Yesterday marked the release of Auletris, the latest edition in a tripartite of Anaïs Nin’s erotic literature. The book is already subject to censorship efforts by Amazon, who have disappointingly decided to prevent it from showing up in search results because of its “adult content” and obscene cover. This leaves Auletris ‘unsearchable’, in a new take on censorship where difficult art is rendered invisible rather than banned.
Make your own moral judgements over the content, but Auletris is, first and foremost, a significant historical literary artifact. This work should be considered a treasure in light of Nin’s brilliant artistry, psychoanalytic insight, tenacious intelligence, and life’s work instead of a pornographic or needlessly offensive title to be dismissed as mere vulgarity or censored beyond recognition. To censor such a valuable addition to any literary figure’s oeuvre would be detrimental to not only those who simply wish to enjoy the work as entertainment, but also the scholarship around that work and deeper understandings of the period in which she worked. This material is greatly important as it adds to our knowledge of pioneering female erotic authorship as well as Nin’s work more broadly. What do these efforts by Amazon imply? Would the same suppression of material occur if a long lost manuscript by the likes of Shakespeare, Byron, Fitzgerald, Joyce, or even perhaps Nin’s contemporary, Henry Miller were to be uncovered today? Or is twenty-first century censorship limited to works from less-approved of, less-celebrated-as-canonical female authors who expose the immense potential of poetic prose to create “realities that lie beyond and above reality”?
The gendered issues here range from the genre double-standard (as a horror-novelist pointed out to me, these don’t seem to apply to the casual addition of similar themes and scenes in typical “dudebro horror” fiction) to the pervasive negative attitude towards women who own and express their sexual experiences or craft sexual fiction more generally. These ‘nasty women’ dare to touch the pen of patriarchal tradition and author own their stories, to redress material that many male authors have often freely addressed with less complexity, subtlety, not to mention with the addition of problematic justification or gratuitous unexplained violence, all permitted in the tradition of our Vladimir Nabokovs. Sure, Amazon didn’t behave similarly with Nin’s previous erotic titles, but perhaps they had already tasted the popularity and thus the financial benefit of advertising those, especially Delta of Venus. Even more sadly (but likely) perhaps they didn’t read those titles at all.
Amazon requested that the artwork on Auletris’ cover be changed. This illustration, found on a card in Nin’s collection of papers, depicts a grinning, topless, mermaid-esque costumed woman in dance-pose, adorned with flowers. More overt illustrations of naked bodies can be found on covers in a simple Amazon search for life-drawing titles. Are the nipples on these delightfully small breasts so scandalous, or are they afraid of artful nudes only when they depict a joyfully liberated woman, not helplessly carried in a man’s strong arms but dancing alone, on a book also written by a woman who seized her own sexual satisfactions (with consent!) on her own whims? Perhaps silvery tones of rippled satin sheets with muscular silhouettes would be more acceptable and tasteful?! Even better if the content of that book encourages apparent shades of grey where a woman keep her sexual fantasies silent, desperately expecting the man to meet her unarticulated desires and maintaining her sexual innocence by having her sign away all consent so that the male protagonist can own and decide her pleasures for her… perhaps I digress…
“My women did not break. They sought by every means a way to walk the tightrope between various roles, conflicts, and dualities of the personality”.
One story in the Auletris collection sits as a particularly uncomfortable challenge for many of us. In it, a girl initiates a blowjob on an older man. Whilst I unequivocally advocate safeguarding those who might experience emotional responses to such potentially triggering and certainly challenging subject matter, it is a choice to read this work just as it is to read any work. As a woman who experienced familial abuse and tragedy, and who, as an adult, initiated sex with her own father, Nin was acutely self-aware, and confronted trauma in an extremely bold and courageous manner – instead of burying these thoughts and episodes in shame, she transformed, delved into, and worked through them.
As we touched on in the Anaïs Nin podcast, Nin takes an interpersonal dynamic often defined by powerlessness and exploitation and subtly empowers the girl. This doesn’t, by any means justify paedophilia, suggest the scenario as an ideal one, or translate into the girl being positioned as capable of consenting by “initiating” the event, but it acknowledges what art often allows us to deal with (not necessarily accept); that terrible, horrible events happen, dreams can be shattered, injustices exist, life can be painful, horrible, and harsh, and yet we can own our stories, march on in this devastating world and often find joy, too. In the contentious story, Nin allows the imagined girl to speak for herself, imbuing her (the girl and Nin, herself!) with some strength, a voice, a subjective self with which to narrate her story. Nin crafts the scene with subtlety and treats it delicately, as she portrays the complexity inherent in an abhorrent event where a victim can still be somewhat active rather than just passive. She offers illumination, insights into the confusion of abuse.
“A constant rhythm expressed in the lyrical passages can create another kind of rhythm that asserts the power of the imagination to rescue itself from tragedy, from ugliness, from anxiety, or from the neutral becalmed regions of nonexperience.” – Anais Nin
Though Nin certainly doesn’t represent the act in this scene as at all permissible, she displays the contradiction and perplexity of an individual experiencing some pleasure or desire in an event underpinned by power relations and acts that are socially and ethically reprehensible. Many victims of sexual abuse question or feel ashamed of pleasure if they experience it, struggle with self-blame, or try to understand how such experiences then inform their desires. Nin explored this and many other traumatic events through the safety of art and fictional characters. Nin wasn’t advocating abuse or pedophilia. A work like this doesn’t dispute or conflict with our understanding that children shouldn’t be sexually involved with adults! Tackling difficult topics could be argued as the obligation of the artist. Should we not read Lolita?! Should we not watch films that broach these subjects? Do they say these acts are permissible, or do they explore them? Shrouding them in silence is a much more dangerous, confusing, and terrible thing.
Anaïs Nin persists as a distinctive figure of creative brilliance and social dissent, challenging notions of decency and morality whilst re-creating herself and our reality. Let us instead celebrate and value her for her for that. We can, at least, be sure that any controversy will only generate more interest in this important collection. Condemning Auletris to be ‘unsearchable’ in an effort to undermine its success only compels us to plunge further in, share it widely and affirm it as art that both deepens our understanding of the initially imperceptible and challenges an ordinary vision of the world.