Monday, December 07, 2009

Unacknowledged influences

Most of the influences on our scholarship, teaching, or even departmental citizen-hood are obvious and spring readily to mind: we all have crucial professors from college or grad school, seminal books in our field, and sometimes coaches or bosses or mothers whom we credit, effusively, with shaping aspects of our work ethic or our teaching persona.

But I suspect most of us also have unacknowledged influences: people and works and ideas that spoke to us at one point in time or during one stage of our lives, but that seem crazily or only counterintuitively related to who we are and what we do now.

For me, the most important of those mostly-forgotten influences is Camille Paglia.

I hadn't realized this myself until SEK's posts on Paglia several weeks ago, which made me think, for the first time in any real depth, about the effect she had on me when I was in high school and college.

I was 16 when "Rape and Modern Sex War" was published in the Sunday opinion section of my hometown newspaper, which must have been within weeks of its first publication in New York Newsday in early 1991. I found it electrifying. I loved the way she wrote, and the personality that I perceived to be behind it: smart, aggressive, take-no-prisoners. I couldn't remember ever reading a woman who wrote like that.

When Sex, Art, and American Culture was published the next year, I bought it and read it straight through--even though I didn't understand a great deal of what she was writing about (I had no idea what the culture wars were, or most of what was at stake in them). I went to see her when she came to speak on my college campus in 1994 or 1995, and then bought her second collection of essays, Vamps and Tramps, when it came out around the same time. Somewhere I picked up a cheap hardback of Sexual Personae, and looked forward to the day when I felt I'd be able to understand it (I did finally read it over winter break of my junior year).

But then, around age 22, I stopped reading her. Partly it was that Paglia's moment had passed and partly it was that her writing, as SEK notes, became lazy to the point of embarrassment and self-parody. But mostly I stopped reading or paying attention to her because I had other and more relevant sources for whatever she'd once given me--and since I wasn't reading or rereading her as an adult, it took me a long time to realize that we were largely not on the same side when it came to the culture wars, or feminism, or very much, really.

Still, from ages 16 to 22, I loved her. Partly it was the intoxication of her prose style (and dudes, think about it: I now work on Milton's polemical prose), but it was also that I had never encountered anyone like her: a female public intellectual who wrote and spoke as freely about pop culture as about high culture. I had had smart female teachers, and I must have seen female experts or academics on television, but I'd never seen a woman whom I perceived to be intellectually serious who was also fierce and mouthy and colloquial, or who came from a family background that was outside the usual centers of intellectual power.

I don't know that I needed Camille Paglia to become the academic and the woman and the writer that I am today; other models would have come along, and they did. But I'm grateful to her all the same.


What are your unacknowledged influences?


Moria said...

Great topic. Most of mine - curiously, for someone who does not and is not likely to work on novels - are novelists. Woolf, Nabokov, Calvino, Winterson, Chabon. Others, I'm sure. Gogol, Bulgakov. What they speak to, perhaps, is a desire to determine certain kinds of category - time, genre, self - more fluidly than is immediately culturally available; but also a commitment to the productive capacities of language and narrative to create and recreate worlds, or something like the simultaneous contingency and determinism of language.

This gets back, of course, to your previous post about the overlap between professional, intellectual and emotional lives. In terms of the areas of influence of these novelists, those terrains are indistinguishable from one another.

Annie Em said...

Wonderful post, Flavia! I, too, read Paglia at too young of an age to do more than just be in awe of an academic writing about Madonna in academic lingo, so she definitely had some influence on me. But the other intellectual woman writer who inspired me was Mary McCarthy: essayist, novelist, critic, teacher--she did it all AND she was sexy and a great chef.

Of course, like Paglia, she not only shrugged off feminism, she was sometimes hostile to it---our role models are sometimes role models because of their imperfections.

Thanks for providing me a lovely few moments of thoughtfulness during this hectic finals week....

Flavia said...

Moria: some of my other very early heros included Gary Trudeau, Calvin Trillin and (later, but more enduringly) Evelyn Waugh. The relevant through-line I see there is satire and the political. . . but who knows?

Annie Em: oh, I love Mary McCarthy! I didn't discover her until grad school, but someone in Grad School City must have been steadily divesting him/herself of an entire library's worth of her stuff, because I kept finding book after book of hers at the used bookstore across the street from my apartment.

Annie Em said...

Lucky you and the used bookstore and the sad sad person giving up all those McCarthy books (I need a copy of Groves of Academe!!)...

So which is your favorite? There are so few McCarthy fans out in the world, we must stick together;-)

irina said...

I'm amazed at how many people read Paglia, mainly because it does seem that she's no longer on the reading list. I, too, discovered her as a teenager and fell in love, primarily because I was an Apollonian kind of personality who desperately wanted to be Dionysian.

But, really, the major influence on my life has to be Byron. I discovered, and fell in love with him, at twelve. The night before my first exams ever, in December of ninth grade, I lay in bed with a mug of linden tea and read "Thoughts Suggested by a College Examination." I repeated this the night before my second set of exams, and so on all the way through high school and university, doing it for the last time the night before my grad school oral examination.

That bit of Byron's juvenilia has kept me sane throughout this entire process. His scathing satire of scholars who prize the critic's note "more than the verse on which the critic wrote" is my secret manifesto as an academic. There is more, but Byron always gets me into trouble, so I'll stop there.

the rebel lettriste said...

Me too for the Paglia. I think I even wrote my high school research paper on her, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi (I was nothing if not overreaching...)

Other major influences? Whitman. I always return, and am always humbled, even as I also hate him for his massive ego.

vaincre said...

Paglia shows some quite decent regenerative qualities - and did you ever read Sexual Personae? I asked her about Vol. II every few years - she keeps putting it off. :)

Flavia said...

Gotta say, I'm surprised by all the Paglia-love; I said over at SEK's that I felt like I was admitting to something vaguely shameful. But I reread some of her very early stuff yesterday, and though I'm impatient (and sometimes actively angry) with so many of her arguments, girlfriend was a damn fine stylist & rhetorician. Kept laughing out loud in surprise & pleasure.

AE: good question. I'm tempted to say The Group, which isn't at all the trashy potboiler I'd been lead to expect. But I'm also fond of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

Vaincre: yep. As I said: my junior year. Only thing I've re-read, though, is the Spenser chapter.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I'd like to steal Moria's. And I think I'm on record that If on a Winter's Night a Traveler may be the greatest book of literary theory ever.

But I'd also like to give a shout-out to all the science fiction I read as a geeky youth, before I grew into the adult geek I am today. Partly it influences my scholarship, in ways I seldom think about, because science fiction is always balancing hypothesis with narrative. But even more importantly it taught me, long before I had heard the word "historicist," to think of the world around me as historically contingent, to view the found world not as eternal but as something that might be otherwise, and sooner or later would be.

Renaissance Girl said...

Yes, Moria: Calvino. And Dickens. And Mark Strand. But probably my most significant influence is from a different sphere of knowledge, since I converted to the Humanities at a relatively late stage. I learned more about literary analysis, and about writing, from my gig dissecting cadavers at the human anatomy lab than anything else I can remember. The anatomist's attentiveness to small things: that's my whole life right there, even though I no longer smell of formaldehyde.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

I hate to admit it -- because my position on this text has changed so dramatically since I was a youngster -- but it would have to be the Bible. I grew up in a really religious household where discussions of the meaning of the sacred text were standard -- and I think years of bible study made me a really good interpreter of texts. I'm not religious any more and there are a lot of things about this upbringing that have left scars, but I think that the influence is there nonetheless.

Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

feMOMhist said...

Well older than you so not Paglia, that is for sure. I was fairly certain that she was the anti Christ at the time. On the cultural history side without a doubt Joan Wallach Scott. On the English side Rita Felski.

miltonista said...

Television. Hours and hours and hours of television. I don't watch much TV now, but I've probably watched enough for a lifetime.