When thinking about the question of whether a piece of writing would be considered literary or non-literary recently, I began to wonder about our own subjective relationship to what would constitute literary and what it would mean depending on one’s own personal perspective.
I happened upon, in the writings of Anais Nin, the characterization of June Miller, wife of the writer Henry Miller. June is an interesting case. As Anais had written in her published and widely renowned diary written from 1931-1934, June had told her once:
“I don’t care for films, newspapers, ‘reportages’, the radio. I only want
to be involved in life while it is being lived. ‘Do you understand that Anais?”
Anais responds: “Yes, I do”. June goes on to say, “Henry is literary….I know Henry thinks
I’m mad because I want only fever. I don’t want objectivity. I don’t want distance. I don’t
want to become detached.”
Anais’s reaction to June is what this particular diary entry is all about, and one thing that she realizes is that she and Henry are both so different as compared to June, and it is this idea of embracing experience and not becoming detached that creates the difference between them.
It is interesting that as Anais writes of June, she brings to her character the necessary detachment in order to analyze who she was as a person and most of all as a woman. When Nin herself writes of her role, she says:
“What I have to say is really distinct from the artist and of art. It is the woman who
has to speak. And it is not only the woman Anais who has to speak, but I who
have to speak for many women.”
Nin is attempting to create a universal commentary on womanhood with everything she writes. June, conversely, wishes to be the sole creator and author of her own life. As Eagleton has written: “One of the things we mean by calling a piece of writing “literary” is that it is not tied to a specific context.” In other words, each literary piece may emerge from certain contexts, but their inherent meaning, and what the reader interprets from them, is not tied to those specific contexts.
June wishes to be infinitely tied to those contexts and does not wish to be separated from them. It seems she sees Henry’s and maybe even Nin’s analyzing eye as potentially intrusive on her freedom to live in the moment and experience events, people, and things grounded to context. As Terry Eagleton writes, in non-literary contexts, there is no choice over meaning, and it tends to be determined by the setting itself.
When Nin describes the outward persona of June, she refers to it as false and is “repelled by her insincerity”. She writes:
“By the end of the evening, I felt as Henry did, fascinated with her face and body
which promises so much, but hating her invented self which hides the true one.
This false self is composed to stir the admiration of others, inspires others to
words and acts about and around her. I feel she does not know what to do when
confronted with these legends which are born around her face and body; she feels
I get the feeling when reading this passage and comparing it to June’s point of view that Nin is attempting to deconstruct June and render her more “literary” and more “authentic”. It gives me the feeling that she is not doing justice to June Miller, the woman, by recreating her into the universal woman. As the diary entry goes on, we see June opening up to Anais, becoming vulnerable. This pleases Nin in that she finally gets past this sense of insincerity. Could she be then attempting making June into a “literary” figure by pulling off her mask of identity? Could she be taking away her individuality in the process? This is what she writes about who she “thinks” June is behind her masks:
“June. At night I dreamed of her, not magnificent and overwhelming as she is, but
very small and frail, and I loved her. I loved a smallness, a vulnerability which I felt
was disguised by her inordinate pride, by her volubility. It is a hint of pride. She
lacks confidence, she craves admiration insatiably. She lives on the reflections of
herself in the eyes of others. She does not dare to be herself.”
She is breaking June down, like one would break down and interpret a literary piece. She is rendering June literary, a woman who wants anything but to “be” literary.
Nin wants June to merge with her as woman. She wants them to be the same and to be exposed without a true identity:
“We have both lost ourselves, but that is when one reveals most of one’s true self
You’ve revealed your incredible sensitiveness. I am so moved. You are like me,
wishing for such perfect moments, and frightened for fear of spoiling them.”
Is it possible that this journey towards literary is merely a journey to find ourselves, a narcissistic endeavor, if you will? Are we only looking for our own reflections in the mirror of a literary work?
In the end, June “conquered” the inauthentic, non-literary June. By the end of her diary entry, she has rendered her universal and literary. To Nin, this was an act of possession:
“I discovered June’s purity. It was June’s purity I was given to possess, what she
had given to no one else. To me, she gave the secret of her being, the woman
whose face and body have aroused instincts around her which left her untouched
which terrified her. As I had sensed, her destructiveness is unconscious. She
is imprisoned in it, and detached and bewildered. When she met me, she
revealed her innocent self. She lives in fantasies, not in the world Henry lives in.”
It is interesting to note here that she is calling June “detached” whereas June is trying to avoid becoming “detached”. So who is correct? Is June’s outward persona that she shows the world and uses to experience life her detached side, or is it the inner woman she holds inside, small, frail, and vulnerable, that is detached? As Eagleton writes, “No piece of writing is closer to reality than any other.” And I would have to agree. Neither piece of June is less “June”. They are both valid and both engaged at all times. So shouldn’t we then say that writing is always both literary and non-literary at once?
Lastly, Henry’s writing is different than Nin’s writing. Miller writes about his signature genre, the autobiographical novel:
“It is not a mixture of truth and fiction, this genre of literature, but an expansion
and deepening of truth. It is more authentic, more veridical, than the diary. It is
not the flimsy truth of facts which authors of the autobiographical novels offer, but
the truth of emotion, reflection, and understanding, truth digested and assimilated.
The being revealing himself does so on all levels simultaneously.”
So, perhaps, how did Henry understand his wife? He understood that there are parts of June that contradict some of her other facets, yet are still just as valid. Just like in a literary work, there will be parts that are mere context, mere facts, mere historical moments, but there will be behind all of this an inner detachment (or attachment) to what the work is/means/is symbolic of/is interpreted as. Perhaps it all comes down to a difference in understanding the nature of the term “literary”: literary is not a simple unmasking to find the truth. It is more of an interwovenness between facts and truth unearthed from these facts, so, if we reject one for the other, we are shortchanging of what it means to call something literature and thus “literary”.