I somehow stumbled across this essay from the great Molly Ivins on Camille Paglia. It made me happy.
I first encountered the writing of Paglia in the 1990s — Salon seemed to be infatuated with her — and I remember thinking that she was a frenetic bag of hot air, fond of pronouncements about How Things Ought To Be, and in particular had these cartoonish ideas about feminism that, even in those days of my own nascent awareness, were plainly absurd. And she kept bringing up these caricatures of evolutionary history to support her claims! She was a kind of ur-EvoPsych nitwit.
But wow, Ivins has her pegged.
Bram Dijkstra, author of a much-praised book, Idols of Perversity, which is a sort of mirror image of Sexual Personae, said that Paglia “literally drags the whole nineteenth-century ideological structure back into the late-eighteenth century, really completely unchanged. What’s so amazing is that she takes all that nineteenth-century stuff, Darwinism and social Darwinism, and she re-asserts it and reaffirms it in this incredibly dualistic fashion. In any situation, she establishes the lowest common denominator of a point. She says, `This is the feminist point of view,’ and overturns it by standing it on its head. She doesn’t go outside what she critiques; she simply puts out the opposite of it.”
“For example,” Dijkstra continues, “she claims, `Feminism blames rape on pornography,’ which is truly the reductio ad absurdum of the feminist point of view. Of course, there are very many feminist points of view, but then she blows away this extremely simplified opposite, and we are supposed to consider this erudition. She writes aphorisms and then throws them out, one after the other, so rapid-fire the reader is exhausted.”
Tracing Paglia’s intellectual ancestry is a telling exercise; she’s the lineal descendant of Ayn Rand, who in turn was a student of William Graham Sumner, one of the early American sociologists and an enormously successful popularizer of social Darwinism. Sumner was in turn a disciple of Herbert Spencer, that splendid nineteenth-century kook. Because Paglia reasserts ideas so ingrained in our thinking, she has become popular by reaffirming common prejudices.
Ivins is too kind to Spencer, but otherwise, that’s spot on. And that phrase, “she has become popular by reaffirming common prejudices”, fits a few others I can think of, too: Christina Hoff Sommers and Cathy Young.