Monstrous?

I’ve been reading the biography of Anais Nin and my eyeballs are out on stalks. Nin intrigued me as a writer who had no intention of becoming a mother. When she found herself pregnant she decided swiftly to have an abortion, but a strange story of numerous attempts with drugs that all failed left her facing a 7-month labour that might have looked harrowing to a lesser soul. Nin’s biographer, Deirdre Bair, describes it thus:

For two more days she labored intermittently but the child was not aborted. Hugo was with her [her husband], Henry [Miller] was in the waiting room, Rank [the psychoanalyst with whom she was having an affair] was in London, and Eduardo [a homosexual friend] made himself scarce.

On the twenty-first, when spasms of pain grew fierce, an hysterical Anais begged Hugo to telephone Rank in London and ask him to come. Hugo did and Rank agreed. Anais then combed, powdered and perfumed herself, even painted her eyelashes. She made Hugo send for Henry, who came into her room looking ‘haggard and desperate,’ and Eduardo, who eventually turned up. Shortly after, Rank joined them. ‘All this love calling me back to life,’ she told the diary.

[…]

The next morning she perfumed and powdered herself and put on the rose silk jacket Hugo bought after her ‘carefully thought request for the appropriate hospital costume.’ All her men came to visit, bringing gifts. Henry’s was the announcement of the imminent publication of his book.

‘Here,’ Anais said, ‘is a birth which is of greater interest to me.’

So, let’s do a quick head count. Attending her abortion is Hugo, the husband for whom the term ‘long-suffering’ seems mightily insufficient, her lover Henry Miller, who she considered to be the father of the child (although she never appraised him of the fact), her latest and therefore most desperately needed lover, the psychoanalyst who was supposed to be attending her, Theodore Rank, and her friend Eduardo who was convinced she could ‘cure’ him of homosexuality if she would only meet his wishes. The only person missing from this scenario who had an interest in the paternity of the never-to-be-born child – was Anais Nin’s own father. Given that they had had a six-month affair prior to this event, it was quite possible, although even in her catch-all diary, Nin does not entertain the thought.

Whatever am I to do with this kind of material? It’s just too much. It’s beyond tasteless, beyond shocking. And yet, I cannot think of Nin as a monster. The trouble began with her father, a narcissistic sadist who married her mother for her money (he wanted to become a concert pianist and eventually made it), proved faithless and cruel, beating her and then beating the children behind a locked door where she could not reach them as this seemed more exquisitely tortuous. He then took to photographing the young Nin naked whilst all the while telling her ‘what an ugly little girl.’ Eventually the money ran out and so he left them all, Nin suffering the worst from the abandonment. She took to writing to him in a journal, and from that point on her obsession with her diary began. Nin never reassembled a coherent self from this early cataclysm. And then somehow she seemed to have the gift of enslaving men. She exerted the numinous, hypnotic quality of the beautiful and the damned. Her husband Hugo wrote of her: ‘To really realize her one has to understand that here in the flesh is Cleopatra, Sappho, Helen of Troy, Christ, the fourth dimension, the woman’s body that all men believe is just around the corner, the center of the magic circle in which we move.’ Yet she took all his money, even to the point of almost bankrupting him on several occasions, and used a large part of it to keep Henry Miller. What she needed, all her life, was a man who would say ‘no’ to her, who would say no calmly, firmly, as the drawing of a merciful boundary. Her father was clearly not that man, and he passed onto his daughter his preening pride in refusing to bow to societal constraints. From this early act of parental vandalism, a chain of consequences spread forth and in an act of both cannibalistic triumph but also desperate questing for security, Nin would take scalp after male scalp.

Nin’s art suffered too, as she never rose above this first, childish problematic, and her work never deepened or developed. However alarming her behaviour may seem, it’s worth remembering that, late in life, cultural feeling caught up with her and her doctrine of graphic eroticism. She became the empress of free love in the sixties. Somehow what looks damaged and wrong in the individual becomes neutralized and harmless in the crowd-mind. That’s probably the most shocking thing of all.

17 thoughts on “Monstrous?

  1. Disturbing indeed – and I didn’t like the idea of the analyst as real lover. But you make a very interesting connection between the individual and the cultural. I always want to link the dots between the social and the individual. Here in SA for example we have our potential president (Jacob Zuma) using the metaphor of a machine gun for political power. Used at a personal level (and even a sexual level) it is much more disturbing.

  2. I remember when the last edition of Nin’s work came out thinking that I should read it and see what all the brouhaha was all about and then backing out because I couldn’t cope with what it seemed I was to accept as normal. Since then I’ve seen the books in the shops and thought maybe… but somehow I’ve never had the courage to pick them up. And yet, I understand what you’re saying about the difficulty of blaming her for who and what she became. When you look at the context out of which she developed it’s amazing that she even survived. I’ve found myself thinking about this quite a lot recently. There have been so many horrific killings over the last few months where I know I should be focussing all my sympathy with the victim and their family and yet when you hear of the backgrounds of some of those involved I find myself asking what chance they had of being anything other than they are. I’m not easy with this but I do recognise the dilemma.

  3. It sounds beyond harrowing. Yet are we to blame the victim? Nin was abused as a child by one of the adults she should have been able to trust. All that followed was a consequence. Horrific, unbelievable and terribly sad, yet so inevitable. How many other human lives are wrecked in this manner and pass unnoticed by the world at large because there is no talent to communicate with the unfeeling world? We know of Nin’s plight because she could express herself. My favourite quote from her is a dark, yet defiant thought. “I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing.”

  4. I remember feeling similarly “creeped out” while watching the movie adaptation of Nin’s Henry and June. And I must say that Maria de Medeiros was rather appropriately cast as Anais Nin, projecting michief, sadness and (strangely, somehow) innocence.

  5. I’m in agreement with Archie. This is the result of extreme abuse on a brilliantly creative mind. And as he says, we know such intimate details because she could and chose to express herself, but how many abuse victims are unable to express themselves? There’s far worse out there that we’ll (thankfully) never know about because we won’t hear from the victims.

  6. I’ve been both fascinated and disturbed by Nin for a long time…never quite able to bring myself to read her diaries although they do interest me. Her story seems almost archetypal of one kind of abuse-survivor… the survivor who moves forward almost espousing the idea of freedom (from men, from society, from mores, what have you) as a survival mechanism.

  7. Couchtrip – you would be horrified. She also had an affair with her first analyst. Then, when she went to America with Rank, he passed patients on to her when you can imagine she had no training and her own analysis was in disarray. No wonder psychoanalysis got a bad name. Oh and when Henry Miller followed her to America, Rank passed some patients onto him, too. What a thought! Ann – you express that beautifully. Yes, I too wonder how things could have been different (and when even her analysts were useless to her!), but am still uneasy at the outcome. Anais’s errors concerned only herself and the men foolish enough to fall in lust with her. Killing is another level altogether, but you are quite right – the same process is at work in both cases. Having compassion for those who have been severely damaged by their circumstances seems right, and yet sometimes wrong, too. Archie – that’s a wonderful quote you have there. Nin spent her whole life telling her diary who she was, and, after careful editing, who she wanted to be. We’re lucky enough to have both versions as it’s the elision between the two that’s most intriguing. Nin would never have seen herself as a victim of her father, nor did she see her own behaviour as shameful in any way, but the diaries record the contortions she went through to reach those positions. You’re quite right that many more people don’t have a way to even assuage their own feelings. Polaris – do you know, I saw that movie years ago, when I was in college, and now I can barely remember it. I wonder whether Nin’s innocence is because she never knew love? I think it confers a kind of knowledge that is wholly absent from passion and need and all that knife-edge living. Although I believe she had a more stable relationship with an actor in later life (haven’t read that far!). Dew – yes, I’m sure you are quite right. The twentieth century has been an increasingly confessional century though, and it will be interesting to see what happens to that tendency now. Courtney – yes, I thought it interesting that the diaries became a father substitute and the love affairs were a way of proving that no one was enough. There was a kind of negative satisfaction in the way she moved through men in that period of her life. I think you put it better, though.

  8. What horrible material to have to wade through. I admire your courage in going through it. I’m not sure I would have the stomach.

  9. Nin is such a fascinating woman. I am both attracted to her and repelled by her at the same time. I can’t believe that through the abortion she continued to write in her diary! That’s quite the obsession!

  10. Verbivore – I’m all right reading pretty much anything, apart from lots of gore or medical operations (I skip them, fast). I am exquisitely sensitive to what I watch, though, which means that most films are out of the question for me! Stefanie – that diary went with her everywhere. And then she would rewrite the diary every year, and then edit it again when it went for publication. The whole story of her life is incredible, one way or another.

  11. I’ve got that biography and I thought that I had read it but, since I have no recollection of the episode that you describe, it seems unlikely thast I did. I don’t think that I could have forgotten that scene! Perhaps I read other earlier, less graphic biographies? Mind you, I have read Nin’s diaries and I don’t remember being shocked by them either. But I was in my late teens or early twenties when I read the diaries and I think I was much less shockable then than I am now…

  12. Well, I’m not sure how I’d feel about Nin. I’m also not sure I want to find out … this does sound like such a harrowing read. I don’t mind reading harrowing things at all, but I’d want a good reason to do so, like your interest in her lack of desire to be a mother. How interesting that she edited her diary … that doesn’t fit with our ideas of what a diary is at all!

  13. It seems like she carefully crafted her persona? Or what people would read about it? She is an intriguing person–I’ve read things about her and seen movies over the years, but I’ve never quite gotten to the point of reading her diaries. I had never heard this story before. It’s really pretty bizarre, or maybe not so much considering her upbringing and the times. Do you think she used men more or they used her?

  14. Kate – I have yet to read Nin’s own diaries, but I imagine that what was graphic for 1940 is not particularly outrageous by today’s standards! The Bair biography is HUGE so it’s quite possible you could read this and lose it in the ton of information! Or indeed read a different one. I’ve lately read a biography with a completely opposing viewpoint – one of the things it suggests is that the incest never happened but was a fantasy Nin was writing out. It also completely rewrote the above scene emphasising everyone’s sadness and distress. It’s amazing how the same events can come out so differently. Dorothy – she edited her diaries so much – rewrote them and rewrote them. But she thought that her self was the basis for her art, so in some ways she was refining her experience with every new draft. It is sort of harrowing, but more just jaw-dropping. Suffering over romance isn’t so awful as some other things, although Nin takes it to the absolute limit! Danielle – that’s a very insightful comment – what remains of Nin in her diaries is highly crafted, and people responded so violently to her character that what remains of her in people’s memories is very coloured by emotion. Her upbringing was terrible, so it’s no wonder she had problems, and I think in the end the battles with men came out pretty even (although I do admit to feeling very sorry for her husband – although he could have just walked away at any point). I don’t think she ever found real happiness, despite all her relationships, and that’s a shame for all concerned.

  15. I wish I knew how to fix that. It only appears in internet explorer (and I use firefox, so forget that it happens). There is no trace of it in the HTML and it appears in patches and then disappears again. I am not technical, so if you or indeed anyone knows how to fix it, and can explain it relatively simply, I’d be glad to try.

  16. All her diaries are not rewritten to the extent of the ones used in the Henry and June file. Those… I forget the years and don’t have them at hand, are beautifully crafted semi-fiction and are most profitalbly read as fiction. There’s much to be learned by what she did with her diaries… that they were neither autobiographical nor fictin… but a life that aspired to fiction.

    Pay attention, Ofra…

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