Camille Paglia

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

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