Up the Amazon

by Steve Sailer


Published in National Review, 12/31/94. 1,130 words

Vamps & Tramps: New Essays, by Camille Paglia

(Vintage Books, 532 pp., $15.00-paperback only)

Thirty years ago, Tom Wolfe noted that journalists and intellectuals were missing the Sixties' biggest story -- that ordinary Americans finally had enough money to ignore traditional restraints against living out their individual primordial urges -- because commentators couldn't see beyond their 1950s conceptual framework (McCarthyism! Conformity!). Today, Americans are running still looser and wilder, scandalizing even aficionados of human nature in the raw. Yet, the serious media slog on in explaining our hormone-deranged national circus with threadbare social environmentalist rubrics (Media Stereotypes! Discrimination!). But, say you're not quite satisfied, for instance, that the only lesson of the O.J. Simpson saga is The Need for Domestic Violence Awareness. Maybe you can't help wondering why our American Othello gets sacks of love-letters. ("Ooh, O.J., you're so passionate, so dangerous yet endangered, and, lately, so single!") Well, uh . . . Socialization! Victimization!

This unilateral intellectual disarmament widens the comically schizophrenic gap between the mainstream media's words (increasingly sanctimonious) and pictures (ever more lurid). Text now serves as politically pious disinfectant for swelteringly pagan images: e.g., fashion magazines interlard prim feminists denouncing America's beauty obsession between supermodel photospreads. To understand what fascinates us, watch what we watch, not what we say we read.

In a country this wide open, people will think about whatever they like to think about. We even have some inconveniently rigorous thinkers who enjoy asking: "If society conditions individuals, what conditions societies?" Yet, despite their insights into sex and aggression, culture and the creative arts seemed beyond these Neo-Darwinists' ken. Or, so it appeared until an unknown humanities teacher named Camille Paglia detailed in Sexual Personae, Volume I (1990) a theory of why we watch what we watch that finally did justice to the "fantastically complex interpenetration" of nature and nurture. Paglia traced the disturbing but indelible imprint of nature on classic Western art and literature, noting how biology recurrently surfaces in visually charismatic "sexual archetypes" like the femme fatale.

Although sociobiologists like Edward O. Wilson might begin with the queen bee, while Paglia started with Queen Nefertiti, she reached some oddly congruent conclusions that made her Public Enemy #1 of orthodox feminists: e.g., "Despite my deviant and rebellious beginnings, I have been lead by my studies to reaffirm the most archaic myths about male and female." Notwithstanding her NC17-rated subject matter and her nostalgia for the Rousseauvean Sixties, Paglia's logic often compels her toward Hobbesian conservatism: e.g., "Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check ... [The] rapist is a man with too little socialization rather than too much."

Her sudden notoriety is due in part to her extraordinary powers of pattern recognition (she resembles a stand-up comic who's been channel-surfing for stereotypes since Sumer). But at a time when "multiculturalists" insist that only members of a group should discuss that group, Paglia also reconfirms the value of the outsider's perspective. An outsider among outsiders, she's a lesbian who identifies with men rather than resents them (her idol is Rolling Stone Keith Richards). As an odd duck, she can scrutinize masculinity with detached lucidity, while most men are fish who don't know they're wet.

Paglia's third book, Vamps and Tramps, is not Volume 2 of Sexual Personae, which will systematically extend her analysis to pop culture. This collection of recent journalism does however frequently follow V. 2's promised theme: "The commercial media . . . sidestep the liberal censors who have enjoyed such long control over book culture. In film, popular music, and commercials we contemplate all the daemonic myths and sexual stereotypes of paganism that reform movements from Christianity to feminism have never been able to eradicate." Her tardiness in completing her masterwork is disappointing but not surprising; as this straight-to-paperback 532 page compendium exhaustively chronicles, she's been busy. After having only two (!) articles published in the Seventies and Eighties, she's grabbed the Nineties by the lapels and won't let go until she's had her say.

Paglia now writes extensively on both current controversies and the latest month's Scandal of the Century. Although I prefer her as analyst rather than advocate, even her manifestos are uniquely frank: e.g., she blasts gay activists as "Stalinists" for their campaigns of intimidation and sophistry. She also explicates how the Bobbits, the Windsors, Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuouco, Woody and Mia and Soon-Yi, and Bill and Hillary and Paula fit into her grand scheme. Frustratingly for her critics -- and for admirers who wish she'd get back to scholarship -- by focusing on the enduring allure of sexual archetypes, Paglia does explain the appeal of our tabloid divinities more successfully than normal news pundits trained to emphasize only their supposed novelty. The crazier the world seems, the saner Paglia sounds.

Unfortunately, Vamps and Tramps suffers from the mixing of Paglia's three discordant personae: scholar, polemicist, and celebrity role model. While never dull, this unabridged compilation can be repetitious. Because Paglia ties every topic into The Theory, most of her Op-Eds must include a rushed recap of the tragi-comic worldview she elucidated with supreme clarity in Sexual Personae's first chapter.

But Paglia also wants to be an icon, the role model for 21st Century women. Although Paglia's "street-wise feminism" is a bracing antidote to the naiveté of conventional feminism, does Paglia really expect many women to ever deeply identify with her? Or is her natural audience mostly male? From Rush Limbaugh (who shared a convivial cigar with her) to Hollywood he-man Oliver Stone (whose Natural Born Killers is a repulsively literal rendering of a few of Paglia's gorier views on the human animal), guys can relate to Paglia man to man.

Finally, turbocharging her Amazon side for maximum media impact aggravates a weakness in a thinker who's heroically ambitious to comprehend human nature: she can't emotionally identify with mothers. "I have no talent for motherhood," she admits in a rare understatement. (That's why she doesn't notice that the most overwhelming evidence for the appeal of sexual archetypes is not in museums but toy stores.) Reproduction is of course central to Paglia's theory, and while she respects maternal women more than orthodox feminists do, she connects with childbirth only intellectually. Since superstardom requires emotion more than intellect, Paglia now exhorts women to follow her in vamping and tramping fearlessly. She must guard against becoming absorbed in her singular personality. Otherwise, her edicts could become as unrealistic for women searching for the security that motherhood demands as that Michael Jordan advertising slogan "Be Like Mike" was impracticable for gravity-challenged white boys.

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Steve Sailer (steveslr@aol.com) is a businessman and writer. His article, "Why Lesbians Aren't Gay," appeared in National Review on 5/30/94.

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