Anais Nin on New York

“London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful,” woman of wit Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”  The Big Apple is a seductress that has always entranced artists.  Ayn Rand remarked of the modern metropolis that the sky over New York was the “will of man made visible” while Zadie Smith noted in her altogether marvelous essay “Find Your Beach” that in Manhattan “you are pure potential.”  To witness New York City’s startling skyline is to marvel at human will.  The city itself- its towering heights, its shining surfaces of glass and enamel- is a near perfect symbol: like its greedy skyscrapers grasping to snatch the gods’ fire, New York is always longing, always reaching for something better.  So vast is its ambition that it can’t be contained in this stratosphere.  Much like Gatsby, the classic literary emblem of our national identity, in New York, we believe in an “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”  And though what we strive for eternally eludes our grasp, we resolve to “run faster” and “stretch out our arms further” the next day and the next.  

In America, we believe it’s our duty to find happiness.  If London is satisfied and Paris is resigned, New York is unfailingly optimistic: we’re confident-almost naively so- in our ability to manifest our every dream, our every desire.  The big city embodies this unshakable conviction: in New York, you can be a best-selling novelist, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, a groundbreaking painter; you can be a steel tycoon, a Fifth Avenue billionaire, a Wall Street stock broker.  New York shimmers on the shores of the Atlantic as the holy land of dreamers, a real-life representation of the tenets of American philosophy outlined by our founding fathers: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  

In New York, everyone is pursuing happiness.  But though this pursuit is exalted as a right, it’s a heavy individual burden.  After all, if you never actualize your dreams, if you never attain that magical, mysterious, much sought after state of “happiness” in a supposed meritocracy that rewards hard work and talent rather than inherited privilege, who’s to blame but yourself?  In our land of near limitless opportunity, to be a nobody is the worst possible outcome- nothing is more disgraceful.  The disheveled drunkard pan handling at the subway station, the mentally ill homeless guy mumbling to himself: to those who have faith in the doctrine of self-determination, their suffering is their own fault.  Maybe, some of us think, they weren’t diligent or persistent enough.  Certainly they didn’t work hard.  Rarely do we consider that those who fail to secure the American Dream fail as a result of a complex web of social, economic, and cultural forces outside their control.  No, instead we condemn the poor as lazy, the unhappy as morally contemptible.

retro subway

“New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America,” James Weldon Johnson once observed, “She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments–constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther.”  New York may enchant our imagination with promises of possibility and success but she most often conceals the costs of this singularly American credo.  If you live in a culture where nothing is outside the realm of possibility and you- and you alone- are ultimately responsible for your fate, the pressure to be “something” is immeasurable.  In the hurry to “make it,” you inevitably lose some of your humanity as you become more ruthless and self-centered.  

In her pellucid literary memoir The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939, always eloquent Anais Nin suggests New York is both largeness and smallness, hope and delusion, energy and agitation, paradise and hell.  Writing in 1934 while living in the city and working for Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, Nin describes hyperactive New York as the antithesis of reposeful Paris and achievement-obsessed America as the converse of sensual, romantic France:

“From where we sat I could see all of New York pointing upward, into ascension, into the future, to exultation, New York with its soft-oiled hinges, plastic brilliance, hard metal surfaces, glare and noise, New York gritty, sharp and windy, and the opposite of Paris in every possible way.

[…]

Paris, New York, the two magnetic poles of the world.  Paris a sensual city which seduced the body, enlivened the senses, New York, unnatural, synthetic; Paris-New York, the two high tension magnetic poles between life, life of the senses, of the spirit in Paris, and life in action in New York.”  

anais nin new york

In a passage calling to mind a recent study that found NYC boasts some of the world’s fastest walkers, Nin suggests the “city that never sleeps” is driven by an irrepressible desire to achieve.  Propelled by this restless, fitful energy, she hurries at a hysterical pace, always in perpetual motion, never at peace:

“In the evening he [Dr. Otto Rank] took me to see the magic doors at Pennsylvania Station, which opened as one approached them, as if they could read our thoughts, and then the Empire State terrace, which seemed to sway in the wind, so that I could see the panorama.  It was beautiful and strong, the whole design thrust into space, arrogant sharp pointed arrows piercing the sky as if seeking to escape from the earth into other planets.  

In New York the acoustics are good for laughter, for life is all external, all action, no thought, no meditation, no dreaming, no reflection, only the exuberance of action.  No memory of the past, no looking back, no doubts, no questions.”  

The tragic irony of the modern era is that the sweeping technological and scientific advancements of the last one hundred years have in many ways made life retrogress. We have farther-reaching social networks but fewer meaningful relationships; we’re more “connected” through Instagram and Snapchat but feel more lonely and have fewer friends.  In fact, in the last twenty five years, the number of quality social interactions has decreased drastically; one study found that compared to 1985, when only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and only 15 percent said they only had one real confidant, in 2004, 25 percent reported they had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent revealed they only had one close friend.  “Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of the scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself…disappointed,” Walker Percy once said.  This sentiment certainly rings true for the millions who have countless followers but few friends.

As a psychoanalyst, Nin learned first hand that living in a materially affluent, technologically advanced society does not guarantee happiness.  Much like her patients, who- despite having all the external trappings of success- lie on her psychologist’s coach and lament of dissatisfaction, we in the modern age- despite having beheld the wonders of the computer revolution and modern medicine- lack the community, connection, and genuine sense of belonging we need as humans to truly be content.  

New York occupies our imaginations as the epicenter of human progress.  Yet- regardless of its promise to be the final destination on our route to happiness- New York consistently ranks as the unhappiest city in the U.S.  In evocative, stream-of-consciousness prose whose fast-paced rhythm mirrors the unrelenting speed of the city, Nin wonders if New York, like Sodom, represents the demise of humanity:

“The transparent brilliance over all things, from shop windows, to cars, to lights.  A texture which is not real, and not real human.  Days all bright and glossy.  One feels new every day.  The poetry of smooth motion, of quick service, a dancing action, at counters, changing money for the subway.  Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.  After knowing what seethes within them, I do not dare look at the people too closely, for they seem a bit artificial, like robots, parts of concrete and electric wiring.  A million windows, high voltage, pressure, vitamin-charged, the city of tomorrow, and the people of tomorrow who cannot be human beings, and who, perhaps knowing it, come to Dr. Rank to weep and complain for the last time, for they too may be a vanishing race.  Just as the aristocrats are a vanishing race in Europe, perhaps here the human being who thought this was to be his world, is also being sacrificed to something else.  Here in Dr. Rank’s office I hear protests, revolts, sorrow, but outside they seem a part of the white-enameled, sterile buildings.” 

As the sun rises over the Hudson, stylish men in suits crowd into subway stations.  They are New York: the ambitious go-getters, the remorseless social climbers willing to squash anything- and anyone- who stands in the way of their ascent.  Though there’s something inhuman about life in the big city, after returning home to France in June 1935, Nin finds herself missing New York’s vitality and vibrancy.  Whereas she used to love the depth and richness of historic France, after shiny, modern New York where each day “you’re born anew,” the Old World seems like an antique: charming, quaint perhaps, but burdened by the past:

“Louveciennes.  Home.  Rush of memories.  Sleeplessness.  I miss the animal buoyancy of New York, the animal vitality.  I did not mind that it had no meaning and no depth.  Here I feel restless.  The Persian bed.  The clock ticking.  Time slowed down.  The dog barking at the moon. Teresa bringing the breakfast.  All the electric bulbs missing, the tenants took things away.  The books are dusty.  My colored bottles seem less sparkling after the sharp gaudy colors of New York.  The colorful room seems softer, mellower.  The rugs are worn.  Where is the jazz rhythm, the nervous energy of New York?  The past.  The glass on my dressing room table is broken.  The curtain rods are missing.  Where are the garden chairs?  France is old.  It has the flavor, the savoriness, the bouquet, the patina of ancient things.  It has humanity which New York does not have.  

[…]

Louveciennes is old and tranquil.  I once loved its oldness, its character.  Now it seems to have the musty odor of the past.  New York was new.

[…]

I miss the electric rhythm of New York: it was like riding a fiery race horse.  I was drunk on liberty, on space and dynamism.  Where are the dazzling lights, the roar of airplanes, fog horns, fast cars, wild pace?  I am restless.  Adventure is pulling me out.  

[…]

All I have been suffering from is falling from a quick rhythm to a slower one.  I cannot sit in a cafe for hours, or talk for ten hours as Henry and Fraenkel do.  I crave action and motion.  It is as if my heart were beating faster than theirs and I had broken into the running pace of New York.” 

french countryside

In the end, Nin concludes New York embodies the dual nature of America itself.  A work of breathtaking lyricism and revelatory insight, The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939 is a genuine literary event.  More than just a portal into the content of one ordinary woman’s mind, Nin’s diary is a gateway into the mysteries of human life, exploring topics as diverse as the nature of America to the enigma of memory.  A masterpiece the Washington Post argued “examines human personality with a depth and understanding seldom surpassed since Proust,” The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939 is sure to delight.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s