If you love strong, feminist voices, you probably already know all about Anaïs Nin. I never had the pleasure of reading her work in high school or college, although after reading In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays, I’d make her essays required reading if I were a teacher!
Anaïs is a pillar in literature and in history. Born in 1903, she wrote and published erotica at a time when it was a man’s artform, a man’s world. She criticized the vulgar, brutish approach to sex by her male contemporaries and posed that women audiences needed literature that spoke to their deeply sensual, fluid nature. Being a Pisces sun/venus with a Libra ascendant/mars, it’s no wonder that the essence of Anaïs’ writing—and being— is steeped in a mélange of pleasure + poetry.
Throughout the collection of twenty essays, you’ll find repeated themes: a woman’s ability to liberate eroticism and sensuality in writing, the importance of inner self-growth and outer exploration, the changing equilibrium between man and woman, and a woman’s inherent value and place in the world as an individual versus the roles she’s been given (wife, mother, caretaker, muse).
Anaïs often analyzes the identity and purpose of the artist in the world. On why she writes, she says, “I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me—the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, like a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate my self when destroyed by the living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art.” (“The New Woman”)
In many ways, the archetypes of artist and woman are interchangeable to Anaïs. She describes the painful inner tension that happens when a woman decides to make space for herself. “It is striking that for woman any break of separation carries with it an aura of loss, as if the symbolic umbilical cord still affected all her emotional life and each act were a threat to unity and ties.” (“In Favor of the Sensitive Man”).
Anaïs found reprieve from the imbalance by creating a rich inner life. And for someone who earned a reputation for eroticism, you might think her language would be languid, but it’s actually quite sharp. She clearly articulates her points, while conveying emotions. You can feel her meaning as much as you can intellectualize it.
“As a woman I was fully aware that it was my personal world which was the source of my strength and my psychic energy. The creation of a perfect personal world was the root of my inspiration. So woman is concerned with not losing this center, which she knows the value of. Just as the deep-sea diver carries a tank of oxygen, we have to carry the kernel of our individual growth with us into the world in order to withstand the pressures, the shattering pressures of outer experiences.” (“On Truth and Reality”).
She describes the new modern woman being born in the 1970s as “a woman completely free of guilt for creating and for her self-development… a woman in harmony with her own strength, not necessarily called masculine, or eccentric, or something unnatural…. —she is not aggressive, she is serene, she is sure, she is confident, she is able to develop her skills, she is able to ask for space for herself.” (“The New Woman”)
Reading this collection in the 21st century, one wonders: are we the ‘modern’ women Anaïs dreamed of? We are more independent today than ever and growing ever more aware of our strength and capabilities. But, don’t we still feel the pull of expectations cast upon us by a culture that is slow to change, a culture formed by men and accepted—either consciously or unconsciously—by women who feel safer in its shadows?
If Anaïs were alive today, I think she’d applaud us for our progress and say there’s still more work yet to do, more books to write, more space to take.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Amanda McMullen is the founder of Polished Pear Creative Editing. And while she grew up on spy novels, poetry chapbooks, and existentialist literature, she now mostly reads non-fiction (self-help, memoir, spiritual texts). It might sound like a snooze fest, but give her a book that merges science with psychology, religion, and culture, and she will devour it like a flourless chocolate cake. Yes, even her food preferences are dry. Yet, Amanda savors rich writing—sentences thick with feeling, where meaning is not only grasped, it’s touched. Some of her favorite non-fiction authors are Diane Ackerman, Wayne Dyer, Elizabeth Gilbert, Laura June, Carl Sagan, Carl Jung, and Paramahansa Yogananda. Her favorite poet is Kim Addonizio. Her favorite writer, Amy Hempel.