In the most recent issue of The Nation
, Lee Siegel laid into Camille Paglia's newest barnstormer, Break, Blow, Burn
. His article, Look at Me
, is a magnificent blast of snark against the self-maligning agitation that Paglia seems to fall more & more victim to.
In her newest book, she tackles poetry and attempts to make the claim that contemporary poetry is no longer ambitious and that poets no longer hope to nor are able to speak for & about their generation(s). Well, this is one of the book's premises. Paglia always struck me as a diminished & corrupted version of Susan Sontag. Sontag brilliantly utilized her intelligence in polemical fashion, always keeping pace with the literature of her day while harking back to the past, all the while provoking the rest of us future participants in the life of culture to act. Paglia once had some of this spirit but has resorted instead to attempting to pursue that mythical quality of balance, always trying to find some kind of bridge by contrariness to all things. I don't usually care for reconciliation or compromise but any critic who cannot look to the present to speak of the present has no business shovelling shit on my plate and calling it steak. Especially when it delves into self-snark, something that is noted by Lee Siegel:
"[...] Paglia's Emersonian pronouncements on the inestimable value of the individual began to sound as adolescent as Emerson at his most solipsistic. And celebrity started exacting its usual toll on Paglia in the form of self-exaggeration and self-parody. The thoughtful gadfly became a performing gabfly; her provocations declined into insults; her once-gratifying affirmations of individuality, imagination and incalculable experience began to sound like playground shouts of Look at Me. Paglia's vituperative ranting against hate-speech laws now seemed like arguments for why they should exist. She seemed to be precisely the kind of old-fashioned bully who had given rise to the new fragility and its search for protection, and for its own sources of power."
Paglia's new book makes the claim that "poetry was at the height of prestige in the 1960s. American college students were listening to rock music but also writing poetry. [...] [O]ver the following decades, poetry and poetry study were steadily marginalized by pretentious 'theory.'" Oh, if only this was true. The truth of the matter, despite all the talk of LangPo, to pick on one example, there is a good deal more poetry written outside of the parameters of 'theory', a fact duly made clear by coffeehouse readings stuffy with sonneteering Beat-inspired drek, slam poetry competitions with their WWE atmosphere of witless bawdiness & clunky politicizing, and countless zines running the fence along formalism and experimentalism, all poison, all lacking in notions of precedence and innovation. Paglia seems woefully trapped in the 1960s without a hint of irony that the waves have already crashed and the tide receded, to paraphrase the late Hunter S. Thompson, and so she turns to some of the great poems of the English language of the past. This irony is wonderfully articulated by Siegel:
"Writers and lovers of poetry would be aware, too, that the situation Paglia is describing is a figment of her publicity-deprived imagination. For one thing, her golden age of the 1960s, far more than our own moment, shook with mandarin anxiety that poetry, and high culture in general, was being snuffed out by the counterculture. For another, if a "crisis" exists in poetry, it's the same trying circumstances that prevail in the world of art in general.We live in a prosperous society that offers plenty of free time for the coddled children of the middle and upper-middle class (and beyond), a society where there are more college-educated people than at any time in modern history. And so there are now more people than at any time in human history who are, understandably, seeking to escape the primordial curse of uncreative human labor by--usually thanks to their parents' financial support--trying to make various kinds of art."
Siegel does not stop there however; and here is perhaps the height of his anti-Paglia snark (my italics):
"The result is an expanded market, a huge inflation of artistic output, and a sharp intensification of competition. There are probably no fewer worthwhile poems, novels and paintings now being made by gifted people than there ever were. But there's a vast increase in desperate, ego-driven shit, of which Paglia's book happens to be a good example.
Overproduction makes it harder for good work to get noticed, and thus harder to find. And because the old aesthetic criteria have been relativized--or marginalized--by new conditions that we can barely understand or articulate, it's also more difficult to recognize real art when we do see it."
I will let you read through the article to read the delectable bits Siegel picks out of Paglia's books and puts under the snarkoscope. It is not only, unfortunately, believable that such poor, misguided criticism should find its way onto so many slaughtered tree-guts but it is also terribly sad that Paglia clearly lacks the imagination she attempts to stir in us readers, falling back on variations of freshman-paper tropes such as claiming that "Shakespeare's mobile eye prefigures the camera" without even realizing that the eye is a natural camera; if only she had listened more carefully to her own times so that she might have learned from the prophet McLuhan and realized that the camera is an extension of our eye, that one's eyes cannot prefigure a camera but rather a camera is made to aid our eye & memory while Shakespeare's timeless treasures do the same with much less equipment and good deal more imagination unlike our poor Camille Paglia, hag and saint of her own travesty.
My friends, Lee Siegel not only has done a commendable job but he has also exposed one of the great problems of people addressing poetry: a complete lack of awareness of the subject. Rather than take oneself to task, one like Paglia prefers to make a fuss, to invent a crisis, which in the end, only makes one look stupid and pathetic. Siegel 1, Paglia -1