ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL.
A SPY IN THE HOUSE OF LOVE by Anaïs Nin
A Spy in the House of Love (1959) is the beautifully poetic expression of a desire that is seldom acknowledged. With the greatest clarity, it expresses a woman’s desire-or more precisely, a peculiarly feminine desire-to rid herself absolutely of all feminine desire. Her desire desires nothing more than to imitate the vicissitudes of masculine desire.
The main character, Sabrina, is an actress who slips in and out of erotic relations with men-“the house of love” to which the title refers. Like Madame Bovary, she is unfaithful to her husband. Unlike Madam Bovary, however, she is serially unfaithful and seemingly incapable of devoting herself completely to any one man. Garbed in a cape, Sabrina races through the night from one tryst to the next. She is by no means cold. She is sensitive enough to bleed to death from a paper cut; one slight or insult from a passer-by would cause her to vaporize on the street. Indeed, her emotional attachments are impassioned. Although she reads the men with whom she couples as if they were so many books, memorizing every detail of their person, it is clear that each of these men affects her profoundly. It would be incorrect, therefore, to say that she is, for instance, a man imprisoned in the body of a woman. Because she is a woman whose inner world is infinitely rich and who is capable of infinite passion, she longs-fruitlessly, perhaps-to become impassive; it is precisely because she burns with passion that she yearns to rid herself of all passion.
Masculine desire is transient. Once a man has what he desires, he often loses interest and turns his mind to a new object of lust. Sabrina knows this. In the hope of “masculinizing” her own desire, all of Sabrina’s inner activity is directed toward the point at which desire is interrupted:
The moment of non-loving, non-desiring. The moment when she took flight, if the man had admired another woman passing by, or talked too long about an old love, the little offences, the small stabs, a mood of indifference, a small unfaithfulness, a small treachery, all of them were warnings of possibly larger ones, to be counteracted by an equal or larger or total unfaithfulness, her own, the most magnificent of counterpoisons, prepared in advance for the ultimate emergencies .
Because she knows the limitedness of masculine desire, she is preoccupied with desire’s finitude. Her desire envies the evanescence of masculine desire.
How else could she inure herself to the perils of desire except by imitating the desire of men? And how else could she imitate the desire of men except through art? Art always involves fakery and seduction. Sabrina’s greatest work of art is her ability to don masks and disguises and become the person she impersonates. As one of her paramours, Donald, writes to her in his “letter to an actress”: “I felt… as I watched you act Cinderella, that you were whatever you acted, that you touched that point at which art and life meet and there is only BEING” . In order to cancel within herself all enduring attachments, she chameleonically simulates the “nonchalance” and “full assurance”  of men and thereby becomes thoroughly “masculinized”: “She knew all of the trickeries in this war of love” . She metamorphoses herself into a woman who is indifferent to the men whom she embraces. Because she is forever a changeling, she is never fully exposed. Her lovers can say nothing that would injure her, for she is not. Even her nudity is a form of concealment: “Before [Mambo, a nightclub musician and one of her many lovers] could speak and harm her with words while she lay naked and exposed, while he prepared a judgment, she was preparing her metamorphosis, so that whatever Sabrina he struck down she could abandon like a disguise, shedding the self he had seized upon and say: `That was not me'” . A simulatrix, she affirms the plasticity of identity. Herself an endless play of masks, she unsettles and destabilizes the self-sameness of the self. She is never one self and therefore is never what anyone-for instance, her husband, Alan-wants her to be (“I want my own Sabrina back” , Alan exclaims at one point).
Because she undoes the factitious stability of identity, Sabrina is regarded, like all artists in the novel, as a criminal, a vagabond, a “spy,” a “gangster[-] in the world of art” . Her crime is the dispersal of identity. Indeed, she regards herself as a criminal-and this self-recognition, of course, gives way to the most painful experience of guilt. All guilt yearns for confession-“Guilt is the one burden human beings that can never bear alone” , she says-and for this reason, she is drawn to her confidant: a lie detector who shadows her and prepares to bring her to justice.
It might be that Sabrina’s desire to become-someone-other, like all desire, is incapable of fulfillment. The impossibility of her desire’s fulfillment is what gives A Spy in the House of Love its strange beauty. Her desire is for that which she can never own-a trap that is perhaps best expressed in German: Das Mögen mag die Möglichkeit = Desire desires possibility.
Dr. Joseph Suglia