Friday, March 4, 2011

SEXUAL PERSONAE: ART AND DECADENCE FROM NEFERTITI TO EMILY DICKINSON by Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia has balls--bigger than Harold Bloom's, harder than Chris Matthews's, shinier than Alec Baldwin's in Glengary Glen Ross. It doesn't really bother me that some of her opinions are goofier than a cartoon dog (and some are just plain stupid). With Paglia we're forced to take wheat with chaff, gold with garbage; at her worst she's as self-embarrassing as Charlie Sheen, but at her best she's the most genuinely transgressive, mind-blowing literary critic of her generation. Sexual Personae blew through early-90s P.C. America like a pussy-scented hurricane. Call it Hurricane Camille. (She did.) I was an undergraduate English major when this book appeared, and I remember reading it eagerly, thrilled to have found the book I had wanted to read for years, the kind of book no one wrote anymore, a kind most American academics would've dismissed as a priori impossible. Sexual Personae is a big, broad, Texas-size work of intellectual synthesis that goes far beyond its subtitle to offer a vision of the evolution of Western (European and American) culture from pre-history to Oscar Wilde. In many ways it's a throwback, a 19th-century kind of book, a Golden Bough for the age of AIDS and body-piercing. But what impressed me more than the book's scope was its attitude. Here was a scholar speaking directly and passionately about art, with an absence of politically correct cant and theoretical dogma--both of which were in overabundant supply on American campuses of the early 1990s. This is not to say that Camille is not dogmatic. One of the more infuriating aspects of her work (I find Paglia's entire oeuvre infuriating and exhilarating in equal measure) is that she is guilty of virtually all the faults she criticizes in other critics. For example, she instructs her readers to despise dogma and yet adheres dogmatically to a biological essentialism and determinism that blinds her to sociopolitical causation and produces an untenable contradiction when she takes an implicitly constructionist view of homosexuality. (This latter contradiction is probably the largest and most serious crack in Sexual Personae's worldview. Her celebration of sexual rebels only makes sense in a context of Sartrean free will that directly contradicts the terrible--and deliberately overstated--determinism of her opening chapter.) She's also guilty of that universal sin of the theoretical critic, trimming artworks and artists so they fit the procrustean bed of the critic's chosen theory. This is most obvious in her relative treatment of Wordsworth and Coleridge, where she ignores the dark side of Wordsworthian nature so the poet better fits the Apollonian side of her Nietzschean critical paradigm and contrasts more sharply with her Dionysian Coleridge (also a caricature). She's not really anti-dogmatic in her work; she simply adheres to old, unfashionable dogmas (e.g. the Apollo / Dionysus duality; traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, etc.). Sometimes this is charmingly quixotic; sometimes it's simply obstinate. But enough generalities. What makes this book worth reading is its author's elephantine, Spenserianly-armoured balls. Big bronze bell-clapper balls. Sexual Personae contains more entertainingly outrageous sentences than any other book ever written by an American academic:

"For a fetus is a benign tumor, a vampire who steals in order to live." (11)

"The Latinist Fred Nichols tells me that a verb in Martial, used in poetry for the first time by Catullus, describes the fluttering movement of the buttocks of the passive partner in sodomy. There were, in fact, two forms of this verb: one for males and another for females." (133)

"The excretory voiding of one person into the mouth of another is Dionysian monologue, a pagan oratory." (239)

"A hundred nuns linked by dildos!...The orgiast nuns are like a polysyllabic Greek or German noun, spawning prefixes and suffixes and hyphenated by dildos." (241)

"William Blake is the British Sade, as Emily Dickinson is the American Sade." (270)

"Significantly, Dickinson shows little concern with disease. Her sadomasochistic horrors are confined to piercings, slashings, hackings, scorchings and dislocations." (654)

Sensational sentences aside, the best and most valuable parts of Sexual Personae are the Sade-istic reinterpretations of Spenser and Dickinson, the pages on Sade (although Paglia is wrong about the Marquis; she calls him a "great writer and philosopher," but most of the time he's a poor writer and a mind-numbingly monotonous philosopher), the readings of Donatello's David and Michelangelo's Giuliano de Medici, and the chapter on Swinburne and Pater, which rescues two of Victorian England's best writers from the oblivion of the unread. The book's most important contribution to literary theory--still largely ignored--is Paglia's concept of Decadence, which she defines as an Apollonian freezing of the Dionysian. This is a powerful notion and deserves further development and broader application.

Nothing in Paglia's subsequent books rises to the level of these sections of Sexual Personae. There are a few very good pieces in her other two essay collections (in Sex, Art and American Culture I recommend the "cancelled preface" to Sexual Personae, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders," and the MIT lecture; in Vamps and Tramps only "No Law in the Arena" comes close to the best of SP), but Paglia's post-SP career describes a disappointingly downward arc into banal pop-culture criticism (her Salon column) and dubious political bloviation. (Her little BFI book on Hitchcock's The Birds was good; I was unimpressed by Break, Blow, Burn.)

The fact that this book seems to have had little to no effect on academic literary criticism is hardly an indictment. Sexual Personae isn't a self-ghettoizing academic book; it's a defiantly popular one that pointedly ignores the common non-wisdom that equates 'popular' with 'non-intellectual.' It was written for readers, not teachers. It's a book to be read, re-read, and argued with. I have major disagreements with Paglia, but the fact remains that her goddamn book is a blast, blast, blast...

1 comment:

Chris Robideaux said...

Bravo, Brian! Great excoriation on Camille and Sexual Personae. I read this for the first time in the summer of 2004, with America hip-deep in neo-con palaver and blue-state red-state psychobabble, so - it was a surreal time to imbibe this tome, though, I agree, well worth pouring through. I agree she has some glaring contradictions in her critical capacities, but also that it is a blow-the-hair-back read, and intellectual candy.