Sexual Personae

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Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
Author Camille Paglia
Country United States
Language English
Subject Art and literature
Genre Literary criticism
Published 1990 (Yale University Press)
Media type Print
Pages 712
ISBN 9780300043969

Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson is a 1990 work about sexual decadence in Western literature and the visual arts by scholar Camille Paglia.


By Paglia's own account, the ancestor of Sexual Personae was a book on aviator Amelia Earhart that she began to write in high school. Paglia's discovery of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in 1963 inspired her to write a book larger in scope. Sexual Personae began to take shape in essays Paglia wrote in college between 1964 and 1968. The title was inspired by Ingmar Bergman's film Persona, which Paglia saw on its American release in 1968. The work was finished in 1981, but was rejected by seven major New York publishers before being released by Yale University Press in 1990. Paglia credits editor Ellen Graham with securing Yale's decision to publish the book. The original preface to Sexual Personae was removed at the suggestion of Yale editors because of the book's extreme length, but was later published in Paglia's essay collection Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992).[1]

The major influences on Sexual Personae according to Paglia were, in addition to The Second Sex (1949), Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890), Jane Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903), Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918), D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1920), Sándor Ferenczi's Thalassa (1924), the collected works of G. Wilson Knight and Harold Bloom, Erich Neumann's The Great Mother (1955) and The Origins and History of Consciousness (1949), Kenneth Clark's The Nude (1956), Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space (1958), Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death (1959) and Love's Body (1966), and Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).[1]

Paglia said of her objectives with the book, "It was intended to please no one and to offend everyone. The entire process of the book was to discover the repressed elements of contemporary culture, whatever they are, and palpate them. One of the main premises was to demonstrate that pornography is everywhere in major art. Art history as written is completely sex free, repressive and puritanical. I want precision and historical knowledge, but at the same time, I try to zap it with pornographic intensity."[2]


Portraying Western culture as a struggle between masculine, phallic, sky-religion on the one hand, and feminine, chthonic, earth-religion on the other, Paglia seeks to show that Christianity did not destroy paganism, but rather drove it into the underground of Western culture, to later emerge in Renaissance art, Romanticism, and contemporary popular culture, especially Hollywood. Drawing on the Greco-Roman polarity between the Apollonian and Dionysian, Paglia associates Apollo with order, structure, and symmetry, while identifying Dionysus with chaos, disorder, and nature. She then proceeds to analyze literature and art from the premise that the primary conflict in Western culture has always been between these binary forces.

According to Paglia, the major patterns of continuity in western culture find their origin in paganism, which, undefeated by Judeo-Christianity, continues to flourish in art, eroticism, astrology and pop culture. Other sources of continuity include androgyny, sadism, and the aggressive "western eye," which seeks to refine and dominate nature's ceaseless hostility and thus has created our art and cinema. Paglia discusses sex and nature as brutal daemonic forces, and she criticizes feminists for sentimentality or wishful thinking about the causes of rape, violence, and poor relations between the sexes. She also stresses the biological basis of sexual difference and sees the mother as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they fleetingly escape through rationalism and physical achievement.

In keeping with the theme of unity between classical art and pop culture, the "sexual personae" of her title include the female vampire (Medusa, Lauren Bacall); the pythoness (the Delphic Oracle, Gracie Allen); the beautiful boy (Hadrian's Antinous, Dorian Gray); the epicene man of beauty (Lord Byron, Elvis Presley); and the male heroine (the passive male sufferer, for example, the old men in Wordsworth's poetry).[3]

Among other works of art and literature to which Paglia applies her analysis of the Western canon are: the Venus of Willendorf, the Nefertiti Bust, Ancient Greek sculpture, Donatello's David, Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, Michelangelo, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, William Shakespeare's As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marquis de Sade, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Lord Byron's Don Juan, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry James, The Pre-Raphaelites, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Emily Dickinson.[3]


Scholarly reception[edit]

Sexual Personae received critical reviews from numerous feminist scholars.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11] Sandra Gilbert described Sexual Personae as "markedly monomaniacal...bloated, repetitious, [and] awkwardly written," adding that the book is "so 'essentialist' as to outbiologize even Freud." Gilbert accuses Paglia herself of being guilty of "vulgar homophobia" and deserving of "moral contempt," and notes that Paglia "loathes liberalism, egalitarianism, feminism, and Mother Nature."[4]

Professor Beth Loffreda censured Paglia, claiming "She garners most of her publicity by loudly and nastily proclaiming everyone wrong on the sensitive issues of gender, sexuality and rape." She concluded of Paglia, "Hers is a seductiveness of simple answers, of clear narratives, of motivations and actions traced solely to a biological origin—a place stripped of the complex ambiguities, the complex interactions of self, skin, group, and institutions that make up daily life."[5] Literary critic Mary Rose Kasraie echoed Lofreda's analysis, saying, "Paglia gives no indication she has read any studies related to women, or recent studies about imagination, nature and culture" and reiterates the "terrible gaps in her coverage." Kasraie criticizes Paglia's work as "distractingly antischolarly" and labels it "an unacademic wallow in Sadean sadomasochistic chthonian nature."[6] Professor Alison Booth of the University of Virginia similarly characterized Sexual Personae as an "anti-feminist cosmogony."[7] Robin Ann Sheets wrote that in Sexual Personae, "[Paglia] takes a profoundly anti-feminist stance."[8] Teresa Ebert denounced Sexual Personae as a "deeply misogynist and rancorous book" that uses a biological basis to "justify male domination, violence, and superiority in Western culture."[9]

Prominent literary scholar Marianne Noble claimed Paglia misread sadomasochism in Emily Dickinson's poetry. Speaking more broadly, Noble wrote, "Paglia's absolute belief in biological determinism leads her to pronouncements about female nature that are not only detestable but dangerous, because they routinely receive serious widespread attention in the contemporary culture at large." "Paglia," she concludes, "derives appalling social conclusions."[10]

Sexual Personae's implicit political orientation likewise came in for criticism. Judy Simons criticized its "potentially sinister political agenda," and decried its "intellectual sleight of hand."[11] In contrast, Valerie Steele contends, "Paglia has been attacked as an academic conservative, in league with Allan Bloom and other defenders of the 'Western canon,' but no conservative would be so explicitly approving of pornography, homosexuality, and rock-and-roll."[12]

Some academics praised Sexual Personae. Harold Bloom, a mentor to Paglia during her graduate studies at Yale University, wrote, "Sexual Personae [is] an enormous sensation of a book, in all the better senses of 'sensation.' There is no book comparable in scope, stance, design or insight."[13] Pat Righelato concludes, "Camille Paglia's syncretic theoretical enterprise invoking Frazer, Freud, Nietzsche, and Bloom, from anthropology to influence theory and psychobiography, is an immense tour de force."[14] Robert Alter writes, "[O]n purely stylistic grounds, this is one of the few thoroughly enjoyable works of criticism written in the American language in the last couple of decades." He went on to characterize the book as "immensely ambitious, vastly erudite, feisty, often outrageous, and sometimes dazzlingly brilliant."[15] Gerald Gillespie deemed the work "vigorous and capacious," and said of Paglia, "Her passion for her subject matter [...] radiates as a beacon of hope for the survival of the Western heritage beyond the current Babylonian captivity of the American academy."[16] Bruce S. Thornton praised Sexual Personae, calling it "wild and brilliant".[17]

Popular press[edit]

Molly Ivins wrote a critical review of Sexual Personae, accusing Paglia of historical inaccuracy, egocentrism, and writing in sweeping generalizations.[18]

John Updike wrote about Sexual Personae, "It feels less a survey than a curiously ornate harangue. Her percussive style — one short declarative sentence after another — eventually wearies the reader; her diction functions not so much to elicit the secrets of books as to hammer them into submission.... The weary reader longs for the mercy of a qualification, a doubt, a hesitation; there is little sense, in her uncompanionable prose, of exploration occurring before our eyes, of tentative motions of thought reflected in a complex syntax."[19]

Nevertheless, many other acclaimed novelists offered candid praise. Anthony Burgess called Sexual Personae "A fine, disturbing book. Each sentence jabs like a needle." Likewise, Gore Vidal declared, "[Sexual Personae] sounds like Myra Breckinridge on a roll. I have no higher praise."[20]

Cartoonist John Callahan, an ardent admirer of Paglia who shared her distaste for what they both regarded as patronizing left-wing sanctimony, drew several cartoons satirizing the outraged reaction to Sexual Personae. Reprinted in an appendix to Paglia's Vamps and Tramps (1994), in one sketch Callahan depicted prominent feminists Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf hiding behind a small hill, seemingly terrified of Sexual Personae and poking the book with a stick. The other cartoon showed Steinem as a stern Odysseus shouting "Don't listen to her!" as she pilots a boat full of weeping young women past the siren-like Paglia who is reading aloud from Sexual Personae.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Paglia, Camille (1993). Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. London: Penguin Books. pp. xi, xii, 111, 112, 114. ISBN 0-14-017209-2. 
  2. ^ As quoted in "20Q: Camille Paglia" by Warren Kalbacker in Playboy magazine (October 1991); also in Gauntlet # 4 (1992), p. 133
  3. ^ a b Paglia, Camille (1990). Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. London: Yale University Press. pp. vii–viii, 311, 312. ISBN 0-300-04396-1. 
  4. ^ a b Gilbert, Sandra M. "Review: Freaked Out: Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae." The Kenyon Review 14.1 (1992): 158-164.
  5. ^ a b Lofreda, Beth. "Of Stallions and Sycophants: Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae." Social Text, No. 30. (1992), pp. 121-124
  6. ^ a b Kasraie, Mary Rose. Review: Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. South Atlantic Review 58.4 (1993), pp. 132-135.
  7. ^ a b Booth, Alison. "The Mother of All Cultures: Camille Paglia and Feminist Mythologies. The Kenyon Review. 21.1 (1999): 27-45.
  8. ^ a b Sheets, Robin A. "Sexual Personae." Journal of the History of Sexuality. 2.2 (1991): 205-298.
  9. ^ a b Ebert, Teresa. "The Politics of the Outrageous." The Women's Review of Books. 9.1 (1991): 12-13.
  10. ^ a b Noble, Marianne. The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. pp. 225n.
  11. ^ a b Simons, Judy. "Sexual Personae." The Review of English Studies. 45.2 (1994):451-452.
  12. ^ Steele, Valerie. "Sexual Personae." The American Historical Review. 96.5 (1991): 1499-1500.
  13. ^ Yale University Press
  14. ^ Righelato, Pat. "Sexual Personae." The Yearbook of English Studies. 22 (1992): 335-337.
  15. ^ Alter, Robert. "Criticism as Provocation." Arion 1.3 (1991): 117-124.
  16. ^ Gillespie, Gerald. "Sexual Personae." Comparative Literature. 45.2 (1993): 180-184.
  17. ^ Thornton, Bruce S. (1997). Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. p. 246. ISBN 0-8133-3226-5. 
  18. ^ Ivins, Molly. "I Am the Cosmos," Mother Jones. September/October 1991. pp 8-10
  19. ^ Updike, John (2000) More Matter: Essays and Criticisms. New York: Ballantine Books.
  20. ^ "Woman Warrior" New York Magazine. March 4, 1991. Ref. pp. 24, 29.
  21. ^ [1]

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