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Sexual Personae

Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990, 718pp, Yale University Press) is Camille Paglia's first major work, and the work with the most scholarly focus: a survey of western literature with an emphasis on sexual decadence.

Paglia starts with a view of human nature where gender roles are heavilly biologically determined, and views all of Western Culture through this lens: all art either embraces the natural or struggles in denial against it.

Throwing in her lot with Hobbes and Dionysus, she follows in the tradition of a work like Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, where engaging assertion and overstatement are more important than rigorously proving a case. She argues passionately, with poetic flair: for her, human sexuality is dark, cruel, sadistic, powerful, daemonic, perverse, murky, decadent, pagan...

The bulk of the work is a survey of western literature from this point of view, with emphasis on: Spenser, Shakespeare, Rousseau, de Sade, Goethe, Blake, William Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Shelley, Keats, Honore de Balzac, Gautier[?], Baudelaire, Huysmans, Emily Brontė, Swinburne, Walter Pater[?], Oscar Wilde, Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Emily Dickinson.

From 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.

To the last:

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.

Paglia writes much that is debatable, but also much that is thought-provoking.



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