Sexual Personae  

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"There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper."

"If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts."

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990) is a book by Camille Paglia. It is a survey of western literature and the visual arts with an emphasis on sexual decadence.



Sexual Personae is the dissertation Camille Paglia presented to the Graduate School of Yale University in candidacy for her Ph.D in December 1974, and which formed the basis for her 1990 book by the same name. The 451 page study, organized into four chapters, examined the appearance of sexually ambiguous figures in art and literature from classical antiquity to the modern period. She wrote that her thesis was based on the assumption that "the inner dynamic of all artistic creation is a psychic union between masculine and feminine powers." She described her method as interdisciplinary, as it combined "literary criticism, art history, and psychology in what I believe is a new synthesis."


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).

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).

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."


Paglia begins by proposing a view of human nature in which gender roles are biologically determined. Western Culture is then viewed through this lens: all art either embraces the natural or struggles against it.

Portraying Western culture as a struggle between masculine, phallic, productive, sky-religion on the one hand, and feminine, chthonic, consumptive, earth-religion on the other, Paglia seeks to show how Christianity did not defeat, but rather embraced Paganism. Apollo is her model for the former and Dionysus for the latter, and she uses copious examples from literature and art to assert that the primary conflict in Western culture has always been between these forces.

The bulk of the work is a survey of western literature from this point of view, with emphases on: Spenser, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Marquis de Sade, Goethe, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Emily Brontë, Swinburne, Walter Pater, Wilde, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Henry James, and Dickinson.

Some quotations may help to convey the tone of the book, and make clear why the work was so controversial.

In the first chapter:

The Bible has come under fire for making woman the fall guy in man's cosmic drama. But in casting a male conspirator, the serpent, as God's enemy, Genesis hedges and does not take its misogyny far enough. The Bible defensively swerves from God's true opponent, chthonian nature. The serpent is not outside Eve but in her. She is the garden and the serpent.
Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements.

In the last chapter:

Even the best critical writing on Emily Dickinson underestimates her. She is frightening. To come to her directly from Dante, Spenser, Blake, and Baudelaire is to find her sadomasochism obvious and flagrant. Birds, bees, and amputated hands are the dizzy stuff of this poetry. Dickinson is like the homosexual cultist draping himself in black leather and chains to bring the idea of masculinity into aggressive visibility.

See also

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