Delta of Venus (1977)
Words by Lucy Vipond
Delta of Venus (1977)
‘Porn not poetry’ was the instruction given to Anais Nin by the anonymous collector who paid her $1 per page for erotica in the 1940s. Delta of Venus, the collection of said stories, was published posthumously in 1977, and Nin’s Pandora's box of perversion was unlatched for the world. The Penguin Modern Classic is now stacked among feminist literature in bookshops, despite its content: incest, bestiality, necrophilia, paedophilia and rape. In Nin’s carnal fantasy, only scat is frowned upon.
One's understanding and enjoyment of Delta of Venus is completely swayed by one's perception of Nin. For instance, if you embark on the book with no knowledge of the author, you will find her to be one sick woman. The Hungarian Adventurer and its paedophilic encounters make Nabakov’s Lolita a warm bedtime story in comparison. I read only partially aware of her ties to feminism. A label I at first thought massively misplaced on a text glorifying such vulgarity.
It is here I would like to insert a disclaimer: I’m not a prude. I’m known to preach to the perverted; Tinto Brass, John Waters, Sion Sono. A heroine of mine is Xaviera Hollander, the madam (sorry madam), whose book The Happy Hooker was published six years before Nin and details how she turned her constant horniness into profit - she is yet to receive her fourth wave feminism badge of honour.
I began to revel in the discomfort - it reminded me of being a child sitting in a musty cupboard reading an erotic book my mum had attempted to hide, disturbed but curious. I was suspicious of Nin's intention; I did not believe her erotica was a means to an end, nor was she catering purely to the male fantasy. She creates sensual worlds with too much authority. Her descriptions are lyrical foreplay; couches become ‘heaving seas of pillows’, fur emits an ‘animal odour’ and Bijou, her most lust-educing character, is a ‘sex organ walking undisguised’.
Nin insisted female sexuality is rooted in uniting sex with emotion, and if so, the first half of Delta of Venus is deprived of such a quality, only introduced with Elena - her tenth and most rewarding story. Inexperienced, Elena begins a relationship with Pierre resulting in an insatiable sexual desire. She feels guilty after an affair and confides in a friend who tells her: “Pierre’s love has awakened your real nature. You’re too full of love, you will love many people.” Elena’s sexual encounters become hardened. Pierre, her gateway no longer satisfies her, but she still loves him.
Perhaps Elena’s relationship with men can be likened to Nin’s, who wrote the erotica to subsidise her lover, Henry Miller. In the sixties, Nin sculpted herself into a feminist figure, publishing her self-analytical diaries - receiving critical success and a following among feminists for her sexually liberal life. However, she also cleverly omitted her two parallel marriages and her incestuous relationship with her father. It was after her death that one husband contorted the image she created, releasing her real diaries and Delta of Venus, against her wishes. Now not only controversy surrounds Nin, but speculation. Much like her friend Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which spread damning lies and gossip about Hollywood stars, Nin’s life was plagued with deceit and speculation.
She remains a contradiction; she lived boldly yet kept so much hidden. Her most revered work was one she wanted secret. Her true art was herself, like Marchesa Casati, she crafted an identity taking freedoms when it strengthened her vision.