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The Native American Nietzsche:
Camille Paglia, Frontier Philosopher

[1]3,888 words

Camille Paglia
Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education
New York: Pantheon, 2018

“I don’t bake. My specialty is large hunks of highly spiced meat.” — Camille Paglia[1] [2]

“We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” — Emerson, “The American Scholar”

After my enthusiastic review [3] of last year’s Free Men, Free Women: Sex, Gender, Feminism (New York: Pantheon, 2017), the reader may imagine how eager I was to download (no waiting for this reader!) my Kindle of this year’s Camille Paglia doorstopper, Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education. And I was not disappointed; though likely not its intent, this collection further clarifies the elective affinities I had discerned between the renegade academic and the Dissident Right.

For the publisher, of course, this is neither a doorstopper (admittedly, a quaint pre-digital trope) nor an “overstuffed omnibus,” as Kirkus Reviews calls [4] it;[2] [5] rather, it is:

A timely and lavishly comprehensive collection from the inimitable critical firebrand . . . tackling sex, art, feminism, politics, and education, and covering the full span of her wide-ranging and important career.

With such an author and such a range of topics, you’d think it would have attracted some notice, but the response seems a bit muted. The GoodReads site says bluntly [6], “We haven’t found any reviews in the usual places.”

Well, that’s why you come here to Counter-Currents, isn’t it? It’s not one of the usual places.

One review that has appeared is at The Jacobite, of all places, by one “R. Cam,” and not only is it quite laudatory, it begins with a bang [7]:

There have been two great Nietzschean howls in this year of our Lord 2018. The first was Bronze Age Mindset [8], an exhortation from the mouth of a contemporary Ajax the Great, a roar of defiance and defense against the mundanity of late-decadence, where the frontiers have closed, and where the wild brutality and sublimity of Nature has been replaced by a Simulated Zoo in which everything is “fake and ghey.” The other is the subject of this review, Camille Paglia’s Provocations, a sibylline book of collected prophecies from the last pagan of American academia, our greatest scourging rakehell against post-structuralist omphaloskepsis, a veteran culture-warrior whose collection of scalps is legendary.

Well, slap my ass and call me Sally, as you Americans say; talk about the “shock of recognition”! Not only had I revealed, in my review here [9], that the hidden author of Bronze Age Mindset was our own James O’Meara, but I had already made a somewhat abbreviated comparison [3] of O’Meara’s writings with those collected in Paglia’s Free Men, Free Women as well.

Nevertheless, the new collection is a bit of an omnium gatherum, compiling just about everything the publishers could lay their hands on, from two- or three-page Website posts to vast surveys of cultural history running dozens of pages. The reader is well advised to concentrate on the latter and skim through the more or less ephemeral shorter pieces as providing additional illustrations to the main points.

I suggest you start with the two most substantive essays, “The North American Intellectual Tradition” and “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s.” I further suggest that you read them in that order; the latter is an erudite compendium, with its own reading list appended, in which Paglia presents what her mentor, Erich Neumann, would call “the origin and history of consciousness,” placing – as my own mentor at Cambridge, F. R. Leavis, would say – the North American Tradition outlined in the former as a high point between Stonehenge and Woodstock.

The basic idea of the NAIT is that the meeting of the plain-speaking Protestantism of English and Scottish immigrants and the Romanticism of British poetry on the North American continent created a mutation in consciousness. This was:

. . . a new fusion of ideas – a sensory pragmatism or engagement with concrete experience, rooted in the body, and at the same time a visionary celebration of what might be called artistic meta-space – that is, the fictive realm of art, fantasy, and belief portrayed by William Blake in his hallucinatory epic poems that oddly prefigure our own cyberspace.

First united by Emerson, the implications of this tradition – pragmatism, democracy, and above all “the primacy of the body” and nature – would be drawn out and explored by such echt American thinkers as Charles Pierce, William James, John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, and Northrop Frye, culminating in the late ‘50s in a trio of thinkers to whom Paglia traces her own thought: Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fieldler, and Norman O. Brown. The result was the Sixties – and Camille Paglia.[3] [10]

Here, Paglia demurs from (and ignores) the typical “conservative” story – a version of what Santayana called the “genteel tradition,” in which Puritanism, untouched by Romantic Dionysianism, sailed smoothly until it was deliberately subverted by a conspiracy of Jews and Marxists, collectively known as “the Frankfurt School” and “Structuralism,” producing the cultural rot of the Sixties, from which we are still trying to recover.

For Paglia, this puts the cart before the horse:

What seems to have been forgotten is that there were major intellectual breakthroughs in the 1960s, thanks to North American writers of an older generation. A schism or rupture in continuity occurred, since the young people most influenced by those breakthroughs did not on the whole enter the professional system and their insights were dissipated into the general society. A cultural vacuum was created that would be filled in the 1970s by French post-structuralism and German critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Those approaches would dominate American literature departments for the next quarter century, devastating the humanities and reducing their prestige and power in the world at large.

These foreign ideas are incompatible with the North American tradition, which “extrapolates from observation of actual human behavior rather than, in the French way, the dissection of verbal formulas.” Moreover, “In their pessimism about objective reality as well as in their nihilistic politics, Husserl and Heidegger, Foucault’s precursors, were responding to specifically European problems, which would end in the disaster of two world wars.”[4] [11]

Above all, these doctrinaire Marxists were never able to do justice to capitalism, or mass communication, which was “giving the people their voice and a public forum for their tastes, which always offend the educated elite.”[5] [12]

All this would be just an interesting moment in intellectual history, but Paglia insists that it is uniquely qualified for understanding, and navigating, the post-Gutenberg media universe of film and the Internet.

We can already see points of contact with the Dissident Right, if not stuffy old conservatives. Even Paglia’s description of her anomalous position in 1990 as a sudden academic celebrity – after the publication of Sexual Personae, which, like MST3k, benefited from the unexpected intervention of the Internet (the first viral marketing?) – sounds rather like the online self-generation of the “Alt Right.”[6] [13]

The upshot is that, like the Dissident Right, Paglia engages with the world with her eyes wide open, looking to nature for truth rather than to ideology. As you read through the rest of these essays, you’ll see that whether she is analyzing great literature (Shakespeare[7] [14] or Theodore Roethke), popular culture (David Bowie[8] [15] or Martha Stewart), or commenting on current events, her perspective is shaped by nature, the body, and sensory experience; we might call it Kineasthetics.[9] [16]

This accounts for how this supposed FDR liberal democrat winds up taking positions – that there really are two genders, no more no less,[10] [17] or that “climate change” is overblown[11] [18] – that Hillary would find deplorable.[12] [19]

Whether it is an academia obsessed with filthy French post-structuralist jibber jabber, or media and politicians enflamed with Trump Derangement Syndrome, no one in the “respectable” areas of modern American culture seems willing or able to engage with actual reality.[13] [20]

Now, the advantages of basing your views (note the word!) on the actual experience before your eyes rather than the convolutions of some badly-translated French mandarin might seem, well, self-evident, but it goes further than that. Since our experience is organized by recurrent patterns, or archetypes,[14] [21] sensual experience, ironic though it seems to be, offers access to a kind of fourth dimensional[15] [22] or bird’s-eye view,[16] [23] or, to vary the metaphor, serve as vertical channels[17] [24] to a higher, controlling level of reality; thus to a more all-encompassing knowledge.[18] [25]

Armed with no more than such heightened aesthetic perception, Paglia was able to disregard the MSM chatter about the bumptious Trump and predict his victory on the basis of a photo that the naifs at The New York Times supposed would be enough to end his campaign;[19] [26] just as she was earlier to sound a warning against the Iraq debacle, based on its proximity to the Columbia disaster.[20] [27]


And just as archetypal psychologist James Hillman denounced anti-pornography activists like Andrea Dworkin for their failure to understand how the imagination works (a position Paglia would endorse), Paglia is able to read the images of Tom of Finland and discern that in Tom’s iconic gay illustrations, the phallus is far from merely the tool of domination or rape that feminists assume, based on their ideology: “Tom’s erotic designs have an ancient lineage: he is meditating on one of the great themes of Western culture, the pagan glorification of the ideal male body, imagined as a sharp-contoured glyph of heroic human will.”

Stunningly exaggerated (as in Aubrey Beardsley’s witty rococo drawings), it is less a political weapon or club than a primitive totem, the ecstatic focus of a ritual cult. Tom’s flaunted, mammoth phalli, thick and fibrous, are like serpentine vines or trees, brimming with sap. They are Dionysian maypoles around which his sparring characters collect and carouse. Everything bursts with vitality, including Tom’s impossibly wedge-shaped torsos, where brawny shoulders broaden like oaks from slim hips. Gloved in super-tight clothing, the body itself is tumescent.[21] [29]

This ability to not just focus on reality (the Puritan/Pragmatic facet), but to “read” it symbolically (the Romantic element), Paglia attributes to her immigrant background – which, as in the case of Martha Stewart and Andy Warhol, provided “a kind of cultivated Mediterranean sensibility that was sorely needed in the U.S.” as well as the ability to “sharply analyze American culture from the immigrant outsider’s point of view” – and her working-class upbringing.[22] [30]

At this juncture, we can return to the point I was making in my earlier review: the resemblance of Paglia not only to the Dissident Right in general but to Counter-Currents’ own James J. O’Meara. Already, we can suspect Paglia herself would highlight their shared background triple-play among Catholic working-class immigrants;[23] [31] especially with their location in the upper part of the country, with plenty of access to “its exhilaratingly clear Canadian air,”[24] [32] which may account for their predilection for such mentors as Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye.[25] [33]

Wait a minute – perhaps I got it wrong. Is Paglia the author of Bronze Age Pervert? “B. A. Pervert,” get it?  Or could she be . . . well, I’ve never seen them in the same room.

While this may account for Paglia’s anomalous position in today’s academy, and her attraction for some on the Dissident Right, the larger question is, what can she do for us? I think the answer is, a lot. As Greg Johnson has recently said:

[To] ride the National Populist wave, White Nationalists have to jettison certain incompatible ideological fixations. First and foremost, we actually have to be populists. . . . Thus those among us who sneer at populism and democracy [34], make fetishes out of elitism and hierarchy [35], and try to resurrect inter-war fascist movements [36] are not helping.[26] [37]

If politics is downstream of culture, and we want a populist politics, we will need a populist culture. Paglia’s disinterment, delineation, and proclamation of the North American Intellectual Tradition is the needed corrective to our postmodern, globalist culture.


[1] [38] “I’m good at making great pots of things like pot roasts and stews – like medieval banquet dishes for Viking warriors – but that’s as far as I go.” Paglia in conversation with Ingrid Sischy, “Deconstructing the Demise of Martha Stewart,” Interview, June 2004; reprinted herein.

[2] [39] With the typical faux-modesty of those rich in esprit, Paglia has acknowledged the expectation: “As for planned books of my own, it would be too cruel to spoil the holiday season with dark visions of future Paglia tomes, portable only by wheelbarrow.” Washington Post Book World, Christmas feature, 1992; reprinted in Vamps & Tramps: New Essays (New York: Vintage, 1994), p. 426.

[3] [40] But didn’t R. Cam just call her Nietzschean? There is no contradiction here, since Nietzsche himself was profoundly influenced by Emerson, a point James O’Meara makes in his recent review [41] of Colin Wilson’s The Age of Defeat. The Nietzschean howl is Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” and Ginsberg’s Blakean Howl.

[4] [42] Cf. Colin Wilson on the need for a new, optimistic existentialism [41] that pulls back from the culs de sac explored by Sartre & Co.

[5] [43] “Elite suspicion of the masses” is a  factor studied in Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (New York: Pelican, 2018); see Greg Johnson’s comment here [44].

[6] [45] Paglia details her early interaction with cyberspace and Salon’s David Talbot, along with a concise course in how to write for the Internet, in “Dispatches from the New Frontier: Writing for the Internet.”

[7] [46] Characteristically, Paglia doesn’t teach English lit students, but actors: “In guiding actors through Shakespeare, the teacher operates like an auto mechanic, taking an engine apart and showing how it goes back together again. Each internal function and connection must be grasped tangibly, as a sensory datum and not just a mental construct.

[8] [47] “His signature style is syncretism – a fusion or ‘synthesising’ (his word) of many styles that is characteristic of late phases such as the hybrid, polyglot Hellenistic era, when religions too seeped into one another. . . . During his supreme decade of the 1970s, David Bowie too was an Aeolian lyre, with the totality of the fine and popular arts of the time playing through him.”

[9] [48] “I am influenced too much, perhaps, by natural objects. I seem bound by the very room I’m in”; and the Japanese, who share a similar aesthetic, tell us that: “A [wo]man is, whatever room [s]he is in.” At least, that’s what Mad Men’s Bert Cooper says [49], and Paglia also shares his love of the advertising medium: “Like Andy Warhol, another product of immigrant culture, I was fascinated by the bold crassness and rhetorical hyperbole of American advertising and comic strips, with their exploding exclamation points. . . . I always regarded ads, logos, and product packaging as an art form and probably for the same reason: as a child, I visually processed them as analogues to the lavish, polychrome iconography of the Italian Catholic church. (Warhol’s Eastern European church was Byzantine and therefore even more ornate.) I remain fascinated by advertising slogans as folk poetry, which over time taught me how to speak in quotable ‘sound bites.’”

[10] [50] “The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body (except for blood) remains coded with one’s birth gender for life. Intersex ambiguities can occur, but they are developmental anomalies that represent a tiny proportion of all human births.”

[11] [51] “We in North America, with its powerful, ever-changing weather systems, its vast geography, and monumental landmarks like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, know that nature is the ever-present ground of all human thought and action.” “But environmentalist assumptions too have become politicized. In today’s debates, nature is projected as a victim of exploitation and despoliation, a hostage to unbridled capitalist greed. There is no sense whatever in Roethke that nature needs to be preserved or protected by man or that it can suffer serious or permanent harm.”

[12] [52] Paglia laments of her hero Martha Stewart that “[t]he Martha of the ’90s began to be seen as a snobbish socialite who hobnobbed with Hillary Clinton.” On the other hand, “Ayn Rand was the kind of bold female thinker who should immediately have been a centerpiece of women’s studies programs, if the latter were genuinely about women rather than about a cliched, bleeding-heart, victim-obsessed, liberal ideology that dislikes all concrete female achievement.”

[13] [53] Compare this Founding Father: “Alexander Hamilton called [this] ‘artificial reasoning to vary the nature and obvious sense of words.’ Yesterday’s prudence gives way to today’s delusion. Wary of intellectuals, the shrewd Hamilton saw in them a tendency to follow ‘the treacherous phantoms of an ever craving and never to be satisfied spirit of innovation.’ Their goal is progress, and yet often disaster is the result. For while the man of genius gets his nuanced views from acute perceptions of complex phenomena, the ordinary intellectual lives in a shallow world of empty word games. He is a chatterer, not a thinker. His opinions come from the books he’s read and from what he’s picked up, pell-mell, in his dealings with others in his milieu. And if anybody gains from those opinions, it’s generally he himself and those in his milieu, although others, and in particular the future, may suffer for it.” Quoted in “Moral Confusion About Immigration [54]” by Christopher DeGroot; TakiMag, December 28, 2018.

[14] [55] “Although postmodernists myopically deny that universals exist, these basic terms of human experience animate all great art and give it global reach.”

[15] [56] As in the New Thought teachings of Neville Goddard [57]; New Thought being another product of Emerson.

[16] [58] As in Colin Wilson’s “peak experiences [59].”

[17] [60] See Martin Lings, Symbol and Archetype: A Study of the Meaning of Existence (Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1995). This is the root, if you will, of the Traditionalist’s objection to evolutionism: the essences of things are rooted in a transcendent realm from which they “drop,” thus allowing symbols to give us access to that realm, while the purely horizontal development of Darwinian species merely leads back to the primal ooze; see James M. Cutsinger, “On Earth as in Heaven,” in Merhdad M. Zarandi (ed.), Science and the Myth of Progress (Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom Press, 2003).

[18] [61] These are also the spectral presences analyzed by Jason R. Jorjani in his Prometheus and Atlas (London: Arktos, 2016), reviewed here [62]; see especially his discussion of Schelling’s doctrine of scientific concepts originating in aesthetic ideas. The modern Neoplatonist John Deck observed that for Plotinus, there was no “higher” world as such, but only this world, when known by “the best knowing power,” the nous, which has access to the archetypes; see his Nature, Contemplation, and the One: A Study in the Philosophy of Plotinus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), republished in the Toronto Heritage series, 2017 [Kindle iOS version]. The significance of Toronto, McLuhan’s perch, will become clear.

[19] [63] She “was off in the woods pursuing my Native American research” when the New York Times hit piece appeared. “Their prim, priggish formulations in this awkwardly disconnected article demonstrate the embarrassing lack of sophistication that passes for theoretical expertise among their overpaid and under-educated professors.” By contrast, the accompanying photo delights her: “The hovering Trump, bedecked with the phallic tongue of a violet Celtic floral tie, is in Viking mode, looking like a triumphant dragon on the thrusting prow of a long boat. ‘To the victor belong the spoils!’ I said to myself in admiration, as seductive images from Babylon to Paris flashed through my mind. Yes, here is all the sizzling glory of hormonal sex differentiation, which the grim commissars of campus gender studies will never wipe out!”

[20] [64] She had “a terrible sense of foreboding, because last weekend a stunning omen occurred in this country. Anyone who thinks symbolically had to be shocked by the explosion of the Columbia shuttle, disintegrating in the air and strewing its parts and human remains over Texas – the president’s home state!”

[21] [65] With typical perversity, Paglia’s essay on Tom of Finland weaves together nature, society, and the transcendent: “His leathermen, draped in living, breathing animal skins, are wed to nature. The state of constant excitation and erection in Tom’s dynamic universe is his vision of the sacred and numinous. But Tom’s imperial satyriasis is his protest against boredom and ennui, produced by the modern industrial and technocratic withdrawal from nature.” Indeed, Tom’s icons suggest both the primitive Männerbünde [66] and the postmodern Fight Club [67]: male bonding, a foundational social principle that feminism has foolishly ignored. “Tom’s surreal, random encounters show the male gang or team in operation – forming, disintegrating, and regrouping through ruthless realignments and power reversals. This cruel, compulsive pattern enabled men to escape control by women (mothers and wives) and to push history and civilization forward. But the emotional cost may be chronic loneliness, a subliminal melancholy overridden by action, achievement, or mere display. In Tom of Finland’s world of epic quest, with its bruising jousts and fleeting alliances, pugilistic sex becomes the medium through which rogue men regain their lost freedom.”

[22] [68] As Christopher DeGroot recently noted [69], there is a “genteel touchiness” about Paglia’s good-thinking peers: “I have argued that, like the dubious value academics assign to cultural diversity, academic denouncements derive from class anxiety and envy. There also seems to be a significant element of class conditioning in the common academic touchiness. Anyone who has spent much time with working-class people probably has noticed that they tend to be less restrained in their manner and speech than middle- and upper-class persons. They’re noticeably freer – more direct and frank – and their sensibility is less thin-skinned. To be sure, relatively few working-class people get very far in academe, which is uniquely stiff and humorless. Having less to lose than their social betters, who are expected to follow moral groupthink, working-class people tend to say things that the Joneses and those who want to keep up with them don’t. Having experienced material hardships that ‘the privileged’ haven’t, working-class people are generally hardier, less inclined to make much about mere words. And when they’re offended, they’re generally more straightforward and assertive in their behavior, less evasive and indirect.”

[23] [70] For this and other details, see “Greg Johnson Interviews James J. O’Meara,” reprinted in The Homo & the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics and Popular Culture [71]; edited by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012; 2nd Embiggened edition, 2017).

[24] [72] Her laudatory description of Minneapolis, in “The Death of Prince” (reprinted herein, from Salon, May 5, 2016).

[25] [73] Born in Detroit, O’Meara took a degree in philosophy at a small Ontario college whose faculty was almost entirely a product of McLuhan’s University of Toronto. Both O’Meara and Paglia have alluded to McLuhan’s description of his writing as a series of “probes” to justify their own rather disjointed, hectoring styles, which Paglia considers uniquely suited to modern, ad-interrupted media and the hyperlinked Internet; she locates it in Emerson’s essays, and of course Nietzsche subsequently adopted it as well. She notes that the other two members of her “trio,” Fiedler and Brown, were products of the University of Wisconsin in chilly Madison, where McLuhan taught before moving to Toronto, after making a brief sojourn in O’Meara’s alma mater. Paglia also finds time to take a swipe at another “Hilberry College” professor, Joyce Carol Oates: “I can’t believe she just throws that stuff out there . . . I don’t understand how people can have such a tin ear for their own prose, and I don’t know how readers can tolerate it.” Oddly enough, Oates is also a product of chilly update New York, and considers herself a friend of the working class; see her Afterword to the 2006 edition of her 1968 novel, Expensive People (Modern Library, 2006). Even more odd: her biographer and apparent archivist is . . . Greg Johnson [74].

[26] [75]Beyond the Alt Right: Toward a New Nationalism [76].”