Camille Paglia’s penchant for flamboyant observations, penetrating and provocative insights, and frequent contemptuous dismissals of rival positions has resulted in her reputation as a maverick intellectual determinedly self-exiled from nearly any kind of communal school or group. In her introduction to Break, Blow, Burn, Paglia rails at “cliques and coteries in book and magazine publishing” and defiantly proclaims “I have no such friendships and am a propagandist for no poet or group of poets.”
While she has relished this position and employed it effectively to distinguish herself among critics and commentators, it has also led to the kind of derisive response shown by Lee Siegel in his review of Paglia’s reading of “Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems”: After acknowledging that her “polemical tome Sexual Personae” (1991) effectively “attacked the stale orthodoxies of both left and right,” Siegel stated that “her once-gratifying affirmations of individuality, imagination and incalculable experience began to sound like playground shouts of Look at Me.” In addition to his contention that her style has grown stale, her observations shrill, and her personae obnoxious, Siegel felt that the subject of her new book amounts to having “exhumed a dead herring.”
This objection is at the heart of Paglia’s enterprise. While Siegel regards Paglia’s concerns as “alarmist” and her prospective audience a “small, rarefied group of devotees who write and/or avidly read poetry,” Paglia is determined to revive what she regards as a vital human activity and reclaim for it a wider audience than Siegel identifies. In this, her dispute with Siegel is more a matter of emphasis than substance. More to the point is Siegel’s description of Paglia’s work as “an elementary, and exceedingly banal, primer on how to read a handful of poems from the distant and recent past.”
The sneering tone of Siegel’s dismissal is meant as a counterbalance to Paglia’s extravagant assertions, such as her characteristic diatribe against all the faults of the critics operating under the pernicious influence that she reduces to the term “European poststructuralism” and which she castigates for its “clotted jargon, circular reasoning, and smug, debunking cynicism.” However, once beyond Paglia’s often entertaining but not necessarily enlightening verbal assaults on various villains, a heartfelt and seriously prepared argument emerges, initially in Paglia’s explanation of how her interests and methods developed and then, most crucially, in the actual discussions of the poems that she has chosen for inclusion.
Alternating somewhat uneasily with the attacks, Paglia has presented a passionate brief for the poems that have moved her from her earliest days as a student through her graduate education with esteemed authorities such as Harold Bloom, whom she proudly claims as a mentor and then colleague. Her introduction shifts abruptly in tone from wrath to supplication, alternately suspicious and defensive and then open and imploring. This blend of the intimately personal and the determinedly dialectical is an integral element of Paglia’s approach and will probably have much to do with a reader’s interest in and response to her readings. The often overwrought rhetoric that Paglia employs, like a habit or addiction surfacing almost unbidden, gradually recedes as she builds a case for the poems that she insists are timeless contributions to human endeavor.
Although Paglia is generally thought of as an ultra-contemporary observer of postmodern phenomenathe competitor who claimed in Vamps and Tramps (1994) that she had surpassed Susan Sontag as the premier “tough-cookie feminist” (“I’ve been chasing that bitch for twenty-five years, and I’ve finally passed her.”)she has mixed this mode with a kind of offhand semimodesty, countering what Daniel Harris called her “racy personae as a scandalous Jezebel” with claims that for years in the 1990’s she was “just an old nun.” While this might seem like a cunning strategy to disarm some of her detractors, the introduction to Break, Blow, Burn reveals a previously concealed sentimental side which Paglia has kept under wraps. Here, she is ready to risk a sincerity unprotected by irony, confident that her position is secure enough to withstand scrutinyor, at least, that many of the poems which she champions are so centered in the cultural consciousness of her readers that they will be sufficient to support her claims about and for them.
When Paglia states in the first paragraph that her goal is “to write commentaries on poetry that illuminate the text but also give pleasure in themselves as pieces of writing,” she is placing herself within the classical tradition of commentary epitomized by Aristotle’s well-known injunction in De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) “to instruct and delight.” When she describes her technique as a “close reading, or what used to be called ’explication of text,’” and explains it as a “superb instrument” with which one can “focus the mind, sharpen perception, and refine emotion,” she is using the rhetoric of the Augustan age.
Characteristically, though, after acknowledging that this instrument is based on the analytical methods of the New Critics of the mid-twentieth century, she asserts that she had become impatient with their “prim evasion of the sex and aggression in artistic creativity.” As a corrective to the increasingly academic bent of the New Criticism, she cites...
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