Book Tastings: Stars in My Sky

Jeanne in the published work is Alraune II, the idealist. In House of Incest she is thus introduced:

Dilated eyes, noble-raced profile, willful mouth. Jeanne, all in fur, with fur eyelashes, walking with head carried high, nose to the wind, eyes on the stars, walking imperiously, dragging her crippled leg. Her eyes higher than the human level, her leg limping behind the tall body, inert, like the chained ball of a prisoner.

Jeanne is dead from the neck down.

Her face on its stemlessness was thrust away from possessing a body. The face, thrust away from the earth tautly with a breaking of the nerves on her neck. Ascension! Ascension! The dream! Thirst! The dilated eyes of intoxication with the firmament. Her hands knotted and tortured like the sinews of ancient trees, at the mockery of possessing a body. She shrieked when she was touched. She shrieked at night. The eyes of the virgin who was never fecundated, the eyes of Beatrice, the heroines of English sonnets, the eyes of Shelley, the eyes of Melisande, of clouds.

House of Incest should be seen as the narrator’s quest for an acceptable way to live among human beings and perceive all the realities and still maintain an integrated self. Nin explained her intent much later in Novel of the Future.

Projection and identification are living ways of experiencing the life of another…I saw in June some freedom of action which I wanted to have and, as a young woman, could only achieve by identifying with it. In House of Incest the poetic image of two aspects of woman was pursued and became the two faces, the night and day faces, of woman, one all instinct, impulse, desire, impetus without control, the other who had sought control by awareness. The only danger, of course, is that one strong personality can submerge the other; one can feel the loss of himself in the other (as frequently happens in love), but there is no life without danger, and the other danger, the danger of alienation (and through alienation, non-love, or hatred, or destructiveness, dehumanization), I consider far greater…In the case of proximity where the danger of losing one’s self occurs, the psychological drama becomes one of disentangling the confusions.

The point of this relentless, desperate quest Nin also explained in Novel of the Future, You cannot relate to others if you have no self to begin with. In order to respond, to excite, to participate, to love or serve or create or invent, there has to be a self to generate such emotions. To continue with the adventure of the self, the narrator is inexorably drawn to Sabina. In the Diary June Miller gives Anaïs her bracelet as a symbol of their friendship. As the friendship progresses, however, June’s instinctual behavior goes too far and becomes degrading. When she is drunk, she vomits and leaves Anaïs to clean up the mess. Her lies wreak havoc. She is endlessly at war with herself and others. Nin sees that she has hidden herself so long she no longer knows who she is. In Nin’s early draft of House of Incest, Alraune I exchanges bracelets with her to indicate their being lost in each other; they are each other’s prisoners. Nin wrote, I bruised myself against her madness. And in the published House of Incest the steel jewelry is transformed into a vivid metaphor for the hardness of her madness.

The steel necklace on her throat flashed like summer lightning and the sound of the steel was like the clashing of swords…Le pas d’acier…The steel of New York’s skeleton buried in granite, buried standing up. Le pas d’acier…notes hammered on the steel-stringed guitars of the gypsies, on the steel arms of chairs dulled with her breath; steel mail curtains falling like the flail of hail, steel bars and steel barrage cracking. Her necklace thrown around the world’s neck, unmeltable. She carried it like a trophy wrung of groaning machinery, to match the inhuman rhythm of her march.

Another example of the way Nin transposes the daily reality of the Diary to vivid emotional metaphor is the instance in the Diary when Anaïs walks with June along a leaf strewn path, while June weeps over the end of love. In House of Incest this becomes

the leaf fall of her words, the stained glass hues of her moods, the rust of her voice, the smoke in her mouth, her breath on my vision like human breath blinding a mirror…One woman within another eternally, in a far-reaching procession, shattering my mind into fragments, into quarter tones which no orchestral baton can ever make whole again.

This process of transmutation of the ordinary universalizes the humans caught in conflict. Nin’s skills with language contribute to the process: e.g., Watching my sybaritic walk, and I the sibilance of her tongue. Sabina has an ancient stare, a voice that traversed the centuries. Their union is created by timeless words. She was an idol in Byzance, an idol dancing with legs parted; and I wrote with pollen and honey. The soft secret yielding of woman I carved into men’s brains with copper words; her image I tattooed in their eyes. Through deep examination Nin learned the secrets of the individual and as artist rendered them, giving existence an epic quality. To tattoo an image in their eyes is the artist’s way of instilling truth in people through the psyche. In House of Incest the isolation and alienation of the neurotic caught in the web of dreams are revealed in the persistence of nightmarish images The record was scratched, the crooning broken. The pieces cut our feet. The narrator urges Sabina to become her.

Silence the sensational course of your body and you will see in me, intact, your own fears, your own pities. You will see love which was excluded from the passions given you, and I will see the passions excluded from love…Cease for a moment your violent deviations…I will take them up.

The narrator becomes the other face of you. In an unpublished note Nin described it more fully:

For an hour you were me, that is the other half of yourself. What you broke, burnt, and tore is still in my hands. I am the keeper of fragile things and I have kept of you what is indissoluble.

But the identification proves to be wrong.

I am still with the obstinacy of images, reflections in cracked mirrors…I see two women in me freakishly bound together, like circus twins. I see them tearing away from each other…The loved one’s whitest flesh is what the broken glass will cut and the wheel crush. The long howls in the night are howls of death.

She feels the insanity produced by the inner tendencies pulling apart like roots tearing at each other to grow separately, and the constant straining to achieve unity. Sabina or Alraune I, if followed, leads the self into mad whoredom. Her way is degraded. She represents incest in that the women love themselves in each other. Jeanne or Alraune II leads the self into sterile, lifeless unreality. She represents incest in her self-defeated love for her brother, or love based on an ideal impossible to realize. She longs to find someone like herself but has enormous fears of doing so for then her realm of solitude, where she reigns supreme, would end.The images of terror and desire swell in magnitude. The tone is feverish. The narrator (Alraune III) pursues and examines every gesture, word, feeling for meaning. She compares herself to fish, swimming in the labyrinthian waters. The fish swimming upstream and downstream is the Piscean symbol, Nin’s astrological sign. She identifies with the light, facile, effortless movement of the fish, as well as the duality of its Piscean voyages between the world of miserable degradation and ideals, between painful crashes and soaring ascension. She writes of the duality, the swimming backward and forward, There is a fissure in my vision and madness will always rush through. It is this which she seeks to close.

In psychological terms the central character has not found the way to balance herself between these polarities. In addition, she feels a distance between the crowd, between the others and me. Distance creates solitude. I cannot be certain of any event or place, only of my solitude. She yearns for an honest relationship but she cannot tell the truth to people, because it destroys them. She is wrapped in lies which do not penetrate my soul. The moment I step into the cavern of my lies I drop into darkness. She yearns for a place where light had a sound and sunlight was an orchestra. Light in House of Incest is reality, compared to the darkness of insanity which is feared.

But first the narrator must go all the way into the House of Incest with Jeanne. It is the only house which was not included in the twelve houses of the zodiac. This grim house is the psyche of the depressed neurotic where self-love exists in many forms. The rooms of the house are chained together by steps; visitors talk to one another through dark windows without seeing each other’s faces, just as the neurotic cannot see another, only himself. The rooms are filled with the rhythmic heaving of the sea. Here is the neurotic’s longed for hidden womb, where the fish are immobile, glued to painted backgrounds. Everything stands still in the House of Incest because they feared that movement would cause love to flow away from them. Only the cold absence of pain exists in the frightening climate of neurosis. Fear of change locks the individual into this place of hibernation, solitude and distance from others.

She (Alraune III, I) sees examples of incestuous love. There is a painting of Lot with his hand upon his daughter’s breast, showing joy and fear racking her body. The same feelings are seen between brother and sister, mother and son. She leaves Jeanne and walks into my own book, seeking peace…As I move within my book I am cut by pointed glass and broken bottles in which there is still the odor of sperm and perfume…More pages added to the book but pages like a prisoner’s walking back and forth over the space allotted to him. Tortured by fear of madness and immobility she tries to unify the fragments of her self through writing, the art of forging a whole in creation. Still, there are no signs of rebirth, despite her efforts. As artist I imagine that I created myself, and that it was I who tore myself out of earth and water, broke all shells, and looked with chameleon eyes upon the changing face of the world, looked with anonymous vision upon my completed self. As artist, with the ability to create herself, she hoped to find the key to salvation.

But then she walked out of my book into the paralytic’s room. The paralytic sits before a notebook of blank pages, saying I want to tell the whole truth, but I cannot tell the whole truth because then I would have to write four pages at once, like four long columns simultaneously, four pages to the present one, and so I do not write at all. He represents the indecisiveness of the intellectual analyzing world issues. Next, Sabina, Jeanne and I meet the modern Christ, who is crucified by his own nerves, for all our neurotic sins! He is based on the figure of Artaud as Nin perceived and identified with him. He possesses the language of nerves. The modern Christ, like Artaud, says he was born without a skin. He personifies the person aware of everything so acutely that the agony is unbearable and others isolate him from society, as for example in a mental institution. The modern Christ wants to help the three women. But, Nin writes, none of us could bear to pass through the tunnel which led from the house into the world on the other side of the walls…where there was daylight and joy. They feared to approach reality, the light of day; they could not believe freedom was there.

In the earlier drafts of House of Incest the role of astrologer took the place of the paralytic and the modern Christ. The astrologer, familiar as he is with the houses of the zodiac, ancient metaphor for the potentialities of people, is a kind of god-the-father figure. He created the three women, and it is as if the women are confronting their maker. He also is endowed by Nin with the characteristics of the alchemist and the psyche-analyst who presumes to understand everything. (Dr. Allendy, Nin’s psychoanalyst, incidentally as the Diary shows, was an astrologer and wrote about alchemy.) In Nin’s early draft this doctor is beseeched to close the fissure in her vision. He dispenses compassion and clairvoyance. She writes: He leaned over my madness and I stood up without crutches. He cures her of lies, the need for them. The three Alraunes seduce him. The astrologer’s coat of armor breaks and falls. He is revealed to have no sexual powers. And the narrator is left feeling that in man – man as father, lover, doctor, teacher-she has no guide. She has only guilt for having smashed his armor (broken his mask of theories and ideologies) and exposed the absence of his presumed potency. It is a powerful scene and in some ways stronger than the later version .

In the Diary Anaïs Nin showed how men had failed her. In the portrait of Dr. Otto Rank, she wrote: This is my fourth attempt at a truthful relationship; it failed with Henry because there is so much he did not understand; it failed with my father because he wants a world of illusion; it failed with Allendy because he lost his objectivity. Furthermore, she was convinced that man-made knowledge and religious theories created guilts and distanced people from true awareness. In the final version of House of Incest the central character sees the uselessness of the paralytic, representing the controlled intellectual man, and the modern Christ, who in his extreme hypersensitivity is unable to communicate with most people. Somehow she will have to find her own way, not dependent on man. By now the reader recognizes the centrality of this issue in Nin’s work. The conclusion of House of Incest resolves this in a large vision.

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