Old-Time Religion (Camille Paglia’s ‘Sexual Personae’ – 07/90)

In 313 A.D., Constantine the Great officially opened the Roman Empire to Christianity. He sent Zeus and Jupiter, Aphrodite and Venus, Athena, Minerva, and all the rest into oblivion—but, Camille Paglia declares at the start of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, her 718-page first book, “Judeo-Christianity never did defeat paganism.” She is saying that the gravity of the absolute authority of a single, omniscient, omnipotent God, an absolute creator-judge, the source of all values, has never matched the pull on the Western imagination of the panoply of warring, jealous, spiteful, all-too­-human pagan gods.

Paglia is also arguing that this isn’t ancient history. “A critical point has been reached”: today, she says, paganism may be on the verge of a final triumph, in which the ethical absolutes of Western monotheism, the very notion of distinguishing good from evil, may be dissolved. Her position on this claim is unclear. When she writes that “with the rebirth of the gods in the massive idolatries of popular culture, with the eruption of sex and violence into every corner of the ubiquitous mass media, Judeo-Christianity is facing its most serious challenge since Europe’s confrontation with Islam in the Middle Ages,” she can sound as if she’s cranking out scare letters for Pat Robertson—who considers Halloween a pagan festival and wants it banned. But well before this forty-three-year-old professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia is done with her book, you may get the feeling that she, like the gods whose story she tells, has been biding her time for nearly two thousand years, waiting for the right moment to reclaim the earth. That is because the sexual personae of her title, icons she believes have always determined the forms and subjects of Western culture, are pagan gods: Apollo in the shape of Michelangelo, Madonna no less than Medusa, Prince no less than Perseus.

Paglia marshals a vast array of canonical cultural materials with a radically subjective voice derived, she says, from “sixties acid-rock lead guitar.” As a scholar, she’s old-fashioned enough to say, “But art is what transcends and survives. Of all truths it is the finest,” and sure enough of herself to refer to the Beach Boys’ “immortal ‘California Girls.'” “My method is a form of sensationalism,” she says, and she’s not kidding. “Enough of brains, on to lungs,” she writes of Emily Dickinson. She’s talking about Dickinson’s lust for mutilation and dismemberment: brains and lungs, on Dickinson’s pages, ripped out of the body, along with hearts served up on plates. By this point, Paglia has traced paganism from its beginnings to the nineteenth century, orchestrated it as an imaginative mode of being in which sexuality renders the body unstable, unfixed in the most extreme sense of the term, moving from Athena’s birth out of Zeus’s head to the baroque atrocities in de Sade (of which, Paglia says charmingly, “even I cannot stand many passages, despite… a summer as ward secretary of a downtown hospital emergency room”).

Approaching the end of the book, the reader is prepared to feel Dickinson’s kind of lust as an inevitable undertow in the Western tradition—a tradition in which, as Paglia defines it, destruction always catches up with creation, and supersedes it. “Enough of brains, on to lungs”—Paglia’s words soften you up, destroying whatever image of Dickinson as genteel neurasthenic nature lover, you might harbor. Paglia gets the reader to take lines she has excavated from Dickinson as if they mean exactly what they say—a triumph for any critic—to accept their gruesome blasphemies. “The auctioneer of Parting / His ‘Going, going, gone’ / Shout even from the Crucifix / And brings his Hammer down,” Dickinson wrote, and Paglia finishes up: “Christ turned money changer is conducting a slave auction from the cross.” This is sensationalism, but also close to poetry, and it’s typical of the writing in Sexual Personae. As a set-up, it allows the Massachusetts virgin (in Paglia’s words, “Amherst’s Madame de Sade”) to locate the paganism of culture in a Christian world, where the gods, now ghosts, drive out God: “Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted.”athenaThe Western artistic tradition, as Paglia reconstructs it out of sculpture, painting, and literature, is white, Eurocentric, and mostly male. Antedating her subtitle, she begins with a Paleolithic female figurine, the 30,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf from Austria, jumps to Egypt, crosses to Greece, leaps into the Italian Renaissance, then moves on through Spenser, Shakespeare, Rous­seau and de Sade, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Balzac, and Baudelaire, burning her way out of her book with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Emily Brontë, Poe, Haw­thorne, Melville, Oscar Wilde, and Our Lady of Brains and Lungs. It’s a broken but finally unbreakable line, followed according to Paglia’s sense of protean events in pagan culture—when it ruled and, more vitally, when, enveloped by Christianity, it again and again erupted out of its catacombs beneath the church—the pagan, Olympian tradition of heroism, excess, folly, and sexual confusion, over which, in this story, the certainties of Christianity are merely a veneer, a lie the West has told itself.

“I try to flesh out intellect with emotion and to induce a wide range of emotion from the reader,” Paglia says, and she succeeds on the level of Norman O. Brown, or for that matter Stephen King. When I finished her chapter on Wuthering Heights I was shaking with fear, and not because of her analysis of Emily Brontë’s attack on all pieties, as in “Sometimes the cruelty is quite subtle. When Catherine falls ill with fever, Mrs. Linton visits Wuthering Heights to nurse her, then insists on taking her to Thrushcross Grange to convalesce. Nelly recalls: ‘But the poor dame had reason to repent of her kindness; she, and her husband, both took the fever, and died within a few days of each other.’ The sudden exit of the elder Lintons,” Paglia as M. or Mme. de Sade writes, “always inspires me with admiring laughter. They die so fast we nearly hear their bodies hitting the floor.”

This is pagan revelry, but not what Paglia uses to make Wuther­ing Heights so fearsome. To do that, she homes in on “Lockwood’s terrible dream of Catherine’s ghost”—that hideously uncanny passage, coming early in Wuthering Heights, in which the old man hears the dead Catherine, as a child, rapping at his window. He breaks through the glass and grabs Catherine’s arm. Lockwood remembers what happened next: “finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes.”

Paglia slows the passage down. Through her cool, careful questioning of what manner of forgotten gods Brontë, Catherine, and Heathcliff, now burrowing up out of the Western unconscious to bestow identity or seize it, might be, Paglia somehow makes the reader go through the bad dream over and over, until the passage seems to contain the whole of her book. Creating such an effect is what it means to reconstruct a cultural tradition: not only to seek out sources and stack them up, but to be ready to imagine that all along some goal was coded in each artifact. It’s as if Brontë’s ancestors, as Paglia identifies them across the centuries, have worked their way out from under the strictures of Christianity just so a dream like Lockwood’s could finally be said out loud.cp001Paglia roots her book in the tension between the pagan gods Apollo and Dionysus. In her hands this is no high school formula (the classics equivalent of that biology-class standby, “When in doubt, say ‘osmosis'”). It’s an intellectual torture rack, the thing she uses to get her subjects to talk. Her Apollo is no Pericles, her Dionysus no god of wine and happy orgies. The Apollonian for her is selfish, severe, discriminating, narcissistic, making a mind that quickens not to wholeness but to separation—and, first, the separation of humanity from nature. Paglia is not unsympathetic. It is culture, self-consciousness made into representations, that distinguishes humanity from the rest of the world, she says; thus “everything good in western culture has come from its battle against nature.” The extensions of this statement have no limits: that is why, with the unstable, unfixed pagan body, the ultimate body is hermaphroditic, or parthenogenetic, overwhelming biology. When Paglia says of Rousseau’s elevation of nature over the artificiality of social life that “we cannot escape our life in these fascist bodies,” in which male is male and female is female, it is hard to imagine a more Apollonian protest, and then easy to imagine that sex-change operations, following the transformations of the Olympian gods, are less modern science than pagan reversals.

If the Apollonian is against nature, the Dionysian, Paglia writes, “is no picnic.” Because so many see the Dionysian as literally that, a bucolic romp, Paglia uses a less familiar word: “chthonian.” It means, she says, “‘of the earth’—but the earth’s bowels, not its surface… It is the chthonian realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding subterranean force, the long slow suck, the murk and ooze.” This is consciousness in hiding from Freudian insight, the body in which chromosomes resist hormonal therapy and sex-change surgery: the irreducible, the font of sex and violence that, today, Paglia sees invading our structured, Apollonian world, a world that is the product of a war with nature, against a wilderness where incest is inevitable and bodies exist only to merge into others. Forget Christianity (in this book, it barely exists); the Apollonian is civilization, but the chthonian is the barbarism that can never be fully expunged (“The rapist is created not by bad social influences but by a failure of social conditioning”). The chtonian, with us always, is Darwinian, blind, indiscriminate, devouring, the instinct for self-preservation driven not by the Apollonian ego but by Dionysian genes.

Within such a framework, the whole of culture, of history, takes on a perverse, destructive, seductive aura. “The continuum of empathy and emotion leads to sex,” Paglia writes. “Failure to realize that was the Christian error. The continuum of sex leads to sado-masochism. Failure to realize that was the error of the Dionysian Sixties. Dionysus”—nature in human form—“expands identity but crushes individuals… the god gives latitude but no civil rights. In nature we are convicted without appeal.”

Throughout her rewriting of Western culture, Paglia’s language is always capable of its own chthonian violence, breaking down preconceptions with shock technique (“The excretory voiding of one person into the mouth of another is a Dionysian monologue, a pagan oratory”), a good joke (“Supreme western works of art… are morally ungraspable. Even the Venus de Milo gained everything by losing her arms”), or plain speech: “this bloody pagan spectacle,” she says of Wuthering Heights. After what she’s found in Wuthering Heights, after what she’s made you feel, after she’s made you flinch, you can perhaps identify the emotions behind her phrase—disgust, exhilaration, displacement, homecoming—but you can’t separate them. Such a smear is anti-Judeo-Christian; it is pagan, an epistemological charnel house.

Paglia makes no apologies: it is paganism, she says, that “has produced the modern aggressive woman”—the woman who can, on pagan terms, change her sex, “who can think like a man and write obnoxious books.” She has written to change the way we see the world, to banish God and strand us in uncertainty. This, to her, is history, ancient and modern. This is where we are, whether we know it or not. The gods don’t care.


California, July 1990


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One thought on “Old-Time Religion (Camille Paglia’s ‘Sexual Personae’ – 07/90)

  1. There’s no cultural critic I respect more than Greil Marcus, but I’ve never been able to figure out his respect for this hollow charlatan.

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