Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Maenad and Amazon

I am partial to cyclic theories of reality, as in Hinduism or astrology and the ever-turning Wheel of Fortune.

The three became my coterie, the only group I have ever flourished in. Their contributions to the creation of the campy, semimythic diva and deranged gender-neutral entity "Camille Paglia" are immeasurable.

- Camille Paglia, speaking in the second quotation of friends Bruce Benderson, Stephen Jarrat and Stephen Feld.

I know I'm doing a lot of astrology at the moment on this blog, so I'd like to say thanks to patient readers for whom the art may be irrational bunkum. All this star-bothering is partly a distraction from finishing my book, but it's also been a passion since my early teens, one of the most immensely involving things that I've ever got to grips with.

I occasionally think of the birthchart as being each person's hidden poem, the individual's secret 'Song of Myself', imbued like a literary work with metaphor and mystery and crux. A horoscope is a like a four-dimensional text, and astrology an applied poetics. In this light, the technical skills to decode the depths of a chart might be considered quasi-philological, but the art of interpretation is something more akin to literary criticism, with the same qualities of measured attentiveness, self-awareness, and articulacy required in the interpreter.

Unlike a poem, a chart is not 'fixed': it continues to flow and develop throughout a person's life, as the immensely intricate, musical patterns of planetary transits and progressions interweave. 'Music' is an excellent - and of course ancient - metaphor for the cycles of the cosmos. The shifting patterns of a chart are very like polyphony, the flicker and chime of the faster-moving inner planets playing out over the deeper cantus firmus of the sluggish outer ones. Of course, we know about more planets than the ancients did - not only Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, but also the quirky planetoid Chiron and a whole host of minor asteroids and transplutonian bodies. Amateur astrologers often overemphasise these, thus fatally cluttering up their charts and compromising the clarity of their interpretations. (Personally, I always use Chiron but check the larger asteroids very rarely.) The experience of reading a astrological chart with understanding is rather like listening to the 40 exquisitely plaited parts of Spem in Alium, or perhaps more like listening to the Ring Cycle, in which the recurring leitmotifs appear and disappear within a vast dramatic structure of immense archetypal depth and complexity.

But here's another chart.

Camille Anna Paglia, born Endicott, NY, 2nd April, 1947, 6.57pm.

(I've written about Paglia here: fond as I am of her, her Salon.com column has gone a bit batty of late.)

One of the cruel things about astrology is that it emphasises the innate and unfair differences between human beings. The individual is not born a tabula rasa; there is such as thing as inbuilt character, a mysterious and precious seed held within a complex mesh of nature and nurture. According to astrology, we all come into the world with a certain disposition and array of archetypes already at work in us, our allotted μοῖρα. Every so often one does a horoscope and thinks, 'Poor sod, that's a tough chart', or, conversely, 'Lucky bugger.' But whilst the chart may be fixed, the degree of consciousness which the individual brings to bear on it is not. People can make great things of a very difficult chart, and people with ostensibly 'lovely' charts can well and truly balls them up. Astrology is extremely complex and all the planets have modes of being destructive as well as creative. The beginning astrologer who associates Neptune, say, with only 'spirituality', 'transcendence', and 'universal compassion' will learn a nasty lesson when they look at the very Neptune-dominated chart of, for example, Josef Mengele. What people make of their chart, which is to say, of their innate character, is up to them and belongs to some mysterious dimension beyond astrology. This is something to bear in mind when looking at Paglia's chart; a devotee of astrology herself, she obviously knows her own chart well and it's fascinating to see which bits of it she has put forward as her public persona, and which she has held back.

Hers is a chart balanced between water and fire. Water is the element characterised by imaginative sympathy, the tidal pulls of intense emotion; fire on the other hand represents intuitive vision, the capacity to grasp the whole, to enthuse and to quest in the world of the imagination. This basic weighting of the chart is reflected in Paglia's choices as a scholar and critic. The opening lines of Sexual Personae, Paglia's unwieldy, eccentric masterpiece, capture the unitive vision of fire~water: 'Sexual Personae seeks to demonstrate the unity and continuity of western culture--something that has inspired little belief since the period before World War I.' (SP, p. xiii). She presents us with a vast, visionary schema, within which she is to some extent impatient of detail. (It has been cogently pointed out by Monica Potkay that Paglia's supposed neo-Untergang des Abendlandes blithely misses out almost the whole of the Middle Ages.) The fire~water bias of the chart is neatly symbolised up by the grand trine between Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, which has two legs in water signs and one in fire. This is a woman who believes she can instantly take the measure of the Zeitgeist using her innate and intuitive subjectivity, anterior to and swifter than rational thought processes--a strategy which is sometimes brilliantly acute and sometimes rather tiresome. (See Paglia on Sarah Palin, for example.)

On the other hand, we must not forget her Libra rising, which suggests an exquisitely refined aesthetic sense and strong views about civilised behaviour. Paglia's anti-Rousseauist view is that it is civilisation, not supposedly-benevolent nature, which allows human flourishing, and that socialisation places vital checks on humanity's innate violence and barbarism. This is a profoundly libran insight. Humanity in a state of nature, to Paglia, is inevitably going to be more Lord of the Flies than Gauguin's Edenic Tahiti. (I was reminded of Paglia's Libra ascendant when I read an interview in which she was asked what her favourite smell was, and surprisingly replied fresh linen drying on the washing line.) Devoted to elegance and beauty, Libra is also, incidentally, a rather androgynous sign, because it denotes a certain inner balance between masculine and feminine qualities. This chimes neatly with Paglia's original 1974 Yale PhD dissertation, on 'The Androgyne in Literature and Art', which became the core of Sexual Personae, and with her tomboyish youthful cross-dressing.

Paglia also has one major placement in earth, a robustly physical virgoan Moon; she is fond of reminding people that away from the limelight she is 'earnestly clerical' Agnes Gooch, not the dramatically fiery Auntie Mame. One suspects that her Virgo Moon adds much-needed eye for fine linguistic detail (Virgo is ruled by Mercury) and an aptitude for practical labour to the point of workoholism. (Despite the occasional glamorous photoshoots of the 90s, Paglia rather sweetly describes herself as 'small and worn.') I suspect a voracious regimen of writing, reading and classroom teaching makes Paglia feel comfortable and at home, and her Virgo Moon symbolises, amongst many other things, her formidable skills at explication de texte.

Going back to the fire~water bias, it's not at all unusual for charts to exhibit this kind of paradox and tension: if used with insight, such clashing currents within the personality can be immensely creative. Paglia's horoscope is lit up by the opposition between her 6th house Aries Sun opposing Neptune in Libra, strong in the 12th, its own house. Aries Sun is a ferociously energetic, physically brave placement, and one totally devoid of self-doubt. An inspiring leader, Aries Sun people can often foster a wonderfully warm sense of enthusiasm, but tend on occasion to trample unwittingly on the sensitivities of others. In the 6th, it underlines Paglia's work ethic, suggesting that she feels most herself when channelling all that passion and enthusiasm into the daily routine. But her Neptune in the 12th is absolutely opposed to this kind of productive, hands-on toil. Rather, it is a visionary placement, deeply in touch with the mysterious and formless realms of the imagination, of the transpersonal, of sacrifice, self-immolation and illusion. As the ambivalent, oceanic continuum of pleasure/pain, Neptune resists being anchored in form and imprisoned in flesh. In the 12th, it is an atavistic conduit for the collective visions of the past. (Paglia never ceases to talk about her Italian heritage, from which she seems to draw great imaginative strength.)

When there is a profound split of this kind in the chart, especially as here in an opposition between the Sun or Moon and an outer planet, the two parties have to reach a liveable compromise. The personal, individual ego has to be brought into a relationship with something which is impersonal, vastly larger that it, and uncontainable. This is very hard to pull off: Sun opposition Neptune is the kind of aspect one might find in the chart of a chronic drug addict, or, more positively, in that of someone with a profound religious vocation, a monk or nun. The way Paglia seems to have managed this is fascinating: by becoming a passionate devotee (Sun in Aries) of the Arts (Neptune), she has channelled these turbulent energies into her work. In a nice example of the kind of jaw-dropping neatness of metaphor to which astrology is prone, Paglia's Sun~Neptune opposition exactly encodes the central thesis of Sexual Personae.

Building on Nietzsche, Paglia sees western culture from the time of Egypt as a battleground between the hieratic, eye-obsessed, hard-edged, rational, male forces of the 'Apollonian', and the squidgy, chaotic, female, chthonian, order-resisting maelstrom of the 'Dionysian'. Her deepest ambition, she writes, is 'to fuse Frazer with Freud.' Her entire thought is predicated on unity emerging from the push-pull of conflict and fusion. Her Apollo is not just that aggressive, egocentric Aries Sun, but also her Saturn in fire (Leo): an autocratic and implacable placement, it reminds one of the famous statue of Apollo on the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, extending his arm to quell disorder and chaos--an image Paglia reproduces in Sexual Personae:

Her Dionysus (Plutarch's hugra phusis, 'watery nature') is that oceanic Neptune in the 12th, though, as we shall see, Pluto is important too. 'Dionysus was identified with liquids - blood, sap, milk, wine. The Dionysian is nature's chthonian fluidity', as Paglia writes.

It's worth noting that the link between Neptune and Dionysus is an astrological commonplace. It's often remarked by astrologers that the names of the 'new' planets are synchronistic, in other words the names fit the planet in a very mysterious way; but said names are not in fact quite right, from an astrological point of view. Uranus would have been better called Prometheus; Pluto should have been named after some dark feminine deity of fate, such as Moira, Ananke or Nemesis; and Neptune would have been better called after paradoxical, polymorphous, ecstatic, terrifying Dionysus.

From the cyclic interfusion and resistance of Apollonian and Dionysian forces, according to Paglia, culture is born. Neptune in the 12th, conjunct her Libra ascendant, is a symbol of Paglia's respect for religion and mysticism (though she herself is an atheist) and her mythic mindset, at home in the swirl of archetypes. But crucially, thanks to the link to the Sun, she is able to get it down, to bear tidings back from this phantasmagoric realm, rather than merely getting lost in its trackless wastes. It's interesting to think about her theory of criticism in this connection; she describes it as 'an evocation of the shades', aiming to give a complete, emotionally-affective description of the art-object 'on its pedestal of ritual display'. She scorns anatomising critical tactics which resist sublimity, and do violence to the organic unity of both the artwork and the cultural matrix from which it emerged. For Paglia, art both issues from and is a defence against the uncanny and unconscious, the cultic realm of Neptune.

Paglia's identification of the Dionysian with nature and the archetypal feminine is important, if seriously problematic. She's fond of emphasising 'feminine' nature's churning destructiveness, its nightmarish swampiness and impersonal instinctualism. The vagina dentata, the vampire and the femme fatale are personae which appear again and again in her work. With shades of Beardsley and Swinburne (and with tongue, perhaps, slightly in cheek) she writes:

Woman's body is a labyrinth in which man is lost. It is a walled garden, the medieval hortus conclusus, in which nature works its daemonic sorcery. Woman is the primeval fabricator, the real First Mover. She turns a gob of refuse into a spreading web of sentient being, floating on the snaky umbilical by which she leashes every man. (Sexual Personae, p. 12.)

This kind of imagery reminds us that not only Neptune but Pluto too is needling her Sun, and that Pluto has a remarkably concentrating effect on Neptune's escapist evasions. Chthonian nature is both Neptunian and Plutonian for Paglia--feminine, liquid, but also the ambivalent womb-tomb, the Magna Mater as ravening maw. (Her view of the dangerous duality of the archetypal feminine can be read here in her essay in the Classics journal Arion on Erich Neumann's seminal Jungian study The Great Mother.) She's an incredibly Sun~Pluto individual, and indeed the trine between the two planets suggests that this very difficult energy--dark, intense, and taboo--is actually quite consciously accessible to Paglia. It certainly shows in her fearless implacability and determined pugnaciousness: she was sacked from her first academic job for getting involved in a fistfight. She's also prone on occasion to an unattractive plutonian triumphalism (Pluto is after all loosely conjunct Saturn in Leo), being of the opinion that she single-handedly took on the 'Stalinist' feminist mainstream of the 1990s and won. ('I mean, these women are losers. They're gonna lose to me. My victory over them will come decade by decade, okay? Their punishment for maligning me now is to see the triumph of my work. Ha!' - Vamps and Tramps, p. 249.) In true plutonian style, Paglia sees herself--with some reason--as a daring truth-teller about the barbaric undertow of human nature and sexuality which less honest and driven people would prefer to leave buried. In interviews she has told an amusing story of her teenage self accidentally pouring too much lime into a primitive latrine at summer camp, causing a explosion: 'It symbolized everything I would do with my life and work. Excess and extravagance and explosiveness. I would be someone who would look into the latrine of culture, into pornography and crime and psychopathology...and I would drop the bomb into it.' This dark undercurrent is also inseparable from art, and she quotes Neitzsche with approbation: 'Almost everything we call 'higher culture' is based on the spiritualisation of cruelty.' (SP, p. 29.)*

Whatever one thinks of this, it's easy to see Sun~Pluto in Paglia's refusal to support illusions about the benevolence of human nature, and in her casting of her personal conflicts as a volcanic life-and-death struggle to dominate or be dominated by authority. Here she is on the cover of Vamps and Tramps, androgynous in plutonian black, looking like a goth sharp-shooter about to reach for her pistols:

Prone to cast herself in archetypal guises, her two favourites--the Maenad and the Amazon--encapsulate her Sun~Neptune and Sun~Pluto respectively. And indeed a lovely line of hers sums up the comic egomania of her Aries Sun, the mythopoeic harking-back of her 12th house Neptune, and the feral intensity of her Sun~Pluto: 'The first line of my autobiography would read: My people were nursed by the she-wolf.' (Vamps and Tramps, p. 199.)

Seeing Paglia's chart in terms of her Sun~Neptune opposition (with Plutonian shades) reminds me of a saying of F. Scott Fitzgerald: 'The sign of a first class mind...is whether it can hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously - and still function.' Paglia's ability to mediate this creative tension is a good example of a way in which difficult outer planet aspects can be integrated constructively into the personality, though it also tellingly illustrates the outer planets' tendency to turbocharge or inflate. One also rather suspects that Paglia's fanatical pursuit of her Apollonian/Dionysian model of culture in Sexual Personae is, in part, the result of her writing her own psychic structures large upon history. With an imaginative world as lurid as this, I'm not surprised that she rejects forms of literary criticism and historiography which incline to a bourgeois, Protestant plainspokeness. She is certainly adept at trying on Neptune's shifting masks, for instance in the quotation at the top of the page, with its note of dissociative self-dramatisation--'the campy, semimythic diva...known as "Camille Paglia"'. She refers to Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame as '...a study of multiple impersonations, the theatrical principle of western selfhood.' Western selfhood as it appears if you happen to have the Sun in strong aspect to Neptune, perhaps.

* * *

It's easy enough to look at a chart and link it up to aspects of the persona and writings of a public figure. But can the chart give us a more nuanced picture of their psyche? At this point we go off into speculation, but worthwhile speculation I think. Of particular interest is an account of Paglia by the sociologist and philosopher Gillian Rose, in her beautiful memoir of her own dying, Love's Work. Paglia, who is as generous with praise as she is liberal with criticism, has consistently described Rose's work as being 'at the highest intellectual level', and one intuits that she greatly respected her exact comtemporary's intensely humane learning. Rose mentions Paglia whilst describing their mutual friend James Fessenden, who taught with Paglia at Bennington College, Vermont. She wrote:

Camille was also an outstanding teacher and fraternised with her adoring students...Over the years, Jim and Camille appeared like a perennially happy and unhappy married couple. Emotionally dependent on each other, they would bicker and fight and compete in cunning vindictiveness; yet this was combined with genuine concern for each other. What they shared was a hyperactive erotic fantasy--one not necessarily reflected in their actual relationships--and an insatiable investment in the style of the aesthete. Intellectually, they diverged radically. Camille is a literary wordsmith, as voracious in her writing as in her reading. She is convinced of her originality and dismissed Jim's urgings that she read Lacan, to temper the archetypal patterns of Sexual Personae...If Camille served as the alazon, the Impostor, who boasts of more than she knows, the Jim played the role of the eiron, the Ironical Jester, who feigns ignorance and who knows much more than he reveals. Camille was impervious to the subtleties of Jim's compassion for her and her work. On many occasions, these two Old Comedians lapsed into irritable depression as a result of the pig-headedness of their trouble and strife--as each construed the other. -- (Gillian Rose, Love's Work, pp. 106-7)

This is quite revealing, especially in that it accents a natural emotional neediness in Paglia's makeup which she ruthlessly suppresses in her work. There's a lot of Pisces in Paglia's chart--Mars, Mercury, and the chart-ruler Venus are all in the sign. Tender, emotional sympathetic, and slightly flakey, this is, I suspect, the aspect of Paglia's being which those closest to her see. With all these Pisces planets in the 5th house, my sense is of an imaginatively prankish and playful side to Paglia's personality, and a penchant for exhilarating, rapturous enthusiasms which come and go but which completely transport her while they last. It also makes me wonder whether there isn't a vulnerable, slightly forlorn quality to her--a submissive Little Girl Lost under the fearsome armour. Drawing on some hints Paglia has dropped in interviews about her sexual preferences, the old phrase 'butch in the streets, femme in the sheets' comes to mind. Certainly her Mars in Pisces is a restless placement in the context of the rest of the chart. Trining Jupiter, it suggests to me that for all her monstrous, fiery, plutonian monomania, Paglia is actually fired by the ideal of devoted service to others and to knowledge itself (Jupiter) as much as to her own ego. It's an almost monastic aspect, 'Jesuitical' in the best sense of the word, echoing Rose's description of Paglia as an outstanding teacher.

Indeed as such Paglia is a notorious motormouth, famed for lecturing at unnervingly high speed: this isn't something I'd normally associate with Mercury in Pisces--although that placement might be read as being highly articulate (Mercury) about feelings (Pisces)--but Paglia's Mercury is supercharged by its conjunction to Mars and the tense, electric square to Uranus in the 9th--the house, amongst other things, of academia, of learning infused with a vision of deeper meaning. But wherever Uranus is placed in the chart there tends to be the impulse to rebellion, a sense of a different plan or perspective, a radical urge to break with or shake up the status quo; Paglia's broadsides against contemporary academic culture certainly fit the bill here. She is (as she has put it) 'contemptuous towards any educational authority that lacks a global perspective', and her prescription for the reform of the Humanities, with comparative religion placed at the heart of the syllabus, are a perfect expression of her 9th house Uranus. The planet also squares her virgoan Moon in the 11th, suggesting an urgent and instinctive sense of social mission. It's also true however that a square between Mercury and Uranus can be a sign of rigid thinking and doctrinaire self-righteousness. (I'm thinking espcially of Paglia loopy scepticism about global warming here.) As Liz Greene says, typically insightfully, '...[G]iven sufficient containment and commonsense, Mercury~Uranus can be marvellously inventive and open-minded, although often determinedly undisturbed by the burden of self-questioning.' (The Art of Stealing Fire: Uranus in the Horoscope, p. 138.) One recalls Rose's comment on Paglia's refusal to heed her friend's urgings about reading Lacan.

To conclude, I was intrigued by a comment of Harold Bloom's on Paglia. Bloom was director of her PhD and clearly something of a mentor to her; he remarked recently that he felt that deep down she is a sadder and more pessimistic person than her stupendously energetic and zestful public persona suggests. The squares from Saturn and Pluto to her Chiron in the 1st house are a very dark set of aspects indeed, suggesting a sense of fundamental woundedness about her way of being-in-the-world. One wonders how painful, actually, were her travails as an ambiguously-gendered and aggressive girl of wavering sexual orientation in the conformist 50s, and again as a scholar who couldn't get her magnum opus published until she was 40. Very, I suspect, and if there is a core of bitterness and rage in her, she seems to have made the best of it with commendable good grace, all things considered. Perhaps her insufferable crowing about her own rightness is a compensation for a much more painful and humiliating sense of having always stuck out, of having always been awkwardly-angled against the world from an isolated childhood onwards.

Paglia herself has asserted repreatedly that her view of life is ultimately a comic and life-celebrating one: 'We must accept our pain, change what we can, and laugh at the rest.' (SP, p. 39). Her Jupiter is trine Saturn, an aspect which might be neatly summed up as 'resigned laughter.' But when she says, elsewhere, '[t]o me, comedy is a symptom of a balanced perspective on life, and people who are going around, like gloomy gusses, in that Sontag style of intellectual, these people are suffering from something coming from their childhood, it has nothing to do with the proper intellectual response to life...', I find that I don't quite believe what she's saying. And with her 1st house Chiron, and all that Saturn/Pluto, I doubt that deep down she does either.

* * *

*I knew instinctively from reading that quotation that Nietzsche must also have had a Sun~Pluto aspect, and looked up his chart. He did - Sun in Libra opposition Pluto in Aries.


Call me Mike said...

Actually, Eris is bigger than Pluto.

Bo said...

That's nice. But I have no idea what it has to do with my article on Paglia.

Michelle said...

I found your blog researching books (Christmas shopping!). Great blog. I will be back to read again. :-)

I wanted to add a recommendation here. A blogger friend of mine who does birth charts of famous people. Her insights are excellent (I've worked as an astrologer in the past and I'm in awe of her - she goes deeper than I ever did!)


Bo said...

Thanks Michelle!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...