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Anaïs Nin on the Meaning of Life and the Dangers of the Internet, Before the Internet

“We believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people… This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us.”

Last week’s widely reverberating meditations on the meaning of life by cultural icons like Charles Bukowski, Annie Dillard, Arthur C. Clarke, and John Cage reminded me of a passage from the altogether sublime The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us this poignant reflection on why emotional excess is essential to creativity.

In an entry from May 1946, Anaïs Nin once again challenges our presentism bias by thinking deeply and timelessly about issues we tend to believe we’re brushing up against for the very first time, from the pitfalls of always-on communication technology to the pace of modern life to the venom of procrastination.

Even more interesting than the striking similarity between what Nin admonishes against and the present dynamics of the internet is the fact that she essentially describes Marshall McLuhan’s seminal concept of the global village… a decade and a half before he coined it. She writes:

The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters, meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.

For more on Nin’s timeless insights on life, see Lisa Congdon’s stunning hand-lettered diary quotes.

BP

No Dream-Laden Adolescent: Anaïs Nin Meets Young Gore Vidal, 1945

“Like all writers, he dreams of total acceptance, unanimous love. A dream.”

Last month, we lost celebrated screenwriter, author, political activist, and professional contrarian Gore Vidal. Though much has been written about him both before and since his death, by far the most poignant and revealing portrait of the man beneath the icon comes from an unlikely source — Anaïs Nin, specifically the fourth volume of her diary, 1944-1947 (public library), from whence this beautiful letter on the importance of emotional excess in writing and creativity came.

In November of 1945, 42-year-old Nin met a young Gore Vidal, aged 20, at a lecture. Even their first encounter exudes Vidal’s unswerving and purposeful character:

Kimon Friar asked me to attend his lecture on love at the Y.M.H.A. so I went yesterday. I was in a depressed mood. I wore a black dress with long sleeves half-covering the hands, and a small heart-shaped black hat, with a pearl edging, shaped like Mary Stuart’s hat. Kimon lectured at the head of a long table. At the foot of the table, one chair was empty. I took it. Maya Deren sat a few chairs away. Next to me sat a handsome young lieutenant. During a pause I leaned over to speak with Maya. She said: ‘You look dramatic.’ I said: ‘I feel like Mary Stuart, who will soon be beheaded.’ The lieutenant leaned over and introduced himself: ‘I am Warrant Officer Gore Vidal. I am a descendant of Troubador Vidal.’ Later he admitted that he had guessed who I was. He is luminous and manly. Near the earth. He is not nebulous, but clear and bright, a contrast to Leonard. He talks. He is active, alert, poised. He is tall, slender, cool eyes and sensual mouth. Kimon was lecturing on Plato’s symposium of love. When it was finished, Vidal and I talked a little more. He is twenty years old, and the youngest editor at E. P. Dutton. His own novel is appearing in the spring. He knows Under a Glass Bell. He asked when he might visit me.

And visit he did — at first, timidly, shortly after their initial encounter, and then with persistent regularity that gave Nin keen insight into both his intensity and his vulnerability:

He came another time, alone. He tells me he will one day be president of the United States. He identifies with Richard the Second, the king-poet. He is full of pride, conceals his sensitiveness, and oscillates between hardness and softness. He is dual. He is capable of feeling, but I sense a distortion in his vision. He has great assurance in the world, talks easily, is a public figure, shines. He can do clever take-offs, imitate public figures. He walks in easily, he is no dream-laden adolescent. His eyes are hazel; clear, open, mocking.

Gore Vidal at age 23, November 14, 1948 (Library of Congress)

He embodied, not without self-awareness, the way in which our early experiences of attachment shape our adult relationships:

Gore said: ‘I do not want to be involved, ever. I live detached from my present life. At home our relationships are casual. My father married a young model. I like casual relationships. When you are involved you get hurt.’

Nin, herself trained in psychoanalysis, was quick to dissect Vidal’s emotional patterning:

Gore came. We slide easily into a sincere, warm talk. He dropped his armor, his defenses. ‘I don’t like women. They are either silly, giggly, like the girls in my set I’m expected to marry, or they are harsh and strident masculine intellectuals. You are neither.’ Intellectually he knows everything. Psychologically he knows the meaning of his mother abandoning him when he was ten, to remarry and have other children. The insecurity which followed the second break he made, at nineteen, after a quarrel with his mother. His admiration, attachment, hatred, and criticalness. Nor is it pity, he says. He is proud that she is beautiful and loved, yet he condemns her possessiveness, her chaos, her willfulness, and revolts against it. He knows this. But he does not know why he cannot love.

[…]

He moves among men and women of achievement. He was cheated of a carefree childhood, of a happy adolescence. He was rushed into sophistication and into experience with the surface of himself, but the deeper self was secret and lonely. ‘My demon is pride and arrogance,’ he said. ‘One you will never see.’ I receive from him gentleness and trust. He first asked me not to write down what he would say. He carries his father’s diplomatic brief case with his own poems and novel in it. He carries his responsibilities seriously, is careful not to let his one-night encounters know his name, his family. As future president of the United States, he protects his reputation, entrusts me with state secrets to lighten his solitude. Later he wants to write it all down, as we want to explore his secret labyrinth together, to find the secret of his ambivalence. To explore. Yet life has taken charge to alter the situation again. He, the lonely one, has trusted woman for the first time, and we start the journey of our friendship, as badly loved children who raised themselves, both stronger and weaker by it.

But Nin’s greatest wisdom shines, once again, in seeing past the hard intellectual edge of the public persona and into the soft core of the private person:

Gore fights battles with threatening forces, faces critics, is vulnerable. Like all writers, he dreams of total acceptance, unanimous love. A dream.

BP

Anaïs Nin on Self-Publishing, the Magic of Letterpress, and the Joy of Handcraft

“You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable.”

Celebrated diarist Anaïs Nin has previously given us some keen insights on life, mass movements, Paris vs. New York, and what makes a great city. Besides artist and author, Nin was also a publishing entrepreneur. In January 1942, she sets up her own small press in a loft on Macdougal Street, and soon set out to print and self-publish a new edition of her third book, Winter of Artifice, teaching herself typesetting and doing most of the manual work herself.

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) comes this beautiful passage on the joy of handcraft, written in January of 1942 — a particularly timely meditation in the age of today’s thriving letterpress generation and the Maker Movement. (Especially interesting is the parallel to what developer Ellen Ullman articulates in describing the mesmerism of programming software.)

Anaïs Nin operating her handpress in Macdougal Street studio

The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.

You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.

If I pay no attention, then I do not lock the tray properly, and when I start printing the whole tray of letters falls into the machine. The words which first appeared in my head, out of the air, take body. Each letter has a weight. I can weigh each word again, to see if it is the right one.

I use soap boxes as shelves, to hold tools, paper, inks. I arrive loaded with old rags for the press, old towels for the hands, coffee, sugar.

[…]

The press mobilized our energies, and is a delight. At the end of the day you can see your work, weigh it. It is done. It exists.

Nin then offers a wonderfully vivid vignette, in which her partner in the venture, Gonzalo, engages in a wild wrestling match with the press — a near-primal struggle we’ve all experienced in the face of an unruly letterpress or even a plain old office printer jam:

Once there was something wrong with the press. It did not work. Gonzalo would not send for the workman, or the repairman. He literally battled with the press, as if it were a bronco, a bull, an animal to be tamed. His hair flew around his face, perspiration fell from his forehead, his centaur feet were kicking the pedals. The machine groaned.

It seemed almost like a physical battle which he intended to win by force. He towered over it. He seemed bigger than the machine. I never saw anything more primitive, more like a battle between an ancient race and a new type of monster. Both as stubborn, both strong, both violent. Gonzalo won. He was breathing heavily. The wheel suddenly began to spin again. He looked absolutely triumphant.

Ultimately, the practical handiwork is for Nin a disciplining agent for the creative process of the conceptual. In a diary entry from April of the same year, she writes:

Take the letter O out of the box, place it next to the T, then a comma, then a space, and so on.

Count page 1, 2, 3, and so on. Select the good ones while Gonzalo runs the machine. Day after day. We are nearing the end. I have difficulties with the separation of words. And it is a problem in setting type.

(My separation of the word lo-ve became years later the favorite of the faultfinders!)

The writing is often improved by the fact that I live so many hours with a page that I am able to scrutinize it, to question the essential words. In writing, my only discipline has been to cut out the unessential. Typesetting is like film cutting. The discipline of typesetting and printing is good for the writer.

Nin recounts the hard-earned triumph of her handcrafted masterpiece:

The book was finished May fifth. Gonzalo and I printed the cover. The bookbinder was objecting to the nonstandard measurements. The machines were set for standard measurements. We finally found a bookbinder willing to bind three hundred books of an odd size. It was delivered all bound May fifteenth. The Gotham Book Mart gave a party for it. The book created a sensation by its beauty. The typography by Gonzalo, the engravings by Ian Hugo were unique. The bookshop was crowded. Otto Fuhrman, teacher of graphic arts at New York University, praised the book. Art galleries asked to carry it. I received orders from collectors, a letter from James Laughlin, offering me a review in New Directions by anyone I chose.

A surviving hard-bound copy of the limited edition of Winter of Artifice, self-published by Anaïs Nin in 1942, with engravings by Ian Hugo.

The book was, indeed, stunning. (The artwork on cover of The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 is also by Ian Hugo, an engraving he created for another one of Nin’s books, Under a Glass Bell.)

BP

What Makes a Great City: Anaïs Nin on the Poetics of New York

“Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power.”

Recently, in preparing for a talk and pondering the question of what makes for a thriving city brimming with robust public life, I was reminded of a passage from a letter Anaïs Nin wrote to her lover Henry Miller, found in the sublime A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953 (public library) — a tome you might recall from recent literary jukebox installments.

Dated December 3, 1934, this letter stands in stark contrast to Nin’s grim take on New York in comparison to Paris some five years later, but it bespeaks the same exhilarating enthusiasm for the city that Jan Morris captured a decade later and that New Yorkers and visitors of all eras have been — sometimes reluctantly, sometimes wholeheartedly, always inevitably — infected with:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

BP

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