CHAPTER ELEVEN (cont.)
THE POETIC REALITY OF ANAÏS NIN
As for places, they are always illuminated in the later works, i.e. after her vision has emerged from the House of Incest. In some of Anaïs Nin’s descriptions there is an emblematic persistence of the Chirico mystery of denuded streets, but as she pours the dream out into the familiar landmarks in her environment whether in Paris or in New York it takes on the glow of adventure or an unexpectedly explosive vitality. She devoured the noises of the street she was only the finger of a whole bigger body, a body hungry, thirsty, avid. (Ladders to Fire, p.88)
The symbols of darkness, misty, cloudy skies disappear and are replaced by a search for luminosity just as in Breton’s poetry. Breton once said that man’s greatest curse was his opacity. A good part of Anaïs Nin’s work is this journey from opacity to light. On the way she discovers phosphorescence, which becomes a dominant motif both in the Diary and in the novels; in fact her attraction to people or the attraction of her characters to each other depends a great deal on the degree of phosphorescence that radiates from them. The albatross image in her work does not have the emblematic character of Baudelaire’s albatross. In Baudelaire’s poem the albatross represented the mighty poet, clumsy in ordinary life activities as he is brought down to earth, just as the mariners bring the mighty albatross down to their deck; Anaïs Nin is attracted to the albatross because it has a phosphorescent glow. She explains it beautifully in the fourth volume of the Diary in connection with her lack of rapport with Edmund Wilson:
Wilson, if he ever tastes of me, will be eating a substance not good for him, some phosphorescent matter which illuminates the soul and does not answer to lust Impossessible, for we are children of the albatross, and our luminosity is a poison!
All the way through her many encounters she searches for the children of the albatross, those humans, mostly young, who still preserve the luminous center of their essence. It is the sign of their inner dream: each one threw upon the spotlight of his inner dream, she says in the Children of the Albatross. In Ladders to Fire she describes another character as having eyes which left phosphorescent streaks.
As for the labyrinth, it occupies in Anaïs Nin’s work as important a place as in that of many of contemporary writers such as Breton, Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Octavio Paz, Luis Borges, and others. To look at some of these others first, the same mythological emblem serves many purposes. In the symbolist frame of reference it signifies refuge and barrier, conveying the feeling of being trapped. In the nonanthropocentric world of Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, it is the symbol of confusion and drifting. For Breton and for Octavio Paz it symbolizes man’s conquest of obstacles in his effort toward liberation and the liberation of the spirit.
In Anaïs Nin’s writing, the labyrinth is ambivalent and undergoes a change of function. It is representative of the human personality. At first it is constricted; it is an emblem of fear and frustration not only in terms of the human being’s passage through it, but of his fear of what he will find at the end of it. In Seduction of the Minotaur we find in the beginning that Lillian came to Golconda to flee from the labyrinth:
There were tears in Lillian’s eyes, for having made friends immediately not with a new, a beautiful, a drugging place, but with a man intent on penetrating the mysteries of the human labyrinth from which she was a fugitive. (p.19)
But as in the case of Voltaire’s Candide who visited Eldorado, she soon finds out that gold and bliss and serenity can become boring if they are a constant; at least that is the opinion of another visitor, Michael, who has stayed around Golconda for some time:
The gaiety and liveliness of Golconda hurts me, like too much light in your eyes.
Lillian takes up once more her battle with the labyrinth and at the end of the passages of darkness she is illuminated by the revelation of its true meaning. Her own image looms, suggesting in the moment of self-knowledge that indeed we have to fear only fear itself:
She had come face to face with it, the Minotaur resembled someone she knew. It was not a monster. It was a reflection upon a mirror, a masked woman, Lillian herself, the hidden masked part of herself unknown to her, who had ruled her acts. She extended her hand toward this tyrant who could no longer harm her. It lay upon the mirror of the plane’s round portholes, traveling through the clouds, a fleeting face, her own, clear and definable only when darkness came.
At the beginning of Seduction of the Minotaur the ship that we had seen earlier in a state of wreck and destruction is whole again but still in capable of movement.
This incapacity is brilliantly conveyed in the metaphor of a ship trying to move through an inappropriate medium, i.e. land. It is the image of desperate dislocation:
Lillian’s recurrent dream of a ship that could not reach the water, that sailed laboriously, pushed by her with great effort, through city streets, had determined her course toward the sea, as if she would give this ship, once and for all, its proper sea bed.
The obsessive image of the ship-dream recurs again a little later in even more gripping form:
The dream of a boat, sometimes large and sometimes small, but invariably caught in a waterless place, in a street, in the jungle, in the desert. When it was large it was in the city streets and the deck reached to the upper windows of the houses. She was in this boat and aware that it could not float unless it were pushed, so she would get down from it and seek to push it along so that it might move and the street was immense and she never accomplished her aim. Whether she pushed it along cobblestones or over asphalt, it moved very little, and no matter how much she strained she always felt she would never reach the sea. When the boat was small the pushing was less difficult; nevertheless she never reached the lake or river or the sea in which it could sail. Once the boat was stuck between rocks, another time on a mud bank.
It can be observed that whereas in earlier books the sea was a covering, a mist producing envelope, here it eventually becomes the emblem of liberation. The passage through Golconda becomes indeed a liberating experience for Lillian because finally the ship begins to move as it reaches the element through which it can function:
Today she was fully aware that the dream of pushing the boat through waterless streets was ended. In Golconda she had attained a flowing life, a flowing journey. It was not only the presence of water, but the natives’ flowing rhythm: they never became caught in the past, or stagnated while waiting for the future. Like children, they lived completely in the present.
Actually the dream-ship splits into two, the one representing the heavy, static position of the persistence of memory; the other the floating one on the route to discovery. The ship is metamorphosed into a solar barque: magnetized by sun and water, gyrating and flowing, without strain or effort.
Finally, it must be noted that the notion of liberty in Breton as in Anaïs Nin is cast on a transcendental rather than social level. In the personal lives of both Breton and Nin one can observe a total absence of elitism. There is a spirit of comradeship, fraternity, and charity not of words but of deeds. Anaïs Nin’s whole Diary is an eloquent evidence of this as were the works and conduct of Breton.
Although Breton had joined the French Communist Party in the early part of his life, for a few months, he quickly recoiled from the leveling process of the human spirit, which he observed in terms of that ideology. His notion of liberty had a personal basis. He thought that woman should assume a new role as a liberator and guardian of the free human spirit. His description of the ideal woman could well fit Anaïs Nin both in embodiment and purpose: “The crisis is so acute that I personally find no solution; the time must have come to make way for the ideas of woman, instead of those of man, whose failure is consummate today.” (Arcane 17)
If there is a unifying motif in all that Anaïs Nin has written it is precisely the theme of liberation. All exercises in search whether inward or outward are motivated by the drive toward freedom; freedom from heritage, freedom from binding memories, freedom from growth-stunting inhibitions, freedom from ill-conceived unions.
If music is the initial ally of Anaïs Nin’s writings, art replaces it little by little as the objective correlative. In Seduction of the Minotaur there is the emblem of a free and open canvas, with elements left out allowing each spectator the freedom to fill in the spaces for himself. The missing elements of the half-empty canvas were important because they were the only spaces in which human imagination could draw its own inferences, its own architecture from its private myths, its streets and personages from a private world. (p.61)
In a later volume, Collages, she talks mostly of painters: the woman artist, Renate, who has also a hobby of opening the cages of imprisoned animals, and Varda, he of the landscapes of joy who replaces the father image of the earlier works.
He was the alchemist searching only for what he could transmute into gold. It could have been a portrait of André Breton who in old age talked more and more about the philosopher’s stone and focused his activities on the search for the magnetic and unifying elements of the universe.
The landscapes of Varda create a climate far removed from that of House of Incest. It is an atmosphere permeated with light, not light of the moon but of the sun:
In his landscapes of joy, women became staminated flowers, and flowers women. They were as fragrant as if he had painted them with thyme, saffron and curry They were translucent and airy, carrying their Arabian Night’s cities like nebulous scarves around their lucite necks.
Although earlier in her work Anaïs Nin had sought the quality of phosphorescence in the young, she found the most luminosity in the older Varda. Actually, Varda becomes the archetype of the artist whose language and visions transcend those of youth and those provoked in the non-artist by hallucinatory drugs like LSD. Varda has the power contained in all the words that begin with the prefix “trans:”
What I wanted to teach you is contained in one page of the dictionary. It is all the words beginning with trans: transfigure, transport, transcend, translucent, transgression, transform, transmit, transmute, transpire, and all the trans-Siberian voyages.
The parable that follows is the implementation of the motto we had noted earlier: from the dream outward. It is the simple story of a blind man whose only knowledge of reality came to him from the descriptions that his daughter made of it. When miraculously his blindness is cured, he discovers how far removed reality was from the image that his daughter had conveyed to him, But, says Anaïs Nin, he did not die of shock. Instead he told his daughter: It is true that the world you described does not exist but as you built that image so carefully in my mind and I can still see it so vividly, we can now set about to build it just as you made me see it.
So, the eventual impact of the work of Anaïs Nin is very close to that of André Breton: the search for luminosity through the cult and realization of the dream, through the effort to preserve the phosphorescent child image of ourselves, through the expanding consciousness that love in all its forms creates, through art which is a more sensitive instrument than a seismograph, recording the artist’s passage from the mudbanks of sterile relationships to emergence into the regions of light.
If the myth of the labyrinth suggests the confusion of modern man’s mind and his progression through human contacts and contingent event, identified in Anaïs Nin’s work with the very human and vulnerable personality of the artist, the myth of the philosopher’s stone, is identified here also with the image of the artist, but an artist who has become almost transhuman: the myth of the philosopher’s stone becomes the victory over the labyrinth, the power of creation, inherent in the human context, but passively dormant in most people. The artist is she who can put the latent power into motion and transmit the power of seeing which is native but unexploited in most humans.
There is a marvelous juxtaposition possible between Seduction of the Minotaur and Collages.
Seduction presents a landscape of gold, exterior to the viewer and which becomes monotonous and inert for those who merely pass through it. In Collages the golden landscapes are produced from within, and therefore their impact is dynamic and contagious. Golconda is metaphorically speaking the divinity of nature; in Collages we are confronted with the divinity of man. In the final pages of Collages Anaïs Nin’s parable of the writer who meets the incarnation of one of his characters brings into focus the universal truth of the relationship essential between the outer world and the artist’s inner one:
We are indispensable to each other. I to your work and you to my life. Without me spending your words you may not be incited to mint new ones. I am the spendthrift and you the coiner. We cannot live completely apart. (p.161)
We can conclude by saying that there is in the work of Anaïs Nin a progression and an evolution discernible in the changing patterns of her mythological motifs. If I traced the work’s passage from the orbit of symbolism to that of surrealism, it does not mean that this is the only curb possible to draw in her multifaceted writings. As T.S. Eliot said: “You cannot value the artist alone; you must set him in contrast and comparison among the dead. I mean this as a principle of esthetic, not merely historical criticism.”
The essential quality of her writing is that it possesses, like the best creative works of our time in all the branches of the arts, that magnetic quality which provokes in each serious viewer or reader the power to partake, to relate, to become, by breaking down the barrier between the artist and his public.
The applause for Anna Balakian’s illumination of Nin’s work is long and intense. Everyone is stunned by the brilliance of Balakian’s wisdom and understanding. Anaïs herself wordlessly comes forward to embrace Anna. Truly a memorable moment.
Trew: Anna Balakian creates the most religious Sunday morning I have ever experienced. I get a feeling of great completeness from her. She enjoys an authority which she uses kindly. Deep and penetrating eyes — her mind looks directly at me with no veil.
Adele: One look at Anaïs embracing Anna and the tears streaming down Valerie’s face and I have to leave the room, unable to contain my emotions.