“As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.”
If leisure is the basis of culture, how can we harness its true rewards given our pathological addiction to productivity? That’s exactly what French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin — an enchantress of love and life, a woman of extraordinary cultural prescience, and one of the most dedicated diarists of all time — explores in a portion of The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5 (public library).
In the winter of 1947, drained by the bustle and constant striving that drives life in New York, Nin took a holiday in Acapulco, Mexico — still a mostly undeveloped patch of wilderness, on which the Hotel El Mirador had been built as twelve rooms on the edge of a cliff just a few years earlier. She was immediately struck by the world of difference between the local way of life and the obsessive living-making of the workaholic culture from which she had taken respite.
Three decades before Susan Sontag lamented the “aesthetic consumerism” of vacation photography, which commodifies the experience by prioritizing its record over its livingness, and more than half a century before we came to compulsively catalog every private moment on the social web, Nin writes:
I am lying on a hammock, on the terrace of my room at the Hotel Mirador, the diary open on my knees, the sun shining on the diary, and I have no desire to write. The sun, the leaves, the shade, the warmth, are so alive that they lull the senses, calm the imagination. This is perfection. There is no need to portray, to preserve. It is eternal, it overwhelms you, it is complete.
Nin had many friends of color in an era when that was rather uncommon for the average white person, and saw white Americans’ and Europeans’ way of life as a rote existence greatly inferior in its sensorial unimaginativeness compared to the cultures from which jazz, the art-form she most admired, sprang. Faced with the radically different disposition of the Mexican locals, she considers what they know about living with presence that the society from which she escaped does not:
The natives have not yet learned from the white man his inventions for traveling away from the present, his scientific capacity for analyzing warmth into a chemical substance, for abstracting human beings into symbols. The white man has invented glasses which make objects too near or too far, cameras, telescopes, spyglasses, objects which put glass between living and vision. It is the image he seeks to possess, not the texture, the living warmth, the human closeness.
Many decades before we became transfixed by the glowing screens of our devices, which came to interfere with the very basics of being a city life, Nin adds:
Here in Mexico they see only the present. This communion of eyes and smiles is elating. In New York people seem intent on not seeing each other. Only children look with such unashamed curiosity. Poor white man, wandering and lost in his proud possession of a dimension in which bodies become invisible to the naked eye, as if staring were an immodest act. Here I feel incarnated and in full possession of my own body.
Four years later, Nin returns to Acapulco and is once again enchanted by the aliveness that its invitation to presence awakens in the spirit:
To me Acapulco is the detoxicating cure for all the evils of the city: ambition, vanity, quest for success in money, the continuous contagious presence of power-driven, obsessed individuals who want to become known, to be in the limelight, noticed, as if life among millions gave you a desperate illness, a need of rising above the crowd, being noticed, existing individually, singled out from a mass of ants and sheep… Here, all this is nonsense. You exist by your smile and your presence. You exist for your joys and your relaxations. You exist in nature. You are part of the glittering sea, and part of the luscious, well-nourished plants, you are wedded to the sun, you are immersed in timelessness, only the present counts, and from the present you extract all the essences which can nourish the senses, and so the nerves are still, the mind is quiet, the nights are lullabies, the days are like gentle ovens in which infinitely wise sculptor’s hands re-form the lost contours, the lost sensations of the body… As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.
Complement The Diary of Anaïs Nin, full of wisdom just as electrifying and alive, with Nin on why emotional excess is essential for creativity, the elusive nature of joy, and what maturity really means, then revisit Josef Pieper, writing around the same time, on how to reclaim our human dignity by mastering leisure.