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Sex and desire are prominent themes in The Diary of Anais Nin, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. Showing life in Paris through the sexualized experiences of their characters, they reflect the sign of the times, with a pushing of all boundaries of social structure and literary rules. Yet, each with their own style of breaking the pre-war social and literary boundaries, sex unfolds as many aspects including escapism, freedom from rules, and to fill internal voids, caused either by past relationships or their current life circumstances. Further, they all demonstrate that at this time, Paris was a place that afforded many the luxury of free self-expression in pursuing their individual dreams, and even gratifying extreme desires. Reminiscent of the Modernist era, Anais Nin’ depicts sexual acts through expressions in subtle form. In portraying her affection for her lover June, for example, she uses detailed thoughts and emotions to shed light on the physical expressions. She gives us the life of the “interior” instead of the description of the act, itself. Similarly, in her diary, we see very little exterior action, but much of the thoughts associated with action, as when Nin writes, “I was infinitely moved by the touch of her hand” (Nin 25). As indicated by her statement, “My father and I give only our best to the world” (Nin 259), Anais sought the highest and the best experience in life. She used thoughtfully detailed expression to create the most-true image of the thing she wished to convey. For instance, with conveying her desire to face fear and push to the edge of reason, she comments, “I love the darkness. I love walking through the streets of Paris with the image of Sacher-Masoch as he
appears on a paperbook cover, dragging himself at the feet of a beautiful naked woman who is half-covered with furs, wearing boots and whipping him.” Then, adding that she thinks he wants to be whipped harder by the other woman in the painting, enhancing the daring vision. She tells us that it is not so much the image of Masoch that she enjoys, but the “violent tasting of life’s most fearful cruelties. No evasions of pain” (Nin 257). In developing the story of her love for Henry, and delving into the world of lesbianism with June, she creates a world of eroticism and obsession. Nin writes of her fascination with June, “The luxuriance of the flesh, its vivid tones, the fevered eyes, the weight of the voice…and I want to become immersed with her” (Nin 26). In really pushing the limits, she introduces open sexuality, while showing herself going to a brothel with Henry and witnessing two women having sex and even using sexual devices (Nin 39). In further breaking of boundaries, she reveals a rather sensual relationship with her father when discussing with her therapist, giving us possible insight to her internal struggles, which perhaps drives her rogue sexual behavior. At times, the dialogue flows as one would expect between father and daughter, yet at others, it tends to border an erotic episode, leaving a hint of sexuality in its trail. For instance, when he says, “Nobody, nobody, has given me the feeling Anais gives me”, and to her he says, “We must spend hours to get to know each other intimately” (Nin 217). As the chapters play out, we see that underlying this great fever of desire in Nin’, is great despair. Nin’s grief is developed, in the earlier chapters over the loss of the relationship with her
father, but also later, in the dialogue with her unborn child. “How much better it would be if you had stayed away from earth, in obscurity and unconsciousness, in the paradise of non-being”, she writes (Nin 338). Further, she says, “You will be a child without a father as I was a child without a father”, and in her rationalization for the untimely death of the child, “It would be better to die than to be abandoned” (Nin 339). As a testament to her broken heart and sense of great loss, she grieves, “Regrets. Long dreams of what this little girl might have been…the failure of my motherhood…all my hopes…lying dead…the simple human flowering denied to me” (Nin 346). It is through these episodes of great despair, that we find Anais more comprehensible and justified in her extreme behaviors brought to us throughout the novel. In his novel, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller pushes the social and literary boundaries as well, with sexual acts that are constant, sometimes shockingly candid, and visually explicit. The aspect of the sexual experience is so entrenched in this novel, that at the onset it is difficult to move past the engaging descriptions of the acts, in order to discern the meaning of the content. The novel begins with such intensity that it leaves the reader wondering if it is only a novel written about sex, with no other purpose. However, as the shock of the content wanes and the storyline develops, Miller brings us to understand there is underlying despair driving this rampant sex craze; and that the characters, living in such dire consequences, may just be using the sexual gratification as a life raft. Miller matches the angst of the people up against their fury in their sexual frenzies, and also reinforces the accepted norm during this period with the expectation of non-committed sex. Giving us Van Norden, whom says of the women, after sex, “And for that one moment of
freedom you have to listen to all that love crap…it drives me nuts sometimes…I want to kick them out immediately…I do now and then” (Miller130). Further acknowledging the needs and desire for constant, detached sex he writes of his acquaintance, “Kepi has absolutely no ambition except to get a f--- every night (Miller 85). Moreover, Miller depicts each act with a graphic, unfiltered description of the sex, and enhances it with details of the room or environment, including equipment and necessities. Another technique Miller uses to show the cultural obsession with sex in focusing on body parts. In his affair with Germaine, he makes several references to “her rosebush” (Miller 43), and proves his fixation with it in saying, “If I was faithful, it was not to Germaine but to that bushy thing she carried between her legs” (Miller 46). Again, this raw experience that Miller gives us of sex is congruent with the vision he also gives us of Paris during this time, and the need people had for escapism. He gives a vision of a society so raw, so harsh, so lacking in fulfillment of basic necessities of life, which one can only hope to escape. He shows them living in such squalor that it brings men and women to their “last drop of juice squeezed out [of them]” (Miller 162), and that he feels like “a zero” (Miller 78), and says, “Jesus, I hate myself!” (Miller131). Miller finds himself so low at one point, he had to take a job posing nude so he might have money for food. Thankful, at least, that this was Paris, and not his hometown, where “you can permit yourself little liberties, particularly for such a worthy motive as earning your daily bread” (Miller 189). He writes of Paris, “here all the boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is” (Miller 182), and “one can live in Paris…on just grief and anguish” (Miller 180). “It has eaten into our souls and we are nothing but a dead thing like the moon”, he writes (Miller 185).
People are sick and dying everywhere, plagued with disease, and he says wherever there are walls, there are posters with crabs, referring to cancer. Perhaps, this is what he refers to in the title of the book, as he writes, “No matter where you go, no matter what you touch, there are cancer and syphilis” (Miller 185). He gives more details of the defunct condition of life of the Parisian, with the statement about the stench of “piss and formaldehyde” in the streets (Miller 190). In the end though, we get a sense of a deeper need in people, and their voids that needs to be filled. Miller addresses this with the discussion over what he really wants from women. He answers, “I want to be able to surrender myself to a woman…I want her to take me out of myself” (Miller131), showing that ultimately, he also wishes to escape his reality. In the fashion of the other writers of the era, Djuna Barnes attempts to blow out the boundaries of the social and literary culture, with her story of a lesbian love affair. At the center, is the demure and humble Nora, whose love for Robin, the woman whom cannot come to terms with her own desires, leaves her thwarted and ultimately, alone. Although her style is not to delve into details of the explicit sexual acts, Barnes conveys the same using a more delicate manner of hints and innuendo. In doing this, she refrains from contemplating sexual performance and offers a more emotional view of love and desire. Sex plays out as many things in Nightwood, including as escapism, as show in the character of Robin, whose regret and remorse over leaving her family drive her from one relationship to another, in attempt to mask the pain. Barnes writes of Felix’s desire for Robin, “He found that his love for Robin was not in truth a selection; it was as if the weight of his life
had amassed one precipitation” (Barnes 46). Yet, Barnes writes of her post-marital discontent, as well as her resentment at having their son, “I didn’t want him!” she screamed (Barnes 53). Sex unfolds as maternal, as is conveyed in the character of Nora, whom loves Robin in such a way that she takes care of her, nurtures her, and protects her, as a mother would. Of her love for Robin, Nora says, “I love her as one condemned to it” (Barnes 146). Of Nora, the doctor says when seeing her chase after Robin through the streets, “There goes the Mother of mischief trying to get the world home” (Barnes 66). Sex leads to fury, with Robin’s newest lover Jenny, nearly clawing her eyes out on a carriage ride (Barnes 83). As sex spawns jealousy, Nora discovers her beloved Robin in a lover’s embrace in their garden. In further escape from the realities her life has imposed upon her, Robin leaves Nora and runs off with Jenny. Djuna Barnes conveys what Miller and Nin do also, that Paris was a city that provided the environment for boundaries of all kinds to be pushed, literary and otherwise. With desperate living conditions as shown by Miller, causing people to reach out for many types of gratification, and flagrant displays of sexuality, shown by Miller and Nin, along with common unconventional living arrangements, shown by Barnes, it was clear that in Paris, anything goes. For this reason, Barnes says, “French nights are those which all nations seek the world over…” (Barnes 88), and that the “French make a detour of filthiness-Oh the good dirt!” (Barnes 91).
Works Cited Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. New York: James Laughlin, 2006. Print. Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. New York: Grove Press, 1956. Print. Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anais Nin. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. 1966. Print.
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