What is dangerous about Anaïs Nin?

Ruth CharnockRuth Charnock is a Lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln. Her research interests include contemporary American literature, popular culture, feminism and popular music. She has published widely on contemporary and twentieth century literature and culture. Currently, she is at work on her first book, which is entitled ‘Shameless: Anais Nin, sex and contemporary culture’.

Anaïs Nin went from being a marginal writer from the 1930s, known only for being Henry Miller’s mistress, if at all, to a feminist icon in the early 1970s and a doyen of erotic fiction in the late 1970s, to a figure for critical derision in the 1990s when a journal detailing Nin’s incestuous relationship with her father was published. Since then, her cultural star has been on the wane, although her name surfaces occasionally in unexpected places: on the name of a perfume bottle, or as an exemplar for communication in the digital age, as in this recent think-piece for The Guardian.

As a whole, though, nobody has paid much attention to Anaïs Nin since the 1990s when her attitudes, writing style and cultural persona were widely trashed by the voices of ‘high’ culture. Certainly, you would be hard-pushed to find anyone in quarters such as the New York Times literary pages who would think of Nin as dangerous. ‘Shameless self-promoter’, ‘nymphomaniac’ and ‘fabulist’ would be fairer guesses.

What is it about Anaïs Nin, then, that could possibly be deemed ‘dangerous’?

I didn’t start out by being ashamed of Anaïs Nin. No doubt, reading Delta of Venus for the first time around nine was something I kept hidden, but it was titillation, intrigue and mystification that ruled – feelings allowed to flourish in secret but without fear of being caught, blushing and reading, in a childhood home without a concept of unsuitable reading material. Yet through the course of my PhD, which looked at the way Nin disrupts narratives of intimacy in psychoanalytic, feminist, and modernist cultures, I started to feel uncomfortable about working on a writer who seemed to command so little critical respect in academic fora.

Giving papers at conferences became an exercise in negotiating other people’s titillation and/or disapproval, particularly when I was discussing Nin’s relationship with her father – a relationship that turned sexual when she was in her thirties and he was in his fifties. Responses ranged from the disgusted (a disgust that always, incidentally, accreted around Nin and not her father) to the prurient. ‘Oh, yes’ sighed one male academic, who barely held back from rubbing his knees, ‘I remember reading her erotica in the 70s. But she never wrote anything *serious*, did she?’

Responses such as the latter, which came from female academics as much as male, made me feel uneasy in ways that I couldn’t, initially, pinpoint. I had anticipated that academic audiences might balk not just at the fact of Nin’s affair with her father but the way in which she renders it: as a swooning piece of romantic fiction. Unarguably, too, there is much that might produce the wrong kind of rise in Nin’s erotica – in particular, she presents scenes of pederasty not only without moral judgment, but with a sympathetic, kindly attitude towards her paedophiles. However, whilst Nin’s refusal to occupy a position of judgment, shame or condemnation when it came to either her own sex life or the lives of her fictional characters struck me as complex, politically radical and provocative, for many of my interlocutors the facts (and fictions) of Nin’s sex life engendered a desire to shut her down. She was a liar, a nymphomaniac, mad. At best, she was the author of moderately successful (and one wonders quite how this success was being measured) erotic fiction – a curio of the modernist Left Bank who floated to the surface, briefly, in the 1970s. There was little else to be said – bearing in mind that she never wrote anything really ‘serious’.

Faced with these reactions, wanting to be a serious academic myself, I began to dislike Anaïs Nin and dislike having to talk about her in public. Whereas I had long-believed Nin was a dangerous woman for all the right reasons – she was fearless, she went into the stuffiest, most patriarchal-seeming spaces, such as the psychoanalyst’s office, and shook them up, she believed, to the last, in her own artistry despite constant disbelief from others – it began to seem as if Nin was going to be dangerous for my career, dangerous for me in all the wrong ways.

Somewhere around the time of taking up my first full time job, I must have made the decision (although I can’t remember when or how) to stop writing, thinking and talking about her. She became my dirty little secret. At the time, I didn’t think of my turn away from Nin as playing it safe- it felt, rather, as if I had done all I could with her. But, looking back, I wonder if the constant fielding of prurient or censorious comments had inculcated in me the sense that to work on Nin was to place my own legitimacy as an academic under suspicion.

Coming back to Nin, almost 5 years after I have submitted my PhD, I have realised that what is most dangerous about her is not just the type of sex she had, or who she had it with, or how she wrote about it, but the fact that all three combined have the power to make us feel so uncomfortable. It was this discomfort that I wanted to back away from as a PhD researcher and it is the same discomfort that I wanted to theorise in my forthcoming book on Nin: Shameless: Anaïs Nin, sex, contemporary culture. In it, I argue that it is the points at which Nin has most irritated critics which are the moments at which she has appeared to be the most shameless in her attitude towards sex, that have the most to offer us in handling contemporary depictions of sex and shame. The reason Nin feels so uncomfortable, so dangerous to read is because she refuses to be ashamed of the kinds of sex conventionally deemed as shameful. Nin’s shamelessness is frightening because it reveals the potential for different kinds of sexual and romantic relationships, as well as also staring the titillated, passive consumer of transgressive/taboo sex writing in the eye.

During my PhD, I became preoccupied with parsing the often venomously hostile reviews that have greeted Nin’s work, both fictional and autobiographical, from its earliest publication onwards. All of the most negative reviews (and there are plenty) but particularly those that greeted the publication of Nin’s unexpurgated diary Incest in 1990 hum with indignation, irritation and, often, disgust at Nin’s sex life. Time and again, critics cast her as brazen, a nymphomaniac, a fabulist, blind to her own bad writing, narcissistic, a monstrous seductress. They wonder at her gall or her neuroses, depending on persuasion – how could she sleep with her father and write about it in great, lurid detail and yet these accounts display no embarrassment, humiliation or disgust? Where is her shame? When critics are disgusted with Nin, when they find her shameful in some way, it is more often than not when she is shameless and so at her most dangerous.

Put simply: Nin is dangerous where she is most shameless and she is most shameless when it comes to our culturally-held sexual taboos – those to do with incest, non-monogamy, and S&M, to mention just three of the terrains Nin’s work explores. As taboos, these are dangerous terrains. And, particularly in her treatment of incest, Nin refuses to tread the prescribed path.

Nin slept with her father in her early 30s and described it as ‘a great adventure’.  She lived, for around 30 years as a bigamist, reasoning that this was the only way she could embody all of her potential: as a lover and wife. In order to keep her two lives on separate tracks, she developed a complex index card system of lies, half lies, and pseudonyms. Prior to her bigamy, she reveled in numerous, often simultaneous affairs – undoing the contracts of monogamy and marriage again and again. Often residing at the borders of her own sanity, she sought out those who felt dangerous too: artists such as June Miller, Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud.

Then she invited these fellow hedonists and nihilists to take one more step with her towards the edge: of their capacity to feel, of their creative practice, and of their sexual identities. She seduced her psychoanalysts. She set up her own printing press and painstakingly hand cranked every individual letter of her novels. She was a Surrealist amongst the Beats in Greenwich Village, an audacious fabulist in the confessional consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s. She rewrote whole swathes of her diary for public consumption and then denied any rewriting had taken place. She lied about her age, she denied she was married. She spoke in front of feminist audiences but refused to define herself as a feminist. Instead, she wrote a book entitled In Favor of the Sensitive Man. In short, Nin is an exemplar of what it means to live without limits. This certainly makes her dangerous as far as cultural conventions, and those who would seek to espouse and uphold them, are concerned.

Nin is dangerous because she makes us feel things that we don’t want to feel. She embarrasses, shocks and arouses us in equal measure. In her life, she slept with who she wanted to, flouted cultural convention at every opportunity, and refused to stay comfortable in what, ostensibly, was a comfortable existence: as the wife of a wealthy, adoring banker. In her writing, she refuses to moralise. Instead, she shows us the dingiest, most labyrinthine corners of human sexuality and relationships: the petty deceits, the self-aggrandisements, the fetishes, power games, and transgressions. Reading Nin can be frightening because of how she revels in excess. Where one adjective would do, she uses three. Her characters ‘ensorcell’ [a Nin neologism], enchant, seduce and rant. She refused all editing of her writing with the result that, to read it, feels like following the gradually unfurling thread of someone’s madness. Nin was a self-confessed graphomaniac: writing page after page of a diary that, initially at least, she hoped no-one would read: so filled was it with secret affairs, desires and others’ confidences.

It is not that Nin invented a new kind of sex – and she certainly wasn’t the first to have transgressive sex and to write about it. But the vociferous critical opprobrium that she has attracted over the years suggests that there is something very particular about her way of having, and writing about sex, that feels culturally dangerous. I think this is why Nin’s work has either been discounted or denigrated for so long, and why it is so crucial to theorising our own attitudes towards sex and shame in the contemporary.

Anaïs Nin’s writing sometimes forces, sometimes cajoles us into asking:

Why are there such different standards for sexual conduct when it comes to men and women?

Why slut-shaming but no male equivalent? Why slut-shaming at all?

And what is it that feels dangerous when we read a woman writing, fearlessly, about sex?