The Collected Novels of Conrad Aiken
Conrad Aiken is one of the Saturnians, the giants who bring their golden ages with them, who are consequently, in their venerable years, always being hailed as the last of the last, the last true Bostonian, the last full-scale man of letters. Graham Greene calls him “perhaps the most exciting, the most fully satisfying of living novelists.” Aiken is thoroughly New England in the Hawthorne sense—says “yes/O at lightning and lashed rod,” knows as well as Hopkins that “the mind, mind has mountains: cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed. Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there”—but R. P. Blackmur’s somewhat funereal Introduction to this most welcome collection of Aiken’s five novels is considerably more so, more grimly, mytho-psychologically New England than the novelist, as if the least fearful lineament of this atra cura of the northlands were too precious to be overlooked or undervalued. So be it; Blackmur has his own authority as critic of an old friend whose work he generously admires. He writes excellently of “the finding, declaration, and loss of the self or psyche among the melodramas of love and jealousy, death and immolation, personal power and the frustrate abyss which in their fragments assault his sensibility.” The essential form of the novels, Blackmur finds, is the journey. “It is the combination of the form with the material that makes the innovation. The form is the picaresque, the material that of psychology or the conditions of life which a particular psychology points at. Let us call the combination the Psychological Picaresque.”
This is good, and would be better if Blackmur were a little less eager to assure us that Aiken has done something respectably strenous—one remembers that R. W. B. Lewis also made a sort of moral calisthenics out of the Picaresque. In an innocent-looking passage, Blackmur flashes his steel: “It is conscience not consciousness that can make or follow a pattern; and it is conscience that estimates the lies we tell in our search for the truth of self or love in our blue voyage along the great circle of conversation.” Now this is really dynamite, because Aiken has always advertised himself as one of the high priests of Consciousness and Blackmur is making a desperate, last-minute attempt to get him back to the high safe ground of The Great Moral Tradition. These words are always getting overloaded. In the Thirties, consciousness was dressed up in a blue shirt and a lunch-pail and called Awareness. But when you recall how very many times the word appears in the Jameses and in Aiken himself, you see that Aiken is throwing everything he has against New England moralism, however refined, however humane.
Not that he ever tried to kill his own active, generous and excitable conscience—who more scornful of the conscience-killers than he?—but rather that this thin mentalistic word “consciousness,” for better or worse, was to be his sign of everything generous, adventurous, dramatically, vigorously, and cleansingly …