Monday, September 05, 2005


"Penthesilea [a play by the German, Kleist] is a swirling vortex of sadomasochistic passions, each savagely devouring the next. Welcome to Late Romantic nature, created by Rousseau's benign over idealizations. Penthesilea can be read allegorically, as a descent into the poet's unconscious, where two parts of the psyche, masculine and feminine, fight for supremacy.

"The play's sexual personae have indeterminate boundaries, which are corrected and hardened by emotional, physical, and sexual assault. Penthesilea's dangerous expansion of self has historical causes. The failure of traditional hierarchies in the late eighteenth century removed social and philosophical limitations essential for happiness, security, and self-knowledge. Without external restrictions, there can be no self definition. The dissolution of hierarchical orders permitted personality to expand so suddenly that it went into a free fall of anxiety. Hence the self had to be chastened, its boundaries redefined, even by pain. The self must be reduced in size. This is the ultimate meaning of Penthesilea's erotics of mastectomy. Romanticism, swelling, contracts itself in Decadence. Mutilations and amputations belong to an aesthetics of subtraction, a pathological metaphysic in which the imagination reorients itself to the world by a surgical reduction of self. Sadomasochism will always appear in the freest times, in imperial Rome or the late twentieth century. It is a pagan ritual of riddance, stilling anxiety and fear." —Camille Paglia in SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 263

Paglia's idea that one needs "social and philosophical" limits by which he can test his own identity is a fascinating idea, but, as usual of late, too general for me. She blames hippy decadence on their being romantics who knew few limits. However, the first hippies I encountered in the Sixties when I taught high school one year were young men and women who had suffered from parents who practiced corporeal punishment or who were abusive in one way or another, and, in short, parents who set inconsistent boundaries or limits that were too severe or who were just plane not adept at being "good" parents, whatever a "good" parent is. For example, the chief pot dealer in the school where I taught turned out to be the son of a very fundamentalist Christian preacher.

The sad thing about the debate between punishers (conservatives) and nurturers (liberals) in current America is that, in our debates, we may forget that both actually want to help those who are outcasts. However, beneath that wish, is also the idea that some of us who are trying to help others are sometimes lost ourselves and in need of help. I've met far too many fundamentalist Christians who have no idea who they are and who are, therefore, very destructive people. Religious belief is no guarantee of sanity. Would you want your child raised by a Moslem suicide bomber? Personally, when I was younger, I felt myself very lost and struggling, and I had been raised by a restrictive Catholic stepmom who was abusive and a rager.

I think a rule of thumb for average Americans ought to be that when they run into people who are extreme in their beliefs, that extremity is the result of their not being balanced. But if that imbalance is the result of a culture not setting limits or the result of genetic makeup is a question still very much in debate. These days I put much more emphasis on genetic makeup and physical conditions than I do on culture and nurture. When Paglia wrote her book, we did not know as much about human genetics as we do now. Isn't that just like science—to make ideas obsolete right under our feet as we work at our beliefs?


"Horror films unleash the forces repressed by Christianity—evil and the barbarism of nature. Horror films are rituals of pagan worship. There western man obsessively confronts what Christianity has never been able to bury or explain away. Horror stories ending in the victory of good are no more numerous than those ending in the threat of evil's return. Nature, like the vampire, will not stay in its grave." —Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 268


But, speaking of morality, which is what the two previous segments are more or less about, Studs Terkel was interviewing Ivy Compton-Burnett (British novelist) back in October, 1962 (O, so long ago, almost like another age) when he asked her, "You never pass judgment, do you?"

He meant, in her books.

Ivy replied, "No. Some people say I'm amoral. In one of my books, I made a nasty woman do nasty things and I didn't have her punished at all. Some critics are disturbed: I don't make evil meet retribution. Why should I? It doesn't seem to meet it in life. I think crime pays on the whole, don't you?"

There is a twinkle in Ivy's eye, I believe, but I also believe that she's saying quite a truthful mouthful too, don't you? Think of Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" as another example of the possibility that one can get away with a crime under the right circumstances. Even though he and I think ""Stardust Memories" is one of his best works, I also put "Crimes and Misdemeanors" high up on my list of Woody's films. I know, it's just personal taste, but what isn't? "Stardust Memories", by the way, is Woody Allen's tribute to Federico Fellini. It's a takeoff on Fellini's "8 1/2".....

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