THE POETIC REALITY OF ANAÏS NIN
It is our final formal gathering before the afternoon’s offerings by the Weekend’s participants. Professor Balakian is going to present us with a paper on Anaïs Nin’s work with emphasis on the fiction, a paper which she prepared especially for this Weekend, and which subsequently appeared in the Anaïs Nin Reader published by Swallow Press.
Anna Balakian is professor of French and Comparative Literature at New York University. Her books include, Literary Origins of Surrealism, Surrealism: Road to the Absolute, The Symbolist Movement: A Critical Appraisal, and André Breton: Magus of Surrealism.
A colleague, Elaine Marks, professor of French Literature at the University of Massachusetts, author of books on Colette and Simone de Beauvoir, has been waiting all weekend for this moment. She and Anna Balakian, both having lived in France, speak French with one another, as well as with Anaïs.
In a private conversation with Anna Balakian she and I share impressions of France and the difficulties of raising children while following one’s passion for literature and writing. In this she has succeeded so well that she is a model for women. She despairs to see good minds go to waste. We discuss how her sister, Nona Balakian, who writes distinctive book reviews for “The New York Times”, is not given nearly as many opportunities as the men reviewers on the staff, which is a loss to readers.
ANNA BALAKIAN: This is a good time for me to tell how I came to know Anaïs Nin’s work. As you may know, I had done my Ph.D. dissertation on Surrealism and its origins and then I had gone on to teach Surrealism and written a couple of more books in the field. At one time I was teaching French poetry and we had reached the period of Surrealism — in those days you wouldn’t dare give a whole course on Surrealism, you just gave two lectures or so — and Daisy Aldan, who was in the class, came up to me and said, “Do you know Anaïs Nin’s work?”
I said, “No.”
She said that I should because there was a relationship. And the next time she came to class she brought House of Incest and Under a Glass Bell. And that’s how I got introduced to Anaïs Nin.
But the pressure of teaching kept me from reading the books until another student came along and wanted to do a dissertation on the experimental novel. She mentioned Virginia Woolf. And I said “Oh, I know of someone who is much more experimental than that – Anaïs Nin.” I thought, ‘Well, if she’s going to be looking into Nin’s work, I better know more about it myself.’ So then Nin came within the range of my professional concern and I read her more fully as my student, Sharon Spencer, did, who eventually wrote the book on the novel called Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel in which she talks at length and very intelligently about Anaïs’ books.
Then Nin’s Diaries came and of course I read them and in fact reviewed two of them. In the meanwhile I got to know her as a person and that isn’t always the happiest thing in terms of writing about a writer. In a very interesting article, Proust said that it isn’t necessarily the people who know personally a writer who have the greatest insight into that writer. And he gave as an example Stendhal’s friend, who just did not understand him. So it is a little difficult to talk about a person you know.
That’s why instead of a casual talk I put between myself and you a formal paper. I am examining Nin’s work this time from the point of view, not of the person I know, but of the text. I’m really giving you a structural analysis of her text and showing a certain evolution.
The Poetic Reality of Anaïs Nin
In terms of contemporary definitions of reality, dream, the human psyche and its communication through the mythology of signs and symbols, Anaïs Nin looms as a constellation of first magnitude. Since these elements have assumed greater priorities in the composition of the novel now than when she began to write, our receptivity to her work is more direct and propitious, than it was at the moment of the work’s genesis.
Literary criticism does not occur in a vacuum; unless it is purely impressionistic, it can best speak of the unknown in its relation to the known, which means that Anaïs Nin’s work appearing in the 1930’s and 40’s was immediately associated with the pattern of the successful novel of the lime. But in Cities of the Interior, she was challenging both the realistic and the psychological novel so ably practiced at the lime by the giants of American and European literature. To her, as she explains in the Novel of the Future, they contained a common element which equaled them: they both over-simplified the human psyche and reduced it through rational analyses — too much lucidity, she says, creates a desert.
But the desert of the European novel between the two world wars and even after that, was a fruitful one. Particularly as it developed among American writers who dominated the literary scene, it distinguished itself primarily in terms of three basic features: sociological realism, psychological rationalism, and the inception of demotic language into the literary context. On all three counts Anaïs Nin’s writing proved unrelated to it. The great books of our era have from the point of view of sociology brought into crystallization the American mores, the strata of the multifaceted realities of such groups as the social elite, the ethnic separations, urban poverty, archetypal middle class heroes, regional deviations etc. When they have delved into the psychological factors that motivate the hero or antihero they have had a distinctly and rather superficially Freudian approach. The interior monologue, the autopsychoanalysis that predominated so many novels were indeed reductive devices that resolved problems in terms of a priori value structure such as sin, guilt, frustration, obsession, complex, elements suggesting the impoverishing or deteriorating qualities of the human personality. The built-in and recognized notion of reality presupposed a structure of norms; conflicts of the fictional reality were unfurled in terms of these so-called normal values, the notion of the tragic or the absurd resolution of the conflicts was dependent on the ingrained, collective determination of what is normal and what is abnormal, what is true and untrue, what is fidelity and adultery, what is innocence, and what is evil. The fictional archetypes either disintegrated in the process of confrontation with the code or they transcended it; but even rebellion was defined in terms of the concerted notion of conformity. Nothing is abnormal unless you first propose the dimensions of the nor. mat; nothing is irrational unless you have consensus as to what is rational, nothing is unreal unless you agree on the tenets of the real. In a few moments we shall see how these significantly related to the life and work of Anaïs Nin.
The armor with which American realism covered itself was the development of a demotic language. Previously, even in realistic literature when all else was a transcription of vital statistics, the use of language created a distinct separation between journalistic communication and the language of literary lest. Gradually the literary uniqueness of language disappeared and the gap between oral and written language closed, making this transfer one of the most characteristic features of our current literary form.
In the midst of this current toward absorbing the fictional world of the literary artists into the mainstream of phenomenal experience, literature in America gradually lost its ontological character: it was no longer a reality in itself but the written, documentary commentary of events.
Relating the work of Anaïs Nin to this literary orientation is like relating the plays of Yeats to the London stage of his lime. If Yeats did not document the mores of his lime, that was simply not the intention of his work. His was a poetic and universal reality. So is Anaïs Nin’s. She does observe the mores and the places of their framework, but her observation is gauged on a level where lime and region are not determinants of judgment and truth. Her work contains none of the dimensions of that reality defined by her generation of novelists: it reveals no group dynamics because Anaïs Nin’s world is peopled by individuals; it contains no linear psychological consistency because in the revelations of human personality there are enigmas and half opened windows on their mysteries but no generalizations to guide us. If the rest of the world measured, mathematically speaking, according to base ten, her computations of reality had an entirely different base. She arrives at reality through inductive observation and experience of life; she projects the human psyche not through reductive, analytical procedures, but through a series of revelations, showing not deviations from a norm, but a fluidity of progression from one form to another. Her work has no trace of demonic speech. The language she uses belongs to no school or time or place, but it builds up its own code; words have their special meanings, and symbols which are culled from the common body of mythology take on particular significances in the code of her reality.
The first problem that comes up in discussing her work is the relationship of the diary to the creative writing. In the case of a diarist such as André Gide, the procedure is easy. The memoirs record facts, give outright confessions, which the critic studies to determine the creative transformation of materials into fictional reality. Knowledge of Gide in the journals furnishes clarity of comprehension of the man, and leads to the kind of method recommended by the 191h century patron of critics, Sainte-Beuve: to understand the work through the study of the man, for the relation of the work to the man is as the fruit to the tree. Following this precept it would indeed be nice and easy to suggest that Anaïs Nin is a fountain-head of sensibilities and perceptions overflowing into two parallel streams: one the diary, the other the continuous novel. It would be so convenient to propose that one stream represents reality, the other fiction. But the psyche of Anaïs Nin does not project into written language in such a convenient manner. The diary has creative perspective, the creative writing is drenched in lived experience. In fact, the diary and the creative work are like two communicating vessels, and the division is an imaginary one; they feed each other constantly, the diary feeds the imagination with encounter and experience, the creative process invades the diary with its iridescence, transforming the perceptions of the author in regard to her sensory data and emotional reactions to events. Moreover, at times one has the feeling that the diary has literary structure as much and even more than the novel; if it reflects a life, it reveals, at least in the parts that have been published, chosen moments, chosen events, highlights rather than composites of personalities; the climate that the author breathes in the diary and that her characters breathe in the loose fitting pattern of the novels derive from the same perspective.
To grasp Anaïs Nin’s notion of reality, therefore, I feel that it should be viewed as a composite of the two forms through which the author chose to express herself; and most important, it has to be considered in its evolutionary character, just as we discover that her characters don’t reveal their truth in one portrait sitting, but as their picture is taken in successive stages as they travel from One City of the Interior to the Next.
If the work of Anaïs Nin is not compatible with the general guidelines of the novel, it is much more intimately related to two currents in European poetry and contains within its progression the special conflict of philosophy and style that occurred in the passage from Symbolism to Surrealism. Although Anaïs Nin chose to express herself Through the forms of the diary and the novel, the quality of her communication and the pitch of her literary voice were much more in harmony with the poetic evolution of European poetry than with the American novel.
Certainly the heritage conveyed to her by her musician father was a symbolist one, that of the later symbolists of the turn of the century: Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Valery, T.S. Eliot, Debussy and Fauré in music, and in Impressionistic painting. Her early work is penetrated by many of the elements of a “Fin de siecle” philosophy and its delicacy of communication through suggestion rather than outright description. The large influence of music on human sensibilities, the rarefaction of the concrete, physical attributes of the exterior world, a language vague and evocative, emulating the non-conceptual communication which we generally associate with musical expression are pronounced characteristics of her writing.
The symbolist psyche was one of self-containment, introverted self-contemplation, preoccupation with inscapes; the symbolist eye sucked the material substance of the surrounding and turned it into idealized, formless, fluid images all bearing the imprint of the writer’s own psyche. The language of the symbolist was a purification of all functional connotations; it created, as Mallarmé stated, the flower that is absent from all bouquets, i.e. the flower as essence.
As one reads Anaïs Nin’s early writings which, as she says, contain the seed of all my work, such as the pieces that constitute House of Incest, Under A Glass Bell, and parts of Winter of Artifice, the birth of the symbols that will eventually run throughout her work have their initial appearances: the glass, the mirror, the water imagery are images of the envelope. They cover, protect, separate, imprison.
The mirror is misty: vision like human breath blinding a mirror, she says. The atmosphere is pervaded with smoke, and low ceilings threaten us. At one point one is reminded of Baudelaire’s imagery from Spleen et Ideal, when Anaïs Nin conveys the obsessive image of oppression in terms of a vast lead roof which covers the world like the lid of a soup pan. There is greyness in the air, and narrow horizons obstruct the heroine’s vistas. She is at war with sun and light, her smile is closed, her abodes remind one of Mallarmé’s Herodiade: she inhabits cellars and belfries, she is as a princess in Byzantium — the mythological concept of Byzantium as a place of beauty and impending downfall, with which the symbolists identified their locus. The famous labyrinth symbol that will run through the entire work of Anaïs Nin is at first not a channel of liberation but the movement of non-voyage into constricted places, the refuge places where dream protects the sensitive creature from reality. To destroy reality. I will help you: it is I who will invent lies for you and with them we will traverse the world. But behind our lies I am dropping Ariadne’s golden thread, for the greatest of all jobs is to be able to retrace one’s lies, to return to the source and sleep one night a year washed of all superstructures.