Interpreting Anaïs Nin’s Erotica: do we see it as we are?

Image courtesy of Bonni Reid

Image courtesy of Bonni Reid

If there is any consensus about reading Anaïs Nin, it is that one sees aspects of one’s self in the work—whether it be fiction or the diary. Nin’s work is a mirror of sorts, and sometimes a distorted one. This is what makes Nin’s writing “personal,” and therefore “universal,” and is also a reason why there are so many disagreements about its meaning. A reader with a feminist point of view will see the feminism, and another will see something else entirely, and we haven’t even gotten into gender differences.

And about the erotica: one reason it has seen so little serious academic criticism is that it is generally believed that she knocked these stories off in her spare time with little thought or care at a buck a page for a collector, and then, near the end of her life, “sold out” by having them published. In his article “Claiming Ownership: Issues in Nin criticism—the diary vs. the fiction” (from A Café in Space, Vol. 6), Bruce Watson notes that “In his review of Nin criticism, Anaïs Nin and Her Critics, [Philip K.] Jason gives the Erotica a scant page of attention, prefaced by the dunning statement that: ‘Delta of Venus (1977) and Little Birds (1979) add little to Nin’s stature, even though they sold amazingly well…’ Jason’s tart commentary on Nin’s Erotica seems the stock critique of the seasoned academic when faced with popular literature; he seems to distrust it for the very fact that it is popular.”

However, today there is a growing trend to look critically at the erotica and to write about it. In fact, there are three articles that address Nin’s erotica in the current A Café in Space.

 

In her article “A ‘Clanging Cymbal—The Story of Anaїs Nin’s Reception,” Sarah Burghauser points out that “We […] know, and understand why some folks have a problem with [Nin]: but they oftentimes can’t see beyond their own ideas of what a woman writer should be and what sort of work she should produce.” Burghauser illustrates this idea with critic Edmund Miller’s take on Nin’s erotica: “[Miller argues] that Nin’s erotica does not work well as either fiction or erotica, saying, ‘Their [the stories] tendency to thwart arousal is partly a consequence of the loose plotting, but may have derived in part as well from a feminine misunderstanding of what works to arouse men.’ In this passage, Miller is complaining not only on the book collector’s behalf (as per his protest to poetry) but also on his own.”

 

One could claim that Edmund Miller is misinterpreting the erotica, but it could be that he is merely viewing it through his own prism—this is one of the reasons that criticizing Nin’s erotica specifically, and Nin’s work generally, has rarely been a unifying endeavor. If there are a dozen Nin readers, there will be nearly a dozen interpretations. The good news is that the erotica is finally getting the attention it deserves: as valued fiction, as groundbreaking women’s writing, and as a form of feminism, all valid considerations, and all debatable.

 

Comments

8 Responses to “Interpreting Anaïs Nin’s Erotica: do we see it as we are?”
  1. Kim says:

    Yes, well put.

    Except Nin spoke often about how painful it was for her to be “misunderstood.” She mentioned this throughout her diaries and was particularly pained in the late ’60s and ’70s when her work was sometimes, as she put it, “misunderstood.” If it could be “misunderstood,” then there was something to understand. She did not say, “Here I am: a Rorschach test. Please read yourself into my work.” No, SHE wanted to be understood. And of course, because she often dealt with elusive feelings that are sometimes beyond words, we must read into her words to attempt to decipher their meaning. This is true with all writing, all communication. But often, my observation with critics of Nin is not that they are “interpreting” her work. They aren’t READING it (meaning simply seeing the words on the page and comprehending them).

  2. Paul Herron says:

    You are right, Kim. Further, I think it’s safe to say that EVERY writer wants to be understood, to have that nugget of meaning translated bit by bit exactly into the head of the reader. Nin, of course, felt pain at being misunderstood, especially when it was by her very peers, such as Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. Miller proved with his “Scenario” that he did not comprehend House of Incest. Durrell proved he missed the mark with Children of the Albatross by writing a preface she called “foolish.” If the two writers with whom she worked closely during the Villa Seurat years misunderstood her work (by which I mean did not interpret it as she had intended), what chance does the average reader have?

    However, this is really irrelevant when it comes to Anaïs Nin. When the nugget is multi-layered and faceted, when it is presented from the “dream outward,” from the “unconscious,” dressed in symbolism, then it must be interpreted in the same realm by the reader. In other words, we perceive her work the way only we as individuals can because the medium in which we meet her is not literal, not solid. It is emotional; it is dreamlike. While the academic may be fretting over how to express fluid meaning in concrete terms (the bane of Nin criticism and the reason why it can be one of the hardest tasks in academia), the reader, whether scholarly or not, feels something only s/he can feel, because the wavelength of Nin’s work resonates with different aspects of the being unique to each. THIS is what makes Nin’s work valuable and why each reader takes something different from it. It may not be what she wished for, but it is what it is.

    Nin says it well: “Prose is literal. Poetry is dimensional. Why should we want to penetrate this realm of the dream? Because it contains the key to a knowledge of ourselves.” Not just the writer’s…but the reader’s as well.

  3. Kim says:

    Yes, I agree, which is frankly why I’ve traditionally avoided getting into conversations with anyone about Anais Nin because I didn’t enjoy defending her against the attacks I’ve heard on her writing and her character. But you have a blog here. You want people to have a discourse about her work. You post chunks of someone’s article, their interpretation of one story, and then you offer an opportunity for “Comment.” It says “Leave a Reply.” So maybe that’s not appropriate here, since everyone is going to see themselves in Nin’s work and her work will, as you write, resonate “with different aspect of the being unique to each.” I absolutely agree that our reactions to Nin can be emotional and dreamlike, because her work is emotional dreamlike. But if this is such a personal and solitary experience, why post one person’s interpretation (the first in your blog, which otherwise has been full of biographical facts)? And why have a blog and ask for comments?

  4. Grame says:

    There is a general reluctance amongst ‘serious’ critics to examine literary erotica, much as in medicine ‘serious’ journals are not generally prepared to publish work which examines treatments for increasing pleasure from sexual activity.

    The act of reading is not a passive ‘download’ of material which remains unaltered, and the reader always treats and interprets the words received according to individual experience and prejudices.

    From my own experience in writing, one cannot judge that some writing is more readily appreciated by males and other forms by females. Sexual experience is intensely personal, and it seems that the assumption that whatever arouses the writer will automatically arouse others, regardless of gender is a tendency towards autism. Nin herself wrote that ‘we experience life twice; at the moment and in recollection’. But writing of the highly charged sort seems to be more effective if it is that Wordsworthian type of ’emotion recollected in tranquility.’

    Every artist, whether writing words or music, painting or sculpting, or whatever else, says a lot about their own perception of the universe. Anyone who sees/hears/ reads or otherwise consumes their output will interpret from their own unique viewpoint.

    There can, however, be an empirical judgement of the value of erotic writing, and this ought, in my opinion, to consider what the reader might be provoked into contemplating beyond the mere phenomenon of ‘feeling aroused’ by the writing.

    The late lamented John Mortimer famously stated that the definition of ‘obscene’ pornography was that which caused a particular High Court judge to have an erection. In the Lady Chatterley case, a similar eminence gris asked whether the book was something which the jury would want ‘their wives or servants’ to read.

    I believe I know what is merely banal in writing about sexual activity. It is often to be found in the ‘true confessions’ sections of ‘top-shelf’ magazines. Nin’s writing is not of this type. Nor, I hope is mine. None of us would be were it not for sexual activity, and it seems rather sad that it is the least discussed commonplace in literature.

    It is nice to hide behind facts and ‘respectability’ but no approach towards life through literature would be sound if it did not primarily address the smelly sticky slimy bits that bring us all to the condition in which we are yet to learn how to read and write.

  5. Word says:

    Like Kim, I’m not too enamored of so-called “feminist critiques” of Nin. I always seem to tune out when I read Women’s Studies 101 watch words like “troubling.” Feminists were not friends to Nin. Nin, thankfully, lies beyond feminism and I don’t think the rigid dogma of “feminist critiques” can ever contain her work. And I don’t think the “Academy” can contain her work either. Academic and Feminist interpretations of Nin and her work will always fall flat. Nin and her work lie outside what Academic and Feminists consider “proper” or “correct.” Nin and her work make the most sense to people who celebrate what is truly human – our foibles, our contradictions, our successes, and our failures.

  6. Sarah says:

    Kim, I think that by arguing that Nin’s erotica is in the eye of the beholder, Paul was not meaning to shut discussion down. Even if we can agree that Nin’s erotica (and most of her work in general) it is difficult to have a conversation about in academia or elsewhere, and that interpretation (or reading) of her work is altogether unsatisfying, this is no reason to quit engaging with other readers of her work about these issues, which we must admit, are important to us whether as writers, readers, feminists, women, men, etc…
    This blog is one of the few ways to actively and immediately engage with Nin’s work. And for that I am thankful. Let us all post our readings and interpretations and let us all agree or disagree wholeheartedly.

  7. Kim says:

    In all honesty, Sarah and Paul, I’m interested in more information about Nin — the fantastic biographical facts that Paul was posting here, including the birth certificate, photos of the birthplace… Facts. I’m thrilled that Paul will be publishing letters in the new journal. I’m not interested in literary criticism of Nin — other readers’ interpretations. Never have been. I go directly to the source material. (I was a lit. major, by the way.) And that’s what I subscribe to A Cafe in Space; there are usually a number of articles containing factual information about Nin and her circle.

    What bothered me about that last post (the one about the myth about Nin and feminist discourse) is that it was an opinion, an interpretation, yet it was presented as if it were a fact, as “proof” that Nin was dealing with “tradionalism” and “patriarchy” in “Hilda and Rango.” If I were a newcomer to Nin and I found this blog and I read that, I would not read Nin. In my opinion, the argument did not hold up to scrutiny (I simply re-read the story), and yet one person’s interpretation was presented as incontrovertible fact.

    So yes, if this blog “is one of the few ways to actively and immediately engage with Nin’s work,” as you write, Sarah, then I’ll be reading. But if it’s a way to actively and immediately engage weak interpretations of Nin’s work, I won’t. The Deirdre Bairs of the world did much to harm Nin’s reputation. I won’t watch it happen here.

  8. Rachel says:

    For those of you interested, I am currently seeking panelists for an upcoming panel on Nin this April in Montreal as part of the Northeast Modern Language Association.

    The abstract deadline was originally 09.30, but I am extending it to 10.10 and would love for any of you to submit your proposed presentation on Nin and her diaries, using interdisciplinary approaches and/or just new scholarship. In short, this panel is to provide the space for dialogue about an artist who unfortunately does not get much discussion today.

    Please submit your abstract to rspear1@tigers.lsu.edu

    Many thanks!
    RS

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