News & Politics » Essay

Reading: Tales of Two Narcissists

Norman Schwarzkopf and Camille Paglia demonstrate how the radical visions of the 60s can become their reactionary opposites.

by

comment

As much as we all hate to admit it, the central battles of American culture today still revolve around the legacy and symbolism of the 60s. The detritus of that decade is everywhere, from the omnipresent blarings of "classic rock" radio stations to the god-awful trolls that are this year's latest nostalgia craze. But the effect of the decade on our culture is far more profound and pervasive than such trivia might make it appear. Even the most fervid critics of the counterculture evoke the 60s; when Marilyn Quayle launched her Republican convention attack on modern hedonism, she did so, as she put it, as a "boomer," a perpetually square representative of the over-the-counter culture. And the gulf war, as much a war about the post-60s Vietnam syndrome as it was a war against Iraq, promised the kind of psychic renewal the 60s counterculture sought through peace.

Yet the 60s legacy is looking frayed. The signal contribution of that era's politics--the idea, profound and simple, that the personal is political--has been reduced to an apolitical narcissism. "After the political turmoil of the sixties," cultural critic Christopher Lasch wrote in 1979, "Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly-dancing." Change "belly-dancing" to aerobics, "health food" to "Healthy Choice" and you have a description of the 90s. We're beginning, one might argue, the third "me decade" in a row.

There's nothing wrong with self-improvement of course, but too often self-improvement regresses to self-absorption or, at the other end of the spectrum, self-blame--the idea that individuals are personally responsible for the problems of society. The therapy rhetoric that suffuses political life today is worse than useless. At a time when we could use some real class warfare--directed, for once, from the bottom up--our president-to-be speaks of healing and consensus. Gloria Steinem turns away from basic feminist insights to insipid new-age platitudes about self-esteem. Those who are poor are blamed for their alleged psychological defects: they suffer not from oppression or unemployment, the pundits tell us, but from their codependent attachment to welfare. Whatever happened to the notion of changing the world? (For the better, I mean.)

Anyone wanting to understand the strange fate of the 60s legacy in contemporary America might do well to peruse two books now weighing down the shelves in local bookstores: H. Norman Schwarzkopf's It Doesn't Take a Hero and Camille Paglia's collection of essays Sex, Art, and American Culture. Both are hasty productions, scraped together to take advantage of the possibly momentary fame and notoriety Stormin' Norman and Stormin' Camille gained a year ago. Beyond this, the two books seem to have little in common. Schwarzkopf's book is a massive tome (written "with" Peter Petre, and a lot of help from a tape recorder) filled with anecdotes to warm the heart of any armchair general. Paglia's slender collection of essays, lecture notes, and interviews includes, it seems, everything she's written but her laundry list, though the accumulation barely makes it to a respectable book length. This is not an autobiography, though it might as well be. Paglia talks more about herself than she does about any of her ostensible subjects.

Yet below their surface dissimilarities, the two books have a great deal in common. Both, in their own ways, demonstrate how the radical visions of the 60s can become their reactionary opposites. Neither book is great or even good. But each is important because it reveals symptoms of our current cultural impasse.

Camille Paglia first won fame a year or so ago as an outspoken and often outrageous media persona. She was a walking, talking contradiction: a postfeminist, antifeminist feminist; an academic who hated academia and nattered away on talk shows like an overenthusiastic teenager; a lesbian who hated lesbians; a near celibate who loved pornography; an art historian who loved Madonna; a woman who thought rapists should be lynched but who dismissed the idea of date rape as a self-indulgent fantasy of spoiled rich college girls. Her new book, a transparent attempt to cash in on her notoriety, is not so much a collection of essays as the scrapbook of Paglia's number-one fan--herself. The book contains not only essays, book reviews, and lecture notes, but also a "media history" of Paglia's rise to fame after the publication of her book Sexual Personae in 1990, cartoons about her, interviews with (and mostly about) her, and an annotated bibliography of essays about her. (It's got everything but a pull-out pinup.) Paglia claims, in her typically grandiose manner, that she represents the 60s generation--or, as she melodramatically puts it, "I am the Sixties come back to haunt the present. . . . What I represent is the essence of the Sixties."

Certainly she represents the narcissism of the 60s taken to its logical (and sometimes illogical) extreme--her new book is perhaps the most narcissistic book I've ever read. Paglia finds it hard to discuss any subject at all without throwing in a reference to herself and her life history every sentence or two. This is not an impressionistic observation on my part; it's possible, though I doubt the free-thinking, intuitive Paglia would approve, to measure her narcissism statistically. Her MIT lecture on the "Crisis in the American Universities" contains 672 references to her in less than 50 pages. (If my math holds, that's one "I," "me," or "my" for every 27 words, or nearly 4 percent of the total. It Doesn't Take a Hero, which is an autobiography, contains one "I," "me," or "my" for every 60 words or so.) A short Paglia tribute to Milton Kessler, a former teacher of hers, contains 89 references to Paglia and only 73 to its ostensible subject.

Paglia's narcissism extends far beyond her preference for her own personal pronoun. Her entire philosophy is based on a kind of Darwinist feminism; she calls it "Amelia Earhart feminism," but in many ways her ideas (if you ignore her Dionysian celebration of irrationality) more closely resemble the ruthless and deliberate selfishness of Ayn Rand. She does, for the record, consider herself a feminist; more than this, she often claims to have been the very first one: "I was an Amazon, an Amazon, when I was very young. I mean, I was just so-- People remember this. I mean, before feminism was, Paglia was!" For her the real feminists are those women who stand up for themselves, damn the consequences, and don't whine when things go wrong. It's not a terribly, well, nuanced position, and when she extends this philosophy into the realm of sexuality she arrives at some pretty monstrous conclusions. To her, date rape seems like a sissy idea. "The minute you go out with a man, the minute you go to a bar to have a drink, there is a risk. You have to accept that part of the sizzle of sex comes from the danger of sex," she told one interviewer. "The girl in the Kennedy rape case is an idiot. You go back to the Kennedy compound late at night and you're surprised at what happens? She's the one who should be charged--with ignorance. Because everyone knows that Kennedy is spelled S-E-X. Give me a break, this is not rape." She calls the "battered-woman motif" one more middle-class delusion: "Everyone knows throughout the world that many of these working-class relationships where women get beat up have hot sex." You pays your money, you takes your chances.

Paglia sees herself, obviously, as self-aware. But real self-awareness implies an empathy for others, something Paglia utterly lacks. She has never been raped or assaulted, which makes one wonder if the horrors of the experience would cause her to reconsider her views. Probably not. I suspect she would take the venom she now applies to date-rape victims and apply it to herself. Those who forever blame the victim often blame themselves when they're victimized. Darwinism, like Paglia herself, is a harsh mistress.

When Paglia moves away from Darwinism to Dionysianism her pronouncements become even more bizarre and self-absorbed. Race relations? "I'm very loud. . . . This is why I usually get along with African-Americans. I mean, when we're together, 'Whooo!'" Astrology? "I'm an Aries. What do you think? Bette Davis, Joan Crawford--please!" Contemporary critical theory? "The French school, tickling its own buttocks, is in a state of dementia. . . . My idol is Keith Richards. . . . The thunderous power chords of hard rock smash the dreary little world of French theory." The standards of art? "Classicism trains the eye. . . . I myself think Auntie Mame the best novel since World War Two." She has no sense of shame.

If Paglia represents a narcissism that's personal (her awareness and empathy stop at the boundaries of her own inflated ego) Norman Schwarzkopf represents a narcissism that might be called social (his awareness and empathy, like those of many Americans, stop at the boundaries of our own country). While World War II has often been called "the Good War," our excursion into the Persian Gulf might well be called the "feel-good war." It "brought Americans together" as it tore Iraqis limb from limb, a great (if temporary) psychic victory for a disillusioned America. It was a perfect war for a narcissistic culture, and General Schwarzkopf is its perfect symbol.

Once upon a time generals--MacArthur, Patton, Westmoreland --were as grizzled and nasty as war itself. General Patton in particular was known for his love of violence and his unstoppable profanity. "Some of our generals . . . have developed a sly ability to simulate human beings," pacifist Dwight Macdonald wryly noted in 1944. "But Patton always behaves as a general should. . . . He writes bloodcurdling poetry apostrophizing the God of Battles. He slaps shell-shocked soldiers and curses them for cowards. When Italian mules obstruct the progress of his staff car, he has them executed on the spot." In short, Patton reminded the world that war was hell, and that any general who took real pleasure in his job was bound to be only a few small steps from psychosis. "A few more such generals and admirals," Macdonald wrote hopefully, "and militarism will be a dead issue in this country."

Today the military is far more sophisticated than it was in Patton's day. It recognizes that the battle for "hearts and minds"--in this country if not in those of our adversaries--is as essential for wartime success as missiles and guns. Americans don't like bloody, murky wars, and they don't like military figures who remind them of war's essential inhumanity. Our military leaders today--at least those in the public eye--are a far cry from the arrogant psycho killers of the past; they exude both technological competence and a grizzled warmth. The best among them--the best, that is, at making sure militarism remains alive and kicking--seem to embody a quiet, civilized sensitivity; they make bloody wars seem clean, decent, even wholesome. Norman Schwarzkopf may be the epitome of this new kind of military man.

In the euphoric upsurge after the end of Desert Storm Schwarzkopf was hailed by the media as a man as much in touch with his feelings as he was with his military hardware, a gruff-but-lovable father figure in camouflage; though apparently untouched by the counterculture of the 60s, he had adopted the mantle of the new-age man. "'The Bear' was part teddy, part grizzly," wrote Joshua Hammer in Newsweek, "chewing out persistent reporters one moment and consoling a terrified grunt the next." Columnist Ellen Goodman seemed to have a bit of a crush on the general who could bring an almost feminine, almost feminist sensitivity to the art of killing. Schwarzkopf, she gushed, "is on speaking terms with his emotions, willing to express his fears, but not paralyzed by them. Someone who isn't afraid of violence, but doesn't like it. An Army man who calls war 'a profane thing.'"

Goodman might like her hero's new autobiography, in which the teddy bear is as much on display as the grizzly. In the issue of Newsweek featuring excerpts of his memoir, "the Bear" appeared in one photograph sitting on his bed, surrounded by camouflage teddy bears, wearing Birkenstock sandals. Like any good celebrity, Stormin' Norman puts his feelings, and what he has in the way of sensitivity, constantly on display. He dedicates his book not to the God of Battles but to "my family and my troops." And he begins with a personal confession of sorts. His original goal, he says, was to write a book like the memoirs of General Grant, a powerful and austere military history of the Civil War. But writing (or dictating) the book "turned out to be a more personal process than I'd bargained for, and the following pages contain more emotion than their nineteenth-century model." Schwarzkopf was taught, he says, to always hide his feelings. But as the reader plows through the book, gosh darn it, those feelings just keep bursting out.

Norman's childhood was not altogether happy, and he makes sure we know it. His father was off in Iran (arranging the coup that put the shah in power, a fact not remarked on in the book), and his mother was an alcoholic. The young boy often felt himself overcome with "anger . . . fear . . . helplessness. I simply retreated. . . . Deep inside me was a place where I would withdraw when things were unhappy at home." Despite the pathos of his family life, Norman found time to indulge his sensitive side at an early age, joining the choir, writing poetry, and even attending dancing school (he says he went to meet "pretty girls"). Though he "imagined [himself] to be a mighty hunter," the future general didn't have much taste for bloodshed. After catching a chipmunk in a little trap--"scared to death and squeaking like crazy"--Norman was overcome with pity and remorse. "I immediately let him go and felt ashamed that I'd taken away his freedom even for the short time that I had. Compassion always got the better of my predatory instinct." That darn compassion! As a teenager--a budding "hood"--Norman was as cute as a chipmunk; his "hood" nickname was "Cuddles." At West Point he tried harder to be a "fierce warrior" but was again overcome by his sensitivity. After one of his buddies demonstrated his survival skills in class by drowning and skinning a rabbit, Norman, along with the rest of the class, refused to test his skills with the remaining rabbits. "Nobody," Schwarzkopf remembers, "was going to drown innocent bunnies!" Through his kindness the bunnies lived. Later in his career he extended the same kind of patronizing sympathy to the American allies in Vietnam.

When it comes to the gulf war we're treated once again to Norman the Teddy Bear, reprinting homey diary entries about brownies he received from his wife and the entire text of a loving letter to his wife and children. We also hear a great deal about homecoming hugs. But when he turns to military matters his heart hardens. He rushes past the destructive gulf-war bombing campaign, oblivious to the human carnage he so expertly oversaw. He offers a more detailed, though altogether sanitized, account of the ground war. When he briefly discusses the "highway of death" on which tens of thousands of fleeing Iraqi conscript soldiers died, he blithely evades responsibility for his actions, treating the episode as only a problem in public relations. "Most [Iraqis] had jumped out of their vehicles and run away. I felt irritated--Washington was ready to overreact, as usual, to the slightest ripple in public opinion." This is a terribly dishonest way to describe what after all was a massacre. (It's hard to know how Schwarzkopf could even make such a statement: journalist Joyce Chediac reported only a handful of survivors, pointing out that "the cabs of trucks were bombed so much that they were pushed into the ground, and it's impossible to see if they contained drivers or not.") But narcissists aren't interested in truth; the world is little more than a projection of their desires. Schwarzkopf, like many Americans, wanted an antiseptic war; as far as he was concerned, that was what he got.

Both Schwarzkopf and Paglia talk a lot about responsibility, but neither one shows much of it. At its best the counterculture of the 60s helped Americans look not only inward but outward, to understand responsibility in its broadest, social sense. How sad that we've inherited so little of the grandeur of the 60s and so much of its pathos. It doesn't say much for America that for many these two seem to represent, even if only for a moment, answers to the serious questions raised a quarter century ago.

It Doesn't Take a Hero, by H. Norman Schwarzkopf with Peter Petre, Bantam Books, $25

Sex, Art, and American Culture, by Camille Paglia, Vintage Books, $13.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Steve Mendelson.

Add a comment