Book Review: Anais Nin ‘In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays’

Anais Nin Review Picture.jpgOn sensuality, feminism, and relationships

“We do not escape into philosophy, psychology, and art–we go there to restore our shattered selves into whole ones.”
― Anaïs Nin

The words of Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) are those I have often wished to hear in solace when I struggle to reconcile being an artist, lover, and woman in the twenty-first century. Her words are timeless in their poetry, exploration, and insight. I found In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays’  a comprehensive insight to the talented thinker and essayist who comments on relationships with men and art, feminism and gender, love and sensuality, the role of erotic writing, the responsibilities of the artist, self-development and Jungian psychology, and her travels to exotic places. The entire book delivers her truthful recommendations about how to live to serve the betterment of the world and her tone is rich with wisdom that reflects someone who dedicated herself to doing just that.

Nin is acclaimed for her straightforward writing about sex and sensuality. In her first essay titled ‘Eroticism in Women’, I am reminded how little conversations I was exposed to as a young woman about the connection between sexual acts and sensual acts. She highlights “that woman has not made the separation between love and sensuality which man has made” (pg.3) affirming that there is “an atmosphere of vibrations which need to be awakened and have repercussions on the final arousal” (pg.7). She talks in-depth about the different nature of erotic literary content circulating at the time, and the difference between the work of Henry Miller and D.H Lawrence, comparing images of sex and sensuality with works of women such as Lady Muraski and herself that wish to “develop erotic writing quite distinct from man’s”(pg.8). Her own writing had been labeled as too risque and even pornographic for her time but she is quick to distinguish the difference between pornographic imagery and erotica. She deduces that pornography bestializes sexuality, and vulgar animalistic and hunter ideas of sex are remnants of Puritanism (which I found counter intuitive at first as vulgarity and willingness to be overtly ‘open’ about sex would be seen as more ‘liberated’) that sex is low, dirty and even evil. Eroticism “arouses sensuality without this need to animalize it” (pg. 8) and that “linking eroticism to emotion, to love, to a selection of a certain person, personalizing, individualizing, that will be the work of women” (pg.9). At no point does she criticise men, even calling out women for calling themselves liberated simply for writing about sex with vulgarity and lower-depths attitudes instead of joy and celebration. She touches on the sensual act from the perspective of Zen, with the possibility to attain Satori (enlightenment) and finishes the chapter with an invitation to the reader to see sex as a ritual that is fused with individual love and passion for a particular person and to “mingle it with dreams, fantasies, and emotion for it to attain its highest potency….the stronger the passion is for one individual, the more concentrated, intensified and ecstatic the ritual of one to one can prove to be” (pg.11)

“We speak of the masculine and the feminine, but they are the wrong labels. It is really more a matter of poetry versus intellectualization.”
― Anaïn Nin

Nin’s view on feminism is one I can relate to when I feel uncomfortable surrounded by views on feminism that seem to vilify, belittle, and raise feminine strength superior to masculinity. I see those ideas of feminism as a violent counterbalance move, a fight for space, rights, and recognition, but a fight (violence) nonetheless. I am reminded of Pony Club when I was a child. In the feminist arena too, I feel forced to whip my steed over obstacles just ‘so it knows who is boss’, yet like my pony who was actually trying its hardest, I shouldn’t have to inflict pain on the men in my life to validate myself as a woman. I opted for natural horsemanship, tried to learn the language and ideas of horses so I could make myself better understood in a way that bridged the species and the predator-prey animal gap in communication. I digress.

Nin, sums up her contribution to feminism as psychological, not political and says that “we (women) waste precious energy in negative rebellions” (pg. 28) and the need to create a new kind of woman, because if we are fighting the patriarchy by mimicking the same ideas of power and if feminism “expresses itself in war, then it is an imitation of man’s methods”(pg.31). She calls upon women to develop themselves, leave anger that “makes us overstate our case”(pg.30) and blind our path to awareness, to deal with the real tyrants which are “guilt, taboo’s, and educational inheritance” (pg. 30). Not men. In fact, at a certain point in the book, she removes the titles of men and women and masculine and feminine (other than recounting her experience and lessons from men and how she integrated them) and talks about changing the world with humanism. We all have the potential to develop ourselves to be a human being that doesn’t stand for such inequalities and forgive each other for falling victim to the socialist taboo against individual development. For those who believe change is manifested from deep changes that influence our collective life, we can negotiate a failed system by acknowledging at the bottom of it all is a flawed, corruptible human being. (pg.31)

In her essay starting on page 47 “In Favor of the Sensitive Man”, Nin describes a relationship that seems balanced and beautiful “a love which was almost a twinship, relaxed, playing no roles, whose characteristic trait was gentleness” (pg.47). The defining traits of such a couple must be read for oneself as no summary will do it justice. She touches on a point that moves me deeply, that the common fear in such balanced and aware couples is that sensitivity is a weakness, and the questioning within the relationship if the lack of authority, the equality they’ve sought for such a long time, is it actually ok? This entire essay feels like a celebration of men that have not had “their lifeblood sucked” by the old conventional ambitions and the joys and challenges of being in relationships as true equals with the familiar challenges of “wanting freedom but and yet wanting the other to hold on”(pg.52). This essay is like a beautiful relationship externalized on a page, complex, poetic, balanced, reflective and challenging with many poignant moments. Her main message could be condensed. Do not mistake sensitivity for weakness like violence is mistaken for power. (pg.50) and that the power of a new regime of trust, the relinquishment of false roles in relationships for a human to human love, can truly change the world.

Anaïs Nin is an author who’s idea’s about relationships and self-development are still relevant. Her talent for taking philosophical content to the level of the reader in a prose-like detail of her thoughts makes for easy, yet thought-provoking reading. For both men and women, particularly those involved in the arts (the later chapters on writing and media are particularly compelling) will find consolation and inspiration for growth in Nin’s book of intuitive and intellectual essays.


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