WHILE ANAIS NIN concentrated on the art of fiction, Henry Miller tussled with his suspicion that her art was too often the artifice of fiction. Nin operated on an emotional plane where she tried to sketch the world through people's fantasies about it, instead of through physical reality. By delineating her characters in the hue of their own dreams and flights or imagination--with barely a hint at the link to actual experience--she hoped to distill the purest state of love, or fear, or aloneness from them. By concentrating on private mental worlds--which Nin called "cities of the interior"--she aimed at poetic psychoanalysis. Bewildered critics tagged her a surrealist, while more aggressive readers accused her of grouping in thin air for the inexpressible and didn't even find anything to hang a label on.
Henry Miller thrived on external realities and his novels revelled in the physical. (Which is not to say the critics took to him right off, either: Nin relates that Cyril Connolly admired him as a man of the street--while lamenting that his streets were parisian and planted with bordellos, in the same breath.) If Miller reacted cagily to her novelistic style, Anais's diary reveals that their interests weren't always opposite. Here she records life in the same raw state that Miller aimed to work with, and fills the gap he disparaged in Tropic of Cancer:
There is only one thing which interests me vitally now, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books. Nobody, so far as I can see, is making use of those elements in the air which give direction and motivation to our lives... Revolutions are nipped in the bud, or else succeed too quickly. Passion is quickly exhausted. Men fall back on ideas, comme d'habitude.
Nin transplanted many passages straight from the diary into books, yet they remain most striking in their original context. She often wrote on the spur of the moment--in the Paris metro, on an Acapulco beach--wherever she could prop a notebook, with an unusual felicity for sifting and sorting incidents barely finished. Most of us don't venture beyond the word "nothing" in summing up our day, but Anais reports her contacts and conversations with dauntless agility. Like Miller, she has discovered that unabashed observers fascinate people because they've learned to wade daringly into ideas and only skim the surface off life itself; when one person catalogues life's vicissitudes, he jolts many others out of an unwitting stupor. Nin laments our cultivated numbness in the latest volume of her diary with an observation that parallels Miller's complaint in Cancer:
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... Here in Mexico they see only the present... 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.
MORE THAN ANY of the first four volumes of her diary, this one is set firmly in America. In the others she lived as a native in Paris, or dwelled on her memories of France although living in the States. Now she plunges into American culture during the fifties, whose chaos both amuses and infuriates her. The sight of movers in Los Angeles wheeling an entire house down the street reminds her of Haitian fairy tales about trees that switched positions during the night. It occurs to her that the trucks heading for film studios laden with subway stations would appeal to the surrealists. A man in Greenwich Village called the One-Man-Band infatuates her with his unlikely rig made of:
one gasoline tin
one hot-water bag
one rubber mouse with a squeak
one frying pan
Plus two sticks for a refined imitation of a jazz combo.
But America frustrates Anais Nin as a writer, and her anxious struggle for understanding spills into the entire volume. Universities invite her to lecture, while publishers reject her as a sales risk and literary critics besiege her dreams disguised as leeches and tarantulas. In despair, she considers dropping out of the literary world altogether, yet her sense of identity as a writer persists unfazed and it finally sustains her.
Meanwhile, the diary continues to evolve untested. A handful of people had paged over sections and catalyzed rumors of its artistry, but they couldn't persuade her to publish. That would cut both an end from her existence--separating her from a "Kief, hashish, and opium pipe," a single staunch friend--and a beginning--because she filters her stories' "myth" and "poem" out of her diary's spreading tide. To Macmillan Co.'s rebuff of her novels as esoteric Nin counters: "An adolescent culture shows the adolescent incapacity to admire, to respect or to evaluate."
In the diary's first volume, Freud's one-time disciple, Otto Rank, analyzes Anais. By the fifth volume, her digressions on neurosis come as a matter of course. With the conviction that personality has ceased to be an enigma, she resolves to deflate her anxieties with keen insight, pretty much like the prick of a needle eliminates balloons. To this end, she doggedly pries apart relationships and scrutinizes the pieces for wear. It turns out that the traits she rebels against in friends often lurk unacknowledged in herself, so that an end to friendships ends external friction, while the sparks smolder inside her. When a printer named Gonzalo friendships ends external friction, while the sparks smolder inside her. When a printer named Gonzalo no longer intimidates her with his violence Nin sees it in herself. She resists the "physical and mental promiscuity" in Henry Miller while they are together in Paris, and later traces the same gleeful audacity in hereself back to childhood, when she solicited strangers on the street by inviting them in for tea.
THIS HEIGHTENED awareness of private neurosis alerts her to the general taint and prompts an interesting argument. In a review of Tennessee Williams's play, The Rose Tatoo, Maxwell Geismar--a Marxist critic--deplores Williams's detachment from the mainstream of American literature. Convinced that literature should be a function of politics, any preoccupation with sheer emotion irks him. The "people," he contends, aren't infected. Nin perceives an undercurrent in American life that sucks in more than a peripheral minority--making neurotics less than special. Williams, she responds, has prophesied a cultural illness.
Although introspective, Nin doesn't thrive on solitude. She focuses her curiosity on the outside world and delights in its confusion. She doesn't hesitate to draw attention to herself: she once performed Spanish dances; she modeled for artists in New York. She remembers a painter's astonishment when she arrived at his studio early in the morning wearing a red velvet dress; it was a cast-off sent by relatives in Cuba where women didn't stifle themselves. During an experiment with LSD, she blurts: "I want to explain to you why women weep. IT IS THE QUICKEST WAY TO REJOIN THE OCEAN." The ocean mimes this woman's fluidity, color and sensuality.
The diary expresses an avid interest in other people. Anais portrays individuals according to their idiosyncracies--Dr. Max Jacobson, Martha Graham, and a waif named Nina, attracted by "Nin" as to an echo, among them--and societies according to the idiosyncracies of their individuals.
Mexico's flamboyance--including tombs painted laundry blue, pink, and red, or churches topped with neon crosses--captivates her. She craves people and chases experience, repelled by the "crustacean" life of gradual withdrawal from the world as passing years reveal its threatening aspects. Her unembarrassed receptivity to the emotional and physical aspects of human beings is evoked in an impression of Sierra Madre:
...I hear the train whistle at night and the coyotes in a pack with their thin wailing cries answering the train, mistaking it for the cry of another animal in the night. The first night I thought it was a woman in labor pains.
In its published form, Anais Nin's diary spans 24 years. The last volume depicts a mature woman, a writer gravitating within the American artistic community and a more introspective, retrospective person than the author of the first three books seemed to be. The younger Anais was constantly evolving; now her world fluctuates, but her attitudes keep stable. The feverish pace to her life and record has gentled; still, its intrigue remains intact. The whole picture puts an ironic twist on the retort of an indignant reporter when Anais hauled her diaries out of a fire: "Hey, lady, next time could you bring out something more important than all those old papers? Carry some clothes on the next trip. We gotta have some human interest in these pictures!"