Paglia’s slicing analysis cuts to the core of the sexual politics of much of Western literature, too often buried in over-theoretical reading practices, and brings out neglected decadent and subversive elements
For a quarter of a century, ever since the publication of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson in 1990, Camille Paglia has remained one of America’s most celebrated and controversial cultural critics. Part manifesto, part art history and part literary theory, her book is astonishingly ambitious in its attempt to “demonstrate the unity and continuity of western culture”, seen as a constant struggle between Dionysian destructive and lustful energies and Apollonian ordered impulses. Despite its broadly chronological approach, the work is also notable for its striking juxtapositions of old and new, highbrow and lowbrow, with references to Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna even before the end of the chapter on ancient Egypt.
Sexual Personae has been widely condemned by Paglia’s fellow academics for its refusal to engage with earlier critics, its hectoring tone, its vicious sideswipes against people the author disagrees with and its numerous inaccuracies. But although Paglia’s detractors undoubtedly make some valid points, many of us nonetheless regard Sexual Personae as a “cultural bible”, which we continue to draw on in our own writing. So what is it about this elephantine book that has stood the test of time and leads this writer to keep a copy close to hand on his desk?
Take the illuminating reading that Paglia offers of the notorious Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). His novels are full of explicit sadism, masochism, slavery and depraved sex acts, yet Paglia argues that he can best be understood as a satirist, engaging directly with Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that society corrupted humankind’s innate goodness and morality. Sade wrote two of his central works, Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (1791) and Juliette (1797), after the French Revolution, either side of the “Reign of Terror” that so bloodily disproved Rousseau’s vision.
More than that, however, Paglia is Sade’s fiercest defender, adamant that he must be included in all academic studies of Western literature, and that his “absence…illustrates the timidity and hypocrisy of the liberal humanities”. I believe she is unquestionably right here but has gone largely unheard. In my own literary studies, Sade was treated with distance and distrust. My only encounter with him occurred while I was studying the French Revolution, and even then his writings were mostly ignored, treated as symptoms of the devastation wrought by the violent political turmoil.
Yet, as I surreptitiously leafed through his gruesome vignettes about incest and torture later in the library, I was afforded a glimpse into the working mind of this “unspeakable” iconoclast. Paglia claims that “violence is the authentic spirit of mother nature” and that for Sade “sex is violence”; thus he becomes for her “one of the great forgers of absolutist western identity”. His work offers unparalleled insights into the cruel depths of human nature through violent, confrontational and previously uncharted explorations of sex and power.
There is a similar thread in the treatment of the writer Paglia calls “Amherst’s Madame de Sade”, Emily Dickinson (1830-86).
Now one of the most studied of American poets, Dickinson has often been timidly interpreted in terms of languid and passive Victorian femininity, or as a writer with an unhealthy obsession with death. Paglia will have none of this. Pronouncing Dickinson the female “de Sade”, she is determined to accentuate the sadism evident in Dickinson’s best poetry and to reconfigure the stigmatising “mad woman” image that is often erroneously attributed to her. Her poems, we read, are characterised by their “diabolical acts” and echoes of a “torture chamber…[an] arena of extremity”. Dickinson herself is provocatively described as “like the homosexual cultist draping himself in black leather and chains to bring the idea of masculinity into aggressive visibility”.
There is a great deal of pleasure to be found in Paglia’s analysis, which exposes the power of Dickinson’s words as though they were sharp-edged daggers piercing the reader. Take the first stanza of XCII in her Collected Poems:
Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise.
Three times, ’t is said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode […]
The power of the poem relies on the way the syllable count shrinks with each line. We feel like the figure drowning. Thanks to Paglia’s encouragement, we may come to suspect that Dickinson is the one holding the protagonist’s head down below the surface. Even on such a canonical figure, Paglia is never afraid to take a contrarian line, claiming that “in her hidden inner life, [Dickinson] was a male genius and visionary sadist”.
This is typical of Sexual Personae. Paglia never bothers to spar with other academics about interpretations (although she scathingly rejects the post-structural and postmodern theoretical approaches fashionable in 1990). Instead she attempts to uncover overlooked artistic or sexual elements in the works of well-known European and American writers and artists. Always stressing aesthetic factors, she has little time for ideological strategies that dilute the potency of the original texts. One hardly needs to accept uncritically her central thesis that Judaeo-Christian culture has long tried to deny the destructive forces of nature and violence, far less to believe that her individual interpretations are always right, to appreciate her many brilliant insights into Western art and literature and the elusive “sexual personae” that she believes can be found throughout the tradition.
On the French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), normally credited with influencing later male writers such as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, Paglia unapologetically declares that he had a “sex-crossing Romantic imagination”. Many of his characters are “doubled-sexed” and embody the “androgyne”, in order to symbolise “the all-inclusiveness of the text itself”.
Who else would have argued that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Christabel (1797) offers readers a vision of the “lesbian vampire” before enacting one of the “greatest transsexual self-transformations in literature”? Or that in Wuthering Heights (1847), a regular fixture of secondary English curricula, Emily Brontë regards “the body as the basis of gender” as “an affront to imagination and emotion”, and so attempts to “treat her sexual identity as an abstraction dwelling apart in another dimension of space and time”?
Who else would so proudly activate the queer subtext in the dialogue of Oscar Wilde’s best play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)? Equally contrarian is Paglia’s take on another iconic American poet, Walt Whitman (1819-92), whom she sees as a “self-ruling hermaphrodite who will not and cannot mate” and a figure who must be celebrated for starting the “humanistic gay tradition” in American literature. Time and again, Paglia’s slicing analysis cuts to the core of the sexual politics of much of Western literature, too often buried in over-theoretical reading practices, and brings out neglected decadent and subversive elements.
We can leave until last the question of style. In small doses, the rhythmic pulses of Paglia’s prose offer an energising experience. Yet her shrill dogmatism and seeming determination to avoid sentences any longer than eight words (not to mention calculated provocations such as “If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts”) soon become wearing. Twenty-five years on, Sexual Personae is best enjoyed on a slow boil, a few pages at a time, with the ideas percolating in the back of your mind as you dip between chapters and the extensive index, rather than as a linear narrative stretching across centuries.