Saturday, September 01, 2012

Review: Delta of Venus and Little Birds, both by Anais Nin

A HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION
by G. Wiliker Hungdaddy, UW Dean of Historo-Sexilogical Studies

With the advent of internet pornography since 1991, old-fashioned erotica has ceded to newfangled, hyper-visceral sex simulacra. Today about a third of the Web is porno, so, since "Every hour, enough information is consumed by internet traffic to fill 7 million DVDs," human beings watch about 2.5 million full-length porn DVDs per hour.

So many gay-for-pay jocks, hot grannies, and interracial co-eds, in so short an interval.

There was a simpler time, when reaching the sweet syrup of genital automata meant a fifteen minute drive to neon-lit roadside sex-toy shop; or waiting, priapic and Zen-like, for a snail-mail carrier to deliver an actual, physical paper copy of the latest Hustler or Beaver or Hung. The good old days.

Yet archeological facts tell us that even the ancient peoples of the pre-Television era had their own crude pornography--or, as they called it, "erotica." Evidently, these pre-modern peoples employed complex symbol-systems to encode sensory- and mental-data (such as sight, smell, and feel, as well as thoughts, statements, and actions) into typographical representation schemas, or "texts," which were encoded in standardized ink-shapes onto the flat papyrus of dead trees and recycled toilet paper. These "erotic stories" were crafted without cameras, actors, or even sex itself: a lone "author" or group of authors, would craft imaginary-hypothetical fictitions involving literal or implied sexual activity, encode it, and distribute the coded sex-messages to "readers" (the pre-modern equivalent of a cam-viewer), who would then de-code them and onanize at will.

One well-known "author" of these days is remembered to us as Anais Nin. Over the next several pages, I shall attempt to provide context to the eroto-creative achievements of Madam Nin, beginning with the period of her French childhood from 1906 to 1908...TEXT TRUNCATED

ACTUAL REVIEW
by KC (with contributions from JK)

Nin is best known for her scandalous  Diary and her erotic stories in Delta of Venus and  Little Birds. According to Delta's preface, she and other authors wrote erotica for an anonymous patron at a dollar a page--an appropriate profession for the original bohemians, wandering Europe in the thirties. Ordered to "Concentrate on sex. Leave out the poetry," she considered the resulting stories mechanical and dead:

Clinical sex, deprived of all the warmth of love...what [the patron] wanted us to exclude was our own aphrodisiac--poetry.

Yet your reviewer suggests that these limitations may have improved her work. Anyone who's taken a stab at Miller's Tropic of Cancer is well aware of how slowly the work moves. Delta and Birds have no such trouble.

Delta begins with "The Hungarian Adventurer," whose raging sexuality and dashing persona allows him to move from one intrigue to the next. Eventually, his talents prove to be his undoing, as his enslaving appetites drive him to ever-further perversities. Another story is "The Boarding School," which--if you know anything about English boarding schools--is pretty much what you'd expect. Little Birds opens with the tale of an exhibitionist who contrives to lure schoolgirls to his loft; the book ends with a love-triangle involving two male roommates and a runaway girl where not everything is as it sounds. In her shadow-world of opium dens, forbidden lusts, runaways, and problematic kinks, Nin creates one haunting erotic scene after another.

The most striking feature of Nin's erotica is its contrast to modern hi-def porn. In the latter, sensory over-stimulation is key: between six windows of streaming humping, you're bound to get off sooner or later. Like the hyper-reality of First-Person Shooter video games or fast-cut cinematography (think of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan), contemporary porn uses sheer data-quantity to bludgeon the viewer into excitement. This is the same aesthetic approach which gave us the Star Wars prequels and Avatar: rather than stories (i.e. a series of events organized in a meaningful way), they're more like theme-park rides. Philip K. Dick gave us the perfect metaphor for this phenomenon in We'll Remember It For You Wholesale, aka Total Recall, in which people can buy fake memories (a vacation, a superhero, a Don Juan). Visceral fantasy has replaced storytelling as the essential function of contemporary fiction. Whether it's porn per se or newfangled F/X porn, audiences now get experiences instead of meaning.

(Your reviewer cannot help but pause to notice the irony afforded by Total Recall: originally conceived as a satirical criticism of escape-via-viscera entertainment, in 1990 it became a spectacularly escapist Schwarzeneggar film. As of this writing, it has just been incompetently remade with apparently even more flash and even less story. Another example of satire eating its own tail.)

Compared to the ilk of Redtube.Com, even older video porn has less pizazz and more humanity, as visitors to the Seattle gay bar Pony will discover: while the vintage gay pornography projected onto the wall at all hours is as filthy and hardcore as any available on QueerPornTube.com, the near-absence of cuts and the obvious lack of budget mean that what you're watching is, in some important sense, real. These two doms actually paddled that chubby sub for two and a half hours, and when they cum, they cum after two hours of paddling. There's no director saying, "Cut, cut! We didn't quite get that money-shot; Steve's shoulder was in the way. Let's take it again from the beginning of the sub's orgasm. Take 7: action!" It's not that vintage porn lacks artifice: pretending that you're not on camera when a camera is filming you is weird and fake. But at least the performance itself is a real performance, and not edited together from hundreds of 5-second mini-performances. Vintage porn is peculiar in that it stars professionals who didn't yet know how to portray good sex other than actually having good sex. Contemporary professionals are good at faking; their predecessors appear to be simply good at doing.

(Bonus: the greatest, weirdest classic porn ever made. It is to Rocky as THX 1138 is to Star Wars.)

But so Nin lacks pizazz: there is no money shot, much less a bukkake-compilation of one cumshot after another in two-second intervals. She does not bludgeon the reader with viscera. In contrast to modern porn, her erotica can seem quite tame. It includes stuff like descriptions and exposition.

They went to live in Rome. Maria clapped her hands in childish joy when she saw the bedroom, admiring the sumptuous Venetian furniture with its wonderful inlaid pearl and ebony.

That first night Maria, lying on the monumental bed made for the wife of a doge, trembled with delight, stretching her limbs before she hid them under the fine sheets. The pink toes of her plump little feet moved as if they were calling Novalis.

But what it lacks in Brutalized Teenage Squirters, it makes up for in, y'know, storytelling. Consider the first three lines from the short story "Lina" in Little Birds:

Lina is a liar who cannot bear her real face in the mirror. She has a face that proclaims her sensuality, lightning in her eyes, an avid mouth, a provocative glance. But instead of yielding to her eroticism, she is ashamed of it.

There, in three sentences, we have both the protagonist, and the problem whose resolution drives the story. In the first sentance, Nin sums-up Lina's internal conflict--and, crucially, she shows us through a concrete action: Lina's inability to bear her real face in the mirror. The second and third sentences clarify her internal conflict: on the one hand, she's essentially sensual; on the other hand, she tries not to be. So the problem to be worked out in the rest of the story is Lina's struggle to be something other than what she is.

The rest of the story introduces us to the narrator--a female friend with whom Lina stays in Paris and toward whom Lina is attracted--and the narrator's male lovers, who Lina envies and despises. Lina's internal tension toward her own sensuality manifests as denied lust toward the narrator.

The central conflict--Lina vs. her sensuality--occurs both internally and situationally. Nin achieves an admirable harmony of problems: rather than coming up with unrelated, arbitrary problems for the protagonist to struggle against, Nin begins with a central conflict which becomes more elaborate as the story expands. In other words, the story is internally coherent, both in terms of causality (i.e. it makes sense that Lina would struggle against lesbian attraction, because she struggles against attraction, period) and theme (i.e. Lina doesn't have an internal struggle against her own sensuality and an external struggle against, say, her own inability to reach orgasm; her struggles thematically compliment one another). "Lina," in Aristotle's words, has a "structural union of the parts."

The tension in the story comes from the reader's empathy with Lina's struggle: as she wavers between sexual abandon and "rigid puritanism," we waver with her. We literally become tense in anticipation of the problem's resolution: will she or won't she consummate her desire? And if so, how? And just as in classical orchestra or non-sexual fiction, strong tension leads to strong cathartic release upon the climax or crescendo. If Luke Skywalker weren't almost killed by Emperor Palpatine, his rescue and triumph wouldn't be fulfilling; if Odysseus hadn't journeyed through hell and back, his return home wouldn't be cathartic. Consider Beethoven's finest work, the 5th Symphony: all but the last few seconds of the work are devoted to building excruciating tension, which is finally, climatically released in the last moments of the piece.

My point is that tension is a prerequisite to the cathartic pleasure which art gives us. Anais Nin gives us tension by competent narrative technique: she sets up the characters and their problem, she develops the situation, and she finally resolves it. Erotic and dramatic tension build together: we don't just empathize with Lina, but specifically with her forbidden desires. And, as the authors of the book of Genesis knew, desire and censure go hand-in-clammy-hand, so that what is desirable becomes more desirable when it's also forbidden, and what's forbidden is pretty much definitionally at least a little bit desirable. This is the other great advantage that Nin's erotica has over hotlinks to Perverted BDSM and Kinky Desires is that it's original, in the sense that Nin can explore pretty much whatever she wants. She's not married to formula in the way that high-budget stuff like Titanic or Pirates XXX are. Thus we get non-obvious stories like this one:

I was remembering this as I sat on the dummy horse and noticed that the pommel was quite accentuated. So the painter could see what he wanted to paint, I slid forward, and as I did so my sex rubbed against the leather prominence. The painter was observing me.

"Do you like my horse?" he said. "Do you know that I can make it move?" 

"Can you?"

He came near me and set the dummy in motion, and indeed it was perfectly constructed to move like a horse. 

"I like it," I said. "It reminds me of the times I rode horseback when I was a girl." I noticed that he stopped painting now to watch me. The motion of the horse pushed my sex against the saddle even harder and gave me great pleasure. I thought that he would notice it, and so I said, "Stop it now." But he smiled and did not stop it. "Don't you like it?" he said.

I did like it. Each movement brought the leather against my clitoris, and thought I could not hold back an orgasm if it went on. I begged him to stop. My face was flushed.

Even explicitly erotic scenes like this one are jam-packed with serious literary devices. Notice the use of memory, alluding to psychological background which fleshes-out the narrator. Notice the skillful way in which the action illustrates the power relationships in the scene, both between characters and within the narrator herself. Notice that Nin is interested in the genuine reactions of the plausible characters she's created: they're not props for money shots.* This is porn, but it's porn working at the level of literature.

*(Nor are they props for post-modern sanctimony. It's weird, but mainstream porn has both expanded and contracted the range of kinks and tastes available. It's expanded it in a fairly obvious way: never before in history could a podunk farmer from rural Nebraska log onto a Categories page to view links alphabetically ordered from Amateur, Anal, Asian...to Uniform, Vintage, Webcam. But by having these ready-made categories available to all, mainstream porn relieves viewers of the burden to create or invent their own tastes. Whereas someone living in a Puritan society where all public discussion of sex is verboten must necessarily figure out for themselves what they're into [for instance, women in stockings, which might subliminally remind a man of his mother], modern folks already have a ready-made field of possibilities. We're free in the sense that we can choose from the menu of sexual tastes, but we're free from freedom in the sense that the menu is made for us. And who makes this menu, this new moral scheme, in which everything is permitted except abstention? Not public consensus, but the autonomous logic of the market. Like other fields of contemporary capitalism, the porno industry simultaneously fulfills our desires and creates them anew. We are free to consume. As Zizek puts it, "At the immediate level of addressing individuals, capitalism, of course, interpellates them as consumers, as subjects of desire, soliciting in them ever new perverse and excessive desires (for which it offers products to satisfy them)." You can also check out Zizek's analysis of desire in capitalism here.)

What I'm driving at is that erotica like Nin's Delta and Birds is superior to the mechanistic lube-'n-squirt affair of mainstream pornography in at least two ways. First, it utilizes tension in a way that Pornhub.com does not and probably cannot. Have you ever had the experience of navigating to a porn video and then skipping ahead with your free hand? "Come on, come on: get to the good stuff!" Nin's work doesn't allow for that: by signing on to do the work of a serious reader, one expects and receives the payoff of a serious piece of writing. Nin's writing is erotically fulfilling in roughly the same way that Henry James' fiction is dramatically fulfilling; their slow-building, deep catharsis can be contrasted against the quick and shallow payoff of Interracial Gangbang #4 and The DaVinci Code, respectively. Eschewing instant gratification, Nin's work takes a higher investment from the reader and delivers a greater payoff. So in terms of pure, self-serving pleasure, Nin's work delivers a far deeper and subtler return than mainstream porn.

Second, Nin's erotica functions as literature in the high-fallutin, human/citizen-improving sort of way that Art is supposed to be good for you. Like broccoli. Her work good for you in that it involves a legitimate, edifying exploration of sex. Her goal is transparently not simply to excite the reader, to get the reader off. Rather, she examines human life per se through the lens of the erotic, just as John le Carre examines human life via spy novels, and Joseph Conrad through sea-adventure stories. The writing is hot, yes; but this doesn't detract from the depth of the work any more than the excitement of the final whale-chase detracts from Moby Dick.

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