Thank you for printing the interview with Thomas Berry [“Progress and Other Lies,” Issue 176]. His observation that modern history has been led by the “dream of progress” is apt. I appreciate his search for the fundamental attitude that has lured people into behaving in such short-sighted and selfish ways. However, a number of his points left me puzzled; on closer inspection they seem hopelessly vague.
Mr. Berry seems to long for a return to some natural state, a state that existed only in prehistoric times — if at all: “The root of our contemporary industrial pathology is what I call a deep, hidden rage in the Western world against the human condition. . . . We refuse to accept anything in its natural state.”
And yet, the phrase “natural state” simply does not apply to people, and never did. A “natural state” suggests no clothing, no shelter, no agriculture, no animal husbandry, no language, no art, no religion, no medicine. All of the above are peculiar to human culture.
According to Berry, “The key word is self-sustaining. Industry is absolutely, utterly non-self-sustaining. . . . Bridges don’t make bridges . . . but trees make trees.” While Mr. Berry may have a point, he so misstates his case that I simply can’t make sense of it. By his definition, no form of agriculture is self-sustaining; any kind of shelter, including the teepee, fails by his standard. Note also that the American Indian — the Iroquois, and other eastern tribes — failed to satisfy his criteria, not only because they possessed agriculture, shelter, etc., but because they inhabited their towns and villages generally no more than ten years. At the end of that time, the wildlife in the surrounding area had been so depleted, and the garbage accumulating around the doorways and town perimeters had so increased, that they abandoned the place and moved on. Hardly self-sustaining!
The “bioregional sense” is another tantalizing idea of Berry’s that seems to fade on closer examination. At just what level of technology does his idealized community exist? That of the 1930s? The 1830s? Even a dirt road represents a non-self-sustaining technology. The sort of regional isolation that Berry seems to prefer forecloses the possibility of a culturally creative community; cultures tend to grow and create in part through encounters with other cultures.
There is magic in his phrase, “people living in intimate rapport with the land.” Unfortunately, I am uncertain what Berry means here. People living in the backwoods of Appalachia are certainly in rapport with the land: they know the ways of the animals and the uses of herbs. I have also seen how they will gird and destroy a sassafras tree to harvest a small portion of its bark. Some of these same people are exterminating the black bear in the Smoky Mountains; the gallbladder is highly valued in Asia. These people are as rapacious as any capitalist. There is nothing magical that happens to a person’s behavior in virtue of his or her proximity to the land.
There exists “the principle that humans and the natural world are a single society.” Yet it should be clear that human beings do not and never did exist solely within the natural world. Nature never prepared us to do so: she gave us no suitably hairy hide, no genetic aptitude for building nests or other shelter, no claws or stinger to capture prey. Nature made us deficient in natural gifts so that we would have to invent what we need and thus continue our own creation. As physical bodies, humans are natural beings; as cultural beings, we are nonnatural, i.e., spiritual. All cultures possess some form of religion, an event unknown to the natural world, because only humans feel some separateness from nature.
It is no wonder then that Mr. Berry remains unsure of the best way to break through the “deep, hidden rage . . . against the human condition,” or of how to bring about a “dream of a more benign relationship between humans and the earth.” His notion of the spirit is empty.
Because of his passion and commitment, I wanted to agree with Edward Abbey [“Defending What You Love,” Issue 177]. But I can’t, for two reasons.
One. Hunters and gatherers? Come on. By the time the first Amerindians had reached the tip of South America some ten thousand years ago, they had wiped out two thirds of the mammalian species in North and South America, including most of the large animals. Is this living in harmony with nature?
Two. While I don’t agree with much we’ve done as a species, I don’t think it serves to make us wrong. When your child puts her hand in fire for the first time, do you slap the child and call her stupid? Or do you hold her and comfort her and take care of the burn? As a species, we have been sticking our hands in the fire for a very long time. It hurts. But we needed to do it. I think we’re finally old enough to understand what fire is, and how to use it rightly.
Concerning Camille Paglia’s “The Myth of Sexual Liberation” [Issue 177]: I’ve not read such utter (udder?) drivel since Thomas Aquinas!
You get your wish — Paglia is a crackpot!
Offended? Hell, I’m terrified some idiot will take her seriously! The Vatican will probably canonize her.
Edward Abbey — now there is a real saint.
Camille Paglia misses the point in “The Myth of Sexual Liberation.” Authentic sexual liberation concerns the transformation of sex into love. I’m eighty years old, and I have lived and am still living that transformation. Human sexual nature is not limited to the horizontal action of bodies; we can also enjoy the vertical process in which these same bodies, playing with image, myth, and metaphor, succeed in transforming sex into love.
Unfortunately, Camille Paglia seems not to have experienced that reality.
It was with interest that I read “The Myth of Sexual Liberation” by Camille Paglia. I found many of her ideas insightful, logical, and clearly stated. There is one exception that pushes me to respond.
Paglia writes, “. . . the male homosexual is one of the great forgers of absolutist Western identity. But of course nature has won, as she always does, by making disease the price of promiscuous sex.” This statement is as stereotypical and offensive as ones asserting that all blacks are lazy, or all Jews cheap.
I find little that is “absolutist” about the gay population. Like heterosexuals, gays are diverse. Some are rich, some are poor. Some are effeminate and some are macho; some are promiscuous and others monogamous; most fall someplace in between. No doubt there are men who are gay as a result of fighting against the “hideous grimace of a castrating Medusa.” For the majority of gay men, however, their sexual orientation is a given to which they respond with equanimity. Most regard their sexuality as a gift.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are not indigenous or limited to gays. Paglia would do well to review statistics from the Center for Disease Control. STDs have dramatically decreased within the gay population; AIDS is no longer a “gay disease.”
Sexual liberation may or may not be a myth — I do not know. But I do know that Paglia’s oversimplified view of gay men is mythical. My challenge to her is to close her books and develop a friendship with a gay man. As a result, her opinions may prove less absolutist.
Bravissimo on “The Myth of Sexual Liberation”! Camille Paglia knows how to call a spade a spade! One of the best pieces I’ve read in The Sun, or anywhere, in years.
I am a feminist. While I found little that was shocking or threatening to my perception of gender and society in Camille Paglia’s interesting essay, I do take issue with her assumption that feminism is contrary to her views of history, society, and nature, and therefore, contrary to the truth.
Paglia implies that feminists wish to eradicate gender differences. Late twentieth-century feminism may have manifested a pragmatic desire to compete with men on men’s terms, simply in order to be heard. Even so, it didn’t take feminists long to see that the movement was not about turning women into men, but about choice. Women may have had to adopt the strategies of the power structure in order to be heard, but I know of few women today who do not realize that their feminine presence brings much-needed balance to that same structure. Paglia needs to catch up with feminism’s evolution.
I don’t believe that feminism seeks, as Paglia says, “to drive power relations out of sex,” but rather to drive out the abuse of power. Of course sex is power! Read Susan Brownmiller, read Alice Walker. Read Vivian Gornick, who recently expressed her wish for the day when “everyone is powerful, and everyone is sexy.” Paglia misses the point when she calls modern feminism naive for asserting that “rape is a crime of violence but not of sex.” Of course rape is an act of sex, and so of power! But rape must be categorized with other violent crimes, as a reminder that it is neither an act of eros nor an erotic joke. Paglia fails to understand the language of feminism, indeed of females, in a male-dominated society. What she perceives as the feminist’s desire to sanitize rape may be no more than the expedient use of masculine (or sky-cult) rhetoric women must employ in order to be heard. That feminists understand political expediency doesn’t mean they don’t understand what rape is really about.
Paglia claims that feminism considers rape a symptom of social deprivation. No; that is a liberal assumption. Sexual abuse can happen anywhere. It is the feminist, not the liberal, movement that regards rape as a crime not of class or race, but of gender and power. Women know that men will rape because they can.
Paglia asserts that feminists blame pornography for rape; rather, pornography is another symptom, like rape, that issues from the inherent struggle between the sexes for power and autonomy. She implies that pornography helps protect society, first by showing us what men might do to women in the absence of societal controls, then by providing an outlet for men who otherwise would act out their fantasies upon the female population at large. How, then, do we account for the fact that pornography and rape continue to run side by side and sometimes arm in arm? And what do we do with the fact that pornography itself demands victims? What of that small percentage of the female population, those sacrificial non-virgins whose servitude theoretically makes the world a safer place for the rest of us? Perhaps pornography should be limited to cartoons, drawings, paintings, the written and spoken word, etc. Who knows — a pornography that never utilized in-the-flesh beings might better serve the limitless imagination.
Paglia’s exploration of the “old ‘double standard’ (that) gave men a sexual liberty denied to women” is interesting, but misses the point. The feminist attack on the double standard aims not at establishing women’s right to the fun once reserved for men, but at exposing the lie that is society’s corruption of nature’s double standard. This lie insists that sex is the province of men, that men may be sexually thoughtless, and that women are to be condemned for their sexuality.
By nature and by nurture, woman gives more than man for whom, by nature and nurture, heterosexual communion threatens a loss of masculine identity. Still, there are plenty of men who prefer nesting to spreading their seed like dogs roaming the countryside; hence the usefulness for women of well-considered judgment. These conditions are natural; simply stating the case, even celebrating it if one wishes, is not antifeminist.
Certainly gender counts, and feminists have known it for years. I place a high value on that which is intrinsically, even mythically, female. Paglia’s brand of social Darwinism does not disturb me, because what she says about biology and nature is true. What does disturb me is Paglia’s lack of understanding of feminism, for she implies that feminists seek to deny or destroy that which is essentially female!
Nature will budge very little, if at all. But feminism is a reform movement, not a revolution. In any case, what reform movement doesn’t learn and change as it goes along? The first step is to demand that the power structure accept the struggling group as equals. Once inroads have been made, the differences can be brought to light and cherished. If feminists forgot for a moment that gender counts, we remembered the moment a cigarette company told us we’d “come a long way, baby.” Oh, gender counts. It counts for a lot.
Camille Paglia responds:
The editors of The Sun made selections from the long introductory chapter of Sexual Personae, which I examined and approved. Some of the objections voiced by the letter writers may arise from the excerpting process, which necessarily collapses and condenses a line of argument. The first chapter, called “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art,” is in turn a synopsis of the conclusions of a 718-page book that examines art and literature from the Old Stone Age to 1900. The book contains the specific examples from which the deductions were carefully developed over a twenty-year period. Volume Two, not yet released, continues the discussion into modern popular culture.
In reply to L.B. Gilmore, I would say it is unlikely the Vatican will “canonize” me, since Sexual Personae argues that Catholicism is at heart a residually pagan cult and that the passion of Christ and the martyrdom of the saints have filled Western art with delicious homoerotic and sadomasochistic pornography. I am surprised and flattered to be compared to Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the major thinkers in the Western tradition. But calling Aquinas “utter drivel” unfortunately exposes the letter writer’s own deficiencies of education and judgment.
To Jake Felsenstein: Sexual Personae discusses the entire romantic tradition of Western culture from Sappho and Catullus to today’s pop songs and finds that what we call “love” is an emotion full of dark complexities and ambivalences that we normally prefer not to recognize. The book particularly analyzes the misuse of the Dionysus myth by my generation of the sixties, which saw Dionysus as pleasure and liberation, when in fact the Greeks (as in Euripides’s Bacchae) knew he was violence and pleasure-pain, our bondage by uncontrollable nature.
Dr. Frederic Tate, at the close of his thoughtful letter, challenges me to “develop a friendship with a gay man.” My thinking and tastes have been heavily influenced by close gay male friends since high school. In fact Sexual Personae is filled with adulation of the gay male imagination, including art illustrations of what I call “the beautiful boy,” from the Greek kouros statues to the Italian Saint Sebastian paintings. This may be the first university-press book to actively defend and endorse man-boy love. My view on AIDS, more fully detailed in Volume Two, is indeed unpopular at the moment, when political pressures (in this case from the left) are starting to discourage free speech. I continue to think, and I believe the epidemiological evidence supports it, that the initial worldwide spread of AIDS had its primary origin in unprotected promiscuous sex.
Thanks to Jim Guinness for saying I call a spade a spade — one of my favorite lines from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a masterpiece which my book analyzes in unprecedented detail.
Andrea Wolper says I need “to catch up with feminism’s evolution,” but her citation of Susan Brownmiller and Vivian Gornick, two sentimental, unlearned, and long passé New York journalists, suggests that it is she who is a bit behind in her reading. The shelves of feminist bookstores overflow with maudlin, ahistorical gushings about “the Goddess” and her sunny Pollyanna glow. The Women’s Studies college curriculum is crammed with mediocrity and pretension: embarrassingly pedestrian, clumsy, error-filled literary criticism by narrowly trained, middlebrow, kitchen-sink American academics on the one hand and pompous, lugubrious, pseudo-abstract exhibitionism by wildly overpraised fancy-pants French theorists on the other. My aim is to rescue aspiring young feminists from their teacher-enforced enslavement to this boring, tiresome contemporary propaganda, which has injected a hackneyed Rousseauist social-welfare model into every area of art and thought. No one has yet surpassed the great Simone de Beauvoir, whose brilliantly researched The Second Sex (1949) is one of the premier books of the century.
Ms. Wolper, possibly because of the excerpting, oversimplifies or misreads my remarks on rape and pornography, which the book addresses more fully. Just to cite one example: I do not, as she suggests, view pornography as “providing an outlet for men.” That is the moralistic nineteenth-century utilitarian view of art, which I everywhere oppose. Sexual Personae lavishly demonstrates that pornography is not, as many feminists claim, some scumbag back-alley plot against women but rather a fundamental creative principle of high art itself, from Shakespeare and Michelangelo to the supposedly virginal Emily Dickinson, whom I call “Amherst’s Madame de Sade.”