Oscar Wilde once wrote “memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.” Much like a diary— or, as Virginia Woolf affectionately called, a “blank-faced confidante”— memory is a record of our many guises, a monument to the ever-shifting fluidity of self. And like a diary, memory is manufactured: we concoct the stories of our lives, magnifying certain plots while downplaying others. But how is it that certain experiences become fossilized in the sediment of memory while others vanish into oblivion forever?
This question is what prolific diarist and courageous chronicler of the human spirit Anais Nin explores in The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939, the masterpiece of literary memoir Swiss newspaper Tagblatt called a “daring advance into the psychology of female being.” An artist of remarkable sensitivity and perceptive intellect, Nin writes with lavish love of life, her prose as poetic as it is precise. In this entry from August 1935, Nin wonders at the enigma of the subconscious mind: why is it that we retain some memories over others? what permanently stores a memory in our mental hard drives? and how is it possible to recall an experience with overwhelming intensity many years after it occurred- despite the fact that we were asleep to it at the time? Though definitive answers will always elude her, Nin muses:
“The mysterious theme of the flavor of events. Some pale, weak, not lasting. Others so vivid. What causes the choice of memory? What causes certain events to fade, others to gain luminousness and spice? My posing for artists at sixteen was unreal, shadowy. The writing about it sometimes brings it to life. I taste it then. My period as a debutante in Havana, no flavor. Why does this flavor sometimes appear later, while living another episode, or while telling it to someone? What revives it when it was not lived fully at the time? During my talks with my father the full flavor of my childhood came to me. The taste of everything came to me as we talked. But not everything came back with the same vividness; many things which I described to my father I told without pleasure, without any taste in my mouth. So it was not brought to life entirely by my desire to make it interesting for him. Some portions of my life were lived as if under ether, and many others under a complete eclipse. Some of them cleared up later, that is, the fog lifted, the events became clear, nearer, more intense, and remained as unearthed for good. Why did some of them come to life, and others not? Why did some remain flavorless, and others recover a new flavor or meaning? Certain periods like the posing, which seemed very intense at the time, violent almost, have never had any taste since. I know I wept, suffered, rebelled, was humiliated, and proud too. Yet the story I presented to my father and to Henry about the posing was not devoid of color and incidents. I myself did not feel it again as I told it. It was as if it had happened to someone else, and the interest I took in its episodes was that of a writer who recognized good material. It was not an unimportant phase of my life, it was my first contribution to the world. It was the period I discovered I was not ugly, a very important discovery for a woman. It was a dramatic period, beginning with the show put on for the painters, when I was dressed in a Watteau costume which suited me to perfection, and received applause and immediate engagements, ending with my becoming the star model of the Model’s Club, a subject for magazine covers, paintings, miniatures, statues, drawings, water colors.”
“It cannot be said what is lived in a condition of unreality, in a dream, or a fog, disappears altogether from memory, because I remember a ride I took through Vallee de Chevreuse many years ago, when I was unhappy, ill, indifferent, in a dream. A mood of blind remoteness and sadness and divorce from life. This ride I took with my senses asleep, I repeated almost ten years later with my senses awakened, in good health, with clear eyes, and I was surprised to see that I had not only remembered the road, but every detail of this ride which I thought I had not seen or felt at all. Even to the taste of the huge brioche we served at a famous inn. It was as if I had been sleepwalking while another part of my body recorded and observed the presence of the sun, the whiteness of the road, the billows of heather fields, in spite of my inability to taste and feel at the time.”