Sunday, January 20, 2008

Conversational Art

One of the sweetest components of my life these days is "salon." On the third Saturday of each month, a dozen or so people gather at my house for food and wine, followed by several hours of what we have come to believe is enlightened conversation. Whatever we talk about is never by any pre-planned agenda, for there is none. Yet we seem to have developed an ongoing network of themes, a narrative of sorts, that so far, at least, has never failed to launch into something as fabulous as it is fortuitous.

The original premise was that people need and want a place to talk seriously about what is on their minds: things such as the imperilled state of the world, which has become like a person diagnosed with a fatal illness; the war with radical Islam; the future direction of our lives; and how to be relevant in dire times.

It was agreed from the beginning that the most provocative issues are often eclipsed by the daily grind of family preoccupations, work responsibilities, and other personal agendas and pursuits. We decided to look at the big picture, and to view ourselves as improvisational jazz musicians, meeting regularly to make conversational music. Conversational art is quintessentially ecological. It doesn't use resources (except for gas), it doesn't pollute, and it doesn't contribute to the consumer trance. Besides costing nothing, it turns out to be great fun.

In his book "Conversation: A History of a Declining Art," Stephen Miller laments the decline of conversational art in America, which he defines as "a discussion of great and small topics by people who practice mutual tolerance for opposing viewpoints."

"The best conversations," he said in an interview last year in the Utne Reader, "are playful. They go different places, people are throwing out ideas, and no one is pronouncing on things...even disagreement has to be good-humored. The alternative is it gets ugly, and that's unfortunate. Quite often people don't discuss anything because they're afraid of offending--or if they do discuss something they're screaming."

Our group talks a lot about politics and religion and art, but people do not cross talk or scream. They listen well and respectfully. There are never personal attacks. Instead we practice a combination of forthrightness and restraint, and the range of opinions offered is exhilarating.

Last night's meeting was funnier than most. Some of us were laughing so hard we were rolling about. Chico Harkrader, an artist from Roanoke, began reading some paragraphs from an old book he'd acquired in a recent giveaway called "Sexual Personae" by Camille Paglia. I think he was expecting, perhaps, to stimulate talk about sexual politics, a topical subject with regard to the current presidential race. But that conversation never happened. Instead we got derailed by Paglia's ludicrous and incomprehensible prose, becoming intoxicated by the ever accelerating incoherence of what was being read, our laughter skidding more and more out of control.

The book is a name-dropper's Nirvana, full of murky concepts and spitball, anti-feminisht maledictions. We fell into a game, opening to a page at random and reading a sentence at a time out loud.

"I heard those well-aimed jets of laughter falling like loose change in your living room last night," says Virgil with his usual scorching candor, "sticking that poor woman in the middle of nowhere without an alibi or a defense minister--and making short work of those lame, gnat-brained pieces of demagogic doo-doo. Another step in restoring the distorted nervous system of the world to its normal functioning!"

After people left, I Googled "critical reviews for CP" to see what others had made of this egregious nonsense, and I enclose here some extracts of the more interesting responses, which came off of, There were 55 reviews in all. I confess to only having read the first few. The first reviewer--who quotes John Updike, who I think nails it-- seems to have adopted Paglia's own style for her review:

September 3, 2002
In One Ear Out Your Mother (East Brunswick, NJ USA) - See all my reviews
Imagine some monstrous 600-page addenda to *The Birth of Tragedy*, deploying the Apollo vs. Dionysus doublet ad vertiginem, putting the proleptic insights of Pater, Jung, and Frazer to work in new and frightful ways, invoking a faux-Gorgonic eye to peer into the heart of culture High and Low, from empyrean edifice to paganized Pop void, and you'll have a distant impression of this cocky, gumptious, explosive treatise, a book that takes so many risks its grating weaknesses never quite catch up to its prodigal greatness. You just gotta read this.
*Sexual Personae* starts out strong. Its promises are manifold. By the time Paglia is done ravishing us with her visionary Egyptology and impudent synoptic judgements on the failures of feminism to give us an authentic sexual politics, the reader feels primed and whetted for the perilous night journey ahead. For the next 550 pages, however, our expectations are both whippingly indulged and (sigh) left flaccid, limp, and befuddled. Mistress Camille begins to flounder beneath the weight of her gushing, declamatory syntax, pounding and thrashing us with repetition and overemphasis, the voice of an S/M dominatrix sliding mushily into self-parody.
As John Updike soberly put it, "It feels less a survey than a curiously ornate harangue. Her percussive style -- one short declarative sentence after another -- eventually wearies the reader; her diction functions not so much to elicit the secrets of books as to hammer them into submission.... The weary reader longs for the mercy of a qualification, a doubt, a hesitation; there is little sense, in her uncompanionable prose, of exploration occuring before our eyes, of tentative motions of thought reflected in a complex syntax." Paglia throws around the word "chthonic" like Heidegger pimping "Dasein." The Nietzschean parabolic of Apollo vs. Dionysus is often stretched thinner than Calista Flockhart fed through a saltwater taffy dispenser. But when Paglia is good, she's good. When fiery intellectual hubris finds its phantom gemini in the anguished erotic gravity of high art and literature (even when this gravity seems a willful projection of the critic's own manic preconceptions), the book simply rocks.
... "One author after another is made to confess to sexual crossover, androgyny, and sadomasochism" (Updike, 607). For better or worse, her Nietzschean cold-water brutality keeps things grounded in the Freudian mother-earth we thought we'd deconstructed into oblivion, returning us to a dark, punishing realm of synoptic deities who tear men's lives to shreds without batting an eyelash, sending the phallic ego on greased skids to Hell while maintaining their crystalline serenity. Like the dark heart of a jewel, the gods refract all light as we transients of the flesh go down to feed the worm.
Some of Paglia's paragraphs are (more or less) "chthonic" mush, an attempt to forcefeed her pet metaphors of sexual neurosis down the throats of younger readers eager for snappy punchlines and all the deferential sloganizing of feckless guru-worship. But just as often her quicksilver intellect hits us pleasurably below the belt, leaving the reader shaken and transfigured by a powerful, exotic cinema of the spirit, forcing us to rethink our whole battery of preconceptions on every artist and work under discussion.
*Sexual Personae* churns and rumbles with this sort of audacity, shifting breakneck from meticulous, careful scholarship to wild conjecture and enthralling hearsay (often in the same paragraph) without so much as a by-your-leave, transfused with a fluid comedic irony that kept this reader chuckling softly to himself throughout. Paglia takes no prisoners. Her egotism is as caustic as it is unrepentant, as bludgeoning as it is cranky, as penetrating as it is monomanical. She polarizes her audience. At her strongest and most original, you either love her or hate her. I won't even try to compete with the wonderful media caricatures that have fulminated in the wake of her celebrity. This philosophic maneater knows all too well the sexual persona she has created for herself, the lesbian-vampire renegade academic deploying pungent barbs of wit from her sniper's nest at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. And when she hits her mark, that goon squad of poseurs, bureaucrats, pomo fiends, and power-obsessed Foucauldian politickers that saturate Academe seem to wilt into irrelevance when propped toe-to-toe against her loud, dismissive, polemical swath.
Despite its many hokey allegations, its fatuous overreadings, its easy-to-parody voice, its argumentative forcefeeding, and its jarring repetitions and overblown pretentions, *Sexual Personae* is a book I recommend to virtually everyone I meet. Just to see their reaction. To provoke a new, headier form of dialogue, a post-Freudian genital vernacular sashaying its way past crotchety feminist tightwads who cheerfully ignore human biology by trying to eunuchize that hoary "patriarchal" beast of art-producing obsessiveness. And, hopefully, a good cathartic guffaw every few pages or so. Not of condescension, but rather pure sensual joy of steamy, immoderate, intellectual conversation. For beneath it all, Paglia is a fork-tongued raconteur and comedienne of the Oscar Wilde school for tarts, an irresistable stud-leather vixen bringing the bullwhip of her sass down on our goosepimpled backsides.
So don't be a prig. Go get some.

An Erotics of Art, February 1, 2007
R. mangum - See all my reviews

...Paglia's criticism is at her best here in her chapter on Emily Dickenson, whom she calls "Madame de Sade", and who seems to have been misunderstood even by her admirers for over a hundred years. This is the book's final chapter, and it is so incisive and revelatory that it makes "deconstructive" criticism look like bloated, impotent sophistry.

Now that this book has been around for almost 20 years, it is possible to assess it. In my humble opinion, it mistaken in most of its arguments, but a lot of fun to read. Remember folks, "the duty of the critic is not to be right or wrong, but rather, interesting." Buy a used copy and live it up.

Anyone who gets to the part about the "gigantic sexual molecule with a female center" and still gives the book a bad review has no soul.

Men like porn, December 21, 2005
Negombo "Lo" (Earth) - See all my reviews
and of course they would LOVE a woman who said porn was OK.

My experience dealing with lesbians like Paglia is they tend to jump on whatever side is more powerful because of their obsessive need to lord it over someone. What better way than to side with men, label their primitive sex and aggression instincts as something positive which does not need to be bridled, and to top it off, label them as "victims" of "female oppression" which has attempted to supress and "civilize" those instincts. In her little mind, rape is OK because it's natural for males to be aggressive, sex obsessed and violent. And women should just deal with it.

I do deal with it. That's why I've got a 9mm Glock.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm curious now to plunk a few pages myself. I enjoyed the glimpse into the salon meeting.