March 31, 2005

Paglia Watch

A while back I noted that I was interested in Camille Paglia's new book on the proper study of poetry, Break, Blow, Burn. Now the reviews are starting to role in. Stefan Beck at The New Criterion points to this enthusiastic piece by Clive James in which he nails the reason I've always respected Paglia so much as a scholar, despite her occasional wilder outbursts on political issues:

She flies as high as you can go, in fact, without getting into the airless space of literary theory and cultural studies. Not that she has ever regarded those activities as elevated. She has always regarded them, with good reason, as examples of humanism's perverse gift for attacking itself, and for providing the academic world with a haven for tenured mediocrity. 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.

One measure of her quality as a commentator is that those two subjects are not in the reverse order. In view of her wide knowledge, her expressive gifts, her crackling personality and the inherent credibility problems posed by looking too much at her ease on top of a pair of Jimmy Choos, it is remarkable how good Paglia can be at not putting herself first. From this book you could doubt several aspects of her taste in poetry. But you couldn't doubt her love of it. She is humble enough to be enthralled by it; enthralled enough to be inspired; and inspired enough to write the sinuous and finely shaded prose that proves how a single poem can get the whole of her attention. From a woman who sometimes gives the impression that she finds reticence a big ask, this is a sure index of her subject's importance to her, and one quite likely to be infectious.

On the other hand, The Derb dislikes her effort intensely:

Reading this book was like flipping through one of those pretentious, absurd catalogs you get when visiting an exhibition of the sillier kind of fashionable art. I even had a fleeting suspicion that the whole thing might be a spoof - a send-up of ponderous academic over-interpretation. No, the author is in earnest. Paglia has opened a window into the precious, self-referential little world of literary theorizing.

For this poetry lover, it was a glimpse of Hell. And what is burning in that hell is our poetry, for a thousand years the greatest glory of the English-speaking people, but now dead, smothered under the horrid rotten mass of literary academicism. We must have done something very terrible to have our birthright taken from us, to see it suffocated in dust like this.

You'd almost think they were reviewing two different books, wouldn't you? Obviously, I'm going to have to lay my hooks on the thing and see for myself.

Posted by Robert at March 31, 2005 01:20 PM
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