Conrad Aiken and the struggle of consciousness

even one’s newness is old
—Conrad Aiken


One of the first things that comes up in a google search of the name “Conrad Aiken” (right next to we found Conrad Aiken) is a review of his Selected Poems in the Guardian from 2004. However, a recent article in the LA Times with its nod to an upcoming issue on the writer in The Scofield, along with a couple of nice articles in the Wuthering Expectations blog indicate that Conrad Aiken has not been forgotten after all.

Judging by its projected title—“Conrad Aiken & Consciousness”—the Scofield issue promises to focus on what, to my mind, is the primary area of interest in a consideration of Aiken’s work. The Guardian article, by contrast, completely misses the mark on what makes Aiken special and worth reading today. Its author claims that Aiken never did anything new, suggesting that he never ranked high amongst modernist poets precisely because the primary modernist project was a formal one—to make contemporary the language of poetry. He makes the case by comparing Aiken unfavorably to Marianne Moore. One can’t deny that much poetry today looks more like Moore’s poetry than Aiken’s. But comparing the two like this is a bit like criticizing a glass of milk for not being a glass of orange juice. While I’m willing to concede for the sake of argument (not having researched it) that during his lifetime Aiken was not perceived as modern enough, I find it peculiar that as late as 2004 anyone would still care, I mean with the establishment of post-modernist aesthetics and the injunction to “make it new” itself taking its place as a historically situated stance. Poetry, for Conrad Aiken, did not serve form; form served poetry. “Making it new” was not his primary concern, but that does not necessarily mean he was a retrograde poet.

The Guardian article goes on to knock Aiken further down by citing a lack of authority and conviction, doing so with the remarkably weak statement, “The picture that emerges is of a writer who just wasn’t sure”, suggesting even that Aiken should have just given it up, “But Aiken persisted, agonized.” And then finally, “his poetry remained hide-bound by its refusal to breach poetic etiquette.” This is what I mean by missing the mark. If consciousness itself was Aiken’s big theme, then it could hardly convey anything as crass as “authority” or “conviction”. Can anyone say with authority and conviction what it means to be aware that we are alive, how that awareness is processed in the mind and conveyed in language? Not even Daniel Dennett knows the answers. Questions such as these are found not only in Aiken’s poetry, but in his fiction as well. Indeed, they feed the very matter of his work and are at the source of its interest and relevance today. He was out of step with fashion, sure, but fashion goes around and around in a Great Circle. The philosophical questions he explored are timeless.

And, yes, he was aware of that fact. The weird hybrid thing that is the long poem Punch: the Immortal Liar runs from a tight meter reminiscent of Tennyson to long unrhymed lines concerning a “mountebank”—a term that was old-fashioned when it was penned but just happens to coincide with a timeless question: just who is pulling whose strings? Everything about the poem—from its refusal to submit to one form of poetic diction to its multiple points of view to its unanswered questions—breaches poetic etiquette. Or shall we say that even with its echoes of older styles, its hybrid nature puts it more at home in the purview of today’s poetic etiquette? But then, with the poems of Preludes for Memnon and Time in the Rock the idea of retrograde language doesn’t even emerge, not for me. The language is modern enough. More importantly, I see an active struggle with consciousness, fresh as today’s bud:


These themes run throughout Aiken’s fiction as well. I just read Great Circle, a novel that might be said to be about consciousness. A man discovers that his wife is cheating on him, he spirals into a crisis, can’t stop weeping and at one point forgets how to sign his name to a check. Aiken is capable of surprising, even astonishing language to describe the crisis:

Have you lost your wife, your friend, or is it only an egg? Tu pupila es azul; y quando lloras—the world is a lost egg. A mislaid egg. It will hatch, out of season, in a universe of intemperate weather, an absolute zero, and the god it contains will be born dead. (p 197*)

He remembers his childhood, recalls an apparent infidelity of his mother’s, works through his thoughts and feelings toward his wife and by the end of the novel begins to stabilize again. The core of the novel can be found in a passage such as this:

Could it be true—and if it was, what a relief! what an escape!—that consciousness itself was a kind of dishonesty? A false simplification of animal existence? A voluntary-involuntary distortion, precisely analogous to the falsification that occurs when consciousness, in turn, tries to express itself in speech? As the animate, then, must be a natural distortion of the inanimate. Each step a new kind of dishonesty; a dishonesty inherent in evolution. Each translation involving a shedding, a partial shedding or abandonment, and an invention of a something new which was only disguisedly true to its origins, only obviously true to itself. But in that case, what was truth. Was truth the suffering, or the calm that succeeds the suffering. Or the comprehensive awareness of both, the embracing concept. Was suffering, as it were, merely an unsuccessful attempt at translation, in this progress from one state to another? An inability to feel what one is, to say what one feels, to do what one wills? A failure, simply, to know?…. If it was a fake…. it was a genuine fake…. Speech, even if it must be only incompletely loyal to its subject, incapable of saying all, is genuine. The fluidity of life, as long as it is life, can never have the immobile integrity of the rock from which it came. It will only be honest rock again when it is dead. And in the meantime, if it suffers, if it is aware that it cannot say completely why it suffers, or in severance from what, that’s all you can ask of it. (pp 285-6)

That was published in 1933 and as far as I know neither science nor philosophy has advanced any further in defining human. Such an inquiry must of necessity proceed with one foot in the past, since our categories and structures of thought have deep roots, as philosophers from Foucault to Agamben have shown.

Finally, Aiken was capable, when it was required, of producing truly weird language. One of the oddities of Great Circle is that its protagonist should begin to regain stability while eating bacon—after having endured dreams involving pigs that he is aware are stand-ins for himself. The description of one of these dreams is as violently shocking as anything out of Maldoror. But even weirder is this passage:

Time out…. for a calm reshuffling of the pack of marked cards which is the mind…. Think, you idiot! Think, don’t feel! Your brain depends upon it, the brief roman candle’s parabola of your sanity. Follow green arrow for shuttle train to Grand Central. Follow red arrow for trail to bottom of Grand Canyon. If one had been cornuted, was a chiropodist the thing? Or must one be chiropracted? Kindly remove the imaginary, but all too palpable, horns…. so inconvenient when one wears a hat, unless one is a horse. Let us order a striped calico bonnet, with holes for the ears. (p 178)

Not that weirdness is all that’s required for newness, but it adds a kind of spice, producing a little tingle of, what the fuck was that! that one gets from modernist writers. With Aiken it’s just a little spice. It ain’t the whole pie. If you like a lot of this sort of thing there’s plenty to find in the filing cabinet of modernism. If you want language that can delight you with novel evocations of sound and vision then by all means go to Marianne Moore. If adventures in form are more to your liking then you might try Raymond Roussel. If the adventure of consciousness itself appeals to you then I recommend Conrad Aiken.


* this and the following from The Collected Novels of Conrad Aiken, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964

audio: “XLVIII Time in the Rock”, Conrad Aiken: Collected Poems, Oxford University Press, 1953

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