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Reviews369 Sexual Personae: Art and Decadencefrom Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, by Camille Paglia; xiv & 718 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, $35.00. Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae is a book ofburdens. From the start it laments "the female body's unbearable hiddenness" (p. 22). This body is "literally" nature, which always threatens to overwhelm human civilization (p. 9). Linked to the "miasmic swamp" of generation, the female body is "repugnant." "Disgust ," Paglia contends, "is reason's proper response to the grossness of procreative nature" (p. 12). Perhaps it is also a proper response to this book. Sexual Personae ostensibly analyzes art and literature for "pagan" content, but interspersed are statements ofcontemporary ideology. Contemporary feminists are wrong, Paglia asserts. Eroticism can never be made "perfecdy humane" (p. 4). Biology dictates that sexuality and violence will always be linked. "Sexual intercourse, from kissing to penetration, consists of movements of barely controlled cruelty and consumption" (p. 16), and rape is only "a development in degree of intensity ... of the basic movements of sex" (pp. 23-24). Feminists who promote egalitarianism fail to recognize the essential "hierarchism" of sex. "Sex is power," according to Paglia (p. 2). One individual dominates, another submits. Feminists who promote androgyny also fail to recognize "the terrible duality of gender" (p. 22), which ties males to culture and females to nature. "All cultural achievement is a projection, a swerve into Apollonian transcendence , and . . . men are anatomically designed to be projectors" (p. 17). As a dramatic instance, male urination demonstrates "remarkably" the "concentration and projection" that are fundamental to cultural achievement (pp. 20-21). So does ejaculation. But sexuality, for men, is rife with anxiety. "No woman has to prove herself a woman in the grim way a man has to prove himself a man. He must perform or the show does not go on" (p. 20). Worse yet, woman represents for a man the dangerous cruelty ofnature and the mother on whom he depended but could not control. As a result, sex for men is "metaphysical ... as it is not for women" (p. 19). (The burden continues!) As metaphysical, male sexual experience flows directly into art. (Paglia analyzes her female examples as dominated by a "masculine will" [p. 657] that subjects them to typically male anxieties [p. 9]). Western art is "a parade of sexual personae" (p. 39) which the artist employs to avoid domination by the female principle. In every case the artist's strategy is perverse. The artist evades female nature by means of homoeroticism, transsexualism, voyeurism, narcissism , sadomasochism, and/or perverse erotic attachment to his or her own characters or works. Paglia describes her method as "a form ofsensationalism" (p. xiii). No kidding! Her style is hyperbolic, with little concern for terminological precision. "Sex," "power," "paganism," "violence," and "decadence" are characterized in terms 370Philosophy and Literature of one another. The virtual substitutab├╝ity of Paglia's key terms farilitates her moves from text to sex to authorial perversity, and it substitutes for defense of her basic premises. She may feel burdened, but not by burden of proof. Paglia's treatment of her heroes is similarly cavalier. Although operating on a largely Freudian map she conflates the erotic and aggressive instincts, as Freud does not. Sade is admirable for his "vitality" (p. 421) and his "comprehensive satiric critique of Rousseauism" (p. 2). (Did Sade know he was writing "satire"?) Paglia has no compunction announcing, "My theory is: Dionysus is identification, Apollo objectification" (p. 96). I had thought that theory was Nietzsche's. "My theory is . . ." recurs like a refrain, even when prefacing a commonplace. Paglia fancies her views quite original, although she rarely explains the significance ofher observations. Paglia also claims originality in herodd and whimsical labels for personality and stylistic types. "I call DonJuan's lightness and quickness 'breeziness' " (p. 357). So might anyone, without imagining this a term of art. Paglia is eager to assign names. Perhaps she is afflicted by Adam-envy. I think Paglia's main burden is what Harold Bloom calls "anxiety ofinfluence" (see p. 9). Her analyses certainly presuppose Bloom's theories. The history of literature is conceived as a chronicle of agons between poetic rivals. Literary tropes and strategies...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 369-370
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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