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Powell’s Q&A: Camille Paglia

Describe your latest book.
Glittering Images, which took five years to write, is a concise survey of Western art, starting with Egyptian tomb paintings and ending with the digital revolution. There are 29 chapters, all illustrated in full color, which trace the evolving styles of art down the centuries from antiquity to modernism. The last chapter is on George Lucas's Revenge of the Sith, the sixth and most recent film made in the Star Wars series. I declare that its operatic climax on the volcano planet of Mustafar is far more powerful on the visual and emotional level than anything else in contemporary art.

Glittering Images was intended as a companion book to my last release, Break, Blow, Burn, which was a study of poetry aimed at the general audience. Today people are swamped with visual clutter — text messages, email, Twitter, flashing online ads, manically edited TV commercials. Glittering Images invites the reader to slow down and relearn how to see in a focused, stable, contemplative manner. I especially want to reach young people who have had little or no exposure to great art. The fine arts are a wasteland these days, with no major figures left and no fresh ideas or styles. Creative energy has massively shifted to computer animation and video games, which are very dynamic but can become narrowly all-consuming. With this book, I'm hoping to reawaken a sense of history and to inspire a return to high standards in image making.With this book, I'm hoping to reawaken a sense of history and to inspire a return to high standards in image making.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Night-shift ward secretary of the emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital in downtown Syracuse, New York. This was a summer job when I was in college. I wore a uniform and sat at a little table inside the emergency room, right next to all the action. When an ambulance brought in a patient — often with bullet wounds on the night shift — the medical staff would rapidly evaluate his or her condition and shout out to me which specialist I should contact. I had a list of doctors on call for that night and immediately dialed the answering service. Of course it was highly stressful when people arrived dead or dying and there was a great outcry from their families in the hallway. But most of the time it was quiet, and I used the predawn hours to read through the shelf of medical textbooks.

I'll never forget the night when the glamorously exotic, middle-aged owner of Wanda's, a hideaway bar in the outskirts of Syracuse, was brought in with a long, bloody gash down her face after a road accident where she was thrown through the windshield of her Cadillac (neither seat belts nor safety glass existed yet). I was immediately told to call the premiere plastic surgeon in the city. When he arrived, he was as handsome and smoothly charming as a prince in a Hollywood movie. "Don't worry, my dear," he told the distraught Wanda. "I will make you even more beautiful than before!"

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
One of my favorite passages from Virginia Woolf appears in a letter she wrote to her Amazonian pal, Victoria Sackville-West. Woolf had just had her hair bobbed in the latest Jazz Age fashion. I adore the way she amusingly captures snippy debate inside her Bloomsbury circle:

1. Virginia is completely spoilt by her shingle.
2. Virginia is completely made by her shingle.
3. Virginia's shingle is quite unnoticeable.

These are the three schools of thought on this important subject. I have bought a coil of hair, which I attach by a hook. It falls into the soup, and is fished out on a fork.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands, and why did you read it?
I did an online order for Joan Rivers's latest book, I Hate Everyone... Starting with Me, because I'm a huge Rivers fan from way back. With her sharp, cutting voice and aggressive stage style, Joan was one of the pathbreaking protofeminists of our era — but she did it on her own, without ever claiming victim status or blaming the world for her problems. Even at age 79, she remains absolutely remorseless in her abrasive realism and rejection of sentimentality. I was surprised but proud that, when I suddenly became known after the release of my first book, Sexual Personae, in 1990, I was often called "the academic Joan Rivers."

Why do you write?
Ever since childhood, I have always felt that the number and intensity of my observations exceed my ability to express them in conversation. People cannot be burdened with a constant flood of commentary on life and the universe! My Joan Rivers fast-talking can only go so far before audience fatigue sets in. So I write! Readers can turn me on and off at will. But I'm always there on the shelf — like a jack-in-the-box, ready to rumble.

Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-64), which was hugely influential in shaping my sensibility. Serling was a native of upstate New York whose stories often took place on my childhood map — the spectral territory from Binghamton to Syracuse. He was a crusading liberal during a period of conservative conformism. He was also a strange combination of sci-fi futurist and ghoulish Romantic fantasist, like Edgar Allan Poe. Many of the 30-minute episodes of The Twilight Zone were mini-masterpieces of narrative economy, gripping drama, and startling surrealism. Serling himself, as the show's cigarette-wielding host, projected a dapper hipness that bordered on Beat existentialism. I still revere him.

Who are your favorite characters in history?
I was obsessed with Napoleon during my childhood in the suffocatingly chirpy Doris Day 1950s. I was entranced by Napoleon's fabulous form-fitting military uniforms, which I saw in paintings vividly reproduced in Courvoisier cognac ads in magazines. For Halloween when I was eight, I wore a splendid black, white, and red Napoleon costume and two-cornered hat made by my ingenious parents. (Transgender personae were definitely not the norm back then.) However, as the decades passed and I learned more about Napoleon, disillusion set in. Sometimes war is necessary, but not for vanity and imperialism.

An even bigger craze of mine was Amelia Earhart, whom I spent three years researching in high school in the early 1960s. It was through her that I discovered the thrilling first phase of feminism, when women strove to achieve at the high level of men and didn't get bogged down in resentment and self-pity. In the bowels of the Syracuse public library, I plowed through sooty newspapers and magazines from the 1920s and '30s (not yet on microfilm), wrote hundreds of letters of inquiry, and visited all sorts of Earhart-related places on side trips from family vacations — including the white frame house that was her birthplace in Atchison, Kansas. I briefly met her elderly sister near Boston and had a private appointment with a Smithsonian official to examine Earhart's medals, stored in a vault at the National Air Museum in Washington, D.C.

A record of my Earhart period is my letter to the editor of Newsweek (July 8, 1963) protesting the absence of women in the U.S. space program and demanding "equal opportunity for American women," as Earhart had fought for. Next to my letter (which was the lead item), the magazine published a strong photo of Earhart in her leather flying jacket. I was in high school at the time. It must be noted that this letter appeared the same year as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and that it was three years before Friedan cofounded NOW. So when airhead nudnik feminists go around claiming I am "not a feminist," I say — well, censor that, but many colorful Italian phrases leap to mind.

If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
David Hemmings as the ultracool Mod London photographer David Bailey in Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film, Blow-Up. So deft yet so robust. Such oscillation between brooding thought and explosive action. Professional mastery. Detachment, wandering, discovery, obsession. And what's not to like about playing cat-and-mouse games with Jane Birkin, Veruschka, and Vanessa Redgrave?

Five best decadent books of the past two centuries:
Here are the five best decadent books of the past two centuries, following the Marquis de Sade. Two of them (Baudelaire and Swinburne) are collections of poetry, and one (Tennessee Williams) is a play. As I argued in Sexual Personae, decadence is a complex historical mode. It has been appearing cyclically since the grandiose empires of the ancient Near East and their Roman successor. In the 1970s, there was a rich period of decadence, inaugurated by Bob Fosse's film Cabaret and given brilliant musical form by David Bowie. Robert Mapplethorpe's iconic homoerotic photographs were the last important works from that period. Oh, sure, we can stake a claim for Sharon Stone's cardinal moment flashing her police interrogators in Basic Instinct (1992), but true, sizzling, incandescent decadence seems to be gone with the wind.

The Flowers of Evil (1857) by Charles Baudelaire
Poems and Ballads (1866) by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Against Nature (A Rebours; 1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde
Suddenly Last Summer (1958) by Tennessee Williams

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Camille Paglia is the university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is the author of Break, Blow, Burn; Sexual Personae; Sex, Art, and American Culture; and Vamps and Tramps. She has also written The Birds, a study of Alfred Hitchcock.

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