Author, social critic, avowed feminist, and teacher Camille Anna Paglia was born in Endicott, N.Y., to Pasquale and Lydia Paglia, who had immigrated to the United States from Italy. She has published Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson; Sex, Art, and American Culture; Vamps & Tramps: New Essays; The Birds, a study of Alfred Hitchcock; and most recently Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems. She is a contributing editor at Interview magazine and has written articles on art, literature, popular culture, feminism, and politics for newspapers and magazines around the world. Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is currently at work on a new collection of essays, among other things.
As Paglia asserts below, she spent five years away from the fray compiling this book of what she believes are great poems including work by Shakespeare, Donne, Shelley, Dickinson, Lowell, and Plath. She also was committed to fostering an appreciation of less familiar and unknown writers such as Chuck Wachtel and Wanda Coleman, and given her great love of pop culture it’s no surprise she hails the songwriter Joni Mitchell as a major contemporary poet and “Woodstock” a worthy poem. As Clive James observed, “This book is the latest shot in her campaign to save culture from theory. It thus squares well with another of her aims, to rescue feminism from its unwise ideological allegiances. So in the first instance Break, Blow, Burn is about poetry, and in the second it is about Camille Paglia.” James also points out, “This book on poetry is aimed at a generation of young people who, knowing nothing except images, are cut off from the ‘mother ship’ of culture.” Paglia first mentioned the mother ship in her 2002 lecture, ‘The Magic of Images.’ In the same lecture, she set forth the theory that led to this book: ‘‘The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words.’’ In her book and in what follows, Camille Paglia reiterates her belief in that magic.
All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
Robert Birnbaum: It’s sort of come up in my own life that I have a [huge] deficit in poetry appreciation—though I have no particular reason for not liking poetry. In fact, I even read poetry up through my undergraduate years
Camille Paglia: Well, this is the story I have heard from so many people. That’s why I wrote the book.
RB: However, in giving the introduction to Break, Blow, Burn a close reading, I don’t think it’s that I am not interested or that it is not more present in my life because of some failure of the academy. Or that I was put of by any professorial pretension of flummoxing. Poetry has just not made it into my life.
CP: It’s receded.
CP: It’s receded in cultural importance, which is amazing to me, considering how big it was in the ‘60s.
RB: You do claim there was a prestige attached to poetry at that time. My memory of those years—other than the Beats and maybe Lowell and Frost, I don’t recall that poetry was culturally present.
CP: In the ‘60s because of the energy from the Beat movement of the 1950s, poetry as performance art was suddenly everywhere and it was also politically engaged—the Vietnam War and a new interest in multi-culturalism. There was interest in incantation, shamanism. People were taking—not me—people around me were taking psychedelics, mushrooms, etc. and so there was sense that—
RB:—Oh yeah, I took all those.
CP: [laughs] It’s probably why I am still functioning—there was a sense of the poet reemerging as bard. And the poetry recreating the connection between poetry and the people, out of the academy. The 1950s had been a particularly academic period. Poetry had gotten very conventional. So Beat poetry influenced a lot of things. Robert Lowell had an early conventional stage. His great book Life Studies in 1959—from which “Man and Wife” is drawn in my book—that shows the influence of the new colloquialism of the Beats. Sylvia Plath had an earlier kind of conventional period and then what you are getting just in those last poems before she committed suicide in 1963, are influenced by the Beat style. So that is a very powerful influence on me and remains that. I thought that we were entering—when I was in upstate New York, at State University of New York at Binghamton, dozens of poets came. Dozens of poets. The readings were packed, and you had this sense of excitement. It was a synergy with folk and rock when Dylan brought this social consciousness into rock. And then all of rock responds. The Beatles, the moment they met Dylan, suddenly are writing socially significant lyrics and so on. I just felt there was this huge cultural revolution going on in America that was collapsing the distance between pop and the fine arts and that the collapse afterward is so amazing to me. I wrote a long piece for Arion at Boston University a couple of years ago called “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s” trying to give reasons—trying to sketch this combination of things with poetry, religion, spirituality that would produce the New Age movement. And then trying to diagnose why the whole thing collapsed. And I do think it was because of drugs. The people who were the most adventurous and experimental—the people I knew just went so far out that they never came back in some ways. They didn’t sustain—
RB: You’re assuming those people were creating something to begin with.
CP: I feel they were.
RB: Some of them were. There were also people who took drugs who didn’t fall off the edge and continued to be productive.
CP: They didn’t go into the university, I’ll say that, en masse. As a consequence the institutions of culture remained unchanged. I knew a couple of people who tried or go to the university and dropped out and never even tried. At the end of Break, Blow, Burn, what I say about Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”—it’s an extraordinary song when heard in her voice, not in the upbeat Crosby, Stills, and Nash classic which is given airplay around the world. But her version of it on Ladies of the Canyon, which was recorded just a few months before with her just sitting at her electric piano, is very bleak. It’s like a lament or a dirge. You hear her critiquing utopian ideals. This is some of the things, as I say at the end of the book, this is an anthem for an entire generation—
RB: Let me stop you for a moment. First of all, I was struck by the fact that while you talk about the Beats being a huge influence on you, there is no Beat poet in the book.
CP: Paul Blackburn would not want to be called, classified as a Beat but I declare “The Once-Over” is a Beat poem. And so it’s there for that reason. A beautiful girl on the subway, everyone is staring at her—a slice of life and written in a very, to be read out loud in a very Beat manner. Gary Snyder is technically not a Beat. I wanted [Allen] Ginsberg in the book because he influenced me so much. Profoundly. But when I actually went to try to find something—there is one about Walt Whitman in the supermarket—it’s too whimsical. I thought of excerpting “Howl”—those little books “Howl” and “Kaddish,” those little City Lights books to me were like the Bible went I went to college. I felt excerpting “Howl” didn’t come out right.
RB: I never saw Allen read “Howl” but there was a docu-drama on the Chicago Seven trial and Ginsberg is asked to read “Howl” in court and it was the first time that I understood, that like Bolero, it builds to this crescendo and starts off softly and almost imperceptibly [until] he begins yelling. So you are probably right about not excerpting “Howl.”
CP: Yeah, I really felt it wasn’t working. At first I thought I would take the first 100 lines, and it just didn’t work. I was sad about that. I did find one poem I liked from an early phase. But it was so uncharacteristic, I thought, “Oh.” It was a poem he wrote about Marlene Dietrich early on. It was very conventional and written in 1953. I thought, “I’m not going to put that in just to have him in.” That disappointed me, actually. I looked at the other Beats and my problem and the shock was I went to the contemporary poems, poems of the last for decades, I thought I remembered very powerful poems that I heard in performance, and—
RB: [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti?
The reason why the real threat is the far right is that they have the Bible. And the Bible is a masterpiece. The Bible is one of the greatest works produced in the world. The people who all they have is the Bible actually are set up for life. Not only do they have a spiritual vision given to them but artistic fulfillment.
CP: Again, I liked Ferlinghetti but I was looking for the individual poem. What I felt was when I went back to all this work, in the drive to recovering the performance aspect of poetry, which is part of ancient Greek poetry, returning poetry to the oral tradition—which I was totally behind and remain behind—something was lost in terms of attention paid to construction of the poem on the page. I still believe despite the flowering of rap, it’s the poem on the page that’s going to last. For the standard I am holding up, it’s not Shakespeare’s sonnets. It’s not Wordsworth. I’m holding up Yeats, the two that are in the book, “The Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan,” as a model of what a modern poem can look like and sound like, because he is English, his is still our English. And also poems about politics, how to write a poem about politics that doesn’t date and has universal appeal. There is this dark vision of history he has. So that’s the thing, I actually was shocked—the original prospectus for the book which I filed with the publisher almost six years ago now. It took five years to write this book—five years I’ve been off the scene, low profile, just doing this book. All kinds of famous names were on there.
RB: Were there more than 43 poems?
CP: We had no number. When I was done with it and submitted the 43, the publisher said, “Well, normally a book like this is 50 poems or a 100 poems. Forty-three?” and they discussed it and then said, “She wants 43. We’ll go with 43.” And they liked it so much they put it in the subtitle. Which I wouldn’t have done. Yeah, the book had a natural shape and I just stopped at that point. But many, many famous names of my time I had heard read and respected and I was shocked at my inability to find an individual poem that I can say to the general reader, “This poem will repay your rereading now, in the future and so on,” but also the poem has to stand up to five or six consecutive rereadings. And that was my test. The finalists for the book, for the last half of the book, there were no famous poems or poets, at all. All unknown poets.
RB: Frank O’Hara’s there.
CP: He’s here for a “Mexican Guitar,” a completely obscure poem I had never seen anywhere except in his Collected Works. A gay friend of mine who died of AIDS showed it to me in college, and we both hooted over this line, “Jane and I plotz,” which is this line about the painter Jane Freilicher who is still alive and actually had a recent retrospective in New York. But I never saw the poem again after he showed it to me. O’Hara had just been killed. Anyway, I never saw it again until recently; I didn’t remember anything about the poem. I saw it 35 years later and still love it. So that took me to the Frank O’Hara poem. I had no idea what it was about. Nothing. And it took me a year, just rereading and rereading, “I am determined to create a credible reading of this. I don’t know if I am right or not.” I determined that it was about going to the movies and the breakthrough came when I figured out, my theory was the nuns who were pacing back and forth represent the Catholic Legion of Decency patrolling Hollywood. That was the breakthrough. Everything started to fall in place. That was a piece of detective work.
RB: I don’t believe that I read anywhere in any of your explications or your close readings that it took you a really long time to figure out a poem.
CP: No, I didn’t say that. But I’m saying it now. For “Kubla Khan” I worked in the classroom for decades and that is the result of 30 years.
CP: The thing is there is tons of good criticism written on [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge but what general reader is going to the library to find it? It’s like a nightmare. For the classic poets there should be something very accessible—that’s why I wrote the book. A person who is interested in poetry but doesn’t want to read—[Rosie walks in] Oh, careful, careful don’t shed on me. Rosie, I would love to romp. I’ll take a raincheck, Rosie, please—
RB: [laughs] Rosie—out!
CP: But “Kubla Khan” I felt was about art, the artist and the art world. And my commentary takes the poem from beginning to end in a way, I hope, the general reader finds interesting. The book took two years to gather the material and two years to write—two years just on the prose. I never added anything more to it. My publisher is to be credited. The patience. I went over deadline after deadline. I think that’s really great of the publisher to support [me]. My editor, LuAnn Walther, kept saying, “it doesn’t matter as long as it’s good. That’s the only thing that matters.” But who’s going to spend two years on prose anymore? Nobody is. Joyce Carol Oates isn’t.
You can make a killing in the arts or you can be struggling but it’s an artificial, hollow world right now. Many people are trying to do art but absolutely it’s subterranean in terms of the culture as a whole. The arts have never taken root in America.
CP: And the thing is, I am a public figure, OK, and I’ve been off the scene and the point is there is all this pressure on you. On me, on the publisher. There are pressures on unknowns, people just starting out, to like, “Publish, publish, publish, get it out there, you gotta make a mark.” And I am saying that that is terrible for our culture and we need examples of people holding work back, working with it for quality. What I was looking for was to find a prose that would bring in the general reader but also not lose the people who know many of these poems. So how to engage both audiences. And also how to sustain—my problem, the practical problem in the book was all the years in the classroom. I thought it was going to take much less time. I thought, “I will just write up what I have been doing in the classroom.” Well, now it turns out when you are handing the poem out, everyone is looking at the poems and I’m talking, talking, talking. What happens when the reader reads the poem and has to move on to the commentary? You have to keep the idea of the poem in the person’s head. You have to sustain the atmosphere of being in the poem. So that’s what took the time and effort. I want people to feel like they’re floating in the world of the poem even while they are in the commentary, and I tried to make them as short as I could.
RB: The poems or the commentary?
CP: The commentaries—two to three pages. Sometimes they go on a little more.
RB: Take a guess: If someone else had attempted this book, would your publisher have bought it and waited?
CP: Um well, I had a good track record, obviously, already. I had two bestsellers for Vintage. It’s a risk. It was a risk to do this. My agent wanted me to do a big splashy book on politics.
CP: Or a book on education. I felt this was a cultural necessity to do something. I have done all those attacks on post-structuralism in Arion and junk-bond corporations and corporate raiders in the early ‘90s, now I want to go directly to the general readers and also to young people and also, as I say in the introduction, I am going to adjuncts and the people who are out there teaching and being condescended to by the theorists, who think they are doing important work. I’m still fighting [deconstructionalist philosopher Jacques] Derrida at this point. And also the embattled teachers who are always writing to me saying how they are silenced in their departments when they just want to do literature and art. There has been a tremendous flight from the grad schools of people who wanted to devote their lives to teaching literature and were driven out when they were forced to read post-structuralism. I got letters over the years. But, oh my God, I have been on the road only two weeks but people are coming to the signings and the Q&A, how many people multiplied by hundreds and thousands have left the grad schools, our future teachers. Our future generations, people who are teaching our young people—all these drones that are teaching post-modernism—
RB: Match that up with the boom in writing programs.
CP: Creative writing programs?
RB: Yeah, who taught these people literature?
CP: The thing is there is an up- and downside to those things. On the one hand it’s producing a kind of antiseptic writing, a certain kind of polished professional writing, and on the other hand people who are interested in writing in this period of media and the web and so on, they find it very sustaining to go to a place to meet other people who are similarly interested in it. That’s the upside but the downside is that to be a good writer you can’t just study writing. You have to live, OK? That’s the problem. The best writers have drawn from actual experience, have had some experience. What experiences do people have any more?
RB: [laughs] Shopping.
CP: Yeah, shopping. This is why I think literature, post-Plath, has drifted into a compulsive telling of any trauma that you can find in your life. Prozac—“I’m taking Prozac” or divorce or diseases or whatever. Endless kvetching. It’s a style of telling of woes and the potential range of literature is being neglected and part of my crusade now is—
CP: I’m on a crusade—it’s to say to the poets and the artists, “Stop talking to each other. Stop talking to coteries. I despise coteries in any form. You are speaking to a coterie, OK. Stop the snide references to the rest of the world who didn’t vote with you in the last election.” This is big. Because we have all separated again. After 9/11, everyone was united. We are separated again thanks to what has happened in politics. People in the art world are full of sanctimonious sense of superiority to most of America. But they must address America, learn to address America. Yes, have your friends, have the people who support what you are doing in the art world, but you have to recover a sense of the general audience and the same thing I am saying to the far right, get over the sneering at art, the stereotyping—
RB: They started it.
CP: Wait a minute. The far right wouldn’t have any opinions about art if it weren’t for those big incidents in the late ‘80s to the ‘90s when some stupid work was committing sacrilege
RB: You’re referring to Andres Serrano?
CP: Yeah, some 10th-rate thing. It’s always Catholic iconography, I might point out. I am atheist, by the way. It’s never Jewish. It’s never Muslim. So I am saying this is a scandal. The art world has actually prided itself on getting a rise out of the people on the far right. Thinking, “We’re avant-garde.” The avante-garde is dead. It has been dead since Andy Warhol appropriated Campbell’s Soup labels and Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe into his art. The avante-garde is dead. Thirty years later, 40 years later, people will think they are avante-garde every time some nudnik has a thing about Madonna with elephant dung, “Oh yeah, we are getting a rise out of the Catholic League.”
Now I’m a champion of the web—I began writing for Salon in 1995 from the first issue on. But the style of the web, not only the surfing skimming style that you learn—dash, dash—you absorb information not by reading whole sentences. It’s flash, flash, flash. Email, blog, everything is going fast, fast, fast. So the quality of language has obviously degenerated. It’s obvious.
CP: Now, what is the result of this? Mainstream America looks at art and the artist as a scam and they don’t want to support government funding of the arts. Who pays the price for this are working-class talented young people who don’t have access to arts programs. Across the country school budgets are shrinking, the arts programs are being dropped right and left. I’m saying to the art world and all these coteries in Cambridge, San Francisco, Manhattan, “You have not been good stewards of art. You need to get out of this. You need to be apostles for art.” That’s what I’m doing in this book. I chose a range of poems. Some are religious, even though I am an atheist. I made decisions about quality, John Donne, George Herbert. He’s completely unknown in America. Of course, in England he is a huge figure. I am saying in order to respond to great art people on the left have to learn about the religious impulse. That’s my New Age-y side. I really respect mysticism and the spiritual dimension, even though I don’t believe in God. And I am saying that secular humanism right now by denigrating religion is merely reactionary, is corrupt or whatever, OK. It has cut our best people, our most talented people off from responding to some of the greatest artwork ever done—the Sistine Chapel, or you name it. The minute the pope died, I said, “Now, the American audience is going to get an education in art and architecture—there was a full page in the [Philadelphia] Inquirer as I prophesied, there it was, a diagram of the Vatican, the altars. Bernini did this, Bernini did that. I thought, “Oh, OK, this is what the universities should be doing.” The grandeur of religious history, even when you don’t necessarily believe. Just like you can study Aztec culture you learn about the gods, Greek culture you learn about the gods. The same thing. The thing is everything is so inflamed now.
RB: Do you think readers paid attention to what the paper did?
CP: It’s my explanation for why there was such a television extravaganza. It wasn’t just about the pope. It was the grandeur of the things that my ancestors created. It’s compared to the shriveled-up way art is defined in the United States. All I am saying is—I monitor talk radio a lot. I love talk radio, AM radio. And I hear the sneering that goes on against art and the artists. This is a cultural disaster.
RB: I listen to one sports talk show—
CP: I love sports radio.
RB: Ted Sarandis, unlike the Neanderthals on the other shows, does a graceful and thoughtful show, he refers to many of the fans in Boston as the Fraternity or Brotherhood of the Miserable. The people who call in to AM talk shows may be against art but I suspect they are against everything. People don’t call up these rabble-rousing shows to affirm anything. They call up to complain about blacks and gays and this and that.
CP: Not true. I mean, some people are twisted
CP: I would say that many of these people are regular people. I started listening to Rush Limbaugh probably in the early ‘90s, we’re talking 15 years now. There are people who are twisted but there are a lot of mainstream Americans who are small entrepreneurs, running stores and so on, just going about their lives. There is a way that art and the artists are referred to—
CP: What I am saying is we need a major reclamation project here. What I am saying on the [book] tour about Western civilization, that we are supposedly defending by going into the Middle East with this military incursion. I’m saying it’s more than the Bible—
RB: You are assigning a responsibility to artists that I wouldn’t think that all artists accept—to be the publicist or—
CP: Yeah, this is why they are shrinking. This why they are unimportant. You can make a killing in the arts or you can be struggling but it’s an artificial, hollow world right now. Many people are trying to do art but absolutely it’s subterranean in terms of the culture as a whole. The arts have never taken root in America. Ever since Puritan New England—this is a business-oriented culture as opposed to Europe where it’s a part of the cultural heritage of the nation.
RB: And you are blaming the segment of the population that is artistic—
CP: Yes, I am.
RB: As opposed to acknowledging that the culture is not fertile for arts.
CP: It isn’t fertile for the arts and therefore something is necessary. Artists, cultural organizations and the universities and primary schools have the obligation to put art more to the forefront. Instead of 30 years of badmouthing Western culture—
CP: And trashing it—I am for multi-culturalism—it’s about the great artistic traditions of the world, whether it’s Chinese culture, Hindi, whatever it is we are tracing in terms of history, chronology—chronology is out—value, greatness, quality. My god, Japanese culture, Chinese culture, high culture. That was about quality. But the idea of quality has been divorced in the discussion of the arts in our universities because, “Oh it’s just a mask for ideology. There is no such thing as greatness. These are all completely subjective. For people who want to protect their own power elite—dead white European males.” This is the garbage that has come out. I can see the point of where the argument started, OK. But what’s the end result of it? We are now 30 years, almost 40 years down the line. What’s the end result? Are we getting better art? Better writing? Better educated people? More knowledgeable people?
RB: Are we getting worse writing? Worse art?
CP: We are getting worse writing, worse art. Part of the reason for the much worse writing is that young people have so many other distractions in terms of their time—so many things to do, that reading books has just shriveled. They are assigned books, but few kids read books for pleasure. Too much else is going on. Now I’m a champion of the web—I began writing for Salon in 1995 from the first issue on. But the style of the web, not only the surfing skimming style that you learn—dash, dash—you absorb information not by reading whole sentences. It’s flash, flash, flash. Email, blog, everything is going fast, fast, fast. So the quality of language has obviously degenerated. It’s obvious.
RB: I don’t buy that. That’s the twin of, “There are too many books published. And there’s too much crap in those too many books.” Of the maybe 100 books I complete each year and a much larger number that I read portions of, I don’t find myself reading a lot of crap.
CP: I’m talking about students—at the student level, their writing.
RB: Oh I thought you were generalizing about the state of literature.
CP: Well, I would say you see it in newspapers and magazines. If you compare the quality of articles, general articles in the New York Times compared to the style of the ‘70s, you will see a tremendous fall-off in quality. Time magazine, I grew up reading Time magazine at home. You compare a current issue, the articles, even the cover story. The quality of writing—its unbelievable. If you go back to Time in the ‘60s—I remember going back just a few years ago to look at a Racquel Welch cover story or something. I was astounded at the quality of the prose. Time had a kind of snarky, famous style that was created in the ‘20s and ‘30s, a smart style. But oh my God, it was beautifully written. We are so used to this we don’t even notice. The New York Times was once a kind of standard—a once august newspaper. There is a slack quality. And even op-ed columns. There are some good columnists but on the whole they favor a lacerating, jabbing style. And there is no real shape. I would compare it to what’s going on in England. There are a tremendous number of people who are celebrities who just wrote excellent beautifully written op-eds, like that. They just turn them out like that. It’s amazing. I’ll get things from the newspapers, it’s Thursday, “Can we have 1,400 words by Saturday?” I’m going, “Maybe in England you have writers who can.”—I mean the quality of the writing, the general level, the style—
RB: They teach expository writing early in England. I have seen what grade-school kids write and it’s intelligent and mature—many American adults can’t write that way. We don’t do that here. And the print media style here much more resembles TV.
There is a kind of humanitarian do-gooder mentality abroad in the public schools these days, which is like, “We all get along. Here’s our quota. We are going to read the poem by the African American, the poem by the Native American. The poem by the Chicano.” Like that. There is no more quality.
CP: I was going to say that in England it’s a much more oral style. They do write papers but they read them aloud, to the don, and they are writing less than in the Ivy League, who are writing, writing all the time in certain kind of technocratic way that our humanities students have been taught to write in elite schools for the last 30 years—which is filled with jargon and filled with self-conscious, distancing gestures. I think it’s bad writing. I have been monitoring the writing of Ivy School graduates as they enter the media and watching. I can see huge holes in what they know and there is a tonelessness. There are few individual voices that are emerging strongly from these universities. Whereas I was taught—I had a beautiful education. No one dreamed of my professors of trying to get me to write in a house style, in an official style which is this jargon thing from Europe. As a consequence, I have spent a lifetime developing my own individual voice. I’m from an immigrant family—all four of my grandparents were born in Italy and my mother. So English is new for us. I feel so grateful for that kind of education that exposed me to everything that is great.
RB: What was your first language?
CP: English, but I grew up surrounded by these Italian dialects mutually unintelligible—they grew up in different regions and it wasn’t literary Italian at all. So this is what I heard. To me it’s almost closer to—I tried to incorporate it in my first book. Even in Sexual Personae, my first book, there was a huge confrontation, there were a lot things we fought about. But the big one—they wanted to take out of the book, the sentence, “The Dionysian is no picnic.”
CP: Which is slang. They said you could not do that in a Yale University Press book. This was the late ‘80s. And we had a huge, knock-down battle and they actually threatened to not go forward with the book.
RB: Which reminds me that you are a champion of the vernacular, of the kind of message that comes across pop culture, especially advertising jingles.
CP: Love advertising, yeah.
RB: I understand that impulse but I can’t get behind it. At the root, at the seat of all that is the imperative to sell something.
CP: It’s propaganda. I was raised Italian Catholic, OK. So I am used to propaganda.
CP: If you look inside St. Peter’s Basilica, you’ll see propaganda—a band of lettering, that’s like in Times Square.
RB: I’m not a great fan of that stuff either.
CP: I know but the thing is—
RB: I’m sure you remember the Chanel ads in the ‘80s—I think Ridley Scott did them—in which the product is never shown—
CP: A woman lounging by a pool, the shadow of a jet plane passes over her.
CP: Those are works of art.
RB: That was the claim. And I’d like to think that. What was the point of it except to cut through every other ad that shouted, “Buy, buy, buy”?
CP: They were selling a dream, a European vision of sophistication. Since my earliest years all I know is that I saw American advertising, just like Andy Warhol growing up in Pittsburgh in an immigrant family, growing up in upstate New York I saw advertising in some way as parallel to the fine arts. I don’t know what it was but it could be like that in that period there were billboards—
RB: Those billboards look great, in retrospect. And the packaging was interesting.
CP: And there were giant things, crazy things like in Endicott, N.Y., there was a giant ginger ale bottle. A colossus. And a giant milk bottle.
RB: In Chicago there was an Oscar Mayermobile—vehicle shaped like a hot dog.
CP: Certainly, I am concerned about the cultural environment of young people—when now the amount of advertising is 100-fold what it was when I was young. And the obtrusiveness of it, into TV, marketed to kids. The environment now is completely commercial. That’s why I am concerned—as a teacher. I can see my students’ background is now advertising and media of a particularly debased quality. So one of the exercises that seems so simple but turns out to be incredibly therapeutic for my students—I have a course called “Gender Images in Media.” I encourage them to become more aware of these ad images being streamed at them, from every direction. I make them keep a media diary—a few entries per week. This simple exercise has been a revelation, “I never noticed that,” and so on. A simple thing for critical awareness. This is absolutely crucial for young people.
RB: What you are suggesting, which is a contrast to the media, is “Pay attention.”
CP: But also it’s up to the teachers to provide the counterbalance of art and that’s what American education is failing to do. There is a kind of humanitarian do-gooder mentality abroad in the public schools these days, which is like, “We all get along. Here’s our quota. We are going to read the poem by the African American, the poem by the Native American. The poem by the Chicano.” Like that. There is no more quality. So we are not giving the kids anything to sustain them. Heaven forbid there should be anything about religion or sex. The far right keeps the sexual out—nudes from the history of painting. And the left keeps anything from religion out. The things that are the most substantive are not there.
RB: There’s no shortage of references to money.
CP: Look, money, what money? What money do you need? The point is I am saying the selection of material at the primary school level needs to be far upgraded. People say, “Ooh we have an art program.” I say, “What do you mean by art program?” Even if it’s available—now in many places it’s not available—they mean sending kids into a room with paints and pencils. That’s not my idea of an art program. My idea is to expose them to art history. At an early age. So they have something in their minds, images that counterbalance the images that are coming at them from ads and special effects. The special effects have gotten out of control—computerized special effects. Now you have movies that are nothing but special effects, overwhelming sound, which is a great sensation, but character acting and script development, social realism—these things are actually declining. So I am very concerned about the cultural future of the United States in this kind of environment. Most people who are secular humanists having the idea that they are doing fine. We are doing fine and our only enemy is the Bible-based far right. The reason why the real threat is the far right is that they have the Bible. And the Bible is a masterpiece. The Bible is one of the greatest works produced in the world. The people who all they have is the Bible actually are set up for life. Not only do they have a spiritual vision given to them but artistic fulfillment. They don’t even recognize just the pleasure of dealing with this epic poetry and drama. Everything is in the Bible. What does the left have? The left has a lot of attitude.
RB: Oscar Wilde? [laughs]
CP: Where is Oscar Wilde on the left? Even a few queer theorists who quote Oscar Wilde turn him into a socialist because of one thing he wrote. In fact he was an aesthete.
RB: He said when asked to join some socialist group, “I prefer to keep my evenings free.”
CP: Right. They try to turn him into everything he wasn’t. A lot of my attitudes toward art come from Oscar Wilde. I stumbled on a book when I was at Syracuse—I was a high school student, a second-hand book. It was called The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde. It’s like one of the great books of my life because it’s arranged by “Art,” “Nature,” “Life.” My whole theory of art and that passionate engagement with art comes from Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater who influenced him as well. And the point is once people became interested in Wilde, in queer studies and so on, they didn’t take up this aspect of Wilde, his sense of himself, his biggest sense of himself as someone who came to America on tour and people turned out in droves to see the aesthete. For a long time in America, people actually revered Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Walt Whitman—there is a long tradition of the artist having stature in the United States. We need to recover that. It’s up to the arts community—its up to them. It’s not going to come from the far right. Nothing is going to change on the far right about art. Unless they see something coming that they can engage with.
RB: Who, what artist has stature?
CP: Look at Robert Lowell. And that period.
RB: In that period there was such a thing as stature. I’m not sure that exists anymore.
CP: That’s my point. He [Robert Lowell] was out there protesting the Vietnam War. He was writing rude letters to the president, etc., etc. Of course he had a sense of his status and his family going back to the 17th century and so on. The thing is that Lowell wasn’t just writing to a literary elite. His poems are so broad—they are about the Civil War and so he had a sense of representing America or dealing with America and not just kvetching and bitching how America is the worst thing in the history of the Earth and they killed the Indians and genocide.
The idea that working people are voting against their interests seems to me—I’m sorry, I find that to be one of the most condescending, twisted things that has now taken root. It’s now in the media everywhere. That is twisted.
CP: These things are stale at this point. If I hear one more time that my ancestor Christopher Columbus is guilty of genocide. It is so boring. Lowell still had a sense of belonging to the people as a whole. And the artists need to recover that. You have got to engage. And learn about how are they, the people out there. One of the best ways to do this is to listen to talk radio. You listen to talk radio long enough and you are going to hear the voices of the people. I voted for Kerry but heard the way he was being discussed early on and all the flaws of the Boston-run campaign. Oh my God. It was a revelation, seeing things. That’s how I knew Kerry was going to lose. I saw it through the eyes of what the callers were saying. Was the Boston campaign monitoring it? No! Like the Swift boat vet thing—it took until August for the Democratic campaign to deal with those charges. I was lying in bed at one in the morning in April and my eyes flew open—and I heard all this business and I heard it for four months by listening to talk radio. Four months! We are in an age of media that is very rapid. There is a mandarin mentality and snobbery that you can find in the urban metropolises and academe, and they are totally detached from the culture as a whole.
RB: Is your sense that leftists are Dostoyevskian in that they love humanity abstractly but don’t really like people?
CP: Yes, I love what you say. It’s so right. Leftists are supposedly speaking for the people. But they have disdain for the people. Something like Susan Faludi’s Backlash which became a Bible of early ‘90s feminism—and she was a product of Harvard and she spent a whole chapter on Fatal Attraction. It was full of snobbery because it became a big hit. She assumed manipulation—what Machiavellian thing happened in Hollywood to produce that movie, which [she claimed] set feminism back. This is the naiveté. Popular culture just pursues the dollar. You can have all the publicity in the world and you have a turkey that sinks after the first weekend. Good second and third weekend on a movie, that’s legs, that’s word of mouth. The people vote. So the leftist claim that what they are doing is for the people but when the people show what’s on their mind, [in a scolding voice] “Oh no, you are so ignorant.” So all we have are armchair leftists. There is no real leftism. In the ‘60s I knew real leftists. Real leftists were truly proletarian. They had no airs, no airs whatever. They would labor in activist things and get their hands dirty. This whole thing of quoting [French philosopher Michel] Foucault, or [German philosopher Theodor] Adorno and looking down, all full of that—that air—I have been interviewed on radio in the past two weeks. You can hear an academic calling. You can hear it. They have a question and a comment. [adopts a fey voice] “Well, if I can just …it’s obvious…that current project.” Where is that coming from that tone? It’s the tone of what, the mainline Philadelphia elite? These are leftists? Something is seriously wrong. Something has gone very, very wrong. This is why the Democrats haven’t been doing well. There are no authentic leftists left.
RB: Do the Democrats see themselves as leftists?
RB: In America, the political parties are centerist and the deviation is slight or to the right. It’s mostly about name-calling.
CP: [Nancy] Pelosi, Barney Frank—these people think of themselves as—they probably wouldn’t use the word left. They know it’s a no-no. Dean is to the left of liberal. And my god, [former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry] McAuliffe.
RB: I take it you agree with Thomas Frank’s [What’s the Matter With Kansas] notion of what he calls an “age of derangement,” that working people are voting against their interests?
CP: I totally reject that formulation.
CP: The idea that working people are voting against their interests seems to me—I’m sorry, I find that to be one of the most condescending, twisted things that has now taken root. It’s now in the media everywhere. That is twisted.
CP: The people are voting against their interests? Who knows that? Tom Frank knows that? Tom Frank knows what is in the people’s best interest? It’s an outrage.
RB: Yes, he gets to say that. If people need health care and jobs and housing and he points out that in specific circumstances, such as in Topeka where the Republican administration granted huge concessions to Boeing and Boeing pulled out when they thought they had a better deal elsewhere, costing 4,000 jobs, that’s clearly not in the interest of working people.
CP: You can find a lot of local stories of misery—the mill towns outside of Boston and everywhere. But Frank’s animus is against capitalism. OK? And here’s my point—you can’t just go around—and I could make the same point about upstate New York, which has been declining. Carrier, IBM, the shoe factories that my family came to work in, closing. GE, all kinds of stories, but the point is the people are not voting against their interest. Their interest is capitalism. This is my objection. In my view, comparing the evidence of the 20th century, that socialism in a nation ultimately does lead to economic stagnation and eventually of the creative impulse, in terms of new technology and other things. And that capitalism, despite all its failures, despite the fact that it’s Darwinian, has indeed produced a high standard of living. And, here’s the big one for me, as a feminist: It is capitalism that has enabled the emergence of the modern independent woman, for the first time free from fathers and brothers and husbands—a woman who can be self-sustaining. Now, I do believe—I am a Democrat, I am not a Republican, I do believe that because capitalism is Darwinian that it requires a strong safety net, that the government needs to provide certain things. One of the things I hold against Hillary, even though I am back on the Hillary train, is that they muffed a tremendous chance for health-care reform at a moment when Republicans too were for it. The waste in our health-care system, we could go on [and on], the bankrupting of families to pay for it, and the bankrupting of families to pay for elite educations also, that’s another thing. So what I am saying is, how dare Thomas Frank decide what is—the people who are voting Republican believe that capitalism, despite the misery of individual places, they still believe that capitalism provides the best chance for small entrepreneurs to have an idea, put it into motion and eventually make a killing. Even if you are not rich you see other people getting rich and you want a system that can produce rich people.
RB: Sure, but it’s a chimera. They have been sold that bill of goods. They believe they can do that but they can’t—
RB: Hold on a second. Your point that a significant social security, as the consensus has produced in Europe and Scandinavia, leads to stagnation—
CP: Forty percent of a paycheck over there is taken by the government. The government does everything. People rely on the government to do everything. And I do believe there is a slow decline in creativity that is observable in Europe over the last 40 years.
RB: And here were we have Darwinian capitalism, you are also arguing we have a rapid decline. [laughs] Because of consumerism?
CP: No, I think the problems right now with globalization and the job drain, there are all kinds of systemic problems. Every era has problems. Look at Italy. We shouldn’t be glamorizing those socialized health-care systems. My family in Italy has it and when my mother’s cousin, one of many examples, needed a heart operation, he was on a list and had to wait eight months and he died. He died six months later. In America, it’s crazy, it’s a demented system. Nevertheless, there is a rapid response at the level of high tech. To me, it’s a scandal that there is not some basic medical care provided for the poor. There should be medical clinics everywhere. It’s so obvious, and the amount we are wasting in terms of paperwork that individual offices that have flocks of secretaries to handle all the insurance is a tremendous waste. I blame Hillary. There was a tremendous moment. There were questions about the Clinton system, the one card system, questions of privacy. All kinds of things, these were not small concerns. All I am saying is I utterly disagree with Frank’s assumption. It goes with this animus. If it wasn’t for capitalism my family would never have gotten out of Italy. From the poverty of a small Italian village to Endicott, N.Y., to work in a shoe factory—I am going to write something about it for my next essay collection. I don’t recommend it; [the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Co.] was a paternalistic fiefdom run by George F. Johnson, who provided medical care to the workers. People just walked into the clinic and got it. He brought housing and all kinds of help. He was beloved. You can’t do that anymore. You don’t have that small, factory-town complex anymore. What’s nauseating is the way our executive class has been looting the companies. So I blame—I don’t blame capitalism, I blame the passivity of the boards [of directors] that have permitted this incredible millions and millions of remuneration and golden parachutes of people at the top and there is such a gap from people actually doing the work. This is something that is manageable, if the boards were doing their responsibilities. Same thing with the universities. The boards have been utterly negligent in monitoring what’s going on in the schools. They have allowed all kinds of things to happen.
RB: Oh please, they are all of the same class—the executives and the board members. So you don’t think the problems are systemic?
CP: I don’t believe it’s systemic in so far as having to abolish the system. What we need is reform. We need reform of the process, not overturning of the process. For example, universities have permitted in the last 40 years and all the media sat on its hands on this, the growth of a bureaucratic master class of administrators. More and more deans who are making fortunes and also the salaries at the Ivy League are astronomical. People are making $200,000 and families are bankrupting themselves to pay for these bills. There should be a national outrage—two major scandals, the price of higher education and medical care. The thing is, my parents paid $1,200 a year for my superb education. We need a punishing inquiry into both these things. We have a paralyzed Congress.
RB: In what you suggest is our reformable society, who will be the catalyst for this and who will allow it?
CP: You are seeing it already, as we have the perp walks of the CEOs to jail now, hopefully the boards are becoming a little more vigilant and the CEOs themselves about their behavior. It’s like we are back to the Gilded Age again. Where you have rapacious, amoral robber barons.
RB: It is, except we don’t have robber barons, we just have robbers. They have no vision; at least the robber barons built grand things or had grand visions.
CP: Yeah that’s a very good point.
RB: They just take.
CP: That’s a very good point. They merge and downsize and they are rewarded for letting hundreds [or thousands] of people go.
RB: When the head of the New York Stock Exchange [Richard Grasso] was let go—he was given $165 million in severance, I was thinking, what’s the lesson to young people? What did this man make or do? [Mr. Grasso received $139.5 million in retirement pay, giving up $48 million more after pressure from the board. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is seeking the return of some of the money.—eds.]
RB: In David Thomson’s book The Whole Equation, he doesn’t lionize the creative people over the people who get the movies made, the producers and the money people. You can’t make anything of any scale without money. So we do see a degradation of those people, the managers and the entrepreneurs.
CP: I know. Coming from New York on my tour, I am very disturbed by the way the money, the way all kinds of ways, how hard it is to live in New York as a writer or as an artist. The visibility of money. There was a point where people were hanging out in loft areas and downtown. Like [composer] David Amram came to my school to talk about his life with the abstract expressionists and the Beats and so on And he said there was a period where people just hung around ratty apartments and if you wanted money you went and varnished floors for a day. Or unloaded trucks for a day. And you got money to live. And now it’s a really bad. The glitter and the gloss, and there is hardly any place to go to have a snack. If you have any kind of money the restaurant culture is all very glittery. I find it colder and colder. Same in San Francisco; it used to be in places that artists congregated and now they are being driven out by gentrification.
RB: Can you get a cup of coffee for a dollar anywhere?
CP: I used to go down to New York when I was in grad school, from New Haven. My god, the East Village and the Village were overflowing with energy and street stuff. And hippies selling jewelry in little shops. Who could afford MacDougal Street any more?—making leather and jewelry. It was an exciting period of time. And there was all that crossover in the arts. Dancers were influencing the visual arts—
RB: I think you are starting to see that again.
CP: It’s hard. My students graduate and they have to live in Brooklyn and New Jersey now. You can’t live in Manhattan and hang out in that way. People hung out. They hung out. And a lot of things happened. Crossovers. People in Paris, the same thing—people living in ratty things, yeah.
RB: Are you an optimist?
CP: Am I an optimist? Yeah, I am, except that in Sexual Personae, which is about Western culture’s decadence, I believe that history has cycles and that every civilization comes to an end. And that nature’s tendency is toward cataclysm. So people say, “What about the tsunami?” I say, “Just read Sexual Personae.” My people, one side of my family, lived near Vesuvius. So we have the same sense that the volcano could erupt any moment. Am I an optimist? I am a catastrophist.
RB: [laughs] Not a declinist? It’s not all going unalterably downhill?
CP: I believe in cycles the way Yeats does. Civilizations have a growth cycle and they get to a peak and they decline and there is a destruction, and out of that comes a new one. Everything comes back, everything returns. It’s like this total loss and then recovery and restoration and a new efflorescence and then the whole thing declines again.
RB: The notion of an eternal return is Nietzschean.
CP: I love Nietzsche. He influenced me in many, many ways. The way he fused history and culture. The Appollian and Dionysian in my work comes from him. Although he got it from Plutarch.
RB: Getting back your book—what’s your sense of how it’s being received?
CP: After one week of sales it’s on the NYT bestseller list [for the week of April 17]. So it’s striking a chord somewhere.
RB: April is Poetry Month, isn’t it?
CP: That’s helped to get it out there. But I was very surprised that on the “phoners,” I thought, “Oh, God, I’m going to have to talk about date rape.” But oddly enough I get few questions about that stuff but people really want to talk about poetry. So there is something out there. People are feeling empty. There’s a vacuum. There really is a spiritual vacuum right now. People on the left don’t want the Bible. They don’t want religion. But there is something—a craving for something. A reorientation. So I am saying, “Back to basics. Let’s begin again, get the big broom.”
CP: Sweep out all this stuff, this post-modernist, structuralism stuff which hasn’t led to anything but a lot of very successful, tenure and promotion and salaries. This naivete of the alternative press about the academy. The idea that people who are mouthing leftist platitudes are leftists. Some of these people I knew in grad school. These people are crass materialists, OK?
CP: They boast about having two houses and they mouth leftist platitudes. There was a financial reward to mouthing leftism in this period. The alternative press which should have been the watch dogs—
RB: The alternative press is the same way.
CP: What I am saying is they think that’s leftism and “I don’t want to join the chorus of people on the right who are decrying what’s going on in academe,” so the entire two generations of embezzlers and crooks, as far as I am concerned, took over the universities and forced out interesting grad students and faculty and they took up other careers. And destroyed the humanities.