By Ruo Yu Ow
American poet and writer Conrad Aiken, the author of Silent Snow, Secret Snow, received multiple prestigious awards for his published works. Having been through a childhood tragedy himself, psychological themes can often be found in his work: he was particularly adept at portraying the internal conflicts of his characters and scavenging for the hidden aspect of human nature. On a side note, his works were considerably influenced by Freudian theories, presenting an excellent doorway for readers to explore early theories of psychology through literary devices.
Silent Snow, Secret Snow tells the story of Paul Hasleman, a young boy with an enduring obsession with snow, as he ventures into a world of absurdity. The story starts with him thinking of snow, frost and winter with childlike wonder. He embraces the snowy mornings he experiences with sheer exuberance, secretively enjoying the sensation of snowflakes.
As described in the text: “It was going to be a snowy day—the long white ragged lines were drifting and sifting across the street, across the faces of the old houses, whispering and hushing, making little triangles of white in the corners between cobblestones, seething a little when the wind blew them over the ground to a drifted corner; and so it would be all day, getting deeper and deeper and silenter and silenter.”
The vividness of his imagination of snow starts to intervene in his regular routines, making him less able to stay focused on his school work. He finds the real world getting increasingly tiresome and incomprehensible. Not to mention, his father’s austerity distances him even more and makes him less than keen to reveal his troubling thoughts to his parents.
Interestingly, even though the snow is described in detail throughout the tale, it has never really snowed: the wintry landscape merely exists in Paul’s head. There isn’t a single mention of the word schizophrenia, yet the entire piece depicts a person’s failure of holding his grasp on reality as he descends into absurdity.
There isn’t any forthcoming incident that triggers Paul’s obsession. An auditory hallucination of footsteps in the snow emerges on a random morning when he is in bed, giving him an odd sense of satisfaction, which drives him to start having bizarre notions and asking his inner self peculiar questions. Further episodes of visual hallucination, seen through a curtain of snow, mark his alarming state of mind.
Paul does realize that his invasive train of thoughts is palpably abnormal, yet he does not feel the need to rid himself of it. Towards the end of the story, he doesn’t even attempt to cling onto his final strand of rationality. I like to think of this as a way for Paul to mask himself from the inferiority of reality, removing himself from an undesirable style of living. His utter willingness to give in to a shambolic state of mind is an automated defensive mechanism to seek refuge in a safer place away from reality.
Through some experience of reading stories written by poets, at times the effort boils down to a less desirable outcome: excessively descriptive yet hardly meaningful chunks of text, overflowing with flowery words. However, Aiken did a splendid job of composing his thoughts as he wrote the story, tracing his storyline with poetic language while providing ample room for each reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
I love Aiken’s illustrative description of the snow and using it as significant symbolism throughout the story, structuring a state of madness without using phantasmagoric imagery: “…a cold low humming shook the windows…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”. Nonetheless, Aiken brilliantly dressed up his wintry piece of work with a hint of mental disorder. Silent Snow, Secret Snow is a compelling piece of work, structured thoroughly by a cobweb of poetic elements interwoven with Aiken’s appealing narrative style.
Image: Ruo Yu Ow