Not as many feathers: Paglia, Leda, and the women of today.

Nora Cornell • September 22, 2020

Camille Paglia’s essay on Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” is a masterclass in both interpretation and extrapolation; her breadth of analysis gives the poem a deeper meaning, and scattered literary allusions twist her writing into a criticism of the larger Western canon.

At first, it feels strange to handle such a raw poem with nearly clinical academic language, but Paglia’s precision is exactly what brings Leda even closer into our sympathies. Her analysis of the “loosening thighs,” for example, which she calls an “ambiguous and provocative” line (115), adds the frightening layer of Leda’s growing awareness of her situation, which might not have been apparent on the first reading. Or, even more subtly, Paglia points out Yeats’ formatting, where the poem itself is broken like a lightning bolt, another instance of Zeus’ power over the narrative and the lack of resolution in Yeats’ version of the story. Each new piece of evidence Paglia brings makes Yeats’ original work all the more devastating, achieving the primary goal of literary analysis.

But Paglia goes even beyond achieving a singular goal; her seemingly casual literary allusions are actually very carefully placed, expanding her argument to the broader canon of Western literature. Paglia’s first allusion is more of a ‘hit you over the head with it’ point; she writes that Leda “will give birth to the entire classical era” (116) and briefly outlines the lives of Helen and Clytemnestra, famous Greek women who are both victim and defendant. From there, she cites “Shelley’s pharaoh,” Samuel Beckett, and T. S. Eliot. At first glance, these might just be seen as a random list of some prominent literary figures, but that’s kind of the idea. Leda’s story is a tragedy, but it’s not unique. Stories like hers – and, more importantly, treatment like hers, with the removal of her own voice in the very narrative that claims to center her – abound in Western literature. Paglia writes, “Western culture [is] inseminated with treachery and violence from the start,” (116), and all of these name-dropped authors just keep proving her point.

In fact, we don’t even need to go all that far back into literary history to encounter the same phenomenon. How many of us have read books from the past, say, 75 years that center the trauma of a woman without centering her voice? Or that treat misogynistic violence as a given, or use a woman’s tragedy simply to further the development of the men in her life? My bet is that a vast majority of us can, without even trying.

It’s tempting to learn all of this and understand it without internalizing it, to say, it’s just books. It’s not like it really hurts anyone. But the truth is, it does. Almost all of my close female friends (and I’ll guess a number of my acquaintances as well) have stories that sound like Leda’s. Not as many feathers, perhaps, but trauma all the same, and they care how they hear their own stories.

The truth is, our literature and our lives are completely inseparable. Art shapes culture, culture shapes art, and we are all responsible to better understand whose stories we center, and how we tell them.

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