Friday, March 11, 2011

Anaïs Nin!!!

by Drew Martin

When I was very young, I thought the past was black and white, like old movies and photographs. I believed life was more formal and respectable because people wore hats and gloves in public. My parents, grandparents and teachers told me it was so.

It wasn't until I read Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and then (immediately afterwards) Tropic of Capricorn that I saw things clearly: humans have not changed one bit. More distant voices maintain the stasis of the human condition as well (Shakespeare is a fine example) but the difference is that Miller's writing is not rolling in 16th Century English and he comes from a time that was shared by my grandparents, who wore hats and gloves.

Although I was intrigued by the love triangle between Miller, his wife June and Anaïs Nin, which as I recall from my peripheral readings about Miller, propelled him to Paris and into the pages of Tropic of Cancer, I had not read anything by Nin until the past couple of weeks and I hadn't necessarily intended to. What a shame. I deeply regret not having read her before flying off to college because her writing is a liberating remedy to overly decent modesty.

I happened upon Nin because I recently heard a wonderful online lecture with a professor who mentioned the psychologist Otto Rank, whose patients included Miller and Nin. I went to The Strand to pick up a copy of his Art and Artist. A young employee helped me search the shelves in the Arts section where she said it could be. Looking down at me from the step ladder the young lady disappointingly told me they did not have it. I asked "What about Nin?" She all but did a backflip off the ladder in joy, telling me I had to read Delta of Venus but warned several times that it was "Over the top." Her enthusiasm was contagious. I went down to the Journal section of the basement to get Henry and June and then back to the first floor to the Erotica section to get Delta of Venus and Little Birds.

I just finished Little Birds. I only read it during my commute, which is perhaps the best environment: Surrounded by button-down suburban professionals, Nin is the perfect titillating escape into a world that trades polite conversation for bohemian romps.

I love Nin most in sentences such as:

Every kiss, like a gulp of wine, added to the warmth of her body.

Many of the stories are about artists and models in which modeling is foreplay and art is love. This is most blatant in the chapter The Maja, which references Maja Desnuda by Goya.

A painter can only see and paint his prudish wife naked when she is sleeping:

Novalis no longer desired his wife when she was awake, with her puritanical expression and stern eyes. He desired her when she was asleep, abandoned, rich and soft.

Returning unexpectedly from a trip, the wife finds her husband making love to one of the paintings of her, surrounded by a room full of her nudes. Aroused by the scene she offers herself without hesitation and they fall into passionate lovemaking.

Such writing reminds my of Peter Schjeldahl's introductory comment in The New Yorker article Long Faces: Loving Modigliani (March 7, 2011) about the painter's prestige resting more on his perennial appeal to sensitive adolescents than on grownup critical favor.

So I ask myself why I like Nin. Does she simply uncover a layer of ripe adolescence or is there something much more complex and deeper in this adult material?

Nin is restless in love and life. In most cases this is acted out in the act, in a release of internal desires but at times she expresses this in external forces. In the chapter/short story Sirocco she writes,

The wind is charged with perfumes from Africa, heavy sensual odors. It gives a kind of fever and turmoil of the nerves.

These internal and external powers are juxtaposed with jealousy and prudence. In Lina, the lady by that name wants her lover, the narrative voice of Nin, to stop seeing men. There is a temporary compliance in which Nin writes one of my favorite lines,

So we were reduced to each other's company.

In Two Sisters, this restriction is flipped for the magical realm of infatuation,

He had such magnetism in his hands that his touch, even his hand on her arm, sent warmth all through her. She lived open and sensitized to his presence. And his feeling about her voice was the same. He would telephone her at all hours to hear it. It was like a song luring him outside himself and out of his life. All other women were canceled by her voice.

The Little Birds cover reads Little Birds: Erotica by Anaïs Nin. What is the difference between erotica and pornography? Some of her writing is very explicit. Perhaps one thing, regarding this writing, is that there are no images, no objects. Erotica is more realistic because the story is more complete. Erotica stimulates the mind as much as the body and does so with a wide range of emotions.

This is certainly the story in A Model. Lena, an illustrator recounts a conversation she had with a young gigolo, whose "handsome, aristocratic" Argentine friend and roommate would rise after his leaving the apartment each day and pull out an iron and an ironing board. While pressing his pants, he would fantasize about getting dressed, walking out on 5th Avenue and following the perfume trail of a beautiful woman, who would eventually take him back to her hotel room where they would make love.

"As he presses his pants carefully, meticulously, my friend imagines how he will make love to this woman - and it excites him"

One of my favorite passages is in The Chanchiquito. A woman poses in bed for her lover, a painter. While lying on her back, she studies the lines and forms in the old, plaster ceiling. She says to the artist. "When you are finished with your work, I want you to make a drawing for me on the ceiling, of something that is already there, if you can see what I see..." For the next three pages they joke and trace things on the ceiling. At first she points out shapes, which are evident, then she deviates with her imagination.

Then with the charcoal Laura began to search for a man. At all cost she wanted a man in this picture. She wanted a man to look at while Jan was looking at the woman with her skirt raised. She began to draw, cautiously, for the lines could not be invented, and if they wavered too much and too faithfully and according to the contours of the plaster, she would have a tree, or a bush, or a monkey. But slowly the man's torso emerged. True, he was legless, and his head was small, but all this was amply compensated for the largeness of his sex, which was quite obviously in an aggressive mood as he watched the dogs coupling almost on top of the reclining woman.

And then Laura was satisfied and lay back. They both looked at the drawing, laughing, and as they did so, Jan with his big hands still full of drying paint, began to explore under her skirt as if he were drawing, molding the contours with a pencil, touching each line amorously, very gradually traveling up the leg, making sure of having caressed every region and of having gone around every curve.