Anne Lesley Selcer


Anais Nin


I grew up on Anais Nin. For all that one can say about this highly narcissistic French woman of Spanish origin who wrote mediocre surrealist texts for which she is less known, and decent, straight-forward “erotica” for a dollar a page for which she is more known, Nin was a woman whose life was guided by Eros. At age 15, in the backseat of a local boy’s car, I admired the cover design of Ladders to Fire, which was small press Modernist redux circa late-1950s. I borrowed the book and proceeded to fall heavily under its influence. It was the first experimental novel in her seriesCities of the Interior, which became for me objects of heretofore unknown beauty. I read them as artifacts—of Paris in the 20s, of some prototypical bohemia. They were the origin of the long, undulating sentence (I’d had yet to find Woolf) taken back up in the work of Cixous and Irigaray (and early Robertson), of the mixed media book, of the long poem, and of the singular charm of small press cover design. They marked a personal inculcation into love, sex, and the subject v. object conundrum, all beginning appropriately in the backseat of a teenage boy’s car.

Nin, aside from being obsessed with her own image, was obsessed (a word used twice here in homage to her cadence which ever bore the mark of her muse) with Freud. The main problem of her life and literature was the reinstatement, as she would characterize it, of the unconscious—all that was fluid, feeling, “feminine,” underground—into well, everything. Her life was project and product of her work (funded by banker husband) and this work manifested in the championing, childing, feeding, housing and loving of several artists. Nin’s conception of love was as the counter current to the conditions produced by the specialization and industrialization of Modern Paris. She repeated the Romantic gestures of noblesse to disassociate herself, her in the black tights and dark lipstick of Modernist bohemia.

Nin might have defined love as the softening of what is hard and the connecting of what is disconnected. This definition of love of course, reiterated Romanticism’s longing for reconnection with the ether: the lost maternal voice which, cloudlike and soft, surrounded the baseness of the imminent world. Freud was her way back—specifically a misreading of the unconscious as benevolent. Of course, the world of fluid interiority enacted in Nin’s prose manifested the desire for ultimate connection, oceanic connection, final connection, a desire which scantly deviated from the Romantics’ model of transcendence. Where the ontology of one produced writing that constantly sought the ethereal in the material, wistfully evidencing the “fall” from Spirit in bits of earthly beauty, Nin’s (in Freudian terms) was a dream of embryonic reconnection—the pain and triteness of individualization alleviated by slips into the surreal (Susan Sontag explicates the impulse elegantly in “Melancholy Objects”). The concept of the unconscious was so relieving it seemed, that she bathed in its curative powers perhaps a little too long and ended up, literally fucking her therapist.

In another era one might have called Nin an acolyte, but given the proximity to the Modern, let’s use “narcissist.” Of course her narcissism was of a particular kind—not the outwardly turned, cannibalizing projection of self, capital S, over a world barely indistinguishable from itself—but a kind wherein the self is exceedingly small or hardly there at all. In this scenario, the world and all it objects and others, are a kind of poetry written semi-consciously by the self. It was a feminine narcissism, the narcissism of the object, one who sees reflection nowhere, but projection (idealized and desired, hardened into thingness) everywhere. It makes sense then that Nin should choose for her love object one who gave the impression of being in constant motion—a man capable of moving out of the himself into the world, or in this case, constantly, penetratively, into the other—Henry Miller. Theirs was an odd an perfect paring. Miller had to know, Nin had to be known. Doubtless it felt transgressive for each, Miller plunging into the erudite and mannered French haute bourgeoisie, Nin being taken by the dirty American colloquial. The interesting part was the confusion of identity. Henry became a passageway into a world that, by nature of her gender and class, Nin would not have had entry otherwise. There, in the seedy bars and whorehouses of Paris, her visibility as a feminine sign served as a decoy of sorts—behind it she conducted research.Little Birds and Delta of Venus were the result, books of “erotica” written for the patron who commissioned Miller for dollar-a-page pornography. Realistically, they surpassed Nin’s novels as a legacy—which essentially became a legacy of female disidentification from a sacral characterization of sexuality.

She had another inadvertent legacy: Nin built community. Lawrence Durell, Anton Artaud, Maya Deren, Edmund Wilson, Djuna Barnes, many others, all connected around her socially and get reconnected through the reportage and gossip of her multi-volume, published diaries. It was Nin’s basic Erotic tendency which propelled this connectivity—this desire to move towards, into, with, with love. Of course, decades later, the same impulse was formed by Irigaray and Cixous, Kristeva and others into post-structuralist, French feminist poetics.

Emmanuel Levinas distinguishes need from desire as such: needs can be fulfilled—they concern a reproduction of the self; desire moves outward, beyond the self. The first is an animal, fully terrestrial proposition, i.e. love simple: eating together, sleeping together. Desire transcends this ego based economy—it is an unfolding of the self via the other, after which, the world can never be the same. If Nin’s love affairs and the majority of her writing sought vigorously to transcend, yet never seem to get beyond her own ego, this general impulse to move outside of the self got carried out in full vitality in her network building. Anyway, is it possible or desirable for anyone to really move outside of the self for more than the minute or so of erotic connection? If so, what links the social? Is it possible that love, while briefly fantastic, is largely animal? How long would we really want satisfaction to last—what actually lives there? This is all to say: perhaps Nin’s broader erotic impulse, the one which created a social world, was the true, productive unfolding. Levinas uses the image of “the face” to describe this phenomenon, and here we have Nin’s face on the cover of all the diaries, heavily eyelinered, European, markedly contained. Yet the books are not contained. The characters spill out of the diaries, into her fiction and out into the living world; they are scattered all through literary and art history, and are permanently linked by her cultural map, one which would be eventually traced by a late 20th century teenager. Here is Nin’s persistent desire, unfolding.

Writing by Anne Lesley Selcer has recently appeared in Fillip, Arcade, Made Magazine, The Stranger, and Northwest Edge III: The End of Reality anthology. She has contributed to catalogues for the Belkin, the Or and Artspeak galleries and for a bookwork forthcoming by artist Sydney Vermont. She runs the Chroma Reading Series in Vancouver, BC.