Sunday, May 15, 2016

Filling Out Life's Circumference: Anaïs Nin's Fiction of the 1930s and 1940s

This article was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on February 28, 2012.

In many ways, Anaïs Nin’s writings of the 1930s and ‘40s contrast strongly with those of Henry Miller, her literary confederate and one-time lover. That’s not to say they weren’t in accord to a certain extent. Like Miller, Nin was heavily influenced by the Surrealists, crediting them and their leader, André Breton, with providing her writing with a guiding principle. From the first volume (1931-1934) of the official Diary:

I have always believed in André Breton’s freedom, to write as one thinks, in the order and disorder in which one feels and thinks, to follow sensations and absurd correlations of events and images, to trust the new realms they lead one into.

Additionally, her writing seems preoccupied with achieving what Breton called, in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, […] into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality [emphasis in the original].” She certainly shared what J. H. Matthews, in Towards the Poetics of Surrealism, described as the Surrealists’ ambition:

[T]o explore reality by the best means available to them, both the outer reality of the world in which we all find ourselves and the inner reality of our relationship to that world and those we encounter there.

But unlike Miller, Nin rarely showed much interest in such Surrealist techniques as automatic writing. Miller’s work was also preoccupied with the discords between rationality and irrationality, or external reality and the psyche. The latter was defined as dreams, the imagination, and emotional states. Miller often celebrated those discords, particularly when he demeaned external reality and its totems through caricature and other forms of absurdism. Nin, on the other hand, sought to reconcile those binaries. Characters in her fiction are frequently depicted as trapped in assorted states of consciousness. They exist apart from physical experience, and pine for interaction with everyday life. They are often shown as living inside their imaginations, in need of the fulfillment found by bringing their psyches in accord with the outside world.

One example is the narrator of Nin’s 1936 novella House of Incest. The narrator is depicted throughout as existing entirely in dream-states of greater and lesser awareness. The book begins with her lost within a womb-like environment. She is of two minds regarding her circumstances. On the one hand, she is content: “The water was there to bear one like a giant bosom; there was always the water to rest on, and the water transmitted the lives and loves, the words and the thoughts.” But she also feels trapped, as indicated by such phrases as, “The blanket of water lying over all things stifling the voice.” However, these circumstances are not to last: the narrator finds herself rejected from the environment, “thrown up on a rock, the skeleton of a ship choked in its own sails.”

The narrator then encounters Sabina, who seems a more concrete presence, and even an actual person. She inspires physical desire: “Every gesture she made quickened the rhythm of blood and roused a beat chant like the beat of the heart of the desert [...]”. But as one reads on, one realizes that Sabina is a construct of the narrator’s mind, a sensuous, earthy ideal the narrator aspires to emulate. The narrator apparently envies what she perceives as Sabina’s ability to live, and live glamorously, on the physical plane. It is an ability she desires for herself:

Sabina, you made your impression on the world. I passed through it like a ghost. […] When I saw you, Sabina, I chose my body. […] I choose a body then, a face, a voice. I become you. And you become me.

But after the narrator’s identification with Sabina seems complete--the two women appear to merge their identities--Sabina abruptly disappears. The narrator then endures a period of isolation. It ends when she finds a new companion, Jeanne, who appears to be Sabina’s opposite. Whereas Sabina appeared to glory in her ability to function on the physical plane, reveling in her sensuality, Jeanne is beaten down in defeat. She is crippled, described as a “[p]risoner on earth,” and her bad leg is likened to a “ball and chain.” All Jeanne can express is “her thirst, her hunger and her fears.” If Sabina is the narrator's positive ideal of physical existence, then Jeanne is the negative. The narrator’s experience with Jeanne leads her to recoil from the prospect of physical existence: “Life requires an effort I cannot make.”

Jeanne and the narrator soon find themselves in the “house of incest,” a hothouse of emotional and spiritual stagnation, where all aspects of the physical world are denied presence and life:

Everything had been made to stand still in the house of incest, because they all had such a fear of movement and warmth, such a fear that all love and all life should flow out of reach and be lost!

Everything had been made to stand still, and everything was rotting away. The sun had been nailed in the roof of the sky and the moon was beaten deep into its oriental niche.

But the “house of incest” is not a prison. A tunnel connects it to the outside world, “where there were leaves on the trees, where water ran beside the paths, where there was daylight and joy.” But fear and anxiety keep that tunnel from being traversed. Enter the dancer, the figure the narrator encounters next. This artist, who is inspired by both the expressions of the mind, specifically music, and of physical reality (“the rhythm of the earth’s circles”) is able to make the journey. The book closes as she dances toward the light.

The meaning of House of Incest seems clear: immersion in dreams and the imagination, exclusive of physical experience, is initially peaceful but ultimately leads to decadence and misery. Absence from life allows one to see its upside, represented by Sabina, and its downside (Jeanne) in only their most extreme forms. Prolonged, exclusive exposure to the first leads one to infatuation, which cannot sustain itself. Nin likens infatuation to narcissism and the stagnation of inbreeding. In describing the “house of incest,” she calls it a place “where we only love ourselves in the other.” On the other hand, exclusive exposure to the downsides of external reality leads one to malaise. Prolonged malaise is also a route to stagnation, as well as to an almost insurmountable anxiety about rejoining the physical world. The only hope is art (and the artist) that draws inspiration from both the outside world and the imagination. Completely abandoning the outside world for dreams and the imagination results in a pox on the spirit.

With the narrator of “Winter of Artifice” (the title story in Nin's 1939 collection of short fiction), one finds a character that is trapped in memory rather than dreams and imagination. Or, one could say, she is trapped in her dreams in a different way. She is a prisoner of her devotion to her father, who abandoned her and her family when she was nine, and whom she has not seen for twenty years. As the story opens, the narrator is giddy with expectation at their reunion. Nin makes clear that the narrator’s devotion to her memories of her father dominate her life and thoughts. A large glass bowl, with a glass ship and fish, is the narrator’s prize possession. As Benjamin Franklin V and Duane Schneider note in Anais Nin: An Introduction, it is a symbol of the father’s and narrator’s separation. The narrator “has tried to flee from the past and real life by means of the glass bowl.” She uses it, as they write, to “embrac[e] her father psychologically,” and to seek refuge from the world. Nin portrays the father as having assumed outsize proportions in the narrator’s mind; she remembers him in her childhood, standing in a doorway “luminescent, incandescent.” The narrator’s devotion to her father is pushed to its extreme end. For the narrator, “Her true God was her father. At communion it was her father she received, and not God. […] She embraced her father in holy communion.”

The story is a tale of reunion, embrace, disillusionment, and rejection. When the narrator and her father finally meet, his presence overwhelms and conquers her memories of him. Nin portrays this in figurative terms: the narrator accidentally smashes the glass bowl that served as the trope for the father in her mind. But reality does not conquer the imagination here; her dream is conquered by another dream. When the father returns, he is not the narrator’s dream of her father; he is the dream of her lover. In the following exchange, he reveals that he sees her in the same way:

“Now I see all these women I pursued are in you, and you are my daughter, and I can’t marry you! You are the synthesis of all the women I have loved.”

[The narrator's reply:] “Just to have found each other will make us stronger for life.”

Shortly after this exchange, the narrator seduces the father, or they seduce each other. Nin renders the scene in ecstatic shifts of consciousness much like one of Henry Miller’s narrative digressions. The narrator and her father find their silence to be like an orchestra playing between them. They become the instruments, then the orchestra, and then, finally, the music and their emotions themselves. The scene culminates with this passage:

Everything lived out simultaneously, the love, the impulse, the doubt of love, the knowledge of the love’s death, the love of life, the doubt, the ecstasy, the knowledge of its death germ, everything like an orchestra. Can we live in rhythm, my father? Can we feel in rhythm, my father? Can we think in rhythm, my father? Rhythm—rhythm—rhythm.

Once the scene reaches this crescendo, the narrator’s dream of the father peaks as well. Afterward, he becomes steadily diminished in her eyes, and she grows increasingly disenchanted with his pretense and foppery. Nin describes the disillusionment as “the winter of artifice,” the trope that gives the story its title. The outer world asserts its dominance over the imagination. At the story’s end, the narrator is serene, lucid, and capable of embracing physical experience even at its most terrible. Moving out from dreams and imagination and into reality, she realizes herself as a human being.

In Under a Glass Bell, Nin's 1944 short-story collection, she continues to treat dreams and imagination as a destructive, often terrifying force. In the title story, a young woman allows her obsession with the fantastic and the imagination to destroy her suitor’s and her family’s love for her. In “Je suis le plus malade des Surrealistes,” a young playwright and actor (based on Antonin Artaud) allows his obsession with his unconscious mind and its expression to drive him mad, ultimately resulting in his institutionalization. The protagonist of “The All-Seeing Eye” is a man who uses his wealth to screen out all the potential harshness of daily life. He lives in dreams and imagination, but as Nin writes, “The dream did not give him contentment.” And in “The Labyrinth,” she turns a reproachful eye to herself. Nin, arguably the most prominent diarist of the twentieth century, portrays an eleven-year-old girl who, upon being given a diary to write in, finds it a doorway to nightmare. Other stories in the collection, such as “Houseboat,” “The Mohican,” and “Ragtime,” take an opposite tack: they extol the value of imagination as an antidote to the travails of the physical world.

Nin’s writings, both in her fiction and the Diary, may have been a way of balancing the scales of her life's inner and outer worlds. The Diary was there to balance external reality with her imagination, while the fiction was used to balance her imagination with external reality. The fantastic elements of her fiction were employed to extol the virtues, pains, and pleasures of mundane existence. Much of it can be read as an anti-Surrealist attack on the excesses of the imaginative life, but an anti-Surrealist hardly could have used Surrealist techniques so effectively. Thinking about Nin’s work as an effort to achieve balance brings to mind a quote from the Diary that’s always stuck in my mind: “Man attacks the vital center. Woman fills out the circumference.” It further highlights the contrast between her work and Henry Miller’s. He used Surrealist technique to mount an assault on life’s oppressions; Nin used it to expand her readers’ sense of what life could be.

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