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Anaïs Nin on Why Understanding the Individual is the Key to Understanding Mass Movements

“Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) was one of the most prolific and dedicated diarists in modern literary history, her journals a treasure trove of insight on life, literature, society, and human nature. From the The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) — which gave us Nin’s illustrated insights on life, this poignant mediation on Paris vs. New York, and Henry Miller’s wisdom on giving vs. receiving — comes this thoughtful 1940 reflection on why understanding the masses, in sociology and in politics, must be preceded by understanding the triumphs and tragedies of the individual:

The general obsession with observing only historical or sociological movements, and not a particular human being (which is considered such righteousness here [in America]) is as mistaken as a doctor who does not take an interest in a particular case. Every particular case is an experience that can be valuable to the understanding of the illness.

There is an opacity in individual relationships, and an insistence that the writer make the relation of the particular to the whole which makes for a kind of farsightedness. I believe in just the opposite. Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood, and this would give a far greater understanding of mass movements and sociology.

Also, this indifference to the individual, total lack of interest in intimate knowledge of the isolated, unique human being, atrophies human reactions and humanism. Too much social consciousness and not a bit of insight into human beings.

As soon as you speak in psychological terms (applying understanding of one to the many is not the task of the novelist but of the historian) people act as if you had a lack of interest in the wider currents of the history of man. In other words, they feel able to study masses and consider this more virtuous, assign of a vaster concept than relating to one person. This makes them …. inadequate in relationships, in friendships, in psychological understanding.

A couple of pages later, Nin ties this to political leadership in a way that, in an election year, rings more urgent than ever:

My lack of faith in the men who lead us is that they do not recognize the irrational in men, they have no insight, and whoever does not recognize the personal, individual drama of man cannot lead them.

Complement The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3, which is sublime in its entirety, with Nin on love, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and her equally prescient thoughts on reproductive rights.

BP

Anaïs Nin on Life, Hand-Lettered by Artist Lisa Congdon

“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

UPDATE: After a flurry of requests, the quotes are now available as prints. Enjoy.

It’s no secret I’m an obsessive reader of famous diaries, most recently those of French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), one of the most dedicated diarists in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, are a treasure trove of insight on literature, culture, human nature, and the life of meaning.

Earlier this month, I asked the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton to illustrate Susan Sontag’s insights on love, as synthesized from the writer’s diaries. Now, I’ve turned to another extraordinary illustrator, Lisa Congdon ( ), and asked her to bring to life some of my favorite highlights from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) in the style of her lovely 365 Days of Hand Lettering project.

The results took my breath away — enjoy:

anaisnin_lisacongdon1

anaisnin_lisacongdon3

anaisnin_lisacongdon2

You can find Lisa’s stunning prints on 20×200 and Etsy, and follow her on Twitter.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3 is sublime in its entirety — highly recommended.

BP

Anaïs Nin on Paris vs. New York, 1939

“The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), an author of short stories and erotica, remains best-known as a prolific and dedicated diarist, perhaps the most prolific and dedicated diarist in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, speak volumes about the intellectual and creative landscape of 20th-century Europe and America.

Nin first began journaling in 1914 when her mother whisked Anaïs and brother from France to New York. Only months later did Nin find out that her parents had separated permanently and she wasn’t to be reunited with her father, with whom she loved and admired enormously. Tossed into a state of grief and turmoil, she came to project her anxious discomfort on her new non-home, New York — and joined the ranks of the city’s famous diarists. “When a child is uprooted,” she later wrote, “it seeks to make a center from which it cannot be uprooted.” Nin eventually returned from Europe but, with World War II looming menacing on the horizon, she once again fled to New York twenty years after her first exile, where she once again felt like an outsider.

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) comes this poignant, articulate description of what Nin experienced as the difference between Parisians and New Yorkers — something recently explored in much lighter, more tongue-in-cheek terms — penned in the winter of 1939:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

[…]

I read over my old diaries. I sit by the fire of my life in Paris and wonder when this life here will start to burn brightly. So far it looks like those electric logs in artificial fireplaces burning with moderate glow and without sparkle or warmth.

Anais Nin portrait

Then, in September of 1940, she revisits the parallel:

Sometimes I think of Paris not as a city but as a home. Enclosed, curtained, sheltered, intimate. The sound of rain outside the window, the spirit and the body turned towards intimacy, to friendships and loves. One more enclosed and intimate day of friendship and love, an alcove. Paris intimate like a room. Everything designed for intimacy. Five to seven was the magic hour of the lovers’ rendezvous. Here it is the cocktail hour.

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

If people knew more about psychology they would have recognized in Hitler a psychotic killer. Nations are neurotic, and leaders can be psychotic.

The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.

Nin’s lament was, of course, filtered through the lens of her painful, forced exile. Whether or not it bespeaks some grand universal truth about the New York way remains a question to be answered privately by each of us. But to deny that New York fosters a kind of Schopenhauer’s porcupine dilemma would be naive — the key to the city, as it were, is in learning how to unlock the enormity of Gotham’s magnificent humanity.

BP

Civil Rights Legend Rosa Parks on the Meaning of Life

“We are here on earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom.”

“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately,” Seneca counseled two millennia ago as he contemplated the shortness of life and urged us to live wide rather than long. But the question of how to fill the width of life’s shortness with meaning remains the most perennial inquiry of the human experience.

In 1988, the editors of LIFE Magazine posed this very question before 300 “wise men and women” ranging from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to ordinary farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they released The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — a collection of the responses, illustrated with a selection of beautiful black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the grand question in ways subtle and symbolic.

Among the respondents was the great African American activist Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005), celebrated as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement,” whose historic act of courage and resistance in refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger 33 years earlier had become a major catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks in 1955, the year of her arrest, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background
Rosa Parks in 1955, the year of her arrest, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background

65-year-old Parks writes:

I was born in the South, fifty years after slavery, when racial segregation was legally enforced. I listened to my grandparents talk of their lives as slave children and was aware of the Ku Klux Klan’s activities in our community after World War I. Racial pride and self-dignity were emphasized in my family and community because of the seeming insecurities and concerted efforts of many whites to make blacks feel and act inferior to them. I was, therefore, determined to achieve the total freedom that our history lessons taught us we were entitled to, no matter what the sacrifice.

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s unforgettable assertion that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Parks argues that the wellspring of that dignified freedom is a kind of moral wisdom that sees past our differences and into our shared humanity:

Human beings are set apart from the animals. We have a spiritual self, a physical self and a conscience. Therefore, we can make choices and are responsible for the choices we make. We may choose order and peace, or confusion and chaos. If we choose the former, we may cultivate and share our talents with others. If we choose the latter, we will isolate and segregate others. We can also expand our vision to include the universe and the diversity of its people, or we can remain narrow and shallow and isolate those who are unfamiliar.

To this day I believe we are here on earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom. Differences of race, nationality or religion should not be used to deny any human being citizenship rights or privileges. Life is to be lived to its fullest so that death is just another chapter. Memories of our lives, our works and our deeds will continue in others.

By her own measure, Parks lived a life of extraordinary and enduring meaning, its legacy woven deeply into the very fabric of modern society.

Dive further into the enormously elevating The Meaning of Life with more responses from Carl Sagan, George Lucas, John Cage, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur C. Clarke, and Charles Bukowski, then revisit Viktor Frankl on the human search for meaning, Albert Einstein’s pithy answer to a frustrated young woman’s question about why we are alive, Tolstoy on finding meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, and Martin Luther King, Jr. on enveloping our differences in an ethic of love.

BP

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