Study Guide

Camille Paglia Influences

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Emily Dickinson

My first contribution to arts and letters was Sexual Personae. Its impact on thinking about art and sexuality cannot be understated.

Now, in that book, I ran the gamut from that great Egyptian pharaoh's wife, Nefertiti, to America's favorite reclusive female poet, Emily Dickinson. My whole thing about Dickinson was how hardcore she was—a woman unafraid of explosive eroticism. People had always painted her as some lace-collared virgin, but I say she made femininity macho. That's why I called her "the American Sade"—as in the Marquis de Sade, that notorious aristocratic libertine whose name gave us the word "sadism."

Dickinson's unflinching embrace of perversion showed that she has "little concern with disease." As I said, "Her sadomasochistic horrors are confined to piercings, slashings, hackings, scorchings and dislocations" (source). One of my faves is Emily's poem "Because I could not stop for death," because here we see her surrender to mortality. Now that's punk.

Sylvia Plath

The sixth line of Sylvia's poem "Daddy" goes a little something like this: "Daddy, I have had to kill you." Well, that should say it all, but I give this poem the close reading it deserves in my book Break, Blow, Burn.

Plath was gnarly. I see her and Dickinson as spiritual sisters, both unwilling to succumb to the oppressions of society. In "Daddy," Plath flips the bird to all of the male-dominated institutions and familial assumptions that try to keep women in their places. Both of these passionate poetesses were feminists before a single bra was burned.

This poem gives me the creeps in a good way, because Plath uses all sorts of Nazi allusions to bring down the overbearing image of the father—which is also a reference to her dirt bag of a husband, Ted Hughes.

Claude Monet

Look, I'm an art critic as well as a literary critic, so I committed my book Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars to close readings of paintings and other objects of visual culture.

One of my picks was Monet's Irises, which I believe popular culture has decimated into a banal decorative flourish that you are more likely to see on the wall of a dentist's office than to associate with intense and ecstatic emotion. I read this painting not as a soothing gathering of color fragments but as an explosion of deep emotion and, above all, a representation of Monet's profound faith in beauty as an end in itself.


Nope, I'm not talking about Jesus's mom; I'm talking about the famous bleach-blond pop star who just never gives up. I'm a cultural critic, too, and I've written at length about Madonna, whom I see as an unrivaled icon of aggressive feminine masculinity. I have defended and lauded her in numerous publications. I've called her a smart-cookie business tycoon and the one true feminist we have. In 1990, I called her the "future of feminism," and in 2010, I celebrated her as a "pro-sex feminist."

Don't get me started, Andrea Dworkin…

Alfred Hitchcock

Did I mention that I'm also a film critic? When I was asked by the highly esteemed British Film Institute to write a book about The Birds, Hitchcock's classic film of avian phobia, I quickly agreed. My book goes through each scene in the movie and uses a psychoanalytic perspective to understand why the heck Tippi Hedren can't get those birds out of her hairdo.

One of my favorite moments is when Tippi "sits tensely smoking near the schoolhouse as crows ominously gather on the jungle gym behind her" (source). You know me—I'm not afraid of anything, but that scene gives me the creeps.

Oh, and once again, I'm a maverick: I'm like the one female film critic to say that Hitchcock was not a misogynist.

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