Camille Paglia is one of the most provocative, incisive commentators on the cultural scene today. I don't always agree with her - frequently, in fact, I don't - but she's one of the few writers who defies expectations by telling it like it is, without regard to what others might think. Whether she's discussing sex, politics, or art, you can always count on something stimulating. Her own wonderful self-description is that of "dissident feminist."
In this month's issue of Opera News, Paglia turns her eyes toward the world of opera (duh), and lets fly. The question to her is whether or not she'd agree with interpretations of Lucia di Lammermoor that read Lucia's ultimate desent into madness as a sort of sexual liberation. I'm not sure what the interviewer, Brian Kellow hoped to get for an answer, whether he thought Paglia would agree with this interpretation, but he couldn't have been surprised that Paglia gave him an earful, touching on an incredible array of subjects all at once.
Interpretations like this, she says, drive her crazy:
"I oppose the export of feminist or any other ideology into pre-modern works. But it's epidemic. It's the heritage of identity politics, which began in acedeme in the 1970s. It skews interpretation of all kinds of historical works. When you focus on the woman's angle or the black angle or the gay angle, you're distorting the text.
It's an extrapolation of contemporary assumptions backward so that one never escapes the present. Do you realize that the word 'Renaissance' is slowly being dropped in English departments? There's been a steady process in high-level British and American adademe to substitute 'Early Modern' instead. But when the glorious Renaissance is seen as only the beginning of us, it's a dead end of solipsism."
And with that, Paglia has identified so much of what's wrong not only with opera, but with academe, with politics, with the passing down of culture and the evolution (or devolution) of Western civilization. It's this kind of provocative discussion that we need now, more than ever - and with the thought police on one hand and political correctness on the other, we're even less likely to get it. ◙