Sexual Personae

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Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson

Camille Paglia

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In this brilliantly original book, Camille Paglia identifies some of the major patterns that have endured in western culture from ancient Egypt and Greece to the present. According to Paglia, one source of continuity is paganism, which, undefeated by Judeo-Christianity, continues to flourish in art, eroticism, astrology, and pop culture. Others, she says, are androgyny, sadism, and the aggressive western eye, which has created our art and cinema. Paglia follows these and other themes from Nefertiti and the Venus of Willendorf to Apollo and Dionysus, from Botticelli and Michaelangelo to Shakespeare and Blake and finally to Emily Dickinson, who, along with other major nineteenth-century authors, becomes a remarkable example of Romanticism turned into Decadence.


Paglia offers provocative views of literature, art history, psychology, and religion. She focuses, for example, on the amorality, voyeurism, and pornography in great art that have been ignored or glossed over by most critics. She 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 stressed the biologic basis of sex differences and sees the mother as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement. She examines the culture and style of modern male homosexuals. She demonstrates how much of western life, art, and thought is ruled by personality, which she traces through recurrent types or personae such as the female vampire (Medusa, Lauren Bacall); the pythoness (the Dephic oracle, Gracie Allen); the beautiful boy (Hadrian's Antinous, Dorian Gray); the epicene man of beauty (Lord Byron, Elvis Presley); and the male heroine (Baudelaire, Woody Allen). Her book will stimulate and awe readers everywhere.

"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." —Harold Bloom

"Charts a vast theory of western culture and its Decadent undertow, detonating sacrosanct contemporary thoughts and doctrine at every turn. . . . Combative, shock-loving. . . . fascinating. . . . An explosive fusing of scholarship and theater."—Kirkus Reviews

"An expansive and daring mind is at work here, stating connections where none had previously been seen. . . . Well indexed, with impressive bibliographical notes."—Choice

"[An] astonishing new look at creativity from antiquity to 1900. . . . By the end of some 600 pages, [Paglia’s] bold assertions that the works of the Marquis de Sade should be included on university curricula, that the reclusive Emily Dickinson was Sade’s female equivalent and that all art is pornography anyway, finally do more than startle. . . . [The] vivid, almost muscular language, penetrates deeper into the prevalence of masks and unmasking in life and art. . . . The intrepid energy of this huge and hugely original book challenges every assumption. The natural conclusion of the Paglia thesis would presumably even require the Bible to be rewritten to override the dominance of the word so that ’In the beginning was the Look.’"—Pat Lee, Yorkshire Post

"Sexual Personae is an erotic history of Western literature and visual art; written in a style both erotic and aggressive. . . . Surely the time is right for such a book. . . . [It] is a dramatic monologue; the overhead voice is funny, resourceful, wonderfully associative. . . . Brilliant. . . . Paglia, in other words, has found a part of the story that no one is telling. It’s a splendid and exhilarating find, and makes for a brilliant book. . . . Part of the pleasure of reading Paglia is akin to the pleasure of watching sports: suddenly everything is reduced to the play of two passionate but opposed forces."—Mark Edmundson, Nation

"Brilliant, very quotable, often nutty."—Mark Feeney, Boston Globe

"The most lucid yet vigorous, the most fluent yet entertaining [book] of criticism that I have read in years. . . . Sexual Personae should rank as one of the key works of cultural history in the new fin-de-siècle into which we are now moving. The study is important because of its bigness and boldness as well as because of its shameless displays of knowledge and its frequently striking combination of vulgar expression and sensitive intuition. . . . The potential reader should not be intimidated by the length of the journey ahead: he will be taken under control by a strong, witty, earthy, ribald guide, a female Virgil who is not afraid to exaggerate for effect and who revels in dirty talk. . . . Her book is in its own way a stand for civilization against primal disorder and the rule of contingency. . . . It is full of original and revisionary insights into writers and artists who have perhaps become too familiar to us in their accepted images."—George Woodcock, Sewanee Review

"Paglia illustrates her theory with a spectacular range of examples."—Alan Bold, The Sunday Times (London)

"A maenadic rite is enacted in the groves of academe. . . . Hang on to your hats. Frequent comparisons between writers and stars of stage and screen elicited during the course of the present volume—Byron with Presley, Astaire and the Beach Boys, Kleist with Bob Dylan, Lady Bracknell with Margaret Dumont—provide a sneak preview of what we can expect [in volume two]. . . . This rush of impassioned assertion is breathtaking . . . in the scope of its erudition."—John Kemp, The Literary Review

"Camille Paglia expounds an original and totally compelling theory of sexuality in Western culture. . . . The work opens with a careful and lucid identification of those sexual images which pervade the books we read, the statues and pictures we gaze at, the plays we enjoy, and the films and videos which are a casual part of the texture of our lives. . . . Richly detailed analysis of significant works. . . . A vast mine of information and suggestiveness. . . . Her style is fluent, fluid, immensely readable and laced with wit: she is never frightened to enliven her insights with a touch of street slang. . . . Constant reference to our contemporary world (her examples of sexual personae include Lauren Bacall, Woody Allen, and Rita Hayworth as well as Medusa and Antinous) effectively yanks culture away from the pious protection of art gallery, library, and university and shows it simmering sexually all around us. A second volume is promised. I can hardly wait."—Roger Baker, Gay Times

"A massively impressive survey of androgyny, sadism, and sexual paganism. . . . Paglia itemizes masses of fascinating sexual characters in Western culture, and takes time to wander up some unusual byways. . . . Her readings of Classical, Renaissance, Romantic, and 'Decadent' texts are brisk, perceptive, and often witty. She has read a huge array of primary texts, so her commentaries on them are a rich resource."—Gregory Woods, Rouge

"What is really valuable here is Paglia's wide range of interests. She draws together art history, psychoanalytic theory, anthropology, philosophy, pop culture, and anything else that helps her illuminate her response to literature. The comparative study of Lord Byron and Elvis Presley is worth the price of the book."—Virginia Quarterly Review

"Paglia reads out of, or into, the poetry [of Dickinson] many subtleties we could easily have kept on overlooking. . . . Paglia finds decadent traces where we had not previously thought to look; sometimes she takes twists and turns that no doubt overstate the case. But there is a case to make."—The Christian Century

"Bizarre juxtapositions, startling insights, and a bright, sometimes lurid critical vision."—Anne Williams, Georgia Review

"If you relax and let her rave, she'll show you a down-and-dirty good time."—Walter Kendrick, The Voice Literary Supplement

"An amazing book. . . . A panoramic study of Western civilization driven by unfashionable but not implausible ideas. . . . The author establishes herself as one of the bravest and most original critics of our day. . . . Her book is more interesting than the last five books by Derrida, contains more psychological wisdom than the complete works of Lacan, tells you better truths about gender than a whole library of academic feminism, and is more intriguingly decadent than Robert Mapplethorpe. . . . There is no substitute in methodology, theory, virtue, or political correctness for real intellectual spunk. Paglia has it. Everyone who teaches canonical English literature—everyone who welcomes the return of the unsayable—everyone who needs inner strength for the next semester—has something to gain from her remarkable book."—William Kerrigan, Raritan Review

"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."—Anthony Burgess

"Provocative. . . . A radical reappraisal of the human condition. Her style is marked by angry exhilaration, brittle epigrams and acid paradoxes."—Times Literary Supplement

"A remarkable book, at once outrageous and compelling, fanatical and brilliant. . . . One must be awed by [Paglia's] vast energy, erudition, and wit."—Lillian Faderman, Washington Post Book World

"A critical study of sexuality in Western art that is also a scorched-earth attack on the underlying assumptions of liberalism and feminism."—Terry Teachout, New York Times Book Review

Winner of the 1992 Literary Award awarded by the The Athenaeum of Philadelphia for a volume of general literature written by a Philadelphian

Selected as One of the Ten Best Academic Books of the 1990s by readers of Lingua Franca
ISBN: 9780300091274
Publication Date: September 10, 2001
736 pages, 5 x 7 3/4