Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson

by Camille Paglia

Paperback, 1991




Vintage Books (1991), Paperback, 718 pages


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member tomcatMurr
When this book appeared in the early 90s it was at the same time an anachronism, and a highly modern masterpiece. An anachronism because few writers –then and now- combine a wide sweeping view of whole swathes of cultural history with startlingly observant close readings of particular works; and modern because its whole argument and method was rooted in the here and now, with its references to pop culture and attacks against the literal minded, the ignorant and the resenters. Paglia sees Western art and literary history as an agon between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, building on Nietzsche. This idea is tremendously fruitful, and she traces it though its various forms with verve, wit and great style. The chapter on The Picture of Dorian Gray is worth the price of admission alone. Paglia simply ‘gets’ Wilde like no one else, in my view. This is criticism in the grand style, criticism as art, history as literature. Paglia is the 20th century equivalent of a Burckhardt or a Renan. A work of genius, provocative and beautiful.… (more)
LibraryThing member mrtall
Camille Paglia’s monumental, mesmerizing Sexual Personae is one of the great unsung works of the 20th century. Paglia proposes a broad yet plausible thesis: i.e. that the great unresolved tension between cool, incisive Apollonian artistry and earthy, brutal Dionysian chaos is the engine that has driven western art and literature to its heights.

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.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
The subtitle? "Art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickenson." (The cover strikingly puts that across visually with a bust half-Nefertiti/half-Dickenson.) In the Preface Paglia says her book "seeks to demonstrate the unity and continuity of western culture." She also revealingly says: "My largest ambition is to fuse Frazer and Freud." I think she succeeds in that fusion, but I can't say that impressed me much, given I'm very skeptical about both thinkers. Freud was famous for his theory of the "family romance," which posited sexuality and aggression in the family formed the psyche. Less well-known to the general public is Frazer, a seminal 19th century cultural anthropologist. His The Golden Bough is on the connections between mythology, folklore, and religion and their origins in trying to control nature; he's a direct ancestor to Joseph Campbell.

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.
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LibraryThing member keigu
The subtitle and the 10 different categories listed in the Cataloging reflect the generosity of this book. Physically demanding (700 pages -- i should talk, with two 740 pagers!) and bold as all literary criticism should be but seldom is, this is a feast. To me, Paglia's bold summations of the aesthetics of various civilizations and her savage depiction of Dickinson as "Amherst's Madame de Sade" were high-points and my only complaint is that she seemed a bit too smitten by freud. I wish Paglia wrote another big book instead of wasting her time on timely stuff.… (more)
LibraryThing member jensenmk82
A stimulating work, and perhaps Paglia had to write that way to get the attention of a wider public, but reading her is in the end like being hit on the head over and over again with a hammer. Still, there are flashes of genus... like "Driving is the American sublime" (quoted from memory).
LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
It's long but it's a great insight into taboos and how they are reflected in society. Strong focus on 19th and 20th centuries.
LibraryThing member kencf0618
I remember wishing that this book had been around when I was growing up in Santa Cruz. A real breath of fresh air -it would have saved me much grief. Shotgun analysis, but effective.
LibraryThing member Equestrienne
Lots of interesting stuff here; I wish the author could have been one of my art teachers. Also, when possible it is always fun to contrast her critique of a particular work of art with that of Sister Wendy.

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.
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LibraryThing member JenneB
Okay, I didn't read ALL of this book, but it made my brain hurt in a good way. I tried to get like, ANYONE I KNEW to read it so I could discuss it with somebody, but no joy.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member andersonden
Paglia propounds some very interesting theories but the writing can seem disjointed at times. She makes it impossible to follow what her reasoning may have been when she writes sentences that neither relate to the sentence preceding it nor the topic sentence. The sections that were written for other publications are the most coherent.… (more)

Original publication date


Physical description

718 p.; 5.17 inches



Local notes

literary studies
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