Two Works in Anaïs Nin's Cities of the Interior

by Imran Khan

21 May 2015

Ladders to Fire and Seduction of the Minotaur, two of Anaïs Nin's most self-reflexive works, examine the sexual tensions rooted deeply in the female consciousness.
 
cover art

Ladders to Fire

Anaïs Nin

(Ohio University Press / Swallow)
US: Jan 2014

cover art

Seduction of the Minotaur

Anaïs Nin

(Ohio University Press / Swallow)
US: Jan 2014

A serious-thinking writer and a pioneer of erotic literature, Anaïs Nin’s reputation in the literary world has been rather precarious, often met with as much adulation as it has disparagement. Nin’s ability to plumb the depths of female sexuality was certainly groundbreaking; no female writer who came before her had managed such intimate disclosures on the personal sexual triumphs of women in the 20th century.

Naturally, this would be cause for disconcertion as her works proved to be exploits on areas of sexuality both risky and questionable. Perhaps unfairly, Nin is best known for her two volumes of erotic literature, Delta of Venus and Little Birds, works that explored extremely dangerous sexual undertakings which included pedophilia, necrophilia, sadomasochism and even bestiality. Nin never intended for Delta of Venus and Little Birds to be published (these works were commissioned privately by a wealthy aficionado of pornographic literature during the 40s and only, much later, published widely after Nin’s death).

In fact, these two works seem to have eclipsed Nin’s more deeply observed studies of the female mind as well as her voluminous diaries of which she kept since the age of 11. But it should be reminded that the author had always had designs on the more nuanced rhythms of female sexuality, journaling her observations and emotions with the sharp eye of a well-studied and literate writer. Ladders to Fire and Seduction of the Minotaur are but two works belonging to a quintet of novels of which Nin termed “Cities of the Interior” (novels related mainly by theme and a few recurring characters). The most famous work from this quintet remains A Spy in the House of Love, a novel of a woman’s exploration of her newfound sexual freedom, which predated Erica Jong’s significant contribution to literature, Fear of Flying, by nearly 20 years.

Like A Spy in the House of Love, both Ladders to Fire and Seduction of the Minotaur examine the landscapes of sexual proclivities between the sexes. The former, the first of the quintet, is the fictional study of a number of women who are dealing with the pains and struggles of love. Ladders to Fire’s central figure, Lillian, is a woman whose relationship to her finicky lover, Jay, is complicated by her burgeoning desires for the mysterious Djuna. Though linear, the story is somewhat formless; the narrative arc here is rather loose and what we are presented with are a series of examinations that chart the distances between desire and the objects of affection.

With feverish detail, Nin describes the deep emotional exploits between Lillian and Djuna as their implicit love for one another is tested against a backdrop of men who seem to rebound in and out of Lillian’s life. Djuna, a woman left parentless as a child and sent to an orphanage, seems to awaken in Lillian some oedipal longing which, as Nin illustrates, prepares Lillian for some inception into adulthood. Nin doesn’t allow the reader a clear window to Djuna, opting to create in the woman a screen of which Lillian will project her needs and frustrations onto. Most of Lillian’s relationships with the men in the novel seem to revolve around her burgeoning metamorphosis into a self-actualized woman; here Djuna serves as the activator in Lillian’s transformation. The novel is a rather rocky beginning to a large body of work in which Nin would eventually present her theories with clearer definition.

Seduction of the Minotaur is, in fact, the last work in the quintet. Lillian returns here wiser, a little more self-assured. On a vacation in Mexico, Lillian, now a renowned musician, is still embroiled in the struggles of sexual assertion. Upon arriving in the city of Golconda, Lillian experiences an overload of the senses (or perhaps a sensual overload), in which her beliefs and practices as a stranger in a foreign land is tested by the curious and sexually confident locals.

Because the novel is very much of its time (it was written in 1961), there is the slightly distasteful air of exoticism which hangs about; Lillian, a white woman, is aroused by the locals who have the misfortune of being portrayed as slightly “savage”, or at least somewhat ignorant of outside cultures. However, Seduction of the Minotaur manages to fully exhibit Nin at the height of her powers in concrete imagery; her fluid prose reads like poetry and, as a result, allows one a revealing angle into Lillian’s internal world of sufferings and pleasures.

Like Ladders to Fire, Seduction of the Minotaur is rather vague, opting to draw an arc loose enough to allow room for conjecture and subjectivity. The novel marks yet another effort in a body of work that acutely explores the sexual tensions rooted deeply in the female consciousness. 

Ladders to Fire

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Seduction of the Minotaur

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