The Art of the Diary
Most concede the transformative power of words in fiction or nonfiction, graphic novel or epic poem, philosophical treatise or memoir. Well executed writing illuminates and transfigures. Few likely think to apply this maxim to personal diaries or journals, however. At best, some insight into the intimate feelings of a person, one might think, or perhaps at worst, hypergraphia à la Proof. Anaïs Nin challenges this presumption as few have ever done.
Nin’s life is laid bare in diaries that she began writing at the precocious age of 11 and continued until her death over 60 years later (precocious still). Born to a pair of talented artists in their own right — her mother a classically trained singer, her father a composer — she lived an aesthete’s life. As the author of short stories, novels, critical essays, and even volumes of erotica, Nin’s existence was defined by the literary, by the autobiographical.
Her diaries reveal the workings of a bookish genius and a deeply emotional human being. When not limning in Melvillian detail the accoutrement of a colleague’s drawing room, she reveals the florid movements of her own heart and soul. In Nin’s diaries, one also discovers her relationships with artistic and intellectual giants of the age: the novelist Henry Miller, the psychoanalyst Otto Rank, the theatre director and provocateur Antonin Artaud, and many others.
Reading her diaries, one sees that in Henry Miller, Nin found a soulmate of sorts, someone whose perception of literature and its particular vitality — both in the sense of its life and its indispensability — rivaled her own. She ultimately took him as her lover and subsidized his very survival in Paris (with her husband) as well as the first printing of Miller’s first autobiographical novel, The Tropic of Cancer. The book was initially banned in the U.S. along with its sequel, The Tropic of Capricorn, due to its overtly sexual nature and graphic depictions thereof, in which one might read a reflection of Nin’s own passion for the erotic, a counterpart to her tittilating fiction.
“All matter must be fused this way, through the lens of my vice or the rust of living would slow down my rhythm to a sob.”
That said, the trysts, while fascinating and exciting, are arguably the least interesting aspects of the journals. Nin was an expert observer of the world and of human behavior. She seems to have possessed an ability to see past other’s defenses, or at least a perspicacity about her own feelings thereof. Whether she was preternaturally intuitive or “merely” a brilliant wordsmith, one discovers that Nin’s writing compels and moves in the way a great memoir does, with the thrust and import of a first-person novel or short story in which no word is out of place.
In truth, her diaries give the sense of one with an almost eidetic memory. She is capable of remembering each detail of a room, every syllable of conversation, uttered in speech or suggested in body language. How much of this is artistic license one may never fully know, yet this is precisely the point. In her diaries, Nin tells the story of her own life. Life is lived and it is memory, often at the same time. Research has shown repeatedly that many of our memories, even our fondest ones, turn out to be fictional in some aspect or another upon reflection. Arguing over the veracity of her journals strikes one as thoroughly missing the point, as though she were the only one to have committed such an act.
Her journals are not only a beautiful piece of writing or an attempt at self-disclosure, but a crystalline revelation of Self, capital S.
On the contrary, one gets the feeling that Anaïs Nin bore an overt self-awareness, perhaps painfully so. She writes often of psychoanalysis, of her interactions and sessions with Otto Rank, and the rather tormented truths it brought to her simmering surface. Toward the end of the first volume of her journals, she writes, “Psychoanalysis did save me because it allowed the birth of the real me.” She always looks further, searches deeper, attempting to mine the self for everything it might hide. For this reason, her journals are not only a beautiful piece of writing or an attempt at self-disclosure, but a crystalline revelation of Self, capital S.
In the vein of a Heidegger or a Sartre, she appears to ask what it means to be a Self on virtually every page. She endeavored to know her own self, in keeping with that great Delphic dictum. Delphic, indeed, for the Greek oracle itself is referred to as the omphalos, the navel, the very center of it all, both concerned with self and full of riddles. In order to match this identity, to overcome even as she endeavored to know it, she wrote voraciously. She wrote the diaries, erotic fiction, short stories, and novels. She journaled, “I write novels, perhaps, to supply the deficiencies of life itself.” Yet the diaries are her life source, the concentrated core of her world and her being. In their pages she refers to them as “my kief, hashish, and opium pipe…my drug and my vice.”
For Nin, writing in all its forms was quite literally her way of living. Without words, she believed she would cease to be alive in any meaningful sense. “All matter must be fused this way,” she writes, “through the lens of my vice or the rust of living would slow down my rhythm to a sob.”
Are reading and writing not the very same drug for every bibliophile, every scribbler of words, poet laureate and paperback novelist alike? Narcotic, upper, downer, hallucinogen, cure. The means both to an end and an end in itself, in ourselves. Nin sought the truth of her being and her life, and she accomplished this most vitally through words. One would do well to attempt to learn from her example. That a literary publication could also have such an impact is an ongoing dream, of course, lived and written at the selfsame time, even to, as Nin put it, “create an impossible ideal world,” and perhaps, if we can, “to meet the whole world at once.”