Key moment in Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia (1990):
Quote: from Ch. 8, “Return of the Great Mother: Rousseau versus Sade”
“To be sexually aroused by something eccentric,
insignificant, or disgusting is a victory of imagination”(239).
Here Paglia uses her favorite verb by far - “is.” In "creative" writing classes instructors point to an excessive reliance on transitory verbs - is, are, were - as the first sign of bad writing. Good writers find ways around “is,” stronger verbs. We can do better than "is," can't we class? I wouldn’t be surprised if Paglia heard a similar line in a “creative” writing class, and resolved afterward to use “is” even more. She uses it as much as she can, and there are whole passages where each consecutive sentence moves along exactly as the above sentence, with a single “is” somewhere in the middle. Doing so, she proves when a brilliant, original mind controls the pen, “is” is all you need. The alternatives - “signifies,” “suggests,” “evokes,” “symbolizes” - are not here. Those have a ring of phony hedging, cliché intellectualism. “Is” stays neutral, almost invisible.
Paglia entertains by seeing everything at its darkest. The above quotation refers to Marquis de Sade, the writer she champions above all others. Rising above the prudery of academia, Paglia can read him and understand him in all his true importance. She sees Sade’s work making a major statement about nature. As atheists, nature becomes Sade’s and Paglia’s God (cf. the first sentence of the book - “In the beginning was nature”), but unlike Christians they fixate on the dark side of their God. They accept their God as a psychotic monster who lurks behind everything, ready to pounce on our proudest achievement, our most genuine happiness, and dissolve it into invisible chaos. Against their God they must mentally stand up and fight.
“Victory of imagination” comes loaded with the dark implications of Paglia’s Sadean universe. Mental life is a war zone. Reality attacks. Imagination fights back. Nature tortures. Imagination is how to laugh in its face. With characters who get off on murder, incest, the eating of shit, Sade mocks nature. His perversions are a war strategy. The strategy: Do what nature tells you not to and like it to the point of orgasm. Eating shit exactly inverts natural process. Armed with imagination, Sade returns to the body what nature saw fit to expel. An imagination victorious.
Sade and Paglia are of the same cloth as writers. They both have to strive against sounding repetitive because their art keeps bringing them back to the same crime scene. In Paglia, all great art reveals what nature really is - a sadistic killer (“violence is the true spirit of nature”) luring us through sex. In Sade, all scenes end in outlandish criminal orgies. Sade’s exaggerated shock fiction keeps scholars away. Not Paglia. She dares to identify with Sade's insane lusts (and more so with his determination to indulge in the sophisticated game of translating those lusts into a ritual art). An artist as critic, Paglia dares to see past the psychotic surface. What I did not expect when I picked up Sade’s Juliette (1797) was the violence. Gradually Sade’s orgies become less about sex and more about torture and murder, especially of children. In the 18th Century Sade brings shock art to its absolute limit. He will never be surpassed. He makes Henry Miller sound prude.
But the real reason no one reads him: he ruins literature. If he is allowed into the literature category, as Paglia (and myself) would advocate, he ruins it. He cancels out almost all of fiction, because he did what others would never do, boldly went where no professional writer or ‘artist’ could ever go, and went armed with manic intellect, an imagination heightened by imprisonment, and above all a “strange laughter” at life. He innovates a bold aesthetic of extremes, yet makes sure he can’t be taken totally seriously. After Juliette, fiction died. I haven’t read a novel since, and I probably won‘t. For intelligent people with pronounced dark sides, brainy passive-aggressives, Sade is the ultimate entertainment. We are back and forth between the academic: lengthy boudoir symposiums on sodomy, patricide, brutal despotism, the benefits of every kind of abomination; and the pornographic: Sade’s wild prison dreams of intellectualized torture and circus sex. My integrity will not allow me to ask for more.
I will now explain two of Paglia’s most valuable critical tricks:
1) The art of literal interpretation
Symbolism sentimentalizes. Think literally. For Paglia, a flower is always an actual flower first. Follow language to its literal end. Take the expression “Eat your heart out.” Seen literally, one starts to wonder. The eating out of one’s own heart? Why? Cut open torso, pry apart sternum, rip beating, blood-filled heart with a gooey hand and start chomping away? A disembodied burrowing into one's own flesh like termites or giant ants eating out the insides? What is going on? Where did this come from? Literal thinking reveals unnoticed scandals.
2) The art of not judging
Paglia accepts many popular moral critiques, but refuses to pass judgment. For instance, the ancient Greeks. Feminism says ancient Greek civilization was misogynistic, governed by a system of male supremacy, therefore bad. Paglia agrees. She says yes, it was completely misogynistic, and thank God! Men needed absolute control for society to advance. The Greeks were right to oppress women.
3) The art of forgiving
Why are some great writers (Poe, Coleridge) often clumsy with words? Answer: They have cinematic minds. They see first, and write later. The words are secondary, merely to record the visions. Poe’s “ho-hum journalese,“ Sade’s repetitious pulp is vision overpowering language “leaving it rude or weak; words run hot and cold, gorgeous splotches followed by shabby scrabble”(356). Where lesser critics would dismiss, Paglia forgives. Thinking matters most. Great writing does not equal great thinking. All aeshthetic faults are psychologically revealing.