The Digital Self : Anaïs Nin & Our Internal Lives in the Internet Age

fragmented self image

My first proper introduction to Anaïs Nin’s work occurred when I happened upon a tattered copy of her journals in a second hand bookshop. Until that point, the only writing of hers I’d encountered was the oft-quoted observation, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ Young though I was, the insight of those words – which, since the advent of the internet, have spawned many a cheesy ‘motivational’ meme – stuck with me.

The rational, structuralist mind presumes a knowable, evidential truth: if we logically and clinically examine a situation, we can arrive at a clear consensus. There is comfort in this approach. It provides a kind of order that our lives lack and a sense that something is knowable, amongst all the chaos. However, our collective reality, if such a thing exists and can be considered to be ‘shared’, is a mishmash of understandings, interpretations, presumptions, all tainted by human fallibility. For all that empathy allows (and it allows a great deal), we can only ever see things as we are  and how we are determines how things appear to be. As a consequence, our vision and the reality that flows from it is incomplete. Truths are not absolute, they are specific, context-driven and oh so messy, just like the selves we harbour within us. To make sense of our lives however, and in order to exist in the world and in society, and in order to change the world and society, we have to buy into, sometimes strategically,  ‘absolute’ truths, problematic though they maybe. It’s a messy, messy business we are all doomed to struggle with.

A piece by the consistently excellent Brain Pickings, In Defence of the Fluid Self: Why Anaïs Nin Turned Down A Harper’s Bazaar Profilerecently got me thinking about Nin’s insights in a modern context. The piece references Nin’s infamous diaries, specifically an entry which explains the motivation behind her decision to decline a profile with Harper’s, a hugely popular publication. According to Nin, her decision stemmed from an unease and an unwillingness to be pinned down or explained away, as if the complexities of her creative being – and by extension, anyone’s creative being – could ever be fully realised or described outside of the internal terrain and the dangers of trying to definitively capture or spotlight these precious parts of ourselves for consumption or recording while we are still evolving. As Brain Pickings creator Maria Popova so beautifully puts it, ‘the anguish of having one’s sincerity mistaken for pretense, and above all the agony of being fossilized while still growing.’

Would the fluidity that characterises the internet age – the constant churning of information and opinion, the ease at which ideas and work can be created, shared and altered – have appealed to Nin or would she have balked at the so-called freedom afforded by the likes of social media, allowing us to create our desired selves (or should that be ‘brands’?) within strict parameters? Or would Nin, like Jaron Lainer, see such technology as regressive, demanding we reduce our identity to a carefully mediated/manipulated ‘image’ that acts as little more than a shopfront, obscuring if not downright denying the complexities of true self, a phenomenon which is so fragmented, so influx it is beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated computer program or social network.

Perhaps this remains the point. For our all gadgetry, for all our digital bells and whistles, technology cannot, as yet, replicate the vast, messy oceans within us, capture our multiple selves or remedy the flawed truths that define the human experience. And even if someday it could,  would we really want it to? As Nin might ask, where would be the adventure in that?

Photo Credit: michmutters via photopin cc