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Anaïs Nin on Embracing the Unfamiliar

“It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”

We’ve already seen that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, and that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. John Keats wrote of this art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” and famously termed it “negative capability.” But count on Anaïs Nin to articulate familiar truths in the most exquisitely poetic way possible, peeling away at the most profound and aspirational aspects of what it means to be human.

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In a diary entry from the winter of 1949-1950, found in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947-1955 (public library) — which gave us Nin’s whimsical antidote to city life and her poignant meditation on character, parenting, and personal responsibility — she observes:

Educators do all in their power to prepare you to enjoy reading after college. It is right that you should read according to your temperament, occupations, hobbies, and vocations. But it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar, unwilling to explore the unfamiliar. In science, we respect the research worker. In literature, we should not always read the books blessed by the majority. This trend is reflected in such absurd announcements as “the death of the novel,” “the last of the romantics,” “the last of the Bohemians,” when we know that these are continuous trends which evolve and merely change form. The suppression of inner patterns in favor of patterns created by society is dangerous to us. Artistic revolt, innovation, experiment should not be met with hostility. They may disturb an established order or an artificial conventionality, but they may rescue us from death in life, from robot life, from boredom, from loss of the self, from enslavement.

When we totally accept a pattern not made by us, not truly our own, we wither and die. People’s conventional structure is often a façade. Under the most rigid conventionality there is often an individual, a human being with original thoughts or inventive fantasy, which he does not dare expose for fear of ridicule, and this is what the writer and artist are willing to do for us. They are guides and map makers to greater sincerity. They are useful, in fact indispensable, to the community. They keep before our eyes the variations which make human beings so interesting. The men who built America were the genuine physical adventurers in a physical world. This world once built, we need adventurers in the realm of art and science. If we suppress the adventure of the spirit, we will have the anarchist and the rebel, who will burst out from too narrow confines in the form of violence and crime.

Also from Nin’s diaries: why emotional excess is essential to creativity, Paris vs. New York, what makes a great city, and her hand-lettered wisdom on life.

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Stunning Black & White Engravings by Ian Hugo from Anaïs Nin’s Hand-Printed Under a Glass Bell, 1944

Stunning artwork from a hand-made book that presages modern self-publishing entrepreneurship.

Anaïs Nin may have become best-known and celebrated for her remarkable diaries and letters spanning more than six decades, but she also published a number of short stories and novels. It wasn’t until the publication of the short-story collection Under a Glass Bell (public library) in 1944 that Nin’s work began to garner attention from the literary pantheon, propelled by a favorable review in The New Yorker by Edmund Wilson, whom Nin qualified in her diary as “the highest authority among the critics.”

But the book’s story itself is a fascinating piece of cultural history and a heartening, timely exemplar of everything from self-publishing to woman-led entrepreneurship to the maker movement.

In 1942, when Nin couldn’t find a publisher for the book in an industry bent under the weight of wartime financial pressures, she started her own publishing house, Gremor Press, in a small loft on Macdougal Street in New York. She taught herself typesetting and fell in love with the letterpress. Her husband, banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Gulier, who went by the artistic pseudonym Ian Hugo, created all the line-on-copper engravings for the book, and Nin herself set the type by hand. She eventually printed 300 copies in the first edition, sold via an innovative subscription model, which sold out in three weeks, and another 100 a second edition.

I was recently fortunate enough to hunt down one of the few surviving original hand-printed copies and have scanned Hugo’s stunning engravings for your viewing pleasure:

The book comes complete with an endearing typo in the endnote, a souvenir of the humanness that brought this handmade book to life:

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Anaïs Nin on Parenting, Character, and Personal Responsibility

“We cannot always place responsibility outside of ourselves, on parents, nations, the world, society, race, religion.”

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” wrote Joan Didion. For young Susan Sontag, the architecture of character was a matter of certain responsibilities. And although our early upbringing lays out a powerful template for the neural core of our emotional identity, the notion that it’s inescapable, that the constellation of qualities and behaviors we call “character” is stable and unchanging, is a myth.

In a passage from an entry penned in the winter of 1948, found in Diary of Anaïs Nin Vol. 5 (1947-1955) (public library) — which also gave us her poetic antidote to city life — Nin reflects on the intricate interplay between the formative role of parenting and the plasticity of our personality.

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She writes:

We receive a fatal imprint in childhood, at the time of our greatest plasticity, of our passive impressionism, of our helplessness before suggestion. In no period has the role of the parents loomed as immense, because we have recognized the determinism, but at the same time an exaggeration in the size of the Enormous Parent does not need to be permanent and irretrievable. The time has come when, having completed the scientific study of the importance of parents, we now must re-establish our power to revoke their imprint, to reverse our patterns, to kill our fatal downward tendencies. We do not remain smaller in suture than our parents. Nature had intended them to shrink progressively in our eyes to human proportions while we reach for our own maturity. Their fallibilities, their errors, their weaknesses were intended to develop our own capacity for parenthood. We were to discover their human weakness not to overwhelm or humiliate them, but to realize the difficulty of their task and awaken our own human protectiveness toward their failures or a respect for their partial achievement. But to place all responsibilities upon them is wrong too. If they gave us handicaps, they also gave us their courage, their obstinacy, their sacrifices, their moments of strength. We cannot forever await from them the sanction to mature, to impose on them our own truths, to resist or perhaps defeat them in our necessity to gain strength.

We cannot always place responsibility outside of ourselves, on parents, nations, the world, society, race, religion. Long ago it was the gods. If we accepted a part of this responsibility we would simultaneously discover our strength. A handicap is not permanent. We are permitted all the fluctuations, metamorphoses which we all so well understand in our scientific studies of psychology.

Character has ceased to be a mystery and we can no longer refuse our responsibility with the excuse that this is an unformed, chaotic, eyeless, unpredictable force which drives, tosses, breaks us at will.

Complement with Nin’s hand-lettered wisdom on life.

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On Beauty, Quality, Poetry, and Integrity: Anaïs Nin Meets Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. (1947)

“His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable.”

Among the richest and most rewarding parts of Anaïs Nin’s diaries are her encounters with and impressions of cultural icons, whether personalities like Gore Vidal or legendary cities like Paris vs. New York. Yesterday’s compendium of quotes, quips, and words of wisdom by famous architects reminded me of Nin’s encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., son of the great Frank Lloyd Wright, recounted in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us Nin’s poignant reflections on why emotional excess is essential to creativity and how technology relates to the meaning of life. Though Lloyd Wright, as he was better known, remained in many ways in the inescapable shadow of his father’s legend, he was himself a highly accomplished and visionary architect.

In 1926, a group known as the Allied Architects was commissioned to rebuild the iconic Hollywood Bowl, originally constructed in 1922, but their improvements failed to accommodate sufficient seating or improve the acoustics. In 1927, Wright designed what’s commonly considered the best shell the Hollywood Bowl has ever had, acoustically speaking — a pyramidal structure that was, sadly, deemed too avant-garde by the powers that be and was subsequently demolished after just one season. The following year, Wright was granted a redo and he designed a collapsible, concentric fiberglass shell with movable panels inside for tuning the acoustics — but that, too, was buried for political reasons. The Allied Architects took over for the 1929 season and built the structure that endured, with cosmetic modifications (including, most famously, one by Frank Gehry in 1982), until 2003. It was that “monstrously ugly” version that stood when Nin met Wright in 1947.

Progression of the Hollywood Bowl shell, 1926-1929

While the Hollywood Bowl is but a passing mention in their encounter, Nin’s extraordinary insight into Wright’s ethos becomes, as so much of her writing does, a springboard for a larger meditation on architecture, the world of art and role of the artist, and the ideological underpinnings of mid-century American culture.

I saw his plans for Los Angeles. It could have been the most beautiful city in the world, for everyone to come to see, as people went to see Venice. But architecture had been taken over by businessmen, and Lloyd the artist was not allowed to carry out his incredibly rich, fecund concepts. The room was full of them. When he took a rolled-up drawing from the shelves and spread it over the table, I saw buildings which equaled the wonders of the past.

[…]

Strength was obvious in him, but sensitivity and imagination were in his drawings. Homes, churches, plans for entire cities. A universe of lyrical beauty in total opposition to the sterile, monotonous, unimaginative ‘box’-buildings now seen all over the world.

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I expected Los Angeles to be filled with his buildings. This was not the case. Fame highlighted his father’s work, but not Lloyd’s—not as he deserved. If his plans had been carried out, the world would have been dazzled by them. His work was on a scale which should have appealed to the spirit of grandeur in the American character, a dramatic and striking expression of a new land. But instead, American architects chose to take the path of imitating Europe, of uniformity, monotony, dullness. In Lloyd’s work there was space, invention, poetry, a restrained and effective use of the romantic, surprises always in the forms, new and imaginative use of structural parts, rooms, windows, and materials. He has a gift for involvement in many-leveled lives, for the variations, caprices, and nuances necessary to the human spirit. Every stone, every roof-tile, every window, every texture or material was designed for the consistent development of his building, its environment, and designed to elevate the quality of people’s lives. Uniformity and monotony kill individuality, dull the senses. Lloyd designed his work to reinforce individuality with poetry, beauty, and integrity. It was planned to create a more beautiful and satisfying human environment. Architecture as poetry. … By contrast, the commonplace, shoddy, temporary movie-set houses around him were painful to see. He called them ‘cracker boxes,’ shabby, thin, motel-type homes for robots.

[…]

The Wright pride. Yes, pride in quality. He supervises his buildings, takes care of every detail: searches for masons who care about stonework, painters who can paint, metalworkers who are skillful. Today, in an age of amateurs, this is a most difficult achievement.

[…]

His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. He speaks out boldly, as Varèse did. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable. Beauty and integrity. And for them one has to be willing to make sacrifices.

[…]

This architect never falls off the high standards, the heights he established for himself. The mediocre and the deformed sprout around him, like weeds, ugly buildings which do not endure and which look shabby after a few months. He is offended, but he does not surrender. He finds it “futile, offensive, and all-pervasive, but not inevitable.

In one of her visits, Nin has a chance to look through Wright’s notes and comments on architecture, where she finds the following telling micro-manifesto:

I am concerned with our natural environment, how we can discover and utilize form, and perfect the endlessly varied, stimulating and beautiful services it provides for mankind. It is the architect’s opportunity and responsibility to understand and practice the art of creating with and out of them a suitable environment for mankind—advancing the art with every conceivable means, including, among others, poetic license and poetic prescience. And now, after billions of years of experience and preconditioning on this earth (from the development of the first one-celled amoeba to our present human complex) we have no valid excuse for not performing superbly.

Image adapted from Jason Rzucidlo

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