The Wild, Impassioned World of Anaïs Nin’s Diaries
Revolutionary Writing That Bridged the Public and Private
“Femme fatale” is a French term meaning, literally, “deadly woman.” In my view, a femme fatale is a woman who has gone through hell. Perhaps she harbors a secret pain or experienced a traumatic childhood loss. As a result, she has become cynical and dangerous or has, at the very least, garnered a reputation for danger. Here I take an ironic and whimsical approach to the subject, but Nin seems to have, in many ways, truly filled the bill.
A sensitive Spanish girl, Anaïs Nin was abused and abandoned by her philandering father who ran off with one of his rich music students. Nin’s devastated mother responded by bringing little Anaïs and her two brothers to America, though while on the boat Anaïs started composing a letter to lure her father back to his family. This letter was the first entry in what became her diary–an idealized picture of her life over which she labored for 63 years, a series of books that eventually made her famous.
Little Anaïs grew up and tried, really tried to be a good wife to her doting banker husband, Hugh, but an existential depression had already set in. The abandonment by her father was something from which she could never quite recover and her one respite was her diary. It was the vehicle through which she kept her fantasies alive, for it encapsulated her dreams of beauty and happiness and of being loved and adored. The truth, though, was that she was doomed to a life of longing for ideal love.
When as an adult Nin finally met her father again, she was shocked to discover that he hadn’t a clue as to how he had devastated his children (ain’t that the way?) and seemed incapable of even a shred of remorse. Anaïs realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that her father was a horrible and selfish man, hardly the idealized god she’d described in her diary. And so she did what any self-respecting femme fatale would do: she stomped his heart and abandoned him.
Then, in a fascinating twist, Anaïs Nin, the once hurt child, took on her father’s persona as duplicitous seducer and creative dynamo. She had scores of lovers and finally became a bigamist, all the while chronicling her glamorous adventures in her journal. She also produced dozens of delicately beautiful prose pieces, even writing what are known as some of the most important works of modern female erotica, including Delta of Venus and Little Birds. Nin’s diaries were eventually published to tremendous acclaim and she became the pied piper of a throng of followers all determined to imitate her example of “proceeding from the dream.”
In recent years, as Nin’s unexpurgated diaries describing her numerous affairs and erotic adventures have been published (per her instructions), she has been condemned by scandalized critics–a sure sign that she’s entered the pantheon of legendary femme fatales.
Anaïs Nin’s diary is a remarkable work of art. Because she believed “the topsoil of our personalities is nothing,” her diary chronicles her interior life, the “uncensored dream, the free unconscious,” and it unspools like a ticker tape. It is a deeply personal document, one that not only reveals the psychological topography of one woman, but one that unveils something of the interior life of all women, all people.
This uncensored diary is particularly explosive. It will no doubt enflame the usual brigade of outraged moralists who have heaped scorn upon Nin for daring to live by her own moral code, write about her adventures, and then allow that writing to be published for all to read. The vitriol with which she has been attacked proves her diary hits a nerve, but as H. G. Wells said, “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.”
We know that in the great experiment that was her life, Anaïs Nin did things few of us would admit–or even consider. Most of her secrets involved her sex life, an area women have fought to control on their own terms. Nin had what appears to have been an incredibly full and exciting life, but she believed she suffered from “neurosis” or “sickness” and she fought to understand its cause. In the meantime, and without even a high school education, Nin forged a modern art form that will finally find its place in this century of Internet communication, full as it is of personal confession. But Nin was decades and light years ahead, trailblazing the exploration of an area of human life so mysterious, so elemental, so beyond politics and social mores, so personal, and yet so universal. To Nin’s detractors one must ask, “If one’s lens is too small to fit the mysteries of one complex life, if that life must be condemned, what in the critic’s own complex psyche do they condemn and attempt to destroy?”
Nin’s story must begin with her father, Joaquin Nin, a respected Spanish composer who abused his children and then abandoned his family, leaving them nearly destitute while he married a wealthy young music student and toured in luxury throughout Europe. Nin, her mother, and two brothers were forced to sail for America in 1914 and, while on board the ship, eleven-year-old Anaïs began writing a letter to lure her father back to the family. This letter was never sent, but was the beginning of her diary–a letter to the world, a 63-year-long cry from the heart.Diary writing helped Nin realize that she need not “remain in bondage” to her first experience, first relationship, and first vision of herself.
Mirages opens at the dawn of World War II when Nin fled Paris, where she lived for 15 years with her husband, banker Hugh Guiler. She had married “Hugo” in 1923 and, though he loved her and she trusted him, she found the union deeply unsatisfying. In spite of this, the 1930s had been an idyllic period for her and she continued her diary. At a time when it was considered shocking for her to have done so, Nin wrote a book-length analysis of D. H. Lawrence’s fiction, including the infamous Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and it had been published. She also wrote a long, surrealistic prose piece entitled House of Incest.
In what proved to be a dramatic turning point in her life, Nin met writer Henry Miller and his wife June in 1931. As is detailed in Nin’s first unexpurgated diary, Henry and June, Nin and Miller championed one another as writers and began an affair. Nin and Guiler also supported Miller financially and paid for the printing of his groundbreaking novel, Tropic of Cancer. Then in 1933, after a 20-year separation, Nin met her father again. Daughter and father were strangers, he a notorious Don Juan and she a 30-year-old woman. They fell into a brief, incestuous affair, which Nin unflinchingly described in her second unexpurgated diary, Incest. Shortly thereafter, Nin sought psychoanalysis from Otto Rank, a close colleague of Sigmund Freud, but he too fell in love with her and this story was revealed in the following unexpurgated diary, Fire. And in Nearer the Moon, Nin told the story of her intense relationship with Left Bank Marxist Gonzalo Moré, with whom she is still deeply involved at the outset of Mirages.
Mirages begins in 1939 with Nin’s arrival in America and ends in 1947 when she meets the man who would be “the One,” the lover who would satisfy her insatiable hunger for connection. In the middle looms a period Nin describes as “hell,” during which she experiences a kind of erotic madness, a delirium that fuels her search for love. As a child suffering the loss of her father, little Anaïs wrote, “Close your eyes to the ugly things,” and against a horrifying backdrop of war and death, Nin combats the world’s darkness with her own search for light.
Mirages is just that: a series of mirages that dance tantalizingly on the road, one after another, promising refuge and water, but then cruelly evaporate like so many hopes and dreams. As with all artists, Nin’s fodder was her feelings and she created from the vantage of shattering pain originating with her father’s rejection. In this volume, Nin writes movingly of her “sickness,” puts herself through repeated self- and professional analyses, and comes what seems perilously close to annihilation. In the end, this book serves as a 20th-century Persephone’s journey through the underworld.
The reader who wishes to cross this particular desert with Nin must be willing to trust that an oasis will be found at the end. Finally, after meeting Rupert Pole in early 1947, Nin will enjoy a fulfilling relationship at last, one that will end her frantic search for love, though it will not conclude her story. Instead, she will then embark on a “trapeze” life in which she swings between Rupert Pole and Hugo Guiler for years–a nearly impossible feat and one of the most gripping periods in her story.
Out of abandonment, tremendous pain, and “great hunger,” Anaïs Nin created a life-long work of art that is unparalleled, one that breaks the false barriers between fiction and non-fiction, diary and novel, conscious and unconscious, societally-sanctioned and the unsanctioned, public and private. It took courage for Nin to write about that which exists beyond words in a period of such censorship society demanded that fictional characters be seen paying for their “sins.” She seemed to foresee what we today take for granted in the 21st century: that consciousness is a streaming ticker tape of words and images spooling from us as long as we live, and something to be shared.
For Nin, beginning a diary required the construction of a heroic protagonist, an idealized version of herself. But writing in her diary also led to the discovery of genuine aspects of her character that integrated to form a more authentic personality. She believed writing was the “strongest element in [her] divided and chaotic self,” and said, “No matter what disintegrating influence I was experiencing, the writing was an act of wholeness.” Thus, Nin’s diary serves as a unique document that chronicles the evolution, even revolution, of a personality. It reveals many of the dynamics of the process of retreating into constructed selves and the rediscovery of the true self.
Nin was not alarmed that she had lived out multiple personae, because she believed “you cannot reach unity and integration without patiently experiencing first all of the turns of the labyrinth of falsities and delusions in which man has lost himself.” She knew the individual is always in a process of becoming and the order humans seek is within them. She believed there is a unity and oneness that contains the constant transformations and aspects of the self. And this unity is echoed in the largest and smallest facets of life.
Ultimately, Nin revealed a sense of wonder regarding her exhaustive search for her true character, as well as a profound respect for the miraculous workings of the psyche. In finally eschewing aesthetics, order, and the ideal, she was awakened. Ironically, it was in this supposed chaos that she found a mysterious order and wisdom. An entry in the second published volume of her diary states:
Fulfillment is the completion of a circle. All aspects of the self have to be lived out, like the twelve houses of the zodiac. A personality is one who has unrolled the ribbon, unfolded the petals, exposed all the layers. It does not matter where one begins: with instinct or wisdom, with nature or spirit. The fulfillment means the experience of all parts of the self, all the elements, all the planes. It means each cell of the body comes alive, awakened. It is a process of nature, and not of the ideal. One dies when the cells are exhausted, one reaches plentitude when they all function, the dream, desire, instinct, appetite. One awakens the other. It is like contagion. The order does not matter. All the errors are necessary, the stutterings, the blunders, the blindnesses. The end is to cover all the terrain, all the routes. … To live only one aspect or one side of the personality is like using only one sense, and the others become atrophied. There is greatness only in fulfillment, in the fullness of awaking. Completion means the symphony. Sublimation means to condemn to immobility certain members of the body for the sake of the monstrous development of others. … Psychologically, a great personality is a circle touching something at every point. A circle with a core. A process of nature, growth, not the ideal. The ideal is an error. Life is a full circle, widening until it joins the circle motions of the infinite.
While diary writing made evident Nin’s construction of a self, it also revealed why its creation was necessary and helped to expose various facets of that self. Perhaps most importantly, diary writing helped Nin realize that she need not “remain in bondage” to her first experience, first relationship, and first vision of herself. She was able to smash the “deforming mirror” and experience wholeness and joy.
From Spy in the House of Anaïs Nin by Kim Krizan. Copyright © 2019 by Kim Krizan.