It is not simply out of "young-people-today" defensiveness that I cite the conclusion to Anatole Broyard's review in the New York Times of Anais Nin's fourth diary. However undeveloped and inadvertant his point may have been, it gets at the heart of what there is to be said about Anais Nin. "It seems that the diaries are enjoying a tremendous vogue among the young people today. It is a good thing, for Miss Nin is certainly an improvement over The Prophet, Love Story and The Greening of America." How much of an improvement, he cannot bring himself to say.
She is as emotive, as inarticulate, as narcissistic and, in a word, as adolescent as the adolescents who, according to Anatole Broyard, are her public. The qualities of adolescence are welcome in an adolescent, but in an adult, adolescence is better termed irresponsibility. To whom is Anais Nin irresponsible? Her personal life does not warrant our moralizations. Is she irresponsible to her own talents? The question is tenuous, but provocative. Is she irresponsible to the personnages in this diary, most notably Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, and Henry Miller? It is tempting to dismiss the question of Anais Nin's responsibility or lack of it because of her inconsequence as a writer. But because she deals with people about whom the slightest bits of information will be cherished--Henry Miller, Edmund Wilson. Otto Rank, Lawrence Durrell--her place in literary history is secured. An evaluation of her is important only to the extent that it qualifies her perceptions of the humanists through whose lives she passes.
Born in Paris, Anais Nin is a diarist and minor novelist. Her father was a Spanish composer; her mother, of French and Danish extraction, was a singer. They were separated and Anais and her two brothers moved to Manhattan where they were brought up by their mother. Anais Nin's first diary (1931-34), written in her early twenties when she lived in a suburb of Paris, deals with her friendships with Lawrence Durrell, Dr. Otto Rank, Henry Miller and his wife, June. Of all the diaries, this one is the most interesting. Her second diary (1934-39) is set in New York where she worked as an amateur psychiatrist under Dr. Otto Rank. The romance of France being more conducive to her writing, she returned again to her birthplace. The third diary (1939-44) opens with her flight from the Second World War in Europe to Manhattan where she establishes herself as a reluctantly expatriated writer. The fourth and newly published diary (1944-47) has Greenwich Village for a backdrop, where from her coterie of young men, she snipes at the literary establishment--in particular, Edmund Wilson. In 1947 she makes a tour of the United States in an old Ford, visiting Frank Lloyd Wright, and Henry Miller, ending up in Mexico.
The pattern of the diary is a series of affairs strung together with little philosophies about love and art, interspersed with humorous anecdotes, the humor of which Anais Nin seems curiously unaware of. The pattern is vampirish. Anais Nin takes in men and women, makes love to them sexually, emotionally, aesthetically; they respond, adoringly, confessionally. She drains them of their passion, distills them in her diary; they stay or leave; fangs out, she hunts for more. What is particularly insidious about this pattern is that she uses the diary to bitch in. Where in the course of a relationship she is unable to tell her seducer to go to hell, she does so in the diary, so that we will know that it wasn't that Anais Nin was jilted.
This cycle is particularly offensive as it works itself out on Edmund Wilson. She came into his life when Mary McCarthy had just moved herself and her furniture out of their apartment. Very vulnerable, he was taken with Anais Nin. All the while that she was scribbling her disgust for him in her diary, she seems to have been egging him on. Her distaste seems to have been rooted in her allying him with her father, with authority, discipline, and history, all of the powers which fill her with terror. "Father, man, critic, enemy of the artist," she says of him.
If for a moment we accept the premise of narcissism, if we relax our distaste for her egocentrism, and make the effort to enjoy her as she ostensibly seems to enjoy herself, we find quickly that the veneer of joy and self-love is thin. It seems that she maintains the external, self-promoting eye in order to convince herself that she is loveable. With her diary, Anais Nin is incessantly licking the wounds of her self-hate.
An American, and a writer of books, Anais Nin is profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-American:
"My greatest problem here, in polemic loving America, is my dislike of polemics, of belligerence, of battle. Even intellectually. I do not like wrestling matches. I do not like talk marathons. I do not like arguments, or struggles to convert others. I seek harmony. If it is not there. I go away.
Anais Nin is the great seductress who hates men, the diarist who hates herself, the expatriate turned American who hates America, the writer who hates the intellect. This is not simply confusion, but sadomasochism as well.
If the question be indulged, she was indeed irresponsible to her own talents. By dint of her fears, her charms, and her sexuality, she kept herself from the maturation of an extraordinary birthright. Further, the question is no longer whether or not she is responsible to the personnages in her diary. Her character portraits are valuable so long as her character warp is weighed into the equation. Anais Nin has been washing her dirty lingerie out in public now for four volumes. She threatens a fifth. She should spare us the embarrassment.