Thinking of Anais Nin: Valerie Harms

Valerie Harms

Memories of Anaïs Nin

Valerie Harms

The true meaning of my encounters with Anaïs Nin reside in my psyche. Her impact on me had to do with who I was at the time and what was needed in my development. But her impact on me is not the focus here (see 2nd part). I am asked to describe my encounters with her. You may want to hear about her and not about me. I find it difficult to tease apart the threads, following hers not mine.

My connection with Anaïs involved three main projects: a weekend conference, a program at the New School in New York City, and the publication of her early stories.

I first heard about Anaïs Nin in a women’s consciousness-raising group that met in the early 1970’s. In a meeting I had described the struggle I had with writing from my personal point of view. At that time some women writers were concerned with developing a “woman’s” sentence, which Virginia Woolf had suggested was important to do, considering that most published writing had been influenced by the masculine model. An artist said, “You should read Anaïs Nin.” Her name was unfamiliar to me. It sounded exotic, French, romantic as well as classical.

Although my friend referred me to Anaïs’ diaries, I first read her stories in Under a Glass Bell, because in order to really appreciate her, I thought I had to read her proper fiction. But it was not until after reading Vol I of the Diary that I felt impelled to write her. My idea of diaries had been based on Samuel Pepys’ chronicling of what he did and saw. Anaïs described her emotional conflicts, her struggles with art, relationships, and psychoanalysis, the three topics that obsessed me too. I was shocked- and grateful- that she revealed so much of what was on her mind. Those who later criticized her for leaving out details of her life forgot how revolutionary it was to diary literature that she included so much. But this is not the place to criticize Anaïs’ critics, because that could take pages. No, suffice it to say, that I wrote Anaïs a letter through her publisher, telling her that I would like to write about her.

Anaïs had written writers whom she admired and been rebuffed. She resolved to respond. A wise move, for making this effort built her circle, her cafe in the sky, her audience. Some, like me, were instrumental in expanding her success. She invited me to a publication party at the Gotham Book Mart for Volume IV of the Diary. It was 1972. The 84 year old Frances Steloff, the founder of the Gotham, presided. I felt privileged to be there. Anaïs, who must have been the next oldest person in the room, looked the most beautiful. She wore a long, clingy velvet gown with gold lame slippers. Her coppery hair was swept up with magenta ribbons braided through it. Composed and graceful, she signed books and spoke quietly with others.

After an exchange of letters, she invited me to visit her at Hugo’s apartment in Washington Square Village. I can’t begin to convey the excitement I felt at the sight of Anaïs’ slanted script on a letter or purple card to me or at the prospect of meeting her. On that first visit I was accompanied by my artist friend, Adele Aldridge. Anaïs opened the door, wearing a long black dress and purple suede shoes. Her face was powdered, her eyes smudged with kohl, her lips rose. She lowered the blinds, making the room dusky and intimate. She served tea with thin slices of lemon.

Adele and I plied her with questions and revelations that most troubled our hearts. She spoke intently, as if she were considering her responses freshly. She seemed more interested in being a comrade on the path of life than a sage. She liked action as well as ideas. This- and future encounters -deeply affected our lives.

As Anaïs’ reputation spread, people in Los Angeles organized a “furrawn” (talk that lead to intimacy), an event attended by hundreds of people. Sitting on the East coast, upset that I couldn’t be there, I thought of organizing an equal event near me. When I discussed it with Anaïs, she said that she would prefer a smaller gathering, because she found large crowds overwhelming. Hence, it came about that Adele and I organized a weekend celebration at Wainwright House, Rye, New York, April 28-30th for about 30 people. The program was to center on literary friends of Anaïs. In discussion with her we decided upon Anna Balakian, the professor of literature, whose work on Andre Breton and surrealism was well known, and who would present a paper that was one of the best pieces of writing about Anaïs that was ever done. After Anna presented “The Poetic Reality of Anaïs Nin” to a rapt audience, Anaïs embraced her. Another person was Frances Steloff, who had given publication parties for Anaïs at the Gotham Book Mart and also discreetly held letters for her, which helped protect Anaïs’ privacy. William Claire, the editor of Voyages, was there, also poet and publisher Daisy Aldan and sultry psychologist Beatrice Harris (who would drive Anaïs to and from the conference). Anaïs suggested that we ask Evelyn Hinz to present a critical speech. Anaïs also supplied the mailing list. Later I learned that there were people, such as Sharon Spencer, whom Anaïs had not told us about, apparently out of a wish to keep certain colleagues separate.

This stellar weekend is described and documented in the book I compiled, called Celebration with Anaïs Nin. The participants came from far and wide to an elegant mansion on the Long Island Sound and revelled in creativity. The staff of Wainwright House, accustomed to psychological and philosophical weekends of all kinds, said that they had never seen such a high-spirited group of people.

Despite the fact that she was fighting fatigue from cancer, Anaïs was always present and responsive to manuscripts and art shoved under her door at night. She had corresponded with many of the participants and struggled to recollect their lives. She’d wanted to talk privately to individuals but felt pressured to respond to all. It is amazing to think that she was just 5 years from her death.

Adele said: “Anaïs is the canvas, without which the paint cannot hold. She is quiet but it is as if she is the house, the meal, the flowers, the poetry, the garden, the cardinals, the perfume, the intimacy and the friendships. She is the living personification of a way of being that is transmitted to everyone in the room and transformed into that separate person’s essence in a real and permanent way.”

Trew Bennett, a potter, said: “Anaïs has delicate, slim fingers and lovely, smiling natural shyness, a dedication to inner beauty and expression. Her soft French accent gives a sweet richness to her, and she appears like a little girl at times. Her strength is in her vulnerability, -she has the gift of great openness and this she also inspires. I sense though that she is equally private, and that she maintains this privacy in a most artful, elusive, and womanly way.

Inspired by Anaïs’ Gemor Press, Adele and I started a publishing imprint called Magic Circle Press. One of our first books was about the weekend celebration. The book was produced with purple ink. We learned later that Hugo did not like the way the photographs looked; his response sounded a bit resentful about not being included (Anais’ decision). When the book was published, we arranged a publication party at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Steloff and Anaïs on hand. Before the party I remember Anaïs sitting and talking with a film-maker, Frances, and us in a practical, businesslike way. She often wore a watch with a wide leather band. To me this suggested her work-oriented side that was as much a part of her as the sensuous.

I had been involved for several years with Ira Progoff’s Intensive Journal program. Progoff had developed a structured journal-keeping method that had been derived from his own pschotherapy practice as well as Carl Jung’s ideas about the unconscious and active imagination and D.T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhist concepts about being at one with the movement of life in a non-analytical way. In his book, At a Journal Workshop, Progoff mentioned his appreciation of Anaïs’ use of the diary for psychoanalytical purposes. He also had written about Otto Rank. Because he and Anaïs shared some common ground, he became interested in doing a program with her. Since I knew and cared about both of them, I was enthusiastic about such an event. I thought that they would mesh harmoniously. I was naive.

The program was scheduled at the New School. Prior to the event, Ira spoke to me about wanting Anaïs to try some of his journal techniques. When I told her about that idea, she bristled (to my surprise). She said that she would certainly not do so. She had her own way and who was he to think she should serve as an example for his? She said bitingly, “We are dealing with the male ego here.” I held my tongue and wondered if there would be fireworks.

Valerie Harms

The auditorium was packed. Anaïs sat demurely facing Progoff. They spoke in a general way to each other and the audience, but neither would engage with the other. They spoke about differences. The audience directed more and more questions to Anaïs. She was the star of the moment. Ira grew agitated. Afterwards he admitted that he was quite upset by the favoritism showed her. She definitely succeeded in not capitulating to his power. I realized that she had been right, and that I bowed to male authority more than I wanted to.

While I was reading all of Anaïs’ books, as well as books she recommended, I was also reading her early writing, drafts that were archived at Northwestern University on visits to my father in Chicago. Actually I was engrossed in this pursuit because of the secrets I was uncovering about Anaïs’ marriage to Hugo and the sexual flavor of her relationship with Henry Miller. Mesmerizing were the preliminary drafts to House of Incest, and three unpublished novels, not to mention stories.

At some point it dawned on me that I could publish the stories in a special edition through my Magic Circle Press. Anaïs and I discussed the pros and cons. She did not want to see her early craftsmanship attacked by unfriendly critics; yet she was willing to be persuaded that those who were interested in her work would want a chance to read these stories as much as I had.

And so a slim book was planned. Waste of Timelessness and Other Early Stories had a magenta binding. It’s cover design was based on a piece of fabric and stitchery by an artist (Sas Colby) who also felt indebted to Anaïs. Originally I had obtained approval from Leonor Fini to reproduce an image of hers, but when I heard that Anaïs was near death, I substituted a warm picture of her in a cameo. It turned out that Anaïs died shortly after the book was ready in 1977.

Death may end a life but not a relationship. I have since encountered Anaïs in dreams as well as dialogues on paper. Anaïs often spoke about giving birth or voice to others. Despite all that I know about her inner conflicts now, I am exceedingly grateful for all that she gave me. Her capacities for sensitivity, establishing heart-to-heart contact, and nurturing creativity are among the gifts. Her emphasis on love, beauty, literature, art, and harmonizing relationships remains unmatched.

*selection from forthcoming book Recollections of Anaïs Nin by her Contemporaries, edited by Benjamin Franklin V, to be published by Ohio University Press in October 1996, $29.95 cloth edition, $14.95 paperback edition.*

In Appreciation of Anaïs

Above I have written about Anaïs’ works and our shared projects. This is the first time I’ve indicated some of the ways she influenced my life. Doing so seems especially important when Anaïs is often condemned by critics who didn’t know her, who don’t understand self-analysis, and who don’t appreciate how tremendously inspiring Anaïs was to a great many people of more than sound mind and body.

How did she affect my personal life? To begin with, my perception of diaries was totally altered. Having gone to Smith College, I received a rigorous training in critical discourse. Since diaries were considered not as polished as fiction, I first bypassed Anaïs’ Diaries and read the stories in Under a Glass Bell. Intrigued, I turned to the Diaries and was electrified. While Samuel Pepys (whom I’d read in English literature courses) recorded boring external observations, Anaïs revealed inner conflicts about herself as a woman and artist, about her relationships and struggle to get her work published. Her preoccupations were mine too. Nowhere else in literature had I found such a kindred spirit.

I felt free to unfurl my romanticism. I dressed more exotically. I experimented with turquoise kohl on my eyes. This meant risking my eyesight, as to apply it to the rims of upper and lower lids in just the right way, one just stuck a bunch of the powder in one’s eye. Blinking was supposed to produce the desired result. Since applying it hurt, I didn’t continue to use kohl. Maybe I just didn’t have the knack.

I acquired a majestic cape. An artist-friend, also inspired by Anaïs, created for me an antique velvet cape with ruffled collar and purple satin personal symbols. This I still wear on special occasions. I can’t quite wear it on ordinary street outings, as Anaïs could wear hers.

For some 25 years my stationery has been printed with magenta-purple ink, a la Anaïs.

When I first read Anaïs’ Diaries, I was married and raising two children. I thought and thought about how she managed marriage and love affairs, but I never quite turned fantasy into reality. Also, because I was married, I thought reading two books that she recommended would be too dangerous an elixir. These books were the biography of Lou Andreas Salome and The Wilder Shores of Love. As soon as I was divorced though, I consumed them. I yearned to be these independent, adventurous women, and am fulfilling that dream now.

Eroticism, sensuous atmosphere, intimacy became my primary values. Because of Anaïs, I felt encouraged to create more and more beauty around me. Anaïs had a way of establishing heart-to-heart contact, when I talked with her. I learned from this example and strived to emulate it. I can honestly say that I learned more about preserving relationship from her than anyone else. This sounds strange when her lifestyle included so many liaisons. But, I was deeply affected how Hugo still loved her during her lifetime and beyond.

Her book, Novel of the Future, has been my most underlined text on writing. Her writing from her personal life has been extremely validating. When I was in college, I was taught that writing was to be objective, concerned with themes of war and social justice. This big names were machismo men. It has taken many women- writers, scholars, and activists- to illuminate the importance of women’s concerns and observations. Anaïs passionately articulated a feminine sensibility that was both tough and vulnerable. I resonated with her use of the phrase, “proceed from the dream outward.”

Her example gave me permission to be the woman I wanted to be — as a lover, as a writer, as a sensitive, compassionate person. I dreamed of her often at times of my life, when my femaleness felt battered and forlorn.

Even though we know that Anaïs suffered psychological torments, she had the courage to act and learn from her experiences. She did not live life from a text or in isolation. She was a valued companion of many great minds of her time and many, many people are grateful to her for facilitating their rebirth in some way. I too aspire to being a creative companion of many, to freeing myself and others to experience more joy and beauty, and to further the recognition and fulfillment of women.

But I also aim to do it by being direct and forthright, by giving to and receiving from other people, not by feeling I have to fulfill their needs. While I believe Anaïs was quite independent even while serving the wishes of several, she sometimes expressed the view that women were to serve great men. I have to take care not to do that. Anaïs ended up with men who supported her. I intend to do that too.

*Reprinted by permission from Anaïs Nin: A Book of Mirrors, edited by Paul Herron, Sky Blue Books, 1996.*