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 in such a cerebral manner…. (p. 376)
Aiken's structure consists of an upward movement towards a peak situation, followed by an immediate reversal of the previous action. Michael begins at a low point made comfortable by illusions, rises in his comfort due to an increase of illusions, then performs his impulsive, catalytic act which triggers a series of confrontations that bring him back to a most painful reality. The second half of the structure thus complements the first through its reversed movement (we see the coming down of what went up), and reversed perceptions (reality follows illusions; what was flatly literal assumes a deeper figurative cast).
As we might expect, Aiken's imagery follows and accentuates the structure of the story while reinforcing the "civilization is only skin-deep" theme. One of the primary sets of images centers around the "civilized" ritual of shaving. Aiken...
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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" makes a very clear call for sympathy with Michael Lowes. The technique of third person limited omniscience allows the events of the story to be seen almost entirely through the prism of Michael's thought—with surprisingly little ironic intrusion, explicit or implied, on the part of the omniscient narrator. No moral condemnation of any kind is made by the narrator. The reader's insight into Michael's mind reveals a bored little man in a lonely and hideously alien world who seeks cheap palliatives for his condition. Michael himself is seen to evince a considerable degree of self-knowledge as to the realities of his situation…. His repeated choice … of words like "little" and "real" suggests that he understands his motives [for stealing] quite clearly. In fine, point of view, whether in the reporting of thought process or in the exercise of the narrator's privilege of comment, consistently refuses to apportion any criticism to Michael's behaviour.
A vital complement to the psychological realism embodied in the third person (central) limited omniscient point of view is the use of peripheral...
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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 this secret self, which is also a universal self, the writer must find words for it, accurate and honest words, but poured forth—Aiken says in a Prelude—without reckoning the consequences: "Let us be reckless of our words and worlds,/And spend them freely as the tree his leaves." Here enters the public as opposed to the merely private value of complete self-revelation. By finding words for his inmost truth, the writer—especially the poet—has made it part of the world, part of human consciousness. (pp. 233-34)
The writer must divide himself into two persons, one the observer, the other a subject to be observed, and the first must approach the second "with relentless and unsleeping objectivity." The observer-and-narrator must face what Aiken calls "that eternal problem of language, language extending consciousness and then consciousness extending language, in circular or spiral ascent"; and he must also face the many problems of architectural and sequential form. The words that depict the observed self not only must be honest; they must be "twisted around," in Aiken's phrase, until they have a shape and structure of their own; until they become an "artifact" (a favorite word of his) and if possible a masterpiece that will have a lasting echo in other minds. The "supreme task" performed by a masterpiece—as well as by lesser works and deeds in a more temporary fashion—is that of broadening, deepening, and subtilizing the human consciousness. Any man who devotes himself to that evolving task will find in it, Aiken says, "all that he could possibly require in the way of a religious credo."
His name for the credo was "the religion of consciousness." It is a doctrine—or more than that, a system of belief—to which he gave many refinements and ramifications. Some of these are set forth, with an impressive density of thought and feeling, in two long series of philosophical lyrics, Preludes for Memnon (1931) and Time in the Rock (1936); Aiken regarded these as his finest works. But the doctrine is a unifying theme in almost all the poetry of his middle years, say from 1925 to 1956, and in the prose as well. It is clearly exemplified in his novels, especially in Blue Voyage (1927) … and Great Circle (1933)…. Self-discovery is often the climax of Aiken's stories, and it is, moreover, the true theme of his autobiography, Ushant (1952). (pp. 234-35)
In American literature there is nothing to compare with it except The Education of Henry Adams, which is equally well composed, equally an artifact … but which gives us only one side of the author. In Ushant the author writes in the third person, like Adams, and maintains the same objective tone while recording not only his "education" but also his faults and obsessions, his infidelities, his recurrent dreams, his uproarious or shabby adventures: in short, while trying "to give the lowdown on himself, and through himself on humanity." (p. 236)
Without in the least abandoning his religion of consciousness, Aiken's poems of the fifties and sixties introduced some new or partially new elements. One of these was a note of ancestral piety, with allusions to earlier Aikens, but more to his mother's connections, the Potters...
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