From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990, Yale University Press, 718 pp.) is Camille Paglia's first major work, and the work with the most scholarly focus: a survey of western literature and the visual arts with an emphasis on sexual decadence.
Sexual Personae is the dissertation Camille Paglia presented to the Graduate School of Yale University in candidacy for her Ph.D in December 1974, and which formed the basis for her 1990 book by the same name. The 451 page study, organized into four chapters, examined the appearance of sexually ambiguous figures in art and literature from classical antiquity to the modern period. She wrote that her thesis was based on the assumption that "the inner dynamic of all artistic creation is a psychic union between masculine and feminine powers." She described her method as interdisciplinary, as it combined "literary criticism, art history, and psychology in what I believe is a new synthesis."
Paglia begins by proposing a view of human nature in which gender roles are biologically determined. Western Culture is then viewed through this lens: all art either embraces the natural or struggles against it.
Portraying Western culture as a struggle between masculine, phallic, productive, sky-religion on the one hand, and feminine, chthonic, consumptive, earth-religion on the other, Paglia seeks to show how Christianity did not defeat, but rather embraced Paganism. Apollo is her model for the former and Dionysus for the latter, and she uses copious examples from literature and art to assert that the primary conflict in Western culture has always been between these forces.
The bulk of the work is a survey of western literature from this point of view, with emphases on: Spenser, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Marquis de Sade, Goethe, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Emily Brontë, Swinburne, Walter Pater, Wilde, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Henry James, and Dickinson.
Some quotations may help to convey the tone of the book, and make clear why the work was so controversial.
In 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.
- Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements.
In the last chapter:
- 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.