Brain Pickings

What Makes a Great City: Anaïs Nin on the Poetics of New York

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“Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power.”

This week, I’m in Malmö, Sweden, where I’m opening a session on cities at The Conference. In pondering the question of what makes for a thriving city brimming with robust public life, I was reminded of a passage from a letter Anaïs Nin wrote to her lover Henry Miller, found in the sublime A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953 (public library) — a tome you might recall from recent literary jukebox installments.

Dated December 3, 1934, this letter stands in stark contrast to Nin’s grim take on New York in comparison to Paris some five years later, but it bespeaks the same exhilarating enthusiasm for the city that Jan Morris captured a decade later and that New Yorkers and visitors of all eras have been — sometimes reluctantly, sometimes wholeheartedly, always inevitably — infected with:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

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