Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Paglia's Big Book

One of the books that woke me out of my mental slumber 15 years ago (though I've slept again often and well since then) was Camille Paglia's magnum opus, Sexual Personae. It remains challenging and stimulating and I recently revisited it. She starts out big, by rewriting the opening to the Bible:

"In the beginning," she corrects, "was nature."

I see her point. It's not G-d's point, of course, but it is a point, which she fleshes out by writing that nature is the "background against which our ideas of God were formed, nature remains the supreme moral problem." Well, sure, I'll drink to that.

The way I'd put it is: While in the beginning of the West was the word (since we had a word and built what we have by following it), everybody else's beginnings began with nature. And in human terms nature translates into Paganism, which every other civilization except ours is still based on. But let's return to how Paglia puts it, as she traces our pagan, pre-biblical, pre-Western pre-beginnings:

"Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements….Sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture….Feminists grossly oversimplify the problem of sex:...purify sex roles {they say} and harmony will reign."

So far so good. Sexuality, pleasurable as it is, remains our true original sin, a raw and volatile connection with nature, tangled at its root with violence, and requiring control if civilization is to emerge and endure. I will take a moment to note that in Judaism, sin originates "from youth," (i.e., from adolescence) not from birth, somewhat in line with these ideas.

Paglia next announces her preference for both Christianity's "pessimistic view of man born unclean" which she links to – wait for it – the equally pessimistic vision of the Marquis de Sade, who is "the most unread major writer in western literature." Hm.

Well, at least she's not an idiotarian. But I could as easily describe (Judeo-) Christianity's optimistic view of man as worthy of a relationship with G-d and of redemption, a view not linked at all to Sade's essential championing of degradation. Paglia goes on to identify western civilization's attempt to integrate man's body and mind as a kind of literary project, which she spends her next 700 brilliant pages describing.

Personally I'd identify it a religious project.

Paglia's book was a seminal reading experience for me, the first time I experienced in criticism what I had previously experienced from literature. I began to see that there are times to enjoy the banquet of cultural expression (the eras of your Romantic poets, your Dutch painters, your Impressionists, your Shakespeare), and there are other eras best spent sitting back in your armchair and digesting the great waves of art that have come before, while waiting patiently for the next great wave by developing your sensibilities so that you will recognize it when it comes.

Every couple generations someone from the West's cold north rediscovers the sources of its culture in the pulsating south. Byron goes to Italy, Kenneth Clark goes to Italy. Edward de Vere, if he wrote those plays commonly attributed to an actor named Shakespeare (Warning! Pet Theory!) goes to Italy, Paglia goes to Italy. They all come back a little too besotted, forgetting that there wouldn't be much of a West at all if it were all and always Italian, Mediterranean, lush. The sort of place that's great, basically, for a vacation.


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