Lucy Ferriss

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I've called this blog "Travelin' Thoughts" in the past, because I kept it mostly as a journal to record impressions of new places and cultures. But in a way, it's still a place for traveling thoughts--ideas that move through and past me, and out into the world. Some of these are literary, some just about life. It's a good place to open up the conversation, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Adopting Anaïs

March 20, 2018

If I walk up the steps from my place to rue Caulaincourt, hang a right, then a left in about a quarter-mile, I skirt the Montmartre Cemetery and wind around rue Lepic to the hopping heart of the old Pigalle area, by the Moulin Rouge. As soon as I make that first left, I sense a change in the atmosphere, from the mellow artsy vibe of the "back of the Butte" to the lively lights and winking eyes of Montmartre's follies.

I headed up there the other night to see a show I'd already sent my students to, "Anaïs: A Dance Opera," being performed by a company from L.A. before they went on to a festival in Morocco. We've been reading Nin's unexpurgated diary, published as Henry & June, for the last couple of weeks. The students have been mildly shocked by Nin's use of obscene language and frank discussions of sex, but more often they've been confused. Is Nin liberated or merely needy? Is she breaking down barriers or adhering to a risqué set of conventions? Is she hurting others? Herself? No one? We've done some Nin-bashing in class, mostly over her petty lies and masochistic fantasies. The most interesting thing for me, this time around, has been the essentialist notions of male and female in which she steeps herself, mostly by virtue of Freudian analysis. She is almost desperate, for instance, to become "fully woman," no longer "the child." And what this amounts to, if you read between or sometimes just on the lines, is that she must learn to love the penis -- to love giving blow jobs and to strive for a vaginal orgasm. (Though, deploying a myth that several Respublican senators still seem to believe, she fears that an orgasm will make her pregnant.)

My students judged the dance opera evening fairly harshly. Like me, they thought most of the dancing and choreography were great, and turning Nin's story into a series of expressive gestures is actually a good idea. Butthey saw the producers trying to rebut criticism of Anaïs Nin (mostly stemming from Deidre Bair's 1995 biography) by making Nin a liberated "woman in a man's world." They showed her as being done badly by men in general, and by her father in particular. The students who had been making jokes at Nin's expense in class now wanted the show to evoke her independence, her creative agency. And they were mostly right -- as one student put it, the show felt a little bit like a high-school musical making its point. But in truth, it is hard to know what to do with Nin. She's no innocent, that's for sure. She wasn't the "suburban housewife" that the show referred to (my students hated that part), but she did live a bourgeois, dependent life on the surface while she indulged her sexual escapades. I thought it was a damn shame that the show didn't feature her bisexuality, mostly because I suspect they kept it out for fear that an audience -- yes, today's audience -- would lose sympathy for a lesbian Nin. Likewise her abortion. But the important point to make, maybe, about Nin is that she wasn't an inspiration, nor was she pathetic; she was a product of her time and circumstance, a time and a circumstance that we want to insist, not always successfully, is totally different from our own.

Metro Lamarck and the quiet steps up to Caulaincourt.

Finally, as I walked back from the "Nouvelle Eve" where the show was on, I thought about presenting Nin in the heart of this entertainment area, this tourist area, where Paris means sex and nostalgia and tourists; you hope she'd get a laugh out of that. And then I was back at Lamarck, my neighborhood, where sexy is understated and the street lights glow softly.

 

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