check out the new “Cafe in Space” published by Sky Blue Press: i have a little piece in it about the strange experience of writing about Anais Nin. i feel particularly thrilled about this new volume because it is one of my first serious attempts to write a blurred-genre text that incorporates both my academic and creative faculties. i only received my contributor’s copy the other day, so i have not yet had the chance to read through some of the *very* exciting new work! it’s a shame you can only read it in print. behind the cut, find a draft of the full article.
Ouroboros and Disorientation: Profile of a Nin Lover
As part of a broader line of inquiry about unfulfilled desire as a guiding principle in Anaïs Nin’s critical reception, I have been re-evaluating my relationship to Nin and her work. I have often described my connection with Nin as “my longest literary love affair” constantly in flux, but never over.
As an undergraduate, reading her for the first time, I was enthralled by the ethereality of her stories, the brazenness by which she seemed to live her life, her delicate handling of language, and, admittedly, her physical beauty. I sunk myself in her images, moaned at her unexpected turns of phrase, rode through her labyrinthine storylines, and read her paragraphs over and over again. It occurred to me that I would never find another artist so perfectly correspondent to my own emotional and creative life. Eighteen and filled with angst and excitement, I let Nin’s language rub on the raw flesh of my curiosity.
Writing my undergraduate thesis on Nin’s erotica was an adventure in which I wanted to feel like a young hero putting my intellectual savvy to the test by valiantly contending with the masculinist literary monolith in the name of feminism. But it seemed Nin kept slipping through my fingers; each time I sought to record an observation, contradictory passages from her work sprung up before I could put pen to paper. I was overcome with self-doubt and wondered how I could study literature if I could not even make one simple argument about this author I love. I was at once delighted by her evasiveness and exasperated by what I was increasingly seeing as an impossible project. Even trying to listen closely to her words did not yield any clarity.
While my experience writing about Nin as a graduate student was similarly vexed, my readings of her work grew more complex; I continued to admire her discipline, command over imagery and metaphor, and dexterous manner of weaving multiple narratives, but I was also troubled by her seemingly vacillating philosophical perspectives and attention paid to physical attractiveness. Reading Nin scholarship only served to further confuse me. I questioned: is Anaïs Nin more a seeker of truth or illusion? If there were a singular canon of feminist literature, would Nin’s work fit the bill? How can I be so spellbound by her work when she consistently exoticizes her non-white characters and essentializes her female ones? Why am I at once enchanted by her style and beauty, and irritated by the emphasis placed on her physical appearance and femininity by critics and fans alike? Plainly, Anaïs Nin’s work got under my skin like a lover, like an illness. I felt sick and elated, embraced and repelled.
I struggled with Nin; she coaxed and drew me into her world and sometimes made me believe I was learning something definite from her. Something I could hold on to. Something I could write down. I became creature-like in my writing, a snake gliding between sentences, through metaphors, and always circling back to swallow my own tail. After several rounds of this discontenting endeavor, I found myself compromising on an argument for my thesis because it seemed wholly impossible to articulate a cohesive idea where Nin was concerned.
While it may be obvious that each time we return to a body of work we have a different experience of the material, I found that even within a single reading experience, my reactions to the writing oscillated and squirmed between painful frustration, miserable paralysis, and unreserved delight. Over the years I have engaged extensively with her work, and through this research, my relationship to Nin has evolved. But one element remains: since the beginning of our “affair,” when writing about Nin, I have the experience of feeling like an Ouroboros, constantly circling back on my logic, eating my own tail. Unsteady and disoriented, I start over and over again.
Since graduate school, I have observed my own process of writing about Anaïs Nin and noticed it is comprised of a multi-step exercise in disorientation: first, I read Nin and become excited by the work. I then write about that which excites me, and in the process, I have an idea. I become excited about the idea and return to Nin’s work to find more moments such as the one, which so excited me in order to revel in my excitement and to find complimentary passages that further illuminate the present idea. But upon returning to the work I realize my idea is either simplistic or wrong for inevitably, there are many more moments, which contradict my idea than those, which solidify it. I write through the shift in thought and become inconsolably confused. Returning to Nin, searching for answers, I find more and more contradictory images and ideas. I give up. I decide this process does not have to be so strained, and resolve to write about only a small portion of the many whirling thoughts I’ve been having. I write and feel dejected, like I’m leaving something out. Upon concluding, each words feels like a mask or a trick or betrayal. I feel like a fraud, like I haven’t done justice to Nin. I vow to keep attempting to do her justice.
I dread writing about Anaïs Nin. I examine this dread now because no matter how much I have worked with Nin I always feel as though I am stating from scratch. Through scrutinizing my personal experiences of working with Anaïs Nin, I can benefit as a writer, academic, and fan. And I believe that my abilities as a critic are enhanced by my willingness to analyze my own experiences reading Nin as well as analyzing Nin’s work itself.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to understand this difficulty writing about Nin as something other than a problem with my own academic rigor, writing practice, or logic. Rather, I began to understand my frustration as the result of two distinct, but related phenomena: firstly, the standard of literary criticism, which asserts that we must remain objective in our analyses (and if we cannot, we must state our biases upfront as to recuse ourselves) so as not to let our personal experiences and proclivities interfere with a sound reading, constantly haunts my Nin-writing experiences. This accepted form of academic discourse (rhetorically argued, thesis-driven essay), is largely an ineffective way of discussing literature because it tends to close down meaning rather than open it up to new possibilities. The closing down of possible meaning is an especially relevant concern in Nin scholarship because Nin is an artist for whom the multiplication of meaning is paramount.
Secondly, I began to see this struggle as a direct result of the principle of disorientation in Nin’s work; because a major artery running through Anaïs Nin’s writing is disorientation, the merging of various realities, dislocation, and fragmentedness of the self, it makes sense that attempting to make a traditionally logical or linear argument about her work would send me spinning to devour my own tail. In fact, one might reasonably argue that cyclic analyses and feelings of disorientation are Nin’s desired results for one who engages with her work. In other words, that I find myself disoriented, means the work is working.
It is a problem that scholars have tried to make rhetorical or objective “sense” out of Nin’s work. Not only is this feeling of constant disorientation not to be considered a problem, but it is in fact something special about reading Nin. As academics we often have feelings of fraudulence and posturing when the burden of proof is upon us. But we need not be coldly empirical in our interpretations of Nin for part of her longstanding project as an artist is to penetrate beyond the intellectual, beyond the rational, and even beyond the purely emotional. Her interest is in the totality of experience and the potential revelations of self that can emerge when we allow ourselves to be or believe more than one thing simultaneously. It is frustrating to write about Anaïs Nin because she defies our prescribed form of criticism not only by making multi-vocal texts, but also because she invites her readers to acknowledge their own multivocalities.
It is as important to explore what readers experience on an emotional or physical level with Nin, as it is to know what they think about the work. Many fans and scholars call Nin by her first name because they feel close to her. Familiar with her. While maintaining critical objectivity in our scholarship can be a valuable approach, in the case of Nin, this critical distance can be more of a hindrance to our analyses than an asset. It would be dishonest to work with Nin’s material and exclude a plethora of other reactions that are not based in the intellect.
And yet even as I write this I question: what is my criterion for knowing Nin? Where is my textual evidence of this phenomenon of disorientation? Would providing textual evidence not contradict my assertions heretofore and send me circling once again? Is the knowledge I think I have of Nin merely imagined knowledge? Is it not my experience that my presumed knowledge of Nin actually brings me farther away from understanding her? Is it possible to ever find myself on solid footing in Nin’s work and to finally unwind myself from this Ouroboros-like posture?
However inadequate, I would like to provide a small piece of text, which for me, even momentarily, illuminates issues discussed herein: Anaïs Nin’s Unprofessional Study of D.H. Lawrence presents an interesting example of a fuller approach to literary criticism than that to which we traditionally adhere. In an epigraph to the book, Henry James is quoted: “The critic’s task is to compare a work with its own concrete standard of truth.” Even before Nin begins her text, she sets the barometer for her readings of Lawrence. This epigraph serves as her plea for criticism to use the “standard of truth” according to which the text itself is constructed. This means that a literary text adheres to its own, individual logic, which does not necessarily align with the standard of logic largely accepted in academic communities.
Furthermore, in his introduction to the Unprofessional Study, Lawrence scholar Harry T. Moore writes not only that Nin’s study of Lawrence is “refreshing” and that Nin’s “discussions of the texture of Lawrence’s work” could hardly “come closer to Lawrence’s magic,” but also that “The particular kind of intuition – emotional knowledge – for which we are so grateful in Miss Nin’s own later fiction, she first applied to her explication of Lawrence. Surely this book was an important stage in her own development” (12). Nin, in fact, begins her study by writing that “the world D.H. Lawrence created cannot be entered through the exercise of one faculty alone: there must be a threefold desire of intellect, of imagination, and of physical feeling” (13). Here Nin argues that one cannot read Lawrence in a singular way: that in order to fully enter into the world he creates in his texts, one must utilize multiple sensual capacities and modes of reasoning. She continues,
His philosophy was not a coolly constructed formula, an assemblage of theories fitting reasonably together: it was a transcending of ordinary values, which were to be vivified and fecundated by instincts and intuitions. To such intuitional reasoning he submitted himself and his characters.
Thus to begin to realize Lawrence is to begin immediately to realize philosophy not merely as an intellectual edifice but as a passionate blood-experience. (13)
Part of what makes Nin’s analysis of Lawrence so thorough and unique in the critical community is that she reads as an artist rather than as a scholar. She allows for her own reading and art-making experience to seep into her analysis and does not restrict herself to the realm of ideas. In her study, Nin observes the “standard of truth” Lawrence lays out in his work and thus presents a more complete picture of Lawrence as an artist than would be possible if she submitted to standardized forms of criticism.
This holistic approach to criticism is an honor, which we owe Anaïs Nin. I hope to read more Nin criticism, which includes layered, multifaceted interpretations of her work: interpretations that include physical experience and desire in addition to intellect. I hope to read Nin criticism which heeds her words regarding Lawrence and applies them to her own mode of knowing: “Lawrence has no system, unless his constant shifting of values can be called a system: a system of mobility. To him any stability is merely an obstacle to creative livingness” (14). Nin too holds to no fixed system unless, as she writes, it is a system of constant “shifting values.” Nin’s writing, like Lawrence’s, operates by a “system of mobility”; her treatment of Lawrence is likely an approach she would like critics to take regarding her own work: a treatment, which permits passionate and versatile readings.
What I know about Anaïs Nin is that she seems to gut me as I read. She rearranges my organs and then sows me up. Afterward, I may appear to be the same, but I am not. I am utterly changed within. It is this internal change with which Nin is concerned in her writing. She is interested in interiority, secret revelations, personal accounts, and excavations of the spirit and psyche. She would want for us to always proceed from the middle, and to preserve her cyclic embrace in our interpretations of her work.
Nin, Anaïs. D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study. The Swallow Press: Chicago. 1964.