The feminine and masculine in Anaïs Nin’s Diaries vol 1

Note: I winnowed this theme from the Diaries vol1 of Nin, and found it fascinating enough to break into its own post. As an observer, I’m commenting on how Nin presented masculinity and femininity as clearly as I can from her own concepts as she discussed them in her diaries. Clearly, the concepts of the feminine and masculine have changed since Nin’s Diaries were written. The entire notion of a binary gender categorization is being dismantled by writers and commentators today. It makes sense to note that she was a product of a Catholic upbringing in an era where gender roles were strictly defined — and that her views would have changed between the 1930s (when the Diaries v 1 were written) and her death in the 1970s.

The value in this exercise was, as a fiction writer, to learn how a woman operated in a society with strictly defined gender roles while she simultaneously turned conventions on their head.

The love triangle and a psychological triangle

Of interest to me as a reader of both Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller is Nin’s contrasting of Miller’s manifestation of self to June’s and her own. The relationship is taken in context of Nin’s romance with both Miller and June, which is clear from the unexpurgated Henry and June and hinted at in Diaries v 1 (though she seems more free to admit in the Diaries dalliances with June than with Miller or any other man).

Miller is described from her first meeting as a sensual being (in the classical sense): “warm, joyous, relaxed, natural” but simple in some ways. He is depicted as flummoxed by June, an ephemeral personality who hard to pin down. June spins, in his words “…such complicated stories, intrigues, miraculous barters.” With Nin’s description of herself as a being with only passion and compassion, the one to whom others come in order to discover their true potential, we have the setup for an incredible love triangle, and Nin does not disappoint — at least, from the psychological side (no steamy sex scenes in the Diaries).

TL:DR: In a historical context, the concepts of feminine and masculine were for the most part binary and prescribed by social mores and convention. As Diaries v 1 begins (first 100 pages or so), the story of Nin, June and Henry illustrates elemental forces in apposition. On one side, the force is (in historical context) elementally feminine — the sex with less physical strength which, in the world at the time, did not control instruments of power,  exercised its influence with persuasion, verbal acuity, concealment, subterfuge. The two women secretly mock the masculine Henry’s slowness and June asserts “the perfidious alliance of our lucidities, our quickness, our subtleties.” Henry is like a bull, often placid but at times confused or frustrated; he lashes out in anger at a world which escapes his ability to grasp.

The Forces

We have three forces at play: femininity, masculinity, and illusion.

The Feminine

The feminine force is shared between Anaïs and June. Who is Anaïs? She is an artist in her own right, but also, playing a traditionally feminine nurturing part, a key collaborator, and she often speaks of serving the artists with whom she associated. There are many quotes like this one which are quite explicit: “I wanted to be the woman not born of Adam’s rib but of his needs, his invention, his images, his patterns.” Nin is the woman who coaxes from other artists their best work, an active collaborator in creation. She writes: “I had given away to Henry all my insights into June…He has taken all my sketches for her portrait.” And what is left for her to do? “To go where Henry cannot go, into the Myth, into June’s dreams, fantasies, into the poetry of June. To write as a woman, and as a woman only. I begin with dreams, hers and mine.”

We also see how Nin saw herself as the physical manifestation of the feminine. It is not surprising that her self image has foundations in the conventions of the time. In the psychoanalysis section (below), we see that Nin measured herself to June physically and felt that she came up short. It strikes the reader that Nin associates her physical form with her emotions and mind, or ‘wholeness’ as she calls it (rather often): “My greatest fear is that people will become aware that I am fragile, not a full-blown woman physically, that I am emotionally vulnerable, that I have small breasts like a girl.” The feminine, then, is conveyed by agility of mind, by vulnerability, both emotional and physical (they are one), but Nin also conveys an essential loneliness, versus the life of action she sees men pursue:

“Man can never know the kind of loneliness a woman knows. Man lies in a woman’s womb only to gather strength, he nourishes himself from this fusion, and then he rises and goes into the world, into his work, into battle, into art. He is not lonely. He is busy. …The woman may be busy too, but she feels empty.”

The foundation of this construct (likely) the conventions of her time: women were expected to marry, bear children, dedicate their life to their physical creations (children). Since the role of children is to go out, leave the nest and make their own way in the world, we can see how she expected emptiness at the end of that road. Or we can attribute the emptiness she felt to her never having children. I don’t think is the case, as she writes extensively in Diaries about fulfillment as an artist replacing that of a mother, and she makes clear (sometimes explicitly) that she is a mother to all (reference the above collaborative nature, eliciting the best from her associates). And, finally, when she does quicken with a child, she exits her pregnancy with what can be seen as a sense of resignation, if not relief, and expresses, again, how she saw herself as a collaborator and nurturer of the intellect:

Perhaps I was designed for other forms of creation. Nature connived to keep
me a man’s woman, and not a mother; not a mother to children but to men.
Nature shaping my body for the love of man, not of child. This child which
was a primitive connection to the earth, a prolongation of myself, now
denied me as if to point up my destiny in other realms.”

[I’m taking up Erica Jong next, and started her first book; it’s interesting to see the contrast and similarities, when we see a woman at the bleeding edge of the sexual revolution and her struggle attaining artistic fulfillment and actualization.]

The Masculine

The second force, the masculine, is represented by the Dionysian Henry, a man who “finds joy in everything, in food, in talk, in drink, the sound of the bell at the gate…” Miller’s masculine nature is appreciative of the simple and sensational, yet he also has his brutal, angry side: “I can’t fathom the paradox of his enjoyment and his angers. My rebellions were concealed, inhibited, indirect. His are open revolutions.” Nin’s Miller had a tendency to become overwrought when faced with complexities, even of the banal sort: Nin had to “repair the phonograph (because Henry is absolutely helpless in practical matters)“. Sounds like modern women complaining of men who can’t open a can of soup. Furthermore, “He treats the whole world as men are said to treat prostitutes, desiring, embracing, and then discarding, knowing only hunger and indifference.” A consumer, then, a foreshadowing of the fuckboys of the 21st century.

The masculine in this triangle, though an artist in his own right, is not as perceptive as the women. Sometimes Miller can’t see the woods for the trees; while concerned as to whether his wife is taking drugs or might be a Lesbian, “he overlooks the true mystery: why are such secrets necessary to her?” What is striking is the comparison of this Miller to the one who was having regular, joyous, eye-and-mind-opening sex with Nin at the time. That’s the story in Henry and June, and for the Diaries, I think we can assume Nin was playing down her appreciation of and fascination with Miller’s elemental nature to avoid drawing attention to their affair. The result is that, in the Diaries, we see only half of their leg of the triangle: in Diaries, the feminine is unalloyed with the masculine. The dialogue, I suspect, is edited as well. For instance, after reading how Nin  describes June, Miller is quoted as saying “It is the way that I should have written about June…The other is incomplete, superficial. You have got her.” That does not ring true as a Miller quote; it sounds stilted, manufactured to me and it detracts from the work. When you take the sex out of Miller, you take out much of his energy and force. His depiction in Diaries falls flat to me, where in H&J he is an unstoppable elemental force.


The third force is of illusion, and though not described as such, is attributed to the feminine players in this triangle, though it is not itself depicted as essentially feminine. June is an ephemera; an illusion wrapped in enigma, whose power is founded in the feminine: June is “creating mysteries as a natural flowering of her femininity.” Her talk exposes an “enormous ego, false, weak, posturing…She invents dramas, in which she always stars.” We’ve all met folks who take over a room with ‘me’ stories, and it’s men as often as women. June is a universal element, an element of undefined nature. Like nature, she has beauty, but like the beauty of a butterfly or of a leopard, it is superficial. It does not speak to what lies beneath the skin. “The contents of her flowering imagination are a reality to her.” I called June a femme fatale in my H&J review, so it’s amusing to read in Diaries that the night Miller met June, June told him “She wanted me to think her a femme fatale. I am inspired by Evil.

The theme of illusion is applied to a number of persons in the book, even Nin herself. She writes: “I may be basically good, human, loving, but I am also more than that, imaginatively dual, complex, an illusionist.” There are an number of quotes like that. June, however, is the ne plus ultra of illusion. Nin writes this lovely exchange, which illustrated not only the extent to which June is an illusion, but how that illusory nature confounds the masculine Miller and thus forms the fulcrum of his conflict with his wife:

“She demands illusion as other women demand jewels.” [Says Miller]

For Henry, illusions and lies are synonymous. Art and illusion are lies. Embellishment. In this I feel remote from him, totally in disagreement with him. But I am silent.
He is suffering. He is a man with a banderilla stuck in his body, a poisoned arrow, something he cannot rid himself of. He sometimes cries out, “Perhaps there is nothing at all, perhaps the mystery is that there is no mystery at all. Perhaps she is empty, and there is no June at all.”

But, Henry, how can an empty woman have such a vivid presence, how can an empty woman cause insomnia, awaken so many curiosities? How could an empty woman cause other women to take flight, as you tell me, abdicating immediately
before her?”

He notices that I smile at the obviousness of his questions. For a moment his hostility turns against me.

I said, “I do feel that perhaps you did not ask the correct questions of the Sphinx.”

The interactions

In H&J we see simultaneously the descent of Nin into two mad loves and intellectual involvement of Nin in Miller’s writing. In the Diaries, we get an odd, Bowdlerized representation of Nin’s interactions with Miller and Allendy (with whom she toyed in H&J but never admits consummating, though there’s more of that in Incest). There is a strange, voyeuristic feel to reading Diaries after having read the whole story in H&J; we know the passions, we know Hugo (never mentioned in the Diaries) is in the house, or traveling, and we know when Nin’s high is partly from sex and mutual adoration.

While concealing her fascination for Miller as a lover, Nin does a wonderful job describing her ardor for June as well as the angst and conflict between Miller and June. June, with her Egyptian-princess eye makeup, “hates daylight” and “In Henry’s glaring, crude daylight upon externals, and in her preference for the night, I can see the core of their conflict.” Indeed. Man’s elementalism tries to drag illusion into his concrete world, yet he cannot grasp the will-o-the wisp that is his own wife. Anaïs, however, does not grasp, she absorbs, and thus she falls almost immediately for June, despite her reservations about June’s ego and insincerity. What bridges this gap? Beauty.

When Nin sees June her in the garden at night, she wants to “kiss her fantastic beauty and say: I will never know again who I am, what I am, what I love, what I want. your beauty has drowned me…” Later she tells far more about her infatuation with June than in the unexpurgated H&J.I was infinitely moved by the touch of her hand.” Nin sums it up thus: “…she walked into my house and I was willing to endure any pain at her hands.” How does Nin rectify the illusory woman? “When June tells her endless anecdotes now, I understand they are ways of escape, disguises for a self which lives secretly behind that smoke-screen talk.” But did Nin ever know the true June? Was there a true June to know? Later she becomes less enamored, writing “She was a gold-digger” who can “always find someone who will pay for my champagne.” By the end of Diaries Vol 1, Nin is quite over June.

On the other leg of the triangle, Miller and June create thunderstorms. They meet at Nin’s house with others. June, in sharing to the company of their quarrels, “mocked him, was relentless.” And Nin writes “I could see then, by the anger, violence, bitterness, that they were at war.” While June keeps her husband at bay, never telling him the same lie twice, never disclosing even “what school she went to“, Miller, carrying on in his ‘sensual bull in a china shop’ way, hurts June and offends Nin with an indiscriminate masculine appetite: “Henry looks in interest at my homely maid, Emilia. June’s superiority arouses his hatred, even a feeling of revenge. He looks lingeringly at stupid, gentle Emilia. His offense makes me love June.” If it’s not Emilia, it’s his tales of derring-do with prostitutes. He’s not subtle.

Nin wonders how they were drawn together originally. She sees their chemistry as “his need to expose illusion, her need to create it. A satanic pact. One of them must triumph...” Later, speaking of his wife, Miller is clear about their opposition: “Yes, I hate her…we are her dupes…If June returns, she will poison us against each other, I fear that….she will hate us, and she will combat us with her own tools.

The missing leg of this triangle is Nin and Miller. You get that in Henry and June. There we see a Nin that has let loose the feminine sensuality that is only hinted at in Diaries v 1 in her dalliances with June (which don’t go much further than some intimate cab rides). The Diaries have to be read in concert witht he books from A Journal of Love (Henry and June, Incest, and Fire) to get the full picture.

Final thoughts

There are many themes to study in the Nin diaries. To me, the beauty of this first book is its depiction of three very complex people in a love triangle. Nin’s sharing of her vacillations, insights, fascinations and infatuations provide a rich vein of perspectives for the fiction writer seeking to depict a strong female character. You don’t have to depict Xena the Warrior Princess to depict a woman of strength; a woman of strength does not have to break heads or confront the world in the breaking gender roles. Nin showed how a strong woman subverted convention to follow her own path to self actualization.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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