Book review: Anais Nin – A spy in the house of love

As far as the psychology of female sexuality is concerned, Jacques Lacan is often looked upon as someone who is deeply pessimistic about women being emancipated from male authority, and able to explore sex without the shadow of masculine hegemony disturbing the way.

The highest form of enjoyment for women, in Lacan’s terms, is feminine jouissance – which translates as enjoyment, but in French legalese is synonymous with ownership, such as the enjoyment or ownership of property – which designates a sexual act separate from the domain of male dominance.

But it is a tremendous task indeed to reach such enjoyment, since the burden of masculine hegemony is so deeply ingrained. As is demonstrated in Freud, the gendered subject is defined in terms of the penis; the presence or absence of it. Since the ontological becoming of a woman is engendered by a lack – usually discovered with reference to a Father, from whom “penis envy” may begin – so the paternal order remains the dominant one.

This is neither Freud nor Lacan’s wish – a charge levelled at them by such “feminist” critics as Germaine Greer – but a reality that is later proven in real life, where patriarchy is often the dominant mode of society.

This filters into sexuality for women, for whom their sexual being is defined by the patriarchal order. Nowhere is this more aptly exemplified in Anais Nin’s book “A spy in the house of love”, the fourth in her “continuous novel” Cities of the interior.

Sabina, the artistic protagonist of the story, despite her best efforts to rebel against the norms and values of her patriarchal society, by having sex with as many attractive men as she can, while her husband Alan – who she admits is more like a Father figure – thinks she is on tour acting in a production of Cinderella for weeks on end, has a constant urge to admit her guilt to a “lie detector” – a character often referred to throughout the novel as a kind of psychologist who Sabina is able to admit all her deviancies to.

The novel itself subordinates the stereotype that men are the ones able to talk freely of their sexual ventures, while for a woman to do so is something quite unwomanly (it is also rather telling that the character of Sabina, though originally set out to be based on Nin’s friend, turned out to be a self-exploration of the author herself, who confessed to indulging in many affairs at the time).

Although the reader is able to sympathise with the main character throughout the novel – no sympathy is given to Alan, who appears wearisome and dry – on her many exploits, the tragedy is revealed at the end when, on meeting the “lie detector” expecting to be arrested – much to the confusion of others, for whom it is obvious Sabina has done nothing wrong to be arrested for (no doubt a reference to her guilt, and values held by the rebellious artistic crowd she congregates with) – confesses to ignorance that her sexual exploits, rather than being love, are instead a naivety based upon seeking love.

Sabina weeps upon realising that love is not found in sexual promiscuity, but safety. And that safety, sadly, is with Alan – the paternal law. The unceasing guilt that Sabina experiences through the explanation of the “lie detector” only serves to prove that Alan as the Father figure is what Lacan refers to as in the “name of the Father” – or more succinctly, the paternal law being present even in the Father’s absence (Alan is seldom present in the text).

Furthermore, that feeling of someone watching Sabina, which she experiences throughout, realising that it is the “lie detector”, is a device showing that masculine hegemony is a constant presence; judging her on the basis of standard male prejudices of female sexuality.

Given the context, the conclusion of the novel by Nin, who is considered a renegade writer of female sexuality, undercutting those standard practices of masculine hegemony, shows that she is defeated by a false dichotomy between love and enjoyment. In fact, what ultimately defeats her is the guilt – a by-product of masculine hegemony.

It is not love she succumbs to at the end of the text, it is paternal law.

The end of the novel, which sees Sabina weeping to one of Beethoven’s quartets, is far more conservative than the conclusion of Lacan – aforementioned, seen by many as an anti-feminist. Though he admitted it was a difficult task, feminine jouissance, or sexuality which subordinates paternal law, was not impossible, and when achieved, put women at a dignified position often not enjoyed in everyday life, where gender inequality is still a reality.

Lacan, even in his pessimism, is far more feminist than Nin, considered to be a radical with her female-led erotic fiction.

Inspired by Kate Belgrave’s piece My average life as an average whore