With the exception of Christina Hoff Sommers, there is no feminist whom receives a more open-minded reception from the Men’s Human Rights Movement than Camille Paglia. Paglia is an art academic but is often known more for her incisive critiques of contemporary feminism as well as the contemporary art establishment (both of which she characterizes as bourgeois, stifling and smug betrayers of sixties counterculture radicalism). Paglia identifies as transgender (and would probably count as genderqueer, going by modern terminology) and also lesbian. She defends both popular culture and the Western canon of high art, and whilst she asserts her own noncompliance with traditional gender roles her statements on gender traditionalism have been ambivalent and often have taken the position of defending traditional roles, at least if chosen voluntarily. Most importantly from a Men’s Human Rights Movement perspective is Paglia’s frequent praise of men and masculinity; Paglia is seen as a refreshing antidote to misandrist feminism. Instead of blaming men for everything bad, Paglia credits men for every artistic and intellectual achievement of Western civilization. After listening to feminists whom seem to define “feminine” as “good” and “masculine” as “bad/toxic/wrong/inhuman,” Paglia’s perspective is often welcomed by advocates for men.
But merely critiquing third wave or radical or cultural feminisms does not make one a Men’s Human Rights Advocate; the fact that the MHRM and Camille Paglia share a common enemy does not make Paglia an MHRA.
Paul Elam has critiqued Christina Hoff Sommers, in spite of her critiques of contemporary feminism, because Sommers fundamentally aims to preserve female privilege and benefit from men’s chivalry (see https://www.avoiceformen.com/a-voice-for-men/the-truth-about-christina-hoff-sommers/). Whilst there is a legitimate discussion to be had over the tactical wisdom of such vehement critique, there is no denying Elam’s underlying point; trying to preserve traditional gender roles which advantage women at the expense of men is gynocentric, misandric, and irreconcilable with the Men’s Human Rights Movement. Sommers, thus, is not an advocate for the human rights of the male sex, but merely a critic of certain aspects of the feminist movement. Her critiques are often very good, but she isn’t necessarily on “our side” merely because both her and the MHRM have a common foe.
This piece shall attempt to do for Paglia what Elam has done for Sommers; this piece shall be an extended analysis and critique of Paglia’s beliefs from the perspective of a Men’s Human Rights Advocate. This piece will include a primer on Paglia’s positive philosophy (i.e. what she believes to be correct) along with critiques of several aspects of her ideas. It should go without saying, however, that this piece is not intending to suggest Paglia is a worthless thinker; Paglia is frankly an intellectual powerhouse who’s work deserves to be taken seriously. Paglia has produced some of the best critiques of contemporary feminism currently in print. Paglia is an extraordinarily entertaining writer and speaker who is a true pleasure to listen to, but none of this renders her beyond critique.
Paglia’s worldview is ultimately rooted in the works of Sigmund Freud (in particular Civilization And Its Discontents) and Frederich Nietzsche. Paglia, in her magnum opus Sexual Personae, depicts the human condition as the struggle of man to tame and regulate nature, both the nature without (the physical world) and the nature within (the id, the drives). Man’s method to resist nature is the “Apollonian” means of logic, reason, technology, artistic creativity and civilization. Alongside Freud, Paglia sees civilization as the repression of our natural lizard-brain animalistic instincts (which Paglia casts as inherently violent and sadistic).
But this is not a gender-neutral condition; the male of the human species endures an additional psychic burden. It is women who give birth, and men who wrestle with the fact that their male bodies are birthed from female bodies. Men thus are afflicted with a great Freudian fear of the mother; the woman who is goddess to him for the early part of his life. This motivates men to try to manage the feminine, to escape from the feminine, to try and attain some sort of power that can match the awe-inspiring ability to give new life. Woman, like nature, gives life. Woman can overpower man, either as the mother or as the object of desire that incites the sexual id of man; nature can overpower man’s civilizations and destroy them with ferocious cataclysms. Woman’s power of childbirth is part of nature, is emblematic of what nature is. Men act to constrain nature, to separate themselves from it, to distance themselves from it; masculinity, thus, is really men’s attempt to escape from nature and to escape the gravity of the feminine.
Thus, Paglia sees human civilization as, ultimately, a response to the “Cthonian” (nature, women/femininity, the id/the passions, that which is). It is males, due to their Freudian sense of ‘distance’ from the feminine/nature, that encourages them to react by creating the “Apollonian” (civilization, artificiality, religion, reason, society, order, masculinity etc) as a means of controlling the ultimately uncontrollable. The Cthonian is the default state of nature, red in tooth and claw, chaotic and dangerous and dark (yet also free from the repression of society and convention), the world of mother-goddesses and fertility cults, the womb and tomb of all. The Apollonian is what occurs when we shake our fists at nature and try to enforce order on that chaos, it is sky-deity cults of heavenly fathers (whom are transcendent from this physical-natural world), it is science and reason and engineering and art (which allow man to ‘give birth’ to new things), it is clean and scientific, yet it aims to conquer and subjugate the world around it. It is rigid and inflexible and repressive, yet represents our only hope of escaping the Cthonian mud.
Paglia is often mistakenly described as a gender essentialist, but her theory is Freudian and requires only the basic anatomical differences between the sexes. Her theory can be, perhaps uncharitably, described as “womb-envy” although perhaps “resentful gynophobia” is more accurate (McElvaine’s Eve’s Seed advances a similar hypothesis). Of course, there is much more which can be said about Paglia, but this is a sufficient summary of her view of the human condition and how it impacts the sexes.
The Core Problem With Paglia’s Gender Theory
There are many reasons to be critical of Paglia; one can contest her dark view of the human condition. One can contest her extremely negative view of the natural world as a kind of senseless chaos. Paglia is not a conservative, yet she shares with conservatives a belief that the human condition is tragic and futile; Paglia sees the Enlightenment tradition as both admirable and deluded, as a form of wishful thinking (the fact that Enlightenment ideas have a very long record of practical success, and this might prove that said ideas are anything but deluded, seems to escape Paglia). Paglia, frankly, has a worldview reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft at times, albiet with Cthonian muck and menstrual blood serving as a substitute for the visceral slime secreted by eldritch horrors; according to Camille, we are living on Planet Azathoth.
But this isn’t an article about the philosophical problems with Paglia’s worldview. Rather, it is specifically about the problems with Paglia’s gender theory.
The core problem with Paglia’s theory is simple; her Apollonian-Cthonian theory of masculinity and femininity respectively is a false dichotomy which fails to account for the Cthonian nature of traditional masculinity/’real manhood’ as we know it. Paglia’s Apollonian ideal of masculinity does not resemble traditional masculinity, but rather outsider-outlier males whom were typically condemned as ‘not-real-men.’ The core dualism at the base of her thought does not resemble empirically observed gender norms.
The False Methodological Basis
As I have argued before (see “And One Final Unrelated Thought” here: http://honeybadgerbrigade.com/2016/10/03/third-wave-feminisms-cultural-feminist-roots-an-underanalyzed-topic/), feminists typically position masculinity and femininity in a femmecentric Dialectical Pseudo-Monism. What this ultimately means is that feminists see femininity as a natural default, to which masculinity emerges as a reaction. This means femininity is positioned as natural and normal and human, and masculinity is a deviation from these things driven by animus towards the feminine. Femininity exists by itself, whereas masculinity exists only in relationship to femininity. When feminists claim that men invented the gender roles to distance themselves from women, they are giving voice to this Dialectical Pseudo-Monism.
Paglia is an obvious case (and certainly more transparent about being such than most other feminists). She explicitly equates the feminine with nature/the natural world/physical reality, and sees the masculine as humanity’s actions to survive within an hostile environment. She sees the feminine as the default, as the background from which men react in order to flee their mothers/individuate themselves. She sees masculinity as fundamentally reactionary, as a resistance to the overwhelming power of women/femininity/nature, as driven by hostility towards that. Masculinity is thus implicitly treated as ‘less real’ than femininity, and is defined exclusively in terms of a revolt against the feminine/Cthonian; the masculine is the ‘not-feminine.’
But society doesn’t define the masculine simply in terms of that which is not feminine; society is very particular and prescriptive about what counts as “real manhood.” If masculinity were merely “the not-feminine” then you would expect there to be a broadly differentiated array of culturally-acceptable “real manhoods,” but this flies in the face of the empirical reality that many men are not seen as “real men” by our society. There are multiple ways of being which fit in neither category. Paglia’s via negativa concept of masculinity, therefore, completely ignores real world gender concepts.
The False Dichotomy
Paglia’s dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Cthonian is an adaptation of Nietzsche’s own Apollonian-Dionysian conflict (Paglia renames the “Dionysian” because she considers the word “Dionysian” to have become corrupted by an association with hedonism). Apollo was the Greek god of light, music, art, medicine and knowledge. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, religious ecstasy and possession and madness, the chaotic and unpredictable, and in some myths was partially descended from the deities of the underworld. Apollo is thus synonymous with the human intellect, whereas Dionysus is all about volcanic emotions and divine revelation.
Paglia expands and expounds upon these symbols. To her, the Cthonian (her term for the Dionysian) is about the flesh (and sex), hedonistic revelry, transgression, intuition and emotion and irrationality, femininity, chaos, the dissolution of individuality into the many (akin to the ‘loss of self’ experienced in heightened religious rituals), nature (in its ambivalent sense), disorder, mother-goddess/fertility religions. The Apollonian is about reason and abstract thought, often ascetic self-denial, forcing order onto chaos, shaping the world around us and remaking it to suit us, sky-god religions, masculinity, individuation and self-definition.
But can the world be understood as a conflict between these two things? For one, many internal elements of the Apollonian are in conflict. For two, there are many movements and ideologies and historical forces which integrate elements of both forces; if the Apollonian and Cthonian are indeed unified forces which are irreconcilable with each other then this should not happen.
For example, “reason and abstract thought” is hard to reconcile with many “sky-god religions” which, in many cases historically, have primarily been based upon faith. Of course the Thomist tradition within Catholicism has a role for reason (when it substantiates faith), but rationality often conflicts with many beliefs in Abrahamic Monotheism. From our Original Sin being eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, to the rejection of the Mu’tazilites by almost all of the Islamic world, it is difficult to avoid seeing a conflict between reason and the most influential sky-god religions. Not to mention that sky-god religions have historically been very hostile towards individuality (and individualism broadly speaking) and damaging towards the process of individuation for many people raised in such faiths.
And if Apollonianism and Cthonianism are locked in inexorable conflict, how does one explain the big ideologies of the modern world? Classical Liberalism is ‘chaotic’, opposes central planning, and wishes for unplanned organic growth and flourishing, yet resoundingly endorses the individual as the core unit of society, promotes freedom as essential for individual fulfillment, and has historically been intertwined with Enlightenment-era reason; this should be impossible if Paglia’s categories had an objective basis. Marxism dissolved the individual into the collective yet also spoke of reshaping and taming nature through human productivity. Fascism too dissolved the individual into the group and used mass rallies to encourage mob psychology, it rejected reason and logic in favor of emotion and passion, yet saw itself as imposing order on chaos and demanded strict regulation and management of everyone’s affairs.
Paglia speaks of the Apollonian and Cthonian as real forces, yet the Apollonian seems full of warring contradictory elements. Paglia argues that the Apollonian and Cthonian are at eternal war, yet three of the most influential ideologies of modern history seem to comfortably integrate elements of both. Her two analytical categories seem untenable.
Apparently, Gay Artists Are Manly
But what really buries her concept of the Apollonian and the equation of it with the masculine is that this does not resemble traditional gender norms. Paglia claims her categories are reflective of great natural truths reflected transhistorically within the Western canon, yet our society does not seem to abide by her conception of masculinity.
For one, Paglia argues that the greatest of Apollonians are asexual and homosexual men. According to Paglia, this represents the ultimate rejection of and rebellion against the mother figure (I’m sure Milo Yiannopoulos would have something to say about this). To Paglia, the heterosexual man implicitly degrades himself to some degree when he has sex with women; he admits their power over his id/urges. He submerges himself back inside where he once came from. He is thus less distant from the feminine than the asexual and homosexual man.
I think it is relatively obvious, however, that the traditional gender roles we encounter today have typically mandated heterosexuality as a necessary component of “real manhood.” For a man to be queer or asexual is seen as emasculating to him, as evidenced by the content of many homophobic slurs and stereotypes.
For two, Paglia’s argument would imply that priests and celibates, as well as artists and philosophers, are the most masculine of men. I do not think that anyone would suggest that this matches traditional masculine stereotypes; Pope Francis is certainly not regarded as a testosterone-drenched alpha male. The stereotypes our society has surrounding male artists are often not dissimilar from those stereotypes surrounding male queers (the demographics do have meaningful overlap of course). And whilst philosophers have a long tradition of self-regard going back to Aristotle (whom argued that philosophy was the most noble of professions), we don’t think of philosophy graduates when we think of “real men.”
For three, Paglia’s argument would predict that engineers, scientists, architects and computer programmers would all be seen as the pinnacle of “real manhood,” but last time I checked Bill Gates is not a sex symbol, nor is Dr. Matt Taylor. Indeed, many men with highly abstract temperaments and keen intellects are seen as sexual losers and social misfits, are bullied by their more traditionally-masculine peers and are shunned by women.
The Apollonian male is not the “alpha” male. Paglia’s respect for queer men, nerdy men, artists and autists and philosophers and thinkers is very much welcome, but it is not reflected in our society. The Apollonian male is typically an outlier – atypically smart, atypically detached and abstract, perhaps neuroatypical, atypically sexually inclined, and often a misfit relative to mainstream culture. Such a man is not, to use the feminist term, hegemonically masculine.
“Real Manhood” vs. Paglia
So what is “real manhood”? In our society, what images does this conjure? We inevitably think of images like the stars of team sports (who often subsume their individuality into a greater collective). We think of brawn and athleticism. We think of soldiers (who, again, subsume their individuality into a greater whole). We think not of levelheaded contemplation, but of anger and rage. We think of someone who solves problems with fists and force, not negotiation or diplomacy.
In short, what Paglia misses is that “real manhood” fits into her conception of the Cthonian. Whilst I absolutely disagree with his normative conclusions, Jack Donovan is correct that traditional notions of masculinity have always been tribal/collective; this means that traditional masculinity and the individuation which Paglia celebrates as Apollonian are usually at odds with each other. Traditional masculinity praises physical strength and concrete work over contemplation and reasoning and the production of knowledge. And of course, Real Men Are Uncultured and art is for pussies! Oh, and they must drink beer constantly whilst watching football and dissolving their individuality into the tribal collective of the team and its supporters, too.
It is hard to think Paglia – a person of extremely substantial intellect – cannot see just how much traditional masculinity (which, as this (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/12/camille-paglia-got-no-time-for-pajama-boys) article shows, is something she is very familiar with) fits her portrait of the Cthonian. Yet doing so would undermine the basic psychohistorical/meta-anthropological dichotomy her entire theory relies on.
Paglia forgets that Dionysus was a dude. Cthonian Nature, red in tooth and claw, produces animals of both sexes.
Paglia is an incredibly entertaining writer and speaker whom has made some of the most incredible critiques of contemporary feminism ever advanced. The world would be much less entertaining if it were to lose her voice. She provides compelling ripostes to the modern “high-art” culturati, to the social justice fashions that have corrupted the academy, and to the man-hating bile flowing from Steinem’s pen. But she is not a Men’s Human Rights Advocate, and she is not beyond critique.
Let us leave aside her belief that pederasty should be legal (whilst she may have a case for lowering the age of consent to 16, “pederasty” often permits much more troubling expressions of ephebophilia, and she only speaks of legalizing “boy love” and nothing about legalizing ephebophilia involving females). Let us leave aside her belief that rape is endemic to traditional masculinity (albiet she sees it as an expression of male fear and frustration and mother-rejection rather than of simple contempt for women). Let us leave aside her belief that men are prone to animalistic violence (she doesn’t see the dark side of humanity as gender-exclusive; women have such urges too). And let us, to be fair, leave aside the gender-neutral aspects of her worldview; those are all open to critique but not from a gender perspective.
Camille Paglia begins with an extremely questionable Freudian theory about the male condition, upon which she posits a Dialectical Pseudo-Monist relationship between femininity and masculinity. She then spins a theory about the Apollonian and Cthonian as masculinity and femininity respectively; this theory blatantly contradicts the empirically observed gender norms men face in our society. Traditional masculinity is arguably just as Cthonian as traditional femininity; Paglia’s Apollonian ideal reflects marginalized outlier men whom have historically been the target of social emasculation. If her theory were correct one would expect our popular culture to admire the very men it degrades and scorns. Paglia might be a change of pace from the misandrist feminists, but her theory of masculinity and the male condition does not describe reality.
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