Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 906

Conrad Aiken’s Ushant, the poet’s major prose work, falls into no clear literary category. It is at once an autobiography, a confession, and a participatory novel which involves the reader in the journey of remembrance, creation, and imagination on which Aiken sets forth. Following the precedents of such writers as Laurence Sterne and James Joyce in his use of free-association and stream-of-consciousness techniques, Aiken created a literary form to suit his needs, allowing the contents of his memory and the honesty of his self-analysis to give shape and meaning to his circular narrative. Ushant, which is divided into six sections, is a journey of return to the “beginning without beginning” of his life. The book is Aiken’s synthesis of his life as a poet, and it is linked to the modernist view of man as the creative artist of his life.

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In the book, which draws on the author’s past experiences so that he may fully realize his creative ego, Aiken often portrays himself as a cultural artifact rather than as a person. The circular journey that returns him to his roots is paralleled by the journeys of many other “travelers.” Along the way there are numerous contacts with the world of a whole generation of American and British artists who contributed to the vital movement of modernism in the first half of the twentieth century.

The central image of the narrative is that of the tiny ship at sea amid a dream seascape, approaching the mythical island of Ushant. In cabin 144 are twelve sleeping travelers returning from the United States to England two weeks after the close of World War II. Among them is the main character D. (for Demarest, the main character in Aiken’s novel Blue Voyage, written in 1927). D. details the lives of several of his cabin mates and compares their need to return to England with his own. His empathy with their compulsion to revisit England underscores the fact that these passengers link him with the rest of humanity. D. is the “eye” and the “I” of the book. He is returning to Ariel’s Isle (England) and to Saltinge, the country house of which he has many memories.

The form of the narrative is governed by D.’s mental associations, so that the tale resembles a series of double-exposure photographs. D.’s narrative scenes, each containing two or three superimposed images, begin with his dream of the sea and Ushant. From there they glide into his consciousness as he considers the others in the cabin, and then through free associations to which he gives symbolic significance. In this way, D. arranges his narrative material like a film montage, moving from dream to reality to the making of symbolic order, the very process of art. These three forms of consciousness—reality, dream, and symbol—change and blend just as they would in a writer’s creative work. Given this approach, the reader reviews not only D.’s conscious and unconscious past but also his construction of a work of art from these materials.

In his dream, which initially seems vague and ambiguous, D. sees himself with three other persons translating a novella about his life which may be written in German, Spanish, or Provencal. As the dream progresses, he realizes that he is all four of the persons engaged in the translation of his life and that these translators provide various interpretations of his past actions and failures, both human and literary. Thus, D. is not only reviewing his life but also dreaming and translating a book, Ushant, whose actual creation is taking place before the reader’s eyes. As D.’s plan unfolds before the reader, the book is being written; its central aim is D.’s acquisition of self-knowledge, his embarkation on a project which would bean integral part of the very vision—of the . . . indecipherable, or nameless land, a land of which one could make oneself the possessor by a mere strictness of awareness . . . [a land] architected, with its own intrinsic and natural spiral of form, as a whole drama of the human soul, from the beginningless beginning to the endless end. Too difficult altogether.

Despite this difficulty, D. tries because he believes that “this pursuit [is] possibly the most essential of dramas, . . . since that pursuit is the central undeviating concern of every living individual human being; and thus, in aggregate, on the grand evolutionary scale, of all mankind.” It is not surprising that facing such a formidable task, Aiken puns with the book’s title, writing it as “You shant.”

Ushant, or Ile d’Ouessant, is a real island off the coast of France whose lighthouse guides the traveler toward the coast of England. It was once the western limit for Europeans, and its fog-shrouded shores suggest the Celtic myth of the western land of the dead. D. regards it as a point at which East and West (England and America) are reconciled. It is also the place where D. the writer will find the most complete state of consciousness, the ultimate point at which he will attain self-knowledge. That point is never reached in the autobiography, because the “journey” lasts for a lifetime. Yet D. believes that despite the unresolved nature of his vision, “we rise, we rise, ourselves now like notes of music arranging themselves in divine harmony, a divine unison, which, as it had no beginning, can have no end. . . .”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

Denney, Reuel. Conrad Aiken: Pamphlets on American Writers. Vol. 38, 1964.

Hoffman, Frederick J. Conrad Aiken, 1962.

Martin, Jay. Conrad Aiken: A Life of His Art, 1962.

Rountree, Mary. “Conrad Aiken’s Heroes: Portraits of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Failure,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination. XIII (Fall, 1980), p. 82.

Spivey, Ted R. The Writer as Shaman: The Pilgrimages of Conrad Aiken and Walker Percy, 1986.

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