“Anaïs Nin, for instance, is my idea of a navel-gazing, hyper-sexed bore…” (Daphne Merkin in The New York Times, June 16 2002.)
The critique of navel gazing commonly befalls Anaϊs Nin in book reviews, especially during the notorious smear campaign that The New York Times inflicted upon Nin in the 1990s before falling silent on her completely and thus effectively silencing much of the surrounding popular discussion of her. Self-examination is sometimes celebrated, if conducted by those who are seen as worthy subjects, but the same act by others (usually women) is not always afforded equal cultural value but dismissed as if it were a boring self-indulgence rather than vital self-expressive practice.
Navel-gazing is a diminutive term often employed to belittle the work of women who explore deeply personal and intimate details of their inner lives, dismissing them for gazing into what Nin called their “Cities of the Interior.” The accusation is itself myopic and absurd, because it erroneously assumes that self-exploration limits an individual, rather than understanding that it is precisely this exercise in self-examination that allows a person to reflect on how they might project their own limitations and bias into the world. This thus allows them to consider changing those interactions (potentially then catalysing great expansion and change at a larger level). An intention to change the world can only be fulfilled if we change ourselves. This would lead to a shift in consciousness and fruitful expansion at all scales. In a self-published piece titled On Writing, Nin explained that:
“[T]his personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.”
The term itself etymologically and biologically relates to our umbilical connection to our past and to our mothers. Ancient Greeks called this act Omphaloskepsis, referring to it as a meditative practise from which to contemplate the world. This closed portal that once served as a vital link between us and our maternal origin also symbolically represents our connection between the inner psychological world and the outer one, as the individuation process separates us from total fusion with our mothers, we then must learn our place as both separate and related. The umbilical cord long gone, our navels are a reminder that we are shaped by this violent separation, but also that we then shape the world that we perceive through our individual experiences. Navels remind us that we are relational human beings and that experiences are not universal.
This nostalgia of the bodily connection we once had, binding us to another, is the same place from which we can contemplate ourselves and how we then present our realities to the world. For example, Anais Nin’s famous quote, prolifically posted and reposted on the internet is “we do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Sure enough, many of her novellas and her diaries explore this fundamental insight to our psychological influence on our subjective experience. Liberation isn’t found by escaping ourselves, but rather by using our lives to understand and recognise another individual and their experiences in comparison and contrast to our own. This is how we learn empathy, how we can recognise similarities, and behold difference with reverence. As Nin explained, “While we refuse to organize the confusions within us we will never have an objective understanding of what is happening outside… We will not be able to relate to it, to choose sides, to evaluate historically, and consequently we will be incapacitated for action.”
Perhaps we should consider what it would mean not to navel-gaze. What is it to deny or ignore our navels? If we bear no mark of our maternal origin, who are we? We have been encouraged to deny our maternal genealogy in order for a single masculine subjectivity to emerge and conquer, of course. If we can deny our mothers, we can build ourselves from everything other than what they represent. What would that other look like? Well, think of everything that could be situated on the polar opposite to what we associate with maternity. To be an individual to the point of disconnect, independence in supposed objectivity, violent separation, forgetting what we learned about inter-subjective formation and existence that relies on both our differences to and cooperation with one another. Discouraging navel gazing is encouraging self-denial. Nin explained the risk of this kind of ideology in The Novel of the Future:
“[T]his persecution of the personal, of the intimate life, of the personal relationship to all things operates under two false premises: one, that it is more virtuous to give this self to the collective life; two, that it is even more virtuous to have no self at all. The taboo was on the ego, as they miscalled it, not having read the definition of ego correctly.”
Nin added to this point in On Writing:
“…alienation from the self means alienation from others. You cannot relate to others if you have no self to begin with…In order to take action full maturity in experience is required. Novels which contribute to our emotional atrophy only deepen our blindness. And nothing that we do not discover emotionally will have the power to alter our vision. The constant evasion of emotional experience has created an immaturity which turns all experience into traumatic shocks from which the human being derives no strength or development, but neurosis.”
Personally, I’ll continue to read the writers who are accused of navel gazing, because as Nin knew, introspection allows us to celebrate our connectedness, build bridges reaching out and weaving our own worlds with others, and understand and honour our pasts. How do we create our own worlds and our new stories? By staring lovingly into the fecund space of past remembrance and future potential, and imagining what could be waiting there.