Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Anaïs Nin’

19 AUGUST, 2013

France Is Free: Anaïs Nin and Ernest Hemingway on the Liberation of Paris, August 19, 1944

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“One is stunned before catastrophe, one is stunned by happiness, by peace, by the knowledge of millions of people free from pain and death.”

On August 19, 1944, the Liberation of Paris commenced, marking the beginning of the end of World War II in France. Six days later, on August 25, the occupying German garrison surrendered. That week, in a journal entry found in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the meaning of life, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, how our objects define us, and how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly — the beloved diarist and reconstructionist breaks out of her usual contemplative lyricism and explodes with gorgeous, unfiltered human exuberance over the end of one of history’s greatest inhumanities:

Liberation of France!

JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY.

Such joy, such happiness at the hope of war ending. Happiness in unison with the world. Delirious happiness.

At such times we are overwhelmed by a collective joy. We feel like shouting, demonstrating in the street. A joy you share with the whole world is almost too great for one human being. One is stunned before catastrophe, one is stunned by happiness, by peace, by the knowledge of millions of people free from pain and death.

August, 1944: American soldiers watch as the Tricolor flies from the Eiffel Tower again. (Image: National Archives)

That same day, Ernest Hemingway — who had been living in Paris as one of the Lost Generation’s famous expats, among whom were Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald — waged a different kind of liberation effort. The Ritz hotel and its famed bar, which Hemingway had come to love as a home and an idyllic drinking spot during his pre-war reign in Paris, had been co-opted as the quarters of German generals in 1940. So, on this fateful August day, Hemingway — arguably the world’s best-known living writer at the time — donned a steel helmet, mounted an army jeep in the dirt roads of the French countryside, and led his small private army as they set out to “liberate” the Ritz.

From Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961 (public library) comes this missive Papa sent to his soon-to-be fourth wife, Mary Welsh, offering a much grittier but no less emotionally charged account than Nin’s:

On nineteenth [of August, 1944], made contact with group of Maquis who placed themselves under my command. Because so old and ugly looking I guess. Clothed them with clothing of cavalry recon outfit which had been killed at entrance to Rambouillet. Armed them from Div. Took and held Rambouillet after our recon withdrawn. Ran patrols and furnished gen [intelligence] to French when they advanced. They operated on our gen with much success. Entered Paris by Etoile and Concorde. Fought outfit several times. They did very well. Now very tired. Fortunately in phase of advance Rambouillet Paris had official war historian with us. Otherwise everyone would think was damned lie. Most operation chickenshit as to fighting. But could been bad. Now have rejoined division but have to try to write piece tomorrow. Then will put my people under div orders. Very fine peoples. But temperamental. . . .

I was very scared twice when we were holding (sic) screening, or simply furnishing contact is word, that town with 15 kraut tanks, and 52 cyclists as opposition. Some of the patrols we made would scare you worse than Grimm’s Fairy Tales even if there had been no Krauts [ed: What Hemingway called the Germans]. We checked on tanks with bicycles. Would like to drag down but guess will have to let things ride.

August, 1944: Ernest Hemingway in France with Col. David Bruce at the far left and unidentified companions. (Image: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, JFK Library, Boston)

After a few lines of almost incongruously placed romantic flirtations, Hemingway returns to the war and adds:

Have strong feeling my luck has about run out but am going to try to pass a couple of more times with dice. Have been to all the old places I ever lived in Paris and everything is fine. But it is all so improbable that you feel like you have died and it is all a dream.

(As charmingly deranged as all of this may be, of course, it comes as wholly unsurprising given Hemingway’s penchant for sorting out his emotional vulnerabilities with shotguns.)

Complement with Henry Miller, Nin’s longtime lover and literary confidante, on war and the future of humanity.

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18 JUNE, 2013

How Inviting the Unknown Helps Us Know Life More Richly

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“The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.”

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” Rilke famously urged. “It is possible to live and NOT know,” Richard Feynman dissented in his memorable meditation on the responsibility of scientists. John Keats called for “negative capability” — that peculiar art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Debbie Millman advised to look both ways when lingering at the intersection of the known and the unknown. And yet we continue to grasp for the security of our comfort zones, the affirmation of our areas of expertise, the assurance of our familiar patterns — however badly they may need rewiring.

In an entry from April of 1945 found in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the meaning of life, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and how our objects define us — the beloved diarist and reconstructionist considers the vital importance of allowing for not-knowing in order to truly know the world in its fullest dimension, of using the unknown as a gateway to deeper presence and greater awareness:

It is possible I never learned the names of birds in order to discover the bird of peace, the bird of paradise, the bird of the soul, the bird of desire. It is possible I avoided learning the names of composers and their music the better to close my eyes and listen to the mystery of all music as an ocean. It may be I have not learned dates in history in order to reach the essence of timelessness. It may be I never learned geography the better to map my own routes and discover my own lands. The unknown was my compass. The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.

Five years later, in the fifth volume of her diaries, Nin would revisit and evolve this sentiment in her famous words on embracing the unfamiliar, writing:

It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.

In a testament to that rare and powerful intersection of the romantic, the intellectual, and the creative — the kind of love emanating from such celebrated creative couples as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, and Charles and Ray Eames — Henry Miller, Nin’s then-lover, echoes the same sentiment in his reflections on writing:

Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.

For more of Nin’s timeless wisdom, see her insights on anxiety and love, the necessary fluidity of character, parenting and personal responsibility, and the magic of letterpress and handcraft.

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08 MAY, 2013

Our Objects, Ourselves

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“If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects.”

Last week’s meditation on the psychology of identity in a material world reminded me of a passage from The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us Nin on the meaning of life, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and a prescient anecdote of gun control failure.

In September of 1944, amidst the physical and spiritual devastation of WWII, Nin writes in her diary:

The physical as a symbol of the spiritual world. The people who keep old rags, old useless objects, who hoard, accumulate: are they also keepers and hoarders of old ideas, useless information, lovers of the past only, even in its form of detritus?

[…]

I have the opposite obsession. In order to change skins, evolve into new cycles, I feel one has to learn to discard. If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects. They reflect one’s mind and psyche of yesterday. I throw away what has no dynamic, living use. I keep nothing to remind me of the passage of time, deterioration, loss, shriveling.

And yet we attach enormous significance to objects. But perhaps Henry Miller, Nin’s longtime lover and friend, had it right after all when he observed that “all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.”

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