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Camille Paglia Censors Her Own Work

2,112 words

Camille Paglia identifies as a liberal Democrat, but as soon as her masterpiece Sexual Personae appeared in 1990, she began to win ardent admirers on the Right. Indeed, I first heard of Sexual Personae from Roger Kimball’s review in the neocon culture magazine The New Criterion.

Paglia’s appeal to the Right is easy to understand. She celebrates the greatness of Western civilization, rejects liberal blank slate and perfectionist models of man, defends civilization and culture from sentimental primitivists and nature worshippers, believes that sexuality is first and foremost biological, affirms hierarchy and rejects egalitarianism, takes religion seriously, rejects academic political correctness, values men and masculinity, upholds heteronormativity even though she celebrates the cultural fecundity of homosexuality, criticizes the loonier extremes of academic feminism (from a liberal feminist standpoint), and has a strongly populist sensibility.

Of course, as a Rightist, I cannot endorse Paglia’s views without qualification. She is wedded to an overly positive view of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, whereas I want to keep the Tolkien and dump the Marcuse. She believes that a multicultural America is somehow workable. As an Italian-American, she identifies with ethnic outsiders — Jews, blacks — and constantly denigrates WASPs. She even maintains that political correctness is a manifestation of WASP puritanism, when in fact it has a lot more to do with the intensely authoritarian, conformist, and cultic mentality of Eastern European Jews. (And what were the Puritans, anyway, but adherents of a Judaizing form of Christianity?)

But none of these caveats in any way dim my enthusiasm for each new Paglia book, essay, or interview. For ultimately the things that we Rightists like or dislike about Paglia’s politics pale by comparison to her achievements as the most ambitious cultural theorist since Spengler and the greatest critic of art and literature since Arnold and Pater. Beyond that, she’s a likable genius. It is impossible not to admire her courage, wit, and manic intensity.

Of course we on the Right know that our endorsement of Paglia does not imply her endorsement of us. And Paglia knows that as well. And of course we understand that even though she openly spurns political correctness and has no inhibitions about criticizing the Left, she still sees herself as a Leftist and sees us as “those people.” Thus she is probably not comfortable with any open or covert contacts with her readers on the Right.

Thus I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Antaios Verlag, the leading publisher of the German New Right, had purchased the German translation rights to Paglia’s most recent essay collection Free Men, Free Women: Sex, Gender, Feminism (New York: Pantheon, 2017; reviewed here by our Peter Bredon. See my thoughts of Paglia’s Glittering Images here and here). This would be the first German Paglia translation in 18 years. Until then, only three of Paglia’s seven books — Sexual Personae (1994); Sex, Art, and American Culture (1999); and The Birds (2000) — had been translated into German due to the Left-wing feminist stranglehold on German academic and commercial publishing. Paglia’s work, however, had long been championed in the pages of Antaios’ journal Sezession, particularly by Martin Lichtmesz, Ellen Kositza, and Caroline Sommerfeld, the editors and translators of the book.

Unfortunately, however, the forces of political correctness caught wind of the project and managed to suppress yet another Paglia translation. But this time, they had the cooperation of Paglia herself.

A journalist named Lilli Heinemann interviewed Paglia for the Süddeutsche Zeitung about the new translation. Bear in mind that Paglia had not seen the book at the time. (Indeed, as far as I know, she still has not seen a copy.) So everything she knew about the translation was based on the report of a journalist who is hostile to Antaios Verlag and to Paglia’s own dissident feminism. We have no way of knowing exactly what Heinemann said to Paglia, but judging from the interview and Paglia’s response, Heinemann told Paglia that Antaios had altered her words to serve their political agenda. In that light, Paglia’s reaction was perfectly understandable:

Over the past 30 years, I have published seven books that have been translated into many languages. Never before have I encountered a publisher who is so ethically insensitive to a legal contract or so arrogant and disrespectful to writers and their work. The totalitarian impulse that has led to this invasion and mutilation of my intellectual property is incomprehensible to me. Hereby I dissociate myself from all connections to this German edition. I am shocked and repelled by the unscrupulous behavior of my German publisher, who changed my words without my permission. It is bizarre and immoral to exploit and distort my words and my work for ideological purposes in German politics.

According to Heinemann, “Camille Paglia, with the lawyers of her New York-based literary agency Janklow & Nesbit, has asked Antaios Publishing to refrain from any further publication of her book and to immediately destroy all available copies.”

Heinemann could cite changes to Paglia’s text: the book’s title, the titles of some of the essays, the addition of some 400 translators’ notes (which are clearly identified as such), the omission of two short pieces, and the substitution of Paglia’s Introduction with one by Ellen Kositza.

But the crucial fact is: none of these changes “exploit and distort” Paglia’s words and work “for ideological purposes in German politics.” They were simply made to make the book more accessible to a German-speaking audience.

Again, Paglia had not seen the book. She simply took the word of a journalist who is hostile to both Antaios and her own work and then sprang into action. She did not seek a second opinion. She did not discuss the matter with Lichtmesz or Kositza and ask them to explain themselves. She did not demand to see the book for herself. (Antaios did send her a copy. Let’s hope she reads it. But it is not clear if Paglia reads German at all.) She simply contacted her agents’ legal team and demanded the destruction of the edition.

Antaios broke a nearly 20-year blackout on German translations of Paglia’s books. Because the Left could not prevent Free Women, Free Men from being published in German, a journalist gaslighted Camille Paglia into suppressing it herself.

Again, we understand that there’s a difference between being a dissident Leftist and crossing the aisle to the Right. Paglia thinks that being a dissident Leftist is still a tenable position, even as the walls of political correctness close in around her. How much does she owe her current platform to gay men — who are among her most fervent fans — with powerful positions in the media and publishing keeping the circling sharks of the sisterhood at bay? Unless Left-wing totalitarianism in academia and the mainstream media is not stopped, Paglia and other dissidents on the Left will eventually succumb. It may not happen in her lifetime (she is now 71), but after her death, she may become as culturally marginalized as Spengler or disappear entirely down the memory hole like another Schopenhauerian/Nietzschean art and cultural critic, anti-feminist, and philosopher Anthony Ludovici — Ludowho? — and only find sympathetic readers and publishers on the Right. (Some of Ludovici’s books have become so rare that it is impossible to find used copies at any price.)

So what about those changes?

First, two very short essays were dropped: “Why I Love The Real Housewives” and “What’s In a Picture: Robert Mapplethorpe’s Portrait of Patti Smith for Horses.” These were dropped simply because they would make sense to almost no German readers, and providing the necessary context would have required as many pages as the articles themselves. I understand the publisher’s thinking. Personally, I would have left them in without any comment, or simply a brief note identifying the fact that understanding them is very much dependent on an American context. But this is a judgement call, and ten different publishers would have ten different opinions about it.

As for the title, Free Women, Free Men, according to Lichtmesz and Kositza, they heard this as double entendre, in which “free” functioned both as an adjective describing women and men and as an imperative verb, i.e., “make women free, make men free.” This imperative case could not be captured simply by translating the title “Freie Frauen, Freie Männer.” So the translators came up with a clever solution, preserving “women” and “men” and imperative verbs by using a fundamental distinction discussed by Paglia in the first chapter: women simply have to be women; men have to become men. Hence the title Frauen bleiben, Männer werden, meaning “Women remain, men become” but it can also be read as an imperative: “Remain women, become men.”

This sort of change needs to be kept in context. With Paglia’s three previous German translations, only The Birds was translated in a completely straightfoward way: Die Vögel. Sexual Personae was translated as Die Masken der Sexualität, which is defensible since the Latin root of “persona” means “mask,” but I think it is a clumsy translation because of the English “personae” has a much richer sense than just its Latin root. Sex, Art, and American Culture was translated as Der Krieg der Geschlechter. Sex, Kunst und Medienkultur (The Battle of the Sexes: Sex, Art, and Media Culture), which strikes me as quite heavy-handed.

Usually, it is best for authors to just trust their publishers’ judgment on such matters. For instance, my New Right vs. Old Right was translated into French and published as Le Nationalisme Blanc (White Nationalism), a title which I hated but which makes perfect sense in the French context. The French, after all, invented the New Right, and they would roll their eyes at another book on that topic, particularly by an American. But White Nationalism is still a novel idea there.

Some of the chapter titles were altered as well. For instance, “The Return of Carrie Nation” would mean nothing to a German reader, so it was replaced with a phrase from the article itself.

As for replacing Paglia’s Introduction with one by Ellen Kositza, the rationale was sound. Paglia’s Introduction does not really prepare a German audience for what is to come. In Germany, feminism has gone unchallenged for quite some time; its primary critics are nice Catholic ladies like Birgit Kelle, Gabriele Kuby, and Barbara Rosenkranz; and Paglia has been absent from German intellectual conversations for nearly two decades. In such a context, Paglia’s Introduction would have needed an Introduction of its own. Personally, though, I would have added Kositza’s Introduction and kept Paglia’s, which contains a lot of interesting new information, although a lot of it is also repeated in the book itself. Kositza’s Introduction, moreover, is excellent and is clearly written with deep affection and understanding. The original German version is online at Sezession. I will happily provide Camille Paglia with an English translation.

The bottom line is that while any publisher might quibble about one change or another, there can be no doubt that none of these changes were made from a lack of scruples, much less a Rightist political agenda. Indeed, they are a product of a very lovable, very Germanic hyper-scrupulousness. The translators clearly love Camille Paglia so much that they wanted to create an edition that removed every impediment to their fellow Germans’ understanding and appreciation of her ideas. After seeing Antaios’ translations of Paglia, Jack Donovan, and F. Roger Devlin, I would be delighted to have my books translated by them.

The quality of the Antaios edition is obvious even to Paglia’s German critics, such as Barbara Vinken, a cultural studies scholar interviewed about the translation by Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Vinken denies that Paglia is not translated in Germany due to political correctness. Instead, Vinken insists that it is because of  the inadequacies of Paglia’s work. Vinken accuses Paglia of mutilating Freudian theory, being simplistic, and engaging in empty provocation. Despite this, she has high praise for the Antaios edition: “It’s a terrific edition; it’s an incredible labor of love; it’s incredibly detailed, a great annotated edition.” Vinken thinks that Paglia simply panicked at the Leftist pushback for working with Antaios.

In her interview with Heinemann, Paglia herself grants that, “The [Antaios] editors were cultured and well-versed with my ideas — that was the level of discussion. At no time did a political agenda come up.” Paglia is referring here in part to her interview for Sezession conducted by Martin Lichtmesz.

Antaios did only one thing wrong. They did not clear their changes with Paglia. They believed the contract gave them more latitude than it actually permitted. This gave Paglia the legal pretext to suppress the edition. In this, Paglia is entirely within her rights as an author. But she is still doing the wrong thing.



  1. Samuel Nock
    Posted April 25, 2018 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Sexual Personae is a book I wish I had read 20 years ago, when I would likely have appreciated it more. When I finally approached relatively recently, I was quite disappointed. I found what Greg accurately describes as her “manic intensity” off-putting: the level of enthusiasm made me less amenable to the arguments she wanted to make. I prefer a more bloodless type of criticism.

    And indeed, speaking of bloodless criticism, I would consider T.S. Eliot the premier cultural and artistic critic since Arnold, and I don’t think there has been anyone to match Eliot since then. Simon Leys, who passed away a few years ago, is one under-appreciated cultural critic who deserves more recognition.

    In any event, back to the issue at hand: This is very unfortunate that Paglia would dance to the tune of a liberal journalist who clearly is not approaching this out of any concern for Paglia and her work. It is also uncharacteristic of Paglia, who normally is very skeptical, does not do the predictable thing, and has a strong bullshit detector.

    • Posted April 26, 2018 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      I can attest from experience that most Germans and French have at best a minimal understanding of English; many know none at all.

    • Dynamo
      Posted April 26, 2018 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      Most germans speak some english, But few germans would read a book in english.

      Furthermore, every language need a white nationalist vocabula. Every language must think and put into words “alt right”-language. Otherwise it Wont seem autentic and wont attract.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 26, 2018 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      It is pretty juvenile to dismiss Paglia and a critic of poety based on Break Blow Burn which was written as a basic introduction to appreciating poetry for the broadest possible audience. The same is true of her Glittering Images. These are her Mortimer Adler books, to bring art appreciation of the masses.

      Her best critical writing on poetry and visual art is in Sexual Personae.

      I suppose you think that Paglia is naive for writing a whole book about Hitchcock’s The Birds, because after all, Hitchcock didn’t create that movie entirely on his own.

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted April 26, 2018 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        Paglia’s pop culture criticism has not aged well, because most pop culture does not age well.

    • Petronius
      Posted April 26, 2018 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      “Break, Blow, Burn” is one of the best and most inspiring books on poetry I have ever read.

  2. JJ Przybylski
    Posted April 26, 2018 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    In “Why I am a Pagan”, deBenoist qualifies himself as something of a celestial pagan, in opposition to an earthbound and carnal pagan in the style of Rabelais. It’s apparent that deBenoist is a student of Evola. Upwards telos. Higher meaning. Vertical stance.

    As a student of Rabelais, with his sweeping intellect and low-down telluric charm, I am utterly beholden to Sexual Personae. Paglia blatantly says much that Rabelais implied in fiction. That civilization feminizes men. That men can’t escape the downward pull of mothers, Mother Nature and female principle that ends with horizontal burial under the dirt. That Dionysus is the Lord of fun, liberation, wine and, in the case of the rich, exquisite decadence. Paglia speaks, like Rabelais, in constellations of ideas that aren’t so much contradictory as knit with internal tension. This is not an intellectual failing. It’s an artistic accomplishment.

    Like Rabelais, Paglia finds joy in provocation. I’ll always love Paglia for her mad thrust beyond Abrahamic religion. It’s the old European pagans who fully understood the mystery of sex, and made art of its volatility. But I resisted pagan genius as a born Catholic who loved Michelangelo’s Pieta as the guardian and summary work. Paglia broke-me. She help me see all that went before in the sculpting and dramatizing of sexual metaphysics. And she helped me see its veiled continuity today. She renewed my world.

  3. Colophony
    Posted April 27, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Strange, no Lichtmesz at all in the German National Library item on the book. I liked his intense work on Jack Donovan; what exactly did he contribute to the Paglia volume?

    • Petronius
      Posted April 27, 2018 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      He did not, Caroline Sommerfeld, Nils Wegner and Ellen Kositza translated the work.

  4. Posted April 27, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic statement nailing Camille’s appeal to the right … quite chagrined to learn of this coup for the left. But anyone who suffered through that initial late 80s tsunami of political correctness has the thrill of memory in recalling the experience of this feisty sui generis force of nature, virtually standing alone against the rising tide of pomo-poco b.s. (allan bloom was the only other first rate commentator w. the power to sway those independent minds capable of escaping the herd however the theatre of activism wasn’t in his character). Regarding Camille’s dismissal of the WASP she misses a lot esp. the fact that it was they whose spirit of honor in fair play allowed for an internecine war culminating in a kind of noblesse oblige as class suicide ushering in jewish dominance (as predicted by many) which shows no sign whatsoever of an honor bound interest in fair play and is clearly at the root of PC– sadly i can’t fathom Camille ever criticizing the jews’ sine qua non role in this ‘soft totalitarian’ takeover as Greg elsewhere describes it..

  5. Mighty
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    I read “Sexual Personae“ for the first time.

    What a f*cking Tour de Force of insight and intelligence.

    I placed a few of books of her’s on hold at my local library I’ll pick up tomorrow.

  6. Mighty
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Can someone share a few art critism sites, please?

    I recently cleaned up my media diet and I want to fill the void with more fruitful pursuits.

    Thank you.

    • Mighty
      Posted May 2, 2018 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      Someone throw me a bone.

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