Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Anaïs Nin’

11 JUNE, 2014

Anaïs Nin on Abortion and Women’s Reproductive Rights: A Prescient Lament from 1940

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“Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.”

Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) was a woman who rejected the options handed down to her by life and instead lived by her own rules. She was also modern history’s most dedicated diarist, beginning at the age of eleven and writing until her death, for a total of sixteen volumes of published journals exploring everything from love to self-publishing to why emotional excess is essential to creativity to the meaning of life.

In 1923, when Nin was only twenty, she married the Swiss banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Guiler. They decided on an open marriage, of which both took ample advantage over the decades. But the biological cards aren’t stacked evenly for men and women in such arrangements, especially two decades before the invention of the birth control pill: In the summer of 1940, while in a highly involved relationship with one of her lovers, Nin found herself pregnant — by her husband. The circumstances were less than ideal: Not only were Nin and her husband already in dire financial straits, but World War II had just broken out, engulfing the world in hopelessness and destruction. Meanwhile, Gonzalo, Nin’s lover, was a highly temperamental and explosive man intensely jealous of Nin’s relationship with her husband, particularly their physical intimacy. Amid these circumstances, Nin and Guiler decided on an abortion.

From Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the elusive nature of joy — comes the author’s moving account of the complexities surrounding women’s reproductive rights and exposes how little progress we’ve made on the subject in more than seven decades.

She recounts the day of the abortion procedure, performed on August 21, 1940, by a doctor who operated on her without anesthesia despite first assuring her otherwise:

I arrived at nine-thirty and was strapped like an insane person, wrists tied, arms, waist, legs — a strange sensation of utter helplessness. Then the doctor came in. As he began to work, he found the womb dilating so easily that he continued the operation in spite of the terrific pain. And so in six minutes of torture, I had done what is usually done with ether! But it was over. I couldn’t believe it.

And yet the most important encounter at the clinic wasn’t a medical one but a deeply human one. Nin writes:

The only wonderful moment in all this was when I was lying on a little cot in the doctor’s office and another woman came in. The nurse pulled the curtain so that I could not see her. She was made to undress and lie down, to relax. The nurse left us.

Soon I heard a whisper to me: “How was it?” I reassured her — told her how I had been able to bear it without ether, so it would be nothing with ether.

She said: “How long were you pregnant?”

“Three months.”

“I only two — but I’m scared. My husband is away. He doesn’t know. He must never know.”

I couldn’t explain to her that my husband knew, but that my lover had to be deceived and made to believe I had no relations with Hugh. Lying there whispering about the pain, I had never felt such a strong kinship with woman — woman — this one I could not see, or identify, the one who was also lying on a cot, filled with primitive fear and an obscure sense of murder, or guilt, and of an unfair struggle against nature — an unequal struggle with all the man-made laws against us, endangering our lives, exposing us to inexperienced maneuvers, to being economically cheated and morally condemned — woman is truly the victim now, beyond the help of her courage and aliveness. How much there is to be said against the ban on abortion. What a tragedy this incident becomes for the woman. At this moment she is hunted down, really. The doctor is ashamed, deep down, but falsely so. Society condemns him. Everything goes on in an atmosphere of crime and trickery. And the poor woman who was whispering to me, afterwards, I heard her say to the doctor: “Oh, doctor, I’m so grateful to you, so grateful!” That woman moved me so much. I wanted to know her. I wanted to pull the curtain and see her. But I realized she was all women — the humility, the thoughtfulness, the fear and the childlike moment of utter defenselessness. A pregnant woman is already a being in anguish. Each pregnancy is an obscure conflict. The break is not simple. You are tearing away a fragment of flesh and blood. Added to this deeper conflict is the anguish, the quest for the doctor, the fight against exploitation, the atmosphere of underworld bootlegging, a racket. The abortion is made a humiliation and a crime. Why should it be? Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.

Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 is masterwork of candor, insight, and raw humanity in its entirety. Complement this particular excerpt with Italo Calvino on abortion and the meaning of life, writing 35 years after Nin.

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21 FEBRUARY, 2014

Happy 111th Birthday, Anaïs Nin: The Famous Diarist on Love and Life, Illustrated

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“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

I believe that most things worth knowing about life can be learned from the sixteen volumes of diaries that Anaïs Nin (February 21, 1903–January 14, 1977) began keeping at the age of eleven and continued until she died at seventy-four — things that have to do with why emotional excess is essential to creativity, why inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, how our objects define us, personal responsibility, the elusive nature of joy, writing, and the meaning of life.

But most enchanting of all are the timeless insights on love and life that Nin — a woman who made her own rules for living as expansively as possible in a society that kept trying to contain her — spilled into the pages of her diaries. Over the past couple of years, those have come to life in a series of collaborations from the Brain Pickings artist series, as I’ve asked artists and illustrators to capture some of my favorite highlights from years of reading Nin’s diaries.

Writer, artist, and frequent collaborator Debbie Millman created a duo of hand-lettered typographic artworks based on Nin’s meditations on love. Both are available as prints here and here, with 100% of proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

San-Francisco-based illustrator Lisa Congdon created a trio of black-and-white hand-lettered artworks based on my highlights from the third volume of Nin’s diaries.

In fact, out of this series sprang my yearlong collaboration with Lisa, highlighting women who changed our understanding of the world, which kicked off with Nin:

Explore more of Nin’s wisdom in the archive, including a recording of her reading from the famous diaries, then treat yourself to the recently released Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 (public library).

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12 NOVEMBER, 2013

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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