House of Incest

by Anaïs Nin

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Just as it is difficult to categorize and summarize, House of Incest is not easily interpreted. Indeed, it is not clear that Anaïs Nin wished to reveal her intentions clearly. She openly resisted fellow author Henry Miller’s suggestion that she provide more clues for the reader. Perhaps she thought that analytic language could not capture poetic truths effectively, or that the absence of an authoritative interpretation would leave readers free to respond from the heart, just as her book was written from the heart. Perhaps Nin’s high regard for surrealism led her to believe that reality is too multifaceted and perspectives too diverse for a work of complexity and depth to yield itself to a single interpretation.

Nevertheless, House of Incest has been subjected to intense interpretation from a number of perspectives. One likely approach, in the light of Nin’s exhaustive diary, is to look at the work as autobiographical in nature. There is some basis for this approach. House of Incest was written at a time when Nin was engaged in a torrid and somewhat tortured love affair with both Henry Miller and his wife June, to whom Sabina bears a definite resemblance. Henry and June (1986), Nin’s account of this relationship, repeatedly comes back to the theme of incest, with Nin’s older lovers serving as father surrogates. More to the point, Nin had an incestuous relationship with her father just before House of Incest was published and is alleged to have been a childhood victim of incest at her father’s hands. The House of Incest itself bears some resemblance to the home that Nin shared with her husband in Louveciennes—it, too, seemed to have a missing room. Finally, the dreamlike qualities of the book as well as its deep psychological probing of the subconscious bring to mind Nin’s fascination with psychoanalysis at the time the book was written. Consistent with this approach is the prominence of lies and self-fragmentation (possibly the bitter fruits of incest in thought or deed) as themes in the work.

On the other hand, Nin denied any simple linear relationship between her life and fiction. Furthermore, there are many images in House of Incest that seem to defy biographical parallels. This is not to say that reading Nin’s nonfiction of the period casts no light on the novella: The nonfiction does make the book’s landscape more familiar. Yet it does not seem to explain all or even most of the book’s many mysteries. A recommended strategy for unraveling House of Incest would be to read the book on its own terms if possible before putting it into a biographical context. Certainly, the book lends itself to being reread; indeed, Nin appears to have designed the work so that multiple readings are a requirement.

Despite Nin’s persistent interest in the theme of incest, House of Incest is often interpreted as dealing primarily with narcissism, a vain self-love indicated by the conspicuous presence of mirrors throughout the text. According to this interpretation, incest in this case refers to the sterility of having a love affair with one’s self as reflected in someone similar—another woman in the case of the narrator and Sabina, one’s sibling in the case of Jeanne and her brother. The point is to escape this narcissism by truly loving another person, not one’s self through another person. This is the “daylight” toward which the dancer is moving at the novella’s conclusion. This theme hearkens back to the eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s distinction between natural and vain self-love in his critique of modernity in the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité...

(This entire section contains 738 words.)

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parmi les hommes (1755; A Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind, 1761).

No matter what theme one ascribes to House of Incest, one thing that must be noted is the incredible richness of the book’s language. Though stylistically unique among Nin’s works, the novella resembles her other work—and Henry Miller’s as well—in its seemingly limitless mastery over the English language. Each paragraph contains at least one pure reading delight, and there is an almost unending abundance of memorable images, described with exquisite precision and power. Even as one struggles, perhaps in futility, to find the meaning of House of Incest, the work’s beauty remains transcendent and completely undeniable.