Camille Paglia: a rapturous rap on art and nature

Camille Paglia and I are celebrating 20 years of strong conversation here. She’s been a blazing torch of my adult education, but here’s what I still don’t get: why does a scholar of such urgent interest in the sacred and the divine, such a compelling preacher of awe, reverence, amazement and, yes, worship of the universe for its magnitude and complexity and of the beauty and poetry of religious expression in art and all the sacred books… why does this marvelous woman call herself an atheist? Am I missing something?

In Glittering Images, her new how-to manual on the “close reading” of paintings, sculpture, architecture and movies, the thread is Divinity — in all its punishing power, redemptive energy and insatiable fascination, from the earliest Egyptian ritual art to “the Force” in George Lucas’s “Star Wars” films. She is scathing, as usual, about the “very wizened, crabbed way of approaching art” in the secular humanist formulas of academia. But in the end she calls herself a secular humanist, too.

She is a defiantly different sort of atheist, as she was always a defiantly different sort of feminist. As in this characteristic digression: Just compare the title of Christopher Hitchens’ book, God Is Not Great, to what I think is probably the best sentence I’ve ever written, in Sexual Personae, where I say: ‘God is man’s greatest idea.’ Now I think I have the correct atheism; and Christopher Hitchens, who was a sybarite, did not!” And still I wonder if she doesn’t protest too much, or miss her own point. In another impulsive digression she remarks: “I’m someone who, like, almost worships the weather. A storm or a hurricane coming is almost a mystical experience.”

I remind her that I am still waiting for the synthesis she was developing years ago, maybe from childhood: an “Italian Catholic Paganism” for our times. She inscribed my copy of Glittering Images for my five-year-old grand-daughter. “Now here is a little handbook, okay?” she says, “that can help you to begin that journey in the history of art.” And then the point to be remembered: “It is a spiritual journey!”

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