Conrad Aiken (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
Biographer Edward Butscher seems drawn to subjects whose lives are marked by trauma and who therefore are appropriate material for his psychoanalytical approach. His first biography was a controversial psychoanalytical study of American writer Sylvia Plath, whose tortured life ended in suicide; the present work, his second biography, is a Freudian study of Conrad Aiken, whose life was tragically marred when he was only eleven by the murder-suicide of his mother and father.
Butscher makes no apologies for his highly “interpretative” approach, prefacing volume 1 of this life of Aiken by asserting his belief that a biographer would be remiss to ignore the insights of modern psychology. Butscher also affirms that since this is a literary biography which attempts to study the influences that shaped an artist’s work, his discursive, impressionistic technique is justified because he is exploring the dynamics of human creativity. The technique often leads Butscher, however, to make highly problematical judgments about Aiken’s psychic development as if they were unquestionable facts. For example, in describing the eight-year-old Aiken’s pity for a kitten abandoned in the streets, Butscher says that it is easy to see that this response is a psychic expansion of the self-pity created by his father’s neurotic behavior and his mother’s lack of interest; such an empathic response to “lower forms of sentience,” says Butscher, reflects Aiken’s own feelings of insecurity.
A biographer has a wide range of options in approaching his or her subject—from a straightforward, objective account of external, documented events to a theoretically determined interpretive analysis of the motivations that characterize the subject’s mental life. Butscher’s biography of Aiken is quite definitely of the latter sort. Every page is conditioned by psychoanalytic assumptions and heavily loaded with a stiff, almost nineteenth century prose style. Nothing is simple or straightforward here; everything is grist for the Freudian mill.
Only one powerful event dominates the early life of Aiken, argues Butscher—the death of his parents. Indeed, Aiken himself, in his own quasi-autobiographical essay Ushant (1952), makes much of that horrifying occasion when he discovered the two bodies and thus “found himself possessed of them forever.” In making Ushant his single most important source and in drawing so liberally and unquestioningly upon the book, however, Butscher makes the mistake of taking the work to be a strict autobiography rather than an impressionistic and thus novelistic fiction. This is not to say that Aiken falsifies events in Ushant but rather that his response to them is the artist’s response, not the response of the individual personality; thus, Ushant is organized and expressed in terms of the artist’s structural and aesthetic need, not necessarily his personal needs.
Butscher might just as well have drawn his conclusions about the mental life of Conrad Aiken from such novels as Blue Voyage (1927) or Great Circle (1933), both of which make use of the same basic structure and some of the same images as Ushant does. Indeed, without admitting that Aiken is writing fiction in these works instead of autobiography, Butscher quotes from them as if he were reporting factual events. He very often notes that Aiken “records” a certain conversation or event from his life in one of his novels, and then goes on to comment on the passage as if it were a historical account of real people rather than a fictional account of a created character.
Butscher explicitly scorns the traditional form of biography. Noting that Joseph Killorin, Aiken’s friend and confidant, is busy working on an authoritative life of the writer, Butscher suggests that it will only be an account of the poet’s voyage through a “vale of cancelled checks.” Instead, Butscher opts not only for taking Ushant to be autobiography but for trying to compensate as well for what he considers to be Aiken’s failure in that work by providing the analysis which he says Aiken was unable to muster. Clearly, the fact that Aiken was one of the first American writers to make explicit use of Freudian insights in his poetry and fiction makes Butscher’s approach seem a viable, even an inevitable, one. Yet Butscher seems to ignore the difference between an artist’s use of psychological insights to create the inner life of a fictional character and a...
(The entire section is 1854 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
Kirkus Reviews. LVI, June 15, 1988, p. 869.
Library Journal. CXIII, August, 1988, p. 160.
The New York Review of Books. XXXV, December 22, 1988, p. 45.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, November 27, 1988, p. 33.
The New Yorker. LXIV, September 19, 1988, p. 116.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, July 1, 1988, p. 62.