Anais Nin

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A Month of Awesome WomenEvery day in March 2011, we'll be talking about one awesome woman and why she's so interesting. Some you may know; some may be new to you, so check out all the awesome women in the series now.

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A few years before her death, a friend of mine saw Anais Nin at a gathering in New York City. He describes her in this way - "She was in her early 70's, with auburn hair and wearing a clinging white sweater-dress. She did not enter the room with any fanfare, but when she arrived, all heads turned. Even at her age, there wasn't a man in the room who, by the end of the night, did not feel captivated by her presence. She was a quietly erotic force of nature."

Anais Nin, of Danish and Cuban ancestry, was radiant presence, primarily known for her profoundly introspective diaries and her erotic writing (Delta of Venus, Little Birds, White Stains). She was born in 1903, lived in New York and France, and died in 1978.

I found this picture of her, and could not help but notice that it was a white sweater dress. I wonder...

She was born outside of Paris. Her father was a pianist who left the family when she was 11. Her mother was a music teacher who moved with Anais and her two brothers to Spain, and then America shortly after Anais's father left. Anais became a naturalized American citizen. The 20's found her back in France, living on a houseboat, writing relentlessly and on a quest of self-discovery.

Anais, Henry Miller (who was her lover in France and remained her lifetime friend) and others in their struggling literary circle in Paris wrote pornography to make money. It was sold to an anonymous "Collector" who would then sell it to his "clients." He was insistent that he wanted nothing poetic, just raw sex. But Nin was a writer, not a crude storyteller, and she was a woman, with a different point of view.

Her erotic stories were sexually explicit, but not blunt, not coarse. They had plots, elaborate trappings, interesting characters in exotic settings. As opposed to formulaic pornography, her stories were erotic adventures. They were not, however, the embroidered bodice-rippers of today. Her characters were having sex as equals, each powerful in his or her own way. Whether it was an Argentinian dancer in her back stage dressing room, lounging in her silken dress and gartered stockings, rouging her labia with a tube of lipstick to torment her tuxedoed male admirers, all of whom stand back from her couch, aroused and enthralled -- or the Cuban painter, Antonio, who takes his lover of the afternoon to his room and slowly tears off her clothing scrap by scrap except for her silver belt -- her stories have intrigue, mystery, a frank but an interior, dusky sensuality. These tales are sex with all the hunger and intricate thirst intact, but they are often exotica as much as erotica.

Kathy Wilson in an 2001 article in Salon describes finding "Delta of Venus" in her local library when she was 13.

Down the rabbit hole I fell into Nin's world of courtesans, artists, showgirls, lecherous old men, voyeurs, prostitutes and cheeky schoolgirls, all cavorting in a European world of shabby gentility. I felt a twinge of excitement wash over me. I'd found a dirty book, but not like those my mother hid in the cubbyhole of her headboard, like "Forever Amber" or "Princess Daisy." My literature radar began to whir. I sensed that there was something more to this book than cheap thrills. Beautiful smut in hand, I glanced around to see if I was about to get caught by a disapproving librarian.

Wikipedia proclaims that "Nin is hailed by many critics as one of the finest writers of female erotica. She was one of the first women to explore fully the realm of erotic writing, and certainly the first prominent woman in modern Europe to write erotica."

There are a stunning series of recorded interviews with her at this audio site. The recordings were collected by three woman friends of Nin's and a man who is a Nin scholar. I was captivated by her 1972 lecture at Northwestern University entitled "Women and Writing." First, it is wonderful to hear her voice, to put a sound to this original thinker, this gently defiant woman, her wit, her deep intellect, her fearless self-introspection. Here is an interesting statement, transcribed from this lecture. She speaks of Henry Miller's ability to separate himself from the topic of his writing, to see it in what he imagines is impartiality, a distance from the subject. She compares her process, and what she believes is a woman's process of writing:

I am not interested in fiction. I am interested in faithfulness... Woman's creation, far from being like man's, must be like her creation of children, that it must come out of her own blood and grow by her warmth, nourished with her own milk. It must be a human creation of flesh. It must be different from man's abstraction.

There are some fabulous quotations by Nin. Just reading those makes me anxious to read more of her work than I have already. May they tantalize you as well, sending you straight to your library or bookseller's.

Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age.

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing.

I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naive or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.

If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it.

Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish it's source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.

The only abnormality is the incapacity to love.

There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.

Nin's life was exotic, and her search for meaning in it leads her into her own heart, her diaries giving voice to her quest to make the fragments of life a cohesive whole. From her abortion in pre-war France, through her many love affairs and her eventual bigamous marriage to a man on each American coast, Nin was fascinating. Her search to define what she as a woman writer had to offer the world that was distinctly hers, and distinctly female is worth a review by any of us who write. She is truly a luminous presence, a pioneer, a foremother.

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

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