Richard Brautigan – Chapter 1

The John Lennon of the Hippie Novel: Brautigan, the Beats, and the Counterculture

[…] there was no way of getting used to the ceiling. It existed beyond human intelligence and co-ordination (Brautigan 50).

The intangible nature of Brautigan’s ceiling muse in A Confederate General from Big Sur encapsulates perfectly Theodore Roszack’s categorisation of the American counterculture as something akin to “a medieval crusade: a variegated procession constantly in flux” (48). A “total rejection” (44) of the technocratic and capitalistic values of the preceding decade it may well have been, but it was ultimately, he concedes, a period of rebellion which lacked focus if not intensity. In his extensive treatise on the subject, The Making of a Counter Culture, he veers between a celebration of its lofty social purposes and a more candid analysis of its likely origins. Rather than a genuine politicised revolution, Roszack attributes its genesis much more prosaically to the “permissive child-rearing habits” of the previous generation and a resultant “anaemic superego” (30) of their collective offspring. He paints a picture of a whole new generation of self-righteous and hedonistic teenagers with no real ambitions beyond those of self-gratification. This illustration, however, should not be taken as proof that the countercultural movement existed as nothing more than a manifestation of self-indulgent teenage angst. As Emmett Grogan points out, “the material affluence of America was permitting many of the young people to live off of society’s surplus” (319), and why should they not do so, why should that surplus be wasted, untouched? In fact, it seems precisely to be the advent of the American Teenager, a defined period of stasis between adolescence and adulthood, that led to a more focused questioning of social values. The countercultural generation may well have been “stranded between a permissive childhood and an obnoxiously conformist adulthood” (Roszack 35), but the delay in transition is precisely what gave them the opportunity to ponder upon it, and to analyse their social role, and then decide to “strike […] beyond ideology to the level of consciousness” and to “seek […] to transform [their] deepest sense of the self” (Roszack 49). After all, without the leisure afforded him to stare at his ceiling, Brautigan would not have had the opportunity to arrive at his conclusion that it existed beyond human intelligence and comprehension. It is the freedom to muse that first unlocks the potential to question.

If the material origins of the counterculture were situated in the affluence of Fifties America, the intellectual seeds can be more easily identified in the Beat, or Bohemian, movement that immediately preceded it. Roszack himself concedes this point, drawing writers such as Kerouac and Ginsberg into his debate. Indeed, he holds the poetry of the latter up as a method of communicating what he terms “the new consciousness”, the very root of the countercultural perspective (129). The point is that alternative models of thought already existed in the work of these authors, in the artistic and psychological spaces they inhabited. It is evidently these Beat ideals – intellectual liberty, the synchronicity of philosophy and experience – that informed the early attitudes of those that followed. Brautigan is no exception to this. It is ironically not his first novel, although it is his first published, but A Confederate General from Big Sur is immediately identifiable as a pseudo-Beat text. It begins with a rather typical premise: a pair of destitute friends grow tired of poking around San Francisco and decide to travel down to “the Grand Hotel of Big Sur” (75), called there by nothing more than the “strange compelling power that draws people” (53). Immediately, parallels can be drawn between these characters and the protagonists of novels such as Go or On the Road, who “operate […] on feelings, sudden reactions” (Holmes 35), who are not sure whether they are “going to get somewhere, or just going” (Kerouac 22). There is the same carefree manner, the same deliberate lack of focus as they drift towards vaguely anticipated experiences which will be all the more valued because they will not be forced into being. It is a vague “lust for freedom” (Holmes Nothing More to Declare 111) that can only be satisfied by random adventures that spring organically from “the raw immensity of the American night” (Holmes The Horn 38). Brautigan’s characters inhabit the same intellectual landscapes as those of Kerouac or Holmes. The invocation of Big Sur suggests that they inhabit the same physical landscape also. Certainly, these characters of all three authors are borne of the same concerns. They have names “made for [them] in another century” (Confederate 65); they look for cigarette butts and find “not a damn one, and the end of an American dream” (92). They are the “end product[s]” (81) of an accumulation of cultural existence, the children of American history. Lee and Jesse echo Kerouac’s narrator of Lonesome Traveller is as he leans back and “feel[s] the warp of wood of old America beneath [him]” (38). This sense of lineage is critical to both writers: it is essentially the method by which they define their characters and define themselves in relief against a vast cultural landscape. At the end of this cigarette butt American dream there is very much a scramble for alternate meanings, for a significance to lives that are rapidly running out of precisely this commodity. There is in all these characters a “longing to do or feel something meaningful” (Holmes Nothing More to Declare 122). The rampant consumerism of the Fifties, it seems, had become as apparently superficial as its slick façade, and it is therefore hardly surprising therefore that these writers would attempt to reach back beyond that era to a grittier, less polished reality. Brautigan, like Holmes, is all too aware that “the valueless abyss of modern life is unbearable” (Holmes 126) and casts about for something to offset this. What he finds is a vague historical notion of “American spirit, pride and the old know-how” (Brautigan Confederate 81). It is a frontier, folklore heritage that his characters seek in themselves, an adventurous and resilient tenacity that appeals more to their sense of worth and worthiness than aluminium kitchen appliances and suburban etiquette.

In many respects, it is difficult to conceptualise the Beats satisfactorily because the categorisation incorporates so diverse a group of writers that their interests are inevitably myriad in nature. However, it is possible to define a core of common interests against which perhaps a tenuous definition of the Beat ethic can be established. Perhaps the best illustration of this lies in what is often attributed to be the first Beat novel, Go by John Clellon Holmes, with its recurring imagery of “clutter[s] of ash trays, empty beer bottles, odd volumes of poetry” (16). There is a focus on “energy, a manic verbal energy pouring out of the mouth, a feverish energy of mind with which words cannot keep pace” (Holmes Nothing More to Declare 53). Enthusiasm, intellectualism, sensualism: “that inexhaustible flux of a consciousness in the act of exploding outward” (Holmes 53). There is a duality to the Beat experience, a synchronous participation in the immediate moment – the party, the drinking, the cigarettes – and in a much loftier, much more noble, poetic truth. Pleasure is both physical and intellectual at the same instant. One without the other is an incomplete experience: rapture can only be attained if the senses and the mind are stimulated in equal proportion. Which is why only the sensual rhythm, the melody and musical craft of jazz can send the character Hart in Go into a state of euphoria – “Y-e-s! Blow! Blow!…You know who you are” (139). “Jazz is primarily the music of inner freedom, of improvisation, of the creative individual” (Holmes Nothing More to Declare 124), it is the medium in which the senses and the intellect coalesce. As with literature, jazz has the ability, via music, to reference a vast array of cultural sources. “In Edgar’s furious, scornful bleat sounded the moronic horn of every merciless Cadillac shrieking down the highway with a wet-mouthed, giggling boy at the wheel, turning the American prairie into a graveyard of rusting chrome junk” (Holmes The Horn 19). Sound can trigger memory, can trigger thought and intellect. Ginsberg perhaps puts it more eloquently in his poem In the Baggage Room at Greyhound. Here, he focuses on a set of racks, “wooden shelves and stanchions” that are “God’s only way of building the rickety structure of Time” (46). Human consciousness is a duplicitous entity, but it only reflects the composition of corporeal reality itself. The physical world, the matter that exists all around us, is indivisible from the projections and conceptualisations of the human psyche. As Kerouac puts it in On the Road: “everything I had ever known and would ever know was one” (147). Self and time cannot exist in a vacuum, they exist alongside the dusty racks of a baggage room, exist only because of this baggage room, given definition by the physical reality that frames them.

For the Beats, then, the physical and the intellectual are one and the same. It is a conclusion that is also picked up by Brautigan, albeit in a more self-referential manner. The premise he delivers to the reader is the end result of a very physical and mechanical process. It builds and emanates from a string of words pressed flat in ink on a sequence of pages. In An Unfortunate Woman the narrative stops and starts to accommodate this fact, the narrator pausing to comment on how much of his notebook he has filled: “the first page has 119 words, the second 193″ (76). Brautigan was not only a writer but was also often involved in the physical side of printing, producing “Flash! bulletins” (Grogan 351) on a lithographic machine during the Digger sponsored Invisible Circus, and broadside poems for distribution around Haight Ashbury. For him it is almost as though the writing and the written were entirely non-distinguishable, they were merely different perspectives upon the same entity, the means and the ends rolled into one conceptual whole. The same applies to the imagination. Anything is possible in terms of human creativity, the author seems to assert, but it always begins and ends with a physiological act of perception. Brautigan often begins with a mundane list of statistics such as the number of words in a notebook, or the number of “punctuation marks in Ecclesiastes” (Confederate 62), and ends with a conclusion on the nature of truth.

I divided my cash output, $40.00, into my total viewing time on the set, 6 minutes, and came up with a per-minute cost of $6.66. If I had watched that set for an hour before it died, I could have bought a brand-new set with the money it would have cost (97).

Here, the narrator of An Unfortunate Woman attempts to rationalise the money he has spent on a defective TV set. The set breaks down after he has watched it for only six minutes so he divides the amount of money it cost him by the number of minutes it worked for to derive a unit costing. So far this is simple logic and a relatively meaningless calculation. Except that the narrator then makes a mental leap, inverting the statistic he has arrived at to identify that this unit cost, if prolonged from six minutes to sixty minutes, would exceed the price of a brand new TV set therefore rendering him naïve for buying a second-hand one. Of course, if the set had worked for sixty minutes it would not have cost the narrator any more than it did when it worked for six. But what Brautigan is doing here by effectively pushing the narrative outside the laws of mathematics and physics and logic, is illustrating precisely how the imaginative side of the human experience takes the factual as its stimulus and creates, sees, understands at a much more esoteric level. The author, he seems to suggest, cannot exist outside of his environment. He is a product of his time and place and can only create out of this context, using this context and defined by this context.

There is of course in Beat literature a great paradox against which authors such as Kerouac and Holmes consistently find themselves pitted. One of the primary concerns of the movement is in the immediacy of experience, the transcendental synchronicity of feeling and understanding and knowing, the “IT” of On the Road (206). The Beat narrative and the motivations of the archetypal Beat character are hewn from this very quest to saturate the soul with all the stimulus it can hold, and yet it is a quest that can never seemingly be fulfilled. It is a means with no ends, an attempt to “go and never stop going till we get there” (238), except ‘there’ does not exist. If the essence of human awareness is both sensual and intellectual at the same time, then there is no process of becoming in such a literal or linear sense of the term. It is not that the sensual exploits of these characters lead to a deep understanding of life, the understanding is the sensual experience which in turn is the understanding of that experience. Being on the road, being in motion between fixed points and between absolutes may be a perfect catalyst for the synchronicity of being, but it is an inadequate metaphor for how this mode of being feeds itself. After all it does feed itself, perpetually. A complete and whole experience of existence in these terms can never lead to anything other than sequential experiences of the same nature. Progress becomes a redundant concept, which is something that many of the characters in Beat fiction struggle with. Even Sal in On the Road at one point remonstrates that they have all eventually “got to go someplace, find something” (116). Perhaps somewhat more prophetically, Carlo sees these exploits as but the precursor to serious consequences later on: “the days of wrath are yet to come” (130). There is a sense that the Beats unearthed a genuine theoretical problem in their attempts to transcend the cultural values of Fifties America, and yet did not manage to resolve the issue satisfactorily. Holmes himself concedes that his generation was one “with a greater facility for entertaining ideas than for believing in them” (Nothing More to Declare 113) and perhaps this is precisely because belief requires a satisfactory resolution of meaning, it requires purpose, and this is something his generation failed to achieve.

It is as good an indication as any of Brautigan’s status as a post-Beat writer that he engages to some extent with this same paradox and manages to rationalise it much more successfully. He does this by inverting the process of awareness. He replaces the macrocosm of eternity that so preoccupies Kerouac and Ginserg – “the skies that have a beginningless past and go into the never-ending future”; “a great endless universe with nothing overhead and nothing under but the Infinite Nothingness, the Enormousness of it” (Kerouac 36) – with the microcosm of the moment, the sum of everything that ever was as distilled into a single instant of time. This is a significant shift because it removes from the individual the primary focus and the responsibility of having to consciously engage with the world beyond. It is no longer a prolonged effort of will and energy to see and to understand and to be. It is no longer the projection of the individual psyche outwards, but a transfusion of the endless signs and signifiers of the wider culture channelling into the soul, permeating themselves into the fabric of each passing second. The moment becomes a maelstrom of images and implications and meanings as and of itself. Brautigan effectively moves away from Burrough’s conviction in Naked Lunch that “The Word cannot be expressed direct” and can only be “indicated by mosaic of juxtaposition like articles abandoned in a hotel drawer, defined by negatives and absence” (98). The moment is The Word, all that it contains are the meanings of everything – there is nothing more to grasp beyond what is there. It is a “complicated little life ballet” (Tokyo 35), sufficient in itself. For Brautigan, the moment encapsulates the natural state of being within which human intellect operates and within which ideas and conclusions develop and evolve. His characters are not “engaged in taking away/From God his sound” as the poetic narrator of Weiners is (27); his characters are their own gods, engaged in the creation of their own worlds, their own moments of “ever time” (Tokyo 115).

Of course, this approach generates its own complications, specifically a chaos of imagery, a myriad of conflicting influences and signifiers that become apparent in any one instant. There is no way to screen them or prioritise them because they are all equal in their claims upon the overall sensory impression that they combine to create. Indeed, Brautigan often experiments with this postmodernist, white noise effect, “rummaging through the image reserves of the past” (Hutcheon 89) to present this notion of the individual as a composite of the totality of Western culture. It is specifically Western in his early work, with the narrator’s friend transforming into “Frank Lloyd Mellon” in A Confederate General from Big Sur (85); with assertions that “the Missouri River […] doesn’t look like Deanna Durbin” in Trout Fishing in America (122); with Norman Mailer showing up in the beleaguered town of Sombrero Fallout to report on the carnage created there by its rioting citizens. There is irreverence in his choice of metaphors and descriptions which is in stark contrast to the Beats. Rather than watching for angels dancing over the fire escapes of New York, his narrator of Dreaming of Babylon obsesses over the old man in a deli who would look “just like Rudolph Valentino if Rudolph Valentino had been an old Italian making sandwiches and complaining about people having too much mustard on their sandwiches” (25). The approach is different, but the ambition is the same. Just as Kerouac and Ginsberg and Weiners sought out glimpses of eternity, so too does Brautigan. “He looks at life in terms of analogies”, and whilst Bokinsky may see this primarily as evidence of the author “giving meaning to the meaningless” (97), it is just as surely an endeavour to find permanence and cohesion, a dialogue between the past and the present we find ourselves in. There is an inherent timelessness to the human condition which unleashing the chaos of signifiers we use to construct comprehension illustrates perfectly.

Irreverence, at a superficial level, is perhaps the key that links Brautigan’s work to that of his immediate generational predecessors. Weiners asserts that he is “pushed on by the incompletion/of what goes before [him]” (30), but generally the irreverence of the Beats takes the form of a healthy questioning of the existing canons of art and literature. There is evidence they regarded them to mean nothing in and of themselves, and were freely available to be deconstructed and rebuilt in whichever way they saw fit. This is not to suggest that the Beats or Brautigan lacked respect for those artists that preceded them, but rather that they sought to re-evaluate and to reassess. For example, in On the Road Kerouac constructs a lineage of great jazz musicians from Louis Armstrong, through Roy Eldridge, to Charlie Parker and the current musicians who are but the “children of the great bop innovators” (239). What is notable about this passage is the absolute respect and kudos afforded these musicians, a reverence usually reserved for discussion of the ‘higher’ art forms, such as literature, or painting, or classical composition. The inherent spontaneity of jazz had a real resonance with the Beat perspective. This is partially because it reflected back notions of spontaneity and freedom, and partially because it was as emotive and referential as literature. In Holmes’ The Horn it is “fragmented, arduous, spaced with poignant and terrible intervals” (69); it can spark allegory when “somebody blew the loud chirrup of a barnyard dawn on his tenor sax” (124); it allows the player to “scorn those who listened, to mock them, and then himself, and finally even what he played” (100)”. For the Beats it was essentially a multifaceted, complex and infinite form of expression, and “at the bottom somewhere there was song, the same song, the one song” (47). In a very real sense, jazz complimented the Beat lifestyle, immortalised by Diane Di Prima as a generation who “made art, smoked dope, dug the new jazz, and spoke a bastardization of the black argot” (175). Brautigan is less selective, perhaps less precious in his elevation of pop culture motifs, as evidenced in The Tokyo-Montana Express: “maybe you like Shakespeare. Somebody else may care for Laurel and Hardy” (35). The critical difference is that he evidently did not feel the need to apologise for his exercises in aesthetic equilibrium. Kerouac’s carefully constructed lineage in the evolution of jazz as an art form contains almost an apologetic undertone, certainly a defensive premise. Brautigan’s dichotomy is much bolder, unequivocal even; it seeks to completely dispense with notions of aesthetic or intellectual merit. Humour is the key criteria in this particular argument and once that has been identified, all other criteria are rendered redundant. Some people may find Shakespeare funny, others may like slapstick. The two are equally valid proponents of the same principle so there is no point dwelling upon secondary considerations or counter arguments. Between the two authors there is evidence of an evolution in ideology, a transgression away from a Beat ‘alternative’ to a more fully formed dismissive ideology – a certainty in the equality of all propositions.

This is the cultural space that Brautigan occupies: the transmutation of alternative perspectives into an all encompassing mode of heightened awareness and social change. The publicised stanchions of the Beat lifestyle, for instance, seem founded on an incessant switch between different lives dictated by whim. It is an existence imbued with impulse, and the freedom to sleep “eight hours (any eight) out of every twenty-four” (Holmes Go 4). There is a disregard for the staid materialistic values of Fifties America, but no real desire to overturn it. As Holmes says, for a Beat “there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society in which he lives, only to elude it” (Nothing More to Declare 113). Even Mailer concedes this point, asserting in his essay The White Negro that there is no point trying to “interview a hipster because his main goal is to keep out of a society which, he thinks, is trying to make everyone over in its own image” (337). The movement was insular in many ways, concerned primarily with its own definitions and a very real desire to experience an ‘authentic’ reality. This is what leads Kerouac to life as a railwayman, or a sailor, or a forest fire lookout – it’s a personal quest for meaning and satisfaction. The shift in Brautigan’s counterculture lies in the realisation that acting authentically does not guarantee authenticity, that there is in fact no such thing as authenticity: the whole concept is little more than a psychological construct. Lee Mellon does not have to have fought in the Civil War to become a Confederate General, he becomes one by simply willing it. Hearron identifies this as a recurrent theme of Brautigan’s work and describes it as a conviction that “the manner in which one thinks of and describes reality can alter reality itself” (26). In order for Kerouac to define himself as a railway brakeman, he has to become, at least temporarily, a railway brakeman. Lee Mellon can simply use his imagination, can imbibe notions of the civil war via some cultural osmosis, and simply proclaim himself a historical figure. It is a theoretical twist, one that dispenses with primary sources and moves swiftly instead to signs and signifiers. “The imagined likeness becomes a literal rather than metaphorical identity” (Hearron 25).

Of course, this evolution of thought would not have occurred had not the foundations been previously set. Intellectually speaking, the Beats undoubtedly paved the way for the ideological revolution that followed:

Educate the men to be themselves, their actions will follow more justly than/Law imposed on them from outside (170).

This conviction of Ginsberg’s, set out in his journal, is one which quite evidently foreshadows the radicalism of the emergent counterculture and its growing challenge to the very foundations of the dominant society: its laws and institutions; its morality and imagination. The intellectual encouragement for the individual to take an existential control of his existence, to take matters into his own hands, was a call answered by any number of countercultural groups. Perhaps most pertinent to Brautigan were the Diggers with whom he was loosely associated for a considerable period of time and who waged an outright war upon capitalism through their free-food and free-store initiatives. Coupled with impromptu, almost Dadaist, theatre performances in public places that involved unsuspecting audiences as participants, they attempted to broaden people’s perspectives on the roles they had unwittingly assumed in the dominant social hierarchy. A sign in their free-store, for instance, read “If Someone Asks to See the Manager/Tell Him He’s the Manager” (Grogan 374).[1] All decisions would often be turned over to a random individual who had entered this physical space and they would then, in theory, be coerced into contemplating what it was that dictated their suppositions on the roles of customer and manager, and on their role in any socially constructed relationship. The call to arms of the Diggers is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s, albeit rather more confrontational in tone:

…this country is our country, and if we don’t like it, then we should try to change it, and if we can’t change it, then we should destroy it (Coyote 59).

On one level, society is essentially little more than the collective expression of the values of those individuals it comprises. Every single one of those individuals has the same responsibility towards how this expression is defined and employed. The responsibility is therefore a shared one, and it follows that the authority on how this end result is achieved belongs to everyone. Nobody has any greater authority than those around them, therefore all subjective claims on the form society should take are valid. Brautigan may well have been only marginally associated with the Diggers, spending much more time “wander[ing] the Haight gravely peering at everything through round, frameless glasses” than appearing regularly on the front lines (Coyote 78), but his perspective on authority is no less vehement for all that. Nobody has any real authority, according to Brautigan, or at least, nobody has any more authority than anybody else. His narrators certainly do not: Jesse in A Confederate General from Big Sur guesses that a neighbour of his is an actress, but concedes that “one might as well believe that as anything else because there [is] no way of knowing” (25). The author does not fare any better: “just because I had eaten breakfast one morning at the Greyhound bus depot in Monterey did not necessarily mean that everybody in the world ate there” (55). More importantly, it seems that the author is not even able to control his own narratives: they can spiral quickly out of control, they can accelerate towards “186,000 Endings per Second” (142), or they can continue to write themselves even after the author has thrown them into the wastebasket (as occurs in Sombrero Fallout). What Brautigan demonstrates in these passages is the division of responsibility that exists between the author and the reader when a concept is communicated textually. Just as the conclusions that can be drawn from the ending of A Confederate General from Big Sur are endless, and just as the narrative of Sombrero Fallout constructs its own meaning, so too is any text subject to the suppositions of those at both ends of the communicative process. Neither party in the transaction can necessarily claim greater authority on the meaning of the exchange than the other, because the meaning is not something laid down to be picked up. The meaning is inherent within the interaction itself, borne of the interpretation as well as the intent. In the words of Roland Barthes, the “text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning” but rather “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (146).

In some ways it is perhaps misleading to assert that Brautigan picks up the refrain of the Diggers. Of all the publicised countercultural groups this is indeed the one that he had some association with. His reactionary attitude to drugs automatically excluded from many of the others. Whilst he may have agreed with Hoffman’s claim that “fantasy is the only truth” (66), the axiom of the Yippies that “once one has experienced LSD […] action is the only reality” (9) is something he couldn’t have reconciled himself to. To some extent it hardly matters because the different groups had problems with each other anyway, ideological differences that could not be reconciled. As Wolfe documents in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Kesey’s “Pranksters thought of themselves and Leary’s group as two extraordinary arcane societies, and the only ones in the world, engaged in the most fantastic experiment in human consciousness ever devised” (97). Until, of course, the two groups met and Kesey’s band of psychedelic clowns objected to Leary’s snobbishness – “this was Millbrook[2], one big piece of uptight constipation, after all this” (99). Indeed, they often ridiculed themselves, with Hoffman claiming “it is important to distinguish between hippies and Diggers. Both are myths: that is, there is no definition, there is no organized conspiracy; both are in one sense a huge put-on” (26). Brautigan’s association with this mongrel horde is therefore impossible to rationalise, however he does reflect back some of the same attitudes evident across them all. Like the Diggers and their challenges to free-store customers, and like Hoffman and his challenge upon himself, Brautigan strives in his work to derail the reader’s perception of himself as a reader, as a consumer of words and knowledge. An example of this can be found in the eponymous poem that begins “the net wt of winter is 6.75 ozs” (12). Here, because the taste of toothpaste reminds the poet of winter, it follows that the tube of toothpaste is a physical manifestation of the concept of winter, and the weight of that toothpaste is therefore the weight of the concept. Of course, this assertion is arbitrary and the line of reasoning is deliberately laboured, is absurdist in nature. Brautigan does not seem to want the reader to take his theory seriously – toothpaste is quite obviously not the same as winter, and nor is 6.75 ozs the weight of four months of the year. But what he is doing is to challenge the cultural expectations of the reader, expectations that have germinated within a dominant aesthetic framework which suggests that winter is a season and toothpaste is a cleaning product and the two concepts do not and cannot exist as signifiers of each other. Because the poet as an individual cognitive entity has made a connection here, and because the poet has equal share in what can and cannot be so, this makes it a valid connection. Nobody is really in a position to contradict its aesthetic merit. Or in another poem, ‘Nine Crows: Two out of Sequence':

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 6, 8, 9 (117)

It is ridiculous to assign crows a logical sequence, and equally absurd to determine how two of them could be out of order. But then this is precisely what Brautigan is implying: definitions of basic logic, definitions of anything, are all to some extent arbitrary. These definitions have been initiated and refined by a process of cultural acceptance that has perpetuated itself over such an extended period of time that even the notion that they may be wrong, or inadequate, or inapplicable lies back in the mists of cultural evolution.

It is perhaps also of significance that both these passages appear to reference, perhaps indirectly but nonetheless rather clearly, works of other established American literary figures. The extrapolation of the weight of winter brings to mind Emily Dickenson’s poem which asserts “the Brain is just the weight of God” (312). Brautigan is a documented Dickenson fan and indeed the postmodern assertion in the power of imagination that emerges from his conceit is entirely in keeping with Dickenson’s equation of the intellect to God. In the other instance, his nine crows recall the thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird as espoused by Wallace Stevens in his poem of the same name. The affinity between Brautigan’s point and that of Stevens is perhaps less clear, although the conclusion of the latter that “a man and a woman and a blackbird/Are one” (93) does seem in keeping with the former’s view of perceptual cohesion. The passing reference to these two authors perhaps reinforces the earlier point that Brautigan’s countercultural agenda is one which recognises its place within a historical context, and one which feels free to tinker with the existing canon in a somewhat irreverential manner. In any case, both of these logical conceits are examples not of some sophisticated social theory on Brautigan’s behalf but rather an agenda in his work to pique the intellectual capabilities of his readership. A single instance of the implausible, if delivered intriguingly, is enough to trigger a contemplation of the very concept of implausibility itself and what that actually means. How do concepts become implausible, what are the criteria utilised in this process? Brautigan’s technique here is reminiscent of Derrida’s aesthetic “event” (351), “the moment when […] everything became discourse” and it became apparent that “the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences” (354). In essence, all products of narrative and cognitive process are relative. It is apparent in the two instances quoted that the foundations upon which the principles of logic, plausibility and realism are constructed are little more than a set of assumptions, an unquestioning acceptance of arbitrary principles. Marc Chènetier terms it Brautigan’s “persistent speculation on the very nature of the real” (21). Just like the Diggers, or indeed the Yippies or the Pranksters, the author is attempting to lead his readers to the edges of their socially defined perspectives and allowing them to look out beyond the perimeter of their assumptions at something potentially liberating.

It is precisely this alignment of Brautigan’s critical technique with the haphazardly consistent intellectual agenda of the counterculture during the Sixties which identifies him as something more than a mere Beat imitation. However, it is far from easy to classify him as a prototypical ‘hippie’ writer, if such a thing exists, as his commentaries do come from the fringes of the counterculture rather than from one of its political centres. As a consequence his representations of the society around him retain an objective ambivalence. Indeed, within the entire body of his work, Brautigan tackles the crux of the Sixties scene, the commune, only once, and even in this text his ideological stance is far from clear. The community represented in his novel In Watermelon Sugar is so overtly counter-cultural, so inherently alternative, that it generates a sense of expectation that its author will utilise it to express some fundamental opinion about the social concept it represents. But this does not happen because Brautigan’s primary interest remains not in the promotion of the hippie way of life, but rather in a dissection of the human experience within a contemporary setting. Schmitz describes the novel as a critical examination of “the myths and language of the pastoral sensibility that reappeared in the sixties” (125) rather than as a piece of social commentary, and this indeed seems to be the case. In the work Brautigan utilises what appears at first glance to be an extended allegory to convey his message, but because of the anti-authoritarian stance inherent in his narrative technique this becomes a very odd allegory, a vague and almost inscrutable one. It is perhaps the best example of what Bokinsky identifies as Brautigan’s tendency to “verge on the incomprehensible” (99). Allegory by its very definition requires a particular focus of subject and stringent control of signifiers to convey its ultimate meaning, and Brautigan’s technique seems essentially incapable of this. After all, if the narrator and the author have no authority, if meaning is something that congeals in the intellectual space between writer and reader, then a highly charged sequence of resonant metaphors is surely doomed by an impending chaos of freeform interpretation. Such a breakdown is precisely what happens in this instance, the novel’s ‘message’ ultimately collapsing under the weight of so many fractured pop culture references and an ambiguity that is inherent in the author’s autonomy of representation:

In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar (33).

The organic material from which everything in the commune is forged is not elaborated upon in the text, it just is. It provides no real clues as to the origins or the aspirations of the society beyond a vague connotational nod to self-sufficiency and agrarianism. Perhaps the sweetness of the sugar indicates an idyllic environment, or perhaps one which is overly sweet, sickeningly so. It is impossible to conclude. Much more significant is the name of the community, and the relation to it of the narrator. He does not live directly within the town of “iDEATH” (1), he is not absorbed into the collective social identity in the same manner as his neighbours. Yet the significance of this social distance remains unclear. On the one hand he does retain some vestige of individuality, but it is an individuality without a satisfactory identity. “Somebody asked you a question and you did not know the answer” – “that is my name” (4). Identity within a social context was a significant intellectual concern of the counterculture at the point in time in which the work was published. The Diggers, for example, named themselves in accordance with very specific aspects of their lives: Peter Coyote attached to himself the name of his spirit guide as glimpsed in a vision; Emmett Grogan forged his name from a sense of his origins, “double sixes, boxcars and a good, solid, Irish name” (Grogan 291), before then giving his identity away to make himself anonymous.[3] Perhaps Abbie Hoffman’s designation of labels is closest to the narrator of In Watermelon Sugar. On the one hand he is happy to endow his followers with the term Yippie, but then states “There never were any Yippies and there never will be. It was a slogan YIPPIE!” (121). There is a distinct agenda at work here in the self-appointment of identity, a concerted effort of the individual to sift through what Hermann Hesse calls the “pieces of the distintegrated self” (192) to create a model, a cohesive entity of the self. Or to conclude that there is no cohesive identity, it is all a notional exercise in futility. The agenda remains the same: to liberate oneself from designations that have been previously assigned and to emerge through a sense of self-awareness into a new self-styled existence. Brautigan’s narrator of In Watermelon Sugar, however, quite conspicuously fails to follow suit. He is incapable of forging himself an identity and his natural state of being is one of emptiness, vacuum, and powerlessness. He relies upon others to define him. “My name depends on you” (4); it is the reader who bestows him with a self, the reader alone who can create for him a personality and a soul. It is only via interaction with a wider social sphere, Brautigan appears to contest, that identity can begin to form, in action and reaction to the stimulus of others. An individual can only truly see himself through other people’s eyes. On the one hand this would seem to deconstruct Grogan’s and Coyote’s exercises in self-aggrandizement, or to add a credence that belies the dismissive naming practices of Hoffman, but on the other it promotes a significance to the communal model that is entirely in keeping with the social perspectives of them all.

Brautigan goes no further, however, in any kind of celebration of community as a unilaterally positive influence. Within the commune itself, there is a veneer of balance and order, built as it is upon the premise that “everybody should have something to do” (13), everybody should contribute, everybody should form a part of the multifaceted whole that is the social entity. But underneath this sense of shared responsibility are indications of something much more ominous and sinister. The community is founded on the principle of the lowest common denominator and its inhabitants pride themselves almost on the knowledge they have lost, on their tangible intellectual regression. “We call everything a river here” (2) confides the narrator, evidently because distinctions between what is a river and what is not have become unimportant. Such a lack of precision may seem rather idyllic, except that it is then revealed that nobody has “the slightest idea why they built the aquaduct” (84) in the town, and it then becomes apparent that this flippancy is not borne of mere idealism but rather a wilful disregard of their own history and heritage. The people of iDEATH do not know who they are. The narrator is in fact not the exception in his lack of identity: he is an embodiment of the rule that governs this place. The only tangible sense of self is offered in the characterisations of inBOIL and his gang. inBOIL himself is initially presented as a reactionary figure, a sort of old backwoodsman or moonshiner who “make[s] whisky from things” (61) and slowly gathers an army of likeminded individuals to him in what can be best categorised as a threatening right-wing faction within the settlement. What they begin to do, however, once they have gathered on the edges of the town is to undertake a largely intellectual exercise, delving into the vast resource of a local rubbish dump, a historical archive of “forgotten works” (69), and they utilise these artefacts to reconstruct a notion of their own origins. This effort is in sharp contrast to the perception of history held by the rest of iDEATH – “things that happened just a few short months ago” (60) – and as he proceeds to challenge the inadequate social definition bestowed upon him by his peers, he grows in stature and power. When contrasted with the inquisitiveness of inBOIL, the rest of iDEATH come to resemble the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, their placidity and indifference as cloying as the watermelon sugar itself. They have no inclination towards anything but the hedonistic pleasures of the immediate present, they exist in a state of abject apathy. But if these are the Eloi, it does not automatically follow that inBOIL and his disciples are the Morlocks. What they learn from the forgotten works is never made explicit in the text, but they certainly use this knowledge to challenge the dominant ideology of iDEATH. “This place stinks” they claim, “this isn’t iDEATH at all” (64), “what a mockery you’ve made of it” (89), “bring back iDEATH” (93). The reactionary faction of the commune transform themselves into a group who are not reactionary at all, but are in fact more radical than the social majority. They are not proposing a return to any pre-existent culture, but rather a reassertion of the founding principles of this cultural alternative as it was once defined. They have ceased to be reactionary, they have ceased to be counter-revolutionary, they are now the new revolution and as such challenge the latest dominant majority. It is precisely this transformation in inBOIL and the purpose of his followers that seems to hold the key to Brautigan’s stance on the ideal of communism and on the counterculture itself. Revolution consists of little more than a challenge to the mainstream social mode of being. If a previous revolution created the new mainstream mode, then subsequent challenges become the new countercultures. If social evolution is seen in this light, there is in essence no difference between radical and reactionary politics. The two are infinitely interchangeable, the distinctions between them arbitrary at best. According to inBOIL, “iDEATH [is] all wrong” (76), and it does not matter why he thinks it is all wrong, his is just another opinion in the ongoing struggle to rationalise social structures into tenable solutions for harmony and individual freedom.

Ultimately, the narrator of In Watermelon Sugar sides with the residents of iDEATH and looks on as the counter-revolutionary band of dissenters proceed to hack themselves to pieces. But he does so out of disaffection rather than any real conscious conviction, and it is much less clear where Brautigan’s loyalties lie. On the one hand, inBOIL and his followers “cut off [their] noses” (94), perhaps symbolically to spite their own faces. They have a role in a relatively free society and they throw it away. But then, in a truly free society they should be able to cut off their own noses, “cut off their thumbs” (94) if that is what they choose to do. It is telling that they have to withdraw themselves from the community at iDEATH in order to pursue their forages into the forgotten works and to stop washing and to drink whisky. They cannot follow these impulses in the confines of the ‘free’ society, which seems the crux of Brautigan’s point: not that one mode of society is preferable to another but that it is not a matter of preference, it is not a question of the correct or incorrect manner in which to live communally. Like Peter Coyote’s counterculture which was “neither more nor less ethical, diverse, or contradictory than the majority culture” (xiv), the issue of cultural modes for Brautigan is beyond absolutes such as right and wrong and is a much more complex issue about consensus and liberty. The point here is that freedom can only exist if there are choices to be made on an individual level about how those individuals wish to live. Any society, be it a capitalist model or one of the countercultural models, retains and develops a set of “inarticulate assumptions and motivations that weave together the collective fabric of [that] society” (Roszak 148). In other words, all social models demand a subversion of individual desires to a collective consciousness, a communal ideal. True individual freedom cannot exist in any of these superficially different versions of social order, and Brautigan, it seems, recognises this and acknowledges it in the text of In Watermelon Sugar.

In this he shares one other perspective with Grogan and the Diggers, with Kesey and Hoffman and even Leary. All these groups realised that it was “the foundations of the edifice” (Roszak 55) of society that they were seeking, not the trappings of a culture that could simply be addressed in the same terms of conduct laid down by that culture. They too recognised that politics, a sense of moral right and wrong, was an insufficient medium, a redundant concept borne of the existing social order. Yet they maintained that it was possible to develop a cultural unity out of their “ideological mongrelism” (Coyote 17) and “create free life amid the desert of industrial capitalism” (Coyote 106). Brautigan does not seem quite so sure, precisely because he recognises these recurring patterns in his countercultural society and because he cannot conceive of a new social age in the same way. His work does not signify the potential of starting again socially, with a clean break from the past and all that it signifies. His work is too intrinsically tied to the past. “My grandmother […] shines like a beacon down the stormy American past”, asserts the narrator of ‘Revenge of the Lawn’ (1). The end of a relationship, he writes elsewhere in the same collection of stories, is “an old song that’s been played on all the juke boxes in America” (18). For Brautigan, there is no new start, no clean break from history. Human nature persists, history persists, every passing moment influences the next and the next and the next. Everything that has ever happened is happening now and will be happening forever. This is why the past encroaches upon the community of iDEATH, this is why a century’s worth of popular culture references force themselves into each of the author’s metaphors. American culture, majority or countercultural, is a culture which feeds upon itself. Everything is connected, the whole is an inter-relation of the parts and there is no getting away from the parts without fundamentally misunderstanding the whole. An elegy on the practice of trout fishing in the work of the same name identifies a “clear snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat” for “trout steel” precisely because these trout in a stream in Oregon are part of the same America that produces steel up in Pittsburgh and cars in Detroit and hippies in San Francisco (3). The rural–industrial–historical–sociological–revolutionary–reactionary–political-

experimental beast that is Brautigan’s cultural reality is precisely this cross-threaded and complex and there is no escaping the blunt truth that it is what it is because of how it is. A commune is not going to change this cultural complexity, nor is a wilful ignorance. Brautigan, it seems, identified the fatal flaw in the counterculture’s premise long before its chief proponents did, which makes him arguably the most accurate of the chroniclers of this social period. The Digger archivist asserts on the movement’s website that Brautigan “was both a Digger and not at the same time” (1), which is perhaps a polite way of saying that he was not a Digger at all. As we have already established he was not a Yippie, or a Prankster, or a disciple of Leary. He remained perpetually aware that the counterculture was comprised of much more than the ideologies of any one group and he ultimately transcended their differing objectives to become a historian of the broader counterculture as it evolved beyond the social agenda of the Sixties, and on into the disillusionment of the Seventies, as typified by his novel Willard and his Bowling Trophies:

[…] it is very important for Willard and his bowling trophies to be a part of everything that has ever happened in this land of America (110).

The eponymous papier-mâché bird and these gaudy trophies are emblematic of Brautigan’s world. They are icons of the clash between a waning counterculture and the reassertion of suburban values – symbols of social evolution and thus, by implication, symbols of everything that has occurred for society to reach this precise point. Willard is “Abraham Lincoln” and the trophies “his generals during the Civil War” (109). This ongoing cultural friction is the new Civil War, and as absurd as the triggers for this allegory appear to be, the synchronous elevation and devaluation of metaphors gives these disposable artefacts a significance they lack in and of themselves. As with In Watermelon Sugar, the allegory is not dogmatically pursued, but as the narrative unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that Willard acts as a pivot between two distinct social modes of being: the artistic spontaneity and aesthetic values of the counterculture and the materialistic, competitive and status-centric ideals of the majority culture. He is an aesthetic object, a model that has been created for no other purpose than his creation. The bowling trophies are symbols of some twisted sense of achievement; they are the prized possessions of three brothers who have spent several “lost years looking for the[m]“, changing in the process from “wholesome, all-American boys” (27) into cruel, obsessive thugs.

The implications are obvious: the materialism of conventional Western society is eating away at these characters, is destroying their innocence, their morality, and their humanity. Of course, Brautigan does not make the dichotomy as simplistic as this – his representation of Bob and Constance is a much more complex dissection of their values than a straight juxtaposition with the unsavoury Logan brothers. Their lives are far from idyllic: they too have been through an arc of character development brought on by obsession. In their case it is not materialism but rather sexual experimentation, their “Story of O game” (35). In an attempt to explore the limits of experience together, they have become involved in sadomasochistic practices. By the time the narrative commences, however, this has ceased to be a new experience for them and has instead become a rather staid ritual, one they perform without any real fervour – “he put the belt down beside her on the bed. That part was over” (36). There is a law of diminishing returns at work in their behaviour and an over-exposure to sexual innovation has rendered that innovation meaningless. They are, in fact, in precisely the same position as the Logans: unsatisfied by the ideals that inform their being. Both sides of the cultural coin are, Brautigan suggests, essentially the same. Materialism has led the brothers to violence because of the fragility of the concept of possession; sexual liberty has led Bob and Constance to an impasse where novelty has become pedestrian and there seems nowhere else to progress to.

Brautigan deconstructs in this text the most fundamental value of the counterculture itself – that of personal freedom, of emancipation from restrictive social values. The sexual liberation of Bob and, in particular, Constance has a very real consequence and at the crux of the matter is whether or not the ends justify the means. Not only does sadomasochism lose its appeal for the couple, it actually becomes indicative of their life together, a loss of focus and a growing disillusionment. Constance’s infidelity leads to a contraction of genital warts which cannot be remedied. Their obstinacy and constant appearance in the narrative comes to symbolise the permanence and the severity of repercussion that self-exploration can have on the future of an individual. The amount of concern and thought applied to them by the two characters becomes indicative of, and a contributing factor to, the loss of Bob’s intellect. His fetishism is in reality merely an allegory of his psychological atrophy. At precisely the same rate as he loses the ability to concentrate on simple tasks such as bringing his girlfriend a glass of water, his obsession with a collection of “ancient poetry” accelerates (67). His observations of the physical world lose momentum and become rather conservative, stuffy, repetitive. It becomes increasingly apparent in the text that his plight symbolises a wider shift in countercultural attitudes as the optimism of the Sixties gives way to a subsequently more disillusioned decade. At some point Bob was a bright, educated and entertaining young man, living with his partner, moving towards a state of sexual and psychological experimentation. Now he is a dejected individual “thinking about people who lived in another time and were dead now and he grieve[s] for them and himself and the entire human condition: the past and future of it all” (28).

Why do we strive to destroy our own innocence? Where does that come from? Is innocence the price we pay for pleasure? (Nersesian 85)

The loss of innocence is a deeply imbedded concept in the American psyche. The assassination of Kennedy, the Vietnam war, the terrorist attacks of September 11th – all have been associated in the popular press with this same glib notion. Innocence itself is a concept, however, fundamentally at odds with the countercultural point of view because it presupposes that knowledge is corruption and ignorance is somehow symptomatic of an idyllic purity. As previously indicated, the “mockery” (89) the majority has made of their commune iDEATH in the novel In Watermelon Sugar, a place where no-one has “the slightest idea why they built [an] aquaduct” (84), stands as testament that this is not the case. Nevertheless, it is a conceptual truth that the deeper one proceeds into the understanding of something, the less cohesive that thing becomes as a principle. Knowledge corrodes and breaks down the comfortable simplicity of ignorance. It is a standard theory of physics which states that “disorder, or entropy, always increases with time” (Hawking 161). So too is the precept that time runs forwards, from the past to the future, because this is the only manner in which rational beings can exist, the only manner in which the past can be remembered and knowledge can accumulate. The truth that Brautigan has unearthed in Willard and his Bowling Trophies is that this premise applies beyond abstract physics, that the accumulation of knowledge on a social plane is beset with precisely this same descent into disorder. The greater the knowledge on any supposition, the less absolute that supposition becomes; the wider the experience, the less singular or comprehensible it is. “The second law of thermodynamics” (Hawking 161) is at work not only in the physical laws of the universe, but in the psychological and sociological processes of the twentieth century as well. Bob’s mind atrophies because it is subjected to a wealth of experiences that overwhelm his otherwise focused take on the world. Likewise, the socio-political thrust of the counterculture loses momentum as it diversifies and flounders amongst the vast array of sensations on offer. Willard and his Bowling Trophies is the key to Brautigan’s significance as the complete countercultural writer because it demonstrates his willingness to engage with the theoretical issues of the movement as well as challenging them. The exploits of the Beats and the hippies, the experiments of “feelings, sudden reactions”, social alternatives, LSD, “expanding these far out of perspective to see in them profundities” (Holmes 35), is but one side of the equation. On the other side can be found the consequences these experiments have on human consciousness and social harmony and the same age-old problems of identity and meaning that they often lead back to. Brautigan is not afraid to tackle these conceits in his work, nor to seek a literary method suitable for this myriad of causes and effects and intricate theoretical tangents. It is his persistence in this quest and this commitment to finding a technique that adequately chronicles the period that makes Brautigan a truly representative author and one who transcends a designation as flippant as “the John Lennon of the hippie novel” (Bradbury 217).


[1] The Free-Store was an initiative where goods were exchanged without the intervention of money. If somebody needed something that was available in the store they took it. If they had something they no longer needed they brought it to the store for somebody else to take. The concept was to liberate those living in Haight-Ashbury from the constraints of a capitalist system. However, the stock levels were generously supported by ‘liberating’ (or stealing) goods from different sources and simply making them available to anyone who needed them, thereby ensuring the initiative was in fact dependent upon the capitalist society it opposed (Grogan 374).

[2] Millbrook was Timothy Leary’s ‘commune’ and laboratory for his more scientific LSD experiments.

[3] In Grogan’s case there is a duality of effect if not of purpose, because he succeeded in making himself both anonymous and synonymous by empowering others to take his identity. He effectively made it impossible for anyone to believe he was who others said he was, but also ensured his own status as legend (Grogan 409).

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