Who are you calling a "coot"?

Incoming! Readers demand answers about WASPs, Tim Russert and Obama's teleprompter skills.

Published July 9, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Ms. Paglia,

I find your political relativism dangerously naive. Unfortunately, there are "good guys" and "bad guys" regarding state actors. The Iranian regime epitomizes evil on all social and political fronts. From its draconian punishment of women and homosexuals to its aggressive anti-Semitism (to highlight a few offenses), Iran must be stopped from having the political and military leverage that comes with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon program. Outside the walls of the academy, America is by all objective accounts the superior nation. America's negative qualities – which our freedoms thankfully allow us to question and correct – do not give worse nations a pass.

Before you attack a minor point of mine to debunk my entire argument (how emblematic) or ignore me, please know that I doubt it is possible to change the way you view the world. I can only hope you have the same impotence over those you try to influence.

Walter Haas
San Francisco, CA

Thank you very much for your query. A century from now, when the competitive flux among world cultures will doubtless be as intense as today, your stern view of Iran may well have been proved correct. The failure of the West to act decisively and to intervene in Iran's nuclear armament may look timid and foolish. If nuclear weapons manufactured in Iran end up in the hands of jihadists and are successfully deployed in our capital cities, the West will look as if it committed suicide and deserved to fall.

But politics is not science. It is impossible to predict with perfect accuracy the real-life results of any course of action. A thousand unanticipated factors may cause idealistic plans to go horribly awry. In the case of Iran, short of a massive land invasion or the outright assassination of its leaders (currently forbidden by civilized nations), it would be virtually impossible to surgically remove Iran's regime without visiting death and destruction on untold numbers of innocent Iranian civilians. Do their lives mean nothing to you? By what ethical reasoning have you determined that the American way of life, which I too love, is or should be paramount on Earth, at the expense of all others?

What makes me uneasy in your argument is the Manichean polarization between "good guys" and "bad guys" among world governments. In my view, such stark moral absolutes do not exist, except from a fundamentalist religious perspective -- such as the one that animated the Muslim fanatics who attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center. "The Iranian regime epitomizes evil," you say. While we may rightly abhor and condemn the archconservative social policies of that regime, surely we should reserve extreme terms like "evil" for the genuine monsters of history, like Nero, Vlad the Impaler or Hitler. Calling every petty regional dictator "evil" is ultimately counterproductive by coarsening our political discourse and dehumanizing our opponents.


As a social libertarian and defense/economic conservative, I find your observations on John McCain spot on. However, I believe you have been swept up in Obama fever.

If Obama can prove to me that he really wants to work with the opposition to solve many of our problems, I may vote for him. He is spending too much of his time trying to connect McCain to Bush, and that connection does not stand up to historical facts. Despite McCain’s stodginess and poor public speaking skills, he has a history of reaching across the aisle and being an independent thinker rather than an ideologue. Obama has no history of working with Republicans and is only talking about it.

I am a former Marine officer who loves your column.

Steve Combes
Saint Paul, MN

You are so right about McCain's "history of reaching across the aisle." He's done so much reaching, in fact, that it's a wonder he hasn't turned into that droopily taffy-armed Pixar Incredible character, Elastigirl. As a fan of talk radio, I've had an earful for years about McCain's political zigzagging and his indifference to bedrock principle. Some might see him as a pragmatic doer; others call him a narcissistic opportunist.

As a Democrat, I appreciate McCain's refusal to demonize his opponents. As a free-speech libertarian, however, I have questions about the disturbing curbs on political expression wrought by the McCain-Feingold bill. Does the "independent" McCain in fact have any coherent system of beliefs? Or is he just a fidgety nibbler, noodler, and hot-dogger without a powerful vision for the future? His erratic campaign thus far, with staff whizzing in and out, is hardly reassuring.

Having watched Obama in action (on TV but once in person in suburban Philadelphia), I feel cautiously confident about his idealistic desire to heal partisan divisions in this country. Remember his measured acknowledgment during the heated primary season of the far-reaching influence of Ronald Reagan's ideas? I was amazed at Obama's daring, given his embrace by my party's left wing. The first step to a new concord in the U.S. is for both the right and the left to admit that there are significant and substantive ideas on the other side. The present destructive atmosphere of hysteria, with its rigid stereotyping and lurid moralism, must end.

Obama's maturity and forebearance toward opponents were on display nowhere better than in the Democratic debates, where he maintained his graceful reserve in the face of one catty cut after another from a grandstanding, camera-hogging Hillary Clinton, who deserved to have a Santa Claus sack of scandal-ridden 1990s press clippings dumped all over her prettily coiffed head.

You said of Obama: "He has a judicious, reflective, authentically presidential temperament." He certainly has a talent for sounding natural when reading a prepared speech from a teleprompter, but he doesn't come across nearly as well when speaking extemporaneously. It's as if when he's not reading a speech that he is just looking to insert as many prepared talking points as possible and fumbles for words to put around them as opposed to giving you the feeling he's speaking from his heart about the bigger picture. Do you ever get that same sense, and do you feel that will be a problem for him?>

Blake Krass
Pflugerville, TX

Talk radio has been drumming that teleprompter jibe about Obama into the ground. I'm not that taken with Obama's facility with the teleprompter (where McCain is disastrously bad). Nor am I put off by the occasions when, bleary from fatigue, Obama has searched for or stumbled over words. For heaven's sake, the guy was on the road for a year. Any partisan hack can string together a bunch of verbal goofs and play it for laughs. It's sure been a field day for satirists during George W. Bush's mush-mouthed reign.

At his best, Obama listens carefully to questions and tries to answer them honestly. I have been deeply impressed by his methodical intelligence and his obvious sincerity and goodwill. The contrast to Hillary Clinton could not be clearer: Whatever she may be like in private, the public Hillary is constitutionally glib, rolling out the campaign-cleared talking points of the day like an armored limo on cruise control. Next day, next rap; yesterday is erased. I'm sick of it and sick of her. Obama has a nimble mind and is a sophisticated quick learner. The ragged edges of his boldly insurgent campaign are unlikely to recur once he is in office. There certainly will be thorny problems facing his presidency, here and abroad, but speaking ability won't be one of them.

Subject: Some observations from an eeevil conservative reader

As a disaffected conservative, I have to contend that the election is over. When Big Republican pushed out John McCain into the forefront, they effectively handed the election to the Democrats. This Godforsaken Democratic primary was just, in my opinion, a long, drawn-out pre-election of sorts. If John McCain wins in November, it won’t be because he won, it will be because Barack Obama lost, in epic fashion.

Think about it: For all of the infighting in the Democratic party among blacks, whites, and Hispanics, for all of the bickering between men and women, three of said five groups always vote Democrat, ranging from solid support (women, namely single) to heavy support (Hispanics) to groupthink proportions (blacks) along with your average white and male Democrat vote. There is no chance in hell that John McCain will be able to win away any kind of support significant enough to replace a fraction of the conservatives that have effectively been told to bugger off by Big R.

As for conservative radio, of which I partake when not stuck in the middle of an Iraqi desert, I don’t think that they are too far off of the mark when waxing political about Barack. I don’t think it’s much of a problem to point out that he has some awfully shady people in his inner circle of buddies, has a voting record that would fit well in any left-of-center party in Western Europe (or Eastern Europe, for that matter) and hasn’t given too many speeches in which every other word was seemingly CHANGE! or HOPE! What’s the deal? I’m sorry, but if I wanted a control freak in my life I’d get me a wife … done, and done.

I know for a fact I don’t agree with you on a whole hell of a lot of things, but your column is a breath of fresh air … that is, for a liberal.

Daine Zaccheo
Palm Bay, FL, by way of Balad, Iraq

Thanks for the compliment! I'm sure many politics-minded Salon readers will be as intrigued as I was by your letter. It confirms the rumblings in the traditional Republican ranks that are also registering among callers to talk radio. McCain is such a weak candidate -- so excruciatingly tone-deaf and deficient in basic skills of public speaking and deportment -- that the Democrats will have to screw up big to defeat themselves this fall.

As for the "shady" types who have turned up in Obama's record, I'm not sure how many of them, aside from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, truly belonged to his "inner circle." Obama isn't responsible for the behavior of every single person he has met, worked with, or been supported by in his political rise. By that standard, the Clintons would never have made it out of Little Rock. They attract shady like lint. Talk radio, by sheer repetition, has generated a distorted picture of Obama's history, which is better known to readers of his two best-selling memoirs. As for his alleged leftism, that remains to be seen. Radio hosts routinely denounce Obama as a dangerous radical leftist, but I see him as a standard-issue liberal who wants to urgently improve basic social services but who is not so wed to ideology that he will reject debate, compromise, and common sense.

Subject: Here’s to Coots

Just a word in praise of coots — maybe this apologia from an ex-hippie (well, I exaggerate just a tad) is not what I should be addressing in writing to you, but I just can’t help it. I used to be alert, quick, affable, witty, charming, sufficiently sophisticated and all the other things that made for great cocktail party presence and banter.

Alas, I have become an old coot. I now sit in the corner and scowl at the new crop of alert, quick, affable, witty, charming and sufficiently sophisticated people flowing around the room. And guess what -- I’m happy! No more forced smiles, forced laughter, forced agreement or forced anything. I can relax at last, burp and fart when I please, and if anyone intrudes into my blessed solitude, I can tell them where to go if I feel like it.

Heck. It’s sort of like being president—not a presidential candidate, mind you (they are still trying to be alert, quick, affable, witty, charming and sufficiently sophisticated people), but the real thing. So be kind to John McCain and Hillary (yes, I know you didn’t mention her, but deep down, I suspect she’s a real coot, too). By the way, I’m going to form a new social/lobbying group to promote the coot agenda -- it’ll be called “Curmudgeons Are Us.” Want to join?

Richard F. Gorman, III
Richmond, VA

Thank you for your delightful letter! I plead guilty to calling McCain "a weird old coot" and will think twice before doing it again. Coots, by the way, are slow, duck-like birds whose somewhat addled manner became identified with eccentric old men. Women are never called coots. Yet another barrier for us to break?

What is all this mourning over Tim Russert about? He may have been a regular guy -- I don't know and I really don't care. But he was not a journalist in any true sense of that word. His biases and predilections were transparent, and he clearly played favorites and a kind of in-Washington softball that made "Meet the Press" more like an advertorial when it should have been more prosecutorial, as in that old definition of a journalist as someone who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Just hoping you might address the mythomanic reaction to his sudden passing.

Harry Pearson

I was certainly shocked when I heard the radio bulletin about Russert's death as I was driving home from campus. After his high visibility during the Democratic primary, it was a stunning example of the ancient motif of the ever-turning wheel of fortune. "Count no man happy until he is dead," characters are always intoning in Greek tragedy. So much fame and acclaim, and Russert's story was over in an instant. As a member of his baby-boom generation, I processed his sudden passing with a shiver. Who will be next?

However, within 24 hours of saccharine media saturation about Russert's death, I couldn't take another second of it and refused to listen to or read one more word about him. I ignored the funeral and the weepy talking heads and the reverential anointing of his son. Good lord, with a war going on and hundreds of thousands killed or injured in major natural disasters around the world that week, the Russert orgy was an appalling exercise in solipsism by the media elite. That our two presidential candidates felt compelled to attend the funeral and to accept fulsome family directives about sitting together was an embarrassment -- an advertisement to the world of how the American major media arrogantly think of themselves as another branch of government.

And all that blather about Russert's "legacy" -- an inside-the-Beltway mirage that's already evaporated. Russert couldn't hold a candle to Walter Cronkite, who was an authentically national figure in ways that Russert could never dream of approaching. Most people in this country -- especially those who attend church on Sunday morning -- didn't know or care who Russert was. I myself, despite my interest in politics, virtually never watched his show. I found him smug, manipulative and uncomfortably repressed, and I disliked his "gotcha" brand of inquisition.

By all accounts, Russert was a warmly supportive colleague, laudably even to the rare conservatives in Northeastern newsrooms. But as for the painstaking preparation for which he was touted, he had the resources of a large network staff to help with that. We have a far superior and fairer interviewer right here in Philadelphia: Marty Moss-Coane, whose rigorous daily prep for her superb "Radio Times" show at WHYY (an NPR affiliate) boggles the mind. Russert's tenacity in questioning some (but not all) guests stood out because of the general servility of the American media to people in power (as in the long run-up to the Iraq invasion). But Russert wasn't that remarkable by British standards -- where incisive, well-informed reporters on TV and off pursue lofty members of government with breathtaking ferocity.

Queen Hillary has been playing her subjects (mostly women) for bigots and fools.

Bigots not because they are voting against a black man, but because they are voting for a woman only because she is a woman.

In my strong opinion, it is just as bigoted to vote for someone because of prejudice as it is to vote against someone out of prejudice. We would not hesitate to call a man bigoted if he voted for a white guy simply because he is a white guy. In my opinion, we have not seen such an openly bigoted national campaign since George Wallace.

Fools because Hillary plays the feminist act, but what informed folks sincerely think that she is a feminist?

Take one look at Queen Hillary's inner circle of advisors. We have been told that Patty Solis Doyle was Hillary's campaign manager; then she was replaced by Maggie Williams. But who gives interviews and makes the rounds on the talk shows when Hillary needs a "go to guy"?

Well, of course, you see one of the following alpha-male pit bulls (attack dogs): Terry McCauliffe, Howard Wolfson, Harold Ickes, Jay Carson, Mark Penn, Phil Singer, James Carville, Lanny Davis, Hassan Nemazee, Mo Elleithee, Paul Begala, Sid Blumenthal.

Honestly, would any decent person have the above folks doing their bidding? When is the last time anyone saw a woman speaking for Hillary? Why are women so brainwashed as to believe that Hillary is a feminist?

Ernie Page
Salt Lake City

I heartily agree with your indictment. How Hillary Clinton, whose entire career has been tied to her husband's, has become a feminist idol is beyond me. Everything is mere words and good intentions with her; concrete achievement is oddly irrelevant. There was something chillingly cult-like in the fanatical personal projection onto her of so many women publicly mourning her loss to Obama. It should mortify feminists that Hillary, for her own political purposes, so ruthlessly aroused irrational emotions that make women seem infantile or lunatic, unworthy of the vote.

Hillary leads off my lecture, "Feminism Past and Present: Ideology, Action, and Reform," which has just been published by Arion and was posted last week by Arts & Letters Daily. It was the keynote address of a conference, "The Legacy and Future of Feminism," held at Harvard University in April.

How can Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, epitomize "WASPiness," as you say in your article?

Leawood, KS

Terrific question! One can be WASPy without technically being a WASP -- a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. WASPiness is a genteel American style created by the old Northeastern elite, which the sociologist Digby Baltzell studied in such books as "Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class" (1958) and "The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America" (1964). WASPs, ruling from pastoral country clubs with their restricted membership, once dominated American business, politics and education. But their power rapidly waned after World War II.

I have been at war with WASPiness since I grew up in upstate New York in the 1950s and early '60s. There is no way to describe the brute social power of the WASP establishment of that period -- the smooth, bland, coded good manners; the hidden past interconnections of families and business associations; the mysterious alliance between chic sororities (overpopulated by blondes) and the most prestigious Presbyterian church in town.

College at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the revolutionary mid-1960s was a delicious relief for me. The counterculture was booming amid a fantasia of new influences from psychedelia, African-American blues, London Mod, and Andy Warhol's glittery Factory. And at my college there were so many dynamic, super-articulate, politically activist, and screamingly funny Jewish students from downstate New York that I felt the world had changed forever.

Then I hit graduate school at Yale. Oy! What an exquisitely preserved WASP cosmos that was. Even the Jews behaved like WASPs. It was no coincidence that my dissertation director was the one Jew who refused to adopt the academic WASP style -- Harold Bloom. And they had fired him! (He was later rehired.) I've elsewhere described the ideal manner required at Yale in that era as "walking on eggs at the funeral home." Believe me, as a loud, boisterous Italian-American wearing Mod hip-huggers and purple suede vests, I was lucky to get any kind of teaching job coming out of there -- at Bennington and at the last minute. (But I adored Yale's Sterling Library -- my temple.)

Long story short: The old WASP elite may be gone, but its style lingers and still typifies our central institutions in business and politics. I do feel that Gov. Sebelius embodies the best of that gracious, modulated, civic-minded style and that this is one of several reasons why she would make an excellent vice-presidential candidate for Barack Obama. She would anchor his public image and bring out the true stability at his core. And aside from that, they have an obvious, photogenic chemistry. Obama-Sebelius would be a dazzling pairing. Go for it!

Subject: Facebook Camille: real or imposter?

I recently added as a friend on Facebook.com one "Camille Paglia" with a picture that looks very much like yours. Could you confirm whether this is really you?

Mike Shecket
Guiyang, China

It's an imposter! I do not have a Facebook page or any other space on the Web except for this Salon column. I appreciate your informing me of this matter so that I can alert other Salon readers. I haven't actually looked at the Facebook page and don't intend to. Similarly, it's my longstanding policy to stay completely away from listservs devoted to my ideas. Those are forums for independent debate. Authors shouldn't hover like vultures.

Public figures naturally lose ownership of their image and ideas. I've been on the scene for 18 years now, and it goes with the territory. (So much for the '90s nitwits constantly predicting my 15 minutes would soon be up!) What irritates me more is when I am falsely credited for things I had nothing to do with. For example, this quote attributed to me is ubiquitous on the Web: "Sex at age 90 is like trying to shoot pool with a rope." I never said it, but a veteran comedian like George Burns probably did. Some bumbler at a computer must have mixed up a joke list, and I'll be stuck with that damned thing for eternity!

Subject: "Turning Gay?" ... Really?

I am an avid reader of your Salon columns. However, in your most recent effort, you flippantly employ a stereotype that is not only insulting but patently homophobic. Please refrain from reinforcing this tired notion that has been used repeatedly to justify discrimination (and, far too often, violence) against gay men.

In my entire life I have never once met someone who "turned gay" as a result of dissatisfaction with the opposite gender. Nor have I seen any reliable scientific evidence to suggest that this phenomenon exists anywhere outside the delusions of those who believe homosexual feelings and identity are "treatable."

Donald Solomon
Raleigh, NC

You raise a variety of important issues, for which I thank you. In alluding in my last column to young men "turning gay" in our present climate of banal, mechanistic, faux-sexual femininity, I was speaking from my experience as a social observer as well as a cultural historian of sexuality. I'm sorry if my remarks seemed "flippant," but it must be remembered that my sense of humor was forged by gay men (from Oscar Wilde to "Auntie Mame"). When flippancy goes, the gay world will be a mighty dreary place.

In any area of my work, if what I see conforms to a past stereotype, my conclusion is that the current model of analysis requires reassessment. Surely the truth about human nature must be our ultimate goal. Intimidation of or violence against anyone, gay or straight, of course cannot be tolerated in civil society. But to make so direct a connection (as gay activists persistently did in the '90s) between free inquiry and homophobic oppression is worrisome.

The decision by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders was a major advance in civil liberties. But an unfortunate result, reinforced by the new trend of post-structuralism (which sees human beings as entirely shaped by covert political forces), was the waning of psychological insight into personality formation. There are a myriad of factors at work there that require a nearly novelistic aptitude to detect and dissect.

I have said many times before that I do not believe homosexuality is inborn but that it is an adaptation to specific circumstances and possibilities. What many gay men are remembering as their innate gayness was in fact some other attribute (often an artistic gene) that may have led to a dislocation from roughhousing male bonding. The sex instinct, which comes later, is in my view heavily symbolic among human beings. (Post-structuralism, among its many pathetic flaws, is helpless with symbolism.)

Once the symbolism of erotic attraction is deeply implanted in the brain, it is almost impossible to change it. And in a just society, sexual orientation would not be subject to such pressures anyhow. Everyone, in my strong opinion, has the potential for bisexual response and expression. Hence I think both exclusive heterosexuality and exclusive homosexuality do need to be "explained." I understand the biological imperative of hormones, which drive male and female to mate and reproduce. But why is anyone entirely gay? It seems incontrovertible to me that at root there is indeed a dissatisfaction of some kind with the opposite sex, grounded in early experiences and reinforced in adolescence. There is not a single gay person whom I have known over the course of my life since high school for whom childhood factors played no role whatever in his or her adult choice. And yes, behavior is a choice, even if fantasy and imagination are uncontrollable.

I am happy to see that Brazil has touched you in a significant way. I am Brazilian and live in São Paulo, but my family is from Salvador, so what you wrote struck very close to heart.

I would also like to recommend to you a project that I run and edit online. This is a publication aimed purely at art photography that deals in some way with sexual desire and is not purely pornographic.

For this project I collect a diverse range of images from the Internet, with the authors' permission and collaboration. The central concept is to explore a notion of sexuality that goes beyond issues of gender and sexual preference. The project has attracted contributors from all over the globe, which gives it a very strong international edge.

Currently, we have one issue online, with a second issue to follow soon. This is still a very new and young project, but the response and the feedback have been extremely positive so far, and from all quarters.

Issue #1 (Click on the right side of the images.) Editorial.

Rodrigo Novaes

I was astonished and delighted to see your staggeringly eclectic portfolio of erotic photographs. [WARNING: for adventurous Salon readers only!] This is exactly the explicit vision of bisexual responsiveness that I have been endorsing for my entire public life. It is, in fact, what an honest study of the history of art would and should lead anyone to. I love your exciting global project and send you the very best wishes for it.

As for Salvador, which I visited for the first time in May, I am still trying to process my tumult of ecstatic impressions. Bahia, with all its history and natural beauty, was simply overwhelming. I intend to write more about it (and Daniela Mercury) in my August column.

It has always amazed me how Brazilian music seems to have escaped the broader public attention. For the last three years I have been exploring the incredible variety of musical styles to come from this country. I am always stimulated by the complexity of the rhythms and variety of styles. How refreshing and vibrant compared to the sterile formulaic pop and rock music that comes from the U.S. and U.K.! Alegria (joy) indeed is the heart of the music, rooted in the African traditions. Once again you have hit the nail on the head.

Do your ears a favor! Explore Brazilian pop!

Tom O’Dea
Galway, Ireland

It pleases me greatly to pass your enthusiastic endorsement on to Salon readers. Too many people think new Brazilian music stopped with the relaxed and delicate samba of bossa nova, gorgeous as that was. But there is a hurricane of music going on in Brazil. More on this next month!

Three years ago, I discovered Luciana Avedon's "The Beautiful People's Beauty Book" by chance in a thrift shop (the photo of Verushka on the paperback's cover was too much to resist). Shortly thereafter, I read "Sexual Personae," and was thrilled by your mention of her. I've read Avedon's two other books, "The Beautiful People's Diet Book" and "Luciana Avedon's Body Book" (the latter features stunning Skrebneski photos), with as much delight as I read her first.

I've spent inordinate and fruitless hours searching the Internet, trying to discover what happened to her after the end of the 1970s. Is she alive or dead? Is she now a Tibetan Buddhist monastic? Perhaps she's still in Rome, where she might be experimenting with the latest spa and laser treatments. Has she put on 500 pounds? I'm hoping that you or one of your colleagues or readers can help me out. I adore the woman I encountered on the pages of her books, where she is frank, funny, and unapologetically pro-beauty.

Michael Walter
Seattle, WA

When I saw "Luciana Avedon" in your subject line as I was trudging through hundreds of mostly political e-mails, I went bananas! Thank you so much for a moment of bliss. You are the first person ever to mention Luciana, after I wrote about her strangely somnambulistic Camay soap ads in "Sexual Personae." She was a pioneer of plastic surgery whom I compared to an android hermaphrodite. (In my notes at the back, I quoted her inimitable line, "I was a lump, and everyone knew it," plus her hilarious description of a hospital scene featuring her melodramatic Italian mother.)

I too have tried to track Luciana on the Web. The only clue I found was in the genealogy of the aristocratic Pignatelli family (she was the Princess Pignatelli for a while), which I stumbled on while trying to untangle the dynastic lines of Euro celebs flamboyantly partying in Hola! magazine. (I can find the latter Spanish treasure only in transit at the Miami airport.) If anyone knows more about Luciana's bio, please advise!

Subject: Alfred Hitchcock "The Birds" Barbie Doll

Mark McCormack

OK, this is a royal hoot! A Mattel doll (the image enlarges) of Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in her spring-green suit, with three pecking crows attached to her like sporty fashion accessories. And of course Melanie is toting her iconic purse. A perfect gift for the campy Hitchcock fan.

Speaking of Hitch, Turner Classic Movies ran "Psycho," "Vertigo" and "The Birds" over the Fourth of July weekend. I've watched those films countless times before (and wrote an entire book about the latter), but they remain so mysteriously, hauntingly fresh and new -- the unmistakable sign of true art.

Some naughty person has posted the main movements (Helmuth Rilling version) of Johan Sebastian Bach's BWV 34 cantata on YouTube, including the fifth and final one, "Friede über Israel" ("Peace over Israel"). Some scholars think this work, originally a wedding cantata written decades earlier, was revised and performed in 1746 to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Dresden, ending the Second Silesian War between Prussia and Austria. How come we don't have Peace Treaty music these days?

(Movement 1, and Movement 5. Socks shall be knocked off.)

Eric Fern

Profound thanks for your continued expert contributions to this column. Salon readers at work or play, crank up these Bach interludes and blast away! Anyone who is poking along on tiny, tinny speakers better upgrade and join the party. Small, powerful plug-in speakers are available at reasonable prices. You should be bathing in a fountain of glorious sound! It's transformative and therapeutic (always a plus in the harried U.S.).

I remember some time ago hearing or reading some music "expert" say that the Doors were the greatest American rock band. And at the time I thought that was a bit much, a bit over the top! Hyperbole at its finest. America's greatest rock band? Really?!

But then I started to think: All those great, iconic bands of the sixties and early seventies were all bloody Brits! The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Animals, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, Cream, and on and on and on and including even my forgotten favorite, the Pretty Things. It wasn't just an invasion -- it was invasion and occupation!

The Doors' only real American competition in this most American of art forms was the fair-haired Beach Boys. Jimi Hendrix and the Experience were always perceived as a solo act (and only Jimi was American, I think). So it looks like the Doors win! What's your take on Ray Manzarek, Robbie Kreiger, John Densmore and their vocalist?


Be still, my heart! From the release of their first album in 1967, the Doors were an enormous influence on my thinking about sex, art and culture. I absorbed their early albums like a sponge. I had a glossy black and white photo of the bare-chested, ultra-charismatic Jim Morrison on my wall throughout late college and graduate school. He was truly Byronic!

What infuriated me about Oliver Stone's 1991 movie about the Doors, where Val Kilmer did a creditable job of evoking Morrison's sultry Dionysian trances, was its rude diminishment of the virtuoso instrumentalists in that band. Treating those brilliant players like dorky backups to a superstar was an atrocity. Manzarek's intricate keyboards fused mathematical classical music with improvisational jazz; Densmore's drums were tight and sonorous; Krieger's eerie, floating, Hindu-undulating guitar was ravishingly beautiful.

Morrison was a poet and visionary seer ruined by his own grotesque celebrity. What a robust and unique singing voice he had, roaring and melting by turns. He was certainly sex personified for a shatteringly brief moment. But as rock concerts, due to sheer size, became standardized, Morrison could no longer rely on shamanistic ritual. He had to fake it and hated himself for it. His degeneration and early death in Paris (about which rumors still linger) were a huge cultural loss.

My favorite Doors songs: "Break on Through" is one of my anthems as a culture critic who has tried to shatter perceptual conventions. "The End" is hair-raising rock-theater, a pitiless Oedipal psychodrama that fuses Freud with Jung. "When the Music's Over" is in the darkly prophetic tradition of William Blake. It contains some of my favorite lines from poetry or music: "Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection./ Send my credentials to the House of Detention./ I've got some friends inside." Who needed Michel Foucault when we had Jim Morrison?

Brecht/Weill's dissolute "Alabama Song" (from "Mahagonny") is given deliciously decadent treatment by Morrison and company. I also love "Strange Days," "My Eyes Have Seen You," and "Waiting for the Sun." And Morrison's songs about women have always appealed to me, from the bitingly satirical "Twentieth Century Fox" to his wistful paeans to Pamela Courson, who tragically died three years after him and who can be seen in this video of the lovely "You're Lost, Little Girl" Notable in this group of songs are "Unhappy Girl" and the magically atmospheric "I Can't See Your Face in My Mind."

I know that you are a YouTube enthusiast, so you may have already come across this clip. This is an interview with Madonna circa the "Erotica" era in which the interviewer asks her what she thinks of Camille Paglia. The Camille part starts right at the 6:00 mark.

Ryan Kasten

A day without Madonna is like a day without sunshine! She always makes a tasty valedictory for this column -- especially when she’s knee-deep in tabloid scandals, as right now. Alienated spouses are going off like firecrackers all over the map -- New York, Miami, London, Paris! (And who’s minding the kids? Send in Supernanny!) But Madonna keeps rolling up those mammoth ticket sales, so she's a legit phenom. I'm not sure what her telltale brother has to say in his about-to-pop new book, but what ever happened to Italian clan loyalty?

I do remember having seen that Madonna clip long ago, but I didn’t remember her remarks as being that extensive, nor did I know it was on YouTube. Thanks for the tip! (Love the French subtitles.) I found myself unexpectedly very touched by what Madonna said here, since shortly afterward she began slanging me, and I returned fire and haven't stopped since. To the interviewer's question about me, she replies: "I'm flattered that she thinks of me as a feminist role model . . . Being a sexual being does not cancel out being a feminist. And I agree with that . . . . I'm really glad that she's a fan of mine, and I think she's an important person in culture."

Now if only Madonna had asked my advice about her high-concept, annoyingly metal-clad "Sex" book, which sank like a stone after its first burst of X-rated fanfare . . .

Note: The New York Times Book Review has asked me to contribute a playlist to its Living Music feature, which is posted every Wednesday on its Paper Cuts blog. Mine is scheduled to go online on July 16.

Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

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 askcamille@salon.com.

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