Delta of Venus
by Anais Nin
Did we like it?
Little was known about this author before setting out on the difficult task that would be reading her book of erotic tales without being triggered. The first few stories, in a series of short, erotic tales written for an unknown male patron, are hard to stomach. I’m talking about a father molesting his two daughters and raping his son and a woman’s vagina being mutilated kind of hard to get through. For those that kept moving forward despite the incredibly violent, misogynistic, and male-ego feeding fantasies, Nin’s writing does evolve into longer, passionate stories with real plot development and somewhat complex female characters. Some of the women still long to be raped, and are sometimes taken against their will, but some of the stories give power over to the women to enact their sexual desires.
Excerpts from Nin’s diary gives some insight into her desire to open what she refers to as Pandora’s box where in it is “contained the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate” (xi). The reader learns that Nin is writing on behalf of Henry Miller who was offered by a book collector one hundred dollars a month to write erotic stories. The first stories Miller wrote were meant to be outlandish and experimental as he did not take the job seriously. She claims to have done the same, writing “tongue and cheek, to become outlandish, inventive, and so exaggerated that I thought he [the collector] would realize I was caricaturing sexuality” (ix). Eventually, Nin decides to break free and write beautiful erotica that captures women’s unique sexuality as she says, “I gathered poets around me and we all wrote beautiful erotica. As we were condemned to focus only on the sensual, we had violent explosions of poetry” (xii). Nin and her collective writers begin to revile the patron and his taste for meaningless sex without emotions or sensuality. Eventually, looking back on the experience, Nin realizes that there are moments in her writings where she sees clearly a feminine sexuality, different from male sexuality that “never separated sex from feeling, from love of the whole man” (xv).
There are moments like these such as the time when Elena, a reoccurring character, “invents a more thorough lover; She closed her eyes and thought. Now his hand is lifting my dress slowly, very slowly. He is looking at me first…” (131). One can glimpse the evolution in Nin’s writing that moves towards a passionate, emotional, and sensual longing for a more feminine sexuality. Since such glimpses are scattered, the reader is left to sift through the mud to find the gems.
Why these ratings?
The problem with much of the book is that the reader cannot tell which stories are written for the male patron and which ones are written by Nin and her writer friends to push back against the patron’s request for basic pornography. One can only hope that she doesn’t consider vaginal mutilation synonymous with female desire. It’s actually quite disturbing to read the short review on the back cover by Cosmopolitan that characterizes her writing as “a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal desires...” Many of her female character’s desires are anything but universal.
This might be a feminist worthy read only because the question is immediately raised about what really is female desire? How much of what we know about female desire stems from the same patriarchal dynamic of subjugation and control from which we are trying to escape? How much of the violence that some women claim to like is a holdover from early porn designed to feed male desire and ego? How much of men’s fantasies and women’s fantasies are a direct result of a long history of female subjugation? Can we not examine the socio political undercurrent of sexual fantasy? These questions were difficult to answer, especially by the younger women indoctrinated to their own sexuality in one form or another through porn.
However because some of the women in our bookclub were triggered by the first few stories and did not want to continue reading, we cannot recommend this book as bookclub worthy. Everyone should at least be warned that the first three or four stories are disturbing and degrading, but they do get better, at least, less violent towards women.