Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae": Book Review

Her first chapter dazzles. 39 pages astonished me with her passion. I wondered if she'd sustain this intensity.
"Out with stereotypes, feminism proclaims. But stereotypes are the west's stunning sexual personae, the vehicles of art's assault against nature. The moment there is imagination, there is myth. We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between art and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to. Not sex but cruelty is the great neglected or suppressed item on the modern humanistic agenda. We must honor the chthonian but not necessarily yield to it."(39)
So section one concludes.

She surveys the history of these personae in the West. Prehistory, Egypt (a fine evocation of its eerie gaze, its monolithic agenda), Greece & Rome, then a skip over to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and especially the Romantic and Victorian eras. Much of it reads like a literary critical thesis (as you'd expect from Yale UP) and this tone may have discouraged many attracted by the initial fireworks of the start of her show. I finished this in a hardcover, issued before Paglia's fame, before her leatherjacketed stance adorned mass-market paperbacks full of her essays that followed the surprise breakthrough of what's an erudite, energetic, and weighty tome. On it, a blurb by mentor Harold Bloom shows Paglia's Yale connection, a few other intellectuals nod to her, and the book's presentation's much more sober.

This demands attention to its dense contents. After these, me coming two decades too late to its initial and excited reader reception, the pace can slacken over 673 long pages. Still, I always admired Paglia for her attention to lively details within the usual academic accrual of texts, citations, theories, and analysis.

For instance, she enlivens the Dionysian cult of "sparagmos" or tearing the god's body in ritual ecstasy to devour or scatter it. Osiris, Jesus, the sacrifice of the Mass: these combine with cannibalism and dismembering a grocery chicken and oral sex. Paglia reminds us how "swallowing the god's parts was an act of physical love." (93) Then she turns to a news account of a plane crash, full of body parts. In such sensations of transformation, she excavates "the grotesque truth about reality."

She returns to Rousseau but champions Sade. "For Sade, sex is violence. Violence is the authentic spirit of mother nature." (235) She has little patience for caressing the urges we all are trapped within. "We are skin drums on which nature beats." (95)

She tracks the will-to-power of the Western male. The "Birth of Venus" reminds her of today's pornography. Wolf-whistles appear in ancient comedy as well as on the corner from leering men. Her take on stodgy pieties within academia can be bracing: "The reform of a college English department cuts no ice down at the corner garage." (22) As a working-class Catholic girl turned Ivy League Ph.D., Paglia speaks to her audience in a more diverse, and more innovative, fashion than her colleagues content to preach diversity from behind a safely tenured stance. Her outsider status lecturing at a little-known college when this book was published gives her a fresher, sassier style that's not the usual fare from a professor.

She compares the etymology of matzah with Amazon; she chastises those who'd not get their bridges built by macho men in our brutish society that rewards brawn. She compares women's intimate smell with fish, and takes this as a humbling, persistent reminder of our primeval origins. To enliven her broader thesis, she recruits Black Flag roach motels, Lucille Ball, Bob Dylan, Gracie Allen, and the Beach Boys.

She can be so taken with her arguments that they lose slight clarity. She delineates how rapists claim "she wanted it, she asked for it." But she then elides over how this can clearly prove that "{c]oercion requires free will, in both homosexual and heterosexual acts." (254)

The closing sections tend to drag once her foundations have been established, and I found the later chapters stodgier. Their high points diminished. But they deserve to be quoted. Blake's "child-slaves advance from childhood to old age without passing through adult virility. As in the penalty card of capitalist Monopoly: 'Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.'" (271)

Tackling Virginia Woolf's query about why so many books showed men wondering what women want rather than vice-versa: "from the beginning of time men have been struggling with the threat of woman's domination. The flood of books was prompted not by woman's weakness but by her strength, her complexity and impenetrability, her dreadful omnipresence." Then, Pagila leaps as she may from explication into her own poetry. "No man has yet been born, even Jesus himself, who was not spun from a pitiful speck of plasma to a conscious being on the secret loom from within a woman's body. That body is the cradle and soft pillow of woman's love, but it is also the torture rack of nature." (296)

Later on Woolf, within her final chapter on Dickinson, Paglia challenges us. "Culture, I said, was invented by men, because it is by culture that they make themselves whole." (653) She notes how rare's a woman even today "driven by artistic or intellectual obsession, that self-mutilating derangement of social relationship which, in its alternate form of crime and ideation, is the disgrace and glory of the human species." (653-4) This is not your usual professor seeking security by another footnoted monograph.

Instead, the reason Paglia's work drives into the popular culture's zeitgeist's due to her ambition, her push to plunge ideas from herself into us by a primal, erotic, and death-haunted penetration. Deep into power-play in Coleridge's "Christabel," Paglia diverts us a typical moment: "Murder here is sexual intercourse, for sex is how mother nature kills us, how she enslaves the imagination. Nature draws first blood, of virgins, of us." (335-6)

In her chapter on Poe, when reaching "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," similar observations wake a perhaps weary reader. "The white curtain over life's mystery parts, and the frail soul-boat plunges into the birth canal. At degree zero, a seminal torrent rushes eternally into the womb of matter. The smothering white shower is phenomena sinking back to primeval origins. White noise, white hole, the birth and death of stars: this spectacle of soundless sensory deprivation is a Romantic triumph. All hysteria resolves into oppressive calm." (579) From this, you won't get much of a context, if unfamiliar with Poe, about the novella in question, but you may well remember such a passage long after you close a dozen other commentaries on Poe written by lesser colleagues.

She can, finally, even make Henry James' "obscure late style," never a favorite of mine, a tad less oppressive. "Page by page, the metaphors are sharp points of visibility that, like a matador's cape, make the reader lunge past a protective center. Their function is to pretend something is being revealed, when it is not. The metaphors are 'apotropaia,' like the ugly gorgoneion hung on the oven door to ward off evil spirits. The reader, both invited guest and intruder, is lured and misled. We are pulled into a labyrinth or meander, then left in the dark." (620) I felt better after my own grad school difficulties with James after all.

And in such a way, this skilled teacher shows how she reacts to texts, and how we can pull our own anxieties (as with her mentor Bloom) into our own reactions to many books and poems and myths. The length of the resulting volume and the depth of her explorations did tire me out, but in this ambitious expedition, for the patient reader, sights of wonder do emerge out of the murk and the chasms. And, you'll never find so many mentions, if applicable for once, of "chthonian" outside a Scrabble or crossword puzzlers convention, I predict. (P.S. I wish she'd finish the follow-up to the 20th century she promised to write circa 1990.)(Posted to Amazon US 12-7-09)


Bo said...

This was the first literary-critcal book I ever read, when I was 16 or so. It still astonishes.

Fionnchú said...

At 16? That explains your rapid trajectory into academia. Impressive for any teenaged adept, I admit.

Bo said...

I just picked it up randomly---I was a teenage Wiccan, and it definitely de-fluffed me. Permanently!

Dennis Jernberg said...

I first encountered Sexual Personae back in '92 and read it almost nonstop for the next decade. I was then under the heavy influence of Ayn Rand, and it permanently loosened me up. It was the intellectual equivalent of an entire Lollapalooza on several drugs at once. It took years for it to really start influencing my writing style; but by the turn of the millennium, Rand was gone forever.

It's one of my major influences. (BTW: in 1992, I was 27.)

Fionnchú said...

Dennis, Paglia's at her worst at least more readable than Rand! If now and then as demented. Glad to hear how your writing style found liberation. These two writers are an eclectic duo as influences, I admit.

David Foglietta said...

fionnchu....You don't know a great book when you see it. You've been brainwashed by the totally patriarchal and incompetent educational system in this country.

Fionnchú said...

David, Paglia's first chapter as I mentioned dazzled me. But as I read on and on and on, that allure faded. Given my long march through grad school in the heyday of French theory under tenured radicals, I doubt that the system in the upper reaches of the "educational system" is "totally patriarchal," although after twenty-eight years teaching in the less elevated reaches of the same, I'll grant you "incompetent." More and more, I call out students for wretched sub-5th-grade literacy and they challenge me: "Whaddya mean? Nobody ever told me this before. I get perfect scores." QED.