By Anais Nin
Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc, 1959
187 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2010

This is a fiction, the story of Djuna and Rango living on a barge in the Seine in Paris. He is black man from Guatemala. She white French. It’s not a novel, play, short story or poem, the dominant forms of fiction. It is sort of a tale of a love affair, but that’s not it – not a love affair, but a strange affair that involves love and sex. The scenes or sketches are moments which illustrate the driving theme – the “four-chambered heart” of the title.

He was driving the image of Paul into another chamber of her heart, an isolated chamber without communicating passage into the one inhabited by Rango. A place in some obscure recess, where flows eternal love, in a realm so different from the one inhabited by Rango that they would never meet or collide, in these vast cities of the interior.

The heart . . . is an organ . . . consisting of four chambers. . . . A wall separates the chambers on the left from those on the right and no direct communication is possible between them.

The main character in the tale, Djuna, is in an affair with a free-spirited Guatemalan guitarist who is already married and won’t part with his manipulative wife.

Djuna understand humans in relation to this notion of a four-chambered heart which she developed while reading in her father’s library as a child.

The paradise of her childhood had been in books.

The house in which she had lived as a child was the house of the spirit which does not live blindly but is ever, out of passionate experience, building and adorning its four-chambered heart — an extension and expansion of the body, with many delicate affinities establishing themselves between her and the doors and passageways, the lights and shadows of her outward abode, until she was incorporated into it in the entire expressiveness of what is outward as related to the inner significance, until there was no more distinction between outward and inward at all.

The characters actually sound much more like they live in two-chambered hearts and seem primarily related to what we used to think of as the nurturing and womanly manner on the one hand and the gruff and warlike manners of men.

Perhaps there are four-chambers rather than two since it seems we can each have at least two lovers at any given time (as she has the memory of Paul and he has his wife, Zora), and since the one lover loves two different people and is different in each relationship, one can account for the four chambers of the heart.

It was clear to Djuna now that the four-chambered heart was no act of betrayal, but that there were regions necessary to life to which Rango had no access. It was not that Djuna wanted to house the image of Paul in one chamber and Rango in another, nor that to love Rango she must destroy the chamber inhabited by Paul—it was that in Djuna there was a hunger for a haven which Rango was utterly incapable of giving to her, or attaining with her.

But at other times it is more like two-chambers of the more traditional notions of relationships between the sexes.

Another aspect of her view of the nature of people is in the complexity and conflicting relativism in all of us. I found myself more able to give credence to the claimed tendency toward these conflicts, even contradictory manners, than of the more fixed roles.

It saddened Djuna that Rango was so eager to go to war, to fight for his ideas, to die for them. It seemed to her that he was ready to live and die for emotional errors as women did, but that like most men he did not call them emotional errors; he called them history, philosophy, metaphysics, science. Her feminine self was sad and smiled, too, at this game of endowing personal and emotional beliefs with the dignity of impersonal names. She smiled at this as men smile at women’s enlargement of personal tragedies to a status men do not believe applicable to personal lives.

While Rango took the side of wars and revolutions, she took the side of Rango, she took the side of love.

Parties changed every day, philosophies and science changed, but for Djuna human love alone continued.

Great changes in the maps of the world, but none in this need of human love, this tragedy of human love swinging between illusion and human life, sometimes breaking at the dangerous passageway between illusion and human life, sometimes breaking altogether. But love itself as continuous as life.

She smiled at man’s great need to build cities when it was so much harder to build relationships, his need to conquer countries when it was so much harder to conquer one heart, to satisfy a child, to create a perfect human life. Man’s need to invent, to circumnavigate space when it is so much harder to overcome space between human beings, man’s need to organize systems of philosophy when it was so much harder to understand one human being, and when the greatest depths of human character lay but half explored.

“I must go to war,” he said. “I must act. I must serve a cause.

Anias Nin’s writing is often magnificent, poetic and captivating, as in this early flight of fancy about Djuna’s love affair with Rango:

She wanted to say: “Oh, Rango, beware. Love never dies of a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source, it dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illnesses and wounds, it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings, but never of natural death. Every lover could be brought to trial as the murderer of his own love. When something hurts you, saddens you, I rush to avoid it, to alter it, to feel as you do, but you turn away with a gesture of impatience and say: ‘I don’t understand.’”

While the writing is often exceptional the root image is of the four-chambered heart, the psychology, philosophy and sociology of the image’s implications, leaves much to be desired. Those views I found rather trite, certainly time-bound and often outrageously sexist.

No matter if she gets the psychology, philosophy, metaphysics and/or world view wrong. She writes about them so well that I didn’t care if I thought she was right or wrong about the content, I was simply mesmerized by her telling of it all. It is the power of her poetic writing that gripped, astonished, delighted and satisfied me, not the power of her ideas.

I will let her marvelous prose conclude these remarks as she talks of the forces which move humans:

Not one but many Djunas descended the stair-case of the barge, one layer formed by the parents, the childhood, another molded by her profession and her friends, still another born of history, geology, climate, race, economics, and all the backgrounds and backdrops, the sky and nature of the earth, the pure sources of birth, the influence of a tree, a word dropped carelessly, an image seen, and all the corrupted sources: books, art, dogmas, tainted friendships, and all the places where a human being is wounded, defeated, crippled, and which fester.

People add up their physical mishaps, the stubbed toes, the cut finger, the burn scar, the fever, the cancer, the microbe, the infection, the wounds and broken bones. They never add up the accumulated bruises and scars of the inner lining, forming a complete universe of reactions, a reflected world through which no event could take place without being subjected to a personal and private interpretation, through this kaleidoscope of memory, through the peculiar formation of the psyche’s sensitive photographic plates, to this assemblage of emotional chemicals through which every word, every event, every experience is filtered, digested, deformed, before it is projected again upon people and relationships.

The movement of the many layers of the self described by Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, the multiple selves grown in various proportions, not singly, not evenly developed, not moving in one direction, but composed of multiple juxtapositions revealing endless spirals of character as the earth revealed its strata, an infinite constellation of feelings expanding as mysteriously as space and light in the realm of the plane.

- - - - - - - - - -

Man turned his telescope outward and far, not seeing character emerging at the opposite end of the telescope by subtle accumulations, fragments, accretions, and encrustations.

Woman turned her telescope to the near, and the warm. Djuna felt at this moment a crisis, a mutation, a need to leap from the self born of her relationship to Rango and Zora, a need to resuscitate in another form. She was unable to follow Rango in his faith, unable either to live in the dream in peace, or to sail the barge accurately through a stormy Seine.

Bob Corbett


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