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Anaïs Nin on How Reading Awakens Us from the Slumber of Almost-Living

“It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it.”

Anaïs Nin on How Reading Awakens Us from the Slumber of Almost-Living

Galileo believed that books are our only means of having superhuman powers. For Carl Sagan, a book was “proof that humans are capable of working magic.” Proust considered the end of a book’s wisdom the beginning of our own. For Mary Oliver, books did nothing less than save her life. The social function of great literature, the poet Denise Levertov insisted, is “to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”

The transcendent mechanism of the awakening that books furnish in us is what Anaïs Nin (February 21, 1903–January 14, 1977) explores in a beautiful entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Vol. 1 (public library).

A generation after Kafka wrote to his best friend that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” 28-year-old Nin writes in December of 1931:

You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book (Lady Chatterley, for instance), or you take a trip, or you talk with [someone], and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death.

With a thankful eye to D.H. Lawrence — whose writing, she believed, first awakened her in this fashion and whom, in a gesture of gratitude, she made the subject of her first book — Nin adds:

Some never awaken. They are like the people who go to sleep in the snow and never awaken. But I am not in danger because my home, my garden, my beautiful life do not lull me. I am aware of being in a beautiful prison, from which I can only escape by writing.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly numinous The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Vol. 1 with Nin on why emotional excess is essential for writing, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the elusive nature of joy, and how to truly unplug during vacation, then revisit Neil Gaiman on why we read, Rebecca Solnit on the life-saving power of books, and James Baldwin on how reading changed his destiny.

BP

Vacation and the Art of Presence: Anaïs Nin on How to Truly Unplug and Reconnect with Your Senses

“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 (February 21, 1903–January 14, 1977) — 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.

Illustration from a rare first edition of Nin’s 1944 short-story collection ‘Under a Glass Bell.’ Click image for more.

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.

BP

Anaïs Nin on Inner Conflict, the Interconnectedness of All Things, and What Maturity Really Means

“Any experience carried out deeply to its ultimate leads you beyond yourself into a larger relation to the experience of others.”

“We are all one question,” Mary Ruefle wrote in her sublime essay on why we read, “and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things.” And yet, so often, we forget — we disconnect.

Decades before Parker Palmer’s beautiful meditation on the elusive art of wholeness, modernity’s most prolific and perceptive diarist, Anaïs Nin, contemplated with great elegance and insight the self-inflicted violence of our internal conflicts. From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939–1944 (public library) — which gave us Nin on real love, Paris vs. New York, the secret of successful mass movements, and her pioneering venture in self-publishing — comes a gorgeous entry from October of 1943, in which Nin considers how we deny ourselves such vitalizing integration and what we can do to attain it.

Nin writes:

When we are in conflict we tend to make such sharp oppositions between ideas and attitudes and get caught and entangled in what seems to be a hopeless choice, but when the neurotic ambivalence is resolved one tends to move beyond sharp differences, sharply defined boundaries and begins to see the interaction between everything, the relation between everything.

Three decades before Susan Sontag admonished that buying into polarities imprisons us, Nin contemplates how we can bridge our anguishing inner divides by embracing the interconnectedness of all things — the true mark of maturity:

I opposed subjective to objective, imagination to realism. I thought that having gone so deeply into my own feelings and dramas I could never again reach objectivity and knowledge of others. But now I know that any experience carried out deeply to its ultimate leads you beyond yourself into a larger relation to the experience of others. If you intensify and complete your subjective emotions, visions, you see their relation to others’ emotions. It is not a question of choosing between them, one at the cost of another, but a matter of completion, of inclusion, an encompassing, unifying, and integrating which makes maturity.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3 remains an endlessly revisitable trove of wisdom on the creative life and the human journey. Complement it with Nin on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and the elusive nature of joy.

BP

Anaïs Nin on Reproductive Rights: A Prescient Perspective from 1940

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

Anaïs Nin (February 21, 1903–January 14, 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.

BP

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