Authors: Anaïs Nin
For many years she suffered the fate of brilliant women associated with brilliant men: She was known only as the friend of Nietzsche, Rilke, Freud, even though the publication of her correspondence with Freud showed with what equality he treated her and how he sought her opinion with respect. She made the first feminist study of Ibsen’s women and a study of Nietzsche’s work. But her books are not in print.
If she inspired Rilke, she also rebelled against his dependency and his depressions. Her love of life was weighed down, and finally after six years, she broke with him because as she said, “I cannot be faithful to others, only to myself.” She had her own work to do, and her faithfulness was to her expansive nature, her passion for life, and her work. She awakened others’ talents, but maintained a space for her own. She behaved as did all the strong personalities of her time whose romantic attachments we all admired
when they were men.
She had a talent for friendship and love, but she was not consumed by the passions of the romantics which made them prefer death to the loss of love. Yet she inspired romantic passions. She was, in attitude, thought, and work, way ahead of her time. All this Peters conveys, suggests, confirms.
It was natural that Lou should fascinate me, haunt me. But I wondered what Lou would mean to a young woman, a creative and modern young woman. That is when I decided to discuss Lou with Barbara Kraft, who writes in a study of Lou:
During the span of Salomé’s life (1861–1937) she witnessed the close of the romantic tradition and became a part of the evolution of modern thought which came to fruition in the twentieth century. Salomé was the first “modern woman.” The nature of her talks with Nietzsche and Rilke anticipated the philosophical position of existentialism. And through her work with Freud she figured prominently in the early development and practice of psychoanalytical theory. I began to see her as a heroine—as a person worthy of hero worship in its most positive aspects. Women today suffer tremendously from a lack of identification with a heroic feminine figure.
Barbara felt that the feminine heroic figures hardly exist because their biographies are usually written by men. As women we sought women who would give us strength, inspire, and encourage us. This is what Peters’s portrait of Lou does.
We discussed why she moved from one relationship to another. We could see that as a very young woman she feared the domination of Nietzsche, who was seeking a disciple, one who would perpetuate
work. After reading her letters to Rilke, we could understand why after six years she felt she had fulfilled her relationship to Rilke and had to move on. She showed remarkable persistence in maintaining her identity. Gently and wisely she expressed feminine insights in her discussions with Freud and he came to respect her judgment. She preserved her autonomy while surrounded by powerful, even overpowering men. Because she was a beautiful woman their interest often shifted from admiration to passion; when she did not respond she was termed frigid. Her freedom consisted in acting out her deep unconscious needs. She saw independence as the only way to achieve movement. And for her, movement was constant growth and evolution.
She took her pattern of life from men but she was not a masculine woman. She demanded the freedom to change, to evolve, to grow. She asserted her integrity against sentimentality and hypocritical definitions of loyalties and duties. She is unique in the history of her time. She was not a feminist at all, but struggling against the feminine side of herself in order to maintain her integrity as an individual.
H. F. Peters, who fully understood Lou, quotes her own summation: “Human life—indeed all life—is poetry. We live it unconsciously, day by day, piece by piece, but in its inviolable wholeness it lives us.”
A review of
Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks,
by Meryle Secrest, in
The New York Times Book Review,
24 November 1974.
In this biography of a highly gifted but little known woman artist, Meryle Secrest combines lucid psychological insight with empathy in a deep exploration of character and relationships. She brings into vivid life a lost segment of art history. She has the skill and power to recreate history in shimmering colors. It is unusual when a study of character probes so deeply within a human being and still paints the atmosphere around it, the life style of the times.
The book is fascinating for many reasons. American-born Romaine Goddard Brooks, who died in 1970 at the age of ninety-six, endured a nightmare childhood which would have stunted and distorted anyone else. The artist developed in spite of it. Even if, in her own words, this childhood stood “between me and life”—like an invisible fog, cooling the temperature of her loves or preventing the fullest expansion of her genius, even interfering with the life impulse—nevertheless, compared to the stunted lives of many modern artists today, she was involved in a rich, colorful pattern of friendships and loves with many remarkable figures of her time.
Secrest never mentions these artists and writers merely as famous names; each one is fully described and studied. By keeping them under a strong spotlight at the time of their involvement with Romaine Brooks, she keeps a beautiful balance between introducing famous persons and exploring them fully.
The turn of the century in Paris was an era which permitted originality, which tolerated individual patterns of life, eccentricities, all the forms and expressions of love. It was a time when emphasis was on talent.
The history of Natalie Barney, the American heiress, in itself is fruitful, and has as many repercussions as the central theme of lesbian love which united her to Romaine Brooks. They were both talented, independent women who formed their own patterns of life and behavior. The fullness and many dimensions of their relationship created an intense suspense. What enhances our interest in the story of Romaine Brooks is the close, intimate view we get of her remarkable friends—the illusion of living at that time and taking part in achievements and the despair they experience.
“Taken together, the 13 canvases which Romaine Brooks showed at the prestigious Galéries Durand-Ruel six years after her stay in St. Ives, are statements of mature talent and triumphant vindication of her determination to become an artist (‘I was born an artist. Née an artist, not née Goddard’), achieved at the cost of a total break with her family, then years of poverty and concentrated effort.”
Robert de Montesquieu, the eccentric poet, art critic, and leader of society who had inspired Proust’s Baron de Charlus, admired and befriended her and called her a “Thief of Souls” because he felt that in her portraits she captured and revealed the secret, sorrowful self concealed behind the persona. Apollinaire found too much sadness and austerity in her work. Secrest suggests Romaine Brooks may have projected her own tragic imprint upon others, or it may be that her tragic life revealed to her more readily the carefully hidden scars in others.
Jean Cocteau, Paul Morand, Ida Rubinstein, and D’Annunzio posed for her. She was surrounded all her life by significant figures, Somerset Maugham, Axel Munthe, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, André Gide, Colette, Compton Mackenzie. She attempted one marriage with a homosexual on the assumption they could be companions but live out their own preferences. It lasted barely a year.
The quest for love and for fulfillment as an artist are the book’s major themes. As an artist she received admiration and recognition from the most discriminating minds in Europe. In the quest for love, what Romaine Brooks wanted, says Secrest, was what she never had, a mother’s all-accepting love. Secrest quotes Dr. Charlotte Wolff: “Emotional incest with the mother is indeed the very essence of lesbianism.” To my mind that is a limited concept, and any quest for love might be said to be a substitute for the one not given at the beginning of one’s life. Secrest reminds us that Dante had a special nook in his inferno for the parents who did not love their children. In the case of Romaine Brooks, the injury was compounded by the obsessional love of the mother for the son, adding to Brooks’s conviction that she should deny her femininity.
The deep love affair with Natalie Barney, “‘the wild girl from Cincinnati,’ known all over Paris for her wealth, social connections, poetry, aphoristic writings and scandalously unorthodox life,” is a fascinating study, complex and fully given. The long relationship with D’Annunzio is equally rich in texture, moods.
Romaine Brooks’s paintings were exhibited for the first time in America in 1971, the year after she died in obscurity in Nice. Secrest writes: “In describing the life of an artist one can consider the work as its own phenomenon, separate from the life, or find its origin in the particular psychic set of the artist. The work of Romaine Brooks cannot be separated from her life.”
She is one of the extraordinary women recently rescued from oblivion. This might be attributed to women’s increasing awareness of the need to rewrite the history of woman, or to the more mysterious cause which often obscures the works of an artist until our taste, our discernment, our comprehension has caught up with it, explaining the cycles of eclipses and the cycles when an artist long dead becomes a vital part of our modern consciousness. Today we understand much better the excruciating relationship of Romaine Brooks to her insane mother. We understand the multiple and diverse expressions of love, the obstacles and complexities attending the development of a woman artist.
Lord Alfred Douglas sent Romaine Brooks his book of poems inscribed: “We have often told each other imperishable things.”
This might be said of this biography, in which the history of painting, of mores, of places, of people is harmoniously interwoven, and following the Ariadne thread of one life deeply enough will allow us to discover many lives and imperishable depths of experience.
From the diary of Anaïs Nin.
The women of Japan are at once the most present and the most invisible and elusive inhabitants of any country I have seen. They are everywhere—in restaurants, streets, shops, museums, subways, trains, fields, hotels, and inns—and yet achieve a self-effacement which is striking to foreign women. In the hotels and inns they are solicitous, thoughtful, helpful to a degree never dreamed of except by men, but this care and tenderness are lavished equally on women visitors. It is as if one’s dream of an ever-attentive, ever-protective mother were fulfilled on a collective scale, only the mother is forever young and daintily dressed. They are laborious and yet quiet, efficient, ever-present and yet not intrusive or cumbersome.
I was invited to Japan by my publisher, Tomohisa Kawade, and being a writer, was allowed at the geisha restaurant where the patrons are usually only men. A geisha kneeled or stood behind each guest, and no sooner was my saki cup empty than my geisha leaned forward in the swiftest and lightest gesture and filled it again. She also noticed I did not know how to handle my fish with chopsticks, so she operated on it with amazing skill. She softened the fish first with pressure from the chopsticks, and then suddenly pulled the entire bone clean and free. All this in an exquisite dress with floating sleeves, which would paralyze a Western woman. Another geisha brought me her scarf to sign: “I have read Hemingway,” she said, “he signed my scarf when I was fifteen years old.”
They stoop before you not a moment longer than necessary; not one of them seemed to be saying: Look at me; I am here. How they carried trays and served food and listened seemed like a miraculous triumph over clumsiness, perspiration, heaviness. They had conquered gravitation.
Dressed as they were, in fresh and embroidered kimonos, with their hair in the classical coiffure, lacquered and neat, with their white tabi and new sandals, it hurt me to see them follow us out into the street, in the rain, and bow low in the rain until we were away.
Outside of Tokyo, I saw them in their geisha quarter, rushing to their assignments, exquisitely dressed, elaborately coiffed, in snow white tabi and wooden sandals. The texture of their kimonos always slightly starched, the sleeves floating, like the wings of butterflies.
I saw women at work in factories. They wore blue denim kimonos, shabby from use but clean. They kneeled with their legs under them, at work with the same precision of gesture as their more glamorous counterparts. The hair was not lacquered or worked into rounded chignons, but neatly braided.
The modern emancipated Japanese women remained in Tokyo. During the rest of the trip the women I saw seemed to please the eye, to answer miraculously a need for a drink.
Their costumes bound them but their gestures remained light and airy, transcending the tightness of the obi. Their feet in the wooden sandals were as light as ballet dancers’.
In the fields, the peasant women at work presented the same harmonious dress of coarse dark blue denim, uniform and soigné even when worn. The straw hat, the basket, were also uniform, and the women worked with such order in their alignment that they seemed like a beautifully designed group dance. I watched them pick weeds, in a row, on their knees, with baskets beside them, and they picked in rhythm, without deviations or fumblings. The women weeded gardens while the men took care of the trees or cleaned the ponds of surplus water lilies.
The softness, the all-enveloping attentiveness of the women—I thought of the Japanese films, in which this delicacy can turn into fierceness if challenged, in which they startle you with a dagger or even a sword at times. What kind of modern woman would emerge from the deep, masked, long-hidden Japanese woman of old? The whole mystery of the Japanese women lies behind their smooth faces, which rarely show age, except perhaps on peasant women battered by nature. But the smoothness remains from childhood far into maturity.