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Sexual Personae

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

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, who 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 literary critics Harold Bloom and Robert Alter.


  • Background 1
  • Summary 2
  • Reception 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5


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]

Paglia describes the method of Sexual Personae as psychoanalytic and acknowledges a debt to the work of 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 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 on her thinking.[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 (Byron, Elvis Presley); and the male heroine (the passive male sufferer, for example, the old men in William Wordsworth's poetry).[3]

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.[4]

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.[3]


Sexual Personae received critical reviews from numerous feminist scholars.[5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12] 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 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."[5]

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."[6] 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 reiterates the "terrible gaps in her coverage." Kasraie calls the work "distractingly antischolarly" and labels it "an unacademic wallow in Sadean sadomasochistic chthonian nature."[7] Professor Alison Booth of the University of Virginia characterized Sexual Personae as an "anti-feminist cosmogony."[8] Robin Ann Sheets wrote that Paglia "takes a profoundly anti-feminist stance."[9] Teresa Ebert denounced the book as "deeply misogynist and rancorous", writing that Paglia uses a biological basis to "justify male domination, violence, and superiority in Western culture."[10]

Literary scholar Marianne Noble claimed 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."[11] Judy Simons criticized Paglia's "potentially sinister political agenda," and decried her "intellectual sleight of hand."[12] Molly Ivins wrote a critical review of Sexual Personae, accusing Paglia of historical inaccuracy, egocentrism, and writing in sweeping generalizations.[13] Feminist Germaine Greer writes that Paglia's insights into Sappho are "vivid and extremely perceptive", but also "unfortunately inconsistent and largely incompatible with each other".[14] Martha Duffy wrote that the book had a "neoconservative cultural message" which was well received, but rejected by many feminists.[15]

Valerie Steele writes 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."[16] Some reviewers 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."[17] In his The American Religion (1992) Bloom calls Sexual Personae a "masterwork", and credits Paglia, who criticizes Max Weber's definition of charisma, with a "shrewd and alarming sexual definition of charisma".[18] 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."[19] 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."[20] 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."[21] 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."[22]

Novelist John Updike wrote that the book "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."[23] Novelist Anthony Burgess called Sexual Personae "A fine, disturbing book", adding that, "Each sentence jabs like a needle."[17] 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."[24] In a review in The New York Times, Terry Teachout described the book as flawed, but "...every bit as intellectually stimulating as it is exasperating".[25]

See also


  1. ^ a b
  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
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Gilbert, Sandra M. "Review: Freaked Out: Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae." The Kenyon Review 14.1 (1992): 158–164.
  6. ^ a b Lofreda, Beth. "Of Stallions and Sycophants: Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae." Social Text, No. 30. (1992), pp. 121–124
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ a b Booth, Alison. "The Mother of All Cultures: Camille Paglia and Feminist Mythologies. The Kenyon Review. 21.1 (1999): 27–45.
  9. ^ a b Sheets, Robin A. "Sexual Personae." Journal of the History of Sexuality. 2.2 (1991): 205–298.
  10. ^ a b Ebert, Teresa. "The Politics of the Outrageous." The Women's Review of Books. 9.1 (1991): 12–13.
  11. ^ a b Noble, Marianne. The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. pp. 225n.
  12. ^ a b Simons, Judy. "Sexual Personae." The Review of English Studies. 45.2 (1994):451–452.
  13. ^ Ivins, Molly. "I Am the Cosmos," Mother Jones. September/October 1991. pp 8–10
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ Steele, Valerie. "Sexual Personae." The American Historical Review. 96.5 (1991): 1499–1500.
  17. ^ a b Yale University Press
  18. ^
  19. ^ Righelato, Pat. "Sexual Personae." The Yearbook of English Studies. 22 (1992): 335–337.
  20. ^ Alter, Robert. "Criticism as Provocation." Arion 1.3 (1991): 117–124.
  21. ^ Gillespie, Gerald. "Sexual Personae." Comparative Literature. 45.2 (1993): 180–184.
  22. ^
  23. ^ Updike, John (2000) More Matter: Essays and Criticisms. New York: Ballantine Books.
  24. ^ "Woman Warrior" New York Magazine. March 4, 1991. Ref. pp. 24, 29.
  25. ^
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