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SEXUAL PERSONAE by Camille Paglia Kirkus Star


Art And Decadence From Nefertiti To Emily Dickinson

by Camille Paglia

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1989
ISBN: 0679735798
Publisher: Yale Univ.

Armed with "the point of view of Sade," Paglia (Humanities/Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts) charts a vast theory of western culture and its Decadent undertow, detonating sacrosanct contemporary thought and doctrine at every turn. Paglia argues that western art is a splendid, man-made display of the mind, set up to counter the abyss of "violence and lust" that Sade rightly feared in Mother Nature. "Art is a ritualistic binding," she writes, "of the perpetual motion machine that is nature." Women, by their procreative powers, embody nature's bloody, undefined, Draconian force. This biological destiny (not the feminists' patriarchy) has chained them to the cultural sidelines while driving men to recast them into the icy, hard-edged, "sexually unapproachable" beauty of Nefertiti. Paganism, in Paglia's view, gave the West its "pictorialism," an "aggressive eye" reveling in amoral images of sex and violence. Certain "sexual personae" have held sway over western imagination--the Greeks' "beautiful boy" who reappears in the Renaissance as Donatello's David and then as Dorian Gray, or the "vampire" (Medusa, the Mona Lisa, the "femme fatale" of Dietrich and Bacall). In 24 chapters, Paglia traces her themes through countless figures in art and literature, among them Botticelli, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Byron, Baudelaire, Emily Bronte, Swinburne, the Pre-Raphaelites, Whitman, James, and Emily Dickinson, the Decadent imagist of amputation and death, "Amherst's Madame de Sade." Combative, shock-loving, unpruned, and fascinating, this treatise goes too far, strains its definitions, and jams too much into dazzling generalities. But, buttressed by troves of research and acute observation, again and again Paglia persuades us to reconsider. "Pagan" in its own pictorialism, sprawl, and unstopped prose, her unusual book creates its brilliant effect from an explosive fusing of scholarship and theater.