Anais Nin’s stories in Delta of Venus
) were intended for a specific male client but it is possible to detect a feminine presence in the writing. Lynette Felber (1995) suggests that Nin called herself a feminine writer but nonetheless, wanted to grasp the male reader in her projects with Henry Miller and her erotic writings in Delta of Venus
. As Nin expresses in the introduction to Delta of Venus
, she was appalled at the client’s continual insistence on more straightforward sex scenes and less flourish. ‘I was sure the old man knew nothing about the beatitudes, ecstasies, dazzling reverberations of sexual encounters’ (Nin 2000, p. ix). The stories are thus an exploration between assumed notions of feminine and masculine sexuality. Assumed because while the client was a male and Nin a female, they are also determined by their individuality. Masculine sexuality is often criticised by feminism as being ‘inevitably rapacious’ (Horrocks 1997, p. 142) and feminine sexuality the polar opposite – passive and soft. While this argument places females as pure and wholesome, it also serves to victimise them, creating an empiricist cycle (Horrocks 1997). Feminist argument rejects this notion, stating that the woman can have just as much power as the man, and is entitled to show pleasure and desire without the appearance of vulgarity (Horrocks 1997). Considering these two arguments, it can be seen why writing such as Nin’s escapes the title of ‘pornography’ and is related to as ‘erotica’. Roger Horrocks notes that ‘[W]omen… can experiment with porn and S/M without necessarily falling victim to patriarchal categories. It is possible to play with such categories and subvert them, and not inevitably fall into a position of supine passivity towards them’ (1997, p. 141).
It is this kind of ‘play’ that we see in (among others) the story Lilith (Nin 2000) where a woman has no desire for her demeaning husband. He tricks her into taking ‘Spanish Fly’, and while the intention is to tease her as it is fake, she attends the cinema with a female friend and is subject to a placebo effect. She realises she does experience the normal hungers of sexual desire. In the end she decides to keep this from her husband. This story is a direct response to a micro-level patriarchal relationship, but other male representers of power and institution throughout the stories are also subverted. Some, like the Basque in The Basque and Bijou end up internally lonely and saddened due to a previous sexual obsession. Some, like the title character in Marcel have homosexual relations. Some get pleasure from the female gaze, like Manuel, thus subverting the objectification of the female body. Priests and Barons and other powers of patriarchal institution are cast in violent, often violating positions – ‘…I began to write tongue-in-cheek, to become outlandish, inventive, and so exaggerated that I thought he would realise I was caricaturing sexuality’ (Nin 2000, p. viii). Nin was frustrated that the client did not notice, and disturbed at this signification and confirmation of male sexuality as brutish, forceful and overtly base.
Nin’s writing technique is another way she asserts her feminine identity on sexual matters. ‘I had a feeling that Pandora’s box contained the mysteries of woman’s sexuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate’ (Nin 2000, p. x). Her language has been described as ‘lyrical’ (Felber 1995) and this once again places it into a set of binary characterisations. Female is lyrical, male is clinical. Female is confessional, male is symbolic (Felber 1995). Note the voice in the following passage from Artists and Models (Nin 2000, p. 41) ‘I felt desperate with desire to be a woman, to plunge into living. Why was I enslaved by this need of being in love first? Where would my life begin? I would enter each studio expecting a miracle which did not take place. It seemed to me that a great current was passing all around me and that I was left out.’
It is lyrical because it focuses on a character’s internalisations and is not a descriptor of action. The passage can also be read as a motif of Nin’s own struggle – the narrator is attempting to find a place between her emotional (soft, passive) being and the need to ‘plunge in’ to life (strength, active). Felber (1995, p. 323) calls Nin a ‘colossus of gendered discourse’ who ‘straddles the gap between masculine and feminine language’. Unfortunately as a writer this problematises her identity. By declaring herself a feminine writer she may exclude male readers, but by pleasing (even tongue-in-cheek) male readers she may exclude female ones who are not willing to embrace subjects as extreme as incest, bestiality, fetishism, sadomasochism and even necrophilia.
Felber, L 1995, ‘The three faces of June: Anais Nin’s appropriation of feminine writing’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 309-324, (online JSTOR).
Horrocks, R 1997, An introduction to the study of sexuality
, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills.
Nin, A 2000, Delta of Venus
, Penguin Classics, London.
See more of my writing on ‘literary sex’ in the Sex Mook
by Vignette Press.