This is a guest post by Stefan King.
In 1990, the art historian Camille Paglia provoked feminists and post-modernists with her controversial book Sexual Personae. Paglia’s goal was to show the pagan patterns of continuity in western culture, and to expose feminist ideals as misguided wishful thinking. Now, two decades later, it is time to dig Sexual Personae out of the cultural compost heap and see if something interesting has grown there. Paglia has a highly sensitive intuition about great works of art, and she is a talented psychoanalyst of artists. The value of the book lies in those intuitions, which we can now study with the benefit of hindsight.
The Venus of Willendorf
The grand narrative of western archetypes, or “sexual personae” as Paglia calls them, starts with the Venus of Willendorf, a small statuette from the Stone Age. It is a faceless lump of feminine flesh, possibly a fertility talisman. It contrasts perfectly with anything civilized: there is no line, no shape, no stillness, and no Apollonian light. In those times, nature’s domination of humanity was total.
The Bust of Nefertiti
The next phase comes as the Egyptians develop their imagination in myth, and worshiped the gods of the sky and the earth alike. The human image becomes more conceptualized. To run an empire and canalize the flood of the Nile, they needed abstract thought and symbols. The balance between a cult of the demonic earth and sunlit clarity reaches the first height of archetypal beauty: the bust of Nefertiti. It is a created ideal of shape and form, still, with a sphinx-like androgynous face. It reveals an artistic strategy of denying chaos. Art is an attack on nature, that tries to push its random cruelty away. It is a frozen beauty, rendered legible to the intellect. In contrast to Dionysian identifications such as drinking and dancing, Apollonian beauty appears when aggressive eyes dominate nature. “Paganism is pictorialism plus the will-to-power. It is ritualism, grandiosity, colossalism, sensationalism.” That last sentence is an example of a dubious type of claim Paglia likes to make: “X is Y”-propositions. More on that later.
The techniques of form and shape are refined by the ancient Greeks, who made sense of the artistic possibilities. The god Apollo, originally depicted as a virile wolf-man, became an immature, beautiful and narcissistic boy who stares in the distance with dreamy eyes. That epoch ends with the spectacles of the ancient Romans. Art is an escape route from ethics.
The Mona Lisa
Then the arts reach a phase of stability in centuries of latent homoerotic religious icons, until Renaissance gives enough artistic momentum to a Florentine crucible of gay geniuses, who use pagan images to create an explosion of sexual personae. Examples are the Femme Fatale, Greek heroes, and angels such as the cherubs and seraphs. These creations culminate into a second artistic height: the Mona Lisa. “Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is the premiere sexual persona of western art. She is the Renaissance Nefertiti, eternally watching.”
The richness of sexual personae left behind by the Renaissance is then ritualised and refined by the romantic poets and painters. Paglia notes that every work of art implies a vision of human nature, and of nature itself. The duality is between the visions of Rousseau and de Sade. Rousseau believed that man is naturally good but corrupted by society, while de Sade sees humans as naturally cruel, driven by inner demonic forces. Romanticism is the struggle between these visions.
The early romantic poets approach natural beauty carefully, as they become aware of the closeness of nature to sex and cruelty. Just like their predecessors, they embrace androgyny as the only solution. Sexual chaos is excised or repressed, Apollonian beauty is taken as far as possible, to the point where a sexual personae is fully objectified for ritual worship by the artist. An example of the grotesque end state is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, another gay genius. Paglia even counts Edvard Munch’s The Scream as a decadent work, where a fetus is cast as a sexless sexual persona.
Narrative Structure and Sexual Personae
Disclaimer: I’m not burdening myself with a discussion of her views on post-modernism and feminism. Instead, I am trying to reconstruct Paglia’s perspective into something that is legible to those with a more scientific perspective. I’m not dealing with the book as a whole.
Paglia’s view on western culture seems correct to me, but she doesn’t express it very well. She fills page after page with “X is Y” statements that define a unfalsifiable Freudian space where anything goes. Like Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, she sees much, although you shouldn’t call it science.
We can interpret the art discussed in Sexual Personae as a single narrative with a double Freytag Triangle, and you can see the subconscious ‘grand strategy’ within the Western artistic tradition, and understand better what makes certain archetypes beautiful (click for larger image; the two peaks are the Bust of Nefertiti and the Mona Lisa respectively, while the beginning and end are the Venus of Willendorf and Modernism respectively).
(Note from Venkat: the double Freytag triangle is a model of narrative structure I made up in Tempo to represent the rise and fall of dramatic tension/narrative entropy in individual “decision stories” based on the classical Freytag triangle, and incorporating elements of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth model. Stefan has used it in this post to represent the structure of a grand narrative rather than an individual narrative).
If it is true that the history of western archetypes is a unified whole, then the narrative will have the emotional tones of a story. Every line in the double Freytag Triangle is an epoch with a characteristic tempo. In the summary I hinted at the emotional tones of the phases, but now we can explore them more directly and see what we find.
The left side of the first triangle is the exploration phase with a volatile, dissipative tempo. Recall that the Egyptians worshiped both the earth and the sky. The Egyptian gods are obviously energetic, with their animal heads. The mythology is rough and violent.
The top of the first triangle is the point where the exploration leads up to the recognition of an exploitable pattern: in this case, the bust of Nefertiti. The artist discovers that he can use his eyes to fixate nature into a light, conceptual stillness. He can locally repress the demonic powers of nature. Apollonian beauty is found.
The right side of the first triangle is always a decrescendo with emotional relief. The pattern fits: the sexual persona of Apollo becomes the archetypal beautiful boy, who is calm and dreamy. Unlike an Egyptian god, he is too weak to get things done, and he doesn’t have to.
When the treadmill of the religious icons is broken, culture enters the second crescendo which, according to Tempo, is characterized by a “high effort, low-coherence increase in momentum.” The works of the renaissance are energetic, interesting and diverse. I’ve never been bored in museums that have paintings from that age.
After the Mona Lisa – Leonardo’s externalisation of his theory of nature – art enters a retrospective phase with a “mix of joy and sorrow.” After the romantic poets figured out the rules, decadent painters ritualise the array of archetypes of the Renaissance into calm dreams, languid poses, androgynous and useless gentlemen, and dead bodies lying in the brambles. The decadent poets invent the genre of the gothic novel, with a sombre rhythm and impotent ghosts.
Art and Instinct
Paglia shows in Sexual Personae that art is never innocent; that there is no such thing as frivolous beauty. Archetypes are serious business, apparently, because of how human instinct responds to nature. Not ‘nature’ as in trees and flowers and lions, but ‘nature’ as in biology: the natural world is simultaneously our nurturing mother and our destroyer. The fear of death and the desire for sex are the primal motivational currents, that drag thoughts, eyes, and actions along with them.
This is a given for evolutionary psychologists and biologists, but not so long ago there was not much proof. Then, it took the intuitions of Nietzsche and Freud to figure it out. Camille Paglia channels the same spirit: she sees how the instinct of sex, and the fear of death, inevitably take shape in the archetypes that populate great art.