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October 16, 1997

One Day in Metropolis

A little more than half a century ago, the gods decreed that the Amazons of Paradise Isle should "send a champion out into the world...an emissary in the causes of peace and justice." The only child of Queen Hippolyte was selected. And so Wonder Woman --- beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger than Hercules, swifter than Mercury --- appeared on American shores, assuming the guise of Diana Prince.

This new superheroine battled the forces of evil so successfully that, a few years later, the denizens of Olympus demanded the services of a second warrior. Another Amazon was selected. And so Camille Paglia --- counselor to the culturally disgruntled --- appeared on American shores, assuming the guise of a fin de siècle intellectual.

Over the ensuing years, the two women rarely met. However, the following exchange may have appeared recently in the pages of Salon Magazine, occasioned by a question from a reader:

Dear All-Comprehending Camille,

How do you interpret the events surrounding John Denver's death? I have watched with astonishment as his bereaved benighted fans strewed the Monterey beach with flowers much as London mourners displayed their affection for Lady Diana outside Kensington Palace. Do you think as I do that Americans are seizing on an event with obvious similarities (a blond victim known for devotion to public causes, the mysterious crash of a fast-moving vehicle, the suspicious role of alcohol in the accident) and using ritualized repetition to ease the pain of Diana's loss. Or is this simply a case of farce following tragedy?

/signed/ Desperately Seeking Enlightenment

Dear Desperately,

As my mentors in the Cambridge School of Anthropology have made amply clear, although death rituals vary widely throughout the world, cross-fertilization has introduced many similar practices. Because of their common cultural heritage, it is likely that the British and Americans would adopt many of the same mourning customs.

I personally think, however, that we should focus on the object rather than the mode of the mourning. Princess Diana was a genuine butch-princess whose death devastated everyone on earth within reach of a television or newspaper (I myself could not turn off my TV set for days). John Denver was an aging folksinger whose popularity and media coverage had waned long ago. That Americans responded to his death with outpourings of grief demonstrates what I have argued for years, that their once red-blooded passion for fully lived sexuality has been diluted to pale lavender.

Where Diana the huntress (as I have styled her) strode resolutely across the earth in pursuit of what she wanted, John Denver stood for indeterminacy. His very voice was that of a man-boy, neither masculine nor feminine. Dragged from country to country in his youth by an Air Force officer father, as an adult he rejected that father's very name (Deutschendorf) with its German-village overtones, perhaps seeking the bosom of a nurturing mother in the breast-like peaks surrounding Denver, Colorado. As a father himself, this man with two surnames clearly identified with his double-named daughters Jessie Belle and Anna Kate, while his son Zachery was left to his own solitary devices. A perpetual Peter Pan (similar to the character portrayed by Robin Williams in the 1991 movie Hook ), in the end his weakened male nerve snapped and he, like many other American men, lost the power to fly.

/signed/ Shooting the Sun, Camille

Dear Cousin Camille,

Spare me this paddling around in the shallow waters of tabloid psychodrivel! You are not the first educated person to discover popular culture; academia is full of PhD's studying slasher movies and punk rockers. Your world, viewed through the lenses of MTV and Star, is at least as out of touch with life as lived in the United States as any of the "condescending stereotypes of proletarian victimhood" that you see propounded by the American left.

 As an Amazon, you were trained to dive deeper, into the waters of insight. You might have suggested that John Denver represented the new environmentalism, a movement that has engaged the enthusiasm of "your" baby-boom generation, not as part of an Iron John pilgrimage of macho self-discovery but as a return to a primordial constituent of both men and women. Even the Foucault-seduced post-structuralists whom you despise are finding themselves forced literally to ground their studies as they face a powerful invasion by ecoliterary critics.

As an Amazon, you were trained to soar over pettiness and search out true significance. You might have looked past the out-of-date haircut and the out-of-fashion singing style to the genuine sense of place and relationship that Denver brought to an increasingly rootless, alienated society. You might have mentioned the moments of ordinary quiet his music provided in the midst of day-to-day cacophony. You might have noted that he died in an area he loved, doing what pleasured him. In generosity, you might have let Confucius pronounce his epitaph: A wise person delights in water; a humane person delights in mountains.

As an Amazon, you learned that philosophy, like technology, inevitably acquires moral value as it is used in real life. Yet you have spilled your intellectual seed on the ground in a kind of verbal onanism that, like its sexual counterpart, is sinful only because it is unproductive. Great Hera, I'm baffled. If you are as intelligent and well-schooled as your reputation suggests, why do you waste your time peddling trivia? Or do your actions reflect your actual capacities?

Face it, girl, you've failed in your mission. It's time for you to shazam into the sunset with your false superhero friends Captain Amoral de Sade, Friedrich "Superman" Nietzsche, and Spidermund Freud and let a real woman clean up the mess your verbal pollution has made.

No, on second thought, let's just file your escapades under S, for "So What."

/signed/ The Original Princess Diana

-- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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