Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia

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.

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Ribbonfarm is a longform blog featuring a variety of themes and perspectives. The common factor is the general idea of "refactored perception." If you are interested in writing for us as a guest contributor, check out this page.


  1. Here’s something I’ve wondered – since an apprecation for narrative appears to be a human universal, is the basic narrative structure based on something innate to homo sapiens? Do narratives, which involve gradually increasing and decreasing tension leading to a climax, represent a sublimation of the sex drive?

    • My conjecture in Tempo is that the biological basis is the stress response (fight/flight). The structure of tension/resolution in most models of narrative suggests this association very strongly, but that’s not really a proof in my view. So I call it a conjecture.

  2. Its interesting that so much in biology is based on tension between polarities. You have male/female right/ brain left brain, fight flight.

    I can’t see how animals would have a sense of narrative though. I don’t think they have a concept of time nor history. My sense is that they exist in the present.

    So it probably is something that only people create in response to something biological.

    I think the climax works equally well with either sex or death being sublimated. Life drive/death drive maybe?

    • I think it’s mostly that concepts tend to get out better when phrased in those terms, for example concepts like ultrafiltration or turgidity seem to get much less application!

  3. Paglia’s book is interesting but heavy, heavy on academic references and digressions I got bored to death reading it, get to the point for f***’s sake, TO THE POINT!
    Also, though seemingly antifeminist this is insidious propaganda for female power, as an antidote I recommend The Anatomy of Female Power.

  4. Why would people need an antidote to female power? I think women are actually naturally more powerful than men. I think its possible that powerful female shamans living in matrilineal female civilizations deliberately created the conditions for patriarchy.

    If you think about it, being a “poor, defenseless, innocent woman” and being a big powerful rich guy ends up looking the same way. You get people physically stronger than you to protect you, serve you. More women can pull this off than men.

    Woman are naturally more powerful.

    • Why would people need an antidote to female power?
      Woman are naturally more powerful.

      Logic isn’t your strong side, is it?
      Are you a male feminist?
      Are you even male?

      • Want to meet behind the schoolyard and fight?

        I think being intimidated by women makes you….(fill in the blank)

        I prefer to be a realist.

  5. That link you posted makes some of the points I was making. I don’t think feminism has it right either, nor do people talking about being an “alpha male” I mean, who is “alpha” in modern life? If you are speeding and get pulled over by a cop you will do what he says. He’s alpha in that scenario, but not him, an abstract symbol of authority he embodies is alpha. As far as the most powerful men being ruled by their women, that point’s been made by been by Xenophon in “Oecenomicus.” Writers were less “in your face” and often made subtle ironic points. But that implies people have known this for a long time. You get money and status first thing you do is buy a nice house and then guess who is in charge of it?
    The Classical Greeks knew the score on this. I think Feminists discount the majority of men who don’t have high power and status and impute “male priveldge” to all men.

  6. Going back to the point that Venkat and Isaac have discussed:
    My personal conjecture is that narrative structure is actually an extended version of general event structure and decision making. It is our fundamental instinct to gather data about a situation we are currently in – especially if it is a potentially harmful situation – up to the point where we have a thorough basis for deciding our actions. This momentum of more and more “facts” amassing until the point where we actually do something (and thereby change the initial setup) is what reminds me of narrative structure as portrayed in the model. Might well be that this is more or less what you mean when talking about fight/flight decisions, Venkat…