The Seduction of the Minotaur

The Seduction of the Minotaur

A review by Alan Carl Nicoll

While reading this book I was discouraged by what I saw as a vague and uninteresting beginning, but I was determined to be patient and let Nin tell her story in her own way. After a few pages I got to liking the relaxed lingering over the details of the locale and the lives of the inhabitants. Two scenes with Doctor Hernandez, in a canoe and at the swimming pool, stand out in my memory as being the most interesting and valuable that I've read so far.

Around page 100 I came to the conclusion that this is less a novel than a fictional psychological case history of the protagonist, Lillian. The plot, such as it is, consists largely of Lillian goes here or there, talks a bit with the people present, then ponders, analyzes, and writes (well, not quite). Sounds like a caricature of the life story of Anaïs Nin.

I have trouble accepting the psychological explanations of Lillian's mind and life for two reasons. First, I believe that human beings are extremely complicated, and explanations of human behavior seldom stand up to scrutiny. We understand and recognize influences; but influences are not causes. I am doubtful of the explanatory value of any form of psychology, be it Freudian, Jungian, Behaviorist, or Rankian.

Second, the explanations argued in this book often seem unclear. I cannot accept as true something I am not sure I understand. Which is not to say that I understand nothing; only that I'm reading words that don't carry meanings crisply and clearly into the mind. The meanings are often more metaphorical than literal. That's fine for poetry, which I want to be richly suggestive rather than precise and unambiguous. For explanatory material, I'm looking for clarity and precision, which poetry often is not. So, to me, this is not a good fictional case history. I feel like a naive and inexperienced reader presented with an allegory; I want to know what it means. A good allegory doesn't have a single, explicit, easily explained meaning, a "moral of the story." Moby Dick is not a symbol of Ahab's father, or of evil, or of emotion, or of any other single, identifiable feature of the world of Melville's imagination; he is what he is as presented in the book, in all his magnificence and malevolence, intractably refusing to be forced into any explainer's Procrustean bed. If it were otherwise, if great books were truly reducible to Cliff's Notes, readers wouldn't keep reading them.

When I go to a psychiatrist, I'm not looking for poetry, I'm looking for understandable and precise explanation, a Cliff's Notes of the mind. That's not what we get in Minotaur. But if the explanations in Minotaur refuse to be summarized, perhaps that's all to the good. If "human beings are extremely complicated," intractable to explanation, then a novel that analyzes a woman in depth must be as well, if it is to avoid doing Procrustean violence to the original. A Cliff's Notes of the mind must be a sham, a superficial pigeonholing of all the magnificence and malevolence of a complex human being.

The last 40 pages of this 136 page novel are devoted to Lillian's journey homeward and, more importantly, her self analysis and her analysis of Larry, her husband. But "analysis" here should be in quotes, because it's an exercise in poetic ambiguity, not a psychiatrist's case history. It's rather vague and underwhelming, and not particularly informative about these characters. The analysis is, thankfully, relieved by some flashbacks and recalling of personal history, and these---I'm tempted to call them "asides"---are the most interesting parts of this section.

Here's the rub: I don't find in Minotaur all the magnificence and malevolence, the richness of a complex human being as I do in, say, Anna Karenina. It would be absurd to expect Nin to do in 136 pages what Tolstoy took 800 to do. For now, I cannot pigeonhole this book as simply a dull novel. Perhaps if I go on to read all five parts of Nin's "continuing novel," rather than just the last, I may change my mind and find that this novel works for me in some way that I feel is lacking now. It is very clear that it was a mistake for me to read this part of the story first. I am unexcited by the prospect of reading the first four parts. Indeed, I can hardly imagine reading the whole when there are so many volumes of the diary that I am excited about reading.


Selections from the text of this book
My Anais Nin Index Page