Thursday, September 17, 2015

On re-reading the journals of Anais Nin

Recently I was scanning my bookshelves and found an old 1964 edition of the ‘1931-1934 Journal of Anais Nin’.

The last time I attempted to read some of her journals was about 17 years ago. I had graduated with a literature major, knew I wanted to stay at university longer and do an honors thesis in literature, and was tossing up between attempting something on Nin or something on the poetry of Coleridge.

Neither won. Broke and sick of the struggle, I gave up the attempts to stay in academia and went out to get a job. I continued reading the Anais Nin journals, and continued my personal war with her.
At 23 my moral certitude was high and I railed against her even as I begrudgingly admired her. I was too young to know I could admire her but not want to be her. So I seethed at the lies of omission in her journals, how she fails to cite her husband Hugo as the patron of her lifestyle, the source of the income she passes on to an increasing friendship circle of hungry writers and artists.

Now I’m finding it a joy to read this journal. Maybe my moral certitudes have been softened by my observance of life. People’s marriages are complex and interior worlds, everyone is fallible, and an individual struggling to be heard as an artist to me now has a ‘moral’ right to grow their creative flow as much as to protect another person.

The journal I’m reading covers one of the most fecund times in literary history, a period between the great wars and more specifically a period in France where the communication of psychology, the relative ease of writers banding together to print their works, and political tensions combined to create strong opinions and heady thoughts.  This was café society at its purest, and amongst her friends Anais counted Antonin Artuad, Henry Miller and Otto Rank.

It is the conversations between Henry and Anais that I am now finding so rich and fulfilling to re-hear. Reading these  is awakening the critic and the feminist and the writer within who have been dormant for a while out of necessity.  Their conversation is a distillation of ideologies emerging at the time about how men write, and how women write. Henry is the almost caricatured male: active, vulgar, sexual, pugilistic, drawn to the ugly, writing the male orgasm in all its linear trajectory.  Anais is the archetypal female, writing her unconscious, immersed in sensual observation, artifice, and writing narrative that expands like ripples on a pond. Their arguments and friendship reflect at times the misogynist talking to the feminist, at other times the duality of a whole and healthy psyche, the male and female at one.

During the time she wrote this journal she begins her first novel that will be published (‘A spy in the House of Love'). Henry is writing his famous novel ‘Tropic of Capricorn’.
Both of these novels are their attempts to write June Miller, Henry’s wife, out of their systems, to write until she is understood and in some way therefore diminished. That both love her and are sexually fascinated and repulsed by her underpins their own explosive sexual and literary affair over these years.

During this journal Anais also undergoes analysis, first with a Dr Allendy, then with Otto Rank, a student of Sigmund Freud. Her aptitude for psychology as an analysand leads her into a study of it under Dr Rank, and her work from this time draws heavily on Jungian  symbolism and is nourished by early psychoanalytic theory.  I believe it leaves a legacy that female writers have followed down the twentieth century and beyond.

Reading the journals again, and feeling this time such pleasure in her strengthening personal self, her burgeoning intellect, her crystallization as a writer of something very fine, I am happy to feel compassion for a woman of her times, a woman writing herself into an existence out of the ordinary, out of what was given her by men in a still-tightly bound society.

In reading the journals again I have been able to reflect on my own shifts since those first attempts years ago. It is good to realize you have changed; it’s so incremental a process that it can be easily left unseen.

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