Brain Pickings

Anaïs Nin on the Elusive Nature of Joy

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“There are so many joys, but I have only known the ones that come like a miracle, touching everything with light.”

Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) is not only one of history’s most dedicated diarists, but also a vocal expounder of the idea that keeping a diary enhances your creativity. She began hers when she was only eleven years old, originally as a letter to her father who had just abandoned her, and maintained it until her last breath. Her sixteen tomes of published journals span more than half a century and have given us her timelessly resonant insights on such wide-ranging subjects as love, parenting, self-publishing, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, and the meaning of life. However, since Nin’s diary recorded the vibrant and uncensored fullness of her life — which included a social circle of prominent public figures and a love life of multiple affairs defiant of the era’s norms and stereotypes — the standard editions of her journals, edited by her husband and literary executor Hugh Parker Gulier, suppressed the unfiltered and controversial eroticism, which spilled onto the diary pages. In disguising the eroticism, however, Guiler also amputated much of what made Nin Nin: Her exuberant capacity for emotion.

Anaïs Nin (Photograph courtesy of Ohio University Press / Swallow Press)

From Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 (public library) — the long-awaited uncensored version of volumes 3 and 4 of her diaries, answering such previous mysteries as how and why her affair with Henry Miller ended and what role the effeminate young literary men who surrounded her played in her life — comes this poignant meditation on the elusive nature of joy, which Nin penned in December of 1939, shortly after the flare of WWII, which deeply affected Nin and permeated her psychoemotional landscape:

Over and over again I sail towards joy, which is never in the room with me, but always near me, across the way, like those rooms full of gayety one sees from the street, or the gayety in the street one sees from a window. Will I ever reach joy? It hides behind the turning merry-go-round of the traveling circus. As soon as I approach it, it is no longer joy. Joy is a foam, an illumination. I am poorer and hungrier for the want of it. When I am in the dance, joy is outside in the elusive garden. When I am in the garden, I hear it exploding from the house. When I am traveling, joy settles like an aurora borealis over the land I leave. When I stand on the shore I see it bloom on the flag of a departing ship. What joy? Have I not possessed it? I want the joy of simple colors, street organs, ribbons, flags, not a joy that takes my breath away and throws me into space alone where no one else can breathe with me, not the joy that comes from a lonely drunkenness. There are so many joys, but I have only known the ones that come like a miracle, touching everything with light.

It was precisely this joy that Nin experienced when she got news of the war’s end.

Mirages, revelatory in its entirety, was preceded by Incest: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1932–1934, Fire: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1934–1937, and Nearer the Moon: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1937–1939. Complement it with this exquisite recording of Nin reading from her famous diary and her timeless wisdom on writing and the future of the novel.

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