Silent Snow, Secret Snow by Conrad Aiken has been one of my favorite short stories since I was about 14.
The first time I read Aiken’s work I had no idea what it was about.
I simply didn’t understand why snow kept filling Paul’s bedroom.
A college course on Flannery O’Connor and several subsequent years studying counseling and psychology opened my literary eyes to the richness of symbolism and the complexity of the human mind.
In Mystery & Manners (1969) O’Connor writes;
“I think that the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye. The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest. This is what is meant when critics say that a novel operates on several levels. The truer the symbol, the deeper it leads you, the more meaning it opens up” (emphasis mine).
Aiken’s “snow” is a chilling (literally) metaphor for mental illness.A symbol that captures the disorienting, blinding and, at times, paralyzing nature of various types of mental illness.
It begs the question – what is our benchmark for determining normality? As the entirety of the DSM-IV is dedicated to such definitions I think my time is better spent talking about literature. However, I do hold that sanity, is less a defined state and more a continuum of existence. Herman Melville, captured well the fluid nature of it;
“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.”
It troubles me when Christian’s deny the reality or possibility of mental illness. Our bodies fall prey to illness but our minds are not susceptible? The meaning of Silent Snow, Secret Snow has developed for me over the past few years and I find myself frequently returning to it. A simple story. A powerful point. Sanity can be (is?) fluid.
I realize these are unfinished musings on a sensitive topic. I guess that, for me (and probably for many), literature sometimes illustrates and explains life more accurately than true circumstances. Makes sense – humans inhabit stories and stories tend to lower defenses and therefore heighten hearing, vision and (hopefully) understanding.
Today, I found this video adaptation of Silent Snow, Secret Snow (from 1966), which inspired this post. It’s fascinating – and mildly cheesy. The story is better, trust me – I tried to find a full-text version of it to link too, I failed. It is included in many anthologies of American short stories if you’re interested!
On that note, any short story recommendations for me? Or thoughts on fiction, mental illness, faith or literature? You know – all the meandering threads of this post.