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La Négation

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Stéphanie Bonnefille
, 
Sébastien Salbayre

Poétique et esthétique : de la négation au négatif

To live or not to love: “The moment of non-living, non-Desiring” in Anaïs Nin's A Spy in the House of Love

Simon Dubois Boucheraud

Résumé

My paper will focus on negation in Anaïs Nin’s novel A Spy in the House of Love. In what she terms “symphonic” writing, Nin uses negation under various forms, to musical ends. In this respect negation will often be felt as sforzandi or as fortissimi.
At first it would seem that the narrator tends to conceptualize things according to what they are not rather than what they are. Negation is then resorted to as a means of drawing a intaglio engraving based on a standard that would be a state of WITHOUT or NOT. This strategy may be used either as a humorous device underscoring irony or as a way to protract the utterance and not to end
Negation tends to make the literary text close to the argumentative genre, in that negation appears as a means of pre-empting what the reader might think. As such negation rests upon an artificial anaphora on the part of the narrator, which seeks to create a sense of familiarity with the reader.
Finally this paper will attempt to show to what extent A Spy in the House of Love is akin to fugue. In this piece of music a tune, namely negation, is repeated regularly in different keys, e.g. syntactically, semantically, etc. by different instruments. Conjuring up images of disappearance, disintegration and detachment, the fugue rises to a crescendo illustrating an apparently paradoxical freedom of the self in negation, and eventually culminates in a musical pause: “the moment of non-living, non-desiring.”

Texte intégral

Living never wore one out so much as the effort not to live. (Anaïs Nin, Diaries)

1A Spy in the House of Love was written in 1950 but was only published a few years later in 1954. No less than a hundred and twenty-seven publishers actually rejected the book for being pornographic though Nin always declared that her writing was far from being so. A Spy was also published later in 1959 in the continuous novel, as Nin termed it herself, Cities of the Interior which comprises five interconnected novels published individually during the 1940s and 1950s. In A Spy, Nin explores the life of a (polyandrous) woman, Sabina, whose promiscuous sexual behavior is one of the reasons why the book was censured at a time when such license was only tolerable from male characters.

2Sabina lies to everyone and always plays a role but at the end of the novella, she ends up being trapped in the maze of her own lies. From the very beginning on, for Sabina, negating is equated with telling the truth, thus conveying what she is unable to utter. This is clearly expressed by the following passage in which Sabina lies to her husband and pretends she has been away for a one-week theater program in Massachusetts while she actually remained in New York City:

For a moment, because of the caressing voice, the acceptance and the love he showed, she was tempted to say:‘Alan, I am not an actress, I was not playing a part on the road, I never left New York, it was all an invention. I stayed in a hotel, with... [...] She held her breath to choke the truth, made one more effort to be the very actress she denied being, to act the part she denied acting, to describe this trip she had not taken, to recreate the woman who had been away for eight days, so that the smile would not vanish from Alan's face (A Spy in the House of Love 18)

1. NEGATION AS A MENTAL AND TEXTUAL DEVICE

1.1. Negation as a way not to end

  • 1 “An engraving or incised figure in stone or other hard material depressed below the surface so tha (...)

3In Nin's fiction the narrator tends to conceptualize things according to what they are not, rather than what they are. Negation is thus a means of drawing an intaglio engraving1 opposing a full standard that would be a state of “with” or “Ø”, i e. affirmative mood. Ladders to Fire, the first novel in Cities of the Interior amply illustrates this:

No great catastrophe threatened her. She was not tragically struck down as others were by the death of a loved one at war. There was no visible enemy, no real tragedy, no hospital, no cemetery, no mortuary, no morgue, no criminal court, no crime, no horror.There was nothing.
She was traversing a street. The automobile did not strike her down. It was not she who was inside of the ambulance being delivered to St. Vincent's Hospital. It was not she whose mother died. It was not she whose brother was killed in the war.
In all the registers of catastrophe her name did not appear. She was not attacked, raped or mutilated. She was not kidnapped for white slavery.
But as she crossed the street and the wind lifted the dust, just before it touched her face, she felt as if all these horrors had happened to her, she felt the nameless anguish, the shrinking of the heart, the asphyxiation of pain, the horror of torture whose cries no one hears. (10-11) (My emphases)

4In this passage, negation clearly appears as a way not to end, to protract the utterance so as to delay the comment which directly concerns the heroine Lillian. From a purely stylistic point of view, the tension elevates gradually to get more and more unbearable and “anguishing”. The reiteration of “not” perfectly befits the “asphyxiation of pain” the heroine feels. In addition, the whole paragraph is akin to filling out a questionnaire or ticking off the answers of a form created to define the situations that could have been the heroine's. Human thoughts seem to be conceptualized positively rather than negatively. It does not necessarily follow that a sentence is thought in the affirmative mood before being uttered in the negative mood but since affirmation prevails, negation becomes frustration, especially when trying to discover who or what someone, or something, is.

1.2. Negation as an argumentative and anaphoric device

5Negation also serves as a means of pre-empting what the reader might think. As such it is based on an artificial—and I feel like saying artefactual—mental anaphora on the part of the narrator, which seeks to create a sense of familiarity with the reader. Negation enables the narrator to anticipate what some general average person might think and to negate their opinion. This seems to make the literary text close to the argumentative genre, in which negation and more especially the negative adverb NOT allows the author to reject what he envisioned as prospective objections on the part of the addressee. This illusory connivance with the reader is more often than not the narrator's approach in A Spy. For example, when Sabina is back at Alan's after she has spent some time with Philip, one of her lovers, emphasis is laid on the fact that nothing has changed. Negation helps develop a sense of déjà vu for the reader. The negative elements testify to a mental anaphora on the part of the narrator and herald an artificial textual anaphora for the reader who has not yet been introduced with the place:

He was there. Five days had not altered his voice the all-enveloping expression of his eyes. The apartment had not changed. The same book was still open by his bed, the same magazines had not yet been thrown away. He had not finished some fruit she had bought the last time she had been there. (Spy 48)

6Each time negation seems to refute what the reader might logically have expected.

7Negation goes against expectations and, in a vertiginous world where Sabina is prone to doubt and uncertainty, it is used to debunk clichés and convey the chaotic atmosphere pervading the novel:

She looked at the sky arched overhead but it was not a protective sky, not a cathedral vault, not a haven; it was a limitless vastness to which she could not cling, and she was weeping [...] (Spy 96)

8In this example, emphasis is laid on the form—and I feel tempted to say “metrical form”: 6 ft “not a protective sky”, + “not a cathedral vault”—as much as on emotions. Negation contributes to the creation of an unexpected fictional space. The beauty of the sky is not praised, as it could have been, it is de-scribed (and decried?) in a diametrically opposed fashion. It is negated (“not a cathedral vault”) to be subsequently defined negatively (“it was a limitless vastness”), or at least privatively, so that Sabina cannot have any anchor (“to which she could not cling”).

1.3. Not moving or the ultimate negation

  • 2 Sharon Spencer, introduction to Cities of the Interior, “The novel as mobile in space” (xi-xx).

9As the critic, and friend of Nin's, Sharon Spencer points out, for Nin, ceaseless change is essential to psychic life: “[t] he self is itself a mobile, a process, as Bergson argued, of constant becoming.”2 As she underscores: “[i] f they are truly to live, Nin's characters are to remain in motion.” Not moving, to Sabina, is the ultimate negation and is similar to death: “[i] mmobility always brought this image to her, the image of death, and it was this which impelled her to rise and seek activity. Repose, to her, resembled death.” (Spy 26). And later: “[f] or Sabina, to be becalmed meant to die” (Spy 97). This echoes what Nin writes in her diary (Vol. 6.1955-1966):

My interpretation of the phrase to take root is negative; for me it means cutting off avenues of escape, of communication with the rest of the world. So that against the wish for repose, there is an impulse to remain mobile, fluid, to change surroundings.

2. NEGATION AS THE MUSICAL THEME OF FREEDOM IN A RAGTIME NAMED NON-DESIRE AND IN THE FUGUE OF LOVE:

  • 3 Sharon Spencer in the Introduction to Cities of the Interior (xiii).

10In a very cogent part of her book, Holt compares A Streetcar Named Desire to Nin’s novella Stella. Holt implies that Tennessee Williams'Streetcar might have been borrowed or perhaps only inspired by Stella. Nin, who was the daughter of a pianist, had an essentially musical writing. Through the use of what the author herself termed “symphonic writing”, that is to say a prose deeply influenced by nonverbal arts, Nin seeks a remedy against the “relative impotence of words”.3 So do her heroines: “Lillian storming against the piano, using the music to tell all how she wanted to be stormed with equal strength and fervor” (Ladders to Fire 66).

  • 4 The best example of visual effect is when Sabina meets the African-American drummer Mambo. Mambo a (...)
  • 5 These lines echoe Durrel's verse: “Music is only love, looking for words” in “Conon in Alexandria” (...)

11Besides, words are incomplete. The signifier never completely reaches up to the signified. Since uttering words leaves a void and incompleteness, Nin plays in the auditory, and sometimes also visual, field (s).4 At the same time as the process of literary creation is carried out, it listens to itself. What Nin wrote in her diaries is in keeping with this idea: “[w] e don't have a language for the senses. Feelings are images, sensations are like musical sounds.”5 Consequently, the silence in A Spy is often pregnant with meaning and even “speaks” as in the following passage:

(Later he told her: if you had spoken then I would have walked away. You had the talent of letting everything else speak for you. It was because you were silent that I came up to you.) (Spy 27)

2.1. Back to Bach: Sabina's inventions

12Sabina is a liar and a great pretender, and negation plays a leading role in her inventions. She feels “an invisible flush of shame” as she lies to Alan:

Every improvisation, every invention to Alan was always followed not by any direct knowledge of this shame, but by a substitution: almost as soon as she had talked, she felt as if her dress had faded, her eyes dimmed, she felt unlovely, unlovable, not beautiful enough, not of a quality deserving to be loved. (Spy 20) (My emphases)

  • 6 Merriam Webster's Dictionary.
  • 7 This corresponds to the dichotomy between men and women if one decides to follow Lacan's theory: “ (...)

13Three musical terms stand out in the leading metaphor: improvisation, invention—i.e. “a short keyboard composition featuring two-or three-part counterpoint”6 and which may remind the reader of Bach—and substitution, which means changing fingers on the same key when playing the piano. Negation (“un”, “not enough”, “not deserving”) makes for repeated sforzandi from a purely stylistic, or musical, point of view. Besides, the fact that Sabina, when facing Alan, defines herself negatively gives the reader an undeniable “intaglio portrait”. Sabina is not all there, unlike her husband Alan who is “an all”.7

14Nin's “symphonic writing” seems to be heard more audibly in the negative as is amply illustrated by the following passage, a virtuoso performance both in the domain of assonances and consonances:

It was at this moment that she heard a song. It was not a casual song anyone might sing walking along the beach. It was a powerful, developed voice with a firm core of gravity, accustomed to vast halls and a large public. Neither the sand nor wind nor sea nor space could attenuate it. It was flung out with assurance, in defiance to them all, a vital hymn of equal strength to the elements. (Spy 26) (My emphases)

  • 8 In this respect the French term for score, ‘partition’, with its double meaning seems even more al (...)

15If one decides to read this sentence as a musical score,8 it should be observed that the negative coordinators “neither”, “nor”, “nor”, “nor” are not separated by commas. They are consummately integrated to the text/melody. Listening to the score, the effect is that of string aggregates or pizzicatti—cf. consonance in [n]— following an accelerando. As Nathalie Vincent underlines, reading Nin requires more than observant eyes. It demands a musically sensitive ear.

16In A Spy negation and negative prefixes also serve as a basis for improvisation. Let us consider the following paragraph:

The trembling premonitions shaking the hand, the body, made dancing unbearable, waiting unbearable, smoking and talking unbearable, soon would come the untamable seizure of sensual cannibalism, the joyous epilepsies. (Spy 34) (My emphases)

17The musical quality of this sentence is undeniable, but one could argue that affirmative (unnegated) terms would have been equally musical. However, the morphological composition of the adjectives: UN + V + ABLE, makes for an evident visual and aural circularity, which fits Nin's continuous novel perfectly. In fact, novelty is introduced within and by repetition. In music, improvisation can only develop to the accompaniment of a perfectly pitched or perfectly rhythmic base. In this paragraph, negation can be viewed as the base. The rest, as an improvisation which still respects the pitch (cf. the alliteration in [s]). The oft-quoted sequel of the passage only reinforces this impression:

They fled from the eyes of the world, the singer's prophetic, harsh, ovarian prologues. Down the rusty bars of ladders to the undergrounds of the night propitious to the first man and woman at the beginning of the world, where there were no words by which to possess each other, no music for serenades, no presents to court with, no tournaments to impress and force a yielding, no secondary instruments, no adornments necklaces, crown to subdue, but only one ritual, a joyous, joyous, joyous impaling of woman on a man's sensual mast. (Spy 34)

  • 9 Merriam Webster's Dictionary.
  • 10 I am indebted to Nathalie Vincent's article “A short story in rag (s), ou les avatars stylistiques (...)

18In the above paragraph, negation is responsible for a staccato rhythm which mimics the coital movements. The coitus accelerates with the repetition of the adjective “joyous”. Even though far-fetched, would it be too much of a fantasy to assume the “no’s” to have been actually uttered or moaned by Sabina? I would not say this is fully irrelevant, since the preceding paragraph mentions “a harsh wilderness cry”, “a cry of danger” and “cry of wound pain from the same hoarse delta of nature's pits”. However the orchestral formation to which Nin's “symphonic writing” can be linked does not seem very conducive to the improvisation process. Instead, ragtime, i.e. “rhythm characterized by strong syncopation in the melody with a regularly accented accompaniment in stride-piano style”9 seems more alluring.10 Nin grew up in the jazz age and evidence to choose jazz rather than classical music is to be found in her fiction: “[sjhe abandoned classical music and became a jazz pianist. Classical music could not contain her improvisations, her tempo, her vehemences” (Seduction of the Minotaur, 569).

2.2. A fugue towards the moment of non-living, non-desiring

Without any warmth of the heart, as a man could, she had enjoyed a stranger.
And then she remembered what she had heard men say:‘Then I wanted to leave.’
She gazed at the stranger lying naked beside her and saw him as a statue she did not want to touch again. As a statue he lay far from her, strange to her, and there welled in her something resembling anger, regret, almost a desire to take this gift of herself back, to efface all traces of it, to banish it from her body. She wanted to become swiftly and cleanly detached from him, to disentangle and unmingle what had been fused for a moment [...].
She slid very softly out of the bed [...] [and] [...] tiptoed to the bathroom.
On the shelf she found face powder, comb, lipstick in shell rose wrappings. [...] Wife? Mistress? How good it was to contemplate these objects without the lightest tremor of regret, envy or jealousy. That was the meaning of freedom. Free of attachment, dependency and the capacity for pain. [...]
He is not to be trusted. I am only passing by. I am on my way to another place where he cannot even find me, claim me. How good it was not to love; [...]
(Philip had observed he had never seen a woman dress so quickly, never seen a woman gather up her belongings as quickly and never forgetting a single one!)
How she had learned to flush love letters down the toilet, to leave no hairs on the borrowed comb, to gather up hair pins, to erase traces of lipstick anywhere, to brush off clouds of face powder.
[... ] She knew all the trickeries in this war of love. And her neutral zone, the moment when she belonged to none, when she gathered her dispersed self together again. The moment of non-living, non-desiring. [...]
When she returned to the room Philip was still asleep. [...] [B] ut she felt no desire to cover or shelter him, or to give him warmth. (Spy 45-7) (My emphases)

19The passage, which illustrates how Sabina tastes the freedom of manhood through negation, can be viewed as a fugue. Even though this literary figure tends to be overused, I would argue that in this example, the metaphor is not far-fetched. Nin's “symphonic writing” can be felt, this time, in all its intensity. The music starts with the tonic “without any warmth” and ends in a perfect cadence (“no desire... to give him warmth”).

  • 11 “An embellishing note or tone preceding an essential melodic note or tone and usually written as a (...)

20In this piece of music, a theme, namely negation, is repeated regularly in different keys for instance syntactically and semantically by different instruments. The musical structure can be divided into three main parts. After a short introduction till “I wanted to leave”, the fugue begins in minor. Physical estrangement resounds from these bars: “stranger” (twice), “far”, “strange”. Negation is declined syntactically (“She did not want to touch”), morphologically according to a ternary rhythm at very close intervals (“She wanted to become swiftly and cleanly detached from him, to disentangle and unmingled what had been fused for a moment”) and semantically (“take this gift of herself back” and “efface all traces”). The fugue then undergoes a modulation in major and spiritual detachment is viewed as the ultimate freedom: “[h] ow good it was to contemplate these objects without the lightest tremor of regret, envy or jealousy” and “free of attachment, dependency and the capacity for pain”. Thus a paradox appears which could be compared with a major perfect cadence (“how good it was... to love”) with an appogiatura11 (“not”). A second modulation appears and opens the third part which conjures up images of absence. In this part, negation is repeated in a allegro ternary rhythm (“never”, “never”, “never”) as if to beat time and except “leave no hairs on the borrowed comb”, negation is then lexical rather than syntactic: “flush love letters down the toilet”, “erase traces of lipstick anywhere” and “brush off clouds of face powder.” Finally the fugue rises to an extremely sonorous crescendo (“her neutral zone, the moment when she belonged to none, when she gathered her dispersed self together again”, [my emphases]) and eventually culminates in a pause: “The moment of non-living, nondesiring.” If non-desiring is the key to Sabina's independence, beyond “non-living”, the heroine even attains non-being. The question could then amount to to be or not to be?:

Before he could speak and harm her with words while she lay naked and exposed, while he prepared a judgement, she was preparing her metamorphosis, so that whatever Sabina he struck down she could abandon like a disguise, shedding the self he had seized upon and say:'That was not me. (Spy 58) (My emphasis)

21At the end of the novella, in an absolution of sorts, the lie detector tells Sabina:

And now you are in flight, from the guilt of love divided and from the guilt of not loving. Poor Sabina, there was not enough to go around. You sought your wholeness in music... Yours is a story of non-love... (Spy 122)

  • 12 In the introduction to her book Anais Nin: A Biography, Deirdre Bair states that Nin “will enter p (...)

22I can only think of this sentence as an autobiographic comment. Never whole and ever aware of the “relative impotence of words” Anaïs Nin sought her wholeness in music and in this light she appears to me not as a minor writer but as a “major minor writer”.12

Bibliographie

WORKS CITED

Βair Deidre, Anaïs Nin: A Biography, New York, Putnam, 1995.

Holt Rochelle Lynn, Anais Nin. An Understanding of Her Art, Fort Myers, Rose Shell Press, 1997.

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, Merriam Webster, 2003.

Nin Anaïs, A Spy in the House of Love, 1954, London, Penguin Classics, 2001.

———, Cities of the Interior, 1959, Athens, Swallow Press, Ohio University Press, 1991.

———, The Diaries of Anaïs Nin, volume 1: 1931-1934, 2: 1934-1939 and volume 6: 1955-1966, New York, Harcourt, Swallow Press, 1966, 1967 & 1977.

Spencer Sharon, Collage of Dreams. The Writings of Anais Nin, 1977, New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1981.

Vincent Nathalie, “‘The Island of joy must be near’: archétypes féminins et poétique de la rêverie dans ‘Houseboat’ d'Anaïs Nin”, Bulletin de la Société de Stylistique Anglaise n° 19, Paris, Université de Paris X-Nanterre, 1998, 119-130.

Notes

1 “An engraving or incised figure in stone or other hard material depressed below the surface so that an impression from the design yields an image in relief.” (Merriam Webster's Dictionary)

2 Sharon Spencer, introduction to Cities of the Interior, “The novel as mobile in space” (xi-xx).

3 Sharon Spencer in the Introduction to Cities of the Interior (xiii).

4 The best example of visual effect is when Sabina meets the African-American drummer Mambo. Mambo appears in a strange light, the color of his skin standing out from the orange walls of the cellar room and he is said to be paler than his friends with a “diffusion of color” on his face, as though he were not really there but in the negative of a picture (49-50).

5 These lines echoe Durrel's verse: “Music is only love, looking for words” in “Conon in Alexandria”, Collected Poems. London: Faber 1980 (p. 129).

6 Merriam Webster's Dictionary.

7 This corresponds to the dichotomy between men and women if one decides to follow Lacan's theory: “Il n'y a pas la femme puisque dans son essence elle n'est pas toute,” Lacan, Séminaire, livre 20, « Encore ». Paris: Seuil, Le champ Freudien, 1975.

8 In this respect the French term for score, ‘partition’, with its double meaning seems even more alluring. Nathalie Vincent uses it several times to define Nin's writing.

9 Merriam Webster's Dictionary.

10 I am indebted to Nathalie Vincent's article “A short story in rag (s), ou les avatars stylistiques d'un genre:‘Ragtime’d'Anaïs Nin”, Bulletin de la Société de Stylistique Anglaise n ° 24. Paris: Université de Paris X-Nanterre, 2003.

11 “An embellishing note or tone preceding an essential melodic note or tone and usually written as a note of smaller size.” (Merriam Webster's Dictionary)

12 In the introduction to her book Anais Nin: A Biography, Deirdre Bair states that Nin “will enter posterity as a minor writer, but... must be judged a'major minor writer.’” Yet her tone is somehow moralizing, suggesting that she is doing Nin a favor in writing so and seems to overtook the musical analogy.

Auteur

Professeur certifié d’anglais dans l’académie de Nice, est inscrit en Master 2 à l’Université François Rabelais de Tours sous la direction de Claudine Raynaud. Il s’intéresse à la relation entre littérature et linguistique, en particulier dans l’œuvre d’Anaïs Nin

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2006

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540

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