- The Fictional World of Conrad Aiken
Although Aiken is one of the few American writers who created masterpieces of criticism, poetry and fiction, he is only now beginning to attract the subtle attention his work deserves.
It is fitting that Seigel devotes her book to his fiction. His fiction—especially Great Circle and King Coffin —tests the limits of genre. These novels are primarily driven by the passion to capture the perception of reality. Aiken recognizes that perception is an endless, relentless process which can never be fully realized. How can we perceive the world (assuming that it exists)? How can we be sure of our knowledge when we move in time—or time moves in us? And how can we express our changing perceptions in words which are by their very nature incomplete, indeterminate, indefinite?
Aiken recognizes that our perceptions are fleeting, open, narcissistic. He is not sure that they spring from "unconscious" drives—a Freudian model—or from our willed imposition of order. We should not expect any linear plot in an Aiken novel—a beginning, middle, and end—because such a form avoids the flow of perception. Perhaps Aiken's novels should be viewed as "turnings," as "counterpoints," as "great circles" in which conflicting voices confront and cancel one another. Seigel is aware of these points. I am pleased that she quotes from R. P. Blackmur's review of Preludes for Memnon. Blackmur, who wrote the preface to the volume of five novels of Aiken, recognizes the points I have been trying to make; he, of course, is a wonderful stylist who puts the case more forcefully and artistically than I can. Blackmur writes:
Consciousness seems always to stop short of its subject, and is defined by its limitations. There is a gap, a chasm, all round it which is the gap between what we know and our knowing it. As our knowing shifts, grows, diminishes—as we know more or differently or know that we know less—we proceed toward disillusion. [End Page 380]
Although Seigel recognizes the shifting language used by Aiken—which tries to capture the shifting epistemological gestures we are blessed—or cursed?—with, she settles at times for somewhat easy solutions or structures. She continually points to the "evolution of consciousness," but she never stops to think that there is not any evolution toward which consciousness moves. There is no "promised end," no real closure. Thus although she meticulously orders the changes in Great Circle, she seems to forget that her "order" is convenient, simplistic, contrived.
Perhaps Aiken's masterwork is Ushant —he subtitled it "an essay." Surely he puns here, because it refuses to conform to any conventional autobiography. It is an odd work which leaves out important "facts"—what are "facts" in anyone's life? are these "facts" as important as our perceptions which create "facts" out of "fictions" (or vice versa)—and which seems unsure of the "truth" of one's life. Ushant is an occult text; it seems to imply that it can never really get to the heart of the matter. Seigel recognizes that it is finally not a fragmented piece; it is a "spiral configuration." Her phrase echoes Aiken's own comment on Ushant's form as "a spiral form of layer on layer of memory—going in and out of the memory and to analysis, and back and forth; and without any sort of particular point of entry to begin it with, or any particular point of departure on which to end."
I have been somewhat swift in my comments on Seigel's book, but I must admit that her book is a crucial turning point in the study of Aiken's fiction—now we can look at the texts freshly as a brave attempt to catch, if only momentarily, the distorted meanings we assign to our messy lives.