VAMPS AND TRAMPS

Camille Paglia; Random House, 532 pages, $15 (paper)
I admit, albeit with a great deal of embarrassment, that I am a fan of Camille Paglia. I mean, you've got to give props to anyone who keeps a straight face while writing things like this: "Freud thinks man preened himself on his ability to put out a fire with a stream of urine. Male urination really is an accomplishment, an arc of transcendence."

Paglia wrote these lines in her maundering, schizophrenic and controversial 1990 best-seller, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Unlike any other contemporary academic, Paglia is as comfortable on the set of Nightline discussing date rape as she is on the cover of The Advocate next to the headline, "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Lesbian." Brazen enough to say very unpopular things, she somehow remains very popular.

She's a Super Fly academic who slices, dices and juliennes culture, baring her fangs at the intellectual elite and groveling at the feet of Madonna. She speaks like a speed freak and tackles every subject imaginable (gay studies, cultural criticism, art history, feminism -- you name it, she's used it or slammed it), has two well-built bodyguards around her at all times to watch for vengeful feminists, and she dresses like her idol, Keith Richards. I'd probably ask her to marry me if she wasn't gay.

But her latest book of essays, Vamps and Tramps, falls way short of Sexual Personae and her first collection of articles, Sex, Art, and American Culture. Almost all of the pieces previously appeared elsewhere (in The Washington Post, San Francisco Examiner, People and anywhere else she could bust off a few critical quips). It seems as though Paglia and her editor threw in everything, including the kitchen sink, to make this trade paperback weigh in at a hefty 531 pages.

For example, the end sections ("Extracts," "Cartoon Personae" and "A Media Chronicle"), are so self-aggrandizing that it's no wonder many academics and writers priggishly close ranks when it comes to Paglia. These articles mainly comprise pull quotes she gave for various other writers' articles, cartoons that have mentioned her (even tangentially), and a picayune chronicle of every mention of her or her work in any major publication. Who else could get away with filling 120 pages of ephemera like Penthouse Comix and New Yorker cartoons?

True, Paglia include similar sections in Sex, Art, and American Culture, but the appeal of these little snippets is growing thinner than Kate Moss, as is Paglia's shtick.

"What was so amazing about [Barbara] Streisand was her aggressive ethnicity. The Nose [Paglia's capitals], which she refused to change, was so defiantly ethnic," she writes in "Brooklyn Nefertiti: Barbara Streisand." "It was truly a revolutionary persona." Is Paglia serious? In this instance and so many others, she teeters dangerously between analytical cultural critic and drooling culture fan. I almost expect her to appear on an upcoming segment of "Coffee Talk with Linda Richman," to discuss how T.S. Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" is "like buttah."

But like most of her discussion of ethnicity, Paglia's Streisand observation is just a vehicle for self-promotion: "While in high school, I went through a rabid Streisand period," she admits pseudo-candidly. Regardless of who she is discussing in her works (and she runs the gamut: Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, D.H. Lawrence, John Wayne Bobbitt and, of course, Madonna), her subject is always herself.

"The venerable emeritus professors still at Yale when I entered graduate school may have been reserved, puritanical WASPs, but they were men of honor who had given their lives to scholarship," she opines in the introduction to the book. "Today in the elite schools, honor and ethics are gone."

I bet Camille Paglia fancies herself one of these "[wo]men of honor." She probably wakes up every morning, combs back her short hair and looks in the mirror at herself after brushing her fangs thoroughly. "You go, girl," she says in her best imitation of Oprah Winfrey (another of her idols). "You give your life to scholarship."

-- Matt Haber


Check out this interview with Camille Paglia in Urban Desires magazine.

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