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Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  2,498 ratings  ·  215 reviews
From ancient Egypt through the nineteenth century, Sexual Personae explores the provocative connections between art and pagan ritual; between Emily Dickinson and the Marquis de Sade; between Lord Byron and Elvis Presley. It ultimately challenges the cultural assumptions of both conservatives and traditional liberals. 47 photographs.
Paperback, 736 pages
Published September 10th 2001 by Yale University Press (first published 1990)
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Cd0467 Short answer:
Ayn Rand draws her ideas on the Apollonian-vs-Dionysian dichotomy from Nietzsche, while Paglia draws her ideas on the same dichotomy more…more
Short answer:
Ayn Rand draws her ideas on the Apollonian-vs-Dionysian dichotomy from Nietzsche, while Paglia draws her ideas on the same dichotomy more from Jung. The two routes are similar, but there are some differences.

Long answer:
Nietzsche is the modern beginning of the Apollonian-vs-Dionysian dichotomy (though not the first to come up with the idea). To oversimplify, he basically identified two trends in human culture: The emotional (Dionysian) vs the rational (Apollonian). Nietzsche himself identified with the Dionysian/emotional side: He felt that if you are too rational, you end up getting cut off from your roots and lose your cultural and spiritual mooring.

Ayn Rand basically accepted Nietzsche's dichotomy as presented, but she differed from Nietzsche in that she herself favored the Apollonian/rational side. To her, the Dionysian/emotional side was nothing more than hedonistic self-indulgence and partying, whereas the Apollonian/rational side represented technology and progress. As a good capitalist, her sympathies were with the Apollonian/rational side. At least, that's the argument she made in her article "Apollo and Dionysus." Link:

In the meantime, Carl Jung was developing a theory that everyone has two sides to their psychology: a male side and a female side (an animus and an anima). In dealing with these two sides of your nature, it's usually considered healthiest to recognize and embrace both sides to some extent. By comparison, if you skew too heavily to one side and attempt to ignore or repress the "opposite" side, you risk creating a situation where the repressed opposite side comes back at you in the form of nightmares and neuroses and mid-life crises.

Over time, Jung and his followers developed this Jungian male-vs-female dichotomy into "archetypes," and they tracked and analyzed these archetypes as they appeared in mythology and religion. Eventually the Dionysian/emotional side of Nietzsche's dichotomy got conflated with the female side of the Jungian dichotomy (Dionysus was a follower of the Great Mother religion), and the Apollonian/rational side got conflated with the male side. The result: Now you have an Apollonian/male-vs-Dionysian/female dichotomy.

Finally, Paglia comes in on the tail end of the Jungian thread. She is a big admirer of one of Jung's students who worked with Jungian archetypes, Erich Neumann. Paglia continues to develop the Apollonian/male-vs-Dionysian/female dichotomy. As explained in the Wikipedia article entitled "Apollonian and Dionysian": In "Sexual Personae," the Dionysian "is associated with females, wild/chaotic nature, and unconstrained sex/procreation. In contrast, the Apollonian is associated with males, clarity, celibacy and/or homosexuality, rationality/reason, and solidity, along with the goal of oriented progress." Link:

In fact, that's pretty much the main idea of "Sexual Personae." Similar to the way that Jung and his students tracked development of the male vs. female archetypes in myth and religion, Paglia analyzes the various cultural trends in art and literature throughout human history by showing the degree to which they skewed toward the Apollonian/male side or toward the Dionysian/female side. She also analyzes how much they tended to repress or shut out their "opposite" side, which resulted in appearances of "daemonic" influences in art: Vampires and martyrs and sadomasochism and all that fun stuff--basically the artistic equivalent of Jung's nightmares, neuroses, and mid-life crises.

Probably more than you wanted to know, but there it is, in oversimplified terms.(less)
Dylan Relatively, yeah. She says what she means, and packs her sentences well. Though if you still need to read the material she covers (which is recommende…moreRelatively, yeah. She says what she means, and packs her sentences well. Though if you still need to read the material she covers (which is recommended) it will take you awhile to get through SP. And expect to be bombarded with appropriately dense sentences, paragraphs, etc. Her uncompromising energy definitely isn't lost in prose.(less)

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Start your review of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
Few books have roused in me the same mixture of confusion and stimulation as this bizarre doorstop of passionate, un-PC artistic engagement. Paglia, as an iconoclastic feminist who hates feminism, might have been co-opted by the right in the way that, say, Christina Hoff Sommers was co-opted; but this fate was precluded by her conservative-repellant persona of pro-drug, porn-mad lesbianism. So, unclaimed and unwanted by any special interest groups, she relishes her position as a universal provoc ...more
Aug 27, 2007 rated it really liked it
Paglia - as a friend of mine once said to her face at a signing - is a gateway drug. I got ahold of this in high school and it functioned as a syllabus for the next few years. She showed me how raunchy, perverse and gorgeously gilded Spenser can be. She turned me on to Gautier, Pater, and, above all others, to Baudelaire. I continue to return to her readings of Byron and Wilde. This book is nigh-impossible to read cover to cover. Don't try it. The prose is an unceasingly percussive hammering of ...more
As another reviewer said Paglia is like a "gateway drug". Read her and you’re on your way down the yellow brick road of subversive decadence. Whether you agree with her or not, you will be challenged to think. Camille isn’t looking for a gaggle of cheerleaders, she looking for an intellectual bar brawl.
mark monday
Oct 30, 2010 rated it it was ok
camille paglia: so misguided! despite the sheer idiocy behind many of her theses, she is a compelling, exuberant author, very readable, and definitely brings a certain kind of gusto and an often unique viewpoint to many classic authors. her rather operatic take on emily dickinson is particularly enjoyable. if this book in any way acts as a gateway drug to classic literature, then i suppose there is something positive to it all. that said, and exciting writing style aside, her reductive view of t ...more
OK, so her theoretical basis is absolute bullshit, combining personal bias, excessive Freudianism, and reactionary sexual politics into an obnoxious combination. However, the analyses themselves are quite wonderful. Having sat through any number of dry college lectures on the deemed classics of the Western canon, it was nice to see their dark, chthonic qualities exposed. This doesn't have the academic rigor that I was expecting, but it was a very fun read, and now I feel like going back through ...more
Erik Graff
Nov 26, 2009 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: no one
Recommended to Erik by: Paula DeVoto
Shelves: literature
I will usually read the books I'm given and this one was from a coworker at Loyola University Chicago. I doubt if she, a believing Catholic, read it herself. She likely would have been even more offended than I was.

With the exception of overt, practiced racism and sexism, I believe I'm hard to offend, but Paglia's two-faced book did it. On the one hand, she tries to be sexy, treating the literary canon as resting on a seething bed of academically neglected eroticism. On the other hand, she write
Stephen Bird
Mar 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is one of my all-time favorites and my favorite of Paglia's. I prefer Paglia the "academic" as opposed to the "media whore" (i.e. as she has expressed herself in her column for as I am at least 50% in disagreement with her political / geopolitical and often right-leaning Libertarian point of view. In "Sexual Personae" she presents herself in full-on scholarly mode, in a way that she has not, unfortunately, repeated since this work was published. I have read this book at leas ...more
Mar 22, 2008 rated it did not like it
This book was horrible. Paglia's worldview is bizarrely Freudian. Paglia writes only the loosest and most unsatisfactory of evidence for any of her assertions. She ignores the lack of evidence for the majority of psychodynamic theory in general and for the "family romance" in particular. When you ignore empirical evidence all you have left is what resonates for you personally, which Freudian theory does not. Though she even picks through psychodynamic theory. The book makes me want to shake her. ...more
Oct 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Once you get into it, it isn't as hard as it looks" and "It changed my life" are phrases we often invoke to help stress the importance of important books we'd like to see more people read. Well, in the case of Camille Paglia's SEXUAL PERSONAE, first published in 1990, those phrases are no mere cliches -- they matter, and this book matters.

It is important to understand that Paglia earned her academic "chops" teaching students at an art academy. She was no mere Ivy League theorist, with analysis
Jul 23, 2008 rated it really liked it
Ah, Camille Paglia. What can I say that hasn't already been said? This book is well-written and absorbing, but if you are a female with half a backbone at all, you will want to rip it into pieces, piss on it, then set it on fire (which I guess won't be very effective if you just pissed on it). Paglia's main thesis is that men are the movers and shakers, and women are slothful baby producers. Civilation wouldn't exist without men because women have no drive to do anything except sit around and wa ...more
Dec 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
"Shock jock" of academia and belligerence more than a groundbreaking new theoretical synthesis of sex and gender, and about 30 years after a similar radical-feminist sexuality was propounded by several others. I did have a chill of excitement when I read this, though, back in the day... As others have noted, hard to tell if more brilliant or crazy (not knocking either - whatever gets you through the night.)

For my money, Donna Haraway's book that came out the same year said much more about nature
An incomparable, unique, and often ridiculous study of sexuality and literature. I took my time reading this as there is a huge amount of information to absorb, and Paglia's style (made up of brief but incredibly pungent sentences) is wearying, although I don't mean that as a criticism. In the contrary, it gives the reader all the more reason to savor this radically different take on Emily Dickinson, The Fearie Queen, Shakespeare, Whitman, and so many more. One needn't agree with all or even mos ...more
Sep 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A bit of an academic show-off, and later, a celebrity-hound, with some really f*cked-up ideas about the importance of Madonna, Paglia penned her most important (and best-written) book here. Won't say it changed my life, but I couldn't stop talking about for weeks after I finished it. Her take on Emily Dickinson as a super-sadist is dead on the money. This will be read long after everyone has forgotten the pseudo-feminist junk that was popular when this book debuted. You know who I'm talking abou ...more

She inadvertantly turned me into the psychopath reader I am today, but doing a line by line interpretation of "Stairway To Heaven" in Guitar World about 10 years ago. This close reading of a classic, unavoidable song blew me right away and impressed me, showing me that brainy reading is something even I could do.

There's a lot of repetiton here, I mean how many times can you hear about the gilded masochistic whatever in repressive societal repressiveness until you get sick and tired?

Nov 22, 2009 rated it liked it
Camille Paglia's completely obnoxious and over-the-line and I only agree with her about 1/4 of the time. But when I do, I feel like she's slit open the deepest rivers of impassioned, tangled instincts I have about intellectual women and the utter foolishness of much of the feminist movement - and the dangers of being a woman who lives too far above the waist. Paglia nails it on these topics. Even tho' I'm sure if I ever sat next to her at a dinner party I'd end up wanting to slap her.
A clearly insane person. A clearly fierce intellect. (It is clear that her intellect is fierce; not that the fierceness possesses great clarity.) I won't be putting this down unless it's to throw it in front of an oncoming train and/or soak it with my sad, sad, non-transcendent womanly piss.


Cut to 3/4 of the way through. Bored now. Nice troll, tho.
Izzy Rey
Jan 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: brilliant
Do not get me wrong, I do not buy into all of her theories. Some sound like utter BS, but she is SO fun to read and argue with (in your head). What makes me love this book is the way she categorizes authors and works, and all the little details she points out. How some male authors are femenine in their writing and some females are masculine. Also, this is the book that lead me to works I may have never read. I did not go to school to become an english professor and am not required to have more ...more
Feb 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I don't even know where to begin with this, so I won't. Oddly, Sexual Personae explained my life to me. I was shocked. What does any of this have to do with me, but it did. Paglia blew me away with her non-namby-pamby feminism that upset all the liberals.
Douglas Wilson
May 29, 2009 rated it liked it
She's a lunatic and a pagan, but very helpful.
Nov 29, 2018 rated it liked it
I read this book a while ago, counting in book-time (As in 6 or 7 books ago—temporally, not too long ago).

I can't articulate my thoughts on this titan of a book as of now. I know I loved reading it as well as I know that I disagreed with most of its primary assertions.

I have a strange desire to physically fight Camille Paglia.

I'm a waif, so I definitely would not hurt her. She simply seems like she would be a fun person to wrestle.

(Paglia in a video: "I'm in an in-your-face feminist", dur
Josh Friedlander
Sep 02, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: academia, criticism
I'm grateful for the existence of this book, and Paglia, one of those people overflowing with words and ideas. Whether this book is exactly true is hard to say. Paglia is astoundingly knowledgeable, but her attempt to schematize mythology, art history, Comp Lit and pop culture, all while refuting the received ideas of the humanities and modern feminism is a tall order for anyone, and not really testable in any way. (In particular, her hand-wavy explanations of the success of more recent pop cult ...more
Jan 28, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: gay-gay-gay
"Come on guys, old dead white guys aren't so bad."
Peter Tillman
Aug 30, 2019 marked it as to-read
I seriously doubt I would ever read this -- I mean, 736 pages! -- but this is a fine excuse to quote some excerpts from the interview by the ever-entertaining Tunku Varadarajan: "A Feminist Capitalist Professor Under Fire!" Love the title: [as always, I'm happy to email a copy to non-subscribers]. Wonderful art! (which is free)
"Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has been
Feb 25, 2011 marked it as intermittently-reading  ·  review of another edition
Mint condition for ninety-nine cents—an unbeatable deal, even with the Canuck dollar scorching along at record breaking levels (thanks stuffy Big Six Banks and innate Canadian caution!)—and an author I've not a lot of experience with. I've heard lots about Paglia, split pretty evenly into camps that, whether they love or loathe her, seem to share the opinion that a little bit of Camille goes a long way. The recent columns of hers that I've stumbled across generally contain a dram of counter-intu ...more
Jan 08, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: lit crit., culture studies, gender studies
So far, I'm loving this book! I read a little bit of it each evening so that I can at least attempt to really digest her argument. Some of the things she says are a little scary. But, like Angela Carter's work, Paglia definitely wants to create an emotional response in her readers and she does this brilliantly. I think the elicitation of emotional response - whether in agreement or anger - forces us to examine standard cultural beliefs and grants an opportunity for different ways of seeing. Pagl ...more
I stopped reading after 150 pages of unsupported theory, grad-school hackery, over-reliance on the myths of the Greek pantheon to "explain" art and gender behavior, and severe overuse of the word "chthonian." Paglia's not and never is boring, but after I found myself rolling my eyes and flipping ahead to see if I was going to get a break from the above-mentioned complaints, I figured I wasn't going to make it through the remaining 600 pages.
Apr 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This book single-handedly resurrected my love of literature, philosophy and history. What is especially good about it is its preference for the enduring truths of human experience over faddish post-modernism.
John Devlin
Nov 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
Paglia is always reaching and is always sex obsessed.
She’s downright wrong in places: chillingsworth and Dimmesdale are locked in a sexual sadomasochistic battle? Twain’s descent into gloom is his fear of the female? Or perhaps the death of his daughter and his bankruptcy played a part.

But her passion, her intellectual precocity is immense. Her mind’s ability to cross connect poets and authors and myths across cultures and times is daunting and fearless.

She’s a flame headed avatar who one imagin
Paglia’s genius is that everything everyone says about her is true.
Jul 23, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: psychology, arts
This is a scam. It's not smart, and it's not good in the slightiest. It's just Camille Paglia rambling. If you can tolerate this, good for you. I will not torture myself. I stopped at the first 100 pages. She's a LOT like Jordan Peterson, making baseless psychological claims and yet, these get taken as truth by illiterate people.

She's also heavily Freudian and contradictory. This book is borderline male worship. If that sounded like a radical feminist complaint to you, think of the disgusting w
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Camille Anna Paglia is an American social critic, author and teacher. Her book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, published in 1990, became a bestseller. She is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

She has been variously called the "feminist that other feminists love to hate," a "post-feminist fe

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“Men chase by night those they will not greet by day.” 73 likes
“Eroticism is mystique; that is, the aura of emotion and imagination around sex. It cannot be 'fixed' by codes of social or moral convenience, whether from the political left or right. For nature's fascism is greater than that of any society. There is a daemonic instability in sexual relations that we may have to accept.” 30 likes
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