Thursday, November 19, 2009


Camille Paglia has always been at the periphery of my vision as one of the femme terrible writers who stalks the edges of polite scholarship -- sort of the Patricia Limerick of sexuality. It MUST be about sexuality, right? After all, she’s lesbian. Her life must be all about that. Her name came up recently so I got curious and have been downloading a few of her pieces, esp. from the BU journal, Arion, though she writes for as well. And occasionally indulges in the sort of cat fight that was featured in that grand old Western called “Frenchie” in which Joel McCrea (the sheriff) had to take off his badge and use the pin on the back to puncture a bustle because he couldn’t hit a woman and if he tried to pull them apart he was likely to get damaged.

So, gingerly, gingerly, I turn to the first two pages of “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art” which is the beginning of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. This is a thesis, a “groundbreaking and controversial survey.” By now it’s rather old news from the Seventies, but I remember it fondly.

“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.” I like this one, but like everything else it gets distorted. For a long time in UU circles it meant that men were Xian (from outer space) and women were earth mothers (kitchen gardens).

“Paglia associates Apollo with order, structure, and symmetry, while identifying Dionysus with chaos, disorder, and nature.” This degenerated into Apollo “owning” technology and science while women wrote poetry and committed suicide if you took the bell jar off their heads.

“Paglia discusses sex and nature as brutal daemonic forces, and she criticizes feminists for sentimentality or wishful thinking about the cause of rape, violence, and poor relations between the sexes. She also stresses the biologic 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.” This is an excellent counter-argument to the idea that both sex and nature are automatically wonderful, if over-commercialized, idyllic gates to heaven, much benefited by the use of hallucinogenic drugs to kill the inner Apollo.

“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 (Lord Byron, Elvis Presley); and the male heroine (Baudelaire, Woody Allen).” This totally neglects my most favorite person, the Sean Connery who is the King of Scotland: experienced, competent, humorous, and a little gray around the edges but still quite physical. Old cops, old soldiers, the sadder but wiser guy -- where’s he? And where’s my mermaid?

“Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements." This is where I’m REALLY different from Paglia. Imagine the eohuman at the edge of the forest -- edges are important -- gathering food of various kinds and then snoozing in the safe “arms” of the trees. These moments are just as important as the occasional arrival of a jaguar among the bonobos. It all depends on where you put the emphasis. I choose celebration. Perhaps the women put the emphasis on the food and baby-cuddling while the men put the emphasis on fighting the jaguar, but human understanding of life and the surrounding world comes from emergent meaning of ALL of life, not just the emergencies. Much of even the horrifically based Xianity (from crucifixion to apocalypse in one easy book) has long pastoral stretches.

“The serpent is not outside Eve but in her. [Ho, ho, Freud ahoy!] She is the garden and the serpent.” I’d start the analysis way back, before Genesis, before the waters and the land were separated, because I don’t divide everything into conflict: I start with the fused unity. God is that than which nothing can be greater. God (genderless because not anthropomorphic or -centric) includes nature. Nature and God are the same except that God can be theoretically greater than nature. It is humans who made this division and humans can take it away without any slithering and blaming.”

“Even the best critical writing on Emily Dickinson underestimates her. She is frightening. . . Dickinson is like the homosexual cultist draping himself in black leather and chains to bring the idea of masculinity into aggressive visibility." Well, THERE’s a provocative idea! The dark side of Emily forks her Harley and splits to Big Sur. At least this gives her some power again. But maybe she’s my mermaid, with fused legs, in a sea of dreaming about the leviathan.

“Throughout the 1990s, Paglia said that a second volume to Sexual Personae would be forthcoming . . . Eventually, she decided not to proceed with the book as planned, as it would need to undergo too many revisions . . .” This is endearing. So many people light on one smashing idea and then can’t give it up for fear of losing their readership. But never fear the feminists who attacked her probably guaranteed her a place on the shelf.

John Updike wrote about Sexual Personae: “It feels less a survey than a curiously ornate harangue.” [Some people would say this about Updike, whom I love dearly.] “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.” And, of course, some people weary of Updike’s ornate, twining, teasing, multi-syllabic coiled speculations. Not me. I love both styles. Why can’t we be inclusive? Bibfeldtian?

I see that I’ve wandered off into secondary comment and gossip. So I’ll keep reading but stick to primary sources in future.


Art Durkee said...

The mermaids are in the basement as usual.

Emily, I do believe, is still far more strange and wonderful than most people realize. There's the superficial image of Emily that young people in particular adore and worship—rather like the Maiden archetype, with a little Virgin thrown in—in the same way that many young female poets idolize Sylvia Plath and young male poets idolize Rimbaud: a transgressive, honest, prophetic role model.

But Emily is far more strange, in my opinion. We are still catching up to her. We are still trying to understand what she meant. Some of it was quite transcendent, some quite ordinary, some forming a bridge between those.

Diggitt said...

Mary and Art -- I am just beginning to catch up with the blogosphere, so you may not see these late comments. But I really like Art's response about Emily.

Emily was so sui generis that who knows who might be Emily Reborn. A new Emily could be a poet, or a biker chick, or a cooking teacher. Emily could be a mother of twelve who lobbies for abortion rights. She might develop role-playing games or work as an AIDS educator in Africa.

There's a sense in which all my proposed Emilys share a kind of charisma and do not necessarily seek the spotlight. But other than that, once we take Emily out of her shadowy Amherst home, what is it that Emily is?

Even her poetry does not tell us. We can read it over and over, as many of us do, and Emily is still elusive.

So it's interesting to me that you speak of Emily in a piece on Paglia, because Paglia comes right out with what she is. She is scared, fearful. I'm not sure of what, but my overwhelming take on all that gaseousness is that she is fighting, or hiding from, fear.