Book Tastings: Stars in My Sky

Besides leaving life in a Paris suburb for a vagabond world of artists, Nin was entranced by Henry Miller’s wife, June. June was the fiery, beautiful, self-defined woman that Nin wanted fervently to be like at this time. This relationship is described in Volume I of the Diary. Nin’s fascination with the personality of June leads her to explore this woman’s nature artistically in the character of Sabina in House of Incest. Nin began writing drafts for House of Incest at this time. Into it, Nin put her ideas distilled from contemplating her life in her journals. She observed that because she lived life so intensely, she found herself in an abyss, a void, in which she must write books to get out. She would be urged to create her own questions, her own world, her own characters-her own fulfillment. Because she could not bear the void, she would create a vast edifice.House of Incest is the last work of Nin to be considered in this study of Nin’s early writing. It is especially interesting because the early drafts, contained in the collection at Northwestern University, include excised passages, and unpublished treatments that enlarge the meaning of this difficult, abstract work. Because House of Incest is a published work, the early drafts can be compared with the final form. The work is generally called a prose poem, because it is written in prose form but with narration more akin to poetry. But who really can tell where prose ends and poetry begins? Nin and poets gather at the same river.

From the outset this book, House of Incest, is structurally and emotionally different from all previous work. It is composed in seven psychologically sequential sections. It is narrated in the first person in terse, concentrated lines, making feverish paragraphs. Isolated lines in capital letters appear like warnings from the deep. Each individual presented reaches archetypal dimensions. It is as though all the early influences and practice have prepared Nin for producing this particular work. Nin’s voice comes through, painfully direct, alarmingly fragile, yet extremely durable. It is as though the writer is in labor, giving birth to herself. A line emblazons the opening page; it could be the mantra for all of Nin’s writing. ALL THAT I KNOW IS CONTAINED IN THIS BOOK WRITTEN WITHOUT WITNESS, AN EDIFICE WITHOUT DIMENSIONS, A CITY HANGING IN THE SKY.

In a note written while working on this book Nin wrote:

I am guessing at something so fantastic that I write like a medium. Voila le diable! A superstitious terror of life’s madnesses and incongruities. The writer’s divinatory power which surpasses her own intelligence…And to walk into chaos with a passion for crystallization does not imply to dispel the chaos. It means to discover more and more chaos, to descend further, to discover one cave underneath another, to become aware of the impossibility to seize.

The more she wrote the more she discovered unquenchable desire. Following the images of the unconscious for her was a voyage that would open new pathways to life that fear had so far cut off. She desired easy flow between conscious acts and unconscious forces, harmony between the dark and light sides of the soul.Like many others, including Henry Miller, I didn’t understand House of Incest the first time I read it. Reading the words took me into such strange territory that I feared the lack of stability. Later, from reading the early versions of House of Incest, and getting a sense of how it developed, I came to appreciate it more and more. Reading it requires the maturity of experiencing confrontations of the self. I believe that with this book Nin reached the peak of her ability thus far. She proved herself capable to embark alone on a voyage into hell, like the mythical hero who must undergo terrible challenges in order to come back and save the people. She returns, battered, bruised, burned, but having learned the way of wholeness, healing, of centering the ever-gyrating soul.

House of Incest begins with a terrible beauty:

The morning I got up to begin this book I coughed. Something was coming out of my throat: it was strangling me. I broke the thread which hew it and yanked it out. I went back to bed and said: I have just spat out my heart. There is an instrument called the quena made of human bones. It owes its origin to the worship of an Indian for his mistress. When she died he made a flute out of her bones. The quena has a more penetrating, more haunting sound than the ordinary flute.

Those who write know the process. I thought of it as I was spitting out my heart.

Only I do not wait for my love to die.

Thus the reader, by means of opening myth, symbol, and tonality, enters a world of pain, where reason has failed and confusing images abound; it is a world of chaos and nightmare and hopelessness. As the book opens, the reader is taken to a state of unknowing preconsciousness…or, the geological depth of the psyche. Rather than an escape hatch, this is an inner place before the formation of ego, where the source of self can be hunted down. Using a pre-birth imagery the unpublished early version explains:

There was an Atlantide country sunk under the sea, a race of men and women born under water, whose first vision of earth and people was water stained and veiled. This race of men and women spread later over the earth, with water heaved eyes. Their eyes were the color of water. There was to them, at night, a kind of sulphurous transparency, and it always seemed as if their bodies floated, as if the flesh and bones were not brittle but made of rubber. They swayed on their feet, the feet as light and boneless as the feet of dancers. They stood on boneless toes, listening for ever distant sounds. The bells of the Atlantide, with their faint, water covered tones, which they feared not to hear in the zinc-voiced earth city, among zinc-voiced men. They were always listening for certain sounds, and searching for certain colors. When you put them in a water green room, where there were plants, or perhaps gold fishes, or cactus, or perhaps many water filled bottles, they stood at the threshold like a man troubled with a memory and then they swam into the room. They walked with a swimming stride. They seemed to cut through the air with a wide slicing of fins, they seemed to sense a direction which took no account of walls.

In the published edition the opening passage refers to the uncompleted self which is the basic thread to be followed in this work.

My first vision of earth was water veiled. I am of the race of men and women who see all things through this curtain of sea, and my eyes are the color of water. I looked with chameleon eyes upon the changing face of the world, looked with anonymous vision upon my uncompleted self.

I remember my first birth in water.

By the time we have read the first three pages of this book, we are aware of a new element in Nin’s writing, the ability to create metaphors for complex inner realms. The reader has been carried off to the sea of primeval origins, beyond mere fantasy. Here exist effortless communication, natural movement of the body, joy, a place where the fury of war could never reach. It is also without systems of thought and political organizations. No rigidities, no laws, only flow in the here and now. In early notes she wrote, The pattern was more harmonious, when we did not know it. This remark suggests the similarity between Eastern philosophy and her psychological insight.From House of Incest: This Atlantide could be found again only at night, by the route of the dream. Through the dream state the author recovers the psychological environment before the pressures of socialization took over. And also through dream imagery she tries to understand her birth and the woman she is becoming. She allows herself to be penetrated by the unknown, to let the images flow from her without relinquishing her power as author to select. C.G. Jung’s line, Proceed from the dream outward, was important to Anaïs Nin. Dreams are the bricks with which this invisible house of incest is built. At one point Nin considered calling this work so full of dreams, Thousand and One Nights in Montparnasse.

The first section of House of Incest ends with I awoke at dawn, thrown up on a rock, the skeleton of a ship choked in its own sails. The earlier draft reads: I woke in the morning and felt with my hand the inflexibility of reality, its ponderousness. The dissolution and the luxury, the lavishness and dewiness of the dream thrown up at dawn on a rock like the skeleton of a ship choked on its own sails. The earlier lines, though not as poetic, clarify the meaning of the powerful image of the shipwreck. The narrator is confused, for the present immobilized, by inner storms.

The second section begins with an image to introduce Sabina, Sabina’s face was suspended in the darkness of the garden. From the eyes a simoom wind shrivelled the leaves and turned the earth over; all things which had run a vertical course now turned in circles, round the face, around HER face. Upon her is focused the narrator’s energy; she is endowed with mythical and supernatural powers.

All persons, encountered by the central character, I of House of Incest, can be seen as representative of psychological states of being in relationships. In the fourth section another woman named Jeanne will be introduced. To begin to understand Jeanne and Sabina it is helpful to know Nin’s plan as revealed in the unpublished drafts of this work. When this work was first composed there were three characters named Alraune–Alraune I, II and III. Alraune comes from a legend upon which Dr. Otto Rank has commented in a preface he wrote to House of Incest. It begins:

The humanized version of this hero-motif is the belief that the sterile woman can become pregnant and have children by eating some such ‘magical food-stuff which in tradition gave birth to the hero…In medieval times we encounter a strangely elaborated legend around the Mandragora plant the root of which was supposed to look like a tiny human being-almost like an embryo-and to utter baby-like shrieks when it was pulled out from the earth which was done under particular conditions on account of its magical qualities.’

As the product of a hanged man’s semen transplanted into a whore’s uterus, Alraune is the symbol of the bad woman as conceived by bewitched man who felt threatened by sexual destruction. She is birth through inhuman hate, by separation, where the man does not exist as a father. His semen is instrumental and the woman becomes the symbol of crude sexuality.Alraune was seen as a woman conceived in the poisonous womb of a whore from the seed of a man who was hung. In Nin’s notes she compared Alraune to the mandrake with fleshly roots, bearing a solitary flower in a purple bell-shaped corolla. Narcotic flesh. A stemless plant with thick roots and a pale purple flower that shrieks when it is touched. Then she created three aspects of woman which are variations on the theme of sexual union between man and woman. Alraune I is earth-sensuality because she is conceived in a moment of bliss between a couple. Alraune II is stillborn, because the man, in conceiving her, became aware that he was dead and destroyed his joy. Being dead, Alraune II has only a face and no body. She pulls away from the earth, thirsting after idealism. Alraune III contains both I and 11. She is the artist who creates herself by uniting both earthly sensuality and the force of idealism. She is the only one conceived artificially (by artifice, art). She is given just a short space to live — in her books.

The narrator of House of Incest is Alraune III, the artist who unites the two forces pulling in opposite directions represented by Alraune I and II. The artist also is the only one capable of articulating completely the inner drama of the other women. The artist is compelled to express the drama because she is emotionally identified with both women. In that sense they are aspects of her self. The emphasis of the book is on the central character’s integration of the battling forces. Alraune I is named Sabina in the published book. Nin’s images in portraying Sabina reveal the power of this woman:

Born with gold-red jungle eyes, eyes always burning, glowing, as from a cavern, from holes in the earth, from behind trees…snake, lizard, lizard basking with solitary motionless eyes all fire and gold, snake cold and slippery, coiling on its alert tongue of fire. Gold-red jungle eyes hissing fire. The last film of fire like the transparent curtain of death, the glaze of the idol that worships itself. Born with a friable smile layer after layer that converged pyramidally into a human web. The mineral, prismatic, metamorphic texture of it. A Lapidary smile that congealed the warm blood into stone, into precious gems that cut the flesh. The slow lapidescence of countless experiences, producing the human geology of the whore’s gem-like smile, the liquid, blood-red light of sard behind which the flesh crumbles away, revealing the sepultures of love.

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