Anaïs Nin Nin, Anaïs (Vol. 14) - Essay

Henry Miller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As I write these lines Anaïs Nin has begun the fiftieth volume of her diary, the record of a twenty-year struggle towards self-realization. Still a young woman, she has produced on the side, in the midst of an intensely active life, a monumental confession which when given to the world will take its place beside the revelations of St. Augustine, Petronius, Abelard, Rousseau, Proust, and others….

The diary is full of voyages; in fact, like life itself it might be regarded as nothing but voyage. The epic quality of it, however, is eclipsed by the metaphysical. The diary is not a journey towards the heart of darkness, in the stern Conradian sense of destiny, not a voyage au bout de la nuit, as with Céline, nor even a voyage to the moon in the psychological sense of escape. It is much more like a mythological voyage towards the source and fountain head of life—I might say an astrologic voyage of metamorphosis. (p. 33)

This diary is written absolutely without malice. The psychologist may remark of this that the pain inflicted upon her by the loss of her father was so great as to render her incapable of causing pain to others. In a sense this is true, but it is a limited view of the matter. My own feeling is rather that we have in this diary the direct, naked thrust which is of the essence of the great tragic dramas of the Greeks. Racine, Corneille, Molière may indulge in malice—not the Greek dramatists. The difference lies in the attitude towards Fate. The warfare is not with men, but with the gods. Similarly, in the case of Anaïs Nin's journal: the war is with herself, with God as the sole witness. The diary was written not for the eyes of others, but for the eye of God. She has no malice any more than she has the desire to cheat or to lie. To lie in a diary is the height of absurdity…. Though the way is tortuous the direction is always the same, always inward, further inward, towards the heart of the self. Every encounter is a preparation for the final encounter, the confrontation with the real Self. To indulge in malice would be to swerve from the ordained path, to waste a precious moment in the pursuit of her ideal. She moves onward inexorably, as the gods move in the Greek dramas, on towards the realization of her destiny.

There is a very significant fact attached to the origin of this diary, and that is that it was begun in artistic fashion. By that I do not mean that it was done with the skill of an artist, with the conscious use of a technique; no, but it was begun as something to be read by some one else, as something to influence some one else. In that sense as an artist…. [The] diary is a silent communion with the father who has deserted her,… a gift of love which she hopes will re-unite them…. [The] father and child are kept apart for many years. In the legends which treat of this theme it happens, as in this case, that the meeting takes place when the daughter has come of age.

And so, in the very beginning of her diary, the child behaves precisely like the artist who, through the medium of his expression, sets about to conquer the world which has denied him. Thinking originally to woo and enchant the father by the testimony of her grief, thwarted in all her attempts to recover him, she begins little by little to regard the separation as a punishment for her own inadequacy. The difference which had marked her out as a child, and which had already brought down upon her the father's ire, becomes more accentuated. The diary becomes the confession of her inability to make herself worthy of this lost father who has become for her the very paragon of perfection.

In the very earliest pages of the diary this conflict between the old, inadequate self which was attached to the father and the budding, unknown self which she was creating manifests itself. It is a struggle between the real and the ideal…. (pp. 37-9)

Throughout the diary the amazing thing is [her] intuitive awareness of the symbolic nature of her role. It is this which illuminates the most trivial...

(The entire section is 1684 words.)

Sharon Spencer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a particular sense in which Anaïs Nin's art is related to the Surrealist ideal of magical creation through combinations of entities drawn from different categories. But her work is not itself Surreal, and it is easier to understand the application of the collage idea in terms of a broad definition. Collage includes all works in which components belonging to separate intellectual or perceptual categories are combined, regardless of the nature of the materials or the techniques used to combine them…. (p. 5)

The degree of displacement in Anaïs Nin's writing is relatively slight, even though there is considerable variety among her works. Her most experimental book, the one in which displacements are the greatest, is Collages itself. The early books. House of Incest and the pieces collected in Under a Glass Bell, display juxtaposition less in a structural sense than in stylistic combinations. Nin's diction is based on collage; she chooses words from a wide variety of sources and is usually successful in achieving a striking yet authentic image, phrase, or descriptive passage. A lover of words as words, Nin uses them if they appeal to her, regardless of standards of usage; she also draws upon far-flung vocabularies…. Guided by the unpredictable lure of free association, Nin combines into a novel the incidents that seem most strikingly to project her characters' inner lives. (pp. 5-6)

Like Anaïs Nin's fiction, her Diary is also a collage composition. The assembled elements are the bits and pieces of her life…. Selected from the mass of materials of the unpublished diary, the passages that comprise each published volume are themselves a collage composition presenting a phase in the life of their creator. (p. 6)

[Collages] is a superb example of how an inventive writer can adapt a technique from the visual arts to literature, in this case fusing a variety of apparently unrelated materials into a striking composition. A more ambitious, a deeper book than its easy surface and gentle humor suggest, Collages is composed of nineteen short blocks of prose, beginning and ending with the same passage. This circular structure contains some twenty-two characters in an abundance of quickly sketched settings…. Collages gives the impression of having been put together from Nin's writer's scrap bag, conceived from the energy of her determination to create something interesting out of her leftover characters, situations, and settings. Again, she wants to use everything. (p. 9)

Collage art, like all art, works magic transformations. In this book Anaïs Nin repeatedly shows fantasy and dream enriching life, providing the loves that a narrow "reality" denies, dissolving the boundaries between the natural and the perverse, the impossible and the marvelous, comforting and reassuring the lonely and the isolated…. In Collages imagination is sovereign. (p. 10)

The concept of the self is very important in any exploration of Nin's writings, and it is difficult to isolate a single definition of "self," notwithstanding the many references to it. Nin does not seem to be concerned with the self as essence. Instead, she writes about the self in motion, in relationships with others, learning, searching, suffering, recovering, gathering still more experience. In short, Nin writes about the self as a process, almost as an urge toward the discovery and completion of itself. Gradually, though, it seems that Nin has come close to adopting a basically Jungian idea of the self…. It is particularly important to distinguish between the self and the persona, the mask or socialized dimension of a human being. (p. 12)

In dramatizing the journey of an "I" toward recognition of its self, again and again Nin chooses to explore the complexity of relationships or the impact of two selves on each other. She uses the terms "fusion" and "merging" to describe intense personal relationships. (p. 13)

The discovery of self becomes possible [for Nin] in the process of living relationships, of constant interaction between the individual and phenomena, the individual and other people. (p. 14)

House of Incest portrays the psychic torment of a woman who can experience love but not her physical nature. She cannot express sensuality or sexuality. The language of Nin's book evokes an oppressive atmosphere of erotic tantalization and paralysis; impossible pleasures beckon from every direction. The unnamed "I" is the center of the design. (p. 15)

Like the "I" of House of Incest, the young woman at the center of "Winter of Artifice" seeks to expand her identity through an act of psychic fusion. The novella is a collage of relatively homogeneous elements that are held into design by the consciousness of the dominant—again unnamed—central personage. Again, too, a psychic adventure with fusion has a strong individual tone which gives the book its appropriate metaphors and rhythms. Projecting the love of daughter and father, Nin in "Winter of Artifice" evokes and interprets the ambivalence of fusion that she described in her book on Lawrence, defending this ambivalence as an essential factor in all relationships of deep involvement.

Again the reader is shown that fusion, though necessary to the ego of the developing self, poses serious risks to identity. (pp. 15-16)

The quest that is traced again and again in Nin's writings actually involves a very radical concept: the abandonment of the idea of the self as a given fixed entity or essence. We create ourselves as we live, Nin explains poetically in her books and in the example of her own life that is revealed in the Diary. The idea of the self as a collage of experiences is central to Nin's psychological vision. (p. 17)

Nin has been searching for "another kind of language, the inspirational, which is the one that penetrates our unconscious directly [italics mine] and doesn't need to be analyzed or interpreted in a cerebral way. It penetrates us in the way that music does, through the senses." In denoting or pointing to objects and even to concepts, the word is more precise than the musical note or phrase, but verbal expression is more abstract, less direct in sensuous power than are the sounds, colors, forms, and rhythms of the nonverbal arts. That is why Nin, like so many other twentieth-century writers, has borrowed as widely as possible from the other arts. (p. 22)

Dispensing with plot and with the framework of conventional chronology, Nin portrays her characters again and again in a series of "shots" that depend for their power on the imagery of highly selective detail. Her language is metaphorical but never purely decorative. It is the language of lyrical poetry through which a personal attitude is compressed in a few words or phrases that express an individual sensibility. Nin does not describe. She interprets, and in the act of interpretation she re-creates her subjects over and over again, as she must do if she is to be faithful to their complexity and their growth…. Nin's writing is filled with patterns that are natural and spontaneous, having emerged from associations. The form is organic; it consists of repetitions; inversions; superimpositions; and, more and more often in Nin's later prose, of improvisatory flights in which images are often treated as are themes in jazz. Fluency, fluidity, a sense of motion, and of continuity are what Nin seeks in her writing, an orchestration of a great many elements into a composition that moves through time horizontally and vertically at the same instant, expressing emotion with a power that is impossible to attain in conventional realistic fiction. (p. 23)

[Two] of the main themes of Nin's later work [are found in Under a Glass Bell]: woman's conflicts (particularly with the role of mother) and the struggle of the artist to achieve joyous, unrestrained power of expression. The metaphors that Nin introduces in this collection appear again and again in her later work. She uses them not only to bind together her impressions in a single sketch but also to weave a unifying strand through the book. (p. 25)

The images of these early pieces appear again and again in Nin's fiction and in her Diaries: water, boats, musical instruments, mirrors, labyrinths, veils, shadows and fogs, blood, birds, voyages, dreams, births. But each image has an individual history of variations in presentation, diversity, and complexity, as Nin explores each one in a variety of moods and at various periods in her own development. (pp. 25-6)

["Winter of Artifice"] is a mature work, very sophisticated technically, in which Anaïs Nin first fully displays her talent for adapting the structure of the nonverbal arts to fiction. It is a ballet of words in which music and movement are so skillfully balanced and so subtly interwoven that, though the perceptive reader may be always aware of a musical quality as he reads, he isn't likely to be distracted by the search to identify the predominating musical medium….

Dance unites several of Nin's most important themes: the power of art, which is itself its own goal; the possibility of turning to beauty for therapy and for healing; the association of movement and pattern with the life process. It is essential not simply to move but to move to a meaningful rhythm….

Nin often imitates dance structure in alternating solos or duets with large group scenes. Parties and café ensembles occur throughout the novels of Cities of the Interior like rituals, bringing disparate elements into moments of splendid unity, moments of celebration. (p. 31)

The practice of alternating group scenes with more solitary or intimate ones gives a structure of alternating rhythms and moods. Thematically, this alternation stresses the subjective and objective worlds that Anaïs Nin constantly strives to bring together into moments of fusion…. Anaïs Nin ends each novel by reminding her characters—and readers—of new worlds. Instead of closing down with a neat, rounded-off (classical) resolution, she makes her novels open up at the end, exploding into a variety of surprising directions…. (p. 32)

When the five novels are regarded as a single composition, Cities of the Interior may be compared tn an abstract expressionist composition whose organization is dominated by huge areas of strong primary colors: yellow for Lillian who is exuberant and strong, garrulous, chaotic, passionate but inhibited; red for Sabina, a wild, dissatisfied woman who is always burning with unfulfilled desire; blue for the wise, reserved, self-controlled Djuna. These stand out against a more subtly colored background. Imagined in this way, the canvas seems to have been created by a series of improvisations. It is unfinished; it will lend itself to further elaboration, to the elimination of some elements and the addition of others, to redistribution of emphases, or even more drastic changes in the overall design. (p. 36)

In Anaïs Nin's writing perhaps no word appears so frequently in so many contexts or with so many nuances as the word "dream." Nin's vision of the dream gives continuity and profundity to her meaning as woman and artist alike. Dream provides the controlling image of unity and transformation in her fiction…. Her belief in the positive nature of the unconscious has given Nin many valuable insights. Even more importantly, it has given her processes for healing that range from the discoveries and consolations of psychoanalysis to a philosophy of creation that connects a theory of the development of the self with that of the artist. Although Nin's concept of the dream has altered slightly as she has experienced her life, it remains basically a vision of human love. (p. 44)

In particular the dream has given her a personalized approach to the creation of fictional characters, along with certain convictions about the structure and language that have by now become accepted tenets of twentieth-century thought. Her experience with psychoanalysis gave Nin personal proof of Bergson's theoretical and Proust's esthetic views of space, time and personality. Like the theory of relativity, which was made public at about the same time as Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, dreams show how time and space have meaning only when fused; they are not themselves reality but ways of orienting oneself toward it. (pp. 48-9)

The great importance placed by psychologists on the unconscious is the single most influential factor in Nin's approach to characterization…. The goal of Nin's fiction is the portrayal of her characters' hidden selves. She achieves this not with continuous linear description, but by portraying them quickly but repeatedly at certain highly selective moments. (pp. 49-50)

Nin's emphasis on states of feeling and awareness has meant that her readers miss such familiar guides in traditional characterization as family names, ages, occupations, places of residence, and similar details of surface. (p. 50)

One of the most common complaints against Nin's fiction is that her characters are "all herself." To voice this as a negative feeling is to reveal a misunderstanding of how characters in fiction are created; all are projections of some part of the author's self. It would be more to the point to criticize a novelist for drawing shallow characterizations based more nearly on observation than on empathy and emotional understanding. The women of Cities of the Interior are individuals; yet each symbolizes an aspect of woman: "Djuna, perception [it is she who bears the closest resemblance to Nin's public self]; Stella, blind suffering; Sabina, the free woman; Lillian, the one who seeks freedom in aggression." Nin's characters are perfectly individualized…. (pp. 52-3)

The position of the dream at the center of Nin's art may be wonderfully illustrated by looking at one of her most brilliant pieces, "The Voice." Here the dream is truly a vehicle of mobility. "The Voice" is a virtuoso piece that spins off from contrasting...

(The entire section is 5843 words.)

Blake Morrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For readers who find it hard to stay with Anais Nin's novels for more than several pages (no, let's be fair: for more than one page), the publication of her collected fiction isn't going to be the major event which Sharon Spencer's introduction would have us suppose. Nin herself described Cities of the Interior as 'an endless novel', and for anyone wading faithfully through 589 pages of such sub-Lawrentian wisdom as 'A breast touched for the first time is a breast never touched before' the description is going to sound all too appropriate. Still, somewhere within all the gushing are a few pleasantly erotic moments. (p. 631)

Blake Morrison, "Looking Backwards," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2486, November 10, 1978, pp. 630-31.∗

Emma Fisher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In fiction [Anais Nin] tried to do something new, and she saw it as intricately linked with the fact that she was a woman; she was anti-intellectual, relying on feeling, and she was one of those people who believe that 'It is man's separateness, his so-called objectivity, which has made him lose contact…. Woman was born to be the connecting link between man and his human self.'… She wanted also to be a great artist; what is there in her books for people who do not find psychological guidance in the Diaries, and are not converted to her beliefs about men and women?

She was fond of using music, also painting and dance, as metaphors for writing. She wanted to communicate directly, to make...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Rosalyn Drexler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anaïs Nin, better known for her diaries but better sold for her pornography ("Delta of Venus"), has left us another peep show in "Little Birds," a volume of 13 short stories that threaten to stir the erotic imagination.

In the preface to "Delta of Venus" she says that it was hunger that drove her and a number of starving writer and poet friends to collaborate on these droll tales….

Her mysterious client had specifications: his orders were to "leave out the poetry and descriptions of anything but sex. Concentrate on sex." Nin felt that it was this exclusion of poetry from his life that forced him to resort to literary aphrodisiacs….

The lubricous and sexually curious might, in time of need, find this volume of nostalgic sexware just the right thing to prod a lazy fantasy life; things are named, yet never become explicit enough to be judged obscene…. One imagines the wealthy gentleman who commissioned this charming curio to be a circumspect and discriminating connoisseur with a penchant for all sorts of erotica, one who would be shocked by today's insistence on the clinical close-up or the use of four-letter words in place of punctuation.

As I read "Little Birds" a common refrain seemed to unite the stories, that of impotence at the very moment it was inopportune to be so. Also rampant was the sadistic withholding of sexual favors, and the preference by males for females who were either virgins, statues or corpses (or acted as if they were)….

Are these perhaps attempts by Nin to help the male reader identify with her amorous heroes? The lapses of tumescence are only momentary, though, and every story in "Little Birds" becomes a sexual success story. Why not? The value of the stories lies in putting to rest feelings of fear and guilt, burying them at a great distance from the source. Once sex (in "Little Birds") is consummated, the object of desire and fantasy is allowed to disappear, never to bear witness against the main orgasmic character (or reader). This is ideal, is it not? Pleasure without repercussions? And this is what the reader will get from "Little Birds."

Rosalyn Drexler, "Peep Show Encore," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1979, p. 28.

Linda Tamkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Underneath the coarse brown cover [of Little Birds: Erotica] lies a treasure. Nin awakens the mind and senses with thirteen well-crafted tales. The settings range from a Parisian artist's studio to a moonlit beach. The combinations of lovers and settings mix the exotic with the erotic. Like a haiku poem, Nin captures with one image what other writers explore through endless words. The oriental quality is not surprising, since many of the stories draw upon material from the Kama-Sutra.

Nin was supposedly paid a dollar a page to write erotica. Yet her patron warned her to "leave out the poetry." Her glorious failure to heed his warning is evident. It is as if she wraps hardcore pornographic material in delicate gauze. The sexual gems on each page are rounded out with a luxuriance of detail. Unlike most writers of erotica, Nin's writing defies boredom….

This collection continues the tradition established by the best-seller, Delta of Venus. (p. 43)

Linda Tamkin, "Books in Review: 'Little Birds: Erotica'," in West Coast Review of Books (copyright 1979 by Rapport Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. 5, No. 4, July, 1979, pp. 43-4.