Literary Hub

On the Autofiction of Conrad Aiken, Unsung American Modernist


The following essay appears in the latest issue of The Scofield, dedicated to the writing of Conrad Aiken.

In a series of lectures presented between 1915-1917, Freud famously includes psychoanalysis among the three “great outrages upon [humanity’s] self-love.”

The first two attacks upon these “narcissistic illnesses” come about through scientific revelations. Though he concedes Alexandrian doctrines posited a similar theory, Freud attributes the first wound to Copernicus, whose heliocentric model demoted our planet to a cosmic fragment whirling around our solar system’s pitiless nucleus. Earth in orbit becomes another crumb in what Freud called “a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable.”

Darwin casts the second great blow to humanity’s self-love, revealing that humans do not occupy the apex of the animal kingdom, that we are not specially created or separate from nature. Freud writes that Darwin “relegated [man] to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him.” We are not “the end” of evolution; instead, we’re just another blind step in a sequence of erratic mutations. Though we may not readily admit it to ourselves, we have not shed our animal nature—we have repressed it.

Finally, Freud argues the third attack upon our cosmic vanity strikes in the form of psychological research “…which is endeavoring to prove to the ‘ego’ of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind.” In order to confront and describe these invisible and largely unknowable forces shaping our psychic lives, psychoanalysis advocates that humanity look inward, and through speech, bring forth unconscious stalemates into conscious experience. But as Freud knew, individuals who forced themselves to confront these powerful inner horrors rarely emerge from such subjective analysis unscathed. Looking inward, we may never discover the source of a deeper truth to which we identify. Perhaps the unconscious is itself a speaker, an utterer of an unbearable truth that, instead of freeing us, forces us to deal with a potentially more troubling inner truth.

Humanity’s narcissistic assessment of its place in the universe thus adopts a circular nature—indeed we once thought ourselves at the middle, the center of the universe, of nature and of experience—but Darwin and Copernicus redraw the anthropocentric relation: center and periphery go topsy-turvy. In turn, the terror in Freud’s discovery suggests humanity does not even live at the center of herself; we are always outside, other to ourselves as well as other people. As his thought develops, the unconscious becomes not merely a repository for our animalistic drives and disturbing, larval thoughts, but itself a cite that speaks. Rather than a dart lodged in a perfect bull’s-eye, perhaps “man” is better described a rogue pockmark on the wall.

Aiken’s early psychoanalytic masterpiece, Great Circle, interrogates these points of psychological tension though one-eyed Andrew Cather, the novel’s recently cuckolded protagonist. Cather’s journey inward probes the connections between repetition, language, narcissism, and Aiken’s most recurrent theme through his oeuvre: the problem of consciousness. Though mostly employing the protagonist’s stream-of-conscious narrative, the novel takes on a self-reflective tenor which continually stabs at the familiar cluster of nerves at the center of the story: Cather’s return to a childhood trauma, his narcissistic reveling in the psychic torment of the present.

Told in four parts, the novel’s first sequence chronicles Andrew’s jealousy and his discovery of his wife Bertha’s infidelity with his best friend, Tom. Part two is an impressionistic take on childhood memories in Duxbury, culminating in the discovery of Cather’s mother’s infidelity and death, which undoubtedly influence the protagonist’s own failures in marriage. In the third section, imbued with more drunken soliloquy than dialogue, Cather speaks to a psychoanalyst friend as a means to work back to the origin of his misery. In the final sequence, written as a tangled knot of dream and memory, Cather discovers some form of psychic release. As Graham Greene writes in the introduction to Great Circle, the four parts “might be described as thought, memory, speech, and action.”

In a 1933 review of Great Circle, James Hilton of The Bookman writes, “It is a sign of this Age of Frustration that there seems to be two principal ways in which intelligent modern writers react to the world about them—that of Attack and that of Escape.” Hilton claims Aiken is a fighter, one who throws a brick of vitriol at homo sapiens similar to Swift’s denunciation of the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels. But perhaps at the heart of Aiken’s art lays the fourth wave in a Freudian assault directed at humanity’s self-love: a combination of attack by and escape into language. Aiken’s greatest achievement as a fiction writer is in his dramatization of Freudian theory with a self-reflective, even self-loathing quality. Psychoanalysis itself is subject to attack (particularly in part three), but Aiken always returns to the human need for an escape, for the daydream, for a language to live in. Whether we are writing, speaking, feeling, or thinking, we are always enacting a narrative:

Isn’t it amazing how even at such a moment, when one is absolutely broken, dissolved, a mere whirlwind of unhappiness, when one walks without knowing or caring where one is going, nevertheless one still has to dramatize oneself, one sees oneself as a pitiful figure under an arclight of snow, one lifts a deliberately tormented face to the storm, and despite the profundity of one’s grief, there is also something false in it too.

Freud’s conceptual framework influences Aiken as early as 1912, yet Great Circle portentously winks at post-structural psychoanalysis. By adapting psychoanalytic theory into the voice of his protagonist, Aiken’s repetition, return, and escape into language structures his self-love as much as his self-loathing. If in “Remembering, Repeating, Working-through” Freud notices how “the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, he acts it out, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it…” then, as Cather described, there is falsehood even in grief. The narrative doesn’t read entirely as an act of remembrance, but rather as an act of invention, enlivened by the poetic language of the protagonist.

The dance of thought, language and trauma is one of an orbital nature. If at the core of Freudian theory, the pleasure principle emphasizes the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, why would old One-Eyed Cather constantly revisit to his most troubling memories and fantasies? Why does he childishly fixate on how Bertha “always did have an eye for athletes—hairy ape stuff.” He both does and doesn’t consent to this mental imposition; it seems that some inner voice, one out of his control, conjures up these painful symbols from somewhere, self-imposed or not. Implicit in the title lies a question: why do we relive our traumas, over and over, in a great circle of psychic penance?

We shape our being-in-the-world with words. Humanity speaks; we’re the subject, the one who chooses her words, the one in control. Without us, the words, symbols, and sounds don’t exist. But to frame Aiken’s language in this way is to think in a somewhat pre-Copernican approach. As the heliocentric model shows the sun doesn’t revolve around earth, Aiken shows that language doesn’t revolve around man. Man revolves around language—it’s our source of light, of heat, of life. For humanity, words are something we’re entirely dependent upon but ultimately helpless against. When language runs the show, our words, our bodies, and even our desires are overwritten with these powerful signifiers.

Our traumas return as language from somewhere beyond our control, haunting us as a dream, a memory, an affect, a word. In this realization, Aiken sees opportunity for invention. Beneath his self-indulgent soliloquizing, Andrew toils with a troubling revelation: if humanity is dishonest with itself by nature of its psychological/linguistic constitution, how can honesty persist between lovers, husbands, wives, friends, or analysts? If we can’t know ourselves, how can we know those closest to us?

Where is honesty then? I don’t believe we’ve got an honest bone in our souls. We’re all colossal fakes—the more power we have, the more ingeniously and powerfully we fake. Michelangelo—what the hell. Did he ever tell the truth? Or Shakespeare? No, by God, they went on lying to their graves, nothing said, their dirty little mouths twisted with deceit, their damned hearts packed full of filthy lies and blasphemies.

In a novel largely concerned with self-examination, the question of honesty, then, extends to the author; indeed it is difficult to entirely separate Aiken’s life from Cather’s experience. In a NY Times Exposé on Aiken 1964, Frederick C. Crews writes:

His heroes are adept at psychoanalyzing themselves; Andrew Cather in Great Circle, for example, sees the casual link between his mother fixation and his infidelities, and he suspects that he has unconsciously followed the parental example in willing himself into the role of cuckold. Yet Cather, and Aiken himself, rage against these inferences that have been made all but inescapable for the reader. It would seem that he is using his plots to learn the truth about himself, and that a part of him continues to resist what he must nevertheless say. The result is a curious blurring of the authorial point of view.

This blurring of Aiken’s point of view is best illustrated in section two, wherein Cather gives a detailed account of a traumatic childhood discovery in Duxbury. Thick marine smells pervade the otherwise happy memories of childhood holidays, replete with descriptions of conch shells and coves over-grown with beech-plums. Contrasted with Cather’s rancorous monologues, part two provides a mostly-lovely sojourn for a reader more familiar with Aiken’s poetic ability.

In a connection to psychoanalysis, Aiken adopts a topological treatment of Duxbury, setting a psychic landscape for the joys and terrors of childhood (and later adulthood). The topological model put forth by Freud emphasizes the importance of location when discussing the nature of human reality. Topology is about delimitation—of separation—of space. Language and landscape are about difference. Instead of thinking of conscious experience as something entirely internal, the second section of the novel understands the importance of dwelled-in language; words are where we live. As Freud understood with his topological model of the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious, these intersecting psychic forces are something inhabited, not just something thought. Understanding of memory as a place rather than a thought offers an eerie connection to Aiken’s own experience.

Taken as a modernist work of early autofiction, the connection between consciousness and language takes a new shape when paired with Aiken’s biography. Though Graham Greene denies that Cather is a mask for the author, a reader familiar with Aiken’s childhood may have a different understanding of the protagonist’s condition. At the end of part two, One-eyed Cather’s mother and uncle David, in the throws of an affair, both drown in a sailing accident. This childhood memory persists as a source of tension through the remainder of the novel, serving as a morbid psychological backdrop for Cather’s personal and martial failures in adulthood. It is difficult to ignore that Conrad Aiken’s father, who had unexpectedly descended into madness, tied his eleven-year-old son to a bedpost; then (according to Aiken’s own writing), the young Conrad heard two gunshots nearby and discovered his parents’ bodies at the scene of a murder-suicide.

Language’s relation to consciousness and trauma becomes a topology in itself. Rather than being something spoken, language is lived-in: it is a place with ridges, valleys, streams, and tectonic forces of which we have no awareness or control:

Have you ever looked at a map of the brain? It’s like those imaginary maps of Mars. Full of Arabia Desertas, canals, seas, mountains, glaciers, extinct volcanoes or ulcers. The pockmarked moonface of the mind. And all that strange congregation of scars, that record of wounds and fissures, is what speaks and acts. I speak with it, you listen with it. What the hell. What have I got to do with it? Nothing. Something hurts me and I act. Something else hurts me and I speak. If I could act, I wouldn’t speak. Voila, all your bloody psychology in a nutshell.

In adopting language, in overwriting our bodies and minds with signifiers, we shed our animalistic nature, thereby surrendering ourselves to the power of words and images. Though this grants the power for self-reflection, we shudder before the immensity of this inner topology that we can only hope to navigate—never control. The unconscious is a speaker. An inner-voice possesses us, overwriting our fates over which we have little say. By getting an analysand, a protagonist, an author to talk, daydream, dream, or narrate a traumatic event, we enter the realm of words, a system of understanding that preexists us. Trauma or fixation suggests a deadlock, a blockage, a stalemate. In analysis, the patient attempts to symbolize those points of fixation that have not yet been coded by the world of language. Analysis, similar to writing, is ultimately descriptive, giving shape to the inner-blockages for which we do not yet have words or understanding.

Is writing a novel itself a form of analysis, of uncovering or making conscious inner-knots of pre-symbolized traumas? Perhaps Cather’s narcissism is itself a cypher for the artistic process. When the unconscious enters the picture writerly intent (or intent itself) changes color. Does the author’s inner voice shape the narrative, and to what degree does the narrative provoke her inner voice? Toward the end of his diatribe with a psychoanalyst friend, Cather laments:

The truth is, there’s not a damn thing or person or idea in the world you can trust, not one. You’re alone. You run about falling in love with people, with things, with flowers, with surfaces, with weather, with ids and quods and quids, and what the blazes do you get in return? Nothing: only a fleeting reflection of your own putrid little face flung back at you crookedly from a broken mirror. Isn’t that it? Have I lost my self-love?… I think I’ll be a pansexualist, and become a child again.

As the narrative disintegrates into a confluence of dream and voice, Cather hopes to become a scrambled jumble of partial drives, his very body disorganized by the imposing power of language. The mirror usually presents us with a unified image—a construction. Aiken’s project acknowledges that in perception there expands a gap between our knowledge and our acquisition of that knowledge; if our past is merely a remembered system of signifiers, of airy images, then our knowledge of it is a linguistic drama. In the end, Cather can only hope to regress, to return to the pre-verbal, where his memories and his body have not yet been bound by knotty words.


This essay appears in the latest issue of The Scofield, dedicated to the writing of Conrad Aiken.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

More from Literary Hub

Literary Hub10 min readSociety
The American Tradition of Anti-Black Vigilantism
Black people in America have been under surveillance ever since the 17th century, when enslaved Africans were forced to labor in the tobacco and rice fields of the South. Colonial law quickly made a distinction between indentured servants and slaves
Literary Hub1 min read
“Sappho Drives Upstate (Fr. 2)” A Poem by Anne Carson
I saw two old white horses in a field, in the corner of a field, in the shade, who had sought the shade, thoughtfully. glancing not quite at each other but past, holding their heads close, their heads aligned, standing as they had stood many times, a
Literary Hub9 min read
Small Wonder: The Challenge of Parenting Through Climate Collapse
We come to Monhegan Island—twelve miles off the coast of Maine, perched in the fastest-warming saltwater ecosystem on the planet—to avoid darkness. We come for wonder. We walk across the island once we’ve dropped our bags in our rooms, my son Dex and