Hubert Aquin Ofelia Cohn-Sfetcu - Essay

Ofelia Cohn-Sfetcu

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Readers and critics have unanimously recognized that the substance of Hubert Aquin's Prochain Episode is governed by the vertical superposition of two different, but mutually qualifying, temporal movements: one related to the real world of the clinic where the narrator is incarcerated and kept under strict surveillance and the other to the world created in his own mind. Also unanimously agreed upon is that the narrator-prisoner, who is waiting for the date of his case in court and sentence, commits his thoughts to paper in order to beguile present time and thus escape the psychological disintegration caused by prolonged suspense. While these observations are accurate, a closer analysis of Aquin's text indicates that the prisoner's act of writing is not motivated by one reason only but rather by a complex of reasons. Outstanding among them is the fact that, deprived of an authentic future in the absence of a court sentence, the prisoner wants to create one, thus giving his mental life the quality of duration which it otherwise lacks. Simultaneously, through the act of using language, the author confers on his creation a permanence which real life refuses to him. Writing, therefore, is revealed not only as prophylaxis against an insufficient present time and a phenomenal world but as the dimension within which man can express his creativity and wherein human intelligence can score a victory over the irregularities of time. (pp. 449-50)

[The] narrator has been imprisoned and subsequently hospitalized for terrorist activity and at the moment of writing is deprived of his freedom waiting for the date of his trial and sentencing. The exact position in time of the prisoner with respect to his court case is of fundamental importance for Aquin's argument, for it is not the physical incarceration itself, or the breaking of his spirit by the strict schedule of solitary confinement, that drives him to despair. Nor is it the knowledge that prior to his arrest he has failed both his revolutionary mission and the woman he loves. It is all these reasons, but chiefly it is that he has been forced to live for a long time in a suspense to which there seems to be no end….

Imprisonment, of course, denies the individual the possibility to move in rhythm with the rest of humanity…. [He is] reduced to motionlessness while the rest of the universe is in motion; his agony is heightened by the fact that in the absence of a fixed point from which to measure time, he loses trace of time itself and discovers his self disintegrating…. But suspense also denies the individual an authentic contact with his own future. Consequently, the prisoner in Aquin's book is subjected to a double incarceration: that of his body and that of his time. The problem he faces is not so much how to bear his physical confinement but how to fight the mental enclosure imposed by waiting and to escape its lethal effects. In truth, existence in suspended duration and the lack of activity have already affected him; not only have they caused him to age physically at a dizzying rate, but they have brought a spiritual fatigue which threatens to overcome him. Manifesting itself as a gradual amputation of will power, this mental torpor finally leads him almost to suffocate in nihilism and to consider suicide. (p. 450)

And yet, [after a statement of utter despair,] without transition or justification, the next sentence in the book, the one immediately following this expression of all-encompassing negation, marks the beginning of the spy-story which the prisoner has decided to write. "Is this," the reader asks himself, "an instance of Aquin's losing control of his subject matter, or, on the contrary, an indirect comment on the availability of the human spirit?" In view of the evidence provided by subsequent pages, the sudden juxtaposition of the nihilistic statements concluding Chapter 1, and the narrative ones introducing Chapter 2 and the story within a story, is neither a slip of the pen nor lack of craftsmanship. It is, instead, a master stroke testifying to the force of man's intelligence. Despite his imprisonment and despite the formidable depression which he experiences, the prisoner has decided to continue to live. The man who has been deprived of an external reason for continuity has found an inner one to sustain him…. [The] principle which allows for continuation is discovered: that is, the desire to become again an integral part of that universal totality whose structure is based on perpetual motion. And since the nature of waiting allows for hope, the prisoner rejects suicide. Desire and hope are, therefore, revealed as determinant...

(The entire section is 1904 words.)