Anaïs Nin Myth of the Day #5

Myth #5: Anaïs Nin’s erotica disqualifies her as any sort of feminist.


In the February issue of Glamour, there is an article entitled “6 Crazy Sex Requests Women Just Like You Have Heard.” One of the requests, reported by a 32-year-old woman was, “My husband asked, ‘Can we do it, but can it just be all about me?’ It gets better: He said I could keep the TV on so I wouldn’t miss The Office” (Glamour, p. 100). On the Smoking Gun website, there is a “Contract of Wifely Expectationsin which a man lists requirements his wife must fulfill, which, it could be argued, are repressive to say the least. Both these articles reveal that for some men, patriarchy is alive and well.

As shown in the article “Feminist Smut(?)A study of Anaïs Nin’s erotica,” by Angela Carter in A Café in Space, Vol. 6, patriarchy is a thread running through Anaïs Nin’s erotica (Delta of Venus and Little Birds). For example, Carter uses a story from Little Birds to illustrate that Nin wrote of women’s struggle for sexual liberation in a time of patriarchal mores:

When read in the context of feminist criticism, “Hilda and Rango” is in many ways one of Nin’s more troubling stories. The reader sees the story’s protagonist struggle because her sexual actions are not socially acceptable for women. As the story unfolds, Hilda becomes more and more sexually passive in order to please a male lover who subscribes to conventional gender roles. When the story ends as Hilda submits passively to a dominant male lover, it is easy to assume, mistakenly, that Nin is sustaining gendered traditionalism. (A Café in Space, Vol. 6, p.97)

The story is based on actual events between Nin and Gonzalo More, the Peruvian who swept her off her feet in Paris in the late 30s. Despite his apparent bohemianism, More was very traditional in that he felt women should be submissive and allow the man to “have his way.” Before meeting More, Nin had been sexually awakened in her relationship with Henry Miller, who allowed her to be bold and daring. “Hilda and Rango” parallels this duality: the natural desire to be sexually adventurous and the social pressure to be passive.

Nin writes that when Hilda makes an advance on Rango, he suddenly “pushed her away as if she had wounded him” and tells her that she “made the gesture of a whore.”

The story ends with Hilda submitting completely to Rango, denying her own sexuality in favor of his. Carter goes on to say:

Her will was her desire to initiate sex and Rango drove it out of her. He now rules her sexuality by denying it and forcing her to lay almost corpse-like while he teases her. In the last candlelit moment, he leads their intercourse like the demon she first saw in him. Sadly, this moment when Hilda’s idealized dream of passivity comes true is instead Rango’s moment, “his desire, his hour” (Little Birds 120). The moment that should have fulfilled the passive Hilda’s dream is not her moment at all. By leaving Hilda’s sexuality completely out of the story’s conclusion, Nin provokes the reader to question what happened to her desire, her hour. (A Café in Space, Vol. 6, p. 102)

Carter shows us that Nin indeed used her erotica to highlight the suppression of female sexuality. While Nin was never a second wave feminist in the true sense of the term, her erotica could be viewed as feminist since it expresses the struggle of women to be sexually liberated in the early 1940s, long before second wave feminism took root.

Do you have an Anaïs Nin myth you would like addressed? Let us know by e-mailing us.

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  1. Is it really “troubling” that women sometimes play (and perhaps even enjoy playing) a passive role? Does this story have to “highlight suppression”? Is not passivity one aspect of eroticism? And since this story is included in a book of what Nin believed to be erotica, couldn’t the dynamic between the characters simply illustrate one scenario women sometimes find erotic?

  2. No, it is not necessarily “troubling” that women sometimes play, or enjoy, being passive or submissive. Of course, this is just another aspect of sexuality and I believe Nin’s work shows that she supports all kinds of sexuality. However, I do not think that this story “Hilda and Rango” is simply an illustration of “one scenario women sometimes find erotic” because Hilda does not find this passivity erotic. As explained in the post, my article provides textual evidence that Hilda does not find this sexual passivity erotic at all. Indeed at the end of the story, her sexual desire is completely ignored while Rango’s is brought to the forefront. Had Nin truly been writing about a woman who enjoys passivity, as she does in other stories, the reader would see Hilda’s erotic desires fulfilled in the end, and we do not.

    Of course, passivity is an erotic position that women (and men) often do enjoy and Nin’s other writings support this in many ways. I believe, however, that this story draws attention to a woman to becomes passive to please a man, and while doing so loses complete connection with her own sexual desires.

  3. I disagree that the character “lost complete connection with her sexual desires.” Quite the contrary: she got in touch with her sexual desires.

    Early in the story, Hilda describes having learned to “court” the American writer by making “first advances.” Fortunately for her, this technique does not work later with Rango, because she “had always dreamed of having a man who would force her will, rule her sexually, lead.” Consequently, she is much more sexually compatible with Rango.

    Hilda enjoys the games she plays with Rango and uses words like “punishing” and “deprive” in the context of extreme sexual pleasure. The sexual games they play are so sensually enjoyable for Hilda that she likens them to “new drugs that made the entire body more alive to caresses, to touch, to the very air.” She describes herself as being in a state of “erotic wakefulness such as she had never known.” She may call their delayed intercourse “his hour,” but it is certainly HER hour. Calling it “his hour” is part of HER enjoyment.

    Hilda is not “sustaining gendered traditionalism.” She is exploring her sexuality — with stunningly good results. If she has given over the “rulership” of her sexuality to Rango, she is doing so willingly and with pleasure. She most certainly “rules” her sexuality, but the game she plays with Rango includes a ruse of passivity.

  4. Respectively, I disagree. I hope you will read my full article in Vol. 6. I address many of the points you raise here in full detail. I do not think that Hilda learned to be sexually assertive through “courting” the American writer. I believe she was assertive to begin with and that the American writer only allowed her to become more so. In the first sexual encounter between Hilda and the American writer, Hilda initiated the sex. Thus, Hilda was aggressive sexually before she learned any kind of sexuality from the American writer.

    And yes, I do agree Hilda did enjoy the way Rango teases her. Remember though, Rango only has sex with Hilda after she becomes completely passive to his advances, until this moment he simply teases her despite her clear sexual frustration. Of course, she like this and as the narrator, who is not Hilda, explains she is in a state of “erotic wakefulness such as she had never known.” Anyone who has to completely restrain their erotic desire would become extremely aware of what they are restraining.

    It is most important to note that Hilda is not the narrator. Everything the reader learns of Hilda’s experience is from a third perspective. Hilda does not explain or narrate anything directly to the reader. Rather, the reader is told of Hilda’s conversations, experiences, and desires. Hilda does not “call their delayed intercourse ‘his hour,'”- the narrator tells us this. It is not Hilda’s perspective; it is the omniscient third perspective.

    Furthermore, there is no textual evidence that this “hour” is “HER hour.” Or that she is “calling it ‘his hour’ and it is part of HER enjoyment”. The only textual evidence of this “hour” is the narrator announcing Rango’s sexual enjoyment, while completely leaving Hilda out of the final description. Had Hilda even been a part of this enjoyment, the narrator would have at least included her in the paragraph. Having read all of Nin’s erotica many, many times, I believe it is safe to say that had this enjoyment been partially Hilda’s, Nin would not have hesitated to clearly illustrate/include a woman’s (not Rango’s) climatic moment. 🙂

  5. Well, again, respectfully, I believe you are misreading of the story. I believe you are misreading the story because you are forcing it into a “feminist context” that distorts the meaning. For me the meaning is incredibly clear: it is a story about a woman discovering surprisingly hot sex after she finds a lover who allows her to fulfill her long-held dream of being passive.

    There is nothing in the story to indicate she was “assertive to begin with.” In fact, the story states clearly that Hilda “courted” the American writer because “he remained impassive” and she “learned to be active, bold, but she suffered…” She becomes used to “gratifying” (the narrator’s word) the American writer. When she met Rango, she was “struck by this image of the demon, the demon she had imagined to exist behind the work of the American writer.” Unfortunately, the American writer didn’t become the tiger in bed that she thought he’d be and that’s why she went with Rango.

    Hilda wants Rango’s arms to grip her. She did not want to grip him, as she had had to do with the American writer. She had “suffered from being forced to act as she did with her other lover [the American writer] … [and had] been made to betray her real nature….” Hilda even says, speaking of sex with the American writer, “A woman does not always do what she wants.”

    The narrator goes on to describe the intense sensual pleasure Hilda had leading up to the act of intercourse with Rango. And then it seems your entire argument leads to that last sentence and the fact that it ends with the words “submission to his desire, his hour.” You argue that Hilda is “left out of the final description” and also state, “Had Hilda even been a part of this enjoyment, the narrator would have at least included her in the paragraph.” I don’t see that at all when I read the last paragraph. I don’t believe she is “left out” because her name is not mentioned. Hilda is in the scene, finally getting the sex she always wanted, grateful someone knew how to bring her to that point, and focused on the fact that he was enjoying her. That’s what the entire story is about and Nin’s subtlety is so incredible here; she brings the reader into the scene and into what she felt. That she calls it “his hour” is perfect, really.

    The problem, I think, is that you’re imagining that aggression, sexual aggression, is somehow superior to sexual passivity, so when Nin writes about her hot experience with passivity, you find a way to make the story about how oppressed she was by her experience with sexual passivity: a typical feminist perspective. It just doesn’t work here.

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