In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays (Original Harvest Book; Hb333) (10 page)

BOOK: In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays (Original Harvest Book; Hb333)
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Yes, I think that is a very great conflict. The creative will pushes you in one direction while you have guilt about using time and energy which is supposed to be devoted to your personal life. It hasn’t been a problem for man because the culture incites him to produce, he wants to be obsessed with his work, he is blessed for it. But woman has really been told that the primary concern is her personal life, she hasn’t been encouraged to create; in her case it is accidental phenomena.

In terms of the growth impulse or process, do you believe that we evolve out of childhood, that we grow away from childhood and leave it behind, or do we, as we grow, effect a reunion with a primary self before trauma? Is growth a linear process of moving away or a circular process of return to an essential self?

I would agree with you that the search should take us to the point of being able to reassemble all the separate pieces of ourselves. Wallace Fowlie defined the poet as one who was able to keep the fresh vision of the child alive within the mature man. I agree with that except during trauma, when pieces break off—so it’s really a work of connectiveness.

There is an almost archetypal cycle of return to the self at the inner core of your work.

If our mythological journey is supposed to have been through the labyrinth we would ultimately come out, we would have to come out with all of ourselves, we couldn’t leave parts of ourselves behind in the labyrinth.

You mention in the diaries that you’re a Pisces. Do you attribute any of the quality of flow and movement in your writing to the fact that you are a Pisces?

I am very related to water. I feel very close to the sea, I like the idea of travelling and moving about, the whole journey on water. I think it has an influence on my wanting my writing to be fluid, not static. I felt that I wrote better on a houseboat because I could feel the river flowing underneath. I have been described as a Neptunian, for whom illusion was more important than the world of reality, and where the meshing of the dream and reality takes place.

What is the source of your inexhaustible energy?

I haven’t thought about that. I guess it’s curiosity, the fact that I still feel things as keenly. I suppose that when you feel alive something propels you into new experiences, new friendships, and while you’re responding you have this energy. It seems to be a quality of responsiveness, of remaining alive to whatever is happening around you. While you have that feeling, you go on exploring. Then, I’m always curious. I was in an airplane accident once. There was only one wheel, one side of the wing had caught fire, we had six minutes to get to Los Angeles, and all I was doing was thinking of all the places I hadn’t seen yet. That was my feeling—that it was a shame not to see everything, to hear everything, be everywhere.

What are you presently working on?

I’m editing Volume Six [of
The Diary of Anaïs Nin
]. Editing Volume Seven will bring me to the exchange of letters and diaries with other women. Then I will go back and redo my childhood and adolescence, because readers say I started the diary at the point where my life expanded. They would like to see how it went from the narrow to the expanded part.

How does it feel to have achieved recognition as a major literary figure?

Well, I never imagined that. It’s a lovely feeling, you lose your sense of isolation. And you can live out your universal life. You’re in contact with the whole world, which is probably the wish of every writer. I have a feeling of being in touch with the world.

The Suicide Academy

A review of
The Suicide Academy,
by Daniel Stern, in
The Village Voice,
10 October 1968.


We have had too many pedestrian novels in an age of space travel. Daniel Stern is able to toss all the facts into space, to reverse their chronological monotony, to upset established curricula. To consider the off-balance of the absurd as human, black humor as a daily contingency, terror and death from new positions, may reveal new techniques for defeating destruction. Daniel Stern’s wit is not cold, or inhuman. He belongs to the new generation which is emotional, writing to be enjoyed, to surprise, to jolt, to charge and recharge. He uses mockery only to leap over the traps, not to separate us from experience.

The Suicide Academy is a place where would-be suicides are invited for a day of self-examination and meditation, after which they must decide whether to return to the world or to put an end to their lives. “Here you’ll learn to live or die—and more—/You’ll learn the truth: that one of them is best.”

A group of variegated characters is assembled who will have an explosive effect upon each other: Wolf Walker, director, his ex-wife, Jewel, her present husband, Max Cardillo, Gilliat, the anti-semitic Negro, Barbara, the director’s pregnant mistress, and a longer list of patients than the Academy was prepared to cope with. Appropriately, the landscape is all snow and ice.

The point of view is multilateral and reality is multidimensional. In this game of the intelligence played by our own illogic, when Wolf Walker wakes he establishes the stability of ambivalence:


He had been dreaming that Jewel was singing. The song was “Après un Rêve” by Fauré, and the particular passage his sleep had snagged on was the repetition of the word
reviens, reviens.
The note was middle C.

That was how I was going to begin this. But I don’t think I can tell what happened at the Suicide Academy in that elegiac tone.


Here we slip into a surrealist world, relativity without center of gravity. We are dealing with the absurd, the irrelevant, the allegorical chaos of a world whose past hypocritical semblance of logic we can no longer accept. We are inside the Magic Theater of
inside the nightmares of Kafka but in American equivalents—that is, with the weightlessness of humor. The psychological ironies are as accurate as they should be in a twentieth-century mind. The. choice between life and death, creation and destruction, is always our own, but we prefer to blame other forces.
The Suicide Academy
invites us to meditate on the depth of our predicament, not in the seclusion of an old monastery but in an imaginary, transitional wayside station and in the center of drama, crisis, prejudices, distortions habitual to our daily life. It is not a meditation in quietness or isolation, although the snow landscape is vividly present and eloquent, as if its coolness were necessary to assuage the fevers and infections caught in active life. The place where we are to make our decision is invaded by visitors whose aim remains a mystery. There is no haven of objectivity or abstract cerebrations. Absurdity pursues and surrounds them all. The youthful, contemporary quality of the book lies in its main objective, which is to enjoy, not to explain, to
be with
all the happenings and to love whatever happens: Relationships which fail to catalyze, loves which miss their targets, wrestling matches which establish no victor, talks which add to distortions, ideologies which increase confusion, explanations which do not lead to a truce, all of them are there as in daily life, but Daniel Stern gives them the ebullience of wit, they float like lifesavers infused with the oxygen of lyrical delight. The dead clichés by which people defend themselves from change are bombarded in atomic dissolutions to invent new dynamics. Turning ideas upside down empties them of stale air and makes room for oxygen. The desperate aspect of our destructive impulses is transfigured into an allegorical dance on the snow, a tribal dance of desire. The message is directed to the senses: For example, we rediscover love through the strands of Jewel’s hair. Escapes, flights, evasions, the contemporary habit of splitting experience into a happening and of filming the happening, all is familiar. Max, the villain, is the film maker. “He shot them in quick, nervous clicks, like a spy recording some secret site on forbidden film. . . . [Were Max and Jewel] innocent film-makers or guilty film-takers?

“. . . camera madness, focusing, clicking, and winding.”

The whole group is swept into a surrealist voyage. It is not the walled-in nightmares of Kafka, constricted or claustrophobic. It is a dream of space, open, dazzling white landscapes, a mise-en-scène of joy, physical euphoria, muscular energy, in sharp ironic contrast to the constant presence of inarticulate and secret despairs.

Jewel is full of seduction, as she should be, and allergic to truth. “[Her] entire self was tangled up in her body. . . . She was the triumph of the apparent: utterly white skin, absolutely blue eyes, blonde hair that was the complete absence of black, of darkness.” Jewel, allergic to truth as a man-made formula, not suited to her feminine labyrinth, her feminine need to be created.

The ballet Jewel and Wolf, her ex-husband, dance on the ice is a lyrical flight: “. . . we loped out onto the ice like a team of fugitive figure skaters who had forgotten how to describe the classic figures and so were inventing new ones. Was there a figure Z? I’m sure we created one. Or a figure R
? I’m sure we invented it.”

In every intelligent book, the key lies within. I am certain this is true of
The Suicide Academy.
It invents new figures. This is the secret of its elating effect. If during their marriage Wolf had refused to create Jewel as she had wished, now that she is contemplating suicide and has only one day in which to enact it or repudiate it, he is willing to create her at last and circumvent her own destruction. “I would operate, skillfully using memory, the arsenal of emotions, untapped hopes, buried hatreds masquerading in other guises, misplaced loves: the scalpels and sutures of my particular practice.”

A key to the book, possibly its definition, can be found in these passages:


Suicide was a grand, dark continent to be charted and I was its cartographer.


Suicides were the aristocrats of death—God’s graduate students, acting out their theses to prove how limited were the alternatives. He had allowed Himself and His creatures. Their act was, at its best, superb literary criticism. At its worst—well, perhaps it was this blonde loveliness [Jewel] not yet defined, and dying of its lack of definition. Giving away to dust the lovely outlines of those ever-so-slightly conical breasts, those long and tapering legs, that rounded cheek curving to indentation of shadowed eyes . . . all because of lack of shape. No! Suicide must be more than mere abortion. Part of my job
to be to save people for their proper deaths.


The novel leaps from metaphysics to pugilism, from literature to jealousy, from race prejudice to mythology, from mental acrobatics to physical exertion to sensual adventures, disguising wisdom under its agilities. The central juggler never misses. He is dexterous and alive to the dangers of seeking new ideas, new sensations, new expressions. He is a figure skater of language.


The circle, you see, is at the heart of all human anguish. The sundial and the clock prove that if there were no circles there would be no time. If there were no time there would be no death. Thus—no circles, no death. . . . Most of our guests come to us suffering from circle fatigue. Repetition, full revolution and more repetition. . . . Then imagine the joy of the straight line: forward movement, change. Even if the straight line leads straight down into the earth. Think of it! An end to circles!


In one sense the novel belongs with the theater of the absurd, but in another sense it goes beyond that: The contemplation of man’s irrationalities has another purpose. It is an exercise in imaginative freedom. Since logic has been proved by events to be another form of hypocrisy, this turning of ideas upside down to shake out falsities does not end up in negations but in potential liberations. It demonstrates that the habit of skillful questioning, juxtaposing, juggling is not a pastime but a serious need for the seeker of truth. The academy symbolically burns to the ground. Built on ambivalences, all that remains of it is what each man rescues for himself out of the ashes, a world in harmony with his emotional vision, meaningful to him alone so that he can juggle himself into balance. A surrealist world in fact, obvious in history, politics, economics, science, which the Director of the Argentine Academy sums up thus:


We must suspect that there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense inherent in that ambitious word. If there is, we must conjecture its purpose; we must conjecture the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonymies of God’s secret dictionary . . .


In my cold fever, whether due to the heightening of my fears or to alcohol, I saw the landscape as a calligraphic wonder. The thinning line of trees casting elongated shadows on the snow, like a prayer book in a foreign language, but which one knew by legend to hold a famous and beautiful verse; the long line of uneven rocks scattered in a shaky hand, stretching from grass’s end to the shore. First larger then smaller, light-burnished colors then blackened gleaming shades all straggled with seaweed, strophe and anti-strophe, unfinished statement of stone and sand. And the flights of sandpipers hurled at the sibilance of shore-froth hissing them back then enticing them to return to the edge, fragments of alien texts, sacred letters whose meaning had been forgotten, old feathered prophecies, creations of inspired astrologists of earlier generations. . . .

BOOK: In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays (Original Harvest Book; Hb333)
2.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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