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THERE IS A scene in Medium Cool where Martin Luther King's voice appears over a television in some hot Chicago apartment on a summer night. It is the speech about having been to the top of the mountain, and hearing that tremulous sermon again reminds me that history is a process of forgetting. The dim past surges up before us, events which had an aura that defined them are obscured. Even Vietnam is an experience, like a dream, because it exists in a moment charged with the intentions of our lives.
If it is like this now, imagine what it was before. Our fathers dressed in their World War II uniforms. listening to Roosevelt on the radio: things like this happened before most of us were born, so they belong to the indistinct memory of books, to the chronicle of another age. It's sad to think of what we missed. And it is possible to be nostalgic for a world we never knew. This must be why the still fixity of photographs recalls so much, why an album of snapshots from James Joyce's Paris days is as suggestive as Ulysses.
Some of the figures who peopled that world-of Paris in the Twenties, New York later in the Thirties, and World War II-have survived. and in grand fashion. Not Hemingway or Fitzgerald, not the exiles, but the Europeans. or those who wished they had been. Everyone knows about Henry Miller's life. about what Paris was for him. but it seems as if Anais Nin has voyaged towards the present with the same awareness that was her gift in recording the years before and during World War II. Engaged with the Surrealists while they were still a confused group of artists haranguing the errors of history, she chose to live among them and preserve a subtle grace. Always in the third volume of the Diary, edited by Gunther Stuhlmann from an enormous collection of notebooks, there is the impression of intensity, but also of ease: like a caged bird. she struggles against the imprisoning bars. then waits, taut, exhausted, for the summoning of energy.
From an entry of April. 1942 is the vision of a nightmare where "the world grows immense. a chamber of horrors. a tortured world." Another, from the year before, notes that Citizen Kane "magnifies a thousand times the drama of emptiness." A letter from Miller in Hollywood complains that "people are poor in spirit, low, mean, envious." Everywhere is the sense of chaos, of a suffocating cosmos. What is most remarkable about the Diary is its evocation of an age: Miller, Eugene O'Neill, the moribund Kenneth Patchen: they move like ghosts through the long years of the War. animated, prodded back into life in the pages of Nin's journal.
It is as if the ebb of time was paralyzed; the photographs included in Diaries III encourage an emotion very much like what we have when looking over the family album. Only instead of a vague reminiscence, the thought of relatives we knew ten years ago, there is a jarring of the intellect; the moment of rebellion is stunned into life. Edgar Varese in his studio. Nin printing her own works in an attic on Macdougal Street, Robert Duncan as a boy: they all appear, either as apparitions in the photographs or in the text.
WE HAVE been inundated by biographies and memoirs; Hemingway's Moveable Feast. the interminable studies of Joyce's Paris years, the histories of manic Surealists like Breton or Michel Leiris. If the Diaries belong to this tradition, still their achievement is in something more: the unearthing of a sensibility diminished by the wracking crises of the years between 1939 and 1944, and yet able to go on. Anais Nin's shared preoccupations with psychoanalysis pervade the entries in this volume; Otto Rank appears in the beginning pages as the mysterious influence he was in Nin's life, but by this time he was dead, leaving her to agonize over her relationship to him ("Did I see enough, hear enough, observe enough, love enough, did I listen attentively, did I sustain the life?").
All the stylish arguments which plagued that generation are talked out: Nin's temparament embraces Freud, despairs about America, succumbs to the disasters of World War II, and staves off the temptations of Marxism, even as she manages to repair her sensitivity. A remarkable scene in Caresse Crosby's Virginia house involves Dali, Henry Miller, and Nin shouting confusedly at the dinner table; another describes the exhaustion of New York literary society, drunken parties, jazz. The endeavor to write almost seems to subside before the need to simply go on. Even though she was eventually driven to publish her own works in a loft before Edmund Wilson discovered Under a Glass Bell in 1944, Nin never failed to remind herself that "we exult in what we master and discover." The entries from January, 1942, relate the chore of handsetting and printing one's own books, and the triumph of attention, all amidst the background of convulsion in the world. After a terse notation of atrocities ("Bali invaded. Java invaded. Paris bombarded by the English, India rebelling against the English") Nin wrote: "And what can one do but preserve some semblance of human life, to seek the not-savage, not-barbaric forms of life."
Really, nothing has changed since then. What is exacted is essentially the same; it is only a question of how to articulate the conditions by which one lives, and not to salvage them.
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