Anais Nin's Delta of Venus – Feminine Identity Through Pleasure – A Mini Analysis

Anais Nin’s stories in Delta of Venus (Aus/US) 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.

References

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.

8 thoughts on “Anais Nin's Delta of Venus – Feminine Identity Through Pleasure – A Mini Analysis

  1. thanks for that considered & well researched review of Nin, ange.i’m interested in the contested ground of sexuality and sexual power in feminist theory.i’ve also searched, without much success, for parallel discourse about masculine sexual identity. the most fertile ground for this seems to be in queer theory, but i sense a gaping hole in ‘masculine studies’contrast femininity/feminism with masculity/masculinism. as far as i have been able to see, there isn’t yet even semiotic equivalence in the two discourses. here, i’m careful to make a distinction between ‘patriarchy’ and ‘masculinity’.i’d suggest that if “…man’s language is inadequate…” for describing female sexuality, the semiotics of feminism is likewise inadequate for addressing issues of masculine identity and sexuality (note that there is not even a counterpart to the word ‘feminist’).i could go on and on…

  2. Bruce, you are so right. I hate that there is not a balanced study of masculinity. The only interesting things recently I’ve come across are comments on how the younger male generation is caught between traditional (patriarchal) codes of masculinity, and the equality ventures of feminism. Many young men are growing up feeling confused and inadequate. We have the extremes with the ‘lad’ and ’emotional’ subcultures, but most average guys just want to fit somewhere in between.

  3. ange, i assume that you get emails when people comment on your posts. so i assume that it’s not redundant to reopen discussion on something a month old. also: hello! i feel like this is an odd way to initiate contact after so many years.to my shame, i haven’t read nin (or at least not her erotica), which is largely a consequence of circumstances (i read what i have in front of me) than any overt disregard for it. but it strikes me that your interest in the female (feminine) writer/male reader relationship raises a whole series of points about the structure of reading as such – specifically, the tension between assimilation of the material into the reader’s sense of self (which is facilitated where writer and reader are both assumed male, because it doesn’t trouble gender in the way that assimilating an (active) feminine voice into the (passive) male reader would), and images of reading as rapacious, as ravishing, as consuming, etc which imply assimilation by conquest. the latter, of course, replicates traditional patriarchal relationships between, in which case a feminine writer would perhaps allows traditional sexual relationships to be performed at the level of reading. on the other hand, the excitement of transgression adds a certain erotic frission even to the alternative: a disruption of normative gender roles and identities. in both cases, i think the function of a feminine writer of erotic fiction would be integrated into the experience of reading erotica as such, and probably heighten that experience for some male readers.as for female readers, i’m not sure it’s fair to generalise that women seek out less ‘extreme’ experiences than men. there are plenty of men who would be deeply uncomfortable with bestiality, incest, sadomasochism &c, just as there are no doubt plenty of women who like them. to argue that there’s a basic difference between female and male readers in this regard seems to play to a portrayal of female sexuality as more ‘pure’ and more innocent than its masculine counterpart.and on masculinity: there’s actually a lot of fascinating work on masculinity and its various cultural constructions going on in gender studies and english departments (and has been for decades). locally, there are people like clifton evers (who is something in the university of sydney’s gender studies department) who writes on surfing and masculinity in australia. more famously, eve kosofsky sedgwick actually wrote a lot on masculinity back when she was more interested in sex than affect. her first ‘important’ book, ‘between men’, argues that men’s relationships to women were as much if not more about their relationships to each other, at least in nineteenth century literature. hence, homosociality, which she aruges is on a continuum with homosexuality, even as they remain distinct. it’s a fascinating argument, even if you don’t buy it, and it deals with constructions of masculine sexuality as well as masculinity more generally. also, you’ll note that one of the reasons that studies of masculinity aren’t marked as such is that the default is usually masculine in any case. see, for instance, foucault’s history of sexuality, in which women tend to be rather more incidental than men. similarly, if you’re interested in specifically queer sexualities, there’s a lot more written on gay male sexuality than there is on lesbianism.

  4. Alys! Thanks for broadening the discussion. Obviously my piece is a ‘mini’ analysis, so I didn’t cover all ground. You must read Nin if you are so interested in gender studies. :-)On some of your comments:’images of reading as rapacious, as ravishing, as consuming, etc which imply assimilation by conquest.’I actually like the imagery of this. Reading is conquest in a way, of the imagination and often the opinions of the reader. It can certainly be consuming.And what you lead to:’i think the function of a feminine writer of erotic fiction would be integrated into the experience of reading erotica as such, and probably heighten that experience for some male readers.’This is a very interesting point, elegantly stated.’there are plenty of men who would be deeply uncomfortable with bestiality, incest, sadomasochism &c, just as there are no doubt plenty of women who like them.’Yes, this is true, and I was perhaps generalising, but I attempted to explain my point in the context of traditionally constructed masculinities and femininities, whether or not they are true representations of sexuality.And thank you very much for the recommendations of texts on masculinity.All in all, thank you for taking the time to comment. I hope you enjoy other parts of the blog 🙂

  5. Ange, hi! I’m actually really eager to read Nin, but I have trouble finding time to read for pleasure (as I spend most of my day reading and/or writing, I worry that my life will slip into this totally hermetic world of books if I don’t mix it up a little). I’m very interested in gender/feminism/sexuality, but it’s mostly a side interest at the moment – my honours thesis was on djuna barnes and jeanette winterson, both lesbian writers with very little else in common (except pretensions to the literary). Interestingly, though, neither gender nor sexuality featured strongly. My current thesis is likely to be about austere and borderline-misogynist male writers who tend to find sex a little repulsive (Beckett, Kafka, Paul Auster, Knut Hamsun) — so a different world entirely from Nin.Anyway, I enjoy your blog. It’s exciting to see literary discussion happening — and absolutely thrilling and wonderful that you’re pursuing this writing thing. I’m proud of you! Are you planning on staying in Coffs next year? Perhaps I should be writing you an email instead …

  6. Hi Alys – feel free to email me anytime (angelina_gia(at)hotmail(dot)com, but all literary discussion is welcome here. I wrote a small essay on Jeanette Winterson which I may eventually post on here. She is a very interesting writer, I would like to read more of her work someday (like you, I hardly read what I choose to, but what is prescribed for study or sent to me for review!)I’m doing honours next year but I’ll be doing a creative thesis. My focus for the thesis and the surrounding study will be consumerism/materialism. These are things I am very interested in and compelled to write about. Feminism (particularly neo-feminism) can really be looked at in this context though too.I love the sound of your thesis on male writers.I don;t think I’ll be in Coffs next year, depends what’s happening. The reason I like it is because it is so cheap to live so I always have time to write. But I do feel a little cut off from the rest of the literary community at times. I am going to decide when I get back from Europe in March!Angela

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