Auletris Irrepressible

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.

auletriscover-638x1024

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”.

-Anais Nin

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.

cheers

Navel-Gazing into the light

navel

“Anaïs Nin, for instance, is my idea of a navel-gazing, hyper-sexed bore…” (Daphne Merkin in The New York Times, June 16 2002.)

The critique of navel gazing commonly befalls Anaϊs Nin in book reviews, especially during the notorious smear campaign that The New York Times inflicted upon Nin in the 1990s before falling silent on her completely and thus effectively silencing much of the surrounding popular discussion of her. Self-examination is sometimes celebrated, if conducted by those who are seen as worthy subjects, but the same act by others (usually women) is not always afforded equal cultural value but dismissed as if it were a boring self-indulgence rather than vital self-expressive practice.

Navel-gazing is a diminutive term often employed to belittle the work of women who explore deeply personal and intimate details of their inner lives, dismissing them for gazing into what Nin called their “Cities of the Interior.” The accusation is itself myopic and absurd, because it erroneously assumes that self-exploration limits an individual, rather than understanding that it is precisely this exercise in self-examination that allows a person to reflect on how they might project their own limitations and bias into the world. This thus allows them to consider changing those interactions (potentially then catalysing great expansion and change at a larger level). An intention to change the world can only be fulfilled if we change ourselves. This would lead to a shift in consciousness and fruitful expansion at all scales. In a self-published piece titled On Writing, Nin explained that:

“[T]his personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.”

The term itself etymologically and biologically relates to our umbilical connection to our past and to our mothers. Ancient Greeks called this act Omphaloskepsis, referring to it as a meditative practise from which to contemplate the world. This closed portal that once served as a vital link between us and our maternal origin also symbolically represents our connection between the inner psychological world and the outer one, as the individuation process separates us from total fusion with our mothers, we then must learn our place as both separate and related. The umbilical cord long gone, our navels are a reminder that we are shaped by this violent separation, but also that we then shape the world that we perceive through our individual experiences. Navels remind us that we are relational human beings and that experiences are not universal.

This nostalgia of the bodily connection we once had, binding us to another, is the same place from which we can contemplate ourselves and how we then present our realities to the world. For example, Anais Nin’s famous quote, prolifically posted and reposted on the internet is “we do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Sure enough, many of her novellas and her diaries explore this fundamental insight to our psychological influence on our subjective experience. Liberation isn’t found by escaping ourselves, but rather by using our lives to understand and recognise another individual and their experiences in comparison and contrast to our own. This is how we learn empathy, how we can recognise similarities, and behold difference with reverence. As Nin explained, “While we refuse to organize the confusions within us we will never have an objective understanding of what is happening outside… We will not be able to relate to it, to choose sides, to evaluate historically, and consequently we will be incapacitated for action.”

Perhaps we should consider what it would mean not to navel-gaze. What is it to deny or ignore our navels? If we bear no mark of our maternal origin, who are we? We have been encouraged to deny our maternal genealogy in order for a single masculine subjectivity to emerge and conquer, of course. If we can deny our mothers, we can build ourselves from everything other than what they represent. What would that other look like? Well, think of everything that could be situated on the polar opposite to what we associate with maternity. To be an individual to the point of disconnect, independence in supposed objectivity, violent separation, forgetting what we learned about inter-subjective formation and existence that relies on both our differences to and cooperation with one another. Discouraging navel gazing is encouraging self-denial. Nin explained the risk of this kind of ideology in The Novel of the Future:

“[T]his persecution of the personal, of the intimate life, of the personal relationship to all things operates under two false premises: one, that it is more virtuous to give this self to the collective life; two, that it is even more virtuous to have no self at all. The taboo was on the ego, as they miscalled it, not having read the definition of ego correctly.”

Nin added to this point in On Writing:

“…alienation from the self means alienation from others. You cannot relate to others if you have no self to begin with…In order to take action full maturity in experience is required. Novels which contribute to our emotional atrophy only deepen our blindness. And nothing that we do not discover emotionally will have the power to alter our vision. The constant evasion of emotional experience has created an immaturity which turns all experience into traumatic shocks from which the human being derives no strength or development, but neurosis.”

Personally, I’ll continue to read the writers who are accused of navel gazing, because as Nin knew, introspection allows us to celebrate our connectedness, build bridges reaching out and weaving our own worlds with others, and understand and honour our pasts. How do we create our own worlds and our new stories? By staring  lovingly into the fecund space of past remembrance and future potential, and imagining what could be waiting there.

Unveiled.

I awake, half-yoked to slumber and atlasic wrinkle, carved in the centre of your palm.
The sun drapes her limbs along my eyelids
bearing a bleary-eyed emergence
aflutter, stumbling away from shadowed valleys, sucking on one myopic thumb.

Lifting the veil above tense belt, cotton thread kissing forehead.
Capillaries agape, rising broken, the scent of our encounter’s bread.
A soft curve, unearthed, crowned carefully, concentrated in might
and birth tasting unfolded fault line towers tumbling.

Mellifluous madness, mounted against all reason and neatly folded piles.
Expecting tidal savagery, trembling prayer at the pillared trunks of your thighs
inhaling eulogistic air, conscious column’s bough below the brow of
tripartite travel, abandoning (h)arms length and disillusionment.

Before this, all encounters seemed desultory at best –
burnt pips and spittle rendered ashy memories, puzzled apparition’s
unconsciousness exploitation. Yet, I now know they were also
precious predicate forces, mirrored fragments of an Other opening.

Tiptoe away from cynicism, discard the futile process
of ensuring a constant and steady strum….of numb.
You lean over me, all cells humming, genealogical sediment sings
in unified celebration and resounding cicada-chambered call.

Engaged, unfolding, I chew at the silken armour of sadness and inertia to see
that which will not carry me any further. Filial agony in all of its brilliance
licks the familiar familial, demanding surrender to patterns and pull
yet, still, our endeavours kiss. No longer fastened to the same earth or pinioned by pain.

The possible tragedy of life arches in overwhelming, exultant advance

Infantile eyes gasp in newborn bulge, finally open to choice and chance.

Almost motionless, our bodies rocking deeply like two lips pressed together
bearing down in bound convergence, pulling through the distinct pulse
of perspective fantastically fused. Flesh in keylock clause, while from our mouths
tumble purling vowels, adrift, laced with life.

Intimacy whispers delicately, tip-toed hips dance in elliptic orbit, and cue the fall…
Collecting repercussions and consequences carrying dusty distillations of all
that once was, weakening under the spell of our separate landings anchored in bone,
wrapped in flesh,

bodies curled in ampersand.

Mad Max: Fury Road and the Mother Lode

“Wait, my son – no respect for this, my child? The breast you held, drowsing away the hours, soft gums tugging the milk that made you grow?” -Aeschylus’ Oresteia, first performed in 458 BCE

. mm4

In the fatal hour of a giddying high speed race, through skies afire and scorching wastelands, The Splendid Angharad is killed. Flung out of the racing vehicle and thrown under the wheels, she was the heavily pregnant ‘favourite wife’ of tyrant Immortan Joe. As Angharad takes her last breath, the child is cut from her and declared dead. Concerned only with the sex of the baby, Joe is informed that he has lost a boy. Much rage ensues at a son being stolen from him; his patriarchal lineage has been stamped out. The umbilical cord is savagely bitten off.

I was eager to see Mad Max 4, especially after viewing the fabulous trailer released so many months ago. When I heard that the MRA were annoyed by the films ‘feminist tricks’, I must admit that I was curious and amused. Despite that, I held no high-hopes. The debate over whether Mad Max: Fury Road was a ‘true’ feminist film seemed impossible to determine. There is no perfect feminist film, much like there is no perfect feminist art, literature, or even person. We are all flawed, and we are all products of this society. The film undeniably perpetuates the prevailing and tired patriarchal tropes, whilst also simultaneously offering innovation and hope. Mad Max is an action film, and action is a genre that traditionally kills off, ignores, and objectifies women. It is a genre that measures strength in hyper-masculine ideals of brutality and violent force. This hasn’t changed simply because of subversion, because a woman has been allowed to step into the conventionally male protagonist’s sandy boots, or because rape victims can now rescue themselves (or, more correctly, as usual, be rescued by someone else, even a woman.) Mad Max 4 still employs an unapologetic male gaze; and though it contains many female characters, they are mostly comprised of barely-speaking models in underwear who miraculously manage regular lingerie-changes in the apocalyptic desert whilst fighting for their lives. The film doesn’t restore a balance, nor does it speak perfectly for feminism. However, it breaks the genre open and allows for new, parallel stories to germinate. This story is one of an eternal returning, of inclusion and a common connection: one that I would argue is a remembrance of the maternal relationship, of her body and the urgent call of her agency.

Not all of us are, or will be mothers, but we all share an origin; our maternal roots. The aftermath of conquerors born of matricide and trading only in death and reckless exploitation is an inevitable collapse in civilisation. Aeschylus also noted that “ancient violence longs to breed, new violence comes…” This dystopia is where Mad Max begins. He narrates from an arid land, hell-bent on existence while struggling to barely survive. He emerges as the archetypal hero against evil who has proliferated in blockbuster action films with little variation. Typically, the hero (singular) is the hyper-masculine ideal fantasy, reflecting a cultural tradition of tapping into the speculum of the same until the flow is so concentrated as to poison itself. Time and again, action films have turned back to salute in this ongoing hallway of mirrors. The hero of the single-syllabled-name doesn’t need women, in fact, his mother should be dead, and usually the mother of his child should be, too. They would only get in the way. Instead, he should be fiercely independent (except for his dreams of the silent muse who died to inspire his hunger for retribution, of course), and he angrily uses his master’s tools to dismantle, disembowel, and destroy his master’s house, and the remaining life along with it. Max is as thirsty for change as the people who he is soon captured by. These are a population ruled by the vicious Immortan Joe, who controls their water supply. Joe is the figurehead of patriarchal institution and environmental exploitation, controlling life-giving elements in the name of his structures. Max is captured, chained and tubed up by the War Boys of Immortan Joe’s personal army, and used as a human blood bag. This state of stolen transfusion is quite a confronting comparison to the barriers of bodily autonomy too often imposed onto women – especially women carrying unwanted pregnancies. Even in Australia today, abortion is technically illegal in most states. It is considered a crime for women and doctors in both Queensland and NSW, with the loophole of doctor’s discretion in terms of offering abortions to those who risk life-threatening psychological or psychological repercussions. It isn’t only the women of the Citadel who would be enslaved as birthing vessels and milk givers…

Enter Imperator Furiosa, trusted driver of the War Rig. She is expected to collect oil, but secretly planning to smuggle out Angharad, Capable, Cheedo, Toast, and the Dag; the five captive wives who were previously enslaved as Joe’s ‘breeders’. They have left graffiti around the Citadel asking “who killed the world?” and asserting that “we are not things”. Furiosa fiercely led them, forging a path that could offer death or paradise, but either way they would find themselves free. These escapees are all worn down, tired, and afraid, but they show themselves to be capable of unimaginable strength, resilience, and bravery. When Furiosa drives a perilous, bloody road back to the place of her birth, she is resituating herself and her place as daughter of a mother, as a participant in the story. She is practising what Adrienne rich called a re-vision, where the only hope lies in courageously tracing the umbilical cord back to the origins, re-entering her story and reclaiming it as her own. Her vessel is headed for the source; the lush birthplace of her clan, and of the maternal origin that Western Culture, with all of its accoutrements, has battled to forget. Our culture has feared it so much that the usurping of the maternal has become the foundation of patriarchal culture; fiercely upheld in religion, literature, drama, and politics. We have been taught to fear becoming our mothers, and instead to uphold the vision of our fathers. To truly be free, we were shown that we must cringe, strain, and gnaw at our umbilical connections. Identity is threatened by the strong bond with the mother, and we celebrate independent detachment by renouncing her, instead. We kill our mothers in all of our oldest stories, and from Ancient Greek epic to the most recent Mad Max. These connections initially sear, deplete, and weigh down Max, in his memory of a family he could not save, and in the chains that attach him to those who seek to draw strength from his blood. Max was forced to carry deadweight in the form of his capturer who was chained to him, without immediately understanding the value of the connection. Later, that deadweight would redeem himself as not just a sick War Boy, but loveable Nux, who would help them escape the clutches of Joe. Max interrupts Furiosa, looking to thieve her war rig, but he soon finds that he must work with her in order it move at all. There is a middle ground between arrogant independence and a dangerous mergence of selves, and they must find it. Max eventually aids in the plans that Furiosa has made, and they negotiate intersubjective gifts, much like a mother’s body does with a child. It is only later, after recognising the value of their connections, that Max freely offers to transfuse his life blood to a critically injured Furiosa, rather than making his usual offering to death. Max discovered that blood must be freely given.

Ultimately, Furiosa did not discover her mother. The women of her clan, the Vuvalini, informed her that she had already died. Much as we cannot undo what has been done so far, the matricide as old as Orestes and Clytaemnestra has been committed even in this film, but we no longer need to tell stories only about fathers and their sons. A richer, more complete story allows us to all celebrate both the strengths and weaknesses that shape us, and weave our futures from our mothers’ gifts. Furiosa and her clan of rebels were tempted to, but ultimately decided against spending the last of their resources on risking a new life that would be separate from those who had abused and exploited them. They chose instead to return to the Citadel, a culture built on the shoulders of their exploitation and slavery, where their capture began, and contribute to the building of something new for everyone. Voluptuous women who were once used for their milk unleashed a flow of water for all, celebrating in generosity and nourishment. Mad Max: Fury road invites us to cast a new eye over that which we have inherited. Fighting and abandoning our own Citadels will not lead us to positive change. We are called to a common cause- that of constructive projects rather than destructive ones. Constructive art like this celebrates connections between people, rather than ripping them apart. Much like Mad Max finally figures out that he can share his blood, if he consents to it, we are all asked to carry on from our maternal ties, and give our blood to each other. The engendering mother is our common source of life, and perhaps, as Furiosa searched for, our only redemption.