Letters to the Editor

Camille Paglia rages about religion; uncovering the history of "St. James Infirmary"; what's so unique about masturbatory time travel?

Published October 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Sensation" and lack of sensation

Camille Paglia's column rages indignantly against the "Jewish collector and a Jewish museum director" who promoted "anti-Catholic art" in the Brooklyn Museum show "Sensation." In doing so, she has nakedly exposed the dialogue at its very essence: In an acutely Christianized America, does a Jew have the right to artistically critique, parody or satirize Christian symbolism? Of course, she thinks we Jews don't.

I want to remind Paglia that the "Jewish collector and Jewish museum director" did not create the art -- that it was created by a goy, like herself. Rather, Saatchi and Lehman defended her rights as a human being to critique or even recontextualize her own religion through art.

-- Alan Kaufman

Editor, Tattoo Jew

Camille Paglia never ceases to amaze me. As a believer in Jesus, you wouldn't think I would find her writings so refreshing. Time and time again she states the obvious truth about liberal symbolism. Her article on Al Gore and the recent art controversy in New York is right on the money. Even considering her sexual proclivities, she is not hateful towards the Catholic church and Christians, like the gay community is in general.

She is one of the few liberals to whom I can say, I respect your point of view even if I don't agree with your atheistic view of life. I know that, deep down, Paglia acknowledges worldly truth when she sees it. It pains me knowing she is a Democrat. How long can you expose the façade of truth expounded by liberals and not be rejected by them?

-- Paul Reid

I think Camille Paglia is too close to the teaching of art to fully appreciate art's role in our society. I sympathize with and understand Paglia's wonderful and utopian vision of what art could be in our society. She dreams of art appreciation propagated throughout society, art available to all -- but that is not in the interest of the those that control museums.

The elite uses art as a status display. Beyond the few that can afford to own the works of art themselves, it is the knowledge of art that shows status. If art were understandable by the masses, then knowledge of art would not serve its vital (to the elite) function of displaying that they had enough leisure to become knowledgeable.

The "Sensation" show in the Brooklyn Museum is a clear example. To appreciate it, you must have the requisite background. That some of the art is offensive to many only enhances the function of separating the elite from the masses.

-- Robert N. Newshutz

If the government can't fund a museum displaying art that might offend, how are we going to keep the libraries open? Is a controversial book that different from a painting?

How can Paglia buy the excuses of a bunch of pandering politicians? I used to think it was probably poor taste for an artist to accept public money if he were going to do something controversial. Then I got a job at the library, and I realized that I had been funding opinions that weren't my own for years, and that I liked it that way!

-- Jennifer L. Brice

Nothing Personal: The dung show


The First Commandment is: "I am the Lord thy God. Thou shall not have
false gods before me." "Artistic freedom" becomes a false god, at least when it
is talismanically and successfully invoked to protect obscenity and/or sacrilege, like the alleged painting of the Virgin Mary now on display in the Brooklyn Museum.

Art implies a personal, unanalyzable creative power. Drawing swastikas on
synagogues is desecration, not art. Likewise, covering a representation of
the Virgin Mary with anuses, vaginas and dung is sacrilege, not art.

Newsweek neglected to mention that Arnold Lehman, the director of the
Brooklyn Museum responsible for the so-called "Sensation" exhibit, has a
history of gross insensitivity to Catholics. When Lehman ran the
taxpayer-funded Baltimore Museum, it screened "Hell's Angel," a film
condemning Mother Teresa as publicity-obsessed and a "ghoul" (among other
things), as part of a film series on "religious extremism."

If Lehman next presents a similar portrait of, say, Golda Meir, covered
with anuses, vaginas and dung, we will know that he is not merely

-- Michael J. Gaynor

The magical mystery tour

Sarah Vowell traces the changes of the song "St. James Infirmary" from Louis Armstrong on, mentioning that it is often listed as traditional. Actually, the song's roots go back way
before Armstrong; it is part of a continuum stretching from the Childe
ballad "The Unfortunate Rake" all the way up to "Streets of Laredo" and that
song's own descendants. Words and motifs and tunes are borrowed and swapped
back and forth among different versions of the songs, which is why each
singer's cover is a little bit unique. It's also why a version may contain
non sequiturs, such as Louis Armstrong's segue from his dead girlfriend to
his own funeral. This is the folk tradition.

-- Paula Berman

I may have some leads on the origins of "St. James Infirmary." A professor of mine once gave a lecture in which he traced the origin to the English (or thereabouts) folk song, "St. James
Hospital," about a man encountering his dying friend there (dying from
venereal disease, I think). The song had a different melody then, and when it came to the States it
spawned two children: "St. James Infirmary" and "Streets of Laredo," which
retained the original melody but changed and cleaned up the story.

-- Thomas Daniel Harrington

I used to perform as a vocalist with my high school jazz band
(years ago) and during rehearsals a few members of the band would
occasionally perform "St. James Infirmary" while I sat out. The lead guitarist had the
best voice for it, and dark, brooding looks to match the mysterious lyrics.
He sang the song real quiet, and made sure you understood that he was
talking about his "baby" stretched out on that table.

I heard the song only a few times, but a number of phrases and images became branded in my
memory -- the man in the Stetson hat, leaning over the body of his true love
in what must be a morgue. I never bothered to ask where they knew the song
from or who sang it. After high school, when I sang pieces of it to other people, they
would remark that they had never heard of such a song.

I now know that I can get copies of
the song sung by different artists and in many different ways. Thank you so much for your terrific article, and for expressing so many of the same feelings I have about this song!

-- Ingrid Gherson

Audrey was thinner


Much as I love the Barney's windows (and Simon Doonan's entire stylistic ethos), I
beg to differ with Doonan's assessment that Audrey Hepburn had an
eating disorder.

I am the author of "Audrey Style," a style biography of Audrey Hepburn
(HarperCollins, May 1999). When I interviewed all of Hepburn's close friends --
Audrey Wilder, Robert Wolders, Roddy McDowall, Nancy Reagan, as well as
Kevyn Aucion, Steven Meisel, Jeffrey Banks -- one of the first questions
I asked everyone was about Hepburn's eating habits. According to their answers, she most definitely did not have an eating disorder: She just didn't eat a lot of junk food, walked a good
deal and smoked her whole life (which will keep you thin). I have seen
hundreds of pictures of her from the age of 4 onward, and that was just her

I have also met her granddaughter (a blond, preschool version of her), who
has the same body type. I think that people should concentrate on
Hepburn's style, her talent and all she gave to the world -- which was considerable --
rather than imposing their own weight obsessions on other people.

-- Pamela Clarke Keogh

Too darn hot


Gracen writes, "Schone first pushed the erotic envelope [with] the unique ... premise of
time travel via masturbatory orgasm."

Robin Schone sounds like an interesting writer who has fought an
uphill battle to enliven the romance genre. But that premise is not
unique. It was the subject of an excellent short story by Ray Nelson
called "Time Travel for Pedestrians." I would guess that Nelson's
treatment of the concept was more imaginative than
Schone's. The story was published in 1972 in Harlan Ellison's anthology
"Again, Dangerous Visions."

-- Tom Perry

Milosevic rival claims assassination attempt


Todorovic writes, "Nearly half of the academics in Serbia's Academy of Arts and Sciences
signed a recent letter calling for Milosevic's resignation."
Maybe the academics should resign themselves. They authored the infamous
memorandum in the late '80s that was the "intellectual" basis for
Milosevic's subsequent ethnic cleansing. They have absolutely no moral
authority to sign a letter against him since they helped him to power in the
first place. If fascism were a crime they would all be on their way to the Hague.

-- Luka Valas

Poster boys for the summer of hate



I always find it interesting that people who insist on dragging Germanic
heritage through the mud -- like, say, Matthew Williams -- never spell German words correctly, though they insist on using them liberally. It's "Weltanschauung," boy!
The plural is "Weltanschauungen." The evidence of such men's utter mediocrity is
right there: They won't even shell out the $25 for "Listen 'n' Learn" tapes to learn the language of their precious forebears. Maybe next time some misguided hyper-Aryan
doped up on God and Whiteness wants to spend $2,000 on ammo, he'll just
book a ticket to Berlin and make a political announcement on the steps of the Bundestag. That way, he'll receive the public jeers and hostility he deserves.

-- Matthew Foster


"The Code Book"



In your review of "The Code Book" by Simon Singh, there are a couple of
statements that are misleading of the current state of cryptology. The
first one is that public-key cryptography depends on the difficulty of
factoring a very large number. While that is accurate for some public-key
cryptographic systems, it is not true in general. For example, elliptic
curve cryptography relies upon the difficulty of computing a discrete log
operation on an elliptic curve defined over a Galois field. Another
example might be the Cramer-Shoup cryptosystem that relies upon the
Diffie-Hellman decision problem to assume its security. I believe your
mistake was in assuming that RSA, which does rely upon the difficulty of
computing the factor of a large number, represents the whole
of public-key cryptography.

Later in your article, you also state that complete privacy may
yet be achievable -- interesting, because it has existed for
decades. Using correctly what is called a one-time pad, one can achieve
perfect security as defined by Claude Shannon. The problem is that the key
is as long as the message and must be transmitted by a secure channel
separate from the encrypted message. This prevents it from being suitable
for most real-world purposes except for when absolute security is needed.

-- Cory L. Hojka

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