THE COSMOS OF ANAÏS NIN
September 1972. I see and speak to Anaïs Nin for the first time at a party in the Gotham Book Mart Gallery, given upon the publication of Volume IV of her Diary. The room is packed with people, many strangers to each other, but the intersection of our lives at that moment seems magical, in retrospect. Frances Steloff, the eighty-four year old mother of the Gotham Book Mart, is there, busily tending to everyone’s needs. So is Donna Ippolito, young editor from Swallow Press, which then is considering a manuscript of mine about the consciousness-raising of women artists, called UNMASKING: Ten Women in Metamorphosis. Since Swallow Press published Nin’s novels, I feel that if Swallow publishes mine (they do), I would share a bond with her.Also present is my close artist friend, Adele Aldridge. We had met when we joined a group of feminist artists at the same time. When this group had encouraged me to write more about myself and I resisted, thinking that form was not “good” enough, Adele gave me the Diaries of Anaïs Nin to read, which revolutionized my aesthetic theories and style of life. Adele had long felt dedicated to Fin, and we shared many deep discussions about her life and work.
After an exchange of letters, Anaïs Nin invites me to visit her. The opportunity seems like a dream come true, which I want to share with Adele, so I bring her with me. First, Adele asks the I Ching what Anaïs will think of us, and receives the hexagram of the creative heaven over the clinging fire, signifying fellowship. That appears to be true, as the intertwining circles of our dreams unfold.
Anaïs is composed. She is a slender, strong-stemmed woman with coppery hair swept up in the back and vivid, round, blue eyes. Her eyes search and welcome us. Her skin is smooth and powdered; her lips deep rose. She wears a long black dress and purple shoes. On her wrist is a watch with wide, leather band. Anaïs Nin, the woman of many selves, is called “Scheherazade of the Twentieth Century”.
This woman, who in her late twenties and full of fears and doubts about herself, wore costumes in public. Living in Louvesciennes, France, at the time outwardly tranquil, pleasant, orderly, but inwardly chaotic, impassioned, troubled, she put on disguises to create new personages for herself, to escape, and ward off her enemies. With the publication of her first book, D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study, she made more frequent trips to Paris, became involved with June and Henry Miller, psychoanalysts Allendy and Otto Rank, who restored her strength by setting her free in new worlds. Then she made a conscious effort to strip herself of frivolity, luxury, pleasures by depriving herself of desired objects, giving away her money, living humbly and resourcefully to be close to her friends and allies, the artists and writers. Her dress reflected the change, became simpler, yet never lost its subtle drama. There were always to be the capes, artful dresses, symbolic colors.
Anaïs shades the blinds for our talk. Instantly the room becomes a private sanctuary of warm glows and mysterious shadows. I think of all the dense atmospheres Anaïs has created, as told in her Diaries. The house in Louvesciennes with its red room for vehemence, blue for dreaming, grey for working, peach for gentleness. Its earthiness. Geraniums in the window. A fountain. Then a houseboat on the Seine. The many apartments with simple furniture but always something unique, such as the astrological charts of Conrad Moricand, the old table carved and painted by artist friends. About beds she wrote:
…Another bed which was an aphrodisiac was the Bohemian mattress on the floor. Escaping from the elevation seemed also to bring one closer to the earth, to flesh, and there was no fear of rolling away from the bed, falling. It suggested a lair, closer to primitive life, Oriental life, closer to the senses, travel and camping in the deserts, closer to human and animal nature. It reminded me of Fatima in Morocco, of harems, tents of A Thousand and One Nights…”
Anaïs Nin through her clothes, dwellings, travels, friends, and books always created her world to counter the poisons she saw on a large scale outside, believing that the revolution had to take place first within oneself in order to change the world. We recognize that we are engaged in the same battle and that she has expressed our own conflicts and aspirations in her books; by unmasking her innermost convictions, no matter how vulnerable she became, she attained universality. She has been equally courageous in carving out her place in the world of literature. Life as she lived it and created it in her books is a heroic adventure of our time.”Anaïs” is a Greek name that was fashionable at the time she was born. As a child, in France she was accustomed to living among musicians, artists, intellectuals, and aristocrats. She recalls that she was always reading, even the books on top of her father’s shelves. At the age of eleven her parents separated and she, with her two brothers, was brought to America by her mother for a new and difficult life. Here Anaïs attended public schools but left at high school, developing her reading and writing on her own. An English teacher had advised her to write more colloquially, but Anaïs flowered as an international writer with roots in surrealism, ancient and modern literature, psychology, and music. Her speech retains an international character as well. She speaks precise English with a French accent. Her voice is soft, low-key. Although she is quick to laugh, she seems easily susceptible to dark thoughts. A flicker in her eyes and shadow passes through the joy. She says though that she is in harmony with her life now.
Like Eurydice she descended alone into the dark labyrinthian depths of the underground, only in her case the depths were the womb-cells of the mind, the unconscious. Bravely crossing new barriers, she explored the interior landscape – its mountains, valleys, oceans, jungles, frigid and torrid zones – and, as with the galaxies, found no end to it. She wrote, Living is the constant motion towards unraveling a dynamic movement from mystery to mystery. Her goal was self-discovery, the mastery of her destiny.
She knew equally well states of heightened joy, inspired by the imagination or art, and massive despair, crash landings. Fearing fragmentation, as in looking at the self in a shattered mirror, and the stale binding structure of society’s religious, cultural, and racial attitudes, she sought wholeness of personality. This odyssey is documented in the Diaries. Not one man, but many loves and friendships went into her quest. Relationships were not enough; there was always the need to write and to create. As she set forth on her voyage a solitary and independent woman, from the experience of having given birth to a dead child, her way was marked with danger. But, in the course of her explorations into the interior, she was to achieve nothing less than the creation of herself.
For her guide she used psychoanalysis. She recalls when she was considering publishing Volume I of the Diaries, how she had a dream in which she opened her front door and fatal radiation overcame her. Symbolically to her the radiation meant her fears of exposure to the outside world, which was to become an ever present fact in her life, just as strontium 90 penetrates and stays with the body. The dream represented her fear of the world, the fear of judgment, the fear of not being loved, the fear of having everyone say, ‘This is a monster’.
Psychoanalysis liberated her from destructive fears and guilts inherited from parents, Catholicism, men, politics. She used it to meet the crises in her life, but she also turned from it for nourishment to more submarine regions of the imagination. To her, psychoanalysis was limited by its arid objectivity. She eventually transcended her needs for it.
But in her books Anaïs uses her psychological knowledge and symbols to reveal her characters and their states of being. She practices archaeology of the soul, her purpose being to write dramas as the unconscious lives them. In Spy in the House of Love, the psycho-drama is about a woman who feels compelled to leave a placid relationship with her husband for many other loves and feels pursued by guilt. In Ladders to Fire, she portrays a group of people who attempt to find lovers in men and women to fulfill various emotional needs. Like an analyst she constructs character from fragments that distinguish between his/her fantasy and reality. Thus Sabina is a feverish, restless woman who wears red and silver and is associated with the sound and sight of fire engines. Sabina’s behavior vacillates between impulsiveness and guilt. Believing that analytical insight wrapped in poetry was far more potent than bare analysis, Anaïs described neurosis, people with broken connections, diffused visions, who enact symbolic dramas. The characters who can relentlessly examine their natures are shown restored to their full human lives. By thus presenting humanism, the value of her literature, Anaïs hoped, would destroy the seeds of war and prejudice.
Anaïs keeps the rare first editions of her books in a large transparent box. Precious works of art, all of them. The hand-set volumes of Under a Glass Bell and Winter of Artifice contain beautiful type, set straight for narrative, in italics for reveries, on heavy stock paper with engravings by Ian Hugo.
Anaïs spent six months setting the type by hand for Under a Glass Bell. What propelled her to painstakingly learn the techniques of printing, scrounge around for a foot-treadle press, and spend months of hard, physical labor printing her own books? The power of the dream. She always believed in what she was writing. Already in France she had published the book on D.H. Lawrence and House of Incest. She was not to be defeated because the publishing establishment in America didn’t accept her at that time. The volumes which she did print turned out to be exceptionally beautiful and sold out immediately at the Gotham Book Mart. She continued to write more novels and articles, becoming well known in underground circles. Her persistence, despite opposition for many years, took the courage that is so admired today by the do-it-yourself, “consciousness III” people.
Her perseverance in her work comes from an obsession to weave a connection with the world. On the one hand, this means that her writing itself brings her friends and new worlds, as publishing the critical study of D.H. Lawrence resulted in her meeting Henry Miller, who introduced her to the vibrant life of Paris streets, and House of Incest brought her the Durrells. Her books are passports out of loneliness. On the other hand, she writes to preserve experience, to give back to the world some of the joy and beauty she took out of it. She also writes to dispel feelings of loss, from being uprooted, destruction and death. She writes before her memory can distort experience, desiring to recreate the feelings of life in all their spontaneity.