Aiken, Conrad (Vol. 10)
Aiken, Conrad 1889–1973
Aiken was an American poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, editor, and playwright. He was influenced by the intellectual movements of the twenties; his interest in the work of Freud is reflected in the psychological probing characteristic of his poetry. Aiken's work stresses the primacy of content over form: for him thematic and philosophic unity took precedence over structural coherence. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)
Conrad Aiken remains firmly established in his exalted position as one of America's most neglected contemporary writers. (p. 375)
Artistically, [Aiken's short story] "Impulse" is finely-constructed, so carefully molded that its structure and imagery adhere tenaciously to its theme, lending this theme an appropriate form and serving as more than adequate vehicles of expression. Aiken constantly welds images and overall design to reinforce his point of view: that "civilization is only skin-deep"; once shaved of that paper-thin skin of civility, mankind shows itself to be "criminal, ex-post facto." The imagery, consequently, relates to shaving and the breaking of bonds, and the form the story takes—that of the "'V' turned upside down" mentioned in its first paragraph—assumes significance for this tale of a man defeated by exposing his inherently criminal nature….
Giving form to this story is Aiken's idea that civilized nature is only a thin veneer beneath which every human feels similar impulses, and which, when punctured, releases man's anti-social tendencies. Once aware of the theme, we immediately begin to see juxtaposed the "civilized" and "uncivilized" actions in the story. The idea that civilization is only skin-deep provides the chief thrust for the story's main action. In addition, Aiken heaps level upon level of irony since we realize that except for civilization, the men would not be contemplating impulse...
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This article was prompted by the reading of Carolyn Handa's analysis of Conrad Aiken's "Impulse" in Studies In Short Fiction [see excerpt above]. As I see it, Miss Handa interprets this story in a manner diametrically opposed to the spirit and the form of its conception. She describes "Impulse" as a "tale of a man defeated by exposing his inherently criminal nature"; civilized and uncivilized elements in the story are juxtaposed and Michael Lowes, the protagonist is criminally arraigned as uncivilized. Michael's act of stealing is, according to Miss Handa, illustrative of "man's anti-social tendencies" and that it is Aiken's purpose in this story to show mankind as "criminal ex-post facto". The structure is described in terms of an inverted "V" in which Michael, after a faint upward swing of illusion, falls to ignominy and defeat. I find that Miss Handa's discussion of rather peripheral symbolism such as the inverted "V", the bridge game and the act of shaving lead us into an analysis which moves away from the central concerns of the story; these concerns in fact call upon the reader to make an almost total identification with Michael Lowes, a character whom Miss Handa would make the villain of the piece. I will illustrate Aiken's "calculated artistry" in terms of point of view, characterization and biblical allusion, all of which serve in "Impulse" to exonerate rather than condemn the protagonist.
The point of view in "Impulse"...
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[Aiken] was a poet essentially, but he was also the complete man of letters, distinguished for his work in many forms of verse and prose. The unity was there, however, and in every form he spoke with the same candid, scrupulous, self-deprecatory, yet reckless and fanciful New England voice. (p. 231)
[Candor] was close to being his central principle as a man and a writer, particularly as a poet. The principle evolved into a system of aesthetics and literary ethics that unified his work, a system based on the private and public value of self-revelation. No matter what sort of person the poet might be, healthy or neurotic, Aiken believed that his real business was "to give the low-down on himself, and through himself on humanity." (p. 233)
"Look within thyself to find the truth" might have been his Emersonian motto; and it had the corollary that inner truth corresponds to outer truth, as self or microcosm does to macrocosm. Aiken believed that the writer should be a surgeon performing an exploratory operation on himself, at whatever cost to his self-esteem, and penetrating as with a scalpel through layer after layer of the semiconscious. That process of achieving self-knowledge might well become a self-inflicted torture…. Let him persist, however, and he will be rewarded by finding—here I quote from a letter—"what you think or feel that is secretly you—shamefully you—intoxicatingly you." Then, having laid bare...
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