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Paglia Opines on American Culture, DiCaprio, Evils of Postmodernism

Controversial professor places modern society in pagan tradition


Camille Paglia, diva to aesthetes, gave her trademark stream-of-consciousness commentary on life, art and academia last night to a packed Emerson 105 lecture hall.

Paglia, who is professor of the humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, was invited by the Boston Phoenix to speak on her theory of American popular culture, an artistic tradition which she believes stems from Greco-Roman paganism.

In an hour-long speech ranging from barbed critiques of Harvard's professors--whom she decried for postmodernism--to discussion of the enigmatic physical beauty of Leonardo DiCaprio, Paglia said she sees contemporary America as a mesh between the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and pre-Christian paganism.

"These two currents interact with each other, conflict and intermingle with each other," she said. But Judeo-Christianity "never did defeat paganism," Paglia said.

Paglia, who received a Ph.D. in literature from Yale in 1972, said the dormant influence of paganism has been most acutely felt in the Renaissance, in Romanticism and in 20th century popular culture.

Paglia places herself in the pagan tradition.

"It is my religion," she said.

Born to what she called a poor but loving family of Italian immigrants in upstate New York, Paglia, 51, said she first became aware of paganism's war with organized religion while staring at the erotic pose of a Renaissance-era St. Sebastian in church as a young girl.

Thus began the first of the many paradoxes that are Camille Paglia.

"I'm an aesthetic who identifies strongly with Italian Catholicism," she said.

While critics like Noam Chomsky have labeled Paglia as reactionary, Paglia's position on social issues give them pause. She is strongly pro-choice, strongly pro-pornography ("I've made an extensive study," she told the audience,) and favors abolishing age-of-consent laws governing sexual relationships.

But don't dare call her a post-modernist.

"I spit on post-modernists. I stomp on them," she said, dramatically stamping her foot. "They can all go to hell.

"I despise the entire English literature department at Harvard," she said. "In 100 years, they'll all be forgotten."

What irks Paglia so much, she said, is not so much a lack of credible scholarship, but the rejection of nature, beauty and objective truth by post-modernists and post-structuralists.

Feminist scholars, for instance, "have never opened a biology book," Paglia said.

For Paglia, the objective truth is the natural archetype.

Pagan naturalism consists of sex and violence, which Paglia said finds its most acute expression in modern television and printed tabloids.

"They are more truthful about the universe than...the major religions," she said. "Tabloids confront [sex and violence] head on without an apology."

Shunned by the mainstream academic establishment, Paglia does not shrink from shooting back.

Slyly referring to 33 specific Harvard professors in her staccato prose, Paglia also launched barbs at Harvard itself, calling some tenured females "affirmative-action babies...who have nothing to thank but their gonads."

Paglia even finds the pagan artistic tradition's expression in teen-aged girls' bacchanalian frenzies for Leonardo DiCaprio and the Hanson brothers.

Her "beautiful boy" hypothesis is perhaps the most controversial of the sexual personae she identified in her first tome on art and culture.

Girls and gay men like DiCaprio and the Hansons because "[t] he girlish boy is unthreatening. He's a play-thing. He poses no danger," she said.

But, she noted, "Leonardo DiCaprio looks like a 13 year-old lesbian to me."

Paglia's theatrics and scholarship have been labeled as "intellectual pornography" by some, but her fans turned out en masse from as far away as Vermont last night.

Said Will Devlin, clutching a Paglia book, "She's vital, she's intelligent and

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