Sexual Personae — Camille Paglia

It is shocking to me that I have gone for my entire adult life without anyone recommending Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. The book is marvelously full of ideas, making it easy to find ludicrous assertions next to brilliant ones. Rarely have I read a book so full of life yet with so much that is wrong. For example she writes that “Female tragic protagonists are rare. Tragedy is a male paradigm of rise and fall, a graph in which dramatic and sexual climax are shadowy analogy.” The analogy might be “shadowy,” but it is also strained and dubious: there is no reason why sexuality has to be connected to tragedy. But Pagilia also writes from a different underlying philosophical perspective than most of her academic peers:

This book takes the point of view of Sade, the most unread major writer in Western literature. Sade’s work is a comprehensive satiric critique of Rousseau, written in the decade after the first failed Rousseauist experiment, the French Revolution, which ended not in political paradise but the Reign of Terror. [. . .] For Sade, getting back to nature [. . .] would be to give free rein to violence and lust. I agree. Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check.

sexual_personaeYet few modern sophisticates realize as much. Some contemporary fiction reflects the Paglian-Sadean view—Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a sterling example—but for the most part it is absent. This passage is also admirable for being comprehensible; compare it to, for example, the passage quotes in “What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?
Paglia has an important virtue not common to contemporary English professors: she writes clearly and therefore what she says can be evaluated.

The excerpt above is included to give a flavor for Paglia’s writing, but Sexual Personae is impossible to effectively excerpt from, since the book moves from analyses of ancient times up to the late 19th Century, and although common threads bind various sections together it is easy to lose sight of how exactly someone like, say, Emily Dickinson is related to Goethe. I can’t imagine many people will read or want to read the whole book from beginning to end; it covers a fabulous number of artists and periods, and for me the 19th Century and Romantic artists were the least interesting, though you may of course differ. The long introduction and the strongest chapters more than make up for the weakest ones. Even if I had or wanted to develop the knowledge necessary to write such a book I doubt I’d be able to sustain sufficient interest.

Contemporary humanities scholarship has become too focused on pedantry and minutia at the expense of being interesting. Perhaps humanities scholarship has always been like this but the problems are especially evident in an era when relatively few scholars appear to even believe that such a thing as “good writing” can exist. Still, I would like to see a stronger emphasis on “being interesting” and personal experience in most humanities journals. In talking with English professors at conferences about Harold Bloom, I’m struck by their high, level of hostility.

Not all sections are equally strong; the sections on Shakespeare, Sade, and Spencer are amazing, but the closer Paglia draws to the present the less plausible her interpretations become. But her attention to myth, to pattern, and to the ways art and life draw on each other excuse other flaws, which may be the flipside of strengths. As noted above, however, the number of fascinating moments is high:

Theatrical self-transformation, a seductive principle of our time, can never be reconciled with our time. From antiquity on, professional theater has been under a moral cloud. Autocrat, artist, actor: freedom of persona is magical but destabilizing. [. . .] Art remains an avenue of escape from morality. Actors live in illusions; they are skittish shamans, drenched in being.

and one senses that Sexual Personae is a virtuosic display that needs more attention. Hence this post.

One response

  1. They say that genius is distinguished not by having only good ideas, but by having a huge amount of ideas in general. That seems to apply to Paglia. Personally, I love her scathing critiques of extremist feminism. It’s always wonderful to watch a brilliant person express their ideas against the grain and be totally unafraid of the consequences.


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