“Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” Conrad Aiken

 

Aiken, Conrad. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1934)

In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Related Post:

 

Cover: The World WithinI remember discovering this story in an anthology of American short stories back in high school. I found it absolutely chilling back then, and it hasn’t lost any of its power over the years. The story is widely anthologized, especially in collections of American short stories, so you should be able to find it with a bit of searching. Or you can look for The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, which is more difficult to find. This link will take you to Google Books, where you can search for the book in a library near you.

 

How does an author write about something “which could not easily (if at all) be spoken of” (p. 244)? In this story Conrad Aiken literarily presents the process by which 12-year-old Paul Hasleman loses touch with reality and slips into a world of delusion. The delusion begins with Paul’s belief that snow has fallen outside and is muffling the postman’s footsteps, but when he looks outside, he sees bright sun and no snow on the street. Yet in his mind Paul sees snow: “this was distinctly pleasant, and came almost of its own accord” (p. 239). Paul instinctively knows that he must keep his vision of snow a secret from his parents, his schoolmates, and the family doctor whom his parents finally call in because Paul seems distracted and engages in extensive daydreaming.

Paul initially thinks of his secret as a treasure that he alone possesses. The secrecy gives his treasure a sense of deliciousness. The secret also gives him a sense of protection from the rest of the world. Soon Paul begins to recognize that he has “another and quite separate existence” (p. 243) from the world of his home and school. He differentiates between “the public life and the life that was secret” (p. 245) and recognizes “the increasing difficulty of the daily return to daily life” (p. 247).

Aiken was an accomplished poet, and in this story he uses poetic devices to portray Paul’s increasing alienation from reality. He uses visual imagery to demonstrate what Paul sees: “The little spiral was still there, still softly whirling, like the ghost of a white kitten chasing the ghost of a white tail, and making as it did so the faintest of whispers” (p. 256). Aiken also uses sound imagery; the heavy, recurring sibilance (s sound) throughout the story echoes what Paul hears. Here, for example, Paul is distracted while the doctor is examining him:

Even here, even amongst these hostile presences, and in this arranged light, he could see the snow, he could hear it—it was in the corners of the room, where the shadow was deepest, under the sofa, behind the half-opened door which led to the dining room. It was gentler here, softer, its seethe the quietest of whispers, as if, in deference to a drawing room, it had quite deliberately put on its “manners”; it kept itself out of sight, obliterated itself, but distinctly with an air of saying, “Ah, but just wait! Wait till we are alone together! Then I will begin to tell you something new! Something white! something cold! something sleepy! Something of cease, and peace, and the long bright curve of space! Tell them to go away. Banish them. Refuse to speak.” (p. 254)

The snowstorm that begins so seductively in Paul’s head turns savage by the story’s end:

The darkness was coming in long white waves. A prolonged sibilance filled the night—a great seamless seethe of wild influence went abruptly across it—a cold low humming shook the windows. He shut the door and flung off his clothes in the dark. The bare black floor was like a little raft tossed in waves of snow, almost overwhelmed, washed under whitely, up again, smothered in curled billows of feather. The snow was laughing: it spoke from all sides at once: it pressed closer to him as he ran and jumped exulting into his bed. (p. 258)

The oxymoron (seeming contradiction) of darkness coming in white waves emphasizes the break from reality as Paul listens to the snowstorm and his mind closes inward upon itself:

“Listen!” it said. “We’ll tell you the last, the most beautiful and secret story—shut your eyes—it is a very small story—a story that gets smaller and smaller—it comes inward instead of opening like a flower—it is a flower becoming a seed—a little cold seed—do you hear? we are leaning closer to you—“ (p. 259)

In her introduction to “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” literary editor Aswell describes Aiken (1889-1973) as “one of the writers whose work first showed the specific influence of Freud” (p. 237). But readers need not know details of Freud’s theories to recognize the significance of Paul’s experience as Aiken portrays it. As psychiatrist Wertham says in his closing notes on the story, “The description is the better since it is free from cliches of symptoms” (p. 260).

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

“The World Within”: Introduction

 

The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time

Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Cover: The World Within

 

The World Within was one of the first literary collections assembled to spotlight a psychological approach to literature. It couples a literary editor’s introductory remarks with analysis by a psychiatrist.

The literary editor was Mary Louise Aswell (1902-1984), a novelist and editor for Atlantic Monthly, Reader’s Digest, and Harper’s Bazaar. In her foreword to The World Within, which she titled “The Wing of Madness,” Aswell wrote that writer Sherwood Anderson had written in his notebook, ”When I had been working well, there was a kind of insanity of consciousness.” Aswell continued, “Anderson was one of the first generation of writers to be profoundly influenced by the great explorer of man’s consciousness, Sigmund Freud. But the source of his genius, like that of the far greater writers who precede and follow him, was his intuitive insight, as Freud would have been the first to acknowledge” (p. viii). About a writer working at the time when The World Within was published, she said, “As part of his cultural heritage he has the work of Kafka, Joyce, Proust; of D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann and the writers of their generation who first interpreted Freud’s revolutionary concepts in the universal, human terms of art” (p.viii).

Frederic Wertham, M.D., (1895-1981) provided the psychiatric analysis for The World Within. He was born in Nuremberg, Germany, then studied medicine and literature at King’s College, London University, before and during the first world war. In England he became interested in Charles Dickens’s writings on social reform. After the war he received his medical degree from the University of Wurzburg in 1921 and conducted postgraduate study in Paris, Vienna, and Munich. In 1922 Wertham left Germany to work with Alfred Meyer at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He became an expert in forensic psychiatry and believed that the environment shapes individual human responses. In 1932 he moved to New York City, where he studied the effects of segregation on the lives of African American children.

Wertham studied psychiatry during the period when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a medical doctor, was developing the theories and method of psychoanalysis for the treatment of psychopathology. This same time period saw the beginning of the development of psychiatry as a scientific medical discipline. Freud’s theories came to dominate the field, and for Wertham psychoanalysis was synonymous with psychiatry. In his introduction to The World Within Werthem wrote that after World War I “Freud’s psychoanalysis gained a foothold with a wider audience both inside and outside the psychiatric profession. Freud’s knowledge of literature was prodigious. He explored not only the meanings hidden in the acts of persons but also those in the printed pages of books from the Greek classics to Dostoevsky. He was like an archaeologist who discovers the intact relics of an old bridge, a bridge built of myths and dreams. For the content of every neurosis is an individual myth. No wonder that this kind of psychiatry had in turn the greatest influence on literature” (p. xv). For this reason Wertham’s terminology seems strange to readers of today, for whom psychiatry usually means the use of drugs to treat mental illness.

Wertham also wrote in his introduction “Since ancient times the relationships between psychiatry and literature have been intimate and manifold, although up to the present they have remained largely unformulated” (p. xii). For him, historical myths and legends, such as ancient Greek mythology, represented timeless psychological truths that contemporary psychiatry was particularly suited to formulate: “What brings the science of psychiatry in the psychoanalytic era into such close and fruitful relationship with the art of literature is that psychoanalysis is analysis of a special kind. It does not delve into the mind to isolate disparate elements. Psychoanalysis always aims to relate the detail, the symbol, to the living organism as a whole. It is here that the research of the scientist and the search of the artist find a common ground. Great writers know how to give a unified picture of a whole personality through minute observation of a meaningful expression, a characteristic mannerism, or an unconscious habit” (p. xvi).

The World Within reflects the cultural world view of the time when it was published, a philosophical belief in the absurdity and meaninglessness of the world that had been nurtured by two world wars. Aswell called the time “this age of freedom from certainty” (p. vii). Americans know this attitude best from Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. The literary works of Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus reflect a similar philosophy. Wertham referred to this time period in psychoanalytic terms: “The social crisis of our time has a close similarity to the emotional state in a neurosis: it is a want in the face of plenty. False ideals are instilled in people: for men, to produce and sell; for women, to reproduce and buy. Against this propaganda promoted by all the mass methods of modern communication, psychiatry and literature uphold the dignity of the individual in a changing world” (p. xxiv). His reference to changing gender roles as “false ideals” foreshadows The Second Sex (published in French in 1949 and in English translation in 1953) by French woman Simone de Beauvoir.

Wertham looked to literature for expressions of societal ills that needed treatment: “Literature is always—directly or indirectly, positively or negatively—a reflection of the deepest conflicts in the real life of the period” (p. xx). But he also looked to literature as a means of treating those ills, since it is in “the struggle on the frontiers of imagination where the progress of society takes place” (p. xxiv).

 

The World Within includes the following works:

  • “The Story of Serapion,” E.T.A. Hoffman
  • Notes from Underground (excerpt), Feodor Dostoevsky
  • “The Beast in the Jungle,” Henry James
  • “The Orchid and the Bee” (from Cities of the Plain), Marcel Proust
  • “Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka
  • “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” Conrad Aiken
  • “The Door,” E.B. White
  • “I Am Lazarus,” Anna Kavan
  • “The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote
  • “Caput Mortuum,” Edita Morris
  • “The Fury,” Robert M. Coates
  • “Mrs. Razor,” James Still
  • “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Eudora Welty
  • “Percy Grimm” (from Light in August), William Faulkner

From time to time I will report here on one of these works.