This work offers a unified field theory of Western culture, high and low, since the Egyptians invented beauty. From Emily Dickinson and Medusa to Madonna, it makes a persuasive case for all art as a pagan battleground between male and female, form and chaos, civilization and demonic nature.
And she illustrates and defends this thesis with power, energy and real insight, tracing out its genesis and developments from Egypt and Greece to 19th-century British and American poetry. Her insights into the Greeks, Spenser, and Blake are noteworthy, but the deepest and most original analysis here is Paglia’s exposure and refutation of the line of liberal/leftist fantasizing about the true nature of humanity that runs from Rousseau through the 19th-century Romantics such as Wordsworth and Emerson and on into 20th-century feminism and socialism. Attempts to ‘liberate’ humanity from the strictures of civilized society leads not to peace and freedom, but to tyranny and sadism. As Paglia herself puts it in what may be the most striking line in a book suffused with memorable one-liners:
Every road from Rousseau leads to Sade.
Paglia backs up her assertion with remarkable studies of Sade himself and, in the book’s ultimate chapter, Emily Dickinson.
One caution here to the casual reader: reading this book may revolutionize the way you look at arts and literature. It’s that good. But it is not an ‘easy’ book. Paglia’s style is singular; she makes more clear, assertive statements in a single page than you’ll see in whole volumes of pathetic postmodernist criticism. But it’s also a dense, heavily allusive style that demands close attention. At nearly 700 closely-printed pages, Sexual Personae is a project. But the time invested in reading it pays off in so many ways that I recommend it without reservation.
Paglia's arguments are a bit scatter-shot, and repetitive. By the time I was half-way through the book, I felt Paglia was pounding spikes into my brain with every mention of: androgene, Appolonian, chthonian, daemonic, hermaphrodite, and especially "beautiful boy." Nevertheless she was also audacious and dazzling in the connections she made and her prose often beautiful and quotable. She mixed classical allusions with pop references from Garbo to Elvis to Madonna. In upholding her ideas of "the terrible duality of gender" and the fecundity of homosexuality in culture, she is sure to outrage liberal and conservative alike. At times she seemed to apotheosize misogyny as the driving creative force in Western culture, as in her insistence of the importance of Sade as great literature and her statement that: "There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper." Truly, I far prefer Virginia Woolf's take on that question in "A Room of Her Own." I admit that if Paglia were male, I doubt I'd be giving her so much slack for that. At one point she even called female genitalia, "grotesque."
The New York Times Review called her "as intellectually stimulating as she is exasperating" and I think that sums her up well. But for a bibliophile and art lover (the book is richly illustrated) there's much to engage your thinking. The writers examined highlighted in the contents page include: Spenser, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Sade, Goethe, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Balzac, Gautier, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Emily Bronte, Swinburne, Wilde, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Henry James, Dickenson. Paglia left me with lots of food for thought and new ways to look at works I thought I knew from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus to Coleridge's Christobel. Worth reading, and even re-reading, which is why for all that I was skeptical of so many of her conclusions, I rated this as high as I did.
Ms Paglia is a woman who manages to blend common sense with high intelligence. She also isn't afraid to voice a contrary opinion; it was the uppity women who changed history, so go for it, Camille. There is nothing more inspiring to me than an old school, badass bitch who isn't afraid of what other people think or say.
Gotta go get some more of her books.
Still, after reading Maureen Dowd's "Are Men Necessary" I kind of want to go back to this for a less stupid perspective on women and culture. I don't agree with everything she says but it's certainly thought-provoking.