Sunday, July 3, 2016
240. Gay Pride, Anaïs Nin, and Erotica
Though I always take out my rainbow flag (scavenged from a trash can last year) and wave it about the apartment, I hadn't planned to watch this year's parade, having seen it several times in the past. Instead, knowing the nearby restaurants would be crowded even while the parade was in progress, I planned to take refuge in a quiet Chinese restaurant on West 3rd Street, at a safe remove from the brouhaha. So I left the apartment at about 2 p.m. and went out into a mild, cloudless day – perfect for a parade. I planned to follow West 4th Street east to Sixth Avenue and, depending on the volume of the crowds, find my way from there. Which, it turned out, was naïve.
Walking along West 11th Street toward 4th, I immediately encountered a group of girls, one of whom, with flaming pink hair, launched into a frenzied dance. As I passed them I applauded, and her companions cheered my applause. Which set the tone for the day: wild and joyous.
As I followed West 4th toward Sheridan Square, where West 4th intersects Christopher Street and the path of the parade, I soon saw a mass of people ahead of me blocking my way to Seventh Avenue and the Square, so I turned left onto West 10th Street (yes, West 4th crosses West 10th – this is the Village and even the streets are crazy) – and, with the help of police who were directing traffic and the flow of pedestrians, managed to cross Seventh Avenue, then Sixth, where I found the crowds still impossibly thick, then Fifth, still crowded, and ended up on University Place, far removed from the parade, where I found only the usual Sunday-afternoon crowd enjoying the Village on a sunny day, fewer rainbow flags, less frenzy.
So what had I seen en route? Not just rainbow flags, but flaring rainbow skirts, rainbow boas, rainbow capes, rainbow necklaces and bracelets and shirts and caps and headdresses – in short, rainbow everything. And T-shirts blazoning a message:
IT’S ALL ABOUT LOVE
MANILA – PHILIPPINES
And on a very straight-looking guy:
And the people? Policemen everywhere (in the wake of Orlando, no doubt), and firemen and their vehicles as well. As regards the celebrants, mostly young people waving rainbow flags, but also older ones, some of them same-sex couples holding hands. Muscled studs stripped to the waist, displaying the torso they’d worked so hard to achieve. And women with pink, purple, blue, or yellow hair. And, here and there, costumes wild and weird, as if from another planet, indescribable. But nothing negative; a joyous mood throughout, albeit with signs – I AM PULSE, WE ARE ORLANDO -- commemorating Orlando and the 49 victims.
As I approached my Chinese restaurant, I grew apprehensive, for even on West 3rd Street there were ground-floor bars and restaurants jammed to the gills, with occasional cheers and applause, probably sparked by watching the parade on television. But when I mounted the short flight of stairs to my restaurant, I left the hullabaloo behind and entered a sheltered space of calm with only a handful of other patrons present. I was soon at a table awaiting my scallion pancakes and tea, while perusing a book I had just bought at a sidewalk stand on West 4th Street and University Place: Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anaïs Nin (Bantam, 1978), which made available to the public some erotica that, needing money, she had done in 1940 for an anonymous male patron for a dollar a page. And who had put her up to this endeavor? Her friend and lover, Henry Miller, who had other projects in mind and so offered the job to her. (Note: In 1940, a dollar a page wasn’t a bad rate. Accounting for inflation, it is the equivalent of $16.89 today.)
Though I have read Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (Art of Love) in Latin and, in translation, a similar treatise in Arabic, I’m not much into erotica, whether gay or straight. I bought the book on an impulse, because I had met Anaïs Nin here in New York in 1968, at which time I sent her some poems (she pronounced them “subtle”), and she sent me A Spy in the House of Love, a title that I still find arresting. But what does this have to do with Gay Pride? Nothing, yet everything, for a candid celebration of female sexuality signals the same emancipation for women that the Stonewall riots of 1969 signaled for the gay community. What is the Gay Pride celebration all about, if not a celebration of sex? While at the restaurant I got through the first chapter, about a fictional Hungarian baron whose appetite for sexual adventures is satisfied – for a while – by a free-living Brazilian dancer name Anita whose narrowed, lascivious eyes resembled those of a tiger, puma, or leopard. (To my knowledge Anaïs Nin had no close acquaintance with feral felines, but her imagination was surely piqued by the thought of $16.89 a page.)
Yes, this is erotica, but today it lacks the shock value that it must have delivered when first published long ago. And the Anaïs Nin that I met back then had nothing loose or rakish about her; she was very much a lady, carefully got up, petite, soft-voiced, sensitive, articulate. Her preface tells how, when she was writing the erotica, her patron urged her to “leave out the poetry,” which she found that she couldn’t do. In addition, she realized that feminine erotica, unlike male, couldn’t focus on sex acts alone, but required a component of emotion and love as well – a realization that made her work more challenging, even difficult. Men and women, she saw, were put together differently and required different stimuli for arousal. Henry Miller’s accounts of sexual experience were explicit, hers were ambiguous; his were Rabelaisian and humorous, hers were poetic. As a woman writing erotica – a genre hitherto dominated by men – she was a pioneer. (For an account of my brief acquaintance with Anaïs Nin, see post #133, June 29, 2014.)
This account of my Gay Pride Day peregrinations left me at the restaurant with my nose deep in the delta of Venus, but having finished my digression on erotica, I’ll get back to me and my further adventures. What then happened was simply my attempt to brave the commotion and get back home in one piece. I followed West 4th back across Sixth Avenue (no problem), and then traversed the West 4th block between Sixth and Seventh which I have already commemorated in a much-visited post for this blog (#154, November 23, 2014). When I reached Sheridan Square, the whole area was packed, and the parade was in progress on Christopher Street, passing the celebrated Stonewall Inn on its way to Seventh Avenue and beyond. From a distance I could see, over the heads of other bystanders, several floats pass by, blaring loud music to which a pack of young celebrants, some in fantastic outfits and some in almost nothing at all, vibrated frantically and joyously. Each time a float passed the crowd at or near the Square, a huge ovation erupted, while everyone waved their rainbow flags in a frenzy. And in the park itself the life-size statues of two couples, two men standing together and two seated women, were still heaped with flowers and cards and candles commemorating the victims of the Orlando massacre.
At intervals the police halted the parade and let people cross Christopher Street, so I was able to escape north from the crowd and reach West 10th again, which took me back to West 4th and so on to my apartment. The more space I put between me and the parade, the less frantic the crowd and the fewer the flags, until the crowd frayed into small groups here and there, including some, both old and young, content to sit on a stoop and watch the others go by. But right up to the entrance to my building, I sensed excitement in the air, something very special under way. So ended my witness of the celebration, except for sounds that night of fireworks.
Today the Times informs me that some 30,000 marched in the parade, and that Hillary Clinton made a surprise visit, popping out of a van near the Stonewall to march four blocks in the parade in the company of such notables as Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and black activist Al Sharpton, who took care to position himself right next to the lady in question. Recognized and hailed all the way, and showered with confetti from a rooftop at Bleecker Street, she waved and smiled and shook hands with onlookers held back by police barricades. Then, just as suddenly and mysteriously as she arrived, she popped back into a vehicle and was whisked off to fly back to Indiana, where she is now campaigning. Mr. Trump, who claims he will do more than Hillary for gays, was not in evidence, having other fish to fry.
The Times also interviewed some bystanders. A young man from Bangkok had thought about dressing in drag but decided not to, heeding his mother’s advice, “Just don’t go crazy.” A 20-year-old transgender American said he felt proud of being who he was, but declined to give his surname because his family disapproved of his transition. And a 74-year-old American who has attended some 30 marches told of losing 75 friends to AIDS; when he informed the families, some of them immediately hung up, so he deposited their ashes in the Hudson River and the Grand Canyon: a sad note indeed on an otherwise joyous occasion.
Erotica vs. pornography: What is the difference? Off the top of my head I’m inclined to say that erotica deals candidly with the sexual, but pornography goes further, dishing out luscious adjectives and juicy descriptions in hopes of sexually arousing the reader or viewer. Ovid’s Ars Amatoria is certainly not pornography; rather, it’s a sex manual instructing male and female readers on how to “connect” and, once you’ve done it, how to keep connected. His advice is often simplistic, yet relevant: “To be loved, be lovable.” He arms his readers for sexual encounters, but he doesn’t whip them up into a frenzy of desire.
Throughout the book Ovid is urbane, sophisticated, witty. Which did him no good whatsoever: in 8 CE he was banished by the emperor Augustus to the farthest limits of the empire (to what is now Romania) because, as the poet puts it, he was guilty of a book and an error. The book was obviously the Ars Amatoria, which may have offended an emperor eager to restore the traditional polytheistic religion of Rome, and opposed to well-bred Roman women going out in public to “connect.” The error may have been political, related to rival factions intriguing to secure the aging emperor’s succession; possibly it involved the emperor’s granddaughter Julia, who was banished for adultery in the same year and subsequently bore a child that Augustus ordered put to death. Neither Julia nor Ovid ever got back to Rome.
The Ars Amatoria was burned in a bonfire of vanities by the fanatical Florentine monk Savonarola (who later himself got burned), and an English translation of it was seized by the U.S. Customs in 1930. One wonders what happened to the confiscated copy, and who got to read it.
Even more taboo in the U.S. was Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, recounting his sexual adventures and misadventures in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. It was first published in Paris in 1934 with financial help from Anaïs Nin. When I went to France on a Fulbright years later, a friend asked me to bring back a copy, since it was banned in the U.S. but available in France. I did as he requested and in the process stuck my nose into it and, far from being aroused sexually, roared with laughter. It was funny, funny, funny, at times uproariously so. A Supreme Court ruling in 1964 declared the book “non-obscene,” ending the longtime ban; I hope the justices enjoyed their reading.
Obviously, the line between erotica and pornography is hazy at best; one man’s erotica is another man’s porn. But I hold to my opinion that porn is different in that it is a no-holds-barred effort, not to entertain or enlighten the reader, but to stimulate him (almost always a “him”) sexually. And does it find its audience! Forbes estimates that in this country the porn industry grosses from $10 to $14 billion a year. Neither Henry Miller nor Anaïs Nin ever dreamed of realizing even a tiny fraction of such a sum, nor did Ovid either, I suspect; if they had, they might have done better financially, but we would be poorer literarily. So it goes.
Coming soon: A reblog of post #136 on the very controversial cardinal Spellman (was he or wasn’t he?), the post with the most views of all in this blog, topping even Man/Boy Love. Then, as originally announced, a celebrated bank robber who preyed on the city’s banks for 40 years, escaping from prison three times. A rather charming, gentlemanly fellow who, even when brandishing a submachine gun, wouldn’t hurt a flea. Alas, they don’t make thieves like that any more.
© 2016 Clifford Browder