Conrad Aiken Aiken, Conrad (Vol. 5) - Essay

Aiken, Conrad (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aiken, Conrad 1889–1973

Aiken was a distinguished American poet, short story writer, novelist, and critic. His involvement with fantasy and psychology and his concern with sex and morbidity reveal the persistent influence on his work of the theories of Freud and Havelock Ellis. Aiken won the Pulitzer Prize in 1930 for his Selected Poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)

Aiken's lifelong interest in psychoanalytic theory, especially the work of Freud, is reflected not only in his desire to discover the unconscious elements that are the prelude to all conceptions of and attitudes toward the human role in the universe, but also in his use of myth to depict various levels of human perception and consciousness….

Recognizing that it is fundamentally man's "hunger" for security and grandeur that "shapes itself as gods and rainbows" (Time in the Rock, XXVIII), Aiken creates a new mythical concept: God is finally the symbolic expression of man's capacity for full consciousness of the anxieties, conflicts, and longings, the terror of his own limitations, and especially of death, which he has for so long repressed or acknowledged only in distorted and misleading forms; God is at the same time man's consciousness of all that he can achieve and enjoy in the face of the monstrous within himself and nature. The god in man functions in the poet when he employs the chaos of the unconscious mind as the material of creation, imposing order and beauty on its apparent formlessness. In his creation of "Lord Zero" who, he says, is "our dream," Aiken forms a deity out of his consciousness of the lack of purpose and order in the universe; "Lord Zero," in whose honor the poet offers his rites of "devotion" (Time in the Rock, LXIX), himself represents the imposition of reason on chaos, and is a creation out of void.

In Ushant, Aiken speaks of his realization that "now at last the road was being opened for the only religion that was any longer tenable or viable, a poetic comprehension of man's position in the universe, and of his potentialities as a poietic shaper of his own destiny, through self-knowledge and love. The final phase of evolution of man's mind itself to ever more inclusive consciousness: in that, and that alone, would he find the solvent of all things." In shaping "his own destiny" by rational and aesthetic means, Aiken accepts the loneliness and terror that his own myth of consciousness discloses, and celebrates his "poetic comprehension" that there is none to replace it. (pp. 392-93)

Lillian Feder, in her Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971.

For [Aiken] America is not something already completed but a land that is still becoming. It is this vision of America that resolves the paradox of a writer who is at once deeply of a certain place and of everywhere. For the metaphysical poet like Aiken who believes that man is immortal because of his everlasting soul but that man is also tied to nature and therefore mortal and always dying, then paradox is inevitable. But paradox confuses those who will not dig beneath obvious contradictions. (p. 800)

Massachusetts and England represent to Aiken the tidiness and order of the cultivated rational mind, whereas Georgia and Spain represent the disorder and violence but also the rich beauty and deep emotional powers of the unconscious mind. Aiken's two great teachers—Santayana and Freud—also represent these two ways of the conscious and the unconscious. Santayana, part American and part Spaniard, Harvard professor and wandering philosopher, remained loyal to the rational mind; while Freud, the Jew anchored in a dying continental society, plunged deep into the unconscious on one of the greatest voyages of discovery in this or any century. With his love of contraries, Aiken has refused to sacrifice the unconscious to the conscious or the conscious to the unconscious. He has remained loyal to the deepest promptings of his soul, which tell him to accept the particularities of those landscapes that are to him symbols of the basic opposites of man's makeup. (p. 801)

[The] meaning of Aiken's life and work is a resolution of the paradox of the conscious mind with its teaching and preaching functions and the unconscious mind with its dreams and visions and its powerful overflow of emotions. The paradox is resolved in the quest which Aiken has taken into his soul and into the world. And from that quest he has gained increasing knowledge of himself and the world. Possibly more than any other work by Aiken, Ushant deals with this theme of the quest and the growth of the power to love and to seek truth. (p. 802)

Ted R. Spivey, "Conrad Aiken: Resident of Savannah," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1972, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. VIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 792-804.

One explanation for [Aiken's] absence [from many anthologies of major American verse] may lie in the fact that much of his poetry, including his later verse, remains anchored in the styles of the twenties and thirties, with much in common with the work of Eliot and even of Hardy, and is consequently outdated. But I believe the answer can be found in other directions. The reason for Aiken's neglect, and his consequent crustiness, may be paradoxically the same reason that he is, in my opinion, a poet of stature. The Aiken critic must be attuned to a poetry of philosophical inquiry, rather than to a poetry dependent on the New Critical love of paradox, ambiguity, irony, and other devices of language. Most critics of Aiken's times were not.

Perhaps what Aiken really points to [in claiming academic neglect] is the fact that his corpus has a characteristic that much contemporary poetry and fiction lacks: a real coherence, a staggering thematic and symbolic unity, a philosophical argument, that stretches over forty years across the novels, poems, short stories, and play, Mr. Arcularis. Since the late twenties, he has made a single-minded and unwavering attempt to wrestle certain metaphysical themes to a solution and, as a result, all his work is one. Any poet who can play such manifold variations on so vast a subject as the relation of the self to the universe and the acceptance of one's life and death has something to offer us regardless of his precise style of poetry, his "school." At the same time, his single works can be obscure without reference to others, a possibility that has on occasion resulted in harsh judgments.

Because Aiken's writings constitute almost a system, isolated works lose full significance when read alone, and a view of the whole increases the stature of his individual works. Such a case is the play, Mr. Arcularis…. [One] crucial element in Aiken's unified vision [is] the "great circle" voyage, with its attendant ships, stars, seagulls, and freezing temperatures [which can be traced] through The Preludes …, the novel Great Circle …, the short story "Mr. Arcularis," all originally published in the early thirties, and the essay Ushant, [as well as] the final version of the play Mr. Arcularis, which appeared in 1957, and which remains his final, clearest, and most complete statement of that theme. (pp. 591-92)

In Aiken's work, the voyage itself always takes the form of Thoreau's "great circle."… The attainment of the bright pearl of self-knowledge is the goal toward which all life tends in its voyage. Time and again, Aiken enforces this belief that the search for self-knowledge is the ultimate, freeing goal. (pp. 593-94)

This thread passes through all of Aiken's work, and its meaning is plain. The "great circle" is the trip into one's own life, and the Pole Star toward which we all aim on it is the excursion into our own pasts; upon reaching the star, our old selves die and we accept our former lives and death. The final acceptance of oneself, one's death, and the possibility of a rebirth through merging with other selves, "love," brings Time in the Rock to a close…. (p. 595)

[In the play, Mr. Arcularis,] Aiken states powerfully and in public form the point he has been making in his work throughout his career…. We must understand where we have been in order to live well in the future; we must embrace all the skeletons in our closets in order to be able to embrace full-bodied life. Far from a Stephen Dedalus-like "nightmare—from which we both will wake"…, this moment of self-knowledge remains the goal of all brave men, however painful it must be. We should draw the proper conclusion. We are luckier than Mr. Arcularis because we—like Andrew Cather [protagonist of Aiken's novel, Great Circle,]—can still correct past errors, while Arcularis faces an immediate final journey into the "great white light of annihilation."

In this final Mr. Arcularis [the play derived from the short story, "Mr. Arcularis,"] a master has put a life of reflection into a powerful symbolic and dramatic form. Here, as in his other work, Aiken has much to tell us—and with an astonishing simplicity, given the complexity of his concerns—once we understand his special artistic code. Perhaps the great circle of Aiken criticism, which began brightly, will end on a note of affirmation. (p. 6)

Stephen E. Tabachnick, "The Great Circle Voyage of Conrad Aiken's 'Mr. Arcularis'," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), January, 1974, pp. 590-607.

[The] verse of Conrad Aiken…, in its time, was decently admired for the virtue of bright finish. About all such writing it is fair to say only that it has a shorter life expectancy than art. To put the matter another way: artifice is the good currency which, for those who will accept it, eliminates any need for the best. (p. 6)

David Bromwich, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 21, 1974.