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Sex Without Poetry: On Anaïs Nin's Delta of Venus




30 June 2024

 

Sex Without Poetry: on Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus

 

Delta of Venus is a compilation of erotic short stories Anaïs Nin contributed to a collection commissioned by an anonymous American businessman (whose identity was much later revealed). The businessman wanted, essentially, to read pornography and in the preface to Delta of Venus, Nin’s diary entries inform us that the man wanted sex “without poetry,” a request which Nin found preposterous and disdainful, for she believed that sex must be inspired by what is sensual, emotional, romantic, and yes, poetic. Nin believed the two were inextricable, or, if they were separated, they lost value. This is, perhaps, the glory of Nin’s erotic writing: it is the first of its kind, a feminist perspective on sex, even (and perhaps especially) sex outside of marriage. While she may have attempted to strip the text of poetry, still it contains threads of sensuality and illustrates the depth and breadth of women’s sexual pleasure—without the prudish moralizations of her time.

 

What frustrated me at first but was perhaps intentional to suit the writing’s purpose (as prefaced in Nin’s diary entries), was that the majority of Nin’s characters in these stories were flat and superficial. They were provided only very brief background development. They seemed all to want the same thing: love, sex. But then, the closer I paid attention, the more I recognized Nin aligning her characters’ sexual desires with the histories of their sexual awakenings in youth. Sometimes these awakenings were quite normal, and other times they were trauma-informed with startling insight. Whatever the story of a character’s sexual awakening, this often recommended a particular sexual fetish: voyeurism, worship, violence, exhibitionism, incest, bestiality, etc. Not every character wanted simply love, sex; they wanted, based on their history, a particular flavor of sexuality. There’s something so baldly human in Nin’s unflinching portrayal of human sexuality, what actually happens in the very real world that nobody talks about. Pretty insightful writing for the 1940s.

 

Of Nin’s characters, each of which is the title of a short story, the most thoroughly developed are Elena and Pierre, who first meet and conduct a love affair in the French Alps. But once that affair has concluded, we return to Paris with Elena and meet all of her friends and acquaintances there. We learn much of Elena’s history, we see her engage with friends and sexual partners, and for the first time in the series, I found it possible to become attached to this character. Pierre’s character is handled similarly. In his short story, we learn of his childhood, the escapades of his youth, his sexless marriage, his home life, what he wants, the way he behaves, and more. However, these stories are somewhat buried in the book and do not appear until chapters 12, 13, and 14. This makes me wonder if at some point, Nin got bored of building flat, poetry-less characters and stories and just said, “To hell with it,” and wrote what she wanted to (or was internally compelled to) write. Or, maybe, her erotica just got better with practice.

 

What inspired me in Nin’s short stories was her imagination. The diversity of sexual encounters in this book seems limitless. The characters are vivid and distinct. The settings range all over the world (but mostly Europe). The scenarios are broadly varied. Even the sexual fetishes and styles of engagement, the details of each scene, are diverse and unique. Nin’s imagination knows no bounds, but never falls into the trap of mechanistic love or what I’d call pornography. Each scene feels realistic—or feels like it could have been real—and all of the scenes explore diverse sexual desires, but no scene feels actually devoid of poetry, sensuality, beauty. This imagination is something I admire and to which I aspire.

 

Ultimately, it is my goal with each reading to ascertain some lesson for my own writing, and this book is no exception to that rule. I have, in the past, incorporated erotic scenes into my writing, and although I know that what I write is better than what you might find on Literotica or Subreddit, I see now how my writing is limited: limited by characters, descriptions, setting, all of it. I’m not sure whether the diversity of Nin’s erotic imagination was informed by her real life, but I suspect it was. She was known to have two husbands, Hugo Guiler and Rupert Pole, one on each coast of the US, who knew nothing about one another. Like any good French woman, she was also known to have had numerous extramarital affairs. Her breadth of sexual experience certainly informed the diversity of her erotic writing. Nevertheless, the imagination, the creativity, with which she wrote these stories is something to which I might aspire. Never again will I permit my erotic scenes to become rote or juvenile, and never will I shy from the challenge of creating sexual literature.

 

I cannot help but be grateful for Nin’s lead in erotic literature. It does not surprise me that, like Kate Chopin, who was influenced by the French Creole culture of Luisiana, Nin’s writings are the product of a more sexually liberal French upbringing. It was my time in France that instructed me of the US’s prudishness, perhaps a product of its widespread Protestantism. In the US, we think we are so worldly, so liberal, compared to the rest of the world—but we’re not. Even today, too few in my circles openly discuss sexuality and women’s pleasure. It was never something my mother mentioned to me until I was long married, in my late twenties. I always envied the openness of my French instructor when I studied at the Sorbonne: without shame he told us about his open marriage and numerous mistresses. It is a shamelessness Nin shares and I admire.

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