If you ask me, it’s a pity the cigar-smoking Bohemian Tory and the self-described “feminist bisexual maniac” never met. I think the late Russell Kirk and Camille Paglia would have hit it off at least as well as Pope Benedict XVI and the irrepressible Italian atheist Oriana Fallaci did in the months before she died. Here’s why:
Dr. Kirk, the traditionalist man of letters widely considered the godfather of modern American conservatism, believed that the great task of contemporary conservatives was not any of the goals likely to appear on Republican campaign literature. He knew that culture was more important than politics and considered poets to be, in Shelley’s phrase, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Because of this, Dr. Kirk taught that reviving the “moral imagination”—meaning re-engagement with the art and literature of the West’s cultural patrimony—in the face of the disaster of modernity, was vital to saving our civilization.
Dr. Paglia, a professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts who made her name in 1990 with the publication of “Sexual Personae,” is no conservative—in fact, she’s an atheist libertarian Democrat who extols the virtues of pagan sexuality. But she’s downright Kirkian in her contempt for the egalitarian instinct and in her roaring disgust at modernity’s disinterest in, or even contempt for, Western tradition.
And she holds her own tribe—American humanities professors—chiefly responsible.
“I remain concerned about the compulsive denigration of the West and the reductiveness so many leading academics in the humanities have toward their own tradition,” she tells me. “They reduce it all to the lowest common denominator of racism, imperialism, sexism and homophobia. That’s an extremely small-minded way of looking at culture and a betrayal of the career mission of these educators, whose job is to educate students in our culture.”
Dr. Paglia, one of three judges for this year’s Hiett Prize, has been saying that for a while now, which is one reason that conservatives love her. If modernity is, as one traditionalist conservative writer put it, a “perversion of the responsibility of stewardship,” then Dr. Paglia, by championing Western culture against the sophisticated barbarians inside the academy, counts as a convicted anti-modernist.
But that wouldn’t be quite right; she’s a passionate partisan of modernist giants like Picasso, as well as low-culture rock `n’ roll Dionysiacs. What galls Dr. Paglia is that the politics of leveling—affirming or denying greatness according to therapeutic political standards—is compromising scholarship.
This is not just an academic dispute. If students don’t learn the Western canon, they will remain rootless, ignorant and alienated. They will fail to grasp what makes the West unique—and why it should be cherished, conserved and defended. “Sexual Personae” was a tour de force of cultural criticism, arguing that the genius of the West came from the irreconcilable conflict between classical paganism and Judeo-Christian religion.
The decline of religion in Europe frightens this stalwart atheist. “The Europeans have become very passive, all of them,” she said. “There’s a fatigued worldliness typical of Europe right now, and that’s why nothing very interesting artistically is coming out of there.”
Can you have a vibrant culture without cult? Traditionalist conservatives say no. Dr. Paglia is inclined to agree—and says that our lazy secularism and superficial religiosity puts America at risk of succumbing to acedia, the Greek term for spiritual slothfulness. She is shocked to discover how few of her college students grasp basic biblical concepts, characters and motifs that were commonly understood one or two generations ago. This stunning loss of cultural memory renders most Western art, poetry and literature opaque.
“The only people I’m getting at my school who recognize the Bible are African-Americans,” she said. “And the lower the social class of the white person, the more likely they recognize the Bible. Most of these white kids, if they go to church at all, they get feel-good social activism.”
What are they left with? “Video games, the Web, cellphones, iPods—that’s what’s left,” Dr. Paglia laments. “And that’s what’s going to make us vulnerable to people coming from any side, including the Muslim side, where there’s fervor. Fervor will conquer apathy. I don’t see how the generation trained by the Ivy League is going to have the knowledge or the resolution to defend the West.”
Our cultural crisis is precisely that serious, says Dr. Paglia, who believes—as does Pope Benedict, one of the most cultured men on the planet—that we could well be reliving the last days of the Roman Empire.
“If the elite class sees nothing in the West to defend, we’re reproducing this situation of the late Roman Empire, which was very cosmopolitan and very tolerant, but which was undone by forces from within,” she says.
What are those who want to conserve the traditional Western humanities as a refuge from cultural barbarism supposed to do? Said Dr. Paglia, emphatically: “It’s up to people to educate themselves.”
In this light, it’s not a stretch to think of the Dallas Institute for the Humanities as a sort of secular monastery. Like the European monks of old, the scholars and teachers at the Dallas Institute are keeping the light of Western humanist tradition burning in a new Dark Age. We need more institutions like this in days to come. Friends of what the poet T.S. Eliot (and later, his friend Dr. Kirk) called “the Permanent Things” are going to need intellectual sanctuary.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. Readers may write to him at rdreher AT dallasnews.com.