Transcript of a talk from the Grant McEwan English Undergraduate Conference, 2016
Anais Nin is a polarizing figure. Her work is not for the moral absolutist, nor the faint of heart. She has been hailed as feminist icon; an unparalleled female voice in the male-dominated literary world. Nin has also been called a “bitch,” a “monster,” a “liar.” As Sady Doyle points out, the term “slut shaming” did not exist when Nin was at the peak of her unpopularity, and it applies today, to some extent. While not condoning some of her actions, I believe that Anais Nin is one of the finest writers of her time. Note that I do not say that she is one of the finest “female” writers of her time. When we confine a writer to an audience of one gender, we are doing them no favours. Condemning Nin to obscurity because of some of her racier works seems ridiculous to me. When we worship people like Woody Allen, Bukowski, Polanski, and even Sean Penn or John Lennon, we overlook their abuses- their flaws- so that we can concentrate on their art. Nin has, at times, been hated by the masses. For what? Writing frankly about the female experience? Having an affair? Dealing with her own sexual abuses in a non-normative way? We cannot continue to support horrible men when we’re so quick to silence women for being too much like them.
Nin is most famous for her erotica and her meticulously collected diaries, which span decades and which made her famous in the years leading up to her death. During her formative years as a writer, however, she received barely any praise for her work. Most of her work was self-published, and though all of her work is widely read today, only a slim volume of short stories, Under a Glass Bell, from 1944, received praise at the time of its publication. Ironically, it is one of her most overlooked works in modern times. Within that collection is a story called “Birth.” The story describes a woman in labour with a stillborn child and her treatment by her male doctors and the conversations the nurses have around her. Deeply affected by the dismissive manner in which she is treated and the abject horror of the scenario itself, I began to write poems exploring still birth, infertility, miscarriage, and birth and pregnancy in general. These poems became a small collection titled Birth: Projections of a Glass Womb. Upon reading Julia Kristeva’s The Power of Horror, I found a theoretical framework for my work.
I doubt that I am the first undergraduate (or graduate) student to agonize over abjection. Kristen’s theory is intoxicatingly lurid and above all, exciting. The abject addresses so many aspects or art and life that it becomes art, becomes life. Writing is sublime yet agonizing. Each paper, poem, story, diary entry I write is like being torn open. Seeing it on a physical page in front of me, complete, is like being sewn back up.
Writing on Kristeva, though, is like a c-section that won’t heal.
“Abjection is above all ambiguity,” Julia Kristen states, in her essay “The Powers of Horror.” (236) Much like Foucault, Kristeva lists many of the things that the abject is not. The abject is “neither subject nor object” ( 229), the abject “is not an object facing me, which I name or imagine, Nor is it an ob-jest, an otherness ceaselessly fleeting in a systematic quest of desire.” (230)
With all of this ambiguity, what could the abject possibly be? In a slightly more lucid vein, Kristen states that, “the abject has only one quality of the object— that of being opposed to I.” (230) The opposite of “I,” we may conclude, is the state of being “other.” In the presence of the abject, Kristen says, “There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.” (231) It becomes clear that the abject is potentially referential to the “other.” Like the other, the existence of the abject is “crucial in defining what is ‘normal’ and in locating one’s own place in the world.” (Ashcroft 154) To inch even closer to the definition of the abject, we can look again to the other; “a heterogeneous flux marks out a territory that I can call my own because the Other, having dwelt in me as alter ego, points it out to me through loathing.” (Kristeva 237) The abject, then, allows us to see the presence of the other within us. The binaries that drive people apart exist within us, and when we see the face of the other in real life, and experience a guttural response, feel a sense of disgust NOT that we’ve felt nauseous in the face of the other, but that within us exists the potential to be that other. In a similar vein, within our bodies exists practically infinite potential for the abject and the lurid. Scores of veins, arteries, cells, organs, etc present opportunity for the most lurid and fatalistic of circumstances, however we remain largely unaware of this until we are presented with the abject. When we see someone vomit, it reminds us of our capacity to also vomit, thus we are disgusted. When we see a rotting corpse we are reminded of our own mortality and our potential to perish and rot. When we see a child being birthed, we are especially reminded of the potential for pain, abjection, and life/ death.
The abject is unrelenting and perverse. (241) Because of its potential to unsettle, derail, and provoke physical reaction, the abject is dangerous.
Through defining and discovering abjection, I uncovered my fascination with Nin’s story and began to rationalize the writing that followed. I felt a guttural response to reading this, which can be explained as a sudden understanding of my body’s potential to enact scenes similar to that of this story.
This presentation doesn’t quite fit into the critical vein that many on this panel appear to, yet the work requires more critical intervention than a straight creative writing project.
[Poems removed for publication formalities]
Though heavily influenced by Nin’s work, the majority of these poems are based in conceptual poetry concepts and pull from the source text “Principles of Midwifery or Puerperal Medicine” by John Aiken (1786) as well as Nin’s story.
I like to define conceptual poetry as a poem that moves beyond it’s narrative, voice, and sound to explore the rationale behind writing and to justify the means of writing. Thus, these poems move beyond their brief, lurid descriptions by the act of being derived from midwifery texts from a time when women’s bodies and birth were perceived as even more abject than they are today.
Today, I will share some of these poems with the audience. As mentioned before, Nin’s work, and thus mine in this collection, deals with the abject nature of female bodily experience. In keeping with Nin’s approach to writing the female body, some of these pieces may appear lurid or graphic. Each poem is preceded by a quote from “Birth,” hopefully demonstrating the link between the two.
Erin E. A. Vance is completing her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Calgary. Her work has been published in Existere, (parenthetical), Untethered, QWERTY, s/tick, and Petal Journal. Her academic work has appeared at the Quebec Universities English Undergraduate Conference, and the University of Calgary’s Undergraduate Research Symposium. She hopes to being her MA in Fall 2016.