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In Defense of the Fluid Self: Why Anaïs Nin Turned Down a Harper’s Bazaar Profile

“I am more interested in human beings than in writing, more interested in lovemaking than in writing, more interested in living than in writing.”

Celebrated diarist Anaïs Nin has been on heavy rotation here this year, but it is only because her daily private reflections reverberate with timeless, universal resonance. Nin’s gift for articulating the paradoxes and vulnerabilties of the human condition shines with exceptional brilliance in this particular entry found in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library).

In December of 1946, Harper’s Bazaar editor Leo Lerman asked Nin for a short auto-biography to use in a profile feature. She respectfully declined. Her letter to Lerman — disarmingly honest, brave and vulnerable at the same time — digs deep beneath the paralyzing discomfort many of us can relate to in being written about, in interviews and features and profiles, to uncover the shaky softnesses underpinning it: the struggle with anxiety, the anguish of having one’s sincerity mistaken for pretense, and above all the agony of being fossilized while still growing, a kind of violent rebellion against the myth of fixed personality.


Nin writes:

Dear Leo


I see myself and my life each day differently. What can I say? The facts lie. I have been Don Quixote, always creating a world of my own. I am all the women in the novels, yet still another not in the novels. It took me more than sixty diary volumes until now to tell about my life. Like Oscar Wilde I put only my art into my work and my genius into my life. My life is not possible to tell. I change every day, change my patterns, my concepts, my interpretations. I am a series of moods and sensations. I play a thousand roles. I weep when I find others play them for me. My real self is unknown. My work is merely an essence of this vast and deep adventure. I create a myth and a legend, a lie, a fairy tale, a magical world, and one that collapses every day and makes me feel like going the way of Virginia Woolf. I have tried to be not neurotic, not romantic, not destructive, but may be all of these in disguises.

It is impossible to make my portrait because of my mobility. I am not photogenic because of my mobility. Peace, serenity, and integration are unknown to me. My familiar climate is anxiety. I write as I breathe, naturally, flowingly, spontaneously, out of an overflow, not as a substitute for life. I am more interested in human beings than in writing, more interested in lovemaking than in writing, more interested in living than in writing. More interested in becoming a work of art than in creating one. I am more interesting than what I write. I am gifted in relationship above all things. I have no confidence in myself and great confidence in others. I need love more than food. I stumble and make errors, and often want to die. When I look most transparent is probably when I have just come out of the fire. I walk into the fire always, and come out more alive. All of which is not for Harper’s Bazaar.

I think life tragic, not comic, because I have no detachment. I have been guilty of idealization, guilty of everything except detachment. I am guilty of fabricating a world in which I can live and invite others to live in, but outside of that I cannot breathe. I am guilty of too serious, too grave living, but never of shallow living. I have lived in the depths. My first tragedy sent me to the bottom of the sea; I live in a submarine, and hardly ever come to the surface. I love costumes, the foam of aesthetics, noblesse oblige, and poetic writers. At fifteen I wanted to be Joan of Arc, and later, Don Quixote. I never awakened from my familiarity with mirages, and I will end probably in an opium den. None of that is suitable for Harper’s Bazaar.

I am apparently gentle, unstable, and full of pretenses. I will die a poet killed by the nonpoets, will renounce no dream, resign myself to no ugliness, accept nothing of the world but the one I made myself. I wrote, lived, loved like Don Quixote, and on the day of my death I will say: ‘Excuse me, it was all a dream,’ and by that time I may have found one who will say: ‘Not at all, it was true, absolutely true.’

The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 also gave us Nin’s exquisite words on the role of emotional excess in creativity, her timely reflection on technology and the meaning of life, and her keen profile of architect Lloyd Wright.

Other Nin diary volumes have explored embracing the unfamiliar, Paris vs. New York, parenting and personal responsibility, the joy of handcraft and letterpress, the psychology of mass movements, and love.


All the 2012 Best-of Reading Lists, Together at Last

The year’s finest reading, organized by subject.

By popular demand, here are all of this year’s best-of omnibus reading lists, in one shareable place:

  1. The Best Psychology and Philosophy Books of 2012
    From Buddhism to the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, by way of storytelling and habit.
  2. The Best Art Books of 2012
    From Indian folklore to Paris vs. NYC, by way of Japanese Wonderland and 80 years of loving of dogs.
  3. The Best Design Books of 2012
    From Marshall McLuhan to Frank Lloyd Wright, or what vintage type has to do with the evolution of iconic logos.
  4. The Best Science Books of 2012
    From cosmology to cosmic love, or what your biological clock has to do with diagraming evolution.
  5. The Best Illustrated Children’s Books and Picturebooks of 2012
    From Indian folk art to neuroscience, by way of Saul Bass and die-cut Cold War allegories.
  6. 5½ Favorite Food Books of 2012
    From Thomas Jefferson to the secret history of coffee, by way of urban farming and Downton Abbey.
  7. The Best History Books of 2012
    From Mark Twain’s diary to the visual history of evolution, by way of Vonnegut, Sontag, and Klimt.
  8. The Best Graphic Novels and Graphic Nonfiction of 2012
    From music history to war trials by way of Hunter S. Thompson and Steve Jobs, with a side of Ancient China.
  9. The Best Music Books of 2012
    From the neuroscience of talent to the illustrated Beatles, by way of Zen Buddhism and how creativity works.
  10. The Best Books of 2012: Your 10 Overall Favorites
    From children’s existential questions to 100 ideas that changed graphic design, by way of Yayoi Kusama and illustrated scientific mysteries.

The Little Golden Book of Words: A Rare Illustrated Gem from 1948

Places to go, things to do, people to meet, and other illustrated essentials of daily living.

The other day, I came upon typography czar Jonathan Hoefler’s brilliant remix of a mysterious vintage children’s chart and Milton Glaser’s iconic Bob Dylan poster. Naturally, I set out to find the origins of the vintage gem. Imagine my delight, as a hopeless lover of vintage children’s books, in discovering that it came from The Little Golden Book of Words (UK; public library) — a rare out-of-print gem by Selma Lola Chambers, originally published in 1948. The charming vintage illustrations by Gertrude Elliott, covering such favorite children’s book subjects as numbers, people, animals, and the seasons, pair each small picture with the specific word it depicts to help young children form the essential associations between words and their pictorial representations. Revealed in equal measures are the era’s distinctive aesthetic sensibility and its dated cultural biases regarding gender norms and social expectations.

Sadly, like other gems from that era, this little treasure is long out of print — but you might be able to grab a used copy online or find it at your local library.

Thanks, Debbie


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