ssay date Summer 1971 - In the following essay, McEvilly interprets Nin 's writing in her diary as a poetic examination of the self.
("I'm the alchemist, not the ego." - Nin)
In the world of Proust the sound of the spoon and the taste of the madeleine were able to efface the ego and to allow the mysterious person--"that person," as Proust himself says, as though he were, in his ecstatic illumination, like those ancient Indian seers who when they had reached that level beneath the state of dreamless sleep could designate it only by the neutral, and yet quite fecund, word That, which in Sanskrit is even more neutral for it may be pronounced without the benefit of teeth, so that even an ancient seer in that final stage of physical dissolution which so fascinated Proust as he meditated on the devastation of the faces along the Guermantes Way, in the enchanted yet all-too-mortal environs of the Princess, could articulate the word with utter clarity: TAT. In the world of Anais Nin we find a trust which makes the Proustian analytic unnecessary, superfluous, for it is as if she knew that every sound is the sound of the magic spoon, every taste that of the madeleine which restores to us that paradise which we had indeed inhabited but without the conscious realization that we were living it--and since this acute sensibility of the paradisiacal element of all experience is for Nin an abiding state and not merely one which hovers at the difficult and distant edges of experience, in her promised surprises as the Madam Venus of the House of Erotica there will be, indeed there already is, the reverberations of that eternal spoon. Or was it a fork?
Those who have visited Proust's world know that it does not matter, whether fork or spoon, for it is the reverberation to which one must listen with Proust's delicately attuned ear, and Proust himself grew vague, saying sometimes spoon, sometimes fork, with what to a literalist would no doubt be a shocking lack of attendance to detail. Or was it simply music, the hidden harmony of objects which only the phenomenon of real music objectifies, music heard only perhaps by those who might be, as it were, deaf to certain other sounds, deaf to the concrete music of literal existence in order to hear. . . . To hear what? One would like to be able to clarify the relation of the art of Nin to the world of music, to articulate precisely how and that and why they are one, but this particular aspect of her world, so clear in the experience of reading her art, continues to elude attempts at specific formulation, and one must finally content himself with a seemingly dogmatic utterance. The diary is music. Beneath the surface sustained by the sense of a strong and bristling vividity the diary lives another life as a phenomenology of anguish.
An entry for the Fall, 1943: "For many days I lived without my drug, my secret vice, my diary. And then I found this: I could not bear the loneliness."
At times the concern with anxiety surfaces, becomes the specific subject under consideration, and the clairvoyant sensibility of the diarist reveals new depths here, also, as in the universal transmutation effected by art even the failures, horrors, fissures, witherings, and finally that most mysterious visitation of nothing itself which is the possession of the soul by absolute horror--that too is heroically transformed into poetry, into humanity, until out of the dread experience the diarist has forged a vision of the foundation of our brotherhood. When I feel anguish, there is nothing there--am I then feeling the subaqueous horror of others? Horrors we share, mute, vague, terrible? Is there a communion here? From nothing, nothing comes? Or from nothing all things are brought forth?
"Pray, what was your father saying?--Nothing."
Thus ends the first chapter of that most intimate of novels whose playful surface also masks a profound phenomenology of despair--Tristram Shandy. Anguish, anxiety--subtle horrors, but none the less real.
("All one has must be shared, given--secrets, techniques." - Nin)
The poet speaks of giving, and in doing so gives. Through words we come to discover the essential drama which has always been the same. Writing in service of moksha.
Laurence Sterne, too, said it quite simply: "--for never do I hit upon any invention or device which tendeth to the furtherance of good writing, but I instantly make it public; willing that all mankind should write as well as myself.--Which they certainly will, when they think as little."
Laurence Sterne--the bodhisattva in motley, with his fool's bells and his fool's black page (alas, poor Yorick!), his consciousness hiding consciousness, his subtlety masked as psychic-poetic fire-works, his own secret jewel in a lotus intricate as any passion flower, yet allows himself to say, all freely and openly, that his art is the sharing of secrets. Intimacy. The word ought to be whispered. Sotto voce. The writer really at work writing--as opposed to reflecting on the craft, its dangers, despairs, relations to life, to art--is a lapidary whose creation is the jewel, that jewel which in Sanskrit is known as Vajra--immortal diamond, the illuminating thunderbolt of the gods around which, and into whose depths, meditations have been sustained in order to pierce certain essential secrets, in a quest for the absolute which never ends, never passes, that for which one might die in order to live, death having two faces, and writing itself being the disciplined formation of the jewel which is the penetrating and quickening light shining in the darkness of all psyches, all souls, in the darkness of the universal soul, the one, a light which comes to destroy the negative charms and spells of that most ineluctable and inescapable of dread facts--the passage of time. The jewel must be beautiful, if it is to effect its countermagic, its spell--and this for no mere matter of embellishment, adornment, no mere matter of plumage but of flesh, of life, of bread, and of death. Why must it be beautiful? (Our age has forgotten this.)
Why is the writer's primary obligation to beauty? (Our age has forgotten this.) Because he must know, if he has seen what he must have seen in order to write a visionary work--for it is a matter, too, of vision--that the human creature is sufficiently and--yes, let me most insistently drum upon the bass notes here--quintessentially wounded that he will listen only to song. The world must be loved because it is beautiful, not because it is real, which it may--who knows? Who could possibly know?--very well not be. And the poet is the lover of the world--a definition which Nin has taken upon herself, a definition which entails, appropriately enough, what one might have been tempted to have called obligation, were it not for the aesthetically misleading over-tones of that beleaguered word. In the most recently published volume of the diaries, the third, there is the fulfilled promise of a change of scenery, a transition from tragedy to comedy, and the background is now an often mad Vanity Fair, a comic literary New York, comic even in its passions, its poverties, while the neurosis of a deaf dancer is placed barely within reach of the discriminating eye, at the back of the stage, where it joins the madness of Artaud, hospitals, asylums, the past, and the diarist writes in full self-consciousness but without a restricting self-involvement as the Madam Venus of a House of Erotica. The diary has moved freely from horror to ecstasy, following the pattern of life itself, and there is as strong a refusal to despair as there is a refusal to maintain a false sense of flight where everything is suffused with significance, there being here no high, no low.
Sanity prevails--"Tranquillity is contagious, peace is contagious. One only thinks of the contagiousness of illness, but there is the contagion of serenity and joy. Neurosis is the real demon, the only real possession, the real evil force in the world. And it is curable" (Winter 1942).
Nin's is not a writer's notebook, a diary in the sense of standing aside from the art with the intention of commenting on more important matters. ("I'm the alchemist, not the ego.") It is itself the vast production sustained, one feels, by an utter silence concerning the matter most at hand, a matter which is at once all exquisitely hidden and all artfully revealed. One of the supreme values of fiction is the contextual transformation which it allows to otherwise hopelessly indelicate direct statements, a transformation which indeed puts wings on the commonplace and rids the world of excess weight, of the moral, for instance, of the practical, and we fly beyond good and evil, delighting in murder, one might say--and that to mention only one of many facets. "We should submit ourselves to an unknown fear."
Without the transforming context, that is the statement of a tiresome moralist, yet the indelicacy of such a direct statement can be eradicated by the efficient adoption of a most happily convenient fiction. The King's a beggar. Now the play is done. Or, to be most indelicately direct, the diary is precisely that novel of the future about which Nin has spoken in her recent book of literary theory. It is a sustained image of dispersion which becomes, as those immediate things which it describes and reveals fade into oblivion, the agent which keeps before us life which has passed, and in so doing effectively denies that life itself passes, the revelation itself being of eternal poetic meaning. Many great writers have kept diaries, some not being above a scribbling down of whatever might enter the head, yet there is a certain recognition of self which must always play havoc with the art--and by some mysterious extension of such an unclarified principle one might in a moment of all-too-fleeting clarity intuit something utterly vitiating in the habitual act of paying attention to a crude reality untransformed by vision, at the expense of what one might call, without having, of course, to bother defining the term, art. There might be a principle of composition lurking in the dense underbrush of thought to which such an intuition would no doubt have given a vigorous if veiled birth. That is to say, there are diaries which do not enter into the prerequisite intimacy which is perhaps alone sufficient to justify our speaking of the presence of fiction. Nin's diaries are fiction, even if true--as though the matter of corresponding truth were indeed not only inessential but magnificently, even joyfully, wide of the mark. The sense of reality is the artist's creation, and Nin writes the myth of cities, friends, domestic events, shoes and hats, dances, parties, poets, pets (an organ grinder's monkey leaps off the page, delighting children, for he is also Hanuman of the Ramayana), and the fact becomes the myth which it always was but which without the artist 's--one is tempted to say compassionate--intervention and invention it would never have become.
The world indeed cries out for the love of the poet, the touch of the poet, the speech of the poet, one of whose guises is that of Vishnu, the preserver. ("I have given myself to the care of more mysterious anguish." Nin) Out of the universal experience of human anguish, human bondage, the diarist fashions a literature of bread and a fellowship of the abandoned. There is a literature of the bread of the spirit which nourished us as the mystical wafer which is art, based upon an intimacy than which there is none greater, as between brother and sister, friend and friend, lover and beloved, parent and child--the fellowship of the abandoned, which is perhaps at once the most intimate and the most universal of human bonds, that which even in a last analysis could not be broken, for the basis of its being is not willed or chosen or invented or even created but rather woven into the fabric and texture of our existence. The warp might be hidden from sight, but with age, or violence, with disease, or sudden change, with the erosion of time or the disappearance of all texture, all substance, as in metaphysical insight of moments when the real is suddenly seen as illusory, the illusory as real, the illusory as illusory, when the shadow is seen as shadow of faded shadow, we fall back on the indestructible warp of the human condition as abandoned. Out of this arises the most poignant and at once the most ineradicable passion for communion. If this is not the theme of the diary, as of all our literature of bread, from Tristram and Quixote to the Wake and beyond, then I am at a loss as to what is and as to why we persist in going to literature as if it were food.
"Feed on us before you bury us."
That is the voice of the great diarist whose diary is fiction, but what she says has been said by every great writer of our--and let me pause here before the word which ought to be uttered with full consciousness of its meaning, indeed as though there were the air of a certain necessity, perhaps even, to speak in consonance with the consciousness of that princess who approached the ivory tower and adorned pagoda of The Golden Bowl, perhaps even the necessity, yes, of removing one's very shoes--our tradition. It is the only theme--"A single note. Yes."
Source: Wayne McEvilly, @waynemcevilly
"The Bread of Tradition: Reflections on the Diary of Anais Nin," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XLV, No. 2, Summer 1971, pp. 161-67.