by Kiko Matsing
Finally, after skirting around with Paglia’s minor essays and reviews (Sex, Art and American Culture; Vamps & Tramps; Break, Blow, Burn), I’ve worked up the stamina to tackle her 700-page tome. It helps to have an iPod touch handy to look up the big words, and, more importantly, to google images of artwork so paramount in this book about what she calls “psychoiconicism”.
What better guide to a tour of Western culture than the dirtiest mind in academia. Camille Paglia sees pornography everywhere but the kitchen sink. Mona Lisa’s smile is not alluring, but perverse. Sex and violence is not latent in art; it is in your face. Deviance is the norm (especially in Late Romanticism). While critics in respectable academia blush and look the other way, Paglia gazes on with alert, unflinching eyes. She blasts through prissy (feminist) criticism like a harlot in a scarlet dress. In her world, glamour always trumps pious moralizing.
Her critical judgment is both sweeping and incisive; it gives panoramic bird’s eye view, but with sharp, falcon vision. Even Metaphysical poets are sexually charged:
The contrast between Shakespeare and Spencer is replayed in Metaphysical poetry, the next important literary movement. John Donne is Shakespeare’s heir, muscular, theatrical, and metaphor-ridden. Donne fills even devout religious poems with flamboyant sexual personae and eccentric transpositions of gender. George Herbert is Spencer’s heir. The exquisite aestheticism of The Faerie Queene turns into feminine homoeroticism in Herbert. The silvery sweetness of Herbert’s simple style is exactly like Sappho’s. If you want to know how Sappho sounds in Greek don’t read her pedestrian translators; read Herbert. Herbert discourages anything abrupt or emphatic–that is, masculine. Climactic speech is often ignored, restrained, or expelled. Herbert’s world of contemplative serenity and whispery intimacies is androgynous. Its divine male presences have internalized femininity, so that real women are unnecessary and de trop. Though his poems are disarmingly open and transparent, Herbert is psychologically embowered. He is alone, under Spenserian glass. (p. 228, underline mine)
This made me look for examples of Herbert’s poetry, and found this especially Sapphic one:
Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.
Wow, how spot on. Herbert indeed writes of the double-edged nature of divine love in the same tone and trope as Sappho writes of erotic love.
loosens my limbs and I tremble
With his venom
of limbs, Love
strikes me down
What keen ear for poetry. What commanding grasp of vast material. This book ought to be essential reading in undergraduate humanities, as well as her Break, Blow, Burn, where one finds ‘interesting’ close readings of Donne’s and Herbert’s poems.
The book is surprisingly readable for a scholarly work. Her language is direct, accessible, colorful. Her brash, aphoristic style, like Nietzche’s or Wilde’s, makes for a trove of quips. For example, to explain the underrepresentation of women in the arts, sciences, and engineering, she says: There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper. This is a compression of her thesis that the same conceptualizing (“Apollonian”) mind required for art-making, etc., is operative in the fetishism of sex murder. This lack of criminal abstraction is what keeps women from achievement, not patriarchal subjugation. No wonder she frazzles feminist feathers.
Male obsession for order is a (futile) defense mechanism against the daemonism of Mother Nature–a chaotic (“Dionysian”) principle that threatens to swallow male into a regressive primeval state. Taken to reductive extremes, all higher culture (and violence against women) are forms of male evasion of this anxiety over female. The Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, while useful as an aesthetic principle, is less convincing as a psychological model. I can see how it works on the level of archetypal personae, e.g., in femme fatales in film noir (cinema is the premier 20th c. art for Paglia) or the beautiful boy in Greek antiquity, but not nearly as well for flesh-and-blood sociopathic scumbags like Joran van der Sloot. I resist extenuating his ethical culpability for sex crimes with a gross appeal to an animal aversion from “cthonian swamp”.