Oh, the Burden, the Anxiety, the Sacrifices

Jenny Diski

  • Anaïs Nin by Deirdre Bair
    Bloomsbury, 654 pp, £20.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 7475 2135 2
  • Conversations with Anaïs Nin edited by Wendy Dubow
    Mississippi, 254 pp, $37.95, December 1994, ISBN 0 87805 719 6

Although it’s counter-intuitive, neither sex nor the pursuit of self were inventions of the 20th century. In his snatch of vérité during the film Reds, Henry Miller hazarded the view that people have always done a lot of fucking. Montaigne settled to his solitary task of reflective self-examination in the mid-16th century. Sex and the self as subjects for investigation share the characteristic of always making their examiners feel like pioneers in uncharted territory. Either because of this, or because what there is to know is naturally limited, the data don’t so much accrete over time as repeat themselves.

It could be said that in this century the invention of psychoanalysis has changed the study of sex and of self by providing a structure in which the two can combine (in the manner of DNA, as it were) to produce a boundless variety of understandings. Or it may be that psychoanalysis has merely provided us with an excuse to remain stuck in the revolving door of self-absorption. According to Deirdre Bair, ‘sex, the self and psychoanalysis’ are three of the concepts that have brought ‘sweeping societal change’ to our century. She doesn’t say whether we should rejoice over this, or wonder in dismay if solipsism hasn’t become the plughole down which this century will gurgle. It is, however, her reason for choosing Anaïs Nin as her third biographical subject, after Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett.

Bair is not making a case for re-evaluating Nin’s fiction. Her claim is that although Nin was ‘not an original thinker’ and a ‘minor writer whose novels are seldom read these days’, she nonetheless merits a substantial biography because a life as ‘rich and full’ as hers enables ‘the rest of us to understand the chaotic century that is now winding down’. This argument might apply to any number of individuals whether disregarded novelists or not, but very few were so compulsive in their anatomising of self as to leave, as Nin did, 250,000 handwritten pages of diary for a biographer to trawl through.

What does the notion of a rich and full life spanning the years from 1903 to 1977 conjure up? Being at the centre of great political and economic movements? Witnessing two of the most cataclysmic wars in history? Synthesising the experience of these into illuminating work? This isn’t Nin’s way. Wars, economic collapse, holocaust and revolution barely rate a mention in the quarter-million pages of her diary. The world is outside her remit. Nin’s universe, like her fiction, terminates at the boundaries of her own skin, like nerve-endings; the outside environment exists only where it stimulates or articulates her private sense of identity. The rich and full life that merits our study is the daily emotional and sexual life-story of an ego, self-consciously honing itself to represent inferiority as the discovery of the age. As an adolescent, Nin was writing in her diary that school was a waste of time: ‘I learn things that I don’t want to learn, and sometimes I am afraid of losing entirely the delicate and exquisite mental picture that I have of the beauty of things around me.’ Which is as it should be at such an age. The problem is that the tone of the diary doesn’t alter over the decades. The world never develops beyond its function as a mirror for her own exquisite and distorted mental processes.

Nin’s vivid life consisted largely of having affairs, in Paris and New York, with notable people and of recounting them in exhaustive detail in her diaries; or as a student put it to Deirdre Bair, ‘Nin had a lot of sex and lied a lot.’ If Henry Miller was her most famous paramour, there were also encounters with Otto Rank, Antonin Artaud, Norman Bel Geddes (‘the P.T. Barnum of design’), George Barker and innumerable sub-luminaries of the literary world. Like Miller, many of them were supported financially by Nin, or more accurately, by her besotted husband Hugo, who on marrying Anaïs had the great good sense to become a banker rather than the poet he had hoped to be. Even with a substantial salary, Hugo was unable to keep up his wife’s payouts without eventually falling into massive debt. This translates at the height of Nin’s popularity in 1969 to the following description in the Boston Globe: ‘Although poor herself, and living on a pittance, she supported materially and emotionally a whole extended family of down-and-out artists, musicians, writers and revolutionaries, some geniuses, others sponging wastrels.’ Nin had a somewhat unreconstructed notion (considering that she became a heroine of the early feminists) that it was a woman’s role to provide support for creative men, but at the same time understood very well the power of the purse strings. When Miller briefly found himself earning money as an analyst in New York he resisted returning to Paris as Nin wanted him to; but according to Bair, ‘Henry’s fear of losing Anaïs’s steady stipend proved stronger than his confidence about supporting himself,’ and he sailed back to Europe.

Seduction was victory. In 1933, her first analyst, René Allendy, one of the founders of the Société Psychanalytique de Paris, was moved by her graphic descriptions of sex with Miller to provide her in their next session with a diaphragm. She returned it, used though clean, a week later. He was soon enough her lover, however, and she was able to confide to her diary that his body was ‘white and flabby’; and she was obliged to fake an orgasm. ‘Laugh it off,’ she wrote. ‘Conquer it. Make the man happy. That is all. A gift. I make a gift in return for the tribute of his love. And I feel free of debts. I walk joyously away, debtless, independent, uncaptured.’

All the while, her husband paid up, and until her death, suffered what was doubtless a delicious agony. Hugo was devastated on discovering her first infidelity (‘Today I died’) but soon found a way to live with it. She is the definition of art. Therefore, she cannot make mistakes. Whatever she does with that instinct burning in her is right, becomes right, for it is she who does it.’

The first love is always self-love and the first offence is always against the omnipotent ‘I’. We may never quite forgive or forget the wounding, but as a rule, we dust ourselves off and try to find a way to rub along with the world. It’s a practical matter. Though we always know, secretly, that we are all and everything, the dead centre of the only circle, we learn to keep it more or less to ourselves. That way we make a living and avoid excessive loneliness. An alternative, if the initial wounding is very great (and in Nin’s case it was), is to turn inwards towards what we might call madness. What makes Nin’s life exceptional is that she contrived to turn in on herself but find abundant support (or collusion) in the world around her. Reality, for some reason that never becomes quite clear, keeps turning itself around and conforming to her vision of the universe in a manner that seems outrageous to anyone familiar with the way personal narratives are supposed to turn out. We all know, don’t we, that a life committed to self-indulgence, uncontrolled sexual adventuring and deceit will come to a thoroughly bad end – the flesh will rot, the mind will curdle, the world will pass by in contempt as you suffer a terrible retribution of social isolation and a dismal death. But Nin’s story, although all the factors for ultimate disaster are present throughout her life, keeps coming out wrong – or rather, right – in the most improbable way. Though she must have been one of the most self-centred women who ever lived, she was adored and remained adored for a lifetime by her husband, and at the end by both the husband and her final lover.

The initial cause of her involution is clear enough. Nin’s father, Joaquin, was a talented pianist, handsome and considerably younger than his wife, whom he married in Cuba for her inheritance. That he beat her and his three children is confirmed by the surviving youngest son, Joaquin Nin-Culmell. The confirmation is necessary because Nin’s capacity to fudge reality is monumental. Anaïs’s recollection at the age of 17, ‘I would do anything to keep him from lifting my dress and beating me,’ is embellished thirty years later: ‘He begins to hit me with the palm of his hand ... But he stops hitting me and caresses me. Then he sticks his penis into me, pretending to be beating me. Oh, I enjoy it. I have a violent orgasm.’ But the passage continues: ‘I believe this really happened. I do not believe my father penetrated me sexually but I believe he caressed me while or instead of beating me.’ Building an accurate biography out of Nin’s material must have been like trying to make the Taj Mahal out of mercury.

Her father stopped beating the children when Anaïs was ten or eleven, but substituted photography, making them stand naked in the midst of dressing or bathing while he focused and changed lenses. Then he abandoned the family, staying in touch only with Anaïs in letters filled with his successes as a lover and pianist, telling her that everyone loved him and therefore she should too. Which, of course, she did. In a note Bair explains, a touch unnecessarily, that the psychoanalytic term for Joaquin’s behaviour is ‘the seductive father’.

Added to the burden of the sadistic, seductive father, was a near-fatal illness at the age of nine during which her mother prayed to Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux, and her father expressed real distress. Her unexpected recovery gave not only her mother, but Anaïs herself, the impression that a miracle had occurred. It’s probably quite bad for people to believe themselves saved; living up to the implied promise of a destiny may be too great a load to allow them ever to be satisfied with everyday reality.

The diary began when Anaïs was 11, on the boat to New York, where Rosa took her abandoned family. The first entry in the notebook her mother bought for her was an unsent letter to her father. Later she would define the nature of the diary (which others refer to as ‘the liary’) and of the conduct of her life more accurately. Her untruths were ‘mensonges vitaux’: ‘different kinds of lies, the special lies which I tell for very specific reasons – to improve on living’. The truth, she concluded, was ‘not always creative’ or ‘more right than untruth’. But even the view of her diary as a life-improver is confounded as she recollects times when she had deliberately not done certain things so she would not have to face ‘the shame of writing them down’.

It’s doubtful, however, that shame played much part in determining the actions of her life. If the unconscious, as defined by Freud, is the mechanism by which we hide our darkest, most shamefully unsocialised desires from ourselves, then it’s entirely likely that Anaïs Nin didn’t have one. Quite apart from the extreme doubts that arise about any therapeutic technique which allowed both Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin to become, however briefly, practitioners with patients. Nin’s conscious life surely provides a convincing argument against the central tenets of psychoanalytic theory. There doesn’t seem a lot of point in you and me spending twenty years on the couch coming to terms with the intolerable fact that we want to do it with our fathers, when Nin, aged 30, is writing in her diary after a summer of incest with her father: ‘I love him ... love him ... I want nothing else, nobody else. He fills my life, my thoughts, my blood.’ She ‘wants to die with joy’ at their affair. Just before Joaquin makes her nipples hard and inserts his finger in her vagina, Nin has her father cry out: ‘Bring Freud here, and all the psychologists. What could they say about this?’ Not much, I suspect. At the time she was sleeping with her analyst Allendy, her protégé Henry Miller, her eternally devoted husband Hugo Guiler and trying very hard to seduce Antonin Artaud, though he was a confirmed homosexual. It’s not just her conscious that leaves you gasping: so does her stamina. Still, it is not without problems: ‘It is getting more and more difficult to make four men happy,’ she moans. ‘Oh, the burden, the anxiety, the sacrifices, the gifts I must give!’

Nor did she utilise what unconscious she may have had to restrain herself from confronting other dubious motivations. Her pleasures sunbathed fully naked on the surface of her awareness. She seduced Otto Rank in New York in 1935, when he was analysing her and preparing her to receive patients herself. She had no real interest in any of it, admitting to a friend that she liked watching Rank ‘undermining the psychoanalysis from which he lives. I would not mind doing him harm.’ When the friend suggested that if she couldn’t have God she might as well have all the analysts, she replied ‘I don’t give myself to them. I keep myself.’

Though it very nearly doesn’t matter whether the affair with her father actually happened or not, Bair does bear the liary in mind, qualifying the description of the incestuous ‘non-stop orgiastic frenzy’ with ‘if Anaïs Nin the diarist is to be believed.’ And she certainly doubts Nin’s later account of a two-day shipboard affair with her middle brother Thorvald. It only gets a single diary mention, which makes Bair wonder: ‘Did it happen at all?’ Was it, she asks, a ‘“screen memory” for something else so deeply hidden that she was never able to pull it into her consciousness long enough to write about it?’ The brain aches with the attempt to imagine what that unadmittable something else might be. If there was anything more that was possible to think, there’s no doubt Nin would have thought it and written it up.

Then she would have rewritten it – because the diaries were artefacts she reworked over the years. The untruths she told herself as a diarist were not quite the same as the lies that she believed might turn fiction into something more truthful. She makes the sculptor Lenore Tawney incoherently say: ‘You are a great artist, Anaïs, for you I would give you my work in exchange for what your books meant to me.’ Years later, on reading this, Tawney claims not to have known Nin was a writer until she turned up at her studio. ‘Anaïs paid me too many compliments. I didn’t like them.’ And Bair doubts that an evening spent arguing the literary toss with Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller in fact ended with both men saying: ‘We have a real woman artist before us, the first one and we ought to bow down instead of trying to make a monster out of her.’

These are lies that ‘improve the reality’ and ‘make the dream real’, but they are not the kind of lies that improve and nurture lasting fiction. Most of those who knew her believed the diaries themselves prevented her from becoming what she most wanted to be – a creative writer. ‘The “I” has become a terrible habit,’ she confesses. ‘I note everything down. Why, why can’t I write a novel, objective, with all my inventions? It is such a round-about method [to] write a diary which I will have to transform later into a novel.’ Husband Hugo, Miller, Otto Rank, all believed she had to stop writing the diary. In 1934, at Rank’s insistence, she tried to cold-turkey from it by checking into a hotel without her diary and favourite pen, but she only lasted a few hours before cadging pencil and paper from the manager and writing what Bair describes as ‘a series of feverish notes’. The fictions she finally achieved were largely obsessive reworkings of diary material whose doubled unreality creates characters who seem to hover several feet above the ground. The diary became the only landscape Nin needed to express herself so that when she comes to writing fiction it has no world in which to exist. Having designated her own interiority as the central subject, she fails to find an environment on which the achings of the soul might act.

In an interview with Judy Chicago in 1971 Nin asserts that women ‘are speaking for the first time’. ‘What this suggests,’ says Chicago, ‘is that women will lead the way into a kind of outpouring of the spirit and the soul.’ ‘Yes,’ agrees Nin. ‘They will lead the way in a fusion of them.’ If a fusion of outpourings is what you’re after in fiction, then Nin’s the writer for you. If not, you may find, like me, that the inescapable hyper-sensitivity of Cities of the Interior has you wandering around the house every twenty pages or so, looking for a dirty teacup to wash up or a neglected saucepan to scour.

At the age of 44, in 1947, she met the 28-year-old Rupert Pole, who was to become one half of the double life she would lead until her death. Gradually, the other lovers fell away or transformed into gay acolytes, and Nin set up two independent households, one with Hugo in New York, the other with Rupert in California. Neither man knew, or was prepared to know, that she spent half the year with the other. Although Hugo financially supported Rupert, he chose to believe that Nin retired for the summer to a spiritual ranch for a dose of solitude. Rupert, receiving an income which enabled him to build a house for himself and Anaïs, was prepared to accept her story that she and Hugo lived entirely separately in New York embroiled in a complicated divorce. When Rupert finally phoned Hugo in the middle of the night and Nin answered the phone, she palmed him off with a lie. In 1955 she told Rupert that the imaginary divorce had at last gone through, and married him. She had felt ‘so deeply married to Rupert so many times’ over the past eight years that the illegal ceremony was merely another such moment.

The great frustration of her life eventually came right: the novels and finally the diaries were published, and along with keeping her two love lives going, Nin also began to conduct a literary life. Her novels and diaries found an admiring young audience in the university campuses of the Sixties and early Seventies. The cause of her fame was as duplicitous as the rest of her existence. Many saw her as a proto-feminist, as having led the life of a free, sexual woman, a pioneer of the new spirit of independence. But she never was exactly that. When asked at Smith College about the feminist nature of her writings, she replied that her aim was to give the world ‘one perfect life’, meaning her own. The more radical students hooted and hissed. An article in Village Voice a year later described how Nin ‘showed her nipples and the rest of her beautiful shape through a clinging silver dress, held a mask in front of her face, lowered it, and began to read from her diaries’. Time and admiration were running out for ‘a woman who ... seeks to be feminist... speaking primarily on the thinkings and doings of men’. But she won the race and death came before disregard.

Between 1974 and early 1977 when she died, Nin kept a journal of her cancer. It was painful and physically humiliating, but Rupert Pole remained her devoted lover and carer. She was aware, in spite of the awfulness of the disease, how fortunate she was, ‘grateful, grateful to have attained a great love, and gained love for my work’. According to Bair, Rupert nursed her through the ravages of surgery and chemotherapy, bought her wigs, changed her colostomy bags, ‘raised and lowered her into the swimming pool each day, and even made love to her there so that she would not dwell on the loss of her beauty’. When she confessed the truth about her continuing marriage to Hugo, Rupert ‘understood the motivation for the double life’ immediately and since she found it difficult, dialled Hugo’s number for her so she could speak to him frequently. When she became too ill to speak, he phoned Hugo himself and reported on her condition.

Rupert Pole is 75 now and still devotes himself to Nin. He selects themed excerpts from her original journals and publishes them as separate volumes of ‘unexpurgated diaries’. According to Bair, critics and scholars believe they present her in an unattractive light ‘as a monstrous narcissist if not a pathological personality. But Rupert is unfazed by negative criticism and remains so devoted to the memory of Anaïs Nin that he usually speaks of her in the present tense.’ Hugo Guiler died in 1985 aged 86, believing that the spirit of Nin visited him every morning and sat on the edge of his bed waiting to ‘guide him over’ when his time came. By the end of the biography it is hard to see in what way exactly the life of Anaïs Nin might assist us in understanding this ‘chaotic century’ as Deirdre Bair hoped it would, and you can’t help feeling there’s something that has not been explained, some missing element in the pathology that begins to account for the passionate affection such a ‘monstrous narcissist’ managed to accumulate.