24 January 2012

Book Review: Henry and June by Anaïs Nin

An edited version of this article was first published as Book Review: Henry and June by Anaïs Nin on Blogcritics.org.

Is it possible to love mutliple people at once? Can one really devote oneself to several people all at the same time? Polyamory, in its various different forms, is just one of themes that run through this exquisitely written diary of Anaïs Nin.

In order to do this review proper justice, I should begin by stating where I am coming from. I am a fan of Henry Miller, and I have read both Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Both books mesmerized me, with its unusual narrative, blending fact and fiction, narrating about the escapades of Henry Miller in Paris. And of course, through the course of reading those books, I encounter Anaïs Nin, one of Miller's companions. It made me think what would it be like to be a companion of Henry Miller, this author who seemed to be sexually charged like no other human I have encountered.

Thus, reading Henry and June felt like I was reading the other side of the story. Anaïs narrates her emotions, from the beginning to the end. First, she gives details of how she felt for Henry Miller, as well as his wife, June Miller. Early on, Anaïs portrays herself to be someone capable of loving multiple people, of both sexes. It was quite interesting to read the deepest emotions that Anaïs had with respect to lesbianism. It also reflected the views on homosexuality back in the days. Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller lived a Bohemian life (read: not conservative), and yet Anaïs's attitudes towards lesbianism seemed rather conservative to me.

The most prominent part I take issue with is the fact that for Anaïs, it seemed that if one is female and loves another female, either of two things must happen. One either has to be masculine and take on male characteristics, or the other female should be the one to do so. I find it interesting that as much as she was bisexual, and open to the idea of lesbian relationships, the gender binary still exerts an influence on her views of same-sex relationships. Here I am, wondering, what is wrong with loving another woman, if one is also a woman, just because you find her attractive? In the way Anaïs describes June Miller, she attributes masculine characteristics to her. She dreams that June grew a penis, and that all along, she was male, and therefore was able to penetrate Anaïs. Anaïs also thinks that she is masculine and have male-type personalities, such that a feminine person like June would fancy her. These views are something that I personally disagree with. I do not mind same-sex relationships, but if one engages in one, I don't think there is the need to force one such relationship into the constraints of the traditional gender binary.

What I am amazed at with respect to Anaïs Nin's personality is her apparent ability to love multiple people at once. She has several uses for Hugo, Eduardo, Allendy, and Henry, which are the four men in her life. Personally, I think it is quite functional, and as long as the other people consent, I think it is not a problem. The problem though, is that in reality, not a lot of people would want to share an individual with someone else. I personally would not want someone else sleeping with my partner. In her credit, Anaïs Nin has managed quite well these multiple people, and to some degree, it worked.

The thing that I disliked about this book is that it is uni-directional. It simply talked about Anaïs Nin's relationship with Henry Miller from the beginning to the end. I do understand that this is actually a collection of exerpts from her diary: she published her diary in several volumes, but those were expurgated. Those volumes deleted all references to her love affairs. This book is actually a collection of those deleted passages, that should one read both versions side by side, it would be amazing as it seems that the two diaries have a different feel to them.

Anyway, it is said to be the case that these passages were deleted because Anaïs Nin felt like she couldn't publish them without hurting her husband, Hugo. If that was the case, I wished she would have just divorced him, instead of still being married to him, while carrying an elaborate affair with Henry under Hugo's nose. There's too much emotion, too much drama, too much oxytocin in this diary, that for a rational being like me, I find it hard to comprehend why for the longest time, she couldn't make up her mind as to whether she loves Hugo or Henry. But I guess for her, it was fine to love both, and therefore, she didn't choose one over the other.

Some people tell me that Anaïs Nin was a great character, having influenced the feminist movement and such. But I tend to disagree. She could have been a great character if she owned her actions, if she published these writings while she was still alive, if she went ahead and shoved her ideas down other people's throats, without worrying of offending them. Instead, she deleted her diaries because she didn't want other people to be hurt. Everyone can write a diary, and everyone can write an erotic diary. But that is not a sign of greatness. On the other hand, Henry Miller was never ashamed that he had a sex life, he was never ashamed to write about it and publish it. He was never ashamed to take the manuscript to a publishing house, and in fact, by doing so, laws regarding obscenity and literature were revised. Now that is great.

Thus, after reading this diary, I feel like Anaïs Nin was not a great character in history, but instead, just a companion of a great character in history. Although I should say that I am grateful for the fact that her unexpurgated diary was published, even though it was after her death, as this allows most of us out here to see that it is normal to have these feelings, that it is okay to love men and women regardless of what one's gender is, that it is okay to feel that way towards another human. Few people get the courage to write about it, let alone let the rest of the world read it.

I give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

See my other book reviews here.


(The Ruins, from my Machu Picchu Series)

5 comments:

  1. This review raises such interesting questions. I'm here mentally debating some of them.

    I wouldn't say that it comes from this book that, for Anais, one of the females in a relationship of two females has to be masculine. I wouldn't even say that this idea seems to influence her. She mentions dreams and thoughts that attribute masculine attributes to women. But, as you say, the book is a diary. She puts her thoughts and dreams into the paper. Does she ever order those thoughts to build the case that relationships have to be binary? Or does she even show that line of thought in any pattern that would make it reasonable to conclude that she is biased to understand two females relationships as male-female relationships? For me, the answer is no.

    On the other hand, based on the number of times she refers to psychology concepts of that time, and the number of times she gives credit to what she heard from analysts, I would say we can conclude there's a pattern in her diaries that indicates she placed more reliance than she should on the psychology concepts and practice of those days.

    In my opinion, she not necessarily managed quite well her multiple relationships. There was an element of fooling those people. Maybe we can say she managed them quite well for the benefit of her own finances, pleasure and well being. However, if each person in society applied her method of managing multiple relationships, fair play would be an extinct concept. I would say she would have managed quite well those relationships if she managed to make each party aware of their importance to her: "Hugo, you are my cash provider and I kind of like you and feel attracted to you to some extent, although I also despise you in many ways and need to often look for men that can give me what you obviously can't. X, you are my emotional support, Y, I give you attention because I feel pity for you, Z, teasing you is good for my pride and self-confidence. For now I will remain married with Hugo because it's convenient for me, and none of you should expect from me the true attention and love I give to Henry. These are my terms. We can keep it this way if you are happy with it." That would be a hell of a good relationship management.

    One could argue that one can be ethical without honestly expressing every thought. So she could alternatively not tell the truth to all of them, but not to lie either. She could for instance let each party know that she holds relationships with several people for her own reasons, that she doesn’t wish to express, and each person is free to accept that or not. That would also be pure honesty.

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  2. Finally, I'd like to propose an alternative way to look to who is braver: Anais or Henry.

    You say: "Henry Miller was never ashamed that he had a sex life, he was never ashamed to write about it and publish it. He was never ashamed to take the manuscript to a publishing house, and in fact, by doing so, laws regarding obscenity and literature were revised. Now that is great." My question to you is: for a free male writer or artist, that don’t have much to protect by living according to traditional values, can’t it often be profitable to scandalize? One wouldn't need to try hard to think of examples of artists that make as much money as they talk openly about their sex, drinking and drug use habits. Opting for that strategy is not exactly bravery I would say.

    In the other hand, a physician, or a teacher, or an accountant, or a professor, or a priest, or a lawyer, or an engineer, or someone holding a position in a charity organization being open about their preferences and opinions, taking the risk of having their professional reputation damaged by their personal life, now that would be bravery to me. Neither Anais, nor Henry do that. And if I had to pick one to say which one is the braver, I would go with Anais. At least she was risking a lot when she wrote a diary that could be discovered, or when she tried to manage multiple relationships without making each party aware of her doings. The ethics of which I completely disagree with, I repeat. Now Henry, what did he have to loose behaving as he did?

    I’m no judge, so my humble opinion is that both Anais and Henry gave their contributions to the free, open society I believe we all want to live in. They both dared a little bit, much more than others I would say, and if they were also cowards to some extent, that’s not different to all of us most of the time.

    These are the thoughts that come to me from reading this only book from Anais and none at all so far from Henry. You might have knowledge about them to completely smash my sayings here.

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  3. Renan,

    You raise several interesting points here that makes me almost want to reread these books again.

    One thing that came to mind after reading your comments is the fact that I forgot that Anais was female, while Henry was male. It's easier to sensationalize and scandalize when one is male than when one is female, after all. In most Western societies, when a male has plenty of sexual encounters, he is seen as a stud. A female on the other hand will be seen as a slut. Long story short, there is a gender imbalance between Henry and Anais such that society allowed Henry to be what he was, but not Anais.

    You also raise an important issue regarding "current" psychology and Anais, something which I wasn't aware of. One can never know, I suppose, unless we look into other writings of hers.

    Finally, on the topic of fooling people in relationships, I think it is perfectly okay for people to do that. We all have relationships of various kinds, some are equal, some are not. Maybe it is okay for some people to be fooled, because they get something in return anyway. I think society in general dreams of the idealized egalitarian relationship, but I think it is not too realistic. Most couples do not bring in equal amounts of money, some people need more emotional attention than their spouses, and so on. In some respects, relationships are just a way of using other people for one's personal gain, though we hardly express it that way for fear of being called a non-romantic. I do think that humans are inherently selfish, and that every act is just a manifestation of that. That being said, I have a very satisfying relationship with my partner, and I find it hard to say that I am simply using him for my benefit. Obviously I need to think more and come up with a better theory. Stay tuned. :)

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  4. Hi Jeruen. Thank you for this response to my comments.

    On the judgmental matter of it being perfectly OK to fool people in relationships, I very respectfully disagree.

    I am far from considering myself able to have the final word on what is right or wrong. I'm just saying that I wouldn't like to be fooled in a relationship; I think it's fair to say that very few people would if they could choose, so I see at least two very good practical reasons not to fool people in relationships if I want to behave ethically.

    I do agree that humans are inherently selfish, but I don't think that's necessarily a reason to follow our nature. I also agree that the idea of an egalitarian relationship can be too idealized, but I don't think there is a good reason to push too far from the ideal side, especially when it comes to the easy practice of telling the truth to the partner.

    Back to books: one by Peter Singer is about to be released and might add to this discussion: The Most Good You Can Do - How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically

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    1. Renan,

      I enjoy discussions like these, so please don't hesitate to leave comments.

      Anyway, on the topic of fooling. Perhaps your opinion of it would change if I use some other word aside from "fooling". But don't you agree that sometimes we want to hear what we want to hear? Say there are two people, they just met, they are starting to get to know one another.

      A: Do you love me?
      B: Yes.
      A: Really?
      B: Yes, like no other!

      What if that was simply what A wanted to hear? And what if B knows that and deliberately says that just in order to get inside A's pants?

      I think every relationship begins like this, or at least almost every relationship. We meet someone who turns us on. And we do almost whatever it takes to get them, even "fooling" them if necessary. But as time goes by, our relationship grows, and what originally began as a selfish move slowly evolves into something self-sacrificing. I think being selfish and being in an egalitarian relationship aren't contradictory. What I am simply saying is that relationships begin by selfish motives. But over time, they slowly evolve into something more egalitarian.

      Thanks for the book pointers: I'll check them out when I get the chance!

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