Delta of Venus : Chapter 1
A book collector offered Henry Miller a hundred dollars a month to write erotic stories. It seemed like a Dantesque punishment to condemn Henry to write erotica at a dollar a page. He rebelled because his mood of the moment was the opposite of Rabelaisian, because writing to order was a castrating occupation, because to be writing with a voyeur at the keyhole took all the spontaneity and pleasure out of his fanciful adventures.
Henry told me about the collector. They sometimes had lunch together. He bought a manuscript from Henry and then suggested that he write something for one of his old and wealthy clients. He could not tell much about his client except that he was interested in erotica.
Henry started out gaily, jokingly. He invented wild stories which we laughed over. He entered into it as an experiment, and it seemed easy at first. But after a while it palled on him. He did not want to touch upon any of the material he planned to write about for his real work, so he was condemned to force his inventions and his mood.
He never received a word of acknowledgment from the strange patron. It could be natural that he would not want to disclose his identity. But Henry began to tease the collector. Did this patron really exist? Were these pages for the collector himself, to heighten his own melancholy life? Were they one and the same person? Henry and I discussed this at length, puzzled and amused.
At this point, the collector announced that his client was coming to New York and that Henry would meet him. But somehow this meeting never took place. The collector was lavish in his descriptions of how he sent the manuscripts by airmail, how much it cost, small details meant to add realism to the claims he made about his client’s existence.
One day he wanted a copy of Black Spring with a dedication.
Henry said, ‘But I thought you told me he had all my books already, signed editions?’
‘He lost his copy of Black Spring.’
‘Who should I dedicate it to?’ said Henry innocently.
‘Just say “to a good friend”, and sign your name.’
A few weeks later Henry needed a copy of Black Spring and none could be found. He decided to borrow the collector’s copy. He went to the office. The secretary told him to wait. He began to look over the books in the bookcase. He saw a copy of Black Spring. He pulled it out. It was the one he had dedicated to the ‘Good Friend’.
When the collector came in, Henry told him about this, laughing. In equally good humour, the collector explained: ‘Oh, yes, the old man got so impatient that I sent him my own copy while I was waiting to get this one signed by you, intending to exchange them later when he comes to New York again.’
Henry said to me when we met, ‘I’m more baffled than ever.’
When Henry asked what the patron’s reaction to his writing was, the collector said, ‘Oh, he likes everything. It is all wonderful. But he likes it better when it is a narrative, just storytelling, no analysis, no philosophy.’
When Henry needed money for his travel expenses he suggested that I do some writing in the interim. I felt I did not want to give anything genuine, and decided to create a mixture of stories I had heard and inventions, pretending they were from the diary of a woman. I never met the collector. He was to read my pages and to let me know what he thought. Today I received a telephone call. A voice said, ‘It is fine. But leave out the poetry and descriptions of anything but sex. Concentrate on sex.’
So I began to write tongue-in-cheek, to become outlandish, inventive, and so exaggerated that I thought he would realize I was caricaturing sexuality. But there was no protest. I spent days in the library studying the Kama Sutra, listened to friends’ most extreme adventures.
‘Less poetry,’ said the voice over the telephone. ‘Be specific.’
But did anyone ever experience pleasure from reading a clinical description? Didn’t the old man know how words carry colors and sounds into the flesh?
Every morning after breakfast I sat down to write my allotment of erotica. One morning I typed: ‘There was a Hungarian adventurer…’ I gave him many advantages: beauty, elegance, grace, charm, the talents of an actor, knowledge of many tongues, a genius for intrigue, a genius for extricating himself from difficulties, and a genius for avoiding permanence and responsibility.
Another telephone call: ‘The old man is pleased. Concentrate on sex. Leave out the poetry.’
This started an epidemic of erotic ‘journals’. Everyone was writing up their sexual experiences. Invented, overheard, researched from Krafft-Ebing and medical books. We had comical conversations. We told a story and the rest of us had to decide whether it was true or false. Or plausible. Was this plausible? Robert Duncan would offer to experiment, to test our inventions, to confirm or negate our fantasies. All of us needed money, so we pooled our stories.
I was sure the old man knew nothing about the beatitudes, ecstasies, dazzling reverberations of sexual encounters. Cut out the poetry was his message. Clinical sex, deprived of all the warmth of love – the orchestration of all the senses, touch, hearing, sight, palate; all the euphoric accompaniments, background music, moods, atmosphere, variations – forced him to resort to literary aphrodisiacs.
We could have bottled better secrets to tell him, but such secrets he would be deaf to. But one day when he reached saturation, I would tell him how he almost made us lose interest in passion by his obsession with the gestures empty of their emotions, and how we reviled him, because he almost caused us to take vows of chastity, because what he wanted us to exclude was our own aphrodisiac – poetry.
I received one hundred dollars for my erotica. Gonzalo needed cash for the dentist, Helba needed a mirror for her dancing, and Henry money for his trip. Gonzalo told me the story of the Basque and Bijou and I wrote it down for the collector.
The telephone bill was unpaid. The net of economic difficulties was closing in on me. Everyone around me irresponsible, unconscious of the shipwreck. I did thirty pages of erotica.
I again awakened to the consciousness of being without a cent and telephoned the collector. Had he heard from his rich client about the last manuscript I sent? No, he had not, but he would take the one I had just finished and pay me for it. Henry had to see a doctor. Gonzalo needed glasses. Robert came with B. and asked me for money to go to the movies. The soot from the transom window fell on my typing paper and on my work. Robert came and took away my box of typing paper.
Wasn’t the old man tired of pornography? Wouldn’t a miracle take place? I began to imagine him saying, ‘Give me everything she writes, I want it all, I like all of it. I will send her a big present, a big check for all the writing she has done.’
My typewriter was broken. With a hundred dollars in my pocket I recovered my optimism. I said to Henry, ‘The collector says he likes simple, unintellectual women – but he invites me to dinner.’
I had a feeling that Pandora’s box contained the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate. The language of sex had yet to be invented. The language of the senses was yet to be explored. D. H. Lawrence began to give instinct a language, he tried to escape the clinical, the scientific, which only captures what the body feels.
When Henry came he made several contradictory statements. That he could live on nothing, that he felt so good he could even take a job, that his integrity prevented him from writing scenarios in Hollywood. At the last I said, ‘And what of the integrity of doing erotica for money?’
Henry laughed, admitted the paradox, the contradictions, laughed and dismissed the subject.
France has had a tradition of literary erotic writing, in fine, elegant style. When I first began to write for the collector I thought there was a similar tradition here, but found none at all. All I had seen was shoddy, written by second-rate writers. No fine writer seemed ever to have tried his hand at erotica.
I told George Barker how Caresse Crosby, Robert, Virginia Admiral and others were writing. It appealed to his sense of humor. The idea of my being the madam of this snobbish literary house of prostitution, from which vulgarity was excluded.
Laughing, I said, ‘I supply paper and carbon, I deliver the manuscript anonymously, I protect everyone’s anonymity.’
George Barker felt this was much more humorous and inspiring than begging, borrowing or cajoling meals out of friends.
I gathered poets around me and we all wrote beautiful erotica. As we were condemned to focus only on sensuality, we had violent explosions of poetry. Writing erotica became a road to sainthood rather than to debauchery.
Harvey Breit, Robert Duncan, George Barker, Caresse Crosby, all of us concentrating our skills in a tour de force, supplying the old man with such an abundance of perverse felicities, that now he begged for more.
The homosexuals wrote as if they were women. The timid ones wrote about orgies. The frigid ones about frenzied fulfillments. The most poetic ones indulged in pure bestiality and the purest ones in perversions. We were haunted by the marvelous tales we could not tell. We sat around, imagined this old man, talked of how much we hated him, because he would not allow us to make a fusion of sexuality and feeling, sensuality and emotion.