Anais Nin on the Secret to a Satisfying Sex Life

Ours is a sex-saturated society.  On television, 2 out of 3 programs contain suggestive, sexual anais & diariescontent; spectacles like the Super Bowl regularly feature twerking and pole-dancing.  On social media, millions follow shirtless men and scantily clad women in thong bikinis.

Half a century ago, porn was limited to your dad’s Playboys and a few rare home videos; today porn is mass produced by a multi-billion dollar industry, as easy and convenient as french fries from the McDonald’s dollar menu.  The internet is a portal to a pixelated play land where your filthiest fantasies can come true.

Despite the prevalence of porn and the widespread acceptance of casual sex, today our sex lives are less satisfying— not more.  By giving men unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies, porn extinguishes male libido and can even hinder their ability to perform.  In the words of groundbreaking feminist Naomi Wolf, “real naked women are just bad porn.”  Not only does porn ruin real sex, it causes women to loathe themselves.  After all, how can a flesh-and-blood woman begin to compete with a submissive sex slave whose only purpose is to fulfill her male viewer’s every fantasy and whose vocabulary is limited to seductive moans and exaggerated exclamations of “yes!  more!”?

Though pornography had yet to completely spoil sex in her lifetime, dedicated diarist Anais Nin understood sex is a matter— not of the body— but of the mind.  Along with her lifelong friend, lover and fellow writer Henry Miller, Nin wrote erotica for an anonymous client at a rate of $1 a page.  “Leave out the poetry and concentrate on sex!” the collector demanded.  In this passionate and prophetic letter, featured both in the indispensable Letters of Note and the exquisite The Diary Of Anais Nin, Volume 3, the always articulate Nin responded:

“Dear Collector:

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 not 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.”

seduction & anais nin

A writer of erotica and a notorious seductress herself, Nin had the prescience to know porn would pose serious problems.  Pornography is provocative in the most predictable ways: lewd profanities, unimaginative dirty talk, obscenely large breasts, huge cocks.  Its purpose?  To immediately satisfy our most depraved desires. 

Seduction, however, depends on delaying— not gratifying— desire.  After all, who is more alluring: the belligerently drunk bro who instantly agrees to come home with us or the mysterious man who only longingly looks at us across the bar?  It’s the tease that’s most tantalizing.  If you want to make yourself irresistible, you should conceal, not reveal: the curve of a hip, the graceful arch of a back, the neckline that reveals just a bit of your decolletage, the entrancing scent of perfume on the wind, the forbidden, flirtatious glance across the table that lasts a little too long seduce us in a way the most x-rated porn cannot.  As Proust so wittily observed over a century ago, we most want what is denied us.

The great tragedy of our time is we have porn, but no passion; we have sex but have forgotten how to make love.  For sensualist Nin, sex can only enrapture if it involves all the senses, if it’s connected— not divorced— from head and heart.  Hungry for more of Nin’s intriguing insights and luminous prose?  Read her on the mystery of memory and the bliss and hell of New York.  Need more advice on sex and love?  Revisit Alain de Botton on how to be charming and Proust on how to be happy in love.

F. Scott Fitzgerald on What’s Worth Worrying About

What worries us?  Countless pointless things.  We worry about our social status, whether we have aletters of note large enough bank account/an impressive enough job/a prestigious enough degree.  We worry we’re “falling behind” because our closest friends are buying houses and having babies.  We worry about our appearance: do we look boyish and flat-chested compared to those voluptuous Victoria Secret models on fashion runways?  is our ass too flat?  are our tits too small?  are our thighs too big?  We endlessly worry about what other people think: do our mother and father approve of our unconventional choice of career?  do they brag about our accomplishments at family dinners or sit in silence while the other relatives boast of their children’s community service trips to Somalia and admissions to the Ivy League?  is our date— whom we care little for and see absolutely no future with— charmed by our attractiveness and captivated by our conversation?  do our Instagram photos in far-flung, exotic places provoke the envy of our high school friends?  does our neighborhood barista refuse to make conversation—not because they’re exhausted or introverted or having a bad day— but because there’s something fundamentally wrong with us as we’ve always suspected? 

As a curator of wisdom and diehard devotee of The Great Gatsby, I was delighted to discover what chronicler of the glittery excess of the jazz age F. Scott Fitzgerald had to say about worry.  Found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, a printed treasury of one hundred and twenty five letters that began as a digital museum of the same name, Fitzgerald’s letter reminds us very few things are worthy of worry.  His advice?  We should care about living in accordance with our deepest values and beliefs; we shouldn’t give a single damn about what other people think.

On August 8, 1933, Fitzgerald wrote the following to his daughter, whom he affectionately called Scottie:

Dear Pie,

I feel very strongly about you doing duty.  Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French?  I am glad you are happy— but I never believe much in happiness.  I never believe in misery either.  Those are the things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed pages, they never really happen to you in life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly.  If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

[…]

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about. . .

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,

Daddy

F. Scott Fitzgerald & family

Including letters ranging from literature’s finest writers like Emily Dickinson and Anais Nin to history-making public figures like Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill to iconic rock n’ roll singers like Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger, Letters of Note is an invaluable addition to any library.  If you love encyclopedic compendiums of timeless wisdom and want more insight into the art of writing specifically, read the Paris Review interviews in Women Writers at Work, which include Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose, Maya Angelou on the exquisite torment of the creative life, and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.

Why We Should Delight in the Little Things in Life

“Happiness, not in another place, but this place…not for another hour, but this hour,” Walt red poppies & daisiesWhitman assured us nearly two centuries ago.  Yet how few of us truly appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the ecstasy of a deep, dream-dazed sleep after a dozen miserable nights of insomnia or the glorious freedom of a Sunday morning with no one to see and nothing to do?  Do we rejoice at the sound of our lover’s key unlocking the door or the miracle of our lost dog finding his way home?  No, instead we moan about our mortgage, gossip about the inconsequential lives of imbeciles, gripe about having to go to yet another pointless meeting, and impatiently tap our feet and let out an exasperated sigh when an elderly coupon-clipping lady holds up the line at the grocery store.

Why do we become so joyless?  Is it because the glamorous lives of movie stars and social media influencers leave us perpetually unsatisfied and always wanting more?  because as we get older, we simply lose our capacity for wonder and become superficial social climbers obsessed with impressive job titles, designer handbags, and flashy cars?  Or is it because life almost never goes as planned and inevitably disappoints us?

According to Pema Chodron, the ordained Buddhist monk behind the much beloved Wisdom of No Escape, the great thief of joy is resentment.  When we forget what we have and only focus on what we lack and what we want, we conclude contentment is not in this place but another place, not in this hour but another hour.  We’ll be happy, we tell ourselves, when we get the hip mid-century living room or the stylish wardrobe befitting a Vogue cover.

But what does the attainment of our ambitions actually get us?  Do we feel less melancholic/despondent/angsty/anxiety-ridden when we fulfill our desires?  No, getting what we want only makes us want more: the vintage velvet coach doesn’t look quite as charming in real life as it did on our Pinterest board, the blouse and trousers don’t look as chic on us as they did on that perfectly-proportioned fashion model.  So we seek satisfaction in yet something else: a 1950s gold lamp, a Prada handbag hoping these things will finally satiate us.

For Chodron, the only way to escape this hedonic treadmill is to delight in what we usually neglect or ignore.  To be awake to the beauty of ordinary moments— the unparalleled pleasure of clean sheets fresh out the dryer or the delight of an impromptu picnic in a field of tulips or the delectable bliss of chocolate raspberry gelato— is to step beyond the smallness of our own experience, beyond our bottomless desires and endless “more, more, more,” and into a wider perspective that recognizes the preciousness of every fleeting instant of our finite time on Earth.  As Proust once reminded us, beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths.  In a similar sentiment, Chodron urges us to marvel at the overlooked miracles all around us:

“That sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, every movement of our own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it.  The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.

Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are.  Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses on your morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under.  We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that somebody has put flowers on the table.”

For centuries, artists created “memento mori,” works meant to remind us of death’s inevitability.  Latin for “remember that you have to die,” a memento mori often featured a skull or an hourglass, unsettling symbols of mortality.  Though Jean Morin’s skull paintings or the elaborate crypts of friars’ bones beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church in Rome might seem morbid or disturbing, they communicate an important— perhaps the most important— fact of life: we will die“What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be,” reads a haunting inscription in the Santa Maria catacombs.  Whether you’re a pitiful peasant or a great king, in a hundred years, you— too— will be skull and bones, forgotten beneath the sands of time and reduced to a few insignificant words on a tombstone.

the skull jean morin

When we’ll perish, we cannot know.  We could die fifty years from now, an old woman who’s done everything she set out to do— won the Pulitzer Prize, beheld the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, seen Machu Picchu— or we could die unexpectedly on the way to work tomorrow.  The grim reaper rarely announces his arrival: we die suddenly of a heart attack and collapse over our morning coffee, we say “I love you” to our mother like we have hundreds of times, wave goodbye and never return.

Some say death is the domain of melancholy emo kids and brooding philosophers, but it’s actually something we should all ponder.  When we reckon with death— that we will most certainly die but we can never know how or when— we will finally live.  No longer will we overlook the loneliness-lessening comfort of recognizing ourselves in a character from a book, nor will we take for granted simple pleasures like a good laugh or hot chocolate on a chilly autumn afternoon.  We’ll no longer postpone visiting that quaint town in the English countryside or procrastinate on doing the things we’ve always wanted to.  Life with its clean sheets and tulip fields and chocolate raspberry gelato, we realize, is too precious to squander.