Sexual Personae

“Sexual Personae,” By Camille Paglia.

Camille Paglia’s SEXUAL PERSONAE is a huge book in every sense. It makes me want to read and reread a great many books, examine and re-examine a great number of sculptures and paintings. There are in it interpretations of particular works with which I disagree, and others on which I am not qualified to judge, but the big themes in it – the continuity of paganism, the approaches to sex and nature – are a valuable contribution.

One of the more valuable ideas I got out of this book was the notion of nature as the unpredictable or uncontrollable. Understanding nature in this way does-in the usual distinction between nature and nurture, one of our more annoying never-to-be-answered “disputes.” The cultural can be thought of as what I can predict, control, know. The natural is, then, not just storms, weather, meteors but also to various degrees Kafkan bureaucracies, friends and relatives, social trends, my future self. How some combination of genes, nutrition, parenting, television, choices of career and friends, and so on, will have created the person I will be in ten more years is not an illegitimate question. But its possible answers do not divide usefully into two categories (or three, if we [attempt unsuccessfully to] add to “nature” and “nurture” the category of “free will”), and its answer can never be complete. It is a compelling line of thought for another reason, namely that it touches – however clumsily – on the question of what we can control and what we cannot.
Paglia is a subtle and intelligent writer, and hasty simplifications of her positions are liable to be wrong. For example, she deplores avoidance of concentration on biographical information about a work’s author, but she also frequently overrules an author’s judgment of his or her work.

Still, there is a position that seems pretty clearly present in Paglia with which I’d like to quarrel. At the very least it is a position that Paglia can have expected her readers to find and that she has not renounced. The idea that I have in mind is that of nature as a permanent force or set of forces resulting in specific events. I’m undecided as to how much, if at all, Paglia overstates some of her readings of sexual themes in Western art. But I am certain that she overstates her belief in the immutability of female and male “nature” or behavior. I am certain that her interpretations do not conflict with but add to various interpretations she believes she’s disproven (though, others I think she has indeed disproven). And I have no doubt that she underestimates the importance of cultural tradition in discouraging the creation of more and greater female creators.

Paglia uses “male” and “female” as categories of behaviors that any person can – to some degree, at least – adopt, and yet she thinks of them as pre-existing culture. She will state one conclusion and then preface her assertion of the opposite with the words “Mythologically, however ….” These points are usually good ones, but they describe a culture that is changing, not a permanent realm of Myth. Paglia thinks that lack of freedom and opportunity has had little to do with preventing the arising of more great women artists, but she does not comment on the importance of artistic tradition to an artist and how it may have been and still be difficult for women to jump into traditions dominated by men. Bloom is an influence on Paglia and influence is a theme of her book, yet she ignores it here. To her mind female artists have had to masculinize themselves not in order to enter a masculine tradition but in order to enter any artistic tradition that there might have been.

I am attracted to what Paglia sees as the honesty of depicting violence and cruelty in human life, even in childhood, because I largely agree with her. But there is also a great deal of gentleness and compassion which it is no less honest to depict (and, importantly, thereby to encourage). Countless readers are bound to come away from Paglia thinking that she has proven that certain violent sadistic tendencies are INEVITABLE and PERMANENT and (therefore) proper. This is bunk, and I hold out hope that Paglia knows as much. This kind of thinking results in our greatest social hopes being for “just wars,” not peace, for state executions that do not allow the victim’s face to reveal agony, rather than a ban on capital punishment, for the play-acting of rape and murder rather than excitement over peace and love. This is the thinking that produces cultural products that encourage violence on the fallacious grounds that viewing violent movies will “get the violence out of kids’ systems,” rather than – as is clearly the case – put the violence in kids’ systems. Paglia’s SEXUAL PERSONAE are in part what are usually called sex-objects, and thinking about people as people or as sex-objects is a choice one can make. I suspect that Paglia disagrees with me about which way of thinking is more important.

Paglia thinks that what she calls Rousseauism is wrong and its opposite true. I think both are pointless. Rousseauism is the idea that people are “naturally good” and are made otherwise by “culture”. Paglia believes that people are “naturally bad” and are improved by “culture.” If this just means dismissing nonsensical Platonic beliefs that we already know things without being taught them, then, well, OK. I’ll sign on to any sort of talk that supports education. But there is good and bad culture (and nothing other than culture that can be isolated as “the natural” and then examined), so I don’t get a whole lot out of this. I should add that when I say that Paglia sees people as naturally bad, I mean that she sees us as violent, selfish, and infantile, but that it is not at all clear that she sees these things entirely as problems to be remedied, as opposed to seeing them in part as “truths” to be “recognized.”

Like most great thinkers, Paglia overestimates her accomplishment. She has picked out a new strain in Western history. She has not shown us the true face of humanity.

What she has done, though, is fantastic, and my main hope is that we do not UNDER-estimate her accomplishment or relegate her to the department of lesbian studies or “cult status” among witches, pagans, wiggans, etc.