Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
Vintage Books, 1990
(Originally published in The Boston Review, 1992)
Like Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Camille Paglia sets out to tell the history of the world from its earliest beginnings to the present day — from cave art to the Rolling Stones — and envisions it all as a series of transformations.
Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, is ostensibly a book of literary criticism, but Paglia transforms the genre into a spectacular entertainment. She blazes through western literature: 700 pages of sex and violence in living color and wraparound sound, with a cast of thousands, including Coleridge (“Coleridge’s Christabel contains one of the greatest transsexual self-transformations in literature…a pornographic parable of western sex and power.”), William Blake (“Blake’s poetry is sexual grand opera of instability, anguish, and resentment.”), the Marquis de Sade (“For Sade, sex is violence…Sade makes sex a theater of pagan action. He drives a wedge between sex and emotion.”), Emily Dickinson (“Voyeurism, vampirism, necrophilia, lesbianism, sadomasochism, sexual surrealism: Amherst’s Madame de Sade still waits for her readers to know her.“), Shakespeare (“The sea, Dionysian liquid nature, is the master image in Shakespeare’s plays. It is the wave-motion within Shakespearean speech which transfixes the audience even when we don’t understand a word of it.”)
For Paglia, culture is a struggle between Apollo and Dionysus — between Apollonian clarity and Dionysian fluidity, culture and nature, reason and emotion, mind and body, man and woman, and between the male and female aspects of each individual. Sex is central to culture because sex is a return to nature — a surrender to nature’s dark chtonian power.
“Moment by moment, night flickers in the imagination, in eroticism, subverting our strivings for virtue and order, giving an uncanny aura to objects and persons, revealed to us by artists.”
Paglia claims that mythology’s identification of woman with nature is still true.
“Woman’s body is a secret, sacred space…Her sexual maturity means marriage to the moon, waxing and waning in lunar phases…Every woman is a priestess guarding the temenos of daemonic mysteries.”
Culture is a man-made thing, a male defense against female nature. “The male projection of erection and ejaculation is the paradigm for all cultural projection and conceptualization…The Apollonian is a male line drawn against the dehumanizing magnitude of female nature…A man must do battle with that enormity, which resides in woman and nature.” Art combats the formlessness of nature by creating forms. And the central form of western art is the creation of sexual personae — eroticized embodiments of culture’s conflicts and ideals. Paglia presents the history of art as a parade of glamorous sexual personae — Amazons, androgynes, ephebes, male mothers, beautiful boys, vampires and viragos.
In her book, Paglia inveighs against contemporary feminism (“polarized, neurotic, repressive, reactionary, puritanical and phobic”), Ivy League academics (“Ninnies!” “Pedants!” “Tyrants!” “Phonies!” “Sickening opportunists!”), Derrida, Foucault and Lacan (“French rot! Gibberish!”) and identifies with the 60’s (“I am the sixties come back to haunt the present!”),” Emily Dickinson (“She never swerved from her vision of her own voice”), and Madonna (“a real feminist, a poet of sexual personae”).
Moving freely across time — she makes connections between Artemis and Katherine Hepburn, William Blake and the Doors, Byron and Elvis Presley — Paglia sees art as a battlefield where ancient wars are fought, a theater where archaic rituals are re-enacted. “Poetry is the connecting link between body and mind. Every idea in poetry is grounded in emotion. Every word is a palpation of the body.”
Paglia makes you feel that art and literature are alive. Her language is rapid, rhythmic, lucid, lyrical, sensational, lurid, punchy, poetic, hypnotic, and bold. Even her most outrageous statements are grounded in the passionate but disciplined energy of her prose. As she says of Shakespeare, its wave-motions transfix you, even when you don’t understand it.
That’s just the point. Paglia makes you understand that you can’t understand everything. She respects the ancient, undiminished mysteries of sex and art, and her book is a heroic, impassioned striving for the full complexity of human life. No one could possibly agree (or disagree) with every single thing in Sexual Personae. It’s a book to experience — a vivid and imaginative work of art.
My Interview with Camille Paglia
I imagined Camille Paglia as a Wagnerian Valkyrie crashing through the stately groves of academe. When I interviewed her at in Herbert Golder‘s office at Arion, the classics journal at Boston University where she recently published an article calling for sweeping reforms of the American educational system, including mandatory teaching of Black music and dance (“that ancient sacred ritual”), I was not disappointed.
She is small and wiry, strong-boned, sedately dressed, with big, luminous, sea-green eyes. Her voice is like the ocean: wave upon wave of words, words, words. In our interview, I would suggest a topic, and she would respond, instantly, with a barrage of images, ideas, and words, talking, talking, talking, loud, and clear, in her own inimitable voice, issuing pronouncements in a unique personal style that’s a combination of Delphic Oracle and stand-up comic, Laurie Anderson and Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers and Joan of Arc, Oprah and Opera.
For once in my life, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I just sat there, spellbound, in the Arion office, surrounded by posters of ancient Greek gods, scribbling madly in my Reporter’s Notebook, writing it all down.
“I’m a knight errant wandering alone through the landscape, finding evil-doers and dragons to slay, storming the castle, rescuing the damsel in distress, surviving tests of the spirit as well as of strength. I’m a spiritual quester, like a samurai or a ninja. I’m always perfecting myself, physically and spiritually — preparing and preparing and preparing.”
“I want to save feminism from the feminists! Feminists deny the power of woman — her full sensual vitality. It is so wrong to teach young women that they are victims and that their whole history is one of victimization. Women are the center of the universe! Women are seductive, alien, and inconquerable! They inspire men with fear and awe of their mystic command of the universe.”
” You have to read to expand your imagination! To open up brain cells you didn’t even know you had! World consciousness! The life of the mind! Ideas are alive! Ideas are the embodied consciousness of the human race!”
“I am in love with beauty! I’m a pagan Italian Catholic! My responsiveness to beauty comes from the art gene in Italians! Helen of Troy — what an image of the power of beauty! Beauty is an eternal human value!”
“My number one priority in my life is the constant recording of my flashes. I never let anything go. If I have an idea, I get it down immediately. I never let it go. It’s an attitude of total observation, sensory observation of the world without any attempt to form it. I try to keep my mind totally free, absolutely blank, like in Zen the mind as a still pond open to the messages of the universe. Later, I transfer my flashes onto note cards. Eventually I have thousands of notes. I sort and read, sort and read, take notes on the notes, and go over it again and again until I discover the connections, find the order. I prepare and prepare and prepare. Then, I write.”
“To me, writing is muscular. It’s physical. My paragraphs are like blocks — the blocks of Egypt. I’m an aesthete! My writing is musical! It will be sweet and lyrical and seductive, then harsh, then go back to being lyrical. General readers are able to read the book because they let it wash over them like music. You must hear it! You can’t agree or disagree — — you have to feel the flow of thought!”
“My total solitude — my celibacy — my ability to be alone. My space is my imaginative space. I feel like in a starship, monitoring the universe. I watch TV. I listen to the radio, talk shows. I fell like I’m very tuned in to what’s going on everywhere. I’m an Aries, so I have always had this bounding self-confidence. I’ve survived all the efforts of society to train me into a civilized human being! From the very beginning, my only aim was the full development of my full creative potential as a woman! Most women have failed at this. Most women get distracted when their husbands or their lovers or their children or their parents say: You should be there for me. My sense of vocation. My ability to say no — NO! — to everyone. NO! To every human person. I’m not good at relationships. But hey — I’m living with the most interesting woman in the world!”
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com