Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars
New York: Pantheon, 2012
Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) is the greatest work of art and literary criticism since the days of Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. It is a work of extraordinary ambition, the most sweeping and synoptic book on Western civilization since Spengler’s Decline of the West. Paglia seeks nothing less than “to demonstrate the unity and continuity of western culture.” How many books begin with the words, “In the beginning . . .” — and deliver a veritable Bible?
For Paglia, “In the beginning was nature.” With this line, she sweeps aside the academic dogma of social constructionism and affirms the reality of nature, without which we cannot understand culture. Although Paglia says nothing about the reality of racial differences and their importance for understanding history and culture, she affirms the biological reality of sex differences and makes sex central to her theory of culture and interpretation of art.
For Paglia, however, culture is less an expression of nature than a refuge from her terrors, including nature inside of us: sexual desire. Although Paglia denies that nature is merely a social construct, she also denies that culture is merely a natural construct. Although nature drives and constrains the culture creation process, culture is a realm of imagination, freedom, and creativity that cannot be meaningfully reduced to natural drives.
Like Spengler, Paglia is a Nietzschean vitalist. Indeed, Sexual Personae takes up Nietzsche’s use of the categories of the Apollonian and Dionysian from The Birth of Tragedy and applies them not just to Attic tragedy but the whole of Western culture, with stunning success. Given her emphasis on sexuality, Paglia constantly makes reference to Freud, but Paglia’s view of sexuality and of art is actually closer to Schopenhauer’s, which influenced Nietzsche as well as Freud.
Like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Spengler, Paglia is a pessimist. She does not believe that culture can ever fully master nature. She does not believe that all men will ever become free. She does not believe that mankind will move from myth and irrationality to science and rationality. In a word, she does not believe in progress. Paglia also does not believe in egalitarianism: humans are hierarchical animals. When one hierarchy is overthrown, we immediately erect another in its place. When the restraints of culture are loosened, we find freedom intolerable and simply seek out new forms of slavery, such as drugs, depression, and sadomasochism. Romanticism leads to decadence, emancipation to tyranny.
History moves in cycles. Civilizations arise from vital barbarians fleeing nature into worlds constructed by the free play of the imagination. Cultures are, of course, ultimately constrained by natural necessity. Cultures incompatible with biological survival perish. But within such constraints, there is vast latitude for radically different cultural conventions. But when cultures grow too alienated from nature, when they transgress the outermost boundaries of natural necessity, then civilizations collapse from decadent over-refinement and nature-denying illusions like progress, equality, and freedom, or they are destroyed by fresh waves of vital barbarians.
Paglia is a thorough anti-feminist, from her fundamental philosophical principles to her sense of humor. Culture is an overwhelmingly male achievement. Feminists explain this deviation from equality as the product of unfairness and oppression. Paglia explains it in terms of the natural differences between the sexes.
Women did not and do not need to create culture, because they have something infinitely more important and satisfying to do: bearing and raising children. Males, however, need to psychologically separate themselves from their mothers and the female realm in general. Thus males band and bond together and create a realm of freedom from biological necessity. This is culture, which encompasses games and team sports, hunting and war bands; states, armies, religious orders, and business enterprises; the humanities, sciences, and technology; and the whole realm of high, middle-brow, and popular culture. As she sums it up so memorably, “If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living is grass huts” (Sexual Personae, p. 38).
Paglia also has a refreshing aesthetic and moral appreciation for the achievements of modern science, technology, and capitalism: “When I cross the George Washington Bridge or any of America’s great bridges, I think men have done this. Construction is sublime male poetry. When I see a giant crane passing on a flatbed truck, I pause in awe and reverence, as one would for a church procession. . . . Capitalism is an art form, an Apollonian fabrication to rival nature. It is hypocritical for feminists and intellectuals to enjoy the pleasures and conveniences of capitalism while sneering at it” (Sexual Personae, pp. 37–38).
Paglia also has much to offer neopagans. She argues that Christianity did not completely destroy paganism in the West but instead absorbed some elements and marginalized others, which went underground but expressed themselves in art. Paglia’s chapters on “The Birth of the Western Eye” (Egypt), “Apollo and Dionysus” and “Pagan Beauty” (Greece and Rome), and “Italian Art” (the Renaissance) are among her most compelling.
Paglia interprets the counter-culture of the 1960s (and 20th-century popular culture in general) as the re-emergence of paganism. I believe that this is a significant truth, but a half truth, for it ignores the prominent role of Jewish ethnic hostility toward European civilization in shaping 20th-century popular culture. (Paglia would benefit from reading Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique. She already has all the data, but she needs MacDonald to put it together for her.)
Sexual Personae focuses on literature and visual arts. In addition to her chapters on pagan antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, she discusses Spenser, Shakespeare, Rousseau, the Marquis de Sade, Goethe, Gothic literature, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Balzac, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Emily Brontë, Swinburne, Pater, Decadence and Symbolism (including Gustave Moreau and Franz von Stuck), Wilde, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Henry James, and Emily Dickinson.
In a world in which liberal education has all but collapsed and higher education is now a grossly overpriced fraud, Sexual Personae is a one-volume core curriculum in Western literature and visual art. No, it does not cover everything. No core curriculum does. But if you read and internalize this book, you will want to range far beyond it, and you will be equipped to do it on your own.
On top of all that, Sexual Personae is not just a work of substance and gravity, but of rapturous style and biting wit, a true joy to read. Paglia’s ability to construct long spans of complex arguments with the utmost lucidity and then summarize each major conclusion with striking aphorisms reminds me of Schopenhauer, which is high praise indeed, because I think he is the greatest philosophical stylist of all time.
Sexual Personae is actually just the first volume of a two-volume work. In the Preface, Paglia explains that the second volume deals with 20th-century popular culture, including cinema, rock music, and even football. She claimed that the manuscript was already written. That was 1990. But more than two decades have now passed, and Sexual Personae, vol. 2 has not appeared.
At first, I could understand and forgive this delay. Volume one had made Paglia a celebrity. Who could blame her for taking her 15 minutes? Who could blame her for showing up on television, writing for mainstream magazines, and going on speaking tours? Who could blame her for wanting to pay off her student loans, buy a new wardrobe, and travel some? Professors live harried, threadbare lives, constantly tantalized by things they can appreciate but can’t afford. It must be awful to write about the great works of Western art but not be able to actually see some of them.
Paglia published the first fruits of her celebrity phase in Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays (New York: Vintage, 1992) and Vamps and Tramps: New Essays (New York: Vintage, 1994). These volumes include short articles on politics, education, and popular culture, book reviews, and some longer, more substantial pieces, such as the discarded Preface to Sexual Personae and “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” a hilarious settling of accounts with postmodernism and political correctness (both in Sex, Art, and American Culture). The highlight of Vamps and Tramps is a long essay, “No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality.” These are wonderfully entertaining and insightful books, whose treatment of popular culture just served to further whet my appetite for Sexual Personae, vol. 2.
Four years later, Paglia published The Birds, an illuminating psycho-sexual commentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (London: British Film Institute, 1998), which seemed like a sneak peek into how Sexual Personae, vol. 2 would deal with film.
After that, I lost track of Paglia. So seven years later, I was pleasantly surprised at the publication of Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems (New York: Pantheon, 2005). Paglia had long lamented the collapse of the humanities under the bane of postmodernism and political correctness. Here she attempted to remedy the problem by producing an introduction to English-language poetry written for the general public. She covers poems by Shakespeare, Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara, Paul Blackburn, May Swenson, Gary Snyder, Norman H. Russell, Chuck Wachtel, Rochelle Kraut, Wanda Coleman, and Ralph Pomeroy, plus Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” (an inspired choice).
Paglia’s method of reading is simple, straightforward explication of the text in the tradition of the New Criticism. I would have made different choices, of course, particularly for the 20th century, but overall the book is a tour de force of depth, clarity, and concision. Anyone who reads this book will not only learn a great deal about the poems. He will also learn to love poetry, and he will learn how to pursue that love by reading poetry on his own.
Break, Blow, Burn also got me thinking again about that long-promised second volume . . .
Well, seven more years have passed, and Camille Paglia has returned with a new book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. Of course I pre-ordered it, and when it arrived, I put everything else on the back burner and read it through. I am sorry to say, however, that this is the first book by Camille Paglia to disappoint me. Glittering Images is an attempt to do for visual art what Break, Blow, Burn does for poetry. It is an introductory book for a general audience consisting of 29 images to contemplate (like Catholic votive cards, she says), followed by short essays explicating them.
But there are several serious problems.
First of all, 29 images, even if they were well-chosen, aren’t enough to give a sense of the sweep of Western art history.
Second the images chosen are highly questionable. The first image, a tomb painting of 19th dynasty Egyptian queen Nefertari, is a fine illustration of Egyptian art. But Western art is far older than that. Why not begin with a cave painting, for instance? Then we have a pre-Minoan sculpture from the Cyclades (certainly much older than the Nefertari painting, by the way), three classical Greek sculptures (no paintings or mosaics), a Byzantine mosaic, and nothing else from antiquity: nothing Roman, nothing Minoan, Mycenaean, or Mesopotamian. The Book of Kells is all we have from the Middle Ages.
Renaissance sculpture is represented by Donatello’s brilliant and shocking and entirely unrepresentative Mary Magdalene. Then we have two Renaissance Italian paintings, neither of them really iconic, and Bernini’s Chair of Saint Peter, but nothing from the Northern Renaissance: nothing from Bosch or Bruegel or Dürer. I was excited at the choice of Antony Van Dyck’s “Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart,” because we chose it for the cover of James J. O’Meara’s new book. The entire 18th century is represented by a Rococo interior (which really needs more than one photo to be appreciated) and David’s “The Death of Marat.” The entire 19th century is represented by three works: Friedrich’s “The Sea of Ice” (a favorite), Manet’s “At the Café,” and Monet’s “Irises.”
The 20th century, however, is massively over-represented by 12 works, including paintings by Picasso, Tamara de Lempicka (another favorite), Magritte, Mondrian, Pollock, and Warhol, plus self-described “New York Commie Jew” Eleanor Antin’s photos of rubber boots, “100 Boots”; Walter De Maria’s installation of lightning rods, “The Lightning Field”; aggrieved Black woman Renée Cox’s Photoshop montage “Chillin’ With Liberty”; and George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith.
In her Introduction, Paglia discusses how she has long been a consumer of Right-wing talk radio. She is in touch with conservative and populist sentiment and understands the general public’s distrust of modernism and revulsion at such tax-subsidized blasphemies as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and Chris Ofili’s porn- and dung-encrusted image of “The Holy Virgin Mary.” So a large part of the agenda of Glittering Images is to justify modern art to skeptics and to shore up and increase support for public funding for the arts and humanities in America.
A whole book on Modern Art for Skeptics is a brilliant idea, but it should have been spun off as a separate project, giving the rest of the Western tradition room to be seen. (I would publish such a book at Counter-Currents, even though I am a hard sell. Another interesting project would be a history of art that focuses on the most over-hyped, over-reproduced, and clichéd works that academics don’t like to even discuss because they are too popular.)
As much as Paglia loathes political correctness, I don’t see any reason for the inclusion of Antin and Cox aside from the fact that they are women. (De Lempicka is another story.) The same goes for the inclusion of John Wesley Hardrick, a talented 20th-century Black American painter, but hardly the equal of, say, Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton or Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth.
But enough about Paglia’s choice of artworks. What does she have to say about them? Are the essays any good? Unfortunately, the essays are of mixed quality. Some are simply too brief, e.g., the chapters on the tomb of Nefertari, the Cycladic idol, or the mosaic of Saint John Chrysostom.
The best essays — the ones that taught me to see the most — were on the Laocoön, Donatello’s “Mary Magdalene,” Titian’s “Venus with a Mirror,” Bronzino’s “Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune,” Bernini’s Chair of Saint Peter, David’s “The Death of Marat,” Friedrich’s “The Sea of Ice,” Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and Tamara de Lempicka’s “Portrait of Doctor Boucard.”
In keeping with what might be called The Painted Word principle, Paglia’s essays get longer as the images become emptier. Because if you put in ”Chillin’ With Liberty” and leave out Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael (or Rubens, Rembrandt, and Vermeer), you’ve got some explaining to do.
Paglia works very hard to bring out the value of the modernist works she includes, but in the end, I remain unconvinced. The Picasso still looks ugly, inept, and nihilistic. (Give me Miró or Braque or the Italian Futurists any day.) The Pollock looks like a good design for a fabulous ’50s throw pillow that won’t show the dirt. Mondrian and Warhol look like marginal greeting card or wallpaper or gift-wrap designs.
In her final chapter, Paglia argues that George Lucas the ”greatest living artist” for Revenge of the Sith. Actually, the last 20 minutes are riveting filmmaking, and she makes a lot of interesting points. But if Lucas is the greatest living artist, then a fortiori he is the greatest living filmmaker. And if The Phantom Menace is the work of the greatest living filmmaker, then I’m a scruffy-looking nerf herder.
There is something stale and uninspired about the writing in Glittering Images. Some of the greatest passages of Sexual Personae are the digressions, such as Camille’s immortal ode to the cat. Here she digresses on the ships named Andrea Doria. I found myself asking, “Is this Wikipedia?”
After 22 years, two collections of essays, one film commentary, two general ed. potboilers, and no Sexual Personae, vol. 2, I am beginning to suspect that Paglia is procrastinating. But she is 65 years old. It is time for her to stop dodging her destiny. Paglia does not need to try to speak to a general audience. She already captured one with Sexual Personae. And popularizing works like Glittering Images or Break, Blow, Burn (which is a much better book) cannot advance the education of the general public as much as the second volume of Sexual Personae, which she needs to finish now.
The bottom line is that we don’t need another Mortimer Adler. It’s time to bring back Camille Paglia.