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Sexual Personae

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Language  English
Originally published  1990
Page count  712
ISBN  9780300043969
3.9/5 Goodreads

Pages  712
Author  Camille Paglia
Genre  Sociology
Country  United States of America
Sexual Personae t3gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcTioRBIPTnRoc1M5
Subject  Art and literature, the Decadent movement
Media type  Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Similar  Works by Camille Paglia, Human sexuality books, Sociology books

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, in which Paglia addresses major artists and writers such as Donatello, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Emily Brontë, and Oscar Wilde. Paglia argues that the primary conflict in Western culture is between the binary forces of the Apollonian and Dionysian, Apollo being associated with order and symmetry, and Dionysus with chaos, disorder, and nature. The book received critical reviews from numerous feminist scholars, but was praised by some literary critics, including Harold Bloom and Robert Alter.



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).

Paglia describes the method of Sexual Personae as psychoanalytic and acknowledges a debt to the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Her other major influences were 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 works of literary critics 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 also acknowledges astrology as an influence.

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 seeks to demonstrate "the unity and continuity of western culture". Accepting the canonical western tradition, she "rejects the modernist idea that culture has collapsed into meaningless fragments." Paglia argues that Christianity did not destroy paganism, which flourishes in art, eroticism, astrology, and popular culture. She examines antiquity, the Renaissance, and Romanticism from the late eighteenth century to 1900, contending that "Romanticism turns almost immediately into Decadence." She believes that the "amorality, aggression, sadism, voyeurism, and pornography in great art have been ignored or glossed over by most academic critics" and that sex and nature are "brutal pagan forces." She also stresses the truth in sexual stereotypes and the biological basis of sexual difference, noting that her stance is "sure to cause controversy." Paglia sees the mother as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they fleetingly escape through rationalism and physical achievement.

Portraying Western culture as a struggle between phallic, sky-religion on the one hand, and chthonic, earth-religion on the other, Paglia draws on the Greco-Roman polarity between the Apollonian and Dionysian. She associates Apollo with order, structure, and symmetry, and Dionysus with chaos, disorder, and nature. She analyzes literature and art from the premise that the primary conflict in Western culture has always been between these forces. In her view, the major patterns of continuity in western culture find their origin in paganism. 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 criticizes feminists for sentimentality or wishful thinking about the causes of rape, violence, and poor relations between the sexes.

The "sexual personae" of Paglia's 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 (Byron, Elvis Presley); and the male heroine (the passive male sufferer; for example, the old men in William Wordsworth's poetry). Writers Paglia discusses include Spenser, Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Marquis de Sade, Goethe, William Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Brontë, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Emily Dickinson. The works of literature Paglia devotes attention to include Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Shakespeare's As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra, Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Byron's Don Juan, Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Works of art to which Paglia applies her analysis of the Western canon include: the Venus of Willendorf, the Nefertiti Bust, Ancient Greek sculpture, Donatello's David, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera, da Vinci's Mona Lisa and The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.

Feminist responses

Sexual Personae received critical reviews from numerous feminist scholars. Robin Ann Sheets wrote that Paglia "takes a profoundly anti-feminist stance." Author Molly Ivins wrote a critical review of Sexual Personae, accusing Paglia of historical inaccuracy, egocentrism, and writing in sweeping generalizations. Teresa Ebert denounced the book as "deeply misogynist and rancorous" in the Women's Review of Books, writing that Paglia uses a biological basis to "justify male domination, violence, and superiority in Western culture." English professor 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 accused Paglia herself of being guilty of "vulgar homophobia" and deserving of "moral contempt," and notes that Paglia "loathes liberalism, egalitarianism, feminism, and Mother Nature." Martha Duffy wrote that the book had a "neoconservative cultural message" which was well received, but rejected by many feminists. 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 that, "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." Literary critic Mary Rose Kasraie wrote that, "Paglia gives no indication she has read any studies related to women, or recent studies about imagination, nature and culture" and had "terrible gaps in her coverage." Kasraie called the work "distractingly antischolarly" and labels it "an unacademic wallow in Sadean sadomasochistic chthonian nature."

Judy Simons criticized Paglia's "potentially sinister political agenda," and decried her "intellectual sleight of hand." Author Germaine Greer wrote that Paglia's insights into Sappho are "vivid and extremely perceptive", but also "unfortunately inconsistent and largely incompatible with each other". Professor Alison Booth of the University of Virginia characterized Sexual Personae as an "anti-feminist cosmogony." Literary scholar Marianne Noble wrote that Paglia misread sadomasochism in Dickinson's poetry, that "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", and that Paglia, "derives appalling social conclusions."

However, Sexual Personae has been described as a "seminal feminist work."

Other responses

Critic Helen Vendler reviewed Sexual Personae negatively in The New York Review of Books, writing that while Paglia could be "enlightening and entertaining" when dealing with a subject congenial to her, she failed in her discussions of subjects that demanded more than appreciation of images and stories. In response to a letter of protest from Paglia, Vendler denied that Sexual Personae constituted poetry criticism. Critic Terry Teachout, writing in The New York Times, described Sexual Personae as flawed, but "every bit as intellectually stimulating as it is exasperating". Novelist Anthony Burgess wrote of Sexual Personae, "A fine, disturbing book. It seeks to attack the reader's emotions as well as his/her prejudices. It is very learned. Each sentence jabs like a needle." Bloom, a mentor to Paglia during her graduate studies at Yale University, wrote, "Sexual Personae will be an enormous sensation of a book, in all of the better senses of ’sensation.’ There is no book comparable in scope, stance, design, or insight. It compels us to rethink the question of the literary representation of human sexuality." In The American Religion (1992) Bloom called Sexual Personae a "masterwork", and credited Paglia, who criticized Max Weber's definition of charisma, with a "shrewd and alarming sexual definition of charisma".

Novelist Gore Vidal declared that based on the quotations he had read, Sexual Personae "sounds like Myra Breckinridge on a roll. I have no higher praise." Valerie Steele wrote that, "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." Literature professor Robert Alter wrote in Arion, "[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." Pat Righelato concluded, "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."

Gerald Gillespie called Sexual Personae "vigorous and capacious," and wrote 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." Author Christina Hoff Sommers wrote in Who Stole Feminism? (1994) that Sexual Personae should have led to Paglia being "acknowledged as an outstanding woman scholar even by those who take strong exception to her unfashionable views", and criticized the Women's Review of Books for calling the book a work of "crackpot extremism" and feminist professors at Connecticut College for comparing it to German dictator Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf (1925). According to author Dale Pendell, classicist Norman O. Brown stated that he had read, and liked, Sexual Personae. Classicist Bruce Thornton called Sexual Personae "wild and brilliant", adding that "Even when she's wrong, Paglia is more interesting than any dozen poststructuralist clerks." Novelist John Updike wrote that Sexual Personae "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."

Jurist Richard Posner called Sexual Personae, "an insightful book, written in a lively manner, though opinionated, uneven, and often difficult to follow", and compared it to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), writing that they are both examples of "difficult academic works that mysteriously strike a chord with a broad public." Anthropologist Melvin Konner wrote that Sexual Personae is "a powerful account of gender as depicted in Western art and literature." In 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times, singer David Bowie listed Sexual Personae among his hundred favorite books.


Sexual Personae Wikipedia