Ours is an age of mirrors, Ephemeral, sophistic, isolated from each other, we nevertheless reflect each other, till “mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show.” Athlete, statesman, actor, politician—rare indeed is the celebrity who would willingly forego appearing in print without his “kink,” who does not present himself in strenuous pursuit of an “image.” And rarer still the artist not speaking to us of the loss of self, or of the annihilation of self. Abstracted or narcissistic, seeking communion, we confess.
If a man has one person, just one in his life,
To whom he is willing to confess everything…
Then he loves that person, and his love will save him.
But nowadays, surely, when we confess, we confess to the world. The private life is public relations. “I am never with anyone, anyone,” laments the composer Ned Rorem with chilly poignance, “but nobody knows, because my barriers are made of glass.” We reflect on the self, and have many selves, and when the mirror cracks, we have a breakdown. “I feel like a shattered mirror,” writes the novelist Anais Nin during one of her calmer moments. “Why a mirror? A mirror for others? To reflect others, or yourself living behind a mirror and unable to touch real life?” The question, echoing out of Miss Nin’s Paris of the Thirties, comes from Otto Rank, and has a platitudinous ring. Rousseau mocked Montaigne, we mock Rousseau. Simone de Beauvoir: “To write sacrificial essays in which the author strips himself bare without excuses is my single commitment.” And yet we know that the doyenne of authenticity, since she has taught us that much, is probably lying. Embarrassed, bewildered, a little jaded, we turn the pages of these three chronicles of unabashed exposure, and skeptically await a moment of truth. One tests the tone, one sorts the evidence, one looks through the looking glass.
LUNCH YESTERDAY with Nora Auric and Guy de Lesseps. We talked of nothing but masturbation.” Rorem is a Columbus of the looking glass. Distilling himself drop by drop, he discovers his character—which is to say, he drowns in his characteristics. Melancholy, pampered, angelic, maculate, bitchy yet genial, open-hearted, recessive: these are the adjectives that come to mind. Also, shrewd. Almost continually with Rorem, while one side of the mouth condemns, the other side drips honey. In much the same way that Rorem is good at deriding himself (Leonard Bernstein: “The trouble with you and me, Ned, is that we want everyone in the world to personally love us, and of course that’s impossible: you just don’t meet everyone in the world”), Rorem is good at sketching his stance: “My passivity was always stronger than other people’s aggressions.” An exotic, and yet a peculiarly representative type, Rorem is the personable young man on the make, but also the solitary soul making himself, full of dizzying possibilities and dreamy sermons. The trashiest moment, the most romantic motto: he is enthralled by both. His philosophy is a campy notation. It was a philosophy “entirely based on the Quaker Church and the American cinema.” Purity and bravado are here, the twin strategy of Rorem’s Middle-Western background—that, and something (not much) of the thoughtful impudence of those adventurers in Stendhal, like the unsolicited greeting sent to Gide, with the unsolicited present, an “equivocal snapshot of myself.” The setting is Paris, with interludes in North Africa, Germany, Italy. Composed when Rorem was in his late twenties and early thirties, and spanning the years 1951-55, The Paris Diary dwells on a theme of perpetual self-realization: “To ‘know’ is to be sterile. To ‘look for’ is to be young. All artists are by definition children, and vice versa….”
In Paris, Rorem meets the Vicomtesse Marie Laure de Noailles, a flighty patroness of the arts, of delirious diversions, of beauty. “Je ne le trouve pas si beau que ça,” she says of him, but of course she’s entranced. The relationship, gamely described, has a twist of Firbank and a touch of A Song to Remember, and with Marie Laure, Rorem enters the world of the salon, the great world with its midget souls and small tyrannies, its constant turnover: new names tacked to old scandals. He calls on Cocteau. “Quand j’ai chié mon Orphée,” says Cocteau, looking sacerdotal and chirping away as if to win an argument, the conversation punctuated with con and emmerder. Le tout Paris is amusingly drawn, and tart, but not really glamorous; or rather, it becomes glamorous as a sort of dramaturgy, a lush orchestration for Rorem’s solo. On Barbara Hutton, supposedly at the time “dying of stomach cancer”:
There she was, dancing moodily with one of the forgotten gigolos, the two of them trembling slowly in the middle of the floor. She can’t have weighed sixty pounds and her moronic eyes oozed like black wounds from beneath an enormous hat. She fell upon the couch in a daze and asked to be alone with me…We talked about America and how nice we both were.
These pre-jet-set vignettes, though no doubt intended to be ruthless, are not: one has heard them before, or heard others like them. What has a cutting edge is Rorem’s intoxication, which rarely loses its sense of mesure, the boyish cynicism of “how nice we both were,” the scrutinizing eye. Rorem knows that the best defense is to have none; with the worldly one disarms without arms, by the example of one’s unblemished intensity (at his first soirée, he arrives “brash, open-necked, and, above all, young”), or by an earnest disclosure, a midnight interrogation:
Am I wrong? Do I “use” people? Was Venice cursed? Has Marie Laure (with tears and coiffure trailing over her evening gown in the noon of St. Mark’s, before her own daughter and all of society) simply a taste for scandal? Is it too soon to know?
ROREM’S DEEPEST BELIEF, his shield, gold-plated and forged at birth, is that very American belief in one’s own singularity, of being of the breed of the specially favored, the storybook prince with the “sunset-colored” hair who not only turns heads but also creates. Throughout, despite the intermittent stammer (“Are geniuses ever unsure? Because, my God I am!”), there seems to be an underlying merry, flaunting sense of a charming young man charming himself into his place at the head of the table, scanning the famous faces (Eluard, Auric, Poulenc), making sure he’s arrived. Rorem with his “famous Kelly-green sweater,” Marie Laure with her famous “leaf” signature. “To be famous,” runs an early entry, “I would sign any paper.” When doom sounds it has a mythic tinkle: “Miracles don’t happen to me now. I wait, but they don’t.” Other than that, sadness is perhaps the hour to play old songs on the piano, “like the heroine of a silent movie munching bonbons between sobs,” or for an heroic bender at La Pergola. The tippling and the cruising, the snooting at or the salaaming before “names,” the hazards of a career—about these highly personal matters Rorem presents a marvelous aphoristic candor, winning and vivid. And yet the admissions seem ultimately without point, without density. With Rorem one feels there are always too many holes in the wall through which he dips in and out like Plautus’s mouse. True, Rorem tells us “all,” and, moreover, does so without apology: there’s none of that ponderous dissembling of the “fleshly appetites” so prevalent, say, in the journals of Julian Green. But, as we burrow deeper into Rorem’s unburdenings, aren’t there a few violins scenting the air, more than a few sweet-and-sour shock effects? In his diary, for example, Rorem is a self-proclaimed “lush,” but he’s a remarkably unravaged one. On the day after his thirtieth birthday, he’s walking off a hangover, and “toward midnight on the avenue Friedland a strong-faced sergeant says, ‘Vous ne pouvez guère avoir bien plus que dixneuf ans. Je n’aime, moi, que des mineurs!’ ” These coy, smoothing-over (and in more than one way) touches abound. Indeed, from the blue confession to the pop pensée (“Let’s develop our faults: they’re our true nature”), almost all the revelations ripple with the sporty permissiveness of a nouvelle vague caprice. Casually wry, casually outrageous, the experience of anything resembling disaster is always and notably experienced in dreams, in well-documented and frighteningly self-enclosed nightmares. But the self escapes. And the self particularly escapes when in love.
“Love is Resignation,” Rorem writes, “which means an incident one does not know how to postpone.” And Rorem contemplating love is always acute, always fluent. Rorem in love is not. Those foppish tallyings: three or four, five or six times almost or almost-almost in love, “one or two hundred people in love with me.” Even the grand amour, the lover with the “caramel triceps”—what do these woefully vulnerable passages reveal except aches and sputterings, the separations and the weeping, and the gossipy chatter about it all both during and after. The affair in Italy does not strike me, as it has others, as a courageous unveiling; on the contrary, it seems frilly, false at heart, a passionate fiction. No, again and again with Rorem hedonism will out: Good must always be doing deeds, but the jeunes heros need only enjoy each other. And the evil days come not. Ironically enough, is it just that sort of hedonism which makes his diary, quite apart from its literary excellence, finally so exhilarating an exercise in accounts unrendered, so contemporary a success story? For certainly, however often Rorem may enact the role of the death-haunted loner, the broken-hearted young man, when you come right down to it, it is difficult to think of him existing at all without success, without always being “as they say, appreciated,” without, at whatever age, “having someone.” The Ned Rorem of The Paris Diary appeals to the spoiled child in us—which means, since few of us possess his gifts, to the child in us who would have liked to have been spoiled.
ANAIS NIN is also a child, but a different sort; she is the abandoned child, and, alas, a relentlessly humorless one. As an adult every abandoned child must suffer the eternal return; they seem fated to be both abandoned and to abandon others. And if they are really vengeful they abandon the world. In Miss Nin’s rich, rhapsodic, hubris-filled memoir, so solemnly awaited, so piously acclaimed, it cannot be said that these traumatic events actually occur; what seems to happen is that Miss Nin fantasizes along such lines in a disingenuous and not very fetching way, with her family, her friends, her analysts, and herself. Thus we have Anais Nin caught in an emotional mouse trap, in which her father, the pianist, Joaquin Nin, is the big cheese. And we have Miss Nin as la princesse lointaine, giving orders to the gardener in the suburbs of Louveciennes, grinding coffee for the geniuses at Villa Seurat, spinning her imagistic fictions, dredging the depths in her diary. “I write about little things,” she states a bit mystifyingly, “because the big ones are like abysses.” Miss Nin’s nature is the traditionally unsatisfied nature of the injured romantic—and yet, for all that, satisfaction just the same. Throbbing temples, moony monologues, and a self-devotion that wears like iron; after every tragedy, curtain calls. It is true, of course, that Joaquin Nin deserted the family when his daughter was a child. “When you lost him as a child,” explains Otto Rank, “you lost in him the personification of your ideal self. He was the artist, musician, writer, builder, socially fascinating personage. When you found him, you were a young woman in search of your real self.”
Miss Nin’s “real self” percolates through the Paris of three decades ago where everything is extreme, the sky is always falling. She comes across an article by Henry Miller and it’s “like hearing wild drums in the midst of the Tuileries.” Taxis are her “wings.” Artaud composes in “the language of nerves”; she dreams that he possesses her, but “in my dreams I sleep with everybody.” I am a human bomb, wrote Lawrence, and Miss Nin dedicates herself to his novels. “I elect something I can love,” she says, “and absorb myself in it,” like the tapeworm. Bookish and skittish, Miss Nin understands “everything, Spengler, Rank, Lawrence…but I get tired of those glacial regions…too high, too far from life…I feel myself pulling downward, growing more and more earthy.” However, all along the life of the senses has been frightening. She hasn’t the stamina, she hasn’t the spontaneity. And her “breasts are too small.” Why no, objects her first analyst: “Perfectly feminine, small but well shaped…such a lovely figure, all you need is a few more pounds of it…so much grace of movement, charm, so much breeding and finesse of line.” The modest Miss Nin is troubled: “Was this quite a sincere action? Did I have to show him my breasts? Did I want to test my charm on him? Wasn’t I pleased that he reacted so admiringly?” But then who in her book doesn’t react admiringly? All too often Miss Nin is perched prettily at the bottom of the well, waiting to be uplifted.
She visits Artaud garbed in “black, red, and steel, like a warrior.” He is vanquished. “That small detail, of your coming dressed as Mars, that a woman should live thus in symbols, that alone is amazing to me…What a divine joy it would be to crucify a being like you, who are so evanescent, so elusive.” A pullulating Henry Miller sounds like José Ferrer. Miller calls June, his wife, “an empty box.” “You are the full box,” he tells Miss Nin. Also: “Your eyes seem to be expecting miracles.” And Miss Nin tries “to fulfill the wishes of others, to perform miracles.” She yearns also to be like June—blonde, voluptuous, perverse; and together they take long walks “into pure, pure ecstasy.” But the ecstasy doesn’t last. “Dr. Rank immediately clarified my relationship to June. It was not Lesbianism. I was imitating my father, courting women.”
June and Joaquin Nin: these two gaudy, temperamental figures bring the book to life; with them, and with no one else, can Miss Nin be trenchantly, imaginatively involved. The profligate continental without a truthful bone in his body, and the robust neurotic looking for a soul-mate, the father and the “sister,” the prototypes, perhaps, of Miss Nin’s House of Incest. There is certainly something bizarre and affecting in those airy, agitated conversations with June, and there is a real anguish in the scenes where, as a grown woman, Miss Nin attempts to penetrate the pretenses of her father, all his twilight posing, his “gay lies.” Miller’s utopianism, Artaud’s apocalyptic omens—both so fashionable now—seem oddly old-fashioned here, like one of those classics of the cinema, toiling and creaking and dimming-out, played before a hushed audience while the projectionist snores. As for Otto Rank, he sounds like himself—or, to be precise, like a poetic gloss on Art and Artist, especially the chapter “Life and Creation.”
It is the woman who has to speak. And it is not only the woman Anais who has to speak, but I who have to speak for many women…The mute ones of the past…and the women of today, all action, and copies of men. And I, in between. Here lies the personal overflow, the personal and feminine overfulness. Feelings that are not for books, not for fiction, not for art….
Anais Nin, I think, is a failed visionary. Struggling to be born in so many of her obesely self-regarding arias is something evangelical, something genuine. In the end, I suppose, it is that which gives an inescapable lyric dignity to so much of her monumental gush.
A GOOD MANY READERS have been moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s meticulous account of her mother dying of cancer. The structure of the book is slight, and the psychology, to my mind, rather gross. But in its accumulation of bleak, biological fact the book has a power which is undeniably piercing. All the oppressive paraphernalia of the modern hospital is here, the diagrammatic efficiency, the cheerless specialists, and, at the center, the slack, rotting figure of a woman, nearly eighty, tubes stuffed into her nostrils, veins packed with equanil, absurdly dressed in a three-quarter nightgown, pink with white spots, to prevent the bed sores which come anyway. There are uneasy stretches. Even on the edge of the grave Simone de Beauvoir cannot resist lecturing us: “bourgeois marriage is an unnatural institution”; “She had a very easy death; an upper-class death”; “Religion could do no more for my mother than the hope of post-humous success could do for me.” The portrait of the mother, with its flashbacks, its halting speech, its little snatches of sing-song agony, is effectively underplayed; but, though tender, an ambivalence surrounds it, the daughter is alienated from the mother, and the mother remains largely remote: you sympathize, but you sympathize with a stranger. The real specter is age, and while Madame de Beauvoir watches over the old woman’s last hours, she confronts the drama of her own dwindling presence, like the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, who arises in the dead of night and stops the clocks one by one. At a particularly jarring point, on leaving the hospital, the author “looked at people with a fresh eye, obsessed by the complicated system of tubes that was concealed under their clothing. Sometimes I myself turned into a lift-and-force pump or into a sequence of pockets and guts.” Illness, the proverbial last refuge of the self, becomes reified: medicine, too, has its technology, and dehumanizing instruments probe through the all too human body brutally disintegrating. The book is clinical, it informs, and informs pretty much in the manner of a “background” article in a mass-circulation magazine, where, incidentally, most of A Very Easy Death first appeared. The abrasive day-to-day rituals, the serum and the intravenous dripper, the little lies recited to the “resucitated” patient, then the empty bed, the trophies collected and parceled out, the flowers forgotten in the hearse—it is a desolate record, but to our data-obsessed minds, perhaps a little comforting, too. So that’s what it means to waste away with cancer, that’s how it ends, now we “know.”
Kafka, in a passage in his diary, summed up the twentieth-century man of feeling. “It is enough,” he wrote, “that the arrows fit exactly in the wounds that they have made.” But do we in our era of instant communications or confessions really have the right to second the statement? Of course it is ungenerous and probably pietistical to remark that with Rorem or Miss Nin or Simone de Beauvoir one cannot really grasp either the shape or the depth of the wound shown. Nevertheless, that’s the impression. Beneath the surface, we are told, are the monsters, and on occasion they emerge, and they are written about, they are photographed. Still, whether with the journal intime or the glossy close-up, as we keep looking in these mirrors everything seems strangely very near, and more distant than the moon.
September 8, 1966