From ancient Egypt through the nineteenth century, Sexual Personae explores the provocative connections between art and pagan ritual; between Emily Dickinson and the Marquis de Sade; between Lord Byron and Elvis Presley. It ultimately challenges the cultural assumptions of both conservatives and traditional liberals. 47 photographs.
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really liked it
Few books have roused in me the same mixture of confusion and stimulation as this bizarre doorstop of passionate, un-PC artistic engagement. Paglia, as an iconoclastic feminist who hates feminism, might have been co-opted by the right in the way that, say, Christina Hoff Sommers was co-opted; but this fate was precluded by her conservative-repellant persona of pro-drug, porn-mad lesbianism. So, unclaimed and unwanted by any special interest groups, she relishes her position as a universal provoc
Those who can’t see past her gender politics – this is a populous group, as you’ll see from other reviews – are missing out on a lot of remarkable readings here, which can be genuinely radical in a way that ‘orthodox’ gender theory so often isn’t. But seeing that far does require some heavy squinting (abandon metaphor!) for anyone who finds gender essentialism deeply irritating, as I tend to. ‘Let us abandon the pretense of sexual sameness and admit the terrible duality of gender,’ she coaxes. Given her own lifestyle, she seems a unlikely cheerleader for the concept. But for Paglia this gender duality is mythic, archetypal: men stand for rationality and society, while women are in league with the dangerous natural world, that ‘fetid organic life that Wordsworth taught us to call pretty.’ She follows this logic to some eyebrow-raising conclusions:
The historic repugnance to women has a rational basis: disgust is reason’s proper response to the grossness of procreative nature.
For the first couple of hundred pages, I went back and forth on whether I thought that she really believed this stuff. Sometimes she seems to be talking about the psychological concepts of MAN and WOMAN, but at other times she seems to mean plain old real-life men and women. As a man, one reads passages like the following not so much in appreciation as in shock, so rarely is this kind of thing now met with:
We could make an epic catalog of male achievements, from paved roads, indoor plumbing, and washing machines to eyeglasses, antibiotics, and disposable diapers. We enjoy fresh, safe milk and meat, and vegetables and tropical fruits heaped in snowbound cities. When I cross the George Washington Bridge or any of America’s great bridges, I think: men have done this. Construction is a sublime male poetry. When I see a giant crane passing on a flatbed truck, I pause in awe and reverence, as one would for a church procession. What power of conception, what grandiosity: these cranes tie us to ancient Egypt, where monumental architecture was first imagined and achieved. If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.
This goes both ways – whence her famous pronouncement, also from Sexual Personae, that ‘There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper’. Exceptions to all of Paglia’s edicts (Hadrian in his review talks of ‘her many broad Nietzschean ukases’, which is perfect) spring readily to mind, but they don’t seem to damage her theories. She considers women like Myra Hindley or Emily Dickinson not to be challenging the limits of their gender but rather to be exhibiting, in their different ways, a kind of hermaphrodism.
The argument seems circular. But to read Paglia, you have to be pragmatic. Forget about whether she’s a visionary or a monster, and ask instead: does this approach open up new and productive ways to see the works of literature and art she’s discussing? In my case, the answer was a sporadic but resounding ‘yes’. It will be impossible, now, to read The Faerie Queene without being overwhelmed by visions of Paglia’s Spenserian enclosed garden, ‘slippery with onanistic spillage’; nor will I ever read Emily Dickinson in the same way having succumbed to the convincing portrait of her here as ‘the female Sade’, whose poems are ‘the prison dreams of a self-incarcerated, sadomasochistic imaginist’.
By turns enthralled and annoyed, I never stopped being forced to look at stuff I thought I knew in ways that I had never considered. Take Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’, for instance, a lyric I had previously thought of as pretty insubstantial fare:
I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.
Paglia calls this ‘sadomasochistic’! Her argument – that focusing on a baby’s innocence heightens your awareness of its vulnerability in various interesting ways – might be argued with, but it completely changed the way I see the poem. At other times, casting around for connections, she doesn’t hesitate to pluck examples from pop culture in a manner that can take your breath away. Simeon Solomon’s Until the Day Breaks (1869):
In this ‘androgynous brother and sister’, Paglia sees an anticipation of ‘Jean Cocteau’s homoerotic ephebes’, which is fair enough and had me thinking already. But then she goes on to suggest that ‘their dreamy incestuous intimacy is learnedly reproduced in Madonna’s superb peep-show video, “Open Your Heart” (1986)’—
—a link that would occur to few other critics, and is unlikely to have been committed to paper by anyone else! It is mad but, somehow, weirdly mind-expanding.
Often, to be sure, her judgements strike you as nonsensical. Her staccato sentences and florid imagery combine to form bizarre, other-worldly epigrams: so pity in Henry James is ‘a grisly fleur du mal of phallic elasticity’; Hester’s breasts in The Scarlet Letter are called ‘sacs of engorged significance’; compound German nouns are described orgiastically as ‘spawning prefixes and suffixes and hyphenated by dildos’. These rococo phrases come at you scatter-gun style, one after the other, in disconnected leaps of illogic that can be wearying. (Bryan Appleyard, interviewing Paglia for a magazine, talked about ‘scrabbling for purchase on the baroque cliff face of her mind’.) Often, her argument rests only on an assertion she herself made previously, so that the effect is like someone in a Looney Tunes cartoon crossing a chasm on a bridge they’re dismantling behind them to assemble in front. The overall impression is not so much of an argument mounting from one example to another in cumulative force, but rather a crazed, proliferating web of connections leaping from one creative artist to another, metastasising unpredictably across time and space. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; but when it does, the effect is exhilarating.
What I found especially wonderful was not so much her ideas about sex in terms of gender roles, but rather sex in terms of arousal, desire, objectification, fantasy. I am someone who believes, with Klimt, that ‘Alle Kunst ist erotisch’, and have tried ham-fistedly to make this argument in several below-the-line discussions here on Goodreads. In Camille Paglia I have now found my high priestess. ‘Sex is poetry; poetry is sex,’ she says. And, ‘Emotion without eroticism is impossible.’ And especially, ‘Pornography cannot be separated from art; the two interpenetrate each other, far more than humanistic criticism has admitted.’ This is something she shows again and again in places where I would certainly fear to tread.
Despite the longueurs, despite all the phallic and vulval non-sequiturs, despite the sense of cocaine-fuelled ’80s logorrhoea – despite all that, what Sexual Personae really brings is something that is too often missing from criticism. Enthusiasm! Camille Paglia may be mad, but she is absolutely passionate. She talks about decadent literature or symbolist painting not like it’s an academic exercise, but like it’s a matter of life or death. For some people, it is. And though I spent a lot of time shouting objections at the page, I have never been sent back to my bookshelves as often or as frantically as I was while I was reading this bonkers, hormonal dissertation.