Sex does not thrive on monotony: re-visiting Anais Nin on her 117th birthday

Dear Collector: 

We hate you. 

Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships that change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities.

Thus Anais Nin began a letter to the mysterious ‘Collector’ in 1940. Alongside her literary contemporaries Henry Miller and George Barker, Nin was commissioned to write erotic fiction for this elusive figure’s personal collection, at the rate of a dollar a page. The ‘Collector’ was later revealed to be fairly nondescript Oklahoman oil baron Roy M. Johnson, who had told Nin to “cut the poetry” and focus on the explicit sex. Her avowed rejection of this notion is what brings her work to life. The short stories, collated and subsequently published as Delta of Venus, are dazzling examples of mid-twentieth-century modernism and a radical exploration of female sexuality. 

The entire dynamic of the situation regarding Nin’s erotica is compelling: a prominent Conservative Midwestern businessman paying struggling bohemian writers from California and New York to write smut to pay their rent. This strange circumstance managed to thrust together disparate areas of American identity with sex in a country with a complicated and multifaceted attitude to that particular activity. 

Nin was born in 1903 in Neuilly, France, to Cuban parents of French and Spanish descent. She spent her life skipping through the metropolitan capitals of the new, glittering cultural twentieth century. She spent a few formative years in New York City, some time in Havana during her marriage to the experimental film-maker Ian Hugo, and, of course, many years in Paris romantically involved with Henry Miller. In this context you can see the forging of the white-hot gold literary talent and cultural awareness. 

Despite Nin’s celebrated literary fiction and short stories, her most-read works are her journals and commissioned erotica, a selective focus that demonstrates the challenge posed for female writers not to be defined by salacious public consumption of their pain and sexuality. Despite being firmly in this paradigm, Nin’s erotica breaks key ground in creating a female voice on sex that is neither purely victim nor vixen; she dignifies women and their choices in her stories. 

Nin is explicit in her understanding of the differences between male and female sensuality. The preface to the contemporary Penguin edition of Delta of Venus is an extract from Nin’s diary, expressing her amused disbelief at the ‘non-poetic’ brief she has been given: “Didn’t the old man know how words carry colors and sounds into the flesh?” It’s telling of how chromatic and rhythmic her writing is. She uses sensory language to portray the sensual, her most alluring and effective trick. In the preface she further describes the language of men as “inadequate” to describe women’s sensuality, and claims that “the language of sex has yet to be invented. The language of the senses has yet to be explored.” 

Nin’s work begins to discover this new language. In Lilith, the protagonist is described by her lover: “her hair grow[ing] electric, her face more vivid, her eyes like lightning, her body restless and jerky like a racehorse’s.” Whilst most erotica of the era opted for mechanical and often violent narration, Nin’s language is sensitive and tender. She caresses all that exists outside of the logistics of sex – hair, heart, eyes – and gives melody to the emotions surrounding it. Lilith isn’t just left alone, she is “in a state of isolation – indeed, like a wild animal in an absolute desert.”

The motifs she uses give her language a deeply sensuous female fullness: the lazily elongated eyes of felines, sea shells, “salty honey”, Venus, flowers in bud. Nin recognises that her male contemporaries relied on cruder and more bawdy writing. In the tradition of Francois Rabelais, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer led to a long obscenity trial in the US during the 1960s. The lack of a demand for female-driven erotica encouraged Nin to be more experimental within her barely-scrutinised space. Where Miller’s characters touch and hit, Nin’s caress and stroke; his descriptions of female genitalia are crude, hers are ‘hidden recesses’. Her language is honeyed and mosaiced; light pours through her words and everything around is made beautiful.

Nin was concerned that if her erotic writings were published, they would overshadow the rest of her career. To Henry Miller, she jokingly referred to herself as  “the madam of this literary, snobbish house of prostitution.” Nevertheless, in 1977, a year after her death from cervical cancer, Delta of Venus was published. Two years later, another collection, called Little Birds, was published. Many of her journals were published during her lifetime, including Henry and June, which details her relationship in Paris with Henry Miller and his wife June. Since her death, numerous volumes have been released to the public, including particularly troubling accounts of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and a subsequent affair she had with him in her 30s, which combined to create a decidedly blurry public image. Whilst popular in cult circles, her mainstream fame only came relatively recently, when she ascended to the throne of early-2010s Tumblr’s darling of the inspirational quote. A 2015 Guardian article bizarrely describes her as an “earlier Lena Dunham”, illustrating nothing but how confused we still are about female writers. 

In terms of influence, it’s fair to say that Nin instigated the female literary tradition of erotic writing, from Sylvia Plath’s poetic sex splintered with intense sadness to Anne Sexton’s confessional ramblings. Also notable is one of the best exercises in the English language, Elizabeth Smart’s electrifyingly alive By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, about her heartbreak at the hands of Nin’s contemporary George Barker. (Coincidentally, Smart’s writing is far superior to Barker’s insipid T. S. Eliot knock-offs).

Separate the noise from the woman, and all that remains is glorious writing that forces you to look directly into the sun. In her words: “only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.”

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