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Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images

2,811 words

Camille Paglia
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.

Camille Paglia: To use her own words, she “thinks like a man and writes obnoxious books.”

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.)

Renée Cox, “Chillin’ With Liberty,” photograph, 1998

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.



  1. Lew
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I am disappointed. I didn’t realize Paglia had a new book out. As soon as I brought up CC and read that she does, the next thought my brain processed was I have to buy and start it today.

    Sexual Personae made such an impact on my thinking I still return to it after 20 years. 

    I lost track of her years ago too. I think I remember reading she has shelved volume 2 for good. As disappointing as this may be, after 20 years we admirers probably need to take a hint. 

    At least there is consolation of Tom Wolfe’s latest. He is, incidentally, an under-appreciated writer on the right. His themes include race, ethnicity, class, social conflict, cultural upheaval, sex, the meaning and nature of masculinity and manhood, and the importance of honor in one’s life.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted October 24, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Lew. We are looking for a reviewer for the new Wolfe book.

  2. true
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I submit Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form as the greatest work of art criticism between Pater and Paglia. To quote Paglia, “If ever I was in love with a book, it was with this one.”

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted October 24, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      I agree about Clark. It was the first great book on art I read. The next was Pater. Then Sexual Personae.

  3. Posted October 24, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Dear Greg,

    Thanks so much for this essay. Like you, I had been excited by Paglia’s two major works in the early 1990s, and then when nothing further was forthcoming assumed that she had exiled herself from public writing, for whatever reason. And I certainly would have ordered her new book, if not for your review. Based on what you’ve written, however, I’ve given up hope for her triumphal return. I doubt we’ll ever see the second volume of SP, and even if she did manage to produce it, it would likely be vastly inferior to the first. SP, after all, was just a revised version of her doctoral dissertation, which she wrote in 1974, so that means it’s been nearly 40 years. That suggests she’s unlikely to write it. Some writers these days, like certain rock bands, are one-hit wonders: they produce one book which is fabulously successful, and then spend the rest of their lives riding on its coattails and the promise of more great work to come, but never deliver. (J.D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison are two prominent examples in literature.) Some people, it seems, only have one book in them.

    I agree with your judgment that Paglia’s praise of George Lucas brings her judgment into question (it reminds me a bit of Nietzsche’s claim that Bizet’s “Carmen” is superior to anything Wagner ever wrote, which George Bernard Shaw said was the definitive proof of Nietzsche’s insanity). I suppose it’s better than if she had said Stephen Spielberg, but still. Although one thing you left out of this essay is Paglia’s infatuation with Madonna, whom she continually praised as an icon of alternative feminism and as the most important musical artist of our time, and with whom she allied herself closely in the 1990s. And I have to say that I always enjoyed hearing Paglia talk about Madonna more than Madonna’s actual music. Although if the idea of Madonna becoming the model for womanhood were to become universally accepted I think I’d have to move to another planet.

    I can’t remember where at the moment but I also recall that Paglia has praised Mussolini a few times in print and in interviews – not his politics, but his personal aesthetics, which she viewed as quintessentially Italian. That doesn’t exactly qualify her as an ally but it is an interesting fact.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted October 24, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      Thanks John. The Nietzsche-Carmen analogy is brilliant. I hope Paglia is not losing it.

    • Lew
      Posted October 24, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps the Lucas comment stems from her love of American pop culture. I have always regarded that as an incongruous aspect of her thinking. She celebrates and champions the high culture of the West. Yet, unlike nearly all admirers of high culture, she does not detest pop culture.

    • Petronius
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      The Lucas thing is somewhat weird indeed… but then again I enjoy reading defenses of unlikely things, and it takes some guts to make such a claim as a respected scholar. Probably she also enjoys annoying the all-too-high-brows. What puts me more off are the other more questionable inclusions she made. “Break, Blow, Burn” on the other hand was great, and I re-read parts of it quite often.

    • Petronius
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      Aside: who do you think actually is the greatest living filmmaker? I’d say David Lynch, but he is somewhat too “specialised” and seems to be losing it as well. Coppola hasn’t done anything really great for 30 years, and Scorsese’s last masterpiece was “Casino” (1995). Though I follow everything Lars von Trier does, I regard him more “interesting” and “provoking” than “great”.

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted October 25, 2012 at 3:03 am | Permalink

        David Lynch is my choice for greatest living filmmaker.

        I think Scorsese’s greatest film is Gangs of New York, but I also think that The Aviator and Shutter Island are excellent films. So he is very near the top in my book.

        I also think that Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson are enormously talented.

        I completely agree about Von Trier.

      • Petronius
        Posted October 25, 2012 at 4:17 am | Permalink

        Ah yes, of course, Peter Jackson! He is so much better than George Lucas!

        I prefer old-school Scorsese “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “GoodFellas”…

      • Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        Greatest living filmmaker? I would say either Hans-Jurgen Syberberg (who seems to be retired now) or Werner Herzog. Werner hasn’t made a truly great narrative film since the 1970s, although he still makes good documentaries, like “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” about the Chauvet Cave. Otherwise, David Lynch and Lars von Trier are both good candidates. I’ve also been very impressed by the work of Nicolas Refn. And I have to admit that the Coen brothers are among my guilty pleasures.

      • Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        Oh, yeah, Scorsese would be up there, although he can be kind of hit-or-miss for me (“Age of Innocence,” anyone?). There are some directors who are still working but who haven’t made a really great film in a long time. Coppola, for example, or Bertolucci or Jean-Luc Godard. Jim Jarmusch has been great at conveying the existential angst of postmodern America.

      • Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Oh, yeah – Ridley Scott. Still working. Made “The Duellists,” “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” all classics, and then sunk into mediocrity. Although I’d say “Black Hawk Down” and “Kingdom of Heaven” were quite good.

    • uh
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink


      “… it reminds me a bit of Nietzsche’s claim that Bizet’s “Carmen” is superior to anything Wagner ever wrote …”

      You missed the irony in that. His purpose was to vaunt the earthy over the ethereal (you know — the “Nietzschean vitalism” to which Greg appeals), and to get under the skin of Wagnerians.

      Mentions this in a letter to Gast; don’t ask me where, but I distinctly remember reading it and appreciating that he would go out of his way in a published work to make fun of Wagner’s teutonomania.

      Doesn’t sound like madness to me.

      • UFASP
        Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

        “You missed the irony in that. His purpose was to vaunt the earthy over the ethereal (you know — the “Nietzschean vitalism” to which Greg appeals), and to get under the skin of Wagnerians.”

        Yes, I came across that praise by Nietzsche of “Carmen” in a pierce E. Michael Jones had written on Nietzsche’s supposed insanity at this point and found it a bit lazy myself to come to such a conclusion even if the pieces fit; it’s not as though Nietzsche wasn’t melodramatic at times. I had no idea about the letter to Gast on this matter. Perhaps it was similar to the mischief he was up to by claiming he had descended from Polish nobility?

        I second Mr. Morgan’s mention of Ridley Scott if for no other reason than for Blade Runner which surpassed the Philip K. Dick novel it was based on– the only such movie adaption to outshine Dick’s actual work. With that in mind, Blade Runner is just one of those films that is good for reasons that exceed the sum of its parts. It’s one of those movies that is good for reasons I don’t think any of the people involved in its making can really fully articulate. The visuals and the score and the atmosphere is so powerful…that opening scene with the blue eye reflecting that refinery with Vangelis’s ambient electronic/synthesizer score…goosebumps. I don’t know what feeling Scott was exactly TRYING to summon (I think he said something about “Big Brother” motifs), but that’s irrelevant.

        I also agree with Mr. Morgan about the Cohens being a guilty pleasure. I saw the re-make of True Grit twice and thought it by far exceeded the John Wayne version (blasphemy!). (Incidentally, Leone’s spaghetti Westerns and Kurosawa’s samurai films would put them each respectively at the top of my list of filmmakers in the last fifty years but alas, they’re dead.)

        I’m not film expert, but Mel Gibson has made a couple of noteworthy films (The Passion, Apocalypto) and seems to have a real talent for storytelling when he resists the urge to be hammy (which ruined some of his earlier efforts). With respect to Scoresese, I always enjoyed The Last Temptation of Christ more than his nihilistic gangster movies or his other pics. No, thank you.

  4. Petronius
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks a lot for that review! Can’t wait to get my hands on the new book…

  5. Petronius
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    You have summarized perfectly what is so great and compelling about the Paglia reading experience! She is one of those writers that make you constantly crave for more and more knowledge, art, film, poetry etc. CC does benefit a lot from being in line with that sort of spirit. Nothing is more inspiring as to discover what a unique and rich treasury Western culture has always been.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted October 24, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much. I love Paglia. And philosophically, because of common debts to Nietzsche and post-Nietzschean vitalism, she is very much compatible with New Right thinking.

    • uh
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

      Summarized so well, I no longer feel the slightest obligation to finish Sexual Personae, which rather bored me with all the “sexual archetypes” rot.

      In contrast I devoured the two books of essays. But one feeling I couldn’t escape was that these were assembled as a smokescreen for early burnout — apparently confirmed by this new book lacking in steam.

      Seems to me that everyone is bored by her routine, friend or foe. Criticizing Lady Gaga on the grounds that she fails the “virgin-whore” ideal of Madonna, or something. Clearly cannot innovate in her thinking. A neurotic who appeals to neurotics. There’s no sense in trying to scratch the surface for a Fascist because she’s Italian; I’ve met barren women of 21 who professed to “love the iconography” the church. What Paglia cannot do, owing to her background and social commitments, is acknowledge with Plath that every woman loves a Fascist.

      Angie’s words below are dead-on.

  6. rhondda
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    If a woman says what men want to hear, there are lots of rewards, especially from male mentors as your subject was. Why even books and a professorship! Good golly miss molly.
    I am no feminist whatever that means, but a dog is still a dog no matter how loyal.
    This is the woman who ran after Madonna as if she were anything but a provocateur and a degenerate.

    • Stronza
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:49 am | Permalink

      Running after Madonna’s the least of her sins. If you really don’t mind soiling your undersilks, go to Page 232 of her book Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992, Vintage Books/Random House). Then fast forward to Page 271. That’s just for starters, there’s much more in the same vein.

      Try reading the whole damn thing if you can stand all the smirking, sneering references to “WASPS” and Whiteness and how cork up the arse we all are, c/w her relentless slavering over the more heavily pigmented among us. Oprah especially turns Paglia’s crank for her ability to “shift wonderfully back and forth, with jazzlike improvisation, between her two voices.”

      Paglia is a too-clever-by-half wordsmith and that is all.

    • uh
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      Utterly shocked to find myself in agreement with the womenfolk for once!

  7. Karen Toffan
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this review, it saved me money, 20th century art and no Edward Hopper? It’s a shame because Sexual Personae was groundbreaking.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted October 24, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      All of Paglia’s earlier books are available for one penny plus postage from’s Marketplace. You should get them all. Eventually, Glittering Images will be that cheap too. And you should buy it. Because there are good bits mixed in, even though as a whole it is poorly conceived and unevenly executed.

  8. Dominion
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Her thoughts on religion from the video seemed interesting indeed, with a lot more depth than we get from most atheists today. In many ways she is channeling Maurras. I have yet to read her books (Sexual Personae is now on my list), but I would want to hear some further explanation on the claim that culture is simply a refuge from nature. Culture creates safe-zones and practices from many of the things we face in nature, it is true. It also is in a sense an outgrowth of nature, in the sense that humans are and have always been part of and an outcome of “nature”. It also, however, can give humans a pathway to become aware of realities beyond their instinctual and ‘baser’ natures, especially in Traditional cultures.

    Her observation that we can see a sort of Darwinism of cultures is brilliant, and one I have made myself on many occasions. It is, in my view, a vastly under-explored territory.

  9. Karen Toffan
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    There may be good bits mixed in, but to read a book that is poorly conceived and unevenly executed by a woman I suspect has sold out, well, there are many great and illuminating books I give preference to.

  10. Petronius
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Somewhere on the net there used to be an audio recording of Paglia speaking at Westpoint Academy, calling herself “pro-military” and praising military values…

  11. Angie
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    “Because of my own massive lifelong influence by Jewish-American culture – in the arts, media, and entertainment industry as well as law, science, and medicine – I have concluded that, for me, only one moral imperative is possible: to support Israel.”

    –Camille Paglia

    However, every word extolling Camille as a brilliant creative writer is true. But all that glitters isn’t gold. Camille Paglia is indeed a great read and such an interesting and arresting glimpse into the mind of the neurotic, one dimensional, trained (like a lap dog) academic. I was 19 when her book came out and loved it to obsession, but something there always disturbed me and it was suddenly my life’s mission to find out what. So yes thank you Camille Paglia, who put me to a task, the life long love of art and literature. My writing and quiet thinking life was given birth to by Camille Paglia, and I continued to search why she tended to both attract and repulse me. Of course, any redneck, downright Nazi could have told me what the deal was, but I needed more! That was too simple.

    In terms of art criticism, most of us left behind in the dust Camille Paglia years ago. That is why so many forgot about her, the fond memories are her style, humour and wit that she brought to such a boring and dull decade. And memories of times and loves past.

    So after many years, besides coming to grips with reality, I have discovered two or three (Well, many more) major problems with CP’s world view.

    First her view of nature is Jewish, not Vedic.

    Secondly, the sixties was not an outburst of Hinduism brought to America, but of British Satanism mixed with Judaism where the main feature is desecration. And it was intentional, rigged, to maintain a power Elite. It consisted of total desecration of the good and total humiliation of the poor who are, in a natural caste the gatekeepers of tradition. Now here I agree with CP that the 50’s were far to ridged and grotesque, but the Sixties were a planned murder of not just social restrictions but of everything and for a dark sinister purpose. She herself declares the neurotic, psychopathic Master of desecration of nature and God to be the most major unread writer of Western History. Really? She mops the floor with Rousseau, in favour of Sade! No wonder the power Elite find her non-threatening!

    Thirdly, she writes nothing of the profound and deep differences between German and English Romanticism, the latter being Vedic and the first being Satanist/Jewish. And so on … And there may be a fourth and heaps more, but, clearly, she does not see the perverse elitist art world that she herself is a part of. She is blind to the obvious causes (cause and effect) decay of Western Culture and she seems to only want to revive it to have some fun desecrating it again! She is like a crazy person walking around in a straight jacket unaware that she even has it on, her mind is completely tightly bound and she does not even seem to realise it. Or better she is like the invisible man from “Amazon Women on the Moon.”

    I could go on but I have a heart and an honest love for this woman.

    • Jaego
      Posted October 26, 2012 at 1:58 am | Permalink

      Well said. She has plumbed her own depth and any volume 2 would be more of the same. To go deeper she’d have to turn the TV off for a decade and read, think, and feel. But how many middle aged people can do that either financially or spiritually?

    • Fragender
      Posted October 26, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Why is German romanticism in your opinion “satanic”, whereas English romanticism “Vedic”?

  12. me
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Greg wrote: the second volume of Sexual Personae, which she needs to finish now.

    Is Greg in contact with Camille? If so, he should strongly encourage her to finish the 2nd vol.

  13. Achaean
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    How am I supposed to stay focused on my work with all the exciting essay writing going on in CC? I often come here thinking –“let me take a break and see what’s going on in CC” — only to be swallowed by the never ending articles awaiting after a few days. Reading Greg’s essay has surely encouraged me to read beyond the first two chapters of Sexual Personae. Painting, music, and poetry are to me the most difficult forms of creativity to understand.Philosophy I love, and novels, but poetry is perhaps too complex in its use of language. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection of essays, Sex, Art, and American Culture; Paglia was important in my efforts to break away from the cultural Marxism I had inhabited from the BA all the way to my years as assistant professor.

    Greg is right that “philosophically, because of common debts to Nietzsche and post-Nietzschean vitalism, she is very much compatible with New Right thinking.” Her Sexual Personae is compatible with New Right thinking, but she is on the left, always supportive of the Democratic Party: “Count me among those who are very critical of many of Obama’s actions or evasions but who continue to like him and to believe in his potential as a world leader.”

    Even her Nietzschean perspective struck me as being an effort to show how pagan Western culture has always been from its beginnings through Catholicism to Hollywood — what is already in place, what was palpitating within the popular culture of the US, was Nietzschean. What she loathed above all else were the 80s yuppies, postmodernists, feminists, followers of Foucault and Derrida — but never the vast transformations associated with mass immigration, globalization, Africanization of white culture. I read her this way, and actually agreed with her that American pop culture, rock and roll, not just the “cultural revolution of the 60s”, but also the movies of the 20s to 50s, American cars, high rises and the advertisement industry — were all expression of the Faustian soul. The dionysian-apollonian tension is not a thing of the past, of great literature and art; it is also the driving impulse of American pop culture and politics in the 20C and even within the Democratic Party.

  14. Achaean
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I meant to add: Paglia knows that “Far Eastern culture has never striven against nature” in the Apollonian Western way, but she never distinguishes eastern and western men. She focuses solely on the male/female distinction. If one examines the many excellent distinctions she draws between male and female in the opening pages of SP, not once does she bring up the next required question necessitated by her own east/west distinction: why have western males been so different? When she writes “women have conceptualized less in history not because men have kept them from doing so but because women do not need to conceptualize in order to exist” — surely, she should have wondered why eastern men have also conceptualized less (much less) in history than western men. When she writes men “wander the earth seeking satisfaction, craving and despising, never content”, she must have thought why eastern men wandered far less across the earth, why almost all the explorers in history have been European? She never brings up this next crucial distinction.

    In fact, she pulls back from a uniquely western male and Mycenaean-Indo-European personality, believing that ancient Egypt was the beginning of the Western ego: “The hardest object of Apollonian think machine-making is western personality, the glamourous, striving, separatist ego that entered literature in the Iliad but, I will show, first appeared in art in Old Kingdom Egypt.”

    Paglia is to be commended for noticing that Christianity never succeeded in defeating paganism; she even says that C ended by reinforcing the west’s absolutist ego-structure. “The hero of the medieval Church, the knight in shinning armour, is the most perfect Apollonian thing in world history” — but these remain isolated, unelaborated statements, and ignore the literature predating these observations. Spengler was the first to note how Faustian Christianity became.

    • Petronius
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      She mentions Spengler occasionally, so she sure must be aware of that…

    • Jaego
      Posted October 26, 2012 at 2:02 am | Permalink

      The East explored inner space. Even Alexander admired the Indian ascetics he met – they were Kings of the Themselves.

  15. Posted October 26, 2012 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Thank you Greg for this interesting article. Odd this publication with the B.F.I. which used to be a nest of rampant communists. I would like to read her essay on The Birds, although a sexual interpretation of the film seems somewhat evident, it is almost first degree in this movie.

    May I add to a proposed reading list La Conjuration Antichrétienne de Mgr Henri de Lassus.

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