Camille Paglia voiced her support for drug legalization and tried to make sense out of the 1960s in an interview with Leslie Stackel from the November, 1994 edition of High Times. In honor of Paglia’s 73rd birthday April 2, we’re republishing it below.
Camille Paglia is daring, controversial, an intellectual Uzi on wheels, spewing out ten rounds of thought per millisecond. She’s also undoubtedly today’s most notorious (and loudest) challenger to the politically-correct academic and feminist status quo. Author of the best-selling Sexual Personae and two books of essays (her latest from Vintage is Vamps and Tramps), she burst onto the literary scene in 1990 following publication of Sexual Personae, a kaleidoscopic treatise on sex in art and literature through the ages (praised as “brilliant” and “provocative”), and has since been wittily trashing everyone and everything that hints of deadened dogma or would lead Western civilization down a path of soullessness.
Paglia’s mission seems nothing less than to restore down-and-dirty common sense to trendy intellectual thinking and American academe. With one foot in mass media, this “guerrilla scholar” and renegade feminist routinely riles up the Oprah crowd with her unconventional theories and has learned critics snapping at her heels, claiming she’s way over the top, sensationalist and rambunctious to boot.
But, so what? Hers is a voice we need to hear in these anemic ’90s. Born 47 years ago, Paglia (the “g” is silent) is a ’60s rebel, a true iconoclast, an intellectual skateboarder, swerving, jumping curbs and covering more historical ground than a six-pack of modern feminists. A professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she is a prodrug, prostitution, abortion and pornography libertarian. A Yale grad equally enamored of Baudelaire and Madonna, she favors old-world rigor in education and “bawdy, streetwise” confrontations in feminist politics. In this interview, Paglia holds forth on drugs and the ’60s.
HIGH TIMES: At an MIT lecture you mentioned you’d gotten letters from people saying, “For twenty years, I’ve seen our sixties ideals betrayed. I felt lost and uncentered.” There must be hundreds more out there feeling the same thing, and now you’re giving them a voice. Can you talk about how we might reclaim our sixties vision, only this time, carry it out more effectively?
CAMILLE PAGLIA: I’m coming directly out of the sixties experience. When I was a senior in high school, that was the year Kennedy was shot, and then the Beatles came over in February. So, when we arrived in college in the fall of 1964, we were the first who really made the counterculture a nationwide phenomenon. It had certainly been burbling and erupting at Berkeley in the early sixties, as we can see in that fabulous movie Berkeley in the ’60s, but as a national phenomenon, it was literally my year that did it. We were just totally rebellious. We were unlike anything that had gone through college before. We were breaking out of the repression of the fifties, doing all these radical things and being very extreme. The sixties were a kind of Dionysian reaction to the Apollonian rules and regulations of the fifties. The sixties went in the opposite direction.
The point is, we have to be more careful not to allow these wild pendulum swings back and forth in our culture. We go from a period of conformism in the fifties to an extreme descent into lawlessness in the sixties. That, in turn, produced a counterreaction back to a conservative extreme, which in this case meant the Republican administrations of Nixon, Reagan and Bush. While I celebrate the revolutionary ideals of the sixties, we have got to realize that we went too far. There was excess in our rebellion, and it produced a very bad situation for the young of today. The kids of the nineties have inherited a kind of anarchy that we of the sixties unleashed upon the world. We thought that all the problems of human existence came from rules and regulations in the social order, and we thought that by breaking down all those things, we would automatically get freedom, justice and equality. But there has to be balance. What I’m saying in my work is that we have to understand there are two principles in human life: the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and that we have to honor both.
HT: Can you translate that into something concrete?
CP: Well, for example, every single person has those elements. The Apollonian is the part where you govern your impulses. The Dionysian would be what Freud called the id. It’s all the forces of energy, of pleasure, of eroticism, the energies of the body, the animal side of us which is in the unconscious. The Apollonian side is the superego side. That’s the part that says, “Don’t” and “No.” Frugality, self-discipline, renunciation. I’m offering this complex view, what I call “creative duality.” When I think about women in the career world, this especially applies. That’s why I loathe the yuppie kind of feminism today, because it’s encouraged women to identify totally with their Apollonian side—the part that goes to the office with the attache case. We’ve got to endorse such work, because that’s the way women are gaining power in society, politically and socially. We’re rising on the career track. But unfortunately, the whole insight of the sixties has been lost here.
Ultimately, the social identity of people seeking status, money and position is a false identity. That’s not all we are. Yet, the paradox is the more you move into power in the world, the more you move into this Apollonian mode. Every woman today who seeks a top professional career, who seeks power, has to realize that she’s overemphasizing her Apollonian side. And when you do that, you lose touch with your body. In some way, the sensory pathways have to be reopened. You see this in Oprah Winfrey. Look at her. Oprah Winfrey has that beautiful diction that she uses, the diction of the command mode, the command of the world, but then she constantly, every minute, goes like a jazz improv, back and forth to the other voice. That’s great—back and forth beautifully between the two modes, Apollo and Dionysus.
HT: Most people don’t want to split both sides. They don’t want to go to a really rigid workplace in the daytime and then become looser, or whatever, at night. People are hoping that in the workplace they can be themselves. More integrated.
CP: That will never happen in the important places, in the truly powerful corporate world. In small companies, in the entertainment industry, media, academe, it might change. But it’s not going to change in big business, because it’s not efficient. And the law of the international workplace is competition. Even in corporations like Apple, which were founded by counterculture people, these people are pushed out. Look at what just happened at Ben and Jerry’s. They advertised for a CEO and couldn’t find anyone who would come in at the level they wanted because they have this social-justice requirement about the CEO’s earnings.
HT: Getting back to the subject here: Can you put the sixties in historical perspective for us? Was this period epochal or a cultural flash in the pan? Was it something that will go down in history as having really affected our entire Western culture?
CP: The sixties were an incredible moment in history. It was the moment when Western thinking, Judeo-Christian concepts and Hindu and Buddhist concepts came together. That was true multiculturalism. Those two things came together and it was amazing what poured out—I mean, my God, the rock music, the lyrics. Everything was pouring out of people. It was coming from this weird intermixture of East and West. It was an era where there was an enormous cultural rebellion that had many positive effects. It totally freed up the Protestant domination of our culture. We destroyed the prestige of organized religions. Popular culture came to the forefront very powerfully. We were seeking the truth. We believed in a spiritual quest. We wanted passion and energy and sexuality. We did pranks. I was on probation at my college for, like, forty major pranks I did. The Yippie thing…
HT: So then what happened to that spirit of rebellion?
CP: The radicals went out into the world. They entered media or they went into communes or they just lived someplace. But they have not made an impact. People of the sixties thought they could change the culture by essentially boycotting the professions. Meanwhile, the nerds—the non-sixties people who were all around us, who were untouched by Andy Warhol and by the Rolling Stones and by Jimi Hendrix—gained power and got the academic profession locked up from coast to coast.
HT: How have the sixties ideals influenced the nineties so far?
CP: Well, unfortunately, we’re in the middle of a conservative backlash. The far right is gaining enormously, and not because they’re fanatics or they’re irrational or they’re afraid or they’re ignorant, which is the usual crap you hear. They’re gaining because my generation fucked up. We do not realize the chaos that we have bequeathed to the kids of the nineties. Look at the young people today and their sex lives, under the shadow of AIDS. It’s horrendous that they have to worry about this. It’s awful—the melancholy, the bleakness, the shriveling up of the sexual imagination, the sexual-harassment rules and guidelines everywhere that these kids have to live under. Their fear of politically-incorrect speech. Their humorlessness. It’s a disaster, what’s happened. It’s a disaster for the arts of the future. And my generation is responsible for this disaster.
HT: Where do drugs fit into the picture? Do you think that drugs were a positive aspect of the sixties and do you advocate experimentation today?
CP: I never took LSD, but my worldview is that of the psychedelic era. What I do is psychedelic. There’s something very lurid about my writing. It’s hallucinatory. That’s why people of the sixties like my work. It’s true that drugs gave my generation vision. They allowed us to break through the conventions and formulas of the fifties. It was a tremendous, revolutionary movement. But over time, I have to say, drugs removed my generation from the ability to translate their vision into permanent, material form so that the vision could go on to maturation. The visions have been lost.
So, to the young people, to the kids in my classroom who are experimenting with LSD, I say, “Watch it.” I have to say to them, “Look, these drugs give you short-term gains. They allow you to make breakthroughs away from your parental inhibitions and guilts. But, over time—and an artist who wants a long career has to consider this—there seems to be a pattern where too much drug use inhibits maturation and development.”
There’s this guy I know, very talented in the arts. But when he had to move from New York to the West Coast, he was totally paralyzed by trying to find an apartment at that distance. He was overwhelmed; whatever it was that would allow him to plan over space or time was gone. And I have seen this a couple of times in men. I’ve never really met women who took excessive amounts of drugs. In my experience, it’s been mostly men.
HT: Do you have any view about why that is?
CP: Women have a natural instinct for self-preservation that comes from their periods. From the moment it happens—eleven, twelve, thirteen—you begin to realize that your body is kind of fragile. You’re aware of your physicality, the way it limits you. It’s like with sex. When I see my gay friends and the kind of lifestyle they lived in the bathhouses and so on, there was incredible, massive promiscuity—people were having sex with like forty men a night. And just having persistent gonorrhea, like month after month. These people would just go in for their monthly penicillin shot. I can’t see women doing that. Going around, saying, “Oh well, so what? I got the clap this month again.” Most women have this sense that they may want to have children some day, so they don’t mess around with venereal disease. There’s a weird, self-protective thing that women have. Even though I would never want to have children, I do have that sense.
HT: What are your thoughts about marijuana?
CP: Marijuana, over the lifetime of a musician, does appear to help musicians to improvise, to break free from Western patterns. And so it seems useful there. But when I look at my friends, or people I know who have taken marijuana over a long period of time, I have to say, when you look at them at age thirty-five or forty or forty-five, these people are not creating at the level of their talent. Marijuana, over time, does seem to make people a bit passive and bleary. My attitude about that is, “So what? Big deal! You don’t have to do anything in your life.” That’s very Protestant to say to someone, “You have to do something. You have to produce.” Why? If you are just living, if you are existing, if you are taking pleasure in living, that is enough and that should be honored, too.
HT: Have you smoked marijuana?
CP: For me, marijuana wasn’t a pleasant experience. It gave me the munchies, and I just ate and ate and ate. It dried up my eyes and made me thirsty. That’s the only reason I didn’t take much of it. It’s just a coincidence that for me liquor worked very well. That’s why I feel very militant about this, because, for me, liquor is a drug. It’s just as much a drug as marijuana. It’s outrageous that liquor is tolerated and marijuana is not. I know so many people who prefer marijuana. For their particular bodies, marijuana is wonderful. So I think it’s highly unjust.
HT: Are you in favor of legalizing all drugs?
CP: I am totally a radical libertarian. I believe the government has no right to ban any drug and that every single person has the right to decide what he or she wants to put into his or her body. Here’s what my philosophy is: On the one hand, I can see that in certain ways drugs destroyed my generation; that is, they prevented my generation from developing its own talent. At the same time, I say, “Legalize all drugs.” The government is an authoritarian intrusion into the private realm, which must be kept sacrosanct. Let people be on whatever drug they want. Then, if they want to get off it, you give them programs to help them get off it. But right now we have a situation—it’s so obvious—with the crime problems in the inner cities and the deformation of male African-American youth there because of the fortunes that are being made through the drug trade.
My God, legalize drugs. Put drugs under the control of the government. People drop dead because they don’t know the strength of anything they’re being given. And it’s absolutely ridiculous that people who need certain drugs for medicinal purposes are being denied them.
This is a civil-liberties issue. It’s much bigger than merely one drug. The government has an obligation, it seems to me, to monitor the safety of the contents of drugs. That is, to regulate them and make sure they are not contaminated. On the other hand, the goal is not to bar things, only to assure there’s sanitation and safety. And so I think that the country’s been extremely negligent.
Look at Ritalin. We’ve got people across this country dosing kids on a massive scale with Ritalin for attention-deficit disorder. Ritalin is absolutely castrating anyone with any energy or originality, anyone who cannot be forced into the little behavioral boxes that are set up for you now in the school system. If you can’t fit into that, you are given Ritalin. I would have been given Ritalin as a child. It’s being used to dose very active male children, in particular. And this is tolerated! I’ve been sick about this for years. I don’t know why the entire country’s not in an uproar protesting this.
HT: Do you think there are enough sixties people out there to revive a legalization movement and to regenerate a vision, enough to turn this culture around?
CP: There was a sense when Clinton was elected that there was going to be a return to sixties values. But as far as I can see, the people around him are people of the eighties. They are yuppies—smart-ass power-lunchers. Except for [James] Carville, where is there an authentic image of the sixties anywhere around those people? In many ways, the sixties have been stereotyped. I get very angry at the way these TV retrospectives on the sixties tip the picture. What you get is a tremendous amount about antiwar protests, naturally. That was important. Or you get the civil-rights protests. That was important, too. But that becomes the entire story. In my new book, Vamps and Tramps, there’s a memoir of four gay guys who particularly influenced me, one of whom recently died. For me, he was the essence of the sixties. He was completely contemplative. He read constantly. It didn’t register in the classroom, but he didn’t care. No one cared in the sixties about doing well in class. You went there and listened and took what you wanted. There was this total renunciation of anything that had to do with status or ambition. The whole generation of people were like this. But it was not filmable. So, this is what you get. People dismiss the sixties so easily, those who are against it, because they don’t understand that there was this kind of heroism going on. This quest for the truth. Not just the truth about the government or Vietnam; that was only one kind of truth. The whole of the sixties has been stereotyped in political terms. But, in fact, what we were doing was much bigger. We had a cosmic vision. But where is the book that records this?
HT: Why do you think so many sixties-type people went along with a kind of silent complicity during the eighties?
CP: I don’t know. I do think that things move in cycles. For example, I was totally unknown until four years ago when I finally could be published. Until then, no one would hire me and no one would hear me. My book, Sexual Personae, was rejected by seven major New York publishers. Lots of rejection notices. Then, all of sudden, something changed in 1990. I can’t explain it. And, suddenly, people were listening to what [I] had to say. Many disagreed, but many people agreed. There were other signs of change. In all of my interviews, I was really amazed that no one ever asked me about Marshall McLuhan. His name never came up. Now, his name is everywhere again. People are getting very interested in returning to some of these thinkers who got swept away.
I still have this sneaking thought that maybe somewhere out there are major works that were unpublished and that I will become one of two dozen others who will be producing these big books. People are looking back at the sixties and realize how seminal, how germinal that moment was and are trying to make sense out of it. We’re in a very exciting, kind of shakedown period, a period of reconsideration, of great change. Who knows what’s going to happen next?
Featured image: Camille Paglia speaks at Smith College in 1992 (Robert Tobey/Impact Visuals)