Late in August, Silvia and I finally visited The Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, California. We'd only been talking about it for the last couple of years since I moved to San Francisco. Eventually, we always get where we want to go.
Miller. Most people read him first -- Tropic Of Cancer, most likely -- and then gateway into Nin. I went the opposite direction.
I found her first when a teacher insisted to me that Emily Dickinson was one of the best erotic poets of all time. Really, I thought? First, I have to endure Salinger saying she's the best war poet (in Catcher), and then a creative writing teacher tries to tell me she is erotic, too?
Don't get me wrong. I love Emily. I do. That mysterious, prolific woman. Legendary.
But "erotic," she is not. I count only one poem of her's that I find mildly sexual, and it's clearly about losing virginity, buds blooming, nature being nature, etc. It's vanilla and romantic. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) It's safe. It's sweet.
So I disagreed with that teacher. At that point -- teenage romantic that I was -- I considered Elizabeth Barrett Browning to be the most "erotic." I had learned the etymology of "Eros" and could only imagine it as courtley and beautiful. Browning, therefore, was whom I considered the ideal embodiment.
But I wanted another example, and when I asked a librarian at UCSD, she brought me a pile of Anais Nin books.
Nin wrote erotic. Erotic in every meaning. Every journal entry oozed with it, whether she meant it to or not. And no wonder, as she was writing short stories for that unknown benefactor that later ended up in Delta of Venus and Little Birds.
And for her, eroticism and sensuality surpassed what our generation's mainstream sexual preferences would categorize under "hot." She was of the "tell, don't show" mindset, but in the most evocative and visceral way possible.
One of my favorite quotes of her's comes in the form of an outraged letter she wrote to her writing benefactor.
We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships which change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities.
You do no know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of others, which are the fuel that ignites it. Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional. This is what gives sex its surprising textures, its subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements. You are shrinking your world of sensations. You are withering it, starving it, draining its blood.
If you nourished your sexual life with all the excitements and adventures which love injects into sensuality, you would be the most potent man in the world. The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion. You are watching its little flame die of asphyxiation. Sex does not thrive on monotony. Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed. Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all of the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine.
How much do you lose by this periscope at the tip of your sex, when you could enjoy a harem of discrete and never-repeated wonders? Not two hairs alike, but you will not let us waste words on a description of hair; not two odors, but if we expand on this, you cry "Cut the poetry." Not two skins with the same texture, and never the same light, temperature, shadows, never the same gesture; for a lover, when he is aroused by true love, can run the gamut of centuries of love lore, What a range, what changes of age, what variations of maturity and innocence, perversity and art, natural and graceful animals.
We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look. If you have closed your senses around silk, light, color, odor, character, temperament, you must by now be completely shriveled up. There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it. Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.
(Source: The Diary Of Anais Nin, Volume 3; 1939-1944)
(P.S. Why haven't I ever started a letter with the line, "We hate you.")
I love cataloging my journey of discovery from one writer to the next, so I am finally going to get to my original reason for writing this post. My newest delight.
At the Miller Library, I found a new book by an old (friend) author, whom I never considered to be particularly erotic before. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention enough, or only reading and re-reading my favorites of his that leaned more towards the wistful and absurd than the sexy.
But man, seeing them all together in this collection, and gorging myself on this book in one sitting, I exclaimed, "Holy crap, Cummings is a beast!"
may i move said he
is it love said she
if you're willing said he
(but you're killing said she
Why is it so amazing always to peel back people's words and find new meanings? Countless meanings and layers all at once? Why does this happen so infrequently in real life, as we (I) race to try to find out everything I can as quickly as possible. Racing to explain and over-explain everything as quickly as possible so that I can control the messages.
There's a lot in my head about this. I'm thinking not just about having discovered the erotic side of Cummings, but also of the how. The curation of this collection of his. Would I have gotten there myself by one day re-reading one of my many Cummings poetry books and noticing an erotic theme, or did it have to be curated and packaged and featured prominantly in a significant place for me like this?
What does that say about the other familiar things in my life? Truths about people? Opinions that I haven't altered for years?
Maybe all of the writers I know -- or even people I know -- could have a collection of "erotic" words, if someone combed through carefully enough. Maybe I could, too.
We are the sum of many parts and layers. And we are fluid. And it should be enough sometimes to tell people, and hope they care enough to listen, believe and understand, rather than having to show them everything all at once. Share everything all at once.
Maybe when we do that, we really are "shrinking your world of sensations. ...withering it, starving it, draining its blood."