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Exploring the life and work of controversial literary figure Anaïs Nin

The writer and her views on women’s liberation are nothing short of radical

Throughout her lifetime and into the present day, Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) has been a contested writer and literary figure. Perhaps best-known for her erotica and the novels A Spy in the House of Love and Henry and June, she is well-quoted online whilst remaining both a niche and contested writer. Nin seems to inspire either the most extreme anger or blind admiration in those writing on her works, and an exaggerated attention to her explicit (even by today’s standards) writing on women’s sexuality. In reality, her oeuvre is much more varied and she remains one of the most radical and underground writers of the early 20th century.

Nin published several novels and collections of short stories, as well as essays on literature and on women’s and men’s liberation through an inner freedom. She also published a six-volume diary that is almost solely concerned with her inner world and which, although criticised as an artificial construct, is also radical as an assured proclamation that her inner world is worth our time. When struggling to find a commercial publisher, she printed her own works on a second-hand foot-power press for several years and at the end of her life risked her reputation by publishing a collection of erotica stories as a way to kickstart a global literary journey of exploration of feminine sexuality. All in all, she is an extraordinary literary figure.

There is much to be said about the work of Nin, but here I intend only to explore her philosophy on women’s liberation. For Nin, female (and thereby male) liberation, as well as any global change, is fundamentally interconnected and based on inner freedom and growth. “The nature of my contribution to the Women’s Liberation Movement is not political but psychological,” Nin establishes outright in Notes on Feminism. “A reformation of woman’s emotional attitudes and beliefs will enable her to act more effectively. I am not speaking of the practical, economic, sociological problems, as I believe many of them are solvable with clear thinking and intelligence. I am merely placing the emphasis on a confrontation of ourselves because it is a source of strength.”

According to Nin, for the collective to be liberated, the individual has to first resolve their individual growth; the social and the collective necessarily builds upon a resolution within one’s inner self. Speaking of her own psychoanalytical work with Dr Otto Rank in a published lecture titled On Truth and Reality, Nin explains her view on this clearer: “When I talked about individual growth in order to have something to contribute to the collective, they thought I meant to turn away and take refuge in an ivory tower. For me it was the place where I did my most difficult spiritual work… the source of my strength and my psychic energy. But I never lost sight of the(ir) interdependence.” Here, Nin explores the relationship between the outer world and the inner, between the collective and the individual. Building on this understanding, Nin argues that women’s liberation starts within, and is primarily a spiritual, psychological, and individual journey – when this is achieved, it can be actualised in the social, political, and collective.

“Nin argues that women’s liberation starts within, and is primarily a spiritual, psychological, and individual journey – when this is achieved, it can be actualised in the social, political, and collective”

Nin’s opinions on women are complex and have been repeatedly criticised and only to then be defended. As late as 1995, writer Jenny Diski dismissed Nin in a London Review of Books article, proclaiming her to “must have been the one of the most self-centred women who ever lived,” surprised that she lived her life adored by those around her. The reason for the persistent criticism of Nin’s works lies largely in her positioning of herself as a feminine writer, seeking a specifically feminine way of prose, emotion, and sexuality. Although well-read by female audiences in the 60s and early 70s, by the 80s and 90s feminist voices violently dismissed her work as existentialist. Her attempts to encourage both men and women to embrace femininity were seen by second-wave feminists as a renewed sexism and her portrayal (both literary and in person) of herself as seductive angered a feminist movement striving to cast away the expectation of women to be ‘pretty’. Nonetheless, her thoughts are worthy of consideration in their transcendence of binary social constructs and the insistence on embracing the totality of one’s being.

One of the premises in which Nin, as a prosaist and essayist, approaches the question of gender is through the co-existence and necessity of both the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ as individual concepts, regardless of gender. The feminine and masculine are seen as social constructs, intended to convey what has been traditionally understood by each binary. In her plea for a fluency in both feminine and masculine languages, Nin underscores the need for (what we see as) feminine in all humans – which is often seen as undesired, lesser, or unforgivable when found in the expression of men.

Nin wrote in The New Woman: “The day that woman admits what we call her masculine qualities, and man admits his so-called feminine qualities, will mean that we admit we are androgynous, that we have many personalities, many sides to fulfil.” Inner liberation – seen for Nin on the basis of psychoanalysis – necessarily begins with accepting and coming into contact with all the sides of one’s being, conscious and subconscious. Nin argues that this admittance for every human of their feminine and masculine sides thereby becomes a necessary step for a liberation, one that goes beyond women’s rights and equality.

Moreover, embracing the feminine and the masculine by everyone within themselves simultaneous renders agency to all and functions as a unionising, rather than differentiating, force between genders. In her essays, Nin repeatedly encourages women to see negative criticisms of men as secondary to creating new pathways themselves — a controversial if not questionable insistence in light of current debate. “It is less important,” she writes in Notes on Feminism, “to attack male writers than to discover and read women writers.” In Eroticism in Women she continues, now more outright pleading for a change of focus from the negative to the creation of a positive: “The discovery of woman’s erotic capacities and the expression of them will come as soon as women stop listing their griefs against men. If they do not like the hunt, the pursuit, it is up to them to express what they do like and to reveal to men, as they did in oriental tales, the delights of other forms of love games.”

No wonder then, that a substantial part of the women’s liberation movement would consider Nin with suspicion. In her fiction, too, she persists to create a bond between the male and the female, sometimes by rendering a feminine complicity with male desire. In Henry and June, where the narrator regards June with a similar sexual objectification as Henry does, a possibility for empathy is created — both between the narrator and Henry – based on their desire, and between the narrator and June, based on their femininity. There is a radicalism in this approach; an affinity between men and women – and between all people – where the problems need to be solved together, by first being solved within ourselves as individuals.

“Perhaps the most crucial part of Nin’s philosophical understanding and what still holds true is precisely this connection between self-discovery and global social change – change built on empathy and understanding”

When writing on a new kind of man that she sees in In Favour of the Sensitive Man – one that has grown out of a greater empathy for and proximity to women – Nin speaks of them as being “born (out) of their acceptance of their own emotional, intuitive, sensory, and humanistic approach to relationships. They allow themselves to weep (men never wept), to show vulnerability, to expose their fantasies, share their inmost selves.” Herein lies the way forward, in this empathy, this change in both men and women: “if woman is to assert her creativity or her gifts, man has to assert his own crucial dislike of what was expected of him in the past.” Perhaps the most crucial part of Nin’s philosophical understanding and what still holds true is precisely this connection between self-discovery and global social change – change built on empathy and understanding.

As with anything written on social issues decades ago, some reasonings are archaic and far removed from our context. However, there is still something to learn from the words of Nin, and even more so from her actions. There is also something incredibly strong and inspirational for a female writer in the 1930s and 40s to have enough belief in the worthiness of her artistry to consciously write for a smaller audience, as well as in Nin’s courageousness to self-publish her diary and works that she knew she would be condemned for.

Illustration by Maria Kruglyak

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