she was developing a style that was “all about her,” but she was “an established writer” already, and she’s worried about people now trying to start becoming writers through blogging. But, she admits, if she were just starting out now, she’d be blogging.

But those blogs! Some are just “snark, snark, snark,” and others are very pedestrian. But maybe “blog style will mature,” maybe a “blog master will emerge.” Then, shifting position, she says “bark bark bark yap yap yap – I like that!”

A teacher in the audience recounts his difficulty getting his students to watch the movie “Casablanca.” Paglia thinks he might have had more luck with “Ben Hur,” but then moves into a rant that gets her back to her point about how awful post-structuralism is, and she extends this to a criticism of the left. The left “has become spiritually empty.” It has no connection to art and religion. And the right gets art wrong too: it thinks there should be a moral message.” Art for art’s sake is what needs to be taught. Art appreciation is what this country needs today.

Time for one more question, one that can be answered in two minutes, which is a really funny thing to say, considering Paglia’s propensity to take any cue and spin out ten minutes of material. A man asks what she dreams about. She does a whole thing about the importance of dreams, but finally comes around to an answer. She dreams of natural disasters: the sea rising and tornados.

UPDATE: Kate Marie at "What's the Rumpus" just wrote a poem titled "Surviving a Tornado With a Post-Structuralist." It's really good -- and hilarious!

ANOTHER UPDATE: A commenter senses that I didn't really like Paglia all that much, and I want to respond. I greatly enjoy her form of expression, but I think there's a lot less content than you might think. She loves art and wants other people to love art because art is important and she loves it. Nothing she said made me want to read poetry, which was ostensibly the point of the book she spent five years writing. She didn't even read us or quote us a single line of poetry.

Like a lot of people, she hates post-structuralists, but her attack on them is largely an expression of disgust. There's no detail to her critique. Take her word for it: that stuff's terrible. But exactly why? Are we not to analyze art in an intellectual way? Should we just be close-reading enthusiasts? Paglia always falls back on her life story: she's Italian, she's working class, she was raised Catholic, and she had trouble advancing in academia because she would not do post-structuralism. Fine, that's all interesting and entertainingly stated, but it doesn't make me want to read poetry, and it doesn't explain why I should reject post-structuralism. (Not that I don't.)

Finally, she acts as if she was the only one circa 1970s who embraced pop culture as a worthy part of art and that her troubles in academia had to do with this. But this was the great era of Pauline Kael, who was all about making movies part of what intellectuals talked about. We were all about pop culture then! The Introduction to Poetry class I took in college around 1970 included Beatles lyrics -- I still have the anthology -- and one of the main papers topics was to pick a rock song and analyze the lyrics -- I still have my paper. (I did "Maggie Mae"/And got an A.) The blurring of the line between high and low culture was scarcely something she started and suffered for daring to do.

AND A BIT MORE: That was the Rod Stewart "Maggie Mae" ("Wake up, Maggie, I think I've got something to say to you") not the Beatles' little snippet of a song ("Oh, dirty Maggie Mae, they have taken her away").

AND THIS TOO: Kevin Drum has a funny link to this post.


Ron said...


Call me crazy...but I'm not sensing a lot of Camille-Love...c'ese vrai?

nina said...

I was sitting next to Ann and can vouch for the fact that the author of Althouse laughed out loud more than once during the presentation.

Ann Althouse said...

Craigc: Good observation. I'm going to do an update that answers this.

Irene Done said...

I really enjoyed that account of Paglia's appearance. She's someone I've always found so very entertaining. Two things: did the embrace of pop culture backfire on her? She laments that no one knows poetry or classic art. But they do know rap lyrics and movie scenes. Do pop culture studies suck the oxygen out of the academic world? Second, her ADD comment reminded me of Justice O'Connor's comment that judges read 1500 pages a day (this was declared very proudly too if you saw the telecast). This made me wonder: how many people can do that? How does Paglia's ADD generation gain the discipline to do that?

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Ah yes, the "Maggie Mae" paper. And I did mine on "Dear Landlord." Gold mines of insight we were. (You keep that stuff? Have you seen my old Smith Corona lying around anywhere...?)

Ann Althouse said...

Irene: You're right. There is a lot of contradiction in the things she says. She never stops and says, but how can I say X and Y? Can both things be true? She just rolls along spouting the next thing, more in the style of a comedian than someone who really cares about ideas. Yet her main point is that we need to focus and go deep. But I don't think she herself does. She seems to be the one with A.D.D. Yet she did spend 5 years writing this slim book that's half-filled with other people's writing. I wonder what else she did in that time. She presents herself as all speedy, but is proud to have fussed over this volume -- including 2 years just honing the prose. Something just doesn't add up. (Something just doesn't A.D.D. up.)

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: I need to move out of my house just to rid myself of the accumulated clutter. I just don't have the incentive to throw anything out. So, yes, I do have the typewriter (and another one too and numerous computers). And I do still have my old "Maggie Mae" paper, which I ran across recently and read with a combination of shame (at myself) and outrage (at the institution that should have forced me to become educated).

Anonymous said...

I do like Paglia--she's different! And she stirs the stale air of the literary world.

If you'd like to read another good critic on modern poetry, try Joan Houlihan at http://www.webdelsol.com/LITARTS/Boston_Comment/

Josh Jasper said...

Paglia is a liberal? I thought she was post-liberal. Anyhow, conservatives seem to love her. That should say something.

Josh Jasper said...

If Paglia thinks the left is spiritualy empty, she's never (THANK GOD!) been to Burning Man.

Ruth Anne Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ann Althouse said...

Eddie: Thanks for defending the young Ann Althouse against her judgmental older version. But I'm not ashamed of it for being badly done. I'm actually a little proud of the way I nailed the assignment. I'm just ashamed of having found myself in that position and having done what I was asked to do.

Susan said...

The last time I watched Camille was on C-Span's Book TV on the 3 hour In Depth interview program. I hope they run it again now that she has a new book out. I called a friend who had never seen Camille to tell her to watch it. At the 1 1/2 hour break my friend called back out of breath just from trying to keep up with listening to her.

Dudley de Souza said...

Hi Ann,

I like the way you described the La Paglia presentation; here's something that might fill in the blanks for the presenter's animosity towards structuralism: please check my blog at


thirdleg said...

Who is that dude with the sweet sideburns? Is that David Bowie?

John said...

I've joined this party late, but I'll remind you that you quote Paglia stating that art is aesthetic - so of course she would not elucidate an argument against post-stucturalism; she's against any sort of over-arching 'intellectualism'.