Love and Linguistics: The Erotic Fiction of Anais Nin
Since the dawn of time, sexism has been encoded in our language. Historically, men have dominated positions of authority in areas such as law and academia, from which comes linguistic formation and development. Our language, therefore, favours men and disfavours women. Hysteria is a female-specific term whilst professions such as doctor and professor are male-specific or female words such as spinster, witch and bitch bear negative connotations whilst their male counterparts are positive. As our worldview and ideas are always determined by language, this leads to an institutionalised oppression of women.
However, some female writers are using language to rewrite the female experience in a process of reclamation. The focal point of this discussion is Delta of Venus, a collection of erotic short stories by 20th century author Anais Nin. Although Nin’s honest portrayal of women’s sexual experiences made her work a pinnacle piece for Second Wave feminists, with critics honouring her as the first writer of female erotica, Delta of Venus has since receded from mainstream feminist commentary. Yet, transparent discussion of female sexuality and sexual desires is still limited and often undermined by the male sexual experience. How does Nin’s literary marriage of high linguistics and base corporeal desires create a new language for describing the female sexual experience? This essay will determine whether the fictional experiences described in Delta of Venus can reconnect female readers with their sexuality through examination of Nin’s letter to the commissioner of the work, her use of innuendo, her paralleling of language and sex, and ultimately her creation of a new female experience.
Due to biology, women’s physical sexual experience tends to be slower, tenderer, and more emotional. Yet, as this does not match mainstream ideas of sex and sexuality historically shaped by men, the female sexual experience has been silenced. Therefore, some feminist literary theorists say women can never be truly emancipated until they have created their own language. Feminist and philosopher Hélène Cixous advocated a parler femme, or women’s language, where “woman must write herself. They must write about woman and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies” (Cixous 1976: p.875). Feminist theorist Luce Irigaray claimed that this male-dominated language created a dearth of descriptions for female sexuality, symbolised through the vagina as a hole and the infrequent discussions of the clitoris and female masturbation.
Nin brings Cixous’s parler femme to life in Delta of Venus by arguably creating a modern tradition of female writing. This was then sustained by other female writers, such as Virginia Woolf’s prioritising of feminine sensation over masculine action to fellow short story writer Katherine Mansfield’s use of symbolism. Through the language of Delta of Venus, Nin also responds to Irigaray by making female sexuality whole again through erasing the taboo and adding instead richness, depth, complexity, and significance. As Nin writes in Delta of Venus:
In Delta of Venus, Nin finally gives the language of the senses a voice. With this voice comes the power for women’s bodies to express themselves freely and authentically inside and beyond the bedroom. Delta of Venus is a love letter by a woman to women, about women and their sensuality and sexuality, their desires and lusts, their relationships and affairs. It bears the strong stamp of femininity, mostly due to the language in which it is written. The language in Delta of Venus is completely divorced from the language usually used in erotica and pornographic material. Nin described herself as “the madam of this snobbish literary house of prostitution, from which vulgarity was excluded” (Nin 1971: p.151) and so Delta of Venus favours the soft over the harsh, the poetic over the vulgar, the implicit over the explicit.
Nin’s interest in erotic fiction started in her late teens when she gained a “degree in erotic lore” (Nin 1969:p.96) by reading around the genre. This interest became a commercial enterprise during the 1940s when Nin wrote erotica for an anonymous male client, the “Collector”, at a dollar a page. Some of these commissions became the posthumously published Delta of Venus. When the Collector demanded Nin to leave out the poetry in her commissions and instead concentrate on the sex, Nin sent him a letter that best demonstrates her view on sex and sexuality:
Even before discussing the language itself, it is important to start with the fact that Nin signed this letter with her own name. For the early 20th century, the very act of a woman directly writing to the man who requested her services, the man who is paying her wages, is bold in itself. Not to mention, too, that Nin added a photo of herself alongside this letter, a statement that clearly shouts “I am a woman” in a way that is neither shameful nor apologetic. The chastising tone of the letter also oversteps the limits of what would have then been considered respectful in communication between a man and a woman. The direct three-word opening, “We hate you,” is more than chastising: it is disgusted. Without any subtlety or cloaking word play, Nin instantly makes her feelings perfectly clear. This is a condemning gender role reversal. From the very first line, the Collector is demoted to the inferior role of the judged, with Nin herself the juror. What follows is poetic and eloquent, with longer sentences and meandering lists. However, the rest of the letter does not jar with the initial pronouncement. This letter is a classic example of Nin’s writing style that continues in Delta of Venus itself. Just like sex, her language is a mixture of the explicit and the poetic, the direct and the subtle, which, as the letter says, changes its “color, flavor, rhythms, and intensities.” The message of the letter also deepens our understanding of Nin’s forward-thinking ideas on sex that we should adopt now. Modern society and masculine interpretations of sex often make sex “a bore.” For example, online porn sites make sex “mechanical”: it is as aggressive, repetitive, and unimaginative as the backwards and forwards pumping action of the porn stars themselves. Sex is just a means to an orgasmic end and not a pleasure in itself. Of course, the biggest linguistic rebellion against the Collector, and the traditional masculine view of sex for which he stood, can be seen in Delta of Venus. The Collector may have requested explicit, mechanistic, unemotional pornography, but Nin refuses to satisfy his desires with her pen and paper. Instead, she presents him with a collection of work more akin to a piece of art, which contains all the “power and magic” that the Collector wished to eradicate.
Of course, Nin did not gain a reputation for erotica through sexual subtlety. There is nothing quiet about tales of prostitution, incest, threesomes, rape, paedophilia, orgies, bestiality, fetishisms, sadomasochism, and necrophilia, yet the descriptive language is beautiful and sensual. Nin never uses words like cunt, cock or dick. Instead, she expresses profanity by using natural imagery to describe genitalia. In the short story “Matilde”, Matilde’s vagina is “like the gum plant leaf with its secret milk that the pressure of the finger could bring out, the odorous moisture that came like the moisture of the sea shells” (Nin 2000: p.15).
Innuendo continues to be Nin’s linguistic style throughout Delta of Venus. In “Marianne”, art and sexual pleasure are interlinked when Marianne, whilst painting a nude male model, thinks “what a pleasure it would be to draw the lines of this young man, almost like caressing him” (Nin 2000:p.58). In the same story, sex reaches the lofty heights of religion, as Marianne finally “lost control of herself and fell on her knees before the erect sex” and “repeated her worshipful pose, her ecstasy at the beauty of his sex. Again she kneeled and prayed to this strange phallus” (Nin 2000:p.60). Of course, with innuendo come many examples of extraordinarily inventive metaphor and simile. There is a comic example in “The Basque and Bijou” when the “reigning queen of prostitutes” (Nin 2000:p.82) describes the “importance of a fit”:
For Nin, sex is semantic. Both language and sex involve the mouth and the tongue and generate an explosion of passion, emotion, and sound. Both are complex, subtle, nuanced and caught in a complicated web of other socio-economic and political factors. Consider, in fact, the double-entendre of the word ejaculate. This ideology is best shown in “Elena”, where Elena and her partner climax using both their bodies and language:
However, Nin is not avoiding sexual explicitness because she is ashamed of female sexuality. Instead, she uses the complexity of language to show that female sexuality is equally complex and cannot be understood simply through a man’s sexual experiences.
Therefore, Nin presents new, more positive and authentic forms female sexuality. Firstly, the women in Delta of Venus often surrender to their male partners. Whilst our tarnished view of male sexual dominance positions this as oppressive and passive, Nin instead describes it as a joyful, sensual, and willing surrender to passion: “She enjoyed his weight on her, enjoyed being crushed under his body. She wanted him soldered to her, from mouth to feet. Shivers passed through her body” (p.43).
Although some women in Delta of Venus adopt male roles during sex, they transform them into an exclusively female experience. In “The Basque and Bijou”, two women use a dildo but they do not put it inside one another. Instead, they rub it against one another’s clitoris to stimulate pleasure, rewriting the traditional male-dominated view of female sexual fulfilment. Sexuality in Delta of Venus also slides across every scale of the LGBTQA spectrum, a reflection of Nin’s own colourful life, where she embarked on a “bicoastal trapeze” (p.65) after sustaining an affair with two men, writer Henry Miller and actor Rupert Pole, and Miller’s wife, June.
There is a lesson to be learnt in the poetic style of Delta of Venus, a lesson that makes it one of the primary texts for a healthy sex education. Sex is not just physical. It requires talking to your partner, caressing them with words as well as your body, and drawing out high poetry from base desires. In one of Nin’s other works, autobiographical novel Henry and June, she writes: “There are two ways to reach me: by way of kisses or by way of imagination. But there is a hierarchy: the kisses alone don’t work” (p.23).
Still in our 21st century society women face contradictions about their sexuality, inhabiting a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” atmosphere. A woman has a series of one night stands? Whore. A woman says “no” to men in clubs? Frigid. A woman wears a headscarf for her religion? Submissive. A woman wears a tiny figure-hugging skirt? Asking for it. Womanhood is defined by endless contradictions about what a woman can and cannot do with her body. Even in the literary world, female sexuality is controlled, extinguished, or even ridiculed.
E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey will never lead women into battle to reclaim their bodies with writing such as “he’s my very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle” (p.137). However, Fifty Shades of Grey did reveal to the public in an unabashed way that, shockingly, women have sexual desires too. The response? Fifty Shades of Grey was undermined and patronised as “mommy porn”, simply soft and silly sex making repressed mothers giddy and giggly.
The ultimate lesson from Nin’s Delta of Venus is that there is nothing abnormal about sexual pleasure. Abnormality comes from the inability or refusal to find pleasure in life. Pleasure really is the key word that defines this ground-breaking short story collection: not only do her characters experience blazing pleasure throughout every short story, but there is constant pleasure in reading Nin’s beautiful writing. “Passion gives me moments of wholeness” said Nin and, any reader, particularly women, will feel a sense of wholeness in reading Delta of Venus from the knowledge that, finally, here is a chance to reconnect women with their sexuality and their bodies; here, finally, is a writer telling the untold story of being a woman.
Cixous, H. (1976) JSTOR: The Laugh of the Medusa. Signs. 1 (4), 875-893.
James, E.L. (2012) Fifty Shades of Grey. London, Arrow.
Nin, A. (2001) Henry and June. London, Penguin Modern Classics.
Nin, A. (2000) Delta of Venus. London, Penguin Modern Classics.
Nin, A. (1971) The Diary of Anais Nin Volume 3 1939-1944. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Nin, A. (1969) The Diary of Anais Nin Volume 1 1931-1934. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
About the author
Florianne Humphrey is a recent English Literature graduate currently working as a journalist in Durham. She has written two novels and a play that explore themes of gender identity, queerness, and feminism. She runs creative writing workshops in the North East and tutors GCSE and A-Level students online in creative writing.