I believe language has power.
Reading about writing. This $2 Saturday morning op-shop find is a welcome companion while I’m struggling through the first draft of my novel. Op-shoppers can’t be choosers, so I’ve had to skip Volume One and jump right into the years 1934-1939, where Anaïs finds herself in France on the edge of the Spanish Civil War. In 2017 I’m in Australia, reading in my morning Twitter feed about Trump declaring war on North Korea, and more Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar. And when Anaïs writes about buying a newspaper and reading of “Massacres. Blood. Tortures. Cruelty. Fanaticism” I can’t help but feel that even though eighty years have passed the only thing that has really changed is the media’s medium.
I cling to the world made by the artists because the other is full of horror, and I can see no remedy for it.
Anaïs doesn’t believe in politics. “Art has been my only religion,” she writes. But she isn’t simply trying to escape reality, or to pretend we live in a perfect world. Anaïs is no Romantic. On the contrary, she writes that romanticism is a form of neurosis:
It stems from the same source, a hunger for perfection, an obsession with living out what one has imagined.
Despair, Anaïs muses, occurs when the search for perfection, for a universal meaning, fails:
There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.
Art, for Anaïs, is the giving of this personal meaning, the writing of our own individual novels. Art does not hide reality, but transforms it, illuminates it. And it is hard work – an ongoing, active process that requires daily practice:
The assaults of reality are more and more violent. It becomes more and more difficult to maintain an individually beautiful or integrated world. I have to kill one dragon a day, to maintain my small world from destruction.
Hope is hard. And happiness, Anaïs writes, is “precarious and dangerous … because of what is happening around me. I am always tightrope dancing.” There are times when she feels overwhelmed, “when all I have lived … comes up in my throat, drowns me.” But she survives, finds the good in life, through writing:
I live in a period of dissolution and disintegration … I thought I too would dissolve. But my diary seems to keep me whole.
Reading Anaïs – a writer who is perhaps more well known for her journals than her fiction – is a timely reminder of the power of language. It might not change the world, or even influence political policy, but it can – on an individual level – shape our experience and keep us alive. “I keep on writing in the diary,” Anaïs admits, “a writing which is not writing but breathing.”
Writing keeps alive in us the instinct – possibly naive but admirable in its doggedness – to keep going in the face of an often awful world. An instinct that combines our biological drive to survive with our capacity to create. “Our need to dream,” Anaïs writes, “in the middle of ugliness and a monstrous reality.” Reading these journals has renewed my motivation to write, both creatively and in my own diary. This little op-shop treasure has rescued me, in part, from the despair that can come from too much time to think:
Introspection is a devouring monster. You have to feed it with much material, much experience, many people, many places, many loves, many creations, and then it ceases feeding on you.
So thank you, Anaïs, for helping to feed my introspection. Hopefully this post will go some way towards feeding someone else’s.