Richard Brautigan – Chapter 4

A Postmodernist Model of Time

Each moment we live exists, but not in their imaginary combination (Borges 258).

The great paradox of a human perception of reality lies in the fact that it can never be free from the nuances and bias of that perception. The existence of any tangible thing in creation owes as much to the process of rationalisation that imbues it with meaning and description as it does to its own simple physicality. As Jorges Borges puts it, “outside each perception […] matter does not exist (266).” This hypothesis stands for sensory stimuli, for grand human concepts such as history, and it also holds true for time itself. For Brautigan, time is no more than an end product of the imaginative processing of the mind: it does not exist in his texts as a scientific principle that dictates the ordering and flow of events. It is much more subjective than that, irrevocably tied to the intellectual whim and limitations of any given narrator. Time is an experience rather than a fundamental law and, like all human experience in the work of Brautigan, it tends to be microcosmic in nature, imbued with a sense of cultural weight and resonance. Each moment holds within it the ghosts of previous moments, of former sensory impressions and existing frames of reference. All moments lead to this moment, and everything that comes afterwards will be a direct result of what is happening now, what has happened so far. This concept is not restricted solely to events of great significance but also to minor circumstances, the minutiae of everyday existence. In short, the law of sequentialism applies to everything. In An Unfortunate Woman, for example, the narrator muses upon the heritage of his notebook, “made in Japan, purchased in San Francisco, now here in Montana, containing these words and destined to remain here in Montana” (76). There is a constant flux at work whereby a fusion of existing elements occurs to crystallize a unique instant in time and then liquefy again to add to the combination of elements that will form other instants. This whole process is co-ordinated by the mind, the correlation of links between disparate events to create a rational temporality, a comprehensible system of cause and effect. Because this temporality is so personally defined, because it is so subjective, it is also effectively arbitrary. The connection between events can appear eminently rational in Brautigan’s work, and then again they are just as likely to be absurd. A disillusioned teenager in So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away is described as irrevocably headed towards “a marriage with a spiteful woman ten years older than him” (77); similarly, a child decides from his limited experience with a young friend that “living in a funeral parlour gave a person cold hands” (30). This structuring of time into arcs of tangible consequence is a fundamentally revisionist procedure, and a highly selective one. The child with a friend from the family of funeral directors is processing data in precisely the same way that everyone does, from the historian to the scientist: that is to arrange and promote and exaggerate observable effects to reach a conclusion which solidifies the world. Time is no less of a narrative than history, a fabrication of meaning and structure for the sake of something comprehensible.

Sociological awareness, of course, forms a factor within this equation for Brautigan. His narrators begin to process their appreciation of time in specifically cultural terms, not only with respect to the language of signifiers that they apply to their temporal experiences but also in the manner in which they understand and perceive this very temporality itself. The protagonist of So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away is a typical example of this because he freely utilises the pre-existent notion of film and cinematic editing to rationalise his own personal history. Throughout the novel he is engaged in a process whereby he constructs montages of images for the reader in an attempt to represent his life in a logical and coherent manner. He suppresses minor details which he feels will detract from his point, and more importantly, he switches between time zones and different sequences of events to avoid recounting the tedium of his childhood. “I was now ahead of them in time” he states of his fishing friends who have yet to arrive at the pond he frequents, “I would give them a couple of hours to catch up” (7). Like everything else in the experience and cognitive function of the narrator, time has to be appreciated and expressed in existing terms of reference. Knowledge is a cumulative effect, an evolution of interrogatory impulses:

I didn’t know the full dimensions of forever, but I knew that it was longer than waiting for Christmas to come (38).

Awareness evolves in an incremental fashion, and it leaves in its wake a vast archive of impressions and conclusions. This is precisely why time is microcosmic in nature for Brautigan: as a concept it only truly exists when the perceptive impulses of the individual consciousness forge it from the disparate chaos of tokens and events that are its natural state. To achieve this construction, the full weight of the individual’s experience is brought to bear on the subject and the result is inevitably referential. The emotional stimuli of any given event or circumstance essentially serves as a fuse which can ultimately fire anywhere in this labyrinth of cross-referencing notions.

Time, therefore, as a hypothetical concept, is essentially as artificial as anything else that constitutes human experience. Once Brautigan has established this hypothesis in his work, he then begins to mount a direct challenge to the very founding principle of time – or rather, to the founding principle of time as it is rationalised and perceived in the industrialised world, “a calculated standard value, enforcing perfect operation and excluding the unexpected” (Borst 121). Time has been made “calculable and controllable” claims Arno Borst (94), a metronomic sequence of divisible units, in order to support the mechanisms of a technocratic majority culture. This formalisation was, he infers, essential to the operation of advanced commerce and the control of a subjective workforce. However, this is no more than a single interpretation of the structure of time, and one which is laden with ulterior motive. In reality, it is only consensus that holds the imposed framework in place, and as he did with history Brautigan encourages his reader to liberate themselves from this constraint. Time is not necessarily sequential: it could just as easily be defined as something cyclical, or modular. Brautigan appears to perceive it in An Unfortunate Woman as dimensional, molecular, conceptually geographical with a huge network of moments strung out like co-ordinates across some vast “calendar map” (2). “A lone woman’s shoe lying in a Honolulu intersection” (108) is as much a part of this complex temporal landscape as a “threatening electrical storm” (95) in the skies of Montana. All these things exist and are tenuously connected, like contours or lay-lines, via the hub of any individual’s life. None of them are necessarily more significant than any of the others, but each exists along some conceptual parallel and together they constitute the physical terrain of personal experience.

There are, however, very significant implications inherent within the model of time that Brautigan is developing in his work. In the first instance, there is a tangible element of stoicism apparent in any system where past and future cease to have any real meaning. Brautigan’s characters do not look back along a narrow timeline that emotionally focuses their own personal experiences. Instead, they reference specific co-ordinates, segments of the calendar map, almost as though they are plotting a chart from a much wider space. Obviously they do not look subjectively forward either because there is no forward, not in linear terms. They are instead located in the middle of a physical landscape, a timescape almost, aware of the space around them through which they can navigate. This awareness means that there is an emotional detachment between the author’s characters, his narrators, and the events that constitute their lives. “I’m actually writing about something quite serious”, claims the narrator of An Unfortunate Woman, “but I’m doing it in a roundabout way, including varieties of time and human experience, which even tragedy cannot escape from” (74). Of course, this is a character who is attempting to come to terms with the suicide of a friend, so it would seem that his appropriation of a non-linear perspective of time is in fact little more than a device for him to maintain an emotional detachment from his grief. There are similarities also between this situation and that of the narrator of So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away. In this latter novel, too, the protagonist entirely deconstructs the linearity of his own personal history, playing and replaying certain events in different sequences to try to arrive at a rationalisation and acceptance of the fact of his friend’s death in a shooting accident. Indeed, the attempt to come to terms with events is all the more frantic in this novel because the friend died at the hand of the narrator. Ultimately, he takes a distinct step back away from the immediacy of his guilt and begins to interpret his past as some kind of movie, a narrative of somebody else’s life that he can edit and cut in an objective manner. “I have a gigantic motion picture studio in my mind” he claims, before admitting that he has “been working on the same movie for 31 years” (74).

The question, however, is whether the only impulse towards a non-linear model of time is initiated by trauma, or whether there is a much greater aesthetic and intellectual significance to the endeavour. The answer lies really in the fundamental thrusts of Brautigan’s philosophical intent. His aesthetic technique, when taken in its entirety, is geared towards a reconsideration of cultural absolutes: materialism, history, inherent narrative authority. As Alan Watts concludes, “all sorts of things that we believe to be real – time, past and future, for instance – exist only conventionally” (8). Truths are formed from particular necessities and only remain truths because they are neither questioned nor supplanted. This realisation is what compels Brautigan to challenge the absoluteness of time; this is what drives him to picture “a firmament of crows” and assert that “even when you arrive there / twenty minutes early […] you are late” (Mercury 109). By which standard is the time of arrival at a lyrical conjecture being judged? On whose authority is it assessed? The declaration is deliberately absurd, it is presumptuous and preposterous, but it points towards the invisible tokens of control that underpin the way we perceive. It is just as preposterous to impose a model upon time and refute all other possibilities; it is just as stoical to accept this explanation and to experience existence as a sequence of finely balanced and measured units held fast by somebody else’s definition of punctuality. Time, Brautigan urges the reader, is so much more than just a metronomic meter; it is the basis of our lives, the element in which we thrive. “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river” (Borges 269). Something so fundamental to the human experience surely cannot be left under the control of others but should, Brautigan seems to assert, be reclaimed and utilised to fully experience the complexity of being. “We were the eleven o’clock news” he proclaims in his poem of the same name (Mercury 57), the personal experience exemplified in public terms to illustrate this shift in the relationship between the individual and the temporal sphere.

Arno Borst identifies the same dilemma in human awareness in his book The Ordering of Time:

The living [are] repeatedly confronted by the old question of whether they should raise themselves above their momentary existence, come to terms with it, or lose themselves in it (Borst 130).

If the concept of time, of sequence and consequence and eternity, is complex, then the more immediate sensation of moment, of right here and now, is far less so. It is difficult to refute an idea that so effectively encapsulates the experience of awareness, and it is via this awareness that Brautigan primarily engages with theories of time, indeed with representations of anything. For him the moment is something quintessential, is representative of an expanse of temporality beyond this single instance, becoming almost akin to a gene or strand of DNA which resonates out into infinity. There is a very tangible sense in his work that a moment can be dissected and upon analysis can reveal the truth of existence itself. For example, as has already been asserted, one story in Revenge of the Lawn features a pair of friends that throw a transistor radio onto a bonfire in frustration after one of them has broken up with his girlfriend. Immediately, this character’s personal loss is reflected in each of the songs played on the melting set: “It’s an old song that’s been played on all the juke boxes in America” (18). This moment, this single instant in the span of one man’s life is indicative of the nature of human relationships and emotional pain throughout history. However, this conclusion does not explain the full extent of the connection between the moment and the wider temporal reality of time. It is not merely that the personal moment expands outwards to encapsulate the public experience, because the inverse is also true: the social sphere also contracts and seeps into the moment to give it form and structure. The songs playing on the narrator’s radio in this instance are sequenced because they are part of a popular music chart. As the transistor melts he finds that the degrading receiver effects the ordering of this chart: “A song that was #9 became #27 in the middle of a chorus about loving somebody” (18). The jilted lover’s reaction to his circumstances is not only an addition to a litany of such reactions but also a unique entry in the catalogue which effectively changes the content of the whole, if only fractionally, forever. The song about loving somebody slips eighteen places because the melting plastic distorts the sound and it appears as though it is at twenty seven rather than number nine; because the protagonist feels better now he has destroyed something; because destroying something is now identified as a means to make the emotions involved in this particular song eighteen times less painful.

Certainly in the earlier part of his career, the notion of moment seems to have had for Brautigan this very clearly defined referential relationship with the wider mechanism of time. Perhaps the most famous example of his use of this technique is in the short story ‘The Scarlatti Tilt’, quoted here in its entirety:

‘It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.’ That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver (37).

There is no need for the author to present a full account of the events he is depicting here because the confession of the murderer and a description of what she hands to the police are entirely adequate as a representation. These two sentences are not only a snapshot of time as it spills off the page in all directions, but a fragment also of the narrative itself as it forms in the mind of the reader. ‘The Scarlatti Tilt’ is a story about the mechanism of understanding time, of attaching meaning to a sequence of events and how prudent a process that is, as much as it is about the economy of storytelling. Again, however, the story is a presentation of moment as something identifiably microcosmic, something that is immediately representative of a wider truth.

As Brautigan enters the latter stages of his career, there is a distinct shift in his work away from this technique. One of his last published books, The Tokyo-Montana Express, takes the form almost of a diary, a vast formless record of almost random entries chronicling one of his by then frequent trips to Japan. The use of moment in this work is far less representative and tends to devolve almost into an obsessive narrative detachment. The author’s observations become very fractured and singular and there seems to be nothing which holds them together anymore. There is “no reason for the telephone to be ringing in the middle of the night on a Sunday” (31); “a menu is a description of a meal that never existed” (170); “PANCAKES WILL NOT BE SERVED FROM MIDNIGHT TO 4 AM” (192). There is no continuum, either linear or otherwise, to these observations. They are merely pinpricks in the mind of the author and direct textual responses to disembodied sensory stimuli. Indeed, Brautigan admonishes the reader at one point in the text: “if you are expecting something dramatic […] about chickens and their place in the firmament, forget about it” (89). It is almost as though his appreciation of time, of temporal continuity, has degraded to such an extent that it has all but disappeared entirely. Or has it? If, as Ursula Heise claims, “time is inherent in the event rather than an abstract dimension surrounding it” (28), then Brautigan is not missing the point at all here but is beginning rather to reach the crux of the matter. After all, what is temporal continuity but a sequence of instances, occurrences that do not necessarily bear any relation to each other? Whilst the author moves about Tokyo he is subjected to all manner of external stimuli which come at him from a myriad of sources and impose upon him conflicting impressions that have very little to do with cause and effect and much more to do with randomness and chaos. There is no meaning inherent in the order in which these events occur. The meaning, therefore, can only reside within each of the individual instances themselves. Time itself “can only be described and defined by entering into the event’s internal structure” (28). It is the unit itself and not the sum total of units that holds anything even approaching any sort of significance. These units will inform each other, will stand in counterpoint to each other, but the complex web they comprise will not automatically contain anything beyond that which is provided from its component elements. The whole is not necessarily anything greater than the sum of it parts.

This argument, however, is not without its consequences. If time has no significance, no relevance beyond the individual components of moment, then concepts such as past and future, cause and effect, history even, become obsolete. Indeed, Ursula Heise concedes as much, claiming history to be at best an abstract notion, a string of “temporal phenomena that seem to be only randomly related to each other” (29). Brautigan never actually goes this far because even in his most focused interrogation of moment he cannot break away entirely from the idea that there is a resonance to these events that is experienced elsewhere, beyond the instant in which they occur. He cannot dismiss the conviction that there is a continuum of sorts which leads out away from this moment and flows to other places, other times. It is not possible for him to stand in one spot and admire a particular section of the Yellowstone River without musing about how the water is “on its way to join up with the Missouri River, then onto the Mississippi River travelling down to the Gulf of Mexico, its eventual home, so far away from these mountains, this kitchen door and the knocking of last night” (Tokyo 112). Time is, of course, inherent primarily in the moment, it is not something that exists phantasmagorically. Each instant we exist we are “beginning endings” (Unfortunate 107), acting and reacting instantaneously. Individual instances are the atomic particles that constitute the matter of history. Without them there would be no matter, no sequence of time, no temporal reality. They are the component parts of a greater whole and contain within them individually the essence of that whole, but to dismiss entirely the way in which they relate is surely to misunderstand the properties of the product their combination creates. There is no definitive reason why the components of a complex molecule hang together in the combinations they do beyond the fact that if they did not the substance they formulate would not exist. At its very base level there is always a continuum in time because its molecular events are experienced by somebody, are perceived and perhaps rationalised. The continuity of The Tokyo-Montana Express is essentially provided by the narrator who navigates across this landscape of random signifiers and channels them into a sequence that is his life. This single point of consciousness is the constant that binds his temporal reality together and merely because the sequence does not fit a rational pattern does not mean that it has no form or personal transcendental relevance. Essentially, it is another exercise in imaginative cognition. The individual derives his own meaning in the sequences of moments that he puts together, that he constructs, when contemplating time from the objective rather than the subjective perspective.

Mark Currie takes the diametrically opposite view to Ursula Heise, asserting in his work Postmodern Narrative Theory that “there can be no such thing as a moment” (81), insisting that time cannot be segmented in this manner, that the whole is nothing short of a perpetual flux. To take a cross section of something that flows incessantly and indivisibly from one instant into another would be to deny and contradict the very nature of the entity and to mislead oneself as to its true form and inherent properties. For Currie, time is not molecular; its essence cannot be found at the atomic level, but at the other extreme, only when it is considered in its totality. Whereas Heise’s perspective seems almost to rest upon the image of the mechanical clock, clicking off the distinct metronomic seconds, Currie’s is borne out by the electronic clock and its smooth and seamless sweep around the daily cycle. Ironically enough, this perspective is much closer to Brautigan’s utilisation of time in the vast majority of his work – essentially all of his output excepting The Tokyo-Montana Express. There is a distinct sense in his writing of an ever-presence of time, a constant focal concentration of everything that ever was and everything that will ever be pinned down in every single moment that passes, every single instance of textualisation. An auction, for example, “smell[s] like the complete history of America” (Revenge 103). A waitress pours a customer a fresh drink because “the coffee needs taking care of right now and that is what she is doing for the benefit of all the generations of coffee drinkers to come” (Revenge 66). The present is fundamentally a snapshot of eternity; it is both precursive and historical, “bearing within it[self] the spectre of its own past and future” (Currie 78). This concept is something Brautigan explores extensively in An Unfortunate Woman:

[…] the shadows in the house have been here for a long time, shadows to begin with and then decades of shadows added to those shadows, and also gathering, adding to them this day: Monday 15th of February 1982.

The day after tomorrow, Wednesday, I go to Chicago, but today I’m here returned by the uncertainties and compulsions of life (51).

It is possible to isolate moments in time in a purely notional sense, using date and time stamps like degrees of longitude and latitude; but just as the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn only exist in the geographical framework of all other points of reference, so too does one instant of one day, one week in a month of the calendar year only become identifiable within an arbitrary system. Monday 15th February 1982 is not a distinct entity as and of itself. Monday 15th February 1982 is merely a convenient label applied to the compressed impression of events experienced by the narrator between ruminations upon a mouldering house collecting dust that is once again in his thoughts, and a trip to Chicago. In the subsequent paragraphs he muses upon “the atmosphere of the house”, brooding upon it, desperate “to become more aware of its role in eternity” (52). This is a crucial concept within Brautigan’s work: eternity. The concept of moment is essentially a convenient device which enables textualisation of immediate sensory impressions. These impressions are loaded with countless intellectual preconceptions and vague portents and consequences which relate the moment backwards, forwards, sideways, in all directions, eternally. “Life cannot be controlled” claims Brautigan, “and perhaps not even envisioned” (59), but that is what his utilisation of moment accomplishes for him: a way to conceptualise that which cannot be envisioned, a focal point, a way in to this nebulous formation of time, somewhere to begin from, to navigate from. There can be no such thing as a moment except when the limitations of human perception make it necessary.

It is precisely at this point when considering the nature of moment and eternity, however, that Brautigan and Currie part company, which is hardly surprising in fact because Currie then begins to contradict himself. If there can be no such thing as a moment, there can surely be no such thing as a distinct, quantifiable present. Any notion of ‘now’ must surely rest upon some logically defined subdivision of time which does precisely what Currie deplores in that it divorces the past from the future and leaves a scrap of continuity behind which can only be labelled the present. How else can a linear concept of time exist? It follows, therefore, from Currie’s theoretical point that he does not believe time to be linear. However, he claims in his work that any departure from precisely this linear model of time in an individual’s perception is indicative of nothing short of schizophrenia. An appreciation of past, present and future, he insists, is “the basis of guilt and moral action” and much more than this, the very cornerstone of our sense of self, our “narrative of personal identity” (103). If there is no sequence to our experience of time, he claims, then there is no evolution of thought and experience, there is nothing left but a “theatre of signs and discourses which cannot exclude each other” (103) and the result is an ethical and perceptual chaos which cannot be conducive to mental health. This theatre of signs and discourses, though, is precisely the argument he uses to explode the theory of moment, the ever presence and totality of cultural signifiers that makes every instant, every instance, an eddy in the flow of all else. There are but two conclusions to be drawn from his argument: either he is asserting that there is no sequence to time and we are all schizophrenic; or his theoretical point is deeply flawed – which is a shame because Brautigan effectively picks up on this same conceptual lead and resolves the issue much more satisfactorily. In his work ethical responses, cause and effect, do exist even though time has become non-linear, even though it is being depicted dimensionally. The key to this cohesion is the notion of the calendar map that has already been discussed in this chapter. According to this model, all moments are linked in time, just not necessarily sequentially. Cause and effect operates at a basic level in the direct lines of communication that exist between distant and not so distant co-ordinates in the landscape of eternity. The narrator of An Unfortunate Woman suddenly gets the urge to call an old friend, for example, and “never would have made that telephone call if the bus had not driven off without him, stranding him at the site of [a] fire, which he decided to investigate” (20). There is no apparent correlation between the missing of a bus and the witnessing of a fire to the phoning of an old friend, yet the former experiences result in the latter act. There is connection between the three events which is not elaborated upon by Brautigan but emerges anyway, emerges homogenously in the impenetrable cognitive processes of the character in question.

Much more significant is the persistence of morality in this “geography of time” (Brautigan, So 65). The narrator of So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away is capable of navigating at will across the terrain of his personal history, but he never loses sight of the immense guilt he feels regarding the accidental death of his friend. At one point he begins to obsess about a choice he made between buying a hamburger or the bullets for his gun that would ultimately kill the other boy in the orchard. Hamburgers become a recurrent image in his mind, in his daily thoughts, in his attempts to rationalise the world. “I believe that only a complete knowledge of hamburgers can save my soul” (81) he claims as he interviews short order chefs for an imaginary school newspaper. This obsession is surely Currie’s guilt and moral action at its most vivid. The choice the narrator makes about what to spend his money on is not necessarily the immediate precursor to the accident, nor is it particularly the most rational event in the whole episode to fixate upon. But then guilt is never particularly rational, and Brautigan’s model of time is such that any of the tokens that the narrator has conceptually linked to this one instance can be appropriated from its position in the network of moments and emphasised beyond all reasonable doubt by the grief-stricken mind. His decision to shoot without properly aiming at a rooster may be a more logical point to pick when reconstructing the sequence of events and assigning blame to himself. The point is, however, that it is not really a sequence but rather a vast intricate framework of moments and relative events and decisions which all interrelate. The links between them can be identified and actively formed by the rational mind. Indeed, in this structure of time, cause and effect exist in a much more satisfactory and illustrative manner because multiple origins relate to multiple consequences in a way that is much more representative of the nature of existence. Certainly it is a method of textualisation that approximates the truth more closely than the flattening out of experience into a simplified, two-dimensional line.

The argument against Currie’s assertion that non-linear time roughly equates to mental health problems is made somewhat more problematic by the fact that Brautigan was himself diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age. It is certainly a well documented symptom of some schizophrenics that they struggle to retain “a sense of personal continuity in time” (Laing 69). According to Ronald David Laing, in many cases the patient becomes acutely aware of this problem and begins to attach a greatly exaggerated importance on being aware of oneself at every single instant:

Sometimes the greatest reliance may be placed on the awareness of oneself in time. This is especially so when time is experienced as a succession of moments. The loss of a section of the linear temporal series of moments through inattention to one’s time-self may be felt as a catastrophe (116).

Certainly this attention to the moment seems reminiscent of Brautigan’s literary technique, but Laing is actually stressing here the tendency of schizophrenics to cling to a linearity between these moments when contemplating their personal existence, a reaction which, as has been discussed, is at odds with Brautigan’s wider approach. In fact, Laing’s findings seem to contradict Currie’s claim that schizophrenia is linked with a movement away from linearity. In any case, several of the author’s occasional biographers are at pains to point out that this diagnosis of their subject is a very subjective one and is much more indicative of the social period in which the findings were declared than of the actual mental state of the author himself.[1]

The most striking feature of Brautigan’s perspective upon time is that it remains, throughout his career, something fundamentally subjective. Past, present and future are not universally defined but are highly dependent upon the temporal awareness and intellectual projection of the individual as he strives to rationalise his existence in this framework. For example, the narrator of So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away experiences multiple pasts and futures, some of them nested and rather convoluted. At several points in the text he is suddenly transported by the vividness of his recollection to different moments in his childhood, sometimes back to infancy and then suddenly “catapulted into the future where […] the February-17th apple-orchard event is history” (81). In reality, the entire narrative of the novel is relayed from a point in time far beyond the accident in the orchard, from somewhere in the narrator’s adult life. Yet the majority of the events recalled in the text revolve around the period of time prior to this, essentially making 17th February 1948 a future waiting to happen. Once again, Brautigan is exploding the illusion of linearity in time by illustrating that the future does not actually have to follow the present, but merely requires a notional construct of past against which to exist as counterpoint. Every moment, every event is a future to some other past; every moment is potentially a present into which recollection can cast the subjective mind, effectively scrambling and realigning temporal sequences to fit the mood of the individual. It is not merely the life of the old man he visits in his shack that the narrator of the novel is able to “take apart and put back together […] like a huge puzzle in [his] mind” (61). He is also empowered to do this for his own life, for the lives of everyone around him, deconstructing and remodelling the order of events in their personal histories in order to unravel the significance, the meaning inherent within them.

There is evidence of a historicist approach in Brautigan’s technique when he tackles time in this manner because he begins to move away from abject storytelling and into theories of cognitive evolution. Here he is effectively “using one period of the past”, albeit a distinctly subjective past, “as a metaphor with which to understand another” (Hamilton 29), the juxtaposition ultimately casting new light upon both sides of the equation. Time, he affirms over and over again, is a process of realisation that occurs within the subject and not a dimensional law of physics that dictates its own properties. As history forms almost as a byproduct of the human drive towards a rationalisation of chaos, time materializes organically, and changes, and evolves as episodes and momentary impressions are compulsively reimagined. It appears then that the postmodernist perspective of time is actually not too different from the modernist manifesto, as illustrated in the following précis of the character of Molly Bloom from Joyce’s Ulysses:

Her memory is not a faculty for bringing fixed ideas out of the past; it is one that enables her to transform them repeatedly in the endless creativity of her present consciousness, where all is fluid without separate thoughts or isolated moments […] (Kern 28)

The crucial difference between the modernist and the postmodernist slant, however, lies precisely here. Whilst the former is content to place time within the imagination, this imagination being a prerequisite constant, the latter pushes its analysis further than this, taking nothing for granted, interrogating the very manner in which consciousness arrives at these definitions and the sensory material it appropriates in order to do so. The old couple who fish from the comfort of their living room furniture in So the Wind won’t Blow it all Away, the “two American eccentrics freeze-framed in grainy black and white thirty two years ago at sunset” (93), are prime examples of this disparity. The narrator’s memory of them is expressed through a cultural frame, the popular notion of the old, faded, sepia print that still barely holds the image of a time long past. In terms of true recollection, the couple were obviously not witnessed by him in this manner when he encountered them, and after all the memory dates from only thirty two years previous, they are hardly relics of the frontier. But during the course of a cultural existence which has imbued the narrator with this connection between the past and this specific type of visual representation or artefact, the two concepts have become intertwined. The result is that his personal history assumes some of the characteristics of broader American history, at least as it is conceptualised in his mind. The memory of the couple becomes textured and exaggerated. They become a part of the greater cultural past, their eccentricities magnify and become representative of an era. The grainy black and white photograph the narrator holds in his mind is almost reminiscent of a tattered print taken of workers on the railroads, or during the Gold Rush, or of Native Americans on their Reservations. The point is that the method of expression does not merely convey memories to the reader, but actually alters them also. It cannot but taint the images it presents, and ultimately it has the effect of shifting certain points of emphasis and inferring entirely new things through the manner of representation it employs.

Of course, the contextualisation of memory is nothing more than another facet of the subjective nature of time. The personal experiences and cultural bias of the individual will dictate which signifiers, which metaphors will drive memory and temporal awareness. There is no “absolute time” (Hawking 38), only relative perspectives. In fact, this conclusion, as evident in the work of Brautigan, is rather like a literary and philosophical version of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Intellectually as well as physically “each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving” (Hawking 38):

When a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time – and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act (Hawking 38).

In perceptual terms, as has already been discussed, when events in time are considered they evoke cultural frames of reference that relate to other, wider periods of time, and in turn these cultural signifiers dictate the manner in which events are considered. Ultimately, time is no different from any other physical or cultural phenomenon: its perception and its appreciation are always impinged upon by a myriad of external forces and stimuli. These forces will fluctuate depending upon individual circumstances, making a standard definition implausible. “What we mean by ‘right now’ is a mysterious thing which we cannot define and we cannot affect” claims Richard P. Feynman (101), illustrating that the measurements and units applied to time are notional, a reduction of the truth for the sake of convenience. At one end of the spectrum, the standard second is nothing more than a maximum division of the observable time it takes the earth to rotate. At the other extreme, a light year is “the distance that light would go in one [year]” (Feynman 98). Both measurements are based on a different constant, making the very thing they represent “relative to the system by which it is measured” (Kern 18); in other words, arbitrary. The very theorems that attempt to make of time a uniform entity hold the key to their own destruction because they contradict themselves and prove themselves upon even a cursory analysis to be deeply subjective. They cannot but fail in their attempt to dispel individual and sociological alternatives because ultimately they cannot prove these alternatives to be incorrect.

So time is relative, both at an individual level and a cultural one. “The social relativity of time” (Kern 19) is indeed a theory promoted by individuals such as Durkheim who point to seasonal influences, the celebration of solstices in ancient civilizations, as evidence that time is perceived collectively in cultural groups. “Buddhist texts”, for example, “say that the world annihilates itself and reappears six thousand five hundred million times a day and that all men are an illusion” (Borges 269). “The Maya of Central America believed that history would repeat itself every 260 years” (Coveney & Highfield 25). It is perhaps an overstatement to claim that Brautigan’s perceptions on time are representative of the entire counterculture of which he was a part, but certainly his deconstruction of it parallels the challenges to physical institutions occurring elsewhere. He even goes so far as to frame his observations in specifically psychedelic terms: “The sixties […] have become legend now like the days of King Arthur sitting at the Round Tables with the Beatles, and John singing ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’” (Tokyo 97). Cultural thought and expression during this period is typically meta-referential in nature, and Brautigan simply takes this lead and applies the same techniques to intellectual and scientific subjects. Like cultural history, the authors finds within time a tendency for repetition, with every event and every instance experienced containing crucial similarities, shared characteristics with previous periods and temporal points. Perhaps this is what Borges is attempting to convey in his assertion that “the number of […] human moments is not infinite” (262). In his essay ‘A New Refutation of Time’ he theorises that time is repetitive in nature, that it loops back on itself perpetually and sensory impressions that appear familiar to an individual are not merely coincidental duplicates of earlier experiences, but rather the very same experiences navigated through a second or third time. Time is not linear, not a chain of events, but “a tireless labyrinth, a chaos, a dream” (256). In fact he goes further to claim that the only reason that the notion of time as a straight continuum exists at all is as a result of the limitations of language: “All language is of a successive nature; it does not lend itself to a reasoning of the eternal, the intemporal” (260). Curiously enough, Brautigan’s attempts to break the spell of language and to weaken its hold over time appear to result in a confirmation of Borges’ first argument. To transcend the flatline that sequential thought and utterance create is to cast the tokens of history up into the air in a three dimensional web. Between each reference point in this web is a strand that holds the structure together and these strands are the conceptual bridges that the mind uses to navigate across in its appropriation of similar or exact occurrences through which it rationalises new sensory information. The fact that it utilises pre-existent data in the process of understanding means that there is nothing truly new to its experience once it has become active, but only a regurgitation of prior knowledge. Admittedly, this prior knowledge is moulded into new combinations to create an evolution of understanding, but nevertheless the primary source, this storehouse of prior moments, is not truly infinite – it may fill with ever more examples for future reference but because nothing is new then these are really only additions or minor modifications to an unchanging core of knowledge. A primary example of this idea would be the shepherd in Trout Fishing in America who is described as “a young, skinny Adolf Hitler, but friendly” (45). Another example would be the attempt of a bookstore owner to rationalise the sexual experience a young man has just had: “You fought in the Spanish Civil War. You were a young Communist from Cleveland, Ohio. She was a painter. A New York Jew” (32). There are new ways of seeing, new metaphors to create, but only so many vehicles available on which to build them:

There

is

nothing new

under the sun

except

you and me (16).

Actually, there is nothing new under the sun including ‘you and me’. But Brautigan knows this: his assertion in this early poem from The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings is a romantic folly steeped in irony. Elsewhere in the same collection he refers to an affair as “an old story” – “somebody comes to this place”, “somebody learns to love” (86-87). At the very least, after several thousand years of evolution there is nothing an individual can experience that has not already been experienced in essence by somebody else. In this sense, the scope, the potential inherent in human activity is actually very limited. There are only a finite number of moments and possible combinations of moments that awaits any one of us. Build into this hypothesis the limitations of the cognitive mind, and human existence begins to look very finite indeed.

The aim of certain branches of physics is precisely to find these limitations, to chart the future of the universe from the evidence at hand, to eliminate chance from existence and provide a unified theory which roughly equates to predestination. Indeed, Newton’s laws are deterministic in nature, as is the notion of “Poincare’s return” (Coveney & Highfield 68) – the theory that any system will ultimately return to its initial state. If the latter of these is taken to its logical conclusion, it represents the potential for “history [to] repeat endlessly” and for it to be eventually “possible, with enough information on a system, to predict all future and past events” (68). It is perhaps rather odd that the ambition of this area of science is to do no more than validate that which has existed as a belief in various religions for centuries: that is “everything which happens to us on this earth, both good and bad, is written up above” (Diderot 21). The only difference seems to be that the physicists are searching for fate somewhere other than with God; or perhaps it is that they are searching for a different God. Either way they are seeking to eliminate choice and personal freedom, the ability to move through time in a self-determining manner.

The possibility that there really is no freedom is something that also appears to trouble Brautigan. There are elements of fate in several of his works, but most noteworthy is its appearance in So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away. To return to an example already used, at one point the narrator is talking to a casual acquaintance who has been punished by his parents for some misdemeanour and made to sleep in the garage. “I don’t know what I’m going to do” (77) his friend tells him, certain that he is operating within a system of time where his destiny lies in his own hands. The narrator, however, does not see it this way, and in fact “ha[s] it all planned out”: the boy’s resentment over being expelled from the main house is going to fester in him and manifest itself in antisocial behaviour and petty crimes and “eventually lead to him doing three years in the pen for stealing a car and then a marriage with a spiteful woman ten years older than him” (77). He even goes so far as to describe the “five children who all grew to hate him” (77). The seeds of this character’s entire future have been sown already by this one circumstance and all that is left to do is to watch them germinate and flower.

It is a vast oversimplification, however, to suggest that Brautigan merely resigns his characters to providence, thereby washing his hands of the complexity of their existence. Taken as a whole, the structure of So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away is so convoluted by the multiple periods of past and present and relative futures that the notion of fate becomes infinitely problematic in nature. The narrator is afforded a semblance of foresight in the text purely because he is constructing the story of his friend’s life retrospectively. The present from which the narrative voice speaks is actually the past as far as the narrator’s true location in time is concerned; the future that it speaks of is also the narrator’s past, albeit a relatively more recent past. Brautigan is playing games with notions of temporal narrative location in a manner which opens up a range of issues regarding concepts such as fate and destiny and their validity as genuine conceits. After all, of the three tenses it is only really the past that can be accurately and exhaustively analysed (the future has not yet occurred and the present is unfolding at the same time that the senses struggle to process the data on offer); and it is precisely this degree of intense interrogation that is required to draw conclusions on cause and effect, inevitability, destiny. In other words, fate is a concept that forms via the process of retrospection. It is only in hindsight that intricate chain reactions can be identified between different events, different moments. Or to put it another way, according to Poincare’s return, it is only within fixed and finite systems that are known in their entirety that the future can be predicted. The intervening period between an initial event and the present moment of contextualisation is precisely such a closed system, as is a one hundred and thirty page novel written in 1982. Fate is not, in Brautigan’s narrative, a mystical force at work in ordering the universe. Fate is instead yet another side effect of the human drive towards meaning and continuity from apparent disarray. Of course it is a losing battle because the physical world tends towards chaos, this is the “second law of thermodynamics” (Hawking 161), the inexorable dissipation of energy that occurs throughout the universe, converting order into disorder, ever increasing entropy. As was discussed in chapter one, Brautigan seems keen to utilise this physical law in his representation of the decline of counterculture. The erosion of personal ideals as increasing knowledge dissipates moral certainty reflects the theory perfectly. However this utilisation surely does no more than intensify the effort of rationalisation in terms of temporal awareness. As we seek to ward off the inevitable decline of clarity we draw ever more tenuous parallels between episodes in time and actively construct ideal scenarios such as destiny as a source of comfort and an act of denial.

In essence, Brautigan’s assault on the limitations of how time is perceived seems geared towards a crucial intellectual evolution, a transcendence of time, a casting off of its shackles in order to free the consciousness. He attempts repeatedly to explode the myths of linearity and absolute time and to prove as arbitrary those commonly held notions of fate and history. Behind all of the different theories, the fact remains that “all time is time perceived by someone” (Borges 264), it is lateral and constructed by the individual, and perhaps if that perception is properly contextualised then the individual can move beyond it and into other states of awareness. Evidence of this agenda can be seen in texts such as Sombrero Fallout where a self-determining narrative emerges from the discarded pages of a manuscript and begins to create of itself a parallel reality that exists outside of time, or The Abortion where the young narrator effectively opts out of his contemporary society and chooses to live instead in the seclusion of a library of unpublished books. Indeed, in the latter instance the library itself is depicted as “some kind of timeless thing” (75), a reality beyond temporal boundaries, an altered state almost to which the librarian aspires. All of which conspires towards a progression of Brautigan’s aesthetic agenda yet further, beyond the mere challenge to cultural values, beyond an ideological confrontation with history and then time, and onto the visceral and primordial elements of consciousness itself.


[1] Accounts of this episode vary depending upon the source: his daughter Ianthe claims that he had himself deliberately arrested by smashing a window so that he could at least be fed and spend the night in some sort of bed. Lawrence Wright’s version of events has the author arrested over a girl who criticised his writing. Whatever the exact motivation, it is evident that he was “diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic” during this period of imprisonment and eventually received “shock therapy” (Wright 59).

3 Responses to “Richard Brautigan – Chapter 4”

  1. emma-claredove April 5, 2013 at 9:49 am #

    Hello, I really enjoyed reading this and found it extremely interesting. I am currently writing a poetry dissertation, and am using Richard Brautigan’s work as the main focus of my essay. I was just wondering if it’d be okay to reference you in this essay, and what reference I should give? Thanks

    • Neil Schiller April 5, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

      Hi, thanks for the feedback. Yeah, of course, if you want to reference anything on the site, please do. The Brautigan stuff is all extracted from my thesis so your best bet is to reference that I guess. Full title is ‘The Historical Present: Notions of Time, History and Postmodern Consciousness in the work of Richard Brautigan’ and it was awarded by University of Liverpool in 2011.

      Always nice to find a fellow Brautigan fan 🙂

      • emma-claredove April 10, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

        Thanks very much! It’s been really useful, it can get quite confusing when trying to explain his observations and awareness of time and consciousness. And yes, likewise 🙂

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