Truth and Wonder in “Henry and June”

Taken from her diaries, Henry and June is Anaïs Nin’s account of her relationship with Henry Miller and his wife June Mansfield. During the course of the relationship, we see Anaïs and Henry grow, learning from each other. And all the while June in the background, chaotic and mysterious.

Aside from their love of June, Anaïs and Henry share also a love of truth, and a love of wonder. But they have a complicated relationship with both of these.

Firstly, it’s impossible for either of them to be completely honest. Certainly Anaïs can’t be honest with her husband Hugo about her relationship with Henry. And both Nin and Miller struggle to be honest in their writing: they’re often holding something back, however much they try to be truthful. If truth means total open honesty, then they will achieve truth only through a great struggle. Miller demands “frankness” however “painfully obtained”. (64) But Nin doesn’t think truth simply means honesty:

“You are right, in one sense, when you speak of my honesty. An effort, anyway, with the usual human or feminine retractions. To retreat is not feminine, male, or trickery. It is a terror before utter destruction. What we analyse inexorably, will it die? Will June die? Will our love die, suddenly, instantaneously if you should make a caricature of it? Henry, there is a danger in too much knowledge. You have a passion for absolute knowledge. That is why people will hate you.” (65)

Honesty means facing up to the truth, and speaking openly about it. Sometimes you can be hated for your honesty, because it means pointing out painful truths to those who would rather ignore those truths. It’s often better to remain silent – a dishonest silence, such as Nin’s silence with her husband about Henry. But how can a lover of truth bear to be dishonest? Nin’s rationalisation for dishonesty seems to be that she fears for the things she might destroy were she to be honest. It’s better to let things be. Henry is more honest than she, she seems to be saying at this point: but Henry is brutal in his honesty and risks hurting those around him. He uses “caricature”, which means ruthlessly pointing out the faults of those he describes, exaggerating in order to magnify these characteristics. Nin seems to be asking: if we were to be totally honest about our relationship, what then? Would it die? And what about June? Could she stand up to caricature?

This is where the other love comes in: wonder. Wonder is as valuable as truth, but they are not always compatible. Wonder is what makes us alive, it’s what we live for. The feeling of the beauty and life of things. But when you see things as they truly are, wonder can be lost. You need to keep a distance from things to preserve their wonder. Wonder can be annihilated where truth is too direct and honesty too brutal. While Henry examines every detail, Anaïs tries to keep the love of wonder alive for both of them: “I seize upon the wonder that is brushing by . . . and I bring it to you, I breathe it around you. Take it.” (66)

As Anaïs and Henry’s relationship progresses, we see a sort of dialectic at work. Or perhaps “dialectic” is the wrong word, because we might say that nothing is resolved. Instead Nin swings from one direction to another, until finally she falls into an honesty that has destroyed the wonder of her relationship with Henry:

“Last night I wept. I wept because the process by which I have become woman was painful. I wept because I was no longer a child with a child’s blind faith. I wept because my eyes were opened to reality – to Henry’s selfishness, June’s love of power, my insatiable creativity which must concern itself with others and cannot be sufficient to itself. I wept because I could not believe anymore and I love to believe. I can still love passionately without believing.” (274)

The relationship continues – the last line of the book is: “So Henry is coming this afternoon, and tomorrow I am going out with June.” (274) But it’s been transformed into a new kind of love, one grounded in truth and not in wonder. Could we call this a resolution?

It depends on what comes next. Does the end of Henry and June point to a new phase in the relationship of these three people? Or does Nin once again retreat from these brutal truths, heading off in the other direction? Away from truth and into wonder again?

(Page numbers refer to Henry and June by Anaïs Nin, Penguin Classics 2001)

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3 Responses to Truth and Wonder in “Henry and June”

  1. Therese says:

    “I can still love passionately without believing.” I find that very sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Therese says:

    I wonder if dishonest silence can be better than brutal honesty sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

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