Sunday, April 13, 2008

A milestone

I have often remarked--perhaps here as well--that of my entire generation I can think of only four people who have profoundly influenced me intellectually. They are the late Bill Strauss and Neil Howe, whom I have often discussed here; Bill James, the baseball theorist; and Camille Paglia. Bill was a great friend of mine, I know Neil fairly well, and I have had some contacts with Bill James, but until last Thursday all my attempts to meet Paglia had gotten nowhere. That evening I attended a talk she gave at Harvard with a mutual friend, Christopher Lydon, and our very brief contact was everything I could have hoped for it to be.

Of all the other academics I know of, Paglia's career is probably most similar to mine. We are the same age (although she managed to graduate from college a year earlier). I got my doctorate in history at Harvard, she got hers in English at Yale. Both of us did very ambitious dissertations. Indeed, hers, which became Sexual Personae, which put her on the map in the early 1990s, was more comparable in scope to my third book, Politics and War, which came out at about the same time as Sexual Personae, than to my first. Both of us taught briefly at a major institution, me at Harvard and she at Bennington, before being turned loose. And both of us, for about two decades, have been earning our daily bread in professional schools--she at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, and I at the Naval War College. And both of us have shown tremendous grief over different aspects of the era of our youth--she at the end of Break, Blow, Burn, and I in the last pages of American Tragedy.

Comparing myself not only to her, but to the other three contemporaries I mentioned, I have to say that I, sadly, have been the straightest arrow. Strauss gave up steady work in the mid-198os and earned his living with the Capitol Steps; Howe is a consultant; and James became a tremendously successful author on baseball purely based upon his wits. Having started out at age 29 with the only job I ever wanted, I long cherished the illusion that I could get another one like it by performing. I was wrong. Paglia in the 1990s embraced her outsider status and became a violent critic of intellectual trends in the academy (as I have been as well, albeit less visibly) and of the feminist establishment. She also published two very entertaining books of essays and, more recently, a book on forty of her favorite poems, Break, Blow Burn. That book employed the new criticism in which both she and I were trained--I in Humanities 6 as a Harvard sophomore, in some ways probably the course that influenced me the most, even though I was already a history major. It taught close attention to sources, you see.

I had seen Paglia interviewed on television a number of times (although I never, alas, saw a notable appearance on Crossfire early in the Clinton Administration, in which she evinced an early and well-founded dislike for Hillary Clinton.) I was surprised at the delivery of her talk, which she read carefully, if effectively, from a text. In the question time I realized why--she needs the discipline! Like Malcolm X, she can give a very long answer to a very simple question, but her sentences always parse and her examples are always wide-ranging and relevant. Her subject was modern feminism, and she began by bitterly criticizing her contemporaries for having failed to pay any attention to earlier generations of feminists--not only those of the late 19th century, but those of the Lost generation such as Dorothy Parker and Amelia Earhart whom, she said, she studied carefully in the 1950s, when I was discovering American history myself. She also castigated them for their complete ignorance of science as it relates to gender differences. But she noted provocatively that the influence of the feminist establishment--the Gloria Steinems and the Catherine McKinnon's--has dropped substantially over the last decade as cable television and the internet have replaced the mainstream press as sources of news. Their last hurrah was the Anita Hill case, she seemed to suggest, when they were go-to girls for the media to get the female perspective. And it is clear that Gen X and Millennial women do not share their obsession with victimhood, and thus are more excited by Obama than by Hillary Clinton (whom, I would speculate, reminds many of them of their own mothers.)

I was delighted, however, by her response when I got the opportunity to ask a question. I said that I wanted to introduce a slightly different perspective, and she nodded with interest. Identifying myself as a contemporary and a historian, I said that her criticism of feminists for ignoring historical examples was part of something bigger. Our whole generation, I said, had had a "eureka" moment around 1968, when, largely because of the Vietnam War, Boomers had concluded that everything our parents had told us was a lie, and that we could safely disregard all of it. In academia this had led during the next twenty years to the repudiation of the whole western intellectual tradition (she began nodding vigorously at that point), and only a few holdouts like ourselves had been trying to keep it alive. But moreover, I said, during the last ten or twenty years we had seen similar developments in business and in politics, leaving the world we had inherited in ruins all around us. I concluded that that was both a burden and a great opportunity to the younger generations who would have to rebuild things. She responded most enthusiastically, agreeing that it was time for Boomers to step aside, and adding that that was why she, too, was all for Barack Obama. Afterwards our mutual friend briefly introduced us.

Sexual personae does represent, in a way, the real contribution of our generation, because Paglia argued that Judeo-Christian civilization--and especially its bourgeois expression, with which she still feels out of sympathy--has always been at war with much more primal, violent impulses, especially sex, which cannot be denied. (That is why she, like me, thinks both pornography and prostitution should be legal.) While my own writing hasn't dealt with those issues, it has suggested that rational explanations for institutional behavior--especially the behavior of governments--are often deceptive as well. And I must say that The Road to Dallas turned, eventually, into an almost Shakespearean drama involving quite a rich mix of characters--but that is another story.

I don't know how Camille feels about her career path. Intuitively I feel that she, like me, must know how much she could have contributed at a leading institution and must regret not having more of a chance. But both of us obviously feel part of a much, much broader enterprise than contemporary academia--one that in her case stretches back several millennia and in mine, at least until the mid-19th century. And thus, whatever else may have happened, we both shall always have the satisfaction of having contributed to the western intellectual tradition that seduced us when very young, and in which we have never lost faith.

1 comment:

Neil Heyman said...

David,

PLease stop bitching about being at the Naval War College. I for one think you're using your time and talents well.