Richard Brautigan – Intro

Richard Brautigan has been variously branded a “gentle poet of the young” (Stickney 49), a “created cultural hero” with “narrow […] talents” (Hicks 152), and “all the novelist the hippies needed” in their “non-literate age” (Wright 36). There is a general consensus in these definitions of the author that he is in essence nothing more than a minor curiosity, a footnote to a transitional period of literary and cultural history. In fact, Brautigan is the first readily identifiable post-Beat writer to emerge from the American literary scene, one evidently influenced by the alternative lifestyles and perspectives of the Beat movement and yet differing significantly in technique. He replaces, for instance, spiritual hyperbole with an understated bemusement, substituting Ginsberg’s romantic “angelheaded hipsters” (Howl 9) with more visceral characters. Brautigan’s protagonists are stripped of their iconography, are “smoky and sweating and blackened” by the dirty reality of existence (Confederate 117). Yet he still explores what it is to be American, he still rejects in his narratives the mainstream American culture of the time. His novels, poems and short stories remain the “expressions of a generation disillusioned with the American myth” (Britten 188). Both the similarities and the differences serve to illustrate how Brautigan provides a tangible link between the aesthetic concerns of the Beats and those of the ensuing counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies. The intellectual diversity and frenetic evolution of social perspectives in the period is perfectly encapsulated by his work. If it can be argued that the Sixties revolutionised the cultural modes of Western civilisation, and has proved influential on every subsequent cultural development, then it surely follows that Brautigan is one of the most significant authors not only of his own generation but also of those that have followed. The “pitting of freedom and fluidity against form and structure” (115) that Jonathon Green identifies at the heart of the social revolution is precisely mirrored in Brautigan’s writing. The sociological content of his material qualifies him as a chronicler of his age, but even more pertinently his aesthetic method distinguishes him as a purveyor of a postmodern world, one where the manner in which we signify becomes of greater importance than the signification itself.

To “become aware of the means by which we make sense of and construct order out of experience” (51) is what Linda Hutcheon identifies as the paramount ambition of the postmodernist consciousness. This same ambition lies at the very core of Brautigan’s ongoing project. Ultimately, like Modernists such as Joyce, Woolf, or Lawrence, he is an artist intent upon exploding the myths of linear thought and sequential awareness. Unlike these authors, however, he does not seek “the criterion of all truth and all good”, he does not demonstrate a belief in the tenet that “truth does not lie beyond humanity, but is one of the products of the human mind and feeling” (Lawrence, 389). For Brautigan, truth is a redundant concept. Reality is not in his work a logically ordered series of events, or even a fractured composite from which can be pieced some intellectual cohesion. Reality, for him, is rather an emotive engagement with a myriad of stimuli. To these stimuli are applied previous impressions and culturally imbued frames of reference to create a single moment of consciousness. There is no ‘truth’ for Brautigan, there is no ‘sense’ in the intellectual meaning of the term, there is simply the moment. This moment is, in fact, all that matters because it alone, in conjunction with a haphazard continuum of such moments, represents all that our lives really consist of. In this respect he is at odds with both the Modernists and the Beats, a group he remains loosely categorised with, because he substitutes the preoccupations of “America and Eternity” (Ginsberg, Howl 12) with the notion of a lateral, microcosmic instant. This thesis aims to illustrate the ways in which Brautigan engages with this basic notion of immediate perception and the existing artistic mechanisms he draws upon to support his supposition that consciousness is a phenomenon rooted predominantly within the present.

To support the analysis of the author’s agenda, a number of different critical approaches have been applied herein, each of them selected because of their evident affinity to an influence upon Brautigan’s work. For instance, his analysis of the counterculture in terms of its existence within a framework of historical precedent has been addressed here with reference to the revisionist theory of historicism. Brautigan’s appropriation of historical signifiers and his rewriting of history from a purely contemporary perspective lends itself to this theoretical framework because it essentially shares the same tenets. History is a narrative and like all narratives it is forged via a reductive process whereby disorder is formalised and significance applied according to the perspective of the narrative voice. As Paul Hamilton asserts, “historical meaning can change with the reception of its audience” (12). It can also be altered, will indeed almost certainly be altered, by “the mechanics of articulation” (21). History is ultimately a concept that can only be engaged with retrospectively and as such is subject to the influence of hindsight and reinterpretation. Therefore historicism supports the view that the author engages with his world as a single point of consciousness engaged in the acts of definition, redefinition and conjecture.

Likewise, a distinctly postmodernist critique has been applied to the use of tenor and vehicle[1] in the author’s metaphorical method, and in his deconstruction of time. The cross-fertilisation of signifiers from divergent cultural sources, the equilibrium he promotes between classical and contemporary stimuli, the irony and intertextuality he utilises to derail conventional logic: these techniques are all entirely in keeping with the postmodern critical hypothesis. Furthermore, in light of the evidence that Brautigan adopted postmodernist techniques organically, without reference to critical texts, some study is made of the influence his contemporary social reality had upon this. Reference has been made to critics such as Frederic Jameson to help contextualise the ways in which the author’s postmodern method reflects the visceral manifestations of social change occurring around him in the counterculture.

Genre plays a significant role in the author’s work, as both an extension to the postmodern aesthetic and as a crucial illustration of the arbitrariness of convention and perceptual constraint. The mixed genre novels that the author produced provide evidence of an evolution to his intertextual practices and a growing sophistication in the transmission of his intellectual position. By drawing attention to the methods of codification in a common cultural medium he is able to engage his readership in both an immediately conceivable and intellectually subversive manner. Elsewhere in this study, his affinity with the Dadaists and Surrealists is explored, and is done so in explicitly Surrealist terms, his texts cross-referenced closely with the theoretical points of Breton and Dali concerning the nuances of awareness. This surreal dimension to his work emerges, it seems, from the disjuncture inherent within his genre experiments. For Brautigan, the potential of the imagination is limitless, and it follows that consciousness is without boundaries. Perception, he seems to indicate, is being stunted by the demands of conformity – evidenced both culturally and within the methods of codification inherent in narrative and awareness – and we are but fractions of the sentient creatures we could and perhaps should be. Logic is the keystone to this intellectual fortress we have become barricaded within. To destroy logic is to bring the boundaries crashing down and to free the self inexorably. Postmodernism is illogical, Surrealism is illogical, and to this assault Brautigan also adds Zen Buddhism. Indeed, he finds commonality between the different approaches, a unity in their defiance of received truths, of ‘common knowledge’ and second-hand perceptual certainties. He produces, for instance, numerous examples of postmodern Haiku, a fusion which illustrates the similarities of the two forms. The only real difference between the two, he appears to contest, is that Haiku serves to sweep the consciousness outwards from a single point of reference, a stark skeletal image that piques perceptual possibility, whereas postmodernism seeks to swamp the consciousness with a mêlée of disjunctive images that force it to rationalise and signify, to focus inwards. The techniques are, in other words, polar in method but identical in their objective.

Ultimately, all of these approaches – postmodernism, genre, surrealism and Zen – become unifying segments of a Jungian analysis of the author’s agenda. The imaginative sphere of Brautigan’s canon is intrinsically concerned with notions of the conscious and unconscious at work with common cultural archetypes. These archetypes serve to engage the individual with their immediate environment, to contextualise the concurrent moment of awareness. Perception remains a complex phenomenon, informed by prior knowledge and pre-existing modes of codification, but an awareness of this foundation, in Brautigan’s view, will surely provide glimpses of a broader fundamental truth concerning our collective potential. The author’s definition of a writer, for example, in Sombrero Fallout is summed up by the image of “a vacuum cleaner […] that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it” (26). The inanity of the object is contrasted to the figure of Einstein, the cultural archetype of intelligence, to instil a sense of underlying complexity. That the image works in an absurd manner is secondary to the absolute clarity of the social archetypes used. This is the crux of Brautigan’s technique: whilst attempting to break down common patterns and assumptions in the thought processes of his readership, he is nevertheless bound to common archetypes and signifiers in order to do so. The Jungian model of consciousness therefore stands as a central point around which revolves a number of divergent theoretical disciplines. In order to put forth an accurate blueprint of the author’s method, this thesis strives to analyse his work in light of each divergent critical approach and to arrive at a convergent representation in much the same way as Brautigan himself drew these influences into his prose and poetry.

The primary source material for the thesis consists of all of Brautigan’s novels, all of his published short prose and the majority of his poetry. The only exclusions are a very small portion of his verse that is no longer in print and the unfinished work not currently available in the public domain, although some of his unpublished poetry and prose has been referenced from the Brautigan archive at Berkley University. Included for analysis here, then, are the early novels Trout Fishing in America and A Confederate General from Big Sur, the early collection Revenge of the Lawn and the author’s less well known output from the 1960s and early 1970s such as The Abortion and In Watermelon Sugar. In addition, his explicit genre novels The Hawkline Monster and Dreaming of Babylon are included, as are the other middle period works Willard and his Bowling Trophies and Sombrero Fallout. Poetry has been analysed from the collections Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork, Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt, Please Plant this Book, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and June 30th, June 30th. The author’s later work such as So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away, The Tokyo-Montana Express and the posthumous An Unfortunate Woman have also been critiqued as has the posthumously published collection of poetry The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings[2]. Reference has also been made to the papers collected in the Brautigan archive at Berkeley, most significantly the notebooks numbered 32, 33 and 37. As wide a selection of the author’s work as is readily available has been included in an attempt to support both the continuity and the complexity of those themes in Brautigan’s writing that this thesis seeks to illustrate and deconstruct. This study also seeks to demonstrate an evolution of aesthetic agenda inherent in his body of work as a whole; and it is only with reference to the latter period prose and its interrogation of time, the middle period genre works and their Jungian influences, and the social commentary of the author’s early output that this development can be adequately conveyed.

For the purposes of referencing, some of the unwieldy titles of Brautigan’s published work have been summarised. This has been done to make the necessary breaks in sentence structure as unobtrusive as possible. A full list of these abbreviations is included prior to this Introduction, but by means of an example A Confederate General from Big Sir, for instance, has been shortened to Confederate, The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings substituted with Edna, etc. A similar approach has been taken with supporting texts where more than one work has been referenced by a particular author and where those works have generous titles.

Reference has been made also to the existing body of critical and biographical work about Brautigan. Most significant are the loose collection of memoirs written by acquaintances of the author which include Keith Abbott’s Downstream from Trout Fishing in America, Greg Keeler’s Waltzing with the Captain: Remembering Richard Brautigan, and the biographical volume written by the author’s daughter Ianthe You Can’t Catch Death. Existing critical works on Brautigan are relatively scarce but the following texts have been examined: Richard Brautigan by Jay Boyer, Richard Brautigan by Marc Chénetier, Richard Brautigan by Terence Malley and In the Singer’s Temple by Jack Hicks. In addition, a selection of magazine articles celebrating (and denigrating) the author’s life and work have been utilised in the research for this thesis, as have a significant number of smaller essays that have appeared in Journals both during Brautigan’s career and since his death.

The critical work already available on Brautigan is overwhelmingly biographical in nature. As not much is known about his early life, the biographical content is therefore mostly limited to the time he spent in Montana towards the latter part of his career. It is therefore not particularly informative about the aesthetic concerns of his early work, and does not actually provide much analysis of his later work either. Chénetier and Malley do analyse Brautigan’s work critically and approach him as a postmodernist, which is an accurate way in which to present his body of work. However, the main focus of their criticism, in both cases, is solely upon the author’s utilisation of language. Chénetier defines Brautigan as a writer “driven by an obsessive interrogation of the fossilization and fixture of language” (21). Malley asserts that Brautigan had “an awareness of the limits of communication” (38). Whilst both these conclusions seem perfectly valid, neither critic really goes beyond them to explore what Brautigan’s deliberate illustration of these limitations may signify on a broader scale. Boyer, on the other hand, tackles the interplay of the personal and the social in the author’s work. He too identifies Brautigan as a postmodernist but seems more interested in the way in which “cultural myths and personal realities […] can inform one another” (49) in his novels. Again, there is no reason to dispute Boyer’s conclusions, but he stops short of unifying this feature in the narratives with a wider analysis of the author’s aesthetic point. The critical journal articles published on Brautigan are all much the same: the majority of them focus on the novel In Watermelon Sugar and discuss, specifically, the community of iDEATH as an examination of “the myths and language of the pastoral sensibility that reappeared in the sixties” (Schmitz 125). Those that focus on other works by the author follow a similar vein. There is a critical consensus that he pushes the boundaries of language, both in metaphor and in instances of overt acknowledgement of its deficiencies, but there are no satisfactory conclusions upon why he does this, to what ends.

In contrast, this thesis strives to examine the purpose of the postmodern techniques Brautigan employs, the reasons why he highlights the boundaries beyond which language ceases to be a communicative tool. These are not accidental features of the author’s work, nor are they isolated observations. They are instead strands of a much more complex theoretical agenda. Language is a projection of consciousness. The codification inherent in metaphor, in postmodern methods of reference, and in the interplay of cultural myth and personal history is indicative of perceptual mechanics. What Brautigan is striking at with all these techniques is a comprehension of the way in which we function cognitively. The reason this is significant is because he was writing at a time when the society around him was struggling to free itself from existing social perspectives and to construct a model of civilisation that would allow for greater personal freedom. In order to achieve this, the activists within the counterculture had to deconstruct the conventional notions of what a society is and how it functions. Brautigan’s theoretical project, when seen in this light, becomes critical to understanding how this deconstruction could possibly be achieved. Theodore Roszak writes of the counterculture attacking “the foundations of the edifice” (55) in their quest to rebuild society. For social activists, this edifice may have been typified in physical institutions such as the law, education, political infrastructures. Brautigan’s aims reflect precisely those of the activists, but on an intellectual level. His edifices are the constraints of language and the constraints of logic and his instinct is that these must be broken too in order to construct something new, something that isn’t informed and shaped by the same old presuppositions.

An opinion shared by all of the existing critics of Brautigan, and one which is indeed borne out by strong evidence in the author’s texts, is that he held a strong affinity with the cultural environment he existed within. John Stickney concludes that he was “involved completely with the everyday American experience” (50). He was immersed in the explosion of alternative culture happening in San Francisco in the late Sixties. For socially active groups such as the Diggers[3] and the Yippies[4], the period was very much perceived as a new cultural beginning, a year zero from which a new world order would arise. “Now is an accumulation of ends with all goals immediate”, asserts Emmett Grogan when recalling the mood of the period (477). Perhaps ironically, however, unlike other year zero movements throughout history, the American counterculture did not reject out of hand everything that had come before them. Indeed, their particular process of self definition was a thoroughly exploitative one in terms of historical and sociological context. Their ideology was founded very much on the principle that an immensity of western civilisation preceded them and that they were but an end product of this evolution. They were aware of the fact that they were reacting against the self-serving lies that had arisen from the capitalist impulse for absolute authority. So they were borne of capitalism, their “quest for some new foundation that [could] support a program of radical social change” (Roszack 186) was a direct result of this reality. This is why Emmett Grogan’s moment, as defined above, is both fed by the past and focused absolutely on an alternative future. Brautigan’s primary impulse in his earlier works is indicative of precisely this self same precept. Trout Fishing in America and A Confederate General from Big Sur are suffused with challenges to the notions of authenticity and authority. He deconstructs history, he debunks capitalism – “USED TROUT STREAM FOR SALE”, “MUST BE SEEN TO BE APPRECIATED” (Trout 139). Time itself unravels under even the most cursory scrutiny: “Seagulls: past, present and future passing almost like drums to the sky” (Confederate 15). He constructs metaphors and allegories founded on absurd dichotomies and his characters can find themselves sharing page space with “flies [that are] teaching an advanced seminar in philosophy” (Confederate 140) or a woman who is intent upon “umbrellaing herself like a poorly-designed angel” (Loading 54). The intellectual is undermined by the physical and it is “impossible to talk about poetry, esthetics or world peace after eating jack mackerel” (57). Each of these techniques serves to break down the inherent cultural and logical suppositions of the author’s environment. Each serves to illustrate the idiosyncrasy of the individual consciousness, and the equality of all stimuli upon an individual consciousness. He puts forth the argument that cultural suppositions, perceived truths, are precisely akin to the ‘truths’ of history, capitalism and time: they all based on arbitrary constructs of logic. A subjective opinion made absolute, a self-serving perspective from the capitalist elements of society, a useful mechanism of control – these are the origins of what has since become a common understanding of the nature of reality. As Ursula Heise concludes on the notion of time, for example, “the mechanical clock […] imposed a timeframe shaped by the necessity of machines, production and consumption” (44). Social institutions, laws, morality – all are borne of an organising impulse, and all become entrenched and restrictive. Just like Grogan and the Diggers, Brautigan’s early impetus seems to spring from a desire to reclaim the concepts that underpin his existence. His perceptions are no less valid than those of anyone else, and it is this insistence upon equal authority that manifests itself in the author’s personal vision of “America, often only a place in the mind” (Brautigan, Trout 97).

If Brautigan’s suspicion of absolutes is something that reflected the cultural mood of the Sixties, then it is likely that his postmodern impulse sprang from the same sociological source. According to all the available sources who knew the author personally, he was not an individual who put much faith in literary criticism or literary theory.[5] However, it is undeniable that his “characteristic device of going from a simile […] to a literal condition” (Malley 28) is entirely in keeping with the postmodernist school of thought. So, too, are his interrogations of history wherein truth becomes truth simply because it is so willed by a protagonist. So, too, are the tortuous constructs employed in his metaphors wherein the disparity between the tenors and vehicles used creates a collapse in conventional coherence, a chaos of allusion in which popular culture meets history, science and classical citation. At the core of postmodern theory, and its application, lies the assertion that authenticity does not actually exist as a conceivable proposition. There are no facts; there are too many truths for truth. Reality is no more than the sum of perceptions of an individual at the precise moment that they are engaged in the act of perceiving. Those perceptions may then be interpreted or reinterpreted by subsequent acts of expression, but essentially the reality constructed is self-conceived and self-fulfilling. On the face of it, this seems not very dissimilar to modernism, however the critical difference lies in the resolution of the ambiguity that arises from these discontinuous moments. Or rather, it lies in the lack of resolution evident in postmodernism. Brautigan, like other postmodernists, “refuses to connect what does not connect” (Crouch, 400), and seeks no ultimate cohesion in the scattered impressions he has to work with. Every image and every impulse is for him relative, is informed by a myriad of other images and impulses. There are no logical connections to draw between them, merely contextual, often random ones. It follows, therefore, that everything is both subjective and notional. Authenticity, the measurement of whether something is accurately portrayed, becomes a redundant concept because accuracy is a redundant concept. Hutcheon terms postmodernism “resolutely contradictory” (1), precisely because it permits, simultaneously, any number of complimentary or conflicting claims upon the meanings inherent in any social or artistic statement. For Brautigan, as for the wider counterculture, it is apparent that “all have equal access to [any] event” (Roszack 149), all have equal claim upon the substance of that which they are experiencing.

Furthermore, this inherent subjectivity at play in the process of perception proves it also to be a creative exercise in style over content. Each individual arrives at a definition rather than being presented with one, and does so on their own, and is therefore each engaged in a process of reduction which spins form from chaos. There is contraction occurring: application of prior knowledge and manipulation of complex stimuli into more comprehensible tropes and archetypes. It is an illustration of Jungian psychology at its most visceral: “underlying instinctual pattern[s]” (Jung Psyche 114), common approaches that are brought to bear in the process of ordering, sequencing and categorising events, the process that we term understanding. There were members of the counterculture who were overtly aware that this was the case. Timothy Leary describes his experimentation with LSD, for instance, as a means to the “cellular and neurological merging of archetypes” (Torgoff 71). It was the gnarled root of the self that countercultural figures such as Leary, Grogan, Dylan, and indeed Brautigan, knew they must analyse and dissect in order to free themselves from the “inarticulate assumptions and motivations that weave together the collective fabric of society” (Roszack 143). In Brautigan’s work, cross-cultural theory of archetypes is localised to some extent: he utilises it to illustrate commonality within a single cultural environment. The effect of this is to reinforce the symbiotic relationship of the individual and his contemporary world. For instance, he can describe a woman as “a composite of all the beautiful girls you see in all the cigarette advertisements” (Brautigan, Revenge 39) and immediately that image resonates with several generations of Western consumers. If anything, it resonates more profoundly than any classical allusion to beauty would, thereby serving to equate the pop culture reference with anything commonly held as more aesthetically satisfying. Again, this is entirely in keeping with the countercultural view. The motives of the counterculture, multi-faceted as they were, ultimately sprang not from a desire for physical revolution but rather from a reactionary impulse triggered by dissatisfaction. It was generation that had tired of being told what and how to think. It was a generation that viewed authority with suspicion and was not convinced that the elected professional classes to whom society had “surrendered their responsibility for making morally demanding decisions” (Roszack 22) were any more capable of making them than they were.

As has been implied above, Brautigan sought out a variety of methods in which to transmit his postmodern agenda. Perhaps one his most successful techniques was his utilisation of genre fiction. More specifically, he sought to use genre conventions as a way in which to establish intellectual frameworks that he could then rapidly deconstruct. To these ends he mixed genres, writing a Gothic Western, a Historical Romance, A Perverse Mystery. One of the most successful is the private-eye novel Dreaming of Babylon where the highly stylised ideals of the protagonist perpetually collapse under the weight of the more granular and pedestrian concerns of daily life: “It’s hard to find people to kiss when you haven’t got any money” (31). Tzvetan Todorov asserts that “genres communicate indirectly with the society where they are operative through their institutionalization” (19). In fact, genre seems to work precisely as a microcosm of a wider cultural awareness. Both are underpinned by a set of predetermined rules of engagement. To existence, as to a genre novel, the individual brings his expectations, expectations that are set by previous experience, prior exposure to signs and symbols and culturally conditioned knowledge regarding the likelihood of meanings and outcomes. Engagement with one’s physical environment is, after all, “nothing other than the codification of discursive properties” (Todorov 18). By undermining the rules of genre via comedy and farce, Brautigan imbues the reader with a sense of the arbitrariness with which they attempt to rationalise their awareness and comprehension of the world. It is in effect the second part of his communicative process with the counterculture – just as sociological manifestations of insurrection inform his work, so too does his deconstruction of society’s infrastructure project back a précis of the constraints the individual must overcome in order to revolt. Essentially, Brautigan’s aesthetic intent revolves around the explosion of the myth of received meaning. When the individual perceives in a manner prescribed to him by others he is effectively disenfranchised from his own purpose, his own being. He will only engage with his environment in a meaningful and rewarding manner when he is once again empowered to do so on his own terms. The great paradox in the author’s work, therefore, is in attempting to reinstate this autonomy in the medium of writing – a medium which effectively perpetuates reality as a representation of someone else’s personal vision. To some extent this seems an almost insurmountable problem: all Brautigan has to work with are words, metaphors and allusions of his own devising which somehow must attempt to point the way beyond their immediate significance and encourage the reader to construct his own method of perception. It is precisely because of this limitation in the form in which he is working that the author is so keen to appropriate existing intellectual mechanisms as vehicles for his message.

Whilst genre lends itself to the illustration, and deconstruction, of inherent social and psychological boundaries, it is the seemingly innocuous device of the joke that allows Brautigan to successfully derail complacent logic. Jokes follow a common construct: they establish a premise and then confound anticipation. They already work in precisely the same manner that any successful attempt to debunk logic would have to work, and Brautigan’s utilisation of jokes demonstrates his talent in the most communicatively efficient light. “The worst thing I ever did was getting as poor as I was now” (18) his narrator proclaims in Dreaming of Babylon. The critical component of the technique is the intellectual inversion. In this instance poverty becomes an ends that someone would aspire to, a conscious decision that can be looked back on as a bad one. The inversion itself represents the potential of non-literal thought, and thereby the potential of singular perception. Once he has established this, Brautigan begins to move beyond the simple comic construct and to employ ever more outlandish and complex illogical cognitive alternatives:

 

I wanted electricity to go everywhere in the world. I wanted all the farmers in the world to be able to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio.

That’s how you look to me (Brautigan, Revenge 61).

 

There are seemingly no limitations to the latent power of the imagination in such passages as this. It logically follows, therefore, that there are no limitations on the manner in which perception can draw upon imaginative impulses to create abstract, lateral, and absurd connections between disparate impressions. Nostalgia can be linked to physical stimulus as it is above precisely because they are each conceivable notions. That simple commonality is all that is required for the individual psyche to begin forging links and connections. The conscious and subconscious mind is a maelstrom of different codes and comparatives and contradictions, and when the restraints of acceptability are cast aside – that is, what is commonly held as plausible – anything becomes possible. In Brautigan’s work the individual is free to create his own reality in any manner he sees fit. He need not conceive in the terms he has always known, or in the terms of others. Those terms only exist for communicative convenience. They are constructs and there is no reason why your own constructs are any less sufficient.

As with postmodernism, which all the sources close to the author (Keeler, Abbott and Barber)[6] claim he appropriated from its cultural manifestations rather than from a direct theoretical source, Brautigan’s adoption of Zen Buddhism seems to be informed by a secular manifestation rather than any theological source. He utilises the tenets of Zen to further tackle the deconstruction of logic and to investigate the principle of momentary awareness as the truth of consciousness. However, he does not enter any further into the mystical or ritualistic aspects of the theology. Indeed, those elements he does requisition from Zen Buddhism seem almost a natural evolution of his method, so concerned is this spiritual framework with the indistinguishable juncture of the individual consciousness and its wider environmental context. It is a natural vehicle for Brautigan’s message, and another manifestation of the tenet of inversion whereby reality becomes the result of an internal process rather than an external absolute. Or more precisely, reality becomes the method by which one engages with the world, the instant in which stimuli and perception coalesce to create of unrelated phenomena something whole and resonant, albeit fleetingly so. Brautigan evidently finds in the principles of the Zen koan an affirmation of his own assault on the limitations of logic, constructed as they are to pose questions that cannot be answered literally. They point beyond meaning, as Brautigan’s language points beyond meaning. From the evidence of his poetry, however, it is the Haiku form that really piques Brautigan’s artistic interest in the intricacies of Zen. The verse of poets such as Basho and Issa is intrinsically concerned with the synchronicity of experience, the deceptive interplay of occurrence and cognition, of cause and effect. Even the most simple representations are rendered infinitely complex. The skeletal form of the Haiku is such that it triggers a sharp emotive response that must move beyond the finite number of words presented on the page in order to achieve any sort of satisfactory resolution. In other words, the technique seeks to push the consciousness of the reader outwards from the observation of the poet into an infinite universe of possibility. As D.T. Suzuki states, Zen and Haiku both strive to pique a state of awareness that has “no dependence upon words and letters” (176). Haiku is the perfect companion to Brautigan’s postmodernism in that both methods seek to trigger in their audience an awareness of their own stake in defining the world. They may approach this impulse from different ends of the scale – the minimalism of the Haiku and the chaotic multitude of signifiers inherent in postmodernism – but they are ultimately means to the same ends. Brautigan even manages with some success to reconcile the two forms in his poetry, creating what initially seems an oxymoron: the postmodern Haiku.

 

Propelled by portals whose only shame

is a zeppelin’s shadow crossing a field

of burning bathtubs (Brautigan, Rommel 33)

 

This fusion of Haiku and postmodernism works precisely because the two artistic approaches share a common purpose. They are each suffused with just enough ambiguity and just enough metaphorical potency to coerce the reader into a process of rationalisation that paves the way for an awareness of that rationalisation. Both fit comfortably with Brautigan’s theoretical project, which can be best described as a promotion of self awareness as prerequisite to true individual liberty.

What such a promotion inevitably means for Brautigan’s work is that it becomes suffused with autobiographical content. In order to represent the mechanisms of a consciousness at work, the author is obliged to utilise his own consciousness, and to demonstrate it interacting with the circumstances of his existence. Unlike other autobiographical projects, however, Brautigan’s is not a linear expose of all that has happened to him. It is instead an illustration of his consciousness at work within the context of the moment. Each perception of the poet, each passing impression of the narrators of his novels, is filtered through the immediacy of the present tense, of now. Their engagement with the precise instant of awareness is very much like the effect of light refracted through a prism whereby the stimulus enters on one façade and a spectrum of responses is produced. Some of these are emotional responses, some intellectual; what emerges on the other side is an array that ranges from personal experience, through cultural conditioning, to unshackled imaginative possibility. The past, including the past of the author himself, is deducible from the writing, rather than laboriously extrapolated. There are persistent indicators of idiosyncratic responses, personality traits, psychological tics even of the author. It is no coincidence, for example, that several of Brautigan’s characters display symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Numbers and statistics are a recurrent theme:

 

She tries to get things out of men

that she can’t because she’s not

15% prettier (Brautigan, Rommel 6)

 

Numbers and statistics are again examples of the social drive towards quantification. They are ultimately meaningless as they are based on arbitrary foundations. They are manifestations of “the buried premises from which intellect and ethical judgement proceed” (Roszack 50). Yet many of the author’s characters find peace in the simple act of counting. They count punctuation marks in texts, they count random articles present in their immediate environments, they even count the progress – chapter by chapter, page by page – of the works they are narrating. There is solace to be found in the consumption of received wisdom. Yet this solace is destructive, is precisely that which must be surrendered in the process of liberation.

It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that Brautigan was at one point diagnosed with schizophrenia, a condition at the time often mistakenly identified from the symptoms of OCD, in order to perceive in these textual manifestations of counting a personal condition. This extrapolation onto the page is the author practicing what he preaches, so to speak, applying the same self awareness that his work seeks to initiate in others to his own self representation. It lends weight to the idea that perception is a state in which nothing is truly divisible. In Brautigan’s work, every particle of prior knowledge, whether it be cultural memory, emotional residue, or even personal neurosis, is brought to bear in every instant to every response. Ultimately, his point about singularity is quite simple: this is how consciousness works. The evidence in Brautigan’s writing is simply too compelling to refute. Yet there seems a persistent cultural belief that our responses to the world should be, and can be, purely rational and appropriate (where appropriateness is defined by narrow sociological contexts: the roles individuals are expected to assume socially). Reason is, according to Robert Pirsig, “emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty” (120). He contests that it has been promoted as the primary mechanism of being because “the system demands” it, demands that we “live meaningless lives” (104) in order to serve the greater capitalistic good. Brautigan’s work seeks to illustrate that to persist in this manner is to deny one’s own uniqueness, to deny oneself a wholeness of being, a synchronous unity of the self and the universe to which one should be entitled above all else.

Through all of these techniques can be seen Brautigan’s contemporary culture, every facet of it and every revolutionary aspect of it laid bare. In almost every instance he is able to satisfactorily reflect the socio-political ambitions of his time in an intellectual manner. There is one social agenda, however, that he fails to completely reconcile: gender politics. Whilst he manages to internalise most external stimuli by representing the interplay between sensory reception, the mechanics involved in forging awareness, and the projection back of meaning, women remain in his work as something other, something beyond the perceptual whole. His early narratives depict women in a primarily sexual manner, an objectification of attributes that complement the male purveyor’s egocentric cultural ideals:

 

Once upon a sad weird

there lived a girl

who was my beautiful soul given form (Brautigan, Edna 89).

 

They are reduced to dislocated images of “large friendly-looking breasts and small pleasant breasts and behinds” (Brautigan, Revenge 51). So dismembered do they appear that they bring to mind another manifestation of male power – pornography. An entire segment of the population, the teenage girl, is even dismissed as good for nothing more than “a one night stand/in a motel” (Brautigan, Edna 94). All of these representations are essentially misogynistic in nature, and the women in the texts have no greater sense of self esteem in their own perceptions of themselves either. Vida, the principle female character of The Abortion, characterises womanhood in her own words as little more than an endless round of “dieting, operations, injections” (66). In later texts, such as Willard and his Bowling Trophies, however, Brautigan delves somewhat more analytically into the mechanics of relationships, and in Sombrero Fallout he even engages with the female empowerment. Here, a female character evens gets as far as rejecting her lover (for deficiencies that are not elaborated upon). Nevertheless, the issue of gender is one which he ultimately fails to resolve in terms of his overriding drive towards personal freedom. As implied above, the concept of the female remains a persistently external phenomenon for the male author and his male narrators. Women are a trigger for their perceptions rather than an integral part of the perceptions themselves, as almost everything else is. In a very real sense, gender and history are exactly alike for Brautigan, and the same as politics or time: it is an institution of perpetuated truths. To it are brought the tokens of intellectual categorisation, prior knowledge and emotional experience, almost as though it too is a myth to be deconstructed. It isn’t deconstructed, the female characters remain personifications of Helen of Troy or Deanna Durbin. Perhaps the personal experiences of the author prohibit an objectivity in this particular area; perhaps he simply finds the topic just too convoluted for a satisfactory resolution, as evidenced by his poem ‘Nice Ass’:

 

There is so much lost

and so much gained

in these words (Brautigan, Rommel 36).

 

Despite his failure to fully rationalise the cause of women, however significant that failure may be, Brautigan does however greatly advance the agenda of the counterculture in his work. He articulates, perhaps more successfully than anyone else, its aim to free the population from the capitalistic and material repressions of their existing cultural reality. Whilst the Diggers assumed a direct strategy in the construction of alternative commercial modes of being, Brautigan approached the problem much more esoterically. He attacked the foundations of his readers’ perceptions and prompted them towards personally resonant ways in which to view, in which to define, their world. Understanding that this encouragement to self-sufficiency would be a complex intellectual exercise, he sought to implement his agenda in ways that would be comprehensible to his audience. He therefore appropriated existing artistic and philosophical methods to better transmit his agenda into the popular consciousness. Postmodernism, Zen Buddhism and surreal humour are all concepts intrinsically tied to the zeitgeist of Brautigan’s countercultural landscape – he recognised this and utilised them all accordingly. This granted him access to a willing and receptive audience, one he could then engage in the mechanisms of his writing – the language and grammar, the ink on the page, the very methods of articulation and awareness – in order to make them aware of their own part in this process. He highlighted to them their own perceptual mechanisms. Brautiagn’s entire project is essentially a lesson in empowerment, in making readers understand that it is they who control the manner in which they perceive. It is not the perception, or the stimulus that triggers it, that controls who they are or how they respond. “We have the power to transform our lives into brand-new instantaneous rituals” (109), he declares in The Abortion, insisting that we have a responsibility to take control of our engagement with the immediate moment, the transitory instant of now. We have a responsibility to do so because upon this control rests the future of our preconceptions and the key to our evolution of self.


[1] The term ‘tenor’ is used here to refer to the subject of the author’s metaphors and ‘vehicle’ to the source of the connotational attributes applied to the tenor.

[2] The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings was posthumously published but contains poetry and prose that pre-dates the publication of Brautigan’s first novel – juvenile works that were presented to a friend’s mother upon the author’s departure from Oregon to California.

[3] The Diggers were a socio-political group active in San Francisco during the Sixties. They evolved as an anarchistic commune from their origins as a performance theatre troupe and named themselves after a radical faction of the Levellers active during the English Civil War.

[4] The Yippies were a self-styled section of the counterculture associated to Abbie Hoffman. They were not a defined group like the Diggers but rather a loose collective that chose “YIPPIE!” as a convenient slogan for the press to use when identifying them.

[5] Keith Abbott confirms that Brautigan had no critical works in his library and simply saw no value in them (Interview, email, June 2004). Greg Keeler confides that he saw criticism as “intellectual pretension” and lacking in precision (Interview, email, June 2004).

[6] It is Keith Abbot’s contention that the postmodern elements in his work were influenced by the popular culture of the sixties when postmodernism had already been appropriated by cartoon makers, comic book artists, even journalists. (Interview, email, June 2004).

 

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