Friday, December 26, 2014

Anais Nin - "A Spy in the House of Love"

I know very little about Anais Nin other than her fame for her journals, that her life involved many famous artists and writers, and that a couple collections of her erotica were published posthumously. I also can't remember what drew me to read A Spy in the House of Love when I was in my 20s. Perhaps it had something to do with my having come out a few years before and, being in the city, my first feelings of freedom related to this. The only other book of hers I've read is Delta of Venus, and I also saw Bells of Atlantis, a short experimental film from the fifties, directed by her husband, in which she reads one of her poems.

It's both easy and difficult to believe A Spy in the House of Love was written in 1954. On the one hand, for anyone to openly discuss aspects of sexuality that live well beyond the roles accepted in society (that's openly, not explicitly) without positioning it politically or for obvious media attention is very rare even today. On the other hand, the milieu of the novel is heavily steeped in the post-war bohemian world of blues, jazz, and modern art. Her writing and voice could easily be transplanted to today, but the artistic circle she moves in lacks the tepid angst or bloated self-consciousness of today's artiste.

I've come back this novel (or novella, perhaps?) several times over my life, as I never feel I fully grasp what Nin is getting at. Certainly there are themes of identity, but there is also an aspect of perception and how we view ourselves - even analyze ourselves - that is unique in modern literature I have read. Further, Nin seems to position Sabina as living 'life as art' (or, more accurately, 'sexual life as art') and this is woven into both the analysis of identity as well as the fevered flights of her sexual 'adventures'. Each time I come back to the novel I find something very different.

This time around, in the last sections of the book, the description of Jay's paintings at the night club are what resonated for me. It crystallized an idea developed throughout the novel that we are all made up of multiple versions of ourselves, created by our experiences. No one version can be selected to represent us, yet it's hard to pin down who we are without reference to all of them. Her view may possibly apply most (or mostly) to artists or creative people, who interact with the world in a specific way in the process of creation.

In Sabina's case, the multiple versions come to be through her experiences with her lovers. There are different aspects of herself that come to the surface with each one. Taking this to a logical extreme, it speaks to the importance of sexual identity and sexual exploration in truly understanding ourselves. More broadly, it suggests a way of looking at all our interpersonal relationships - sexual or otherwise. We show a different facet of ourselves to different people based on who they are and what they mean to us. This isn't a facade or a pretense; it's a legitimate but limited part of ourselves. A shard of us. Sabina's quest is to find a way to express her totality with one person or to be able to continually express all parts of herself (which requires more than one lover). It's an interesting way of depicting identity and interpersonal relations.

That said, the novel is kaleidoscopic enough to allow for many avenues of thought partially because it's not clear whether Nin has fully resolved her ideas or if she is still figuring them out as she's writing. Stylistically, the novel is inviting and crisp, barring one section with heavy-handed Freudisms and Nin becoming too 'talky' as a narrator in the last quarter of the novel. Otherwise, A Spy in the House of Love is a well-conceived, fascinating, and unique addition to a collection of modern literature. Temporally it fits with few of the modern writers I've covered on Zen Throw Down (e.g., Gide, Camus, Sartre), but intellectually it's definitely in the same vein. Written in the fifties, I classify it as part of a 'last gasp' of modernism before the 'idealism' of the Baby Boomers and 60's counterculture banged its rattle on the high chair.

No comments: