Guns and penises

American society's problem isn't firearms -- it's the sexually dysfunctional men and women who abuse them.

Published May 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Dear Camille:

Reading and listening to "experts" discussing the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the practice of circumcision in American society is as good a culprit for the massacre as anything raised by those talking heads.

There is a man named William Pollack from Harvard who sells books around the country (my sis-in-law paid $20 to hear him lecture in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago) who claims that violence, rebelliousness and depression among boys are due to misguided societal expectations about maleness, which start when the child enters his fourth year. Clearly the good doctor should look into the misguided practice of genital mutilation on much younger boys -- but not one word in his 400-page book is dedicated to that traumatic experience shared by more than 100 million American men.

Very pragmatically (and without entering into the very pertinent but complex issue of psychological harm) I would suggest that circumcision interferes, in some cases fatally, with the wonderful discovery of self-manipulation and pleasuring that constitutes masturbation during puberty. Children who should be ecstatically sliding their foreskins back and forth until climax four or five times a day are instead building bombs and planning the murder of other equally obnoxious and damaged kids.

One harvests what one sows, or however that saying goes in good English.

Ari Zighelboim

New Orleans

Dear Mr. Zighelboim:

Applause for your bold switch of subject back to sex in the clamorous Columbine post-mortem. The Northeastern major media, with their urban liberal animus against guns, have managed to completely censor out the subliminal sexual psychodrama in the bloody Columbine saga. Only Matt Drudge and Salon, immediately after the incident, dared to report on still-uncorroborated gay rumors snaking through the Denver grapevine. And the National Enquirer, which broke every piety in its flashy documentation of the risk-taking lifestyle of both Nicole and O.J. Simpson, headlined its May 11 cover story about the Columbine conspirators, "Gay Secret That Made Them Kill" -- a reference to taunts from girl students about the boys' twin-like bond.

While this column has indeed raised questions about the ethics of compulsory infant circumcision, I'm not sure I'm convinced that circumcision produced the atrocities at Columbine. But the symbolic attraction of guns for sexually frustrated young men needs to be explored. It's obvious that the gun as devastating phallic tool gives any average dork the predictably perfect, mind-blowing ejaculations not vouchsafed by wrinkly Weak Willy, who rears his pointy head or cowers lumpishly at the worst possible moments. Eric Harris, the main brain in the Columbine affair, had a fetish for shotguns and waxed rhapsodic in classroom compositions about both the barrel and the shell.

"This is my rifle; this is my gun. One is for shooting; the other's for fun!" In a comic World War II memoir that I stumbled on as an adolescent, a clumsy infantryman had to shout this mantra as he stood at attention, one hand gripping his rifle and the other his penis. We didn't really need great Freud to tell us about phallic symbols: The identification of guns with explosive male sexuality is already implicit in Emily Dickinson's extraordinary poem, "My Life had stood a Loaded Gun," in which the spinster muse transsexually reinvents herself as a bedroom blunderbuss with a killer "Yellow Eye."

Arguing in my first book that the Western paradigm of thought as aggressive projection and penetration would end up in cinema as the arrowlike light beam of the darkened movie theater, I pointed out that while the Chinese may have invented gunpowder, they used it only for fireworks and never developed the lethal lobbing tube of the European cannon and musket. As a tomboy whose Amazonian craze was always for swords and spears, I've never felt the allure of guns, but I think I understand their hypnotic high-tech beauty -- their well-oiled intricacy; cool, smooth skin; and startlingly dense, compact heft, which gives the owner so exhilarating a sense of coiled power.

While guns aren't my thing, I would vigorously defend the Second Amendment right of mentally competent adults to own and collect weapons without harassment by the government. Multiplying gun laws isn't the answer, since law-abiding citizens are never the problem. Loopholes do need to be plugged: It was too easy for a ditsy teenage girl to buy guns for her manipulative Columbine pals. But in the long run, it's cultural norms that need to be strengthened at home and school, where ethical reasoning about all types of behavior must be taught.

How rare it still is in this nation of sharpshooter Annie Oakley (one of my feisty patron saints) to find women gravitating toward or publicly endorsing guns, despite the National Rifle Association's ad campaign featuring female members. Valerie Solanas, who cut down Andy Warhol, and Squeaky Fromme, who took a shot at President Gerald Ford, remain freaks. I had an unsettling brush with a female mass murderer in 1985, shortly after I moved to suburban Philadelphia, when a 25-year-old ex-mental patient in guerrilla gear stormed into a nearby shopping mall with a semiautomatic rifle and managed to wound eight people and kill two. Luckily, the gods of shopping had sent me to our other major mall that afternoon, but I passed the shocking array of police cars and ambulances as I drove home.

The gun as mutant penis: Men or women who abuse guns are equally sexually dysfunctional. The first question that popped into my mind about the Columbine killers was, "What was their sex life like?" It's very difficult to be a man in today's post-industrial culture, with its bland service-sector jobs and endless paper-shuffling deskwork. All you have before you is eternal tethering -- to parents, teachers, boss, wife. There's little room for genuine masculine adventure and achievement. And there are few men to admire -- which is why violent video games and action-adventure films have been thriving.

You males whose courage, energy and ingenuity turned the global wilderness into civilization (and allowed women to emerge from the servitude of reproductive biology to become self-determining individuals) are not honored by the clichid ideologies of our time. From feminism to therapy, the ruling premise is the Sensitive Male, as talky as a woman as he gets in touch with his banal feelings. Natural, robust, assertive masculinity is defined as a disease from which society must be cured.

You tartly cite Harvard psychoanalyst William Pollack, whose bestselling book, "Real Boys," has been tirelessly promoted by Oprah Winfrey in her ever-lengthening chain of white male gurus and black earth mothers. I know from the testimony of friends that Pollack is a superb therapist. But I'm afraid I must agree with your skepticism about his approach to current social issues. His bookish milieu has little understanding of either athletics or war -- which are crucial to any historical analysis of masculinity.

Specifically, I reject Pollack's position that mothers shouldn't push growing boys away and discourage displays of weakness, fear and tears. Everywhere, I see the opposite problem: white, upper-middle-class mothers clinging too much to their whiny sons and turning them into companion daughters or substitute spouses. Boys are not girls: the mocking epithets "sissy " (i.e., "sister") and "mollycoddle" do describe something real -- a stalling in the evolution of masculine identity, which requires boys to leave the maternal nest and make their way as independent adults.

Perhaps because of his background, Pollack overestimates the power of words in most men's lives. His program privileges female values and simply cuts boys down to pliable ciphers in a family matriarchy. It's actually a perfect recipe for producing obedient office-workers, happy eunuchs in the corporate food chain.

The weakest part of Pollack's book may be its velvet-glove treatment of homosexuality and its striking credulity about the gay gene -- for which there never has been solid evidence. From long observation, I conclude that blurred borderlines between mother and son are a primary factor in male homosexuality -- which every honest observer should admit is slowly increasing in the Western world. As a civil libertarian, I firmly believe in sexual freedom of choice; but as a scholar, I look for causation and historical context.

The Columbine guns were stupidly phallic protests -- cruel, abortive, self-destructive acts by bourgeois screw-ups who hated their meaningless lives, namby-pamby school and indulgent, affluent parents and who should long ago have been kicked out on their asses to fend for themselves and learn a few things about life. It's time to end the high-school stockyard tyranny. Let the puberty brats go at 14, and throw open the educational doors to returning adults. Classroom segregation by age has produced a toxic testosterone cocktail that's blowing this culture to smithereens.

But it's not guns at home I fear: It's guns abroad, escalating into nuclear war. Whatever the mad bombers of NATO think they're winning in the Yugoslav fiasco, they've predictably destabilized world politics. Our ham-handed president, Bill Clinton, and his increasingly fey buddy, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were henpecked into war by a sullen virago, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who would have flunked out of the Margaret Thatcher school of military science.

Caro dea di verita:

Unlike other opera lovers, I've been sanguine about my favorite art form's descent into middle-class respectability. Someday, I've maintained, a new artist will come along, like Callas or Pavarotti in his prime, who will reenergize and re-popularize opera again.

For the past few years, my money has been on the husband-wife team of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, who have it all: youth, sex appeal, a great PR story (they met professionally while his first wife was dying) and amazing voices -- hers a strong, rich lyric soprano; his a silvery, sweet lyric tenor. What's more, theirs is a marriage of the Callas and Pavarotti sexual personae: she the imperious dominatrix, he the charming child of nature (as Pavarotti was before his tragic decline into self-parody). So while their performances and records are winning awards, their tempestuous diva- and divo-esque backstage behavior has been making headlines. Perfect, right?

But no; tigerish Gheorghiu (nicknamed, for her Romanian heritage, "Draculina") and affable, pleasure-loving Alagna have not become, as I predicted, the Cruise and Kidman of the opera set. It's another, hugely unlikely performer who has vaulted to world superstardom: Cecilia Bartoli.

Camille, I need your help here. What has this girl got that's made her the only opera singer of this generation to break through to mainstream success? She has a lovely chocolate mezzo, yes, but it's on the small side; and she's used it in only a sliver of the repertoire -- mainly Rossini and the baroque. Hardly the stuff mainstream audiences flock to.

Reading Manuela Holterhoff's recent bio of her, "Cinderella and Company" (a delight -- plenty of breezy, bitchy anecdotes about the Alagnas and other opera stars), I found myself unable to pin down Bartoli's sexual persona, which would have helped me understand her. She comes across as a classic Italian daughter -- pretty, common-sensical, a bit giggly. Her physical appearance is no help, either; she's diminutive but voluptuous (making her unsuitable for the many male "trouser" roles mezzos usually take in Rossini and Mozart). Either this woman has a sexual persona so new I can't recognize it, or it's an incoherent mess. In which case, why is she a superstar?

It's vexing to hear people pine for Bartoli as Carmen; I can't imagine anyone less likely to convey the tantalizing, dangerously sexual Bizet heroine. Bartoli may be zaftig, but not in a sexual way; she's more like a platter of plump, appetizing ravioli. She seems to know this about herself; she's refused to take on the role. But it galls me that the definitive Carmen of our generation -- the ravishingly beautiful African-American mezzo Denyce Graves -- is so often overlooked in the general yearning for Bartoli. Can you help me understand where this admittedly charming and accomplished singer falls on the sexual personae map, and why she is as popular as she is?

Perplexed opera queen

Dear Queen:

Peppy, upbeat Cecilia Bartoli represents user-friendly art in this weightless media age. Gifted though she may be, it's hard for me too to get excited about her since, as you note, she lacks those dark undercurrents I think vital for major stars. Your description of Bartoli made me think, in terms of sexual personae, of singer Connie Francis bopping her way through "Where the Boys Are" (1960), a canonical film of my adolescence. And before that, there was winsome Annette Funicello, who rose to ripeness on ABC's "The Mickey Mouse Club."

In general, there has been a flattening out of personality in all the performing arts. The Romantic assertions of the flamingly Byronic Rudolf Nureyev, for example, would seem out of place today. Audiences want to be soothed, not challenged. I mourn the passing of the impossibly temperamental bitch-goddess divas -- from Bette Davis to Maria Callas. In expanding career options in the social realm, feminism has reduced woman's archetypal power, which drew on elemental nature.

Yes, Bartoli is classic Rossini -- which puts my teeth on edge since in all those years I toiled in school bands, where I played clarinet very badly, I had to practice and perform those damned Rossini trills, like sticky curlicues of starchy egg noodle. My idea of vocal virtuosity was formed in early childhood by Yma Sumac, the Incan imposter, and by Risk Stevens as Carmen with that inexplicable rose between her teeth.

When I received your fascinating letter, I knew exactly whom to consult: my colleague Kent Christensen, a literature professor and opera expert who recently took into retirement with him the gigantic icon of Callas as Tosca that has always dominated our shared university office -- as staggering a cultic loss to me as the passage of the Palladium out of burning Troy. (The original Palladium, incidentally, was probably not a statue but a rough meteorite, worshipped as a goddess.)

The Christensen Report on La Bartoli, special to Salon: "She's an opera-house kid, with both parents in the Rome opera chorus. Her mother was her only voice teacher. Bartoli fears flying and travels around the U.S. in a limo. Her first big successes were in Canada and Houston and on records; then the Met caved in. But she's very careful about what she does there, with infrequent appearances. Every one of her Met roles has been in a new production, evidence of her star status.

"Her debut was as a 'working girl,' pulling a heavy piece of the set into view (Despina in Mozart's 'Cosi fan Tutte'). Notice the pattern here: next in her production of Rossini's 'Cenerentola' (Cinderella), she's mopping the floor as the curtain goes up. Then this season as Susanna, the maid in Mozart's 'Marriage of Figaro,' she's making the beds as the opera opens. So she's kind of typecast herself as the clever servant, the Columbina or Pierrette of commedia dell'arte, a minx. But she also has a Betty Boopish appeal that crosses the footlights even at the Met, where some have complained at the small size of her voice.

"Bartoli has a wonderful spontaneity onstage: In 'Cosi,' someone dropped a prop by accident, and she glanced at the audience to keep it comic. Her voice is not dyke-y large like Marilyn Horne's, with her booming low notes, but perfectly placed and projected and easily audible. She's in the tradition of 'butterball' singers at the Met -- much beloved, like Lucrezia Bori, Bidu Sayao (whose voice was even smaller than Bartoli's), Victoria de los Angeles, Renata Scotto (who refused to be stuck in that category and shortened her career by taking on Callas' roles). Of these, Bartoli is probably most like de los Angeles vocally -- a warm mezzo sound with surprisingly strong high notes (on occasion Bartoli throws in notes above high C to everyone's amazement) and exceptional diction in all languages, even German.

"She's trying to stretch into new roles, like Elvira, the much-put-upon mistress to Don Giovanni, usually sung by sopranos. She did it this winter in Switzerland and then was in an AOL chat room as everyone's 'girlfriend' talking about what gifts she gets, her plans for the future, and warning us to stay away from Zurich in the winter -- she had fallen and hurt her leg but went on as Elvira with a crutch!

"She will be doing Debussy's Melisande soon (another role done by lyric sopranos and by mezzos more rarely), a real stretch, a pre-Raphaelite princesse lointaine -- she's either going to redefine the role or be laughable. As Carmen: I hope she has a chance to record the role. Some of the best never did it onstage -- Callas, Leontyne Price, even de los Angeles until too late. She has mastered the castanets, as she demonstrated in an insinuating Seguidille in the new PBS special filmed at the Palladian Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. I fear she may not be able to convey the fatalism in the role. Certainly Denyce Graves is more voluptuous, but she came to the Met too soon and has troublesome vocal problems.

"Bartoli's critics -- and there are quite a few: some say that they can't watch her because she is so animated, especially in the rapid-fire music Rossini calls for (her velocity and precision here are truly spectacular). She tends to move her shoulders up and down in tempo and to gyrate her eyes: She's always 'on' and watches her audience closely. And some say she works too hard to make every song in her large recital repertoire into a mini-opera, exaggerating vocal colors and characterization. A dish of ravioli is right -- but stuffed with truffles!"

I hope that's enough to start many a food fight in opera cells across the land -- those bastions of the arts that have stubbornly survived the last quarter century of dreary poststructuralism and postmodernism. Stars may be in short supply, but grand opera, which was born in Italy, will dance forever on Michel Foucault's grave!

Postscript As its provocative Mother's Day cover story, the May 9 New York Times Book Review featured new books on Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, the latter reviewed by me. No article has ever drained me more: It was like being trapped in a telephone booth with Lady Macbeth!

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at

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