The French Fried


My girlfriend had a brainstorm recently: I could raise tons of moola for a lost cause—like, say, SLAGS (Sclerotic Lesbians and Gays for Stalin)—if I published a pinup calendar called “Gals of Academe.”

It’d be great. You could have Catharine MacKinnon on the toilet, panties around ankles, perusing Boy’s Life. Or better, Martha Nussbaum, Kinski-esque with python, stretched across all 20 volumes of the OED.

Sadly, Camille Paglia is probably the only female academic who might pose nude, even for a cause (maybe in combat boots and a string of pearls, spanking her curator babe, Alison Maddex, with Our Bodies, Ourselves). I can’t help having a softie for Paglia. She’s a brilliant crackpot with a heart of brass—not to mention a gadfly who’s given the foot-slogging donkey of academe a much needed bite on the ass.

Though usually Paglia is so voluble and feisty she makes the Whirling Dervish seem doped, during the Marshall McLuhan lecture she delivered at Fordham Law School on February 17, she was calm. There were flashes of vitriol—but it being Fordham, priests attended, so Paglia spelled the word “damn” rather than utter it, and flinched when a questioner mentioned her yen for porn.

The lecture—the second in a series of annual McLuhan lectures that began last year when Tom Wolfe delivered the inaugural—was cosponsored by Fordham and the Canadian Consulate General. Wolfe appeared this year also, wearing his trademark ivory suit. He sat front and center, chuckling approvingly.

Paglia’s declared topic was the North American Intellectual tradition—if you’re waiting for the tag “imperialist” or “hegemonic,” you’ve come to the wrong place. Had the lecture been a march, she’d have called it “Take Back the Humanities.”

She asserted: “A cultural vacuum was created [in North America in the 1960s] that would be filled in the 1970s by French poststructuralism 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.

“It’s time,” urged Paglia, “for a recovery and a systematic reassessment of the North American thinkers whose work, arguably, would endure over time when the French and German schools have been discarded. Marshall McLuhan [Understanding Media, 1964], Leslie Fiedler [Love and Death in the American Novel, 1960], and Norman O. Brown [Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, 1959] are the triad I would substitute for the big three of French theory: Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.”

Paglia adduced her chosen triumvirate’s salubrious influence on modern American culture and public intellectualism. They, she argued, made close readings of the classics, ancient and modern, and encouraged their students to explore ideas freely and for themselves. Their French and German counterparts, by contrast, imposed their authoritarian critiques on texts and students alike.

She made a dizzying array of references—from Walt Whitman, William Blake, and Emerson, to Martha Graham, Lenny Bruce, and the blues, pausing to include works like Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.

“Frye demonstrated what vital theory should look like: hypotheses and conclusions based on hard evidence and a wealth of solid detail drawn from a mastery of literature and presented in a lucid, accessible style.”

She called McLuhan’s Understanding Media “a landmark of cultural analysis,” praising its “invigorating interplay of high art and popular culture, technology, and commerce” as “an epic panorama of Western culture.”

It’s hard to overstate how refreshing it was to hear an academic who is thoroughly versed in her material, and unpretentiously committed to public debate, for once discussing philosophy, art, and literature without resorting to the pat, politicized methodology of the MLA—but rather chastising it for attenuating the academy. When Paglia speaks, you can’t help thinking: If only so many academics hadn’t made such a “fustian” bargain—choosing underling celebrity and the mouthings of insipid exegeses over the free and public exchange of clearly stated ideas.

Sound bites can’t do justice to Paglia’s argument, which was a welcome call to arms, a plea for independent-minded intellectuals to besiege the academy and break the Stepford spell that Marxism, deconstructionism, obscurantism, and blind multiculturalism have cast over the professorial elite for decades.