Sex, Art and American Culture, essays by Camille Paglia (Viking £16.99) Mary Kenny
CAMILLE Paglia is a very important Catholic writer (though she points out that she is a lapsed Catholic, and adds, of uncertain sexual orientation).
But her work is profoundly Catholic in this: it is deeply formed by the dazzling visual impact of Italian Catholicism in her childhood, the holy pictures, the highly coloured statues, the sheer drama and imagination invoked by traditional Catholic culture.
And it is deeply informed, moreover, by the Catholic sense of history, of continuation, of following on in a cultural tradition that began not with Jesus Christ, but with the Greeks (and of course the Jews).
The synthesis of her thinking is represented by an essay piquantly and perhaps hilariously entitled "The Joy of Presbyterian Sex". In this Paglia shows her contempt for what she characterises as "Protestant America", being as she sees it, the seed-bed for all that is phonily liberal, and at the same time , prissy and unimaginative. completely hemmed in by "the word".
"The primary problem of Protestantism is word-fixation. Scripture-study is at its heart. No fleshy mediator is needed between the soul and God; no images of saints, Mary or God are permitted." In one sense, her thesis is extremely sectarian: offensiveness, anyway, is Paglia's stock in trade. In another. it might be said to "prove" to traditional Protestants just what !het
have always suspected that Catholicism has a high input of paganism.
But this is a key essay because it highlights for "liberal" Catholics, too some of the problems of a liberal and feminist approach to sex: this liberal and feminist approach was marked by a Presbyterian report called "Keeping Body and Soul Together", issued in the US in February 1991.
The liberal Presbyterians, in short, urged their flock to be positive about gays, to reject "patriarchy" and to embrace feminist values. Nice, liberalthinking folks might think it decent and tolerant, but Paglia takes it apart, seeing behind its apparent permissiveness concealed snobbishness and a "trimmedlawn view of sex".
The report picks and chooses its marginalised outcasts as snobbishly as Proust 's Duchesse de Guermantes. We can "move tender, safe, clean, handholding gays and lesbians to the centre but not of course, pederasts, prostitutes, strippers, pornographers, or sadomasochists". Why not, she asks?
Paglia understands clearly that sexual liberation does not stop with undoing the old taboos against fornication, adultery. and sodomy: if we are going to let it all hang out, why not be equally liberal to "drug dealers, moonshiners, Elvis impersonators, string collectors, Mafiosi, foot fetishists, serial murderers, cannibals, Satanists and the Ku Klux Klan"? They're only doing what comes naturally, too!
She dislikes intensely the way in which the Presbyterians try to "clean up" homosexuality (but they would, wouldn't they?) "In its liberal zeal to understand, to accept, to heal, it reduces the grand tragicomedy to love and lust to a Hallmark cork. Its unctuous normalizing of dissident sex is imperialistic and oppressive. The gay world is stripped of its outlaw adventures in toilets, alleyways, trucks and orgy rooms.
"There are no leathermen, hustlers or drag queens. Gay love is reduced to a nice, neat, middle class couple moving in next door on Father Knows Best.
"It's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? all over again, with Sidney Poitier, Mr Smooth and Perfect, recast in gay form. This is censorship in the name of liberal benevolence."
What Paglia is saying is that sexuality cannot be reduced to something neat and cute and squeaky-clean. It has a wild and demented aspect, just as rock music tells us, just as great art has told us, and as opera tells us; and indeed, just as the Catholic penny catechism has said. It is okay for religions to be austere. Paglia
insists; all the great religions have been, and have seen, the conflict between body and soul. It is not okay to pretend otherwise.
There is a great deal more in her book on the themes of sex and art and culture including some highly controversial material about rape (she dismisses "date rape" as something dreamed up by spoiled, rich undergraduates). All of her work is highly readable, although she can be extremely perverse. She is maddeningly self-regarding, not to sal egomaniacal: and I think she has indeed a misogynistic streak in that she underrates women's contributions to culture (usually equating women with nature rather than culture).
But she also has a beguiling honesty, as she knows a prodigious amount about history, art, modem music and antiquity. Pagfia is a significant thinker of our time.