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Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson

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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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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.

30 review for Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson

  1. 4 out of 5

    Warwick

    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 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 provocateuse, and seizes every opportunity to suggest that potential allies might instead like to go fuck themselves. Paglia comes at you from so far out of left-field that she's actually wandered off the field altogether, and is now yelling at you from way off in the car park somewhere, gesticulating with a rabid look in her eye like someone trying to shift copies of The Watchtower outside a Tube station. 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! Pretty joy! 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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Paglia - as a friend of mine once said to her face at a signing - is a gateway drug. I got ahold of this in high school and it functioned as a syllabus for the next few years. She showed me how raunchy, perverse and gorgeously gilded Spenser can be. She turned me on to Gautier, Pater, and, above all others, to Baudelaire. I continue to return to her readings of Byron and Wilde. This book is nigh-impossible to read cover to cover. Don't try it. The prose is an unceasingly percussive hammering of Paglia - as a friend of mine once said to her face at a signing - is a gateway drug. I got ahold of this in high school and it functioned as a syllabus for the next few years. She showed me how raunchy, perverse and gorgeously gilded Spenser can be. She turned me on to Gautier, Pater, and, above all others, to Baudelaire. I continue to return to her readings of Byron and Wilde. This book is nigh-impossible to read cover to cover. Don't try it. The prose is an unceasingly percussive hammering of vivid declaratives. Better to jump around, sampling chapters here and there. Paglia would have more of a reputation as a stylist if someone would extract and publish in a separate volume all the paragraph-sized prose poems scattered throughout this work of criticism. Pater's famous purpureus pannus on the Mona Lisa is tame stuff next to Paglia's peaens to Egyptian cat-worship and that bust of Nefertiti.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dusty

    As another reviewer said Paglia is like a "gateway drug". Read her and you’re on your way down the yellow brick road of subversive decadence. Whether you agree with her or not, you will be challenged to think. Camille isn’t looking for a gaggle of cheerleaders, she looking for an intellectual bar brawl. As another reviewer said Paglia is like a "gateway drug". Read her and you’re on your way down the yellow brick road of subversive decadence. Whether you agree with her or not, you will be challenged to think. Camille isn’t looking for a gaggle of cheerleaders, she looking for an intellectual bar brawl.

  4. 5 out of 5

    emma

    one time when i was a freshman in high school i had to do like a 10 point assignment where i interviewed someone about feminism, so i asked my neighbor. turns out my neighbor was iconic intellectual and a-list scholar camille paglia. feels like the least i can do is read a seminal work.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    OK, so her theoretical basis is absolute bullshit, combining personal bias, excessive Freudianism, and reactionary sexual politics into an obnoxious combination. However, the analyses themselves are quite wonderful. Having sat through any number of dry college lectures on the deemed classics of the Western canon, it was nice to see their dark, chthonic qualities exposed. This doesn't have the academic rigor that I was expecting, but it was a very fun read, and now I feel like going back through OK, so her theoretical basis is absolute bullshit, combining personal bias, excessive Freudianism, and reactionary sexual politics into an obnoxious combination. However, the analyses themselves are quite wonderful. Having sat through any number of dry college lectures on the deemed classics of the Western canon, it was nice to see their dark, chthonic qualities exposed. This doesn't have the academic rigor that I was expecting, but it was a very fun read, and now I feel like going back through Spenser and Emily Dickinson and picking out darkly psychosexual cues.

  6. 5 out of 5

    mark monday

    camille paglia: so misguided! despite the sheer idiocy behind many of her theses, she is a compelling, exuberant author, very readable, and definitely brings a certain kind of gusto and an often unique viewpoint to many classic authors. her rather operatic take on emily dickinson is particularly enjoyable. if this book in any way acts as a gateway drug to classic literature, then i suppose there is something positive to it all. that said, and exciting writing style aside, her reductive view of t camille paglia: so misguided! despite the sheer idiocy behind many of her theses, she is a compelling, exuberant author, very readable, and definitely brings a certain kind of gusto and an often unique viewpoint to many classic authors. her rather operatic take on emily dickinson is particularly enjoyable. if this book in any way acts as a gateway drug to classic literature, then i suppose there is something positive to it all. that said, and exciting writing style aside, her reductive view of the genders and her scorn for anything that she finds to be based on intellectual analysis is appalling and also pretty sad. the world is a much bigger place than you realize, camille! there is room for all sorts of things to have value, even michel foucault.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    I will usually read the books I'm given and this one was from a coworker at Loyola University Chicago. I doubt if she, a believing Catholic, read it herself. She likely would have been even more offended than I was. With the exception of overt, practiced racism and sexism, I believe I'm hard to offend, but Paglia's two-faced book did it. On the one hand, she tries to be sexy, treating the literary canon as resting on a seething bed of academically neglected eroticism. On the other hand, she write I will usually read the books I'm given and this one was from a coworker at Loyola University Chicago. I doubt if she, a believing Catholic, read it herself. She likely would have been even more offended than I was. With the exception of overt, practiced racism and sexism, I believe I'm hard to offend, but Paglia's two-faced book did it. On the one hand, she tries to be sexy, treating the literary canon as resting on a seething bed of academically neglected eroticism. On the other hand, she writes about this eroticism with a prurient tone as if it were loathsome. I got the impression of a very neurotic author, divided within herself. Given the book's success, I felt little pity for the author. She's doing fine. The culture which would make such a work a best-seller, however, would appear to be in deep trouble. The offense reaction, of course, suggests that I share the cultural disease. For what it's worth, if the book hadn't been successful, if it had been the work of some closeted intellectual, I would have been more prone to notice its virtues. H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, was a neurotic racist, but I've defended his horror fiction. (Interesting that Paglia associates in my mind with neurotic horror fiction.)

  8. 5 out of 5

    Myridian

    This book was horrible. Paglia's worldview is bizarrely Freudian. Paglia writes only the loosest and most unsatisfactory of evidence for any of her assertions. She ignores the lack of evidence for the majority of psychodynamic theory in general and for the "family romance" in particular. When you ignore empirical evidence all you have left is what resonates for you personally, which Freudian theory does not. Though she even picks through psychodynamic theory. The book makes me want to shake her. This book was horrible. Paglia's worldview is bizarrely Freudian. Paglia writes only the loosest and most unsatisfactory of evidence for any of her assertions. She ignores the lack of evidence for the majority of psychodynamic theory in general and for the "family romance" in particular. When you ignore empirical evidence all you have left is what resonates for you personally, which Freudian theory does not. Though she even picks through psychodynamic theory. The book makes me want to shake her. Paglia writes well, but the danger of her compelling prose is that people may believe her.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Bird

    This book is one of my all-time favorites and my favorite of Paglia's. I prefer Paglia the "academic" as opposed to the "media whore" (i.e. as she has expressed herself in her column for Salon.com) as I am at least 50% in disagreement with her political / geopolitical and often right-leaning Libertarian point of view. In "Sexual Personae" she presents herself in full-on scholarly mode, in a way that she has not, unfortunately, repeated since this work was published. I have read this book at leas This book is one of my all-time favorites and my favorite of Paglia's. I prefer Paglia the "academic" as opposed to the "media whore" (i.e. as she has expressed herself in her column for Salon.com) as I am at least 50% in disagreement with her political / geopolitical and often right-leaning Libertarian point of view. In "Sexual Personae" she presents herself in full-on scholarly mode, in a way that she has not, unfortunately, repeated since this work was published. I have read this book at least twice; it is rare for me as a reader to return to any text I've read previously. The essence of the work can be summarized via the blurb that appears on the back cover of the paperback edition of "Sexual Personae": "..... [makes] a persuasive case for all art as a pagan battleground between male and female, form and chaos, civilization and daemonic nature" ("daemonic" being a term that appears frequently in this book). Also memorable are Paglia's theory of the artist's metaphysical "sex change" via his / her work of art (a là Coleridge's lesbian vampire / daemon) and the chapter covering Edmund Spenser's "The Fairie Queene", a product of the English Renaissance that I had been unaware of until my discovery of "Sexual Personae" and which I have still not read. "Sexual Personae" also aided me in refining my understanding of the terms "Apollonian" and "Dionysian", in a way that no other writer has besides Nietzsche. Most importantly, it's Paglia's actual writing that draws me in. Whether or not what she is writing can be substantiated academically, that does not concern me. I inherently believe that Paglia knows what she's talking about. Thus I will close with this quote from page 55 of Chapter 2 ("The Birth of the Western Eye") concerning the statuette "Venus of Willendorf" [circa 30,000 B.C.]: "Venus of Willendorf carries her cave with her. She is blind, masked. Her ropes of corn-row hair look forward to the invention of agriculture. She has a furrowed brow. Her facelessness is the impersonality of primitive sex and religion. There is no psychology or identity yet, because there is no society, no cohesion. Men cower and scatter at the blast of the elements. Venus of Willendorf is eyeless because nature can be seen but not known. She is remote even as she kills and creates. The statuette, so overflowing and protuberant, is ritually invisible. She stifles the eye. She is the cloud of archaic night."

  10. 5 out of 5

    ALLEN

    "Once you get into it, it isn't as hard as it looks" and "It changed my life" are phrases we often invoke to help stress the importance of important books we'd like to see more people read. Well, in the case of Camille Paglia's SEXUAL PERSONAE, first published in 1990, those phrases are no mere cliches -- they matter, and this book matters. It is important to understand that Paglia earned her academic "chops" teaching students at an art academy. She was no mere Ivy League theorist, with analysis "Once you get into it, it isn't as hard as it looks" and "It changed my life" are phrases we often invoke to help stress the importance of important books we'd like to see more people read. Well, in the case of Camille Paglia's SEXUAL PERSONAE, first published in 1990, those phrases are no mere cliches -- they matter, and this book matters. It is important to understand that Paglia earned her academic "chops" teaching students at an art academy. She was no mere Ivy League theorist, with analysis consisting of meta upon meta. She wrote to be understood -- and this book is not only her breakthrough, but in many cases her summa. I read SEXUAL PERSONAE with difficulty for the first time when it was first published, loved every minute of it, and found application to my life. I re-read it (with a great deal more ease) about five years after that, again loved every minute of it, and found more application. It changed and expanded the world I live in, as well as how I think about "art." One key to Paglia's thought is that art does not exist without those who understand and appreciate it, and that people who appreciate it find that it informs them well beyond just the boundaries of "the picture" or "the sculpture." I can't tell you how many times I've pondered her equation of Lord Byron with Elvis Presley -- both "Byronic" figures, and here's the rub -- no mere camp or parlor game. If you want a history of pictorial art, the Sister Wendy books are fine. If you want an academic history of art, there are plenty of college textbooks, used and new, out there. If you want to know what academics think about what other academics think about what artistic endeavors they deem currently fashionable -- by all means get your ticket punched for Harvard, Princeton or Columbia. But if you want to gain greater insight about how art works in the world -- including yours and mine -- buy this book and read it all. It starts with Nefertiti, moves on through numerous thinkers to Oscar Wilde and Emily Dickinson, and was published in the age of AIDS. Even folks whose reaction is less enthusiastic than mine come away a lot smarter! SEXUAL PERSONAE was, is, and deserves to remain a classic. "Classic" can be a cliche, too, but in this case I mean it. --October 21, 2018 Allen Smalling ("ALLEN") for GR

  11. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    Ah, Camille Paglia. What can I say that hasn't already been said? This book is well-written and absorbing, but if you are a female with half a backbone at all, you will want to rip it into pieces, piss on it, then set it on fire (which I guess won't be very effective if you just pissed on it). Paglia's main thesis is that men are the movers and shakers, and women are slothful baby producers. Civilation wouldn't exist without men because women have no drive to do anything except sit around and wa Ah, Camille Paglia. What can I say that hasn't already been said? This book is well-written and absorbing, but if you are a female with half a backbone at all, you will want to rip it into pieces, piss on it, then set it on fire (which I guess won't be very effective if you just pissed on it). Paglia's main thesis is that men are the movers and shakers, and women are slothful baby producers. Civilation wouldn't exist without men because women have no drive to do anything except sit around and wait for men to bring them food and build stuff for them. Then where, I ask, did Paglia get the motivation to write this very long, detailed, and well-researched book? The irony is like where Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970's was running a big organization devoted to convincing women that they should be stay-at-home moms. I gave this book 4 stars because, as I said, it is well-written and sucks you in. It enrages me, but I guess that's worth something. NB: I read this book a long time ago, so maybe my opinion would be different now. Guess I'll need to reread it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Christy

    "Shock jock" of academia and belligerence more than a groundbreaking new theoretical synthesis of sex and gender, and about 30 years after a similar radical-feminist sexuality was propounded by several others. I did have a chill of excitement when I read this, though, back in the day... As others have noted, hard to tell if more brilliant or crazy (not knocking either - whatever gets you through the night.) For my money, Donna Haraway's book that came out the same year said much more about nature "Shock jock" of academia and belligerence more than a groundbreaking new theoretical synthesis of sex and gender, and about 30 years after a similar radical-feminist sexuality was propounded by several others. I did have a chill of excitement when I read this, though, back in the day... As others have noted, hard to tell if more brilliant or crazy (not knocking either - whatever gets you through the night.) For my money, Donna Haraway's book that came out the same year said much more about nature, society, gender and sex.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    A bit of an academic show-off, and later, a celebrity-hound, with some really f*cked-up ideas about the importance of Madonna, Paglia penned her most important (and best-written) book here. Won't say it changed my life, but I couldn't stop talking about for weeks after I finished it. Her take on Emily Dickinson as a super-sadist is dead on the money. This will be read long after everyone has forgotten the pseudo-feminist junk that was popular when this book debuted. You know who I'm talking abou A bit of an academic show-off, and later, a celebrity-hound, with some really f*cked-up ideas about the importance of Madonna, Paglia penned her most important (and best-written) book here. Won't say it changed my life, but I couldn't stop talking about for weeks after I finished it. Her take on Emily Dickinson as a super-sadist is dead on the money. This will be read long after everyone has forgotten the pseudo-feminist junk that was popular when this book debuted. You know who I'm talking about. Edit 9.22.19: My admiration for this book continues to grow. Love her or hate her, the woman was on to something with her exploration of the classic Apollonian/Dionysian split in human nature. That's undeniable. Sexual Personae directly carries on Nietzche's work in the Birth of Tragedy, and has much much more to say on the topic. And the way she says it is equally important in my mind, and accounts in large part to the success of this book--which, given its girth and weighty subject matter, was a dark horse best-seller in its time. Simply put, she doesn't write like a philosopher or an academic, and that's a very good thing. She has something important to say, and she wants you to understand. This is a high crime and tantamont to treason in the intellectual world, and I'll leave it at that. I have strong feelings on the subject, but run the risk of a full rant meltdown against "professional" intellectuals if I say another word. Suffice to say, give me the intellectual oddballs, weirdos and outlaws any day of the week. All the rest is noise. Time for a reread. ‐-------------‐---- Reread in progress, just finished first chapter, Birth of the Western Eye. Her prose is just fantastic. Why dont more people write this way? Short, pithy sentences, bristling with the brio that comes from knowing your material inside and out and not being afraid of having fun with it. A quick scan of the the current news indicates Paglia is having run-ins with the woke crowd, including calls for her grandfathered tenure to be revoked. Not surprising. She's outspoken. But I'll bet anything none of her critics have actually read this book. It's a piece of dynamite and it doesnt lend itself easily to any specific ideology or political stance. More later.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Douglas Wilson

    She's a lunatic and a pagan, but very helpful. She's a lunatic and a pagan, but very helpful.

  15. 5 out of 5

    James

    An incomparable, unique, and often ridiculous study of sexuality and literature. I took my time reading this as there is a huge amount of information to absorb, and Paglia's style (made up of brief but incredibly pungent sentences) is wearying, although I don't mean that as a criticism. In the contrary, it gives the reader all the more reason to savor this radically different take on Emily Dickinson, The Fearie Queen, Shakespeare, Whitman, and so many more. One needn't agree with all or even mos An incomparable, unique, and often ridiculous study of sexuality and literature. I took my time reading this as there is a huge amount of information to absorb, and Paglia's style (made up of brief but incredibly pungent sentences) is wearying, although I don't mean that as a criticism. In the contrary, it gives the reader all the more reason to savor this radically different take on Emily Dickinson, The Fearie Queen, Shakespeare, Whitman, and so many more. One needn't agree with all or even most of what she says to find this work fascinating. The book is most valuable for its aesthetic and analytical purposes. Certainly that is Paglia's approach. Whether or not one agrees with the theory that Emily Dickinson was Amherst's Madame de Sade, Walt Whitman was a hermaphrodite, or any of the other sensational statements in Sexual Personae is immaterial. I enjoyed this work as I have enjoyed few other works of modern literary criticism, and in this way Paglia is in league with her mentor Harold Bloom. When reviewing Sexual Personae, one must acknowledge the egregious social conclusions that Paglia draws, mostly in the first chapter. Do I agree with her? Not in the slightest. I am actually inclined to agree, on issues of politics, with the Feminists Paglia so often attacks. So why do I return to Paglia's book? For the same reason I return to Stephen Dedalus's lectures on Shakespeare in Ulysses. They may be bullshit theories, but they are riveting bullshit theories. You'll enjoy this much more if you ignore the Women's Studies/Art Criticism tag on the back and read this as the book Myra Breckenridge always threatened to write.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    She inadvertantly turned me into the psychopath reader I am today, but doing a line by line interpretation of "Stairway To Heaven" in Guitar World about 10 years ago. This close reading of a classic, unavoidable song blew me right away and impressed me, showing me that brainy reading is something even I could do. There's a lot of repetiton here, I mean how many times can you hear about the gilded masochistic whatever in repressive societal repressiveness until you get sick and tired? Nonetheless, She inadvertantly turned me into the psychopath reader I am today, but doing a line by line interpretation of "Stairway To Heaven" in Guitar World about 10 years ago. This close reading of a classic, unavoidable song blew me right away and impressed me, showing me that brainy reading is something even I could do. There's a lot of repetiton here, I mean how many times can you hear about the gilded masochistic whatever in repressive societal repressiveness until you get sick and tired? Nonetheless, I'm loving her primal erudition, her campiness, and her common sense. She's Italian, dontcha know? She loves the internet, Harold Bloom, pop culture, and midaeval epic poetry. My kind of chick. But there's smart, whip-cracking turns of phrase and a ballsy iconoclasm which never relents and stays interesting as you go through the mountains of text. I love her. Sex and Death: two great tastes that go great together!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    Camille Paglia's completely obnoxious and over-the-line and I only agree with her about 1/4 of the time. But when I do, I feel like she's slit open the deepest rivers of impassioned, tangled instincts I have about intellectual women and the utter foolishness of much of the feminist movement - and the dangers of being a woman who lives too far above the waist. Paglia nails it on these topics. Even tho' I'm sure if I ever sat next to her at a dinner party I'd end up wanting to slap her. Camille Paglia's completely obnoxious and over-the-line and I only agree with her about 1/4 of the time. But when I do, I feel like she's slit open the deepest rivers of impassioned, tangled instincts I have about intellectual women and the utter foolishness of much of the feminist movement - and the dangers of being a woman who lives too far above the waist. Paglia nails it on these topics. Even tho' I'm sure if I ever sat next to her at a dinner party I'd end up wanting to slap her.

  18. 4 out of 5

    A.K.

    A clearly insane person. A clearly fierce intellect. (It is clear that her intellect is fierce; not that the fierceness possesses great clarity.) I won't be putting this down unless it's to throw it in front of an oncoming train and/or soak it with my sad, sad, non-transcendent womanly piss. --- Cut to 3/4 of the way through. Bored now. Nice troll, tho. A clearly insane person. A clearly fierce intellect. (It is clear that her intellect is fierce; not that the fierceness possesses great clarity.) I won't be putting this down unless it's to throw it in front of an oncoming train and/or soak it with my sad, sad, non-transcendent womanly piss. --- Cut to 3/4 of the way through. Bored now. Nice troll, tho.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Marley

    I don't even know where to begin with this, so I won't. Oddly, Sexual Personae explained my life to me. I was shocked. What does any of this have to do with me, but it did. Paglia blew me away with her non-namby-pamby feminism that upset all the liberals. I don't even know where to begin with this, so I won't. Oddly, Sexual Personae explained my life to me. I was shocked. What does any of this have to do with me, but it did. Paglia blew me away with her non-namby-pamby feminism that upset all the liberals.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Veronica

    I read this book a while ago, counting in book-time (As in 6 or 7 books ago—temporally, not too long ago). I can't articulate my thoughts on this titan of a book as of now. I know I loved reading it as well as I know that I disagreed with most of its primary assertions. Also, I have a strange desire to physically fight Camille Paglia. I'm a waif, so I definitely would not hurt her. She simply seems like she would be a fun person to wrestle. (Paglia in a video: "I'm in an in-your-face feminist", dur I read this book a while ago, counting in book-time (As in 6 or 7 books ago—temporally, not too long ago). I can't articulate my thoughts on this titan of a book as of now. I know I loved reading it as well as I know that I disagreed with most of its primary assertions. Also, I have a strange desire to physically fight Camille Paglia. I'm a waif, so I definitely would not hurt her. She simply seems like she would be a fun person to wrestle. (Paglia in a video: "I'm in an in-your-face feminist", during which she accuses feminists of being puritanical and orders them to 'go read a book, go to an art store, go look at a painting, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, go look at Greek art!')

  21. 5 out of 5

    Izzy Rey

    Do not get me wrong, I do not buy into all of her theories. Some sound like utter BS, but she is SO fun to read and argue with (in your head). What makes me love this book is the way she categorizes authors and works, and all the little details she points out. How some male authors are femenine in their writing and some females are masculine. Also, this is the book that lead me to works I may have never read. I did not go to school to become an english professor and am not required to have more Do not get me wrong, I do not buy into all of her theories. Some sound like utter BS, but she is SO fun to read and argue with (in your head). What makes me love this book is the way she categorizes authors and works, and all the little details she points out. How some male authors are femenine in their writing and some females are masculine. Also, this is the book that lead me to works I may have never read. I did not go to school to become an english professor and am not required to have more than a basic knowledge of Literature. I am a science geek and am in a medical profession. For her to have laid out this outline...I'll be for ever thankful.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Josh Friedlander

    I'm grateful for the existence of this book, and Paglia, one of those people overflowing with words and ideas. Whether this book is exactly true is hard to say. Paglia is astoundingly knowledgeable, but her attempt to schematize mythology, art history, Comp Lit and pop culture, all while refuting the received ideas of the humanities and modern feminism is a tall order for anyone, and not really testable in any way. (In particular, her hand-wavy explanations of the success of more recent pop cult I'm grateful for the existence of this book, and Paglia, one of those people overflowing with words and ideas. Whether this book is exactly true is hard to say. Paglia is astoundingly knowledgeable, but her attempt to schematize mythology, art history, Comp Lit and pop culture, all while refuting the received ideas of the humanities and modern feminism is a tall order for anyone, and not really testable in any way. (In particular, her hand-wavy explanations of the success of more recent pop culture through a given persona and some psychoanalysis seems like a cheap trick.) But the parallels she finds in recurrent "sexual personae" (the phrase comes from Bergman's 1996 film) throughout history are very tempting. The most blatant statement of her ideas on gender is tucked away near the book's end. (Blatant, related to "babbling" first appears in Spenser, one of the many interesting etymologies in the book: minion, grotesque, matriculate.) Male conspiracy cannot explain all female failures. I am convinced that, even without restrictions, there still would have been no female Pascal, Milton, or Kant. Genius is not checked by social obstacles: it will overcome. Men’s egotism, so disgusting in the talentless, is the source of their greatness as a sex. Women have a more accurate sense of reality; they are physically and spiritually more complete.Or elsewhere There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.For Paglia, the Nietzschian dichotomy between Apollonian and Dionysian is mirrored by a conflict between celestial rationalism and a chthonic slimy ooze of decadent and hedonist nature, which are roughly represented by the male and the female. Of course within these there are many disparate personae: there are masculine women and feminine men (a decoupling of gender and sex Paglia admits to getting from Simone de Beauvoir), such as the "beautiful boy" (a mute, "autistic" archetype) found equally in religious poetry and man-boy affairs, which includes Petrarch's Laura, Dante's Beatrice, Tadzio from Death in Venice, and Alcibiades; or the "cheerfully sadistic" Emily Dickinson (a perfect description). She says that there is no evidence for any historical matriarchy, calling it a feminist fantasy. A corollary of this is that sexual liberation and fulfillment are inextricably linked to sexual violence and gender separation. Society thus protects us from some of the bad, but at the cost of some good. Paglia strongly opposes the Rousseauist idea that people are fundamentally good, as well as the belief that social progress will necessarily make us happier. She notes that decadence explicitly rejects the egalitarian ideals of liberalism, something often forgotten today by academics who assume that the people they teach must have had good (or at least palatable) politics. A lot of her insights she connects to her personal background: as a child of the wild 60s, as an Italian-American, and we can assume, as a lesbian, although the book focuses more on gay men (she approvingly quotes Mae West: "Lesbians are not humorous persons"; they are sinister and vampiric, like Geraldine in Coleridge's Christobel). She pushes against cold Protestantism, and stresses the pagan spirit in Catholicism and Western culture in general. People who dismiss astrology do so out of either ignorance or rationalism. Rationalists have their place, but their limited assumptions and methods must be kept out of the arts. Or fascinatingly John Anthony West claims that the four principal elements of modern organic chemistry, hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen, closely correspond in function to fire, earth, air, and water.Beginning from Nefertiti and the Venus of Willendorf, Paglia draws her thread from pagan religion (secretly embedded in the bloodstream of Catholicism) to the dawn of the Renaissance. Her first major focus is Spenser ("Spenser made English literature world-class only by abandoning Chaucer and eradicating his influence"), and she spends a lot of time analysing the Faerie Queene. Next in her pantheon is Shakespeare, with Antony and Cleopatra as the marquee play (Kent Christensen suggest Tina Turner for the female lead), not King Lear. If Spenser is Apollonian control, Shakespeare is Dionysian decadence; and among the Metaphysical poets, Donne is Shakespeare's heir, while Herbert is Spenser's. ("If you want to know how Sappho sounds in Greek, don’t read her pedestrian translators; read Herbert.") Paglia extensively summarises from de Sade, whose capacity to shock even in 2020 is astounding. For her, Blake continues the Sadean tradition in English literature as Dickinson does in American(!) Among German Romantics, Goethe and Kleist similarly carry over the decadent tradition. And back in England, Coleridge is to Wordsworth as Sade is to Rousseau - the dark, sexual response to an attempt to enthrone nature over desire. From Coleridge the line leads to Poe, Baudelaire, Moreau, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Swinburne, Pater, Huysmans, Beardsley, Baudelaire and Wilde (the latter of whom has roots in, of all people, Lewis Carroll). And there is so much more here: Keats, Shelley, Byron Byron, the Romantic exile, did England a favor. Energy and beauty together are burning, godlike, destructive. Byron created the youth-cult that would sweep Elvis Presley to uncomfortable fame. In our affluent commercial culture, this man of beauty was able to ignore politics and build his empire elsewhere...Mass media act as a barrier protecting politics, which would otherwise be unbalanced by the entrance of men of epochal narcissistic glamour. Today’s Byronic man of beauty is a Presley who dominates the imagination, not a Buckingham who disorders a state Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Emily Brontë, Walter Pater...finally ending in Dickinson: Early in this book, I traced the ancient evolution from femaleness to femininity, which I defended as an artifice of high culture. Dickinson performs a stunning operation on these terms. She accepts femininity but denies femaleness, sweeping it out of her cosmos. Paglia is a torrent of knowledge, always finding new connections and ideas. Even if she isn't right about everything, she is an inspirational part of the academic world, that rare scholar who can excite and infuriate a jaded public with her intellectuality.

  23. 4 out of 5

    M.

    This is a scam. It's not smart, and it's not good in the slightiest. It's just Camille Paglia rambling. If you can tolerate this, good for you. I will not torture myself. I stopped at the first 100 pages. She's a LOT like Jordan Peterson, making baseless psychological claims and yet, these get taken as truth by illiterate people. She's also heavily Freudian and contradictory. This book is borderline male worship. If that sounded like a radical feminist complaint to you, think of the disgusting w This is a scam. It's not smart, and it's not good in the slightiest. It's just Camille Paglia rambling. If you can tolerate this, good for you. I will not torture myself. I stopped at the first 100 pages. She's a LOT like Jordan Peterson, making baseless psychological claims and yet, these get taken as truth by illiterate people. She's also heavily Freudian and contradictory. This book is borderline male worship. If that sounded like a radical feminist complaint to you, think of the disgusting ways in which she worships pedophilia, abortion, pornography and the nauseous feeling she gets and spreads about the pregnant body (saying pregnancy itself is solipsistic and devilish). She even gets away with saying men are potential rapists, and there is nothing you can do because rape, as terrible as it is, is part of nature. And the talks about how man is superior just because of his genitalia. For a self professed homosexual, she is absolutely obsessed with penises. And I was told that this woman defended values! (I know she doesn't). I get the idea that many people get blinded by the psychologist discourse and don't even process what they're reading. I'm nauseated at her selective reading of history, literature, paganism and Christianity to support things that don't make sense. Rationality and rationalism aren't the same and neither are exclusive to men. Among the women of tragedy she just took out the ones that stood because of being evil, and from there she concluded that men are afraid of women, particularly their mothers. Antigone didn't count as an upholder of law and reason, apparently! (luckily, I don't think she'll ramble about Madonna here, but I was dreading the moment as she goes back and forth to make "poignant" contemporary commentary). She's quick to laud capitalism because it gave women the possibility to think like men and write obnoxious books, perhaps she should reflect on this sentiment a bit more for how much it describes her and this book in particular. For all her oppositon to transvestites, transsexualism or however you call it, she seems to endorse it a great deal so as long as it retains "shamanic" qualities. If men think this woman 'gets' them, then I'm truly sorry for them.

  24. 4 out of 5

    John Devlin

    Paglia is always reaching and is always sex obsessed. She’s downright wrong in places: chillingsworth and Dimmesdale are locked in a sexual sadomasochistic battle? Twain’s descent into gloom is his fear of the female? Or perhaps the death of his daughter and his bankruptcy played a part. But her passion, her intellectual precocity is immense. Her mind’s ability to cross connect poets and authors and myths across cultures and times is daunting and fearless. She’s a flame headed avatar who one imagin Paglia is always reaching and is always sex obsessed. She’s downright wrong in places: chillingsworth and Dimmesdale are locked in a sexual sadomasochistic battle? Twain’s descent into gloom is his fear of the female? Or perhaps the death of his daughter and his bankruptcy played a part. But her passion, her intellectual precocity is immense. Her mind’s ability to cross connect poets and authors and myths across cultures and times is daunting and fearless. She’s a flame headed avatar who one imagines penning this entire work in one sustained orgasmic blast. She’s got mad skills.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mawr

    This book single-handedly resurrected my love of literature, philosophy and history. What is especially good about it is its preference for the enduring truths of human experience over faddish post-modernism.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bryn

    "Come on guys, old dead white guys aren't so bad." "Come on guys, old dead white guys aren't so bad."

  27. 5 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    I seriously doubt I would ever read this -- I mean, 736 pages! -- but this is a fine excuse to quote some excerpts from the interview by the ever-entertaining Tunku Varadarajan: "A Feminist Capitalist Professor Under Fire!" Love the title: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-femini... [as always, I'm happy to email a copy to non-subscribers]. Wonderful art! (which is free) Excerpts: "Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has been I seriously doubt I would ever read this -- I mean, 736 pages! -- but this is a fine excuse to quote some excerpts from the interview by the ever-entertaining Tunku Varadarajan: "A Feminist Capitalist Professor Under Fire!" Love the title: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-femini... [as always, I'm happy to email a copy to non-subscribers]. Wonderful art! (which is free) Excerpts: "Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has been a tenured—and occasionally embattled—faculty member since 1984. This April, mutinous students demanded her firing over public comments she’d made that were not wholly sympathetic to the #MeToo movement, as well as for an interview with the Weekly Standard that they called “transphobic.” That denunciation, with its indignant dogmatism, is particularly slapstick, since Ms. Paglia describes *herself* as “transgender.” The book under 'review' is an "erudite yet pugnacious account of the competing roles of male and female in Western civilization. It was rejected—she never tires of saying—by seven publishers and five agents before Yale University Press picked it up. The book vaulted Ms. Paglia into the American imagination as a bluestocking gone deliciously rogue. The same year, she published an op-ed article lauding the pop singer Madonna as “the true feminist,” who “exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode.” The op-ed incensed the “prudish” feminist establishment. . . . Paglia laments that the “antisex and repressively doctrinaire side of feminism is back again—big!” She calls it “victim feminism” and complains that “everything we’d won in the 1990s has been totally swept away. Now we have this endless privileging of victimhood, with a pathological vulnerability seen as the default human mode. . . .”

  28. 5 out of 5

    Corvidianus

    This book is quite infuriating at times, because we have here an absolutist author who doesn’t enjoy caveats and seems to get quite a rush out of turning the written word into a bloodbath. Lesbian Ayn Rand as an eldritch horror. I absolutely adore Paglia’s wild swings between visionary and monster, if only mostly because tepid apologists and handwringing wingers are so tedious and prevalent these days and most everyone else remaining seems to be an uncultured, science-hating, death-cult Neandert This book is quite infuriating at times, because we have here an absolutist author who doesn’t enjoy caveats and seems to get quite a rush out of turning the written word into a bloodbath. Lesbian Ayn Rand as an eldritch horror. I absolutely adore Paglia’s wild swings between visionary and monster, if only mostly because tepid apologists and handwringing wingers are so tedious and prevalent these days and most everyone else remaining seems to be an uncultured, science-hating, death-cult Neanderthal. What we have here is a bit of a lunatic journal, raw surreal dream imagery scrawled into a madly unapologetic pagan thesis with all the vicious conviction of Crowley but infinitely more humanity, empathy & pathos. Crowley’s a real jerk. Paglia’s just a feisty scrapper. Emily Dickinson on a bad day with brass knuckles and a boot knife. With every page I swung between wild vacillations of adoration, bewilderment and horror, with an occasional disapproving cluck. And it felt great, and the garden of my psyche is now bursting to the brim with Belthane blossoming and all afire with stars, playing a mental game of darts with a human viper. So, as Warwick’s review states, “…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?” Guaranteed, it will refresh the reader’s perspective, even if that is irritating or disturbing. As I see it, this work transcends “irritating”, “disturbing”, “right” or “wrong”; it’s a work of art that shakes up the stale world and challenges preconceptions, and in doing so, engages the mind - if not to become convinced, then at least to find a deeper understanding of the reasons one doesn’t agree, to justify one’s own paradigm more soundly. It’s a narrative, a mythology, and I’m thrilled to have unearthed this sharp obsidian arrowhead even amid the pseudosentient grey ooze of global corporate oligarchy, bubble wrapped children & sterile consumer goods. It is an artifact of resistance against inoffensive mediocrity.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tara

    So far, I'm loving this book! I read a little bit of it each evening so that I can at least attempt to really digest her argument. Some of the things she says are a little scary. But, like Angela Carter's work, Paglia definitely wants to create an emotional response in her readers and she does this brilliantly. I think the elicitation of emotional response - whether in agreement or anger - forces us to examine standard cultural beliefs and grants an opportunity for different ways of seeing. Pagl So far, I'm loving this book! I read a little bit of it each evening so that I can at least attempt to really digest her argument. Some of the things she says are a little scary. But, like Angela Carter's work, Paglia definitely wants to create an emotional response in her readers and she does this brilliantly. I think the elicitation of emotional response - whether in agreement or anger - forces us to examine standard cultural beliefs and grants an opportunity for different ways of seeing. Paglia seems to pick a bone with modern feminists, and that's okay. Personally, I don't think feminists are silly, but neither do I think that challenging political and theoretical assumptions is wrong. In fact, it's just what we need, and maybe feminism could warm up to Paglia's wicked side. "Jane Sexes It Up" is a good example of where feminist thought may be going in the future.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    Harold Bloom’s influence on Paglia is clear: most of her commentary is on poets associated with the Romantic tradition, and her analytic approach is a mixture of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Her chapter on Emily Dickinson in particular changed the way I read that poet. Acquired Jan 16, 2000 Attic Books, London, Ontario Harold Bloom’s influence on Paglia is clear: most of her commentary is on poets associated with the Romantic tradition, and her analytic approach is a mixture of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Her chapter on Emily Dickinson in particular changed the way I read that poet. Acquired Jan 16, 2000 Attic Books, London, Ontario

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