Book Article

Fighting Words

Camille Paglia vs. Susan Sontag -- The two authors face off with fighting words

If their book tours intersect, will Camille Paglia give Susan Sontag a mouthful of bloody Chiclets? Sontag's just-published novel, The Volcano Lover, is now No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list; Paglia's book of essays, Sex, Art and American Culture, is out this month. Both are rock and movie buffs, both are professors famous for penning startling, aggressive pop-culture essays packed with esoteric references, but Sontag is to Paglia what Jack Nicholson is to Christian Slater. When a CNBC Talk Live host asked Sontag what she thought of Paglia, Sontag said, ''I don't know who she is.''

''That was a dumb move,'' fumes Paglia, who is indeed notorious. Moreover, she points out that the two have met: As a Bennington instructor in 1973, Paglia invited Sontag to read at the school. ''Sontag is no longer the leading female intellectual of our time, okay? I am,'' Paglia insists.

Neither Sontag nor Roger Straus, head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, her longtime publisher, was available for comment, and a Farrar, Straus spokeswoman merely says, ''If you want to give (Paglia) credibility by writing about her, I can't stop you.'' Sontag's son, writer David Rieff, who has described Paglia as a ''Ross Perot figure'' who indulges in ''neo-fascist talk,'' says only, ''I have absolutely nothing to say about her. (I've) said enough.''

While she saves special treatment for Sontag, Paglia hardly stops there. Here are just a few of her other favorite ideological enemies: feminists (''They're Soviet totalitarians and Stepford Wives!''); those ''weepy, whiny dogmatists at NOW''; the ''grim, humorless'' Germaine Greer; ''Miss Yuppie Princess, that opportunist careerist teacher's pet Naomi Wolf, who wrote The Beauty Myth, just a regurgitated, badly done version of The Female Eunuch''; and ''this stupid Susan Faludi attitude that men are in some conspiracy to cook up negative pornographic images of women.'' Paglia snipes, ''If Anita Hill was thrown for a loop by sexual banter, that's her problem... A girl who goes upstairs alone with a brother at a fraternity party is an idiot.''

But it's Sontag who really riles Paglia. ''There's a jealousy factor here,'' Paglia snorts. ''I'm saying, 'You're the heavyweight who used to be the bully on the block and here comes the new girl!''' Paglia herself is less girlish than bullying. Despite her published intellectual opinion that male urination is a spiritually exhilarating ''arc of transcendance (sic),'' when a young male peed on her seat at a Madonna concert, Paglia, then 40, punched his lights out.

Worse could be in store for an unwitting Sontag: ''We would slap each other silly if we ever met,'' laughs Paglia. As Sontag put it in her book Styles of Radical Will, ''Cogito ergo boom.''

Originally posted Sep 18, 1992 Published in issue #136 Sep 18, 1992 Order article reprints
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