Thursday, April 21, 2005

Camille Paglia’s Non-Reading at Powell’s

I don’t like to read reviews of books, films, or plays that I know I am going to read or see. For example, say there’s a new film by Mike Leigh (one of my favorite directors). I don’t want my expectations tainted or influenced in any way by what I might read in advance. I want the experience--and what I take away from it--to be completely my own. That’s the approach I took when I showed up to hear Camille Paglia read from her new book at Powell’s bookstore last night.

I’d heard Paglia lecture a few years ago at the University of Chicago and had enjoyed every minute of it. So when I found out she was coming to Powell’s, I didn’t bother even finding out the title of her new book.* I just knew I had to go hear her again. I arrived 40 minutes early to ensure getting a seat in one of the more-cramped-than-seats-in-coach-class-on-Southwest-Airlines plastic chairs Powell’s sets up and dove into a book of short stories** I’d snatched from a shelf on my way in.

Of course, it’s a bit difficult to concentrate when one is so scrunched into a chair that there is no way to arrange oneself to avoid having one’s arm pressed into the arm of the Quintessential Middle-Aged Portland Man (complete with Birkenstocks) sitting next to one. It was only a very short matter of time before the arresting hot-pink cover of Paglia’s book (copies were everywhere) caught my eye and I discovered that her new book is called Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems. Holy crap! Poetry is one genre of literature that I have never been able to much tolerate, with the exception of William Blake’s poems and a handful of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Getting through all the required poetry classes I had to take as an English major was pure torture for me.

I briefly considered bailing, but reminded myself that it was a Camille Paglia reading and that it was highly unlikely that she would do anything so predictable as to stand in front of us and drone “Ode on a Grecian Urn” at us.

At 7:30, Paglia shot out of the gate and up to the podium, and let 'er rip as soon as the applause died down. It was exhilarating to listen to her and try to keep up. If my brain and her brain were jogging together, her brain would be the one sprinting along effortlessly, dispensing insightful commentary and mine would be the one a couple of steps behind, panting slightly and saying “uh huh, uh huh, uh huh.” She’s a very charismatic and dynamic extemporaneous speaker. She's hilarious, too. And I agree with a lot--though not all--of what she has to say.

I wish I would have brought a tape recorder with me (other folks did) so I could listen to her lecture a few times and fully digest and contemplate all she said. One of the reasons I like Paglia is that she has an exquisitely tuned bullshit detector. Early on she informed us that poststructuralist theory is “dead as a doornail.” Glad to hear it. I’ve always thought it was rubbish, so I was pleased to have Paglia’s validation on that one.

Anyway, it seems to me that the main reason she wrote this book is that she is concerned that there are too many Americans who have no sense of history or art--especially the history of art. And that without exposure to the world’s great works of art (music and visual arts as well as literature) our country is in big even bigger trouble. She's worried that people's lives are so narrowly circumscribed by TV and the Internet that they have no awareness of anything that came before it and consequently the arts are stagnating--have been stagnating since Andy Warhol, whom, Paglia says, sounded the death knell of the avant garde. A bit of a sweeping pronouncement,*** but some truth in it, I think. Anyway, I know my feeble attempt to summarize some of her ideas (and pronouncements) sounds oversimplified and not terribly profound. She had a lot more to say--and presented it much better and more entertainingly than I have.

I’m sorry I can’t be more specific about the gist of the book, but Paglia barely mentioned the book and never bothered to actually pick it up and read from it! (The other reason I can't be more specific is that I have a terrible, terrible memory, and there were just too many ideas whizzing past. My poor, lumbering brain just couldn't absorb them all. An infuriating condition--and the reason why I need to bring a tape recorder next time.) I will say this, though, in the space of 45 minutes, I went from thinking that there would be no way in hell I’d ever read her new book to reserving a copy of it for myself at the library. I’m not proud of the fact that I don’t seem to “get” poetry, so if her book can bring me around to an appreciation of it, that would be a very good thing.

*If I were properly keeping abreast of goings-on in the book world I would have known about the book weeks ago. I used to be that sort of person. Not anymore.

** Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, if you must know.

***I'm quite fond of sweeping pronouncements myself.


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