Richard Brautigan – Chapter 5

Zen and the Art of Richard Brautigan

The past cannot remember the past. The future can’t generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is (Pirsig 287).

In their perpetual search for new and alternative points of reference for their redefinitions of self and society, it was perhaps inevitable that many within the counterculture turned ultimately to Eastern philosophies and religious spiritualism. In terms of cultural definition and personal awareness it is difficult to imagine a greater fundamental divide than that which exists between the broadly defined commercial ideals of Western society and the incremental expansion to the geniality of the soul as offered and espoused by Zen Buddhism. In terms of counterpoint alone, it seems a natural choice. Brautigan is no exception to this wider trend, although the initial attraction seems for him to have sprung from the evident parallel between his notions of moment and the Zen principle of the ever constant now. It is only in the immediate present, contests Brautigan, that one draws breath, that one is aware, that one lives. All else that exists is merely conceptual, is an interpretation of previous impressions and prior knowledge to create an illusory sense of continuum that is really nothing more than the end product of a process of rationalisation. As Wong Kiew Kit proposes: “our consciousness acts as a link between our past, present and future lives” (Kit 46). In fact, in the work of Brautigan, it is the consciousness that creates some form of link between these three arbitrary states. Continuity is not something that exists in its own right in the physical world. Cohesion is a construct, is the output of a method whereby information is collated for intellectual convenience. As has already been discussed, Brautigan is aware of this fact – it appears time and again in his work. His characters bare the effort and frustrations of sequencing their lives, his narrators perhaps even more so. The significance attached to the actions of the narrator’s lover in the story ‘Women When They Put Their Clothes on in the Morning’, for instance, is a prime example of this endeavour. Essentially, this nameless woman is doing nothing more in the text than redressing after sex but it is the spatial context the author constructs around her that loads the incident with significance. “She’s got her clothes on, and the beginning is over” (Brautigan, Revenge 118). It is not specified what this beginning is, it is just a beginning, a notional and almost flippant categorisation. Temporally speaking, the incident is being expressed here as the starting point of an imaginary sequence. To it is assigned a conjectured future which is imposed upon this single isolated moment by the narrative voice. A conceptual structure of beginning, middle and end is being forged for a chain of cause of effect which does not yet exist, which never will actually exist outside of the process of intellectualisation.


[…] the soul is not inside the body. The body, rather, is within the soul. Your soul is the entire pattern of reality – of everything that is – focused at the point you experience as “here and now” (Watts, Beat 41).


In Brautigan’s work, the past and the future emanate outwards from the instant of awareness almost like light refracted through a prism. The point of origin for how these two temporal concepts signify, and indeed the way in which they signify, is right here in the perpetual present of consciousness. The lives of the author’s characters, our lives, are not just what we make of them: they are entirely our own inventions. The past is interpreted, the future conjectured, the genesis of each cognitive process right here in the present. Brautigan may not arrive at these conclusions through a defined ritual of meditation as a Buddhist might, but there is evidence that he does so via his own cultural version of a meditative act – whilst out fishing. “My mind drifted from place to place, past and present watching the fly as if it were my imagination” he expounds in The Tokyo-Montana Express (152). His appropriation of Zen values, it seems, is precisely that – an appropriation rather than a spiritual conversion. He engages in his work with “Bompu Zen” (Kapleau 49), or ‘ordinary’ Zen, the lowest recognised spiritual form which deals primarily with enlightenment in daily life rather than with a higher mystical ideal. On one level this seems almost a simple adoption of the Beat ethic whereby writers such as Kerouac and Ginsberg become obsessive about the attainment of Satori in their every deed and action: “the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows” (Kerouac 173). Brautigan, however, approaches his Zen philosophy in a much more visceral manner. His focus is less upon that which one can attain and more upon the manner in which one is prone to exist right here and now. Zen comes to inform everything in his writing, from the most bizarre instances of being right down to the most mundane. It is only through this relentless application that he can lead himself to minor epiphanies such as the fly on the end of his fishing line being a signifier of his imagination, and “the creek and its banks [as] products of that imagination” (Tokyo 152). Zen is the key to understanding that everything he in sees and experiences is imbued with the values and bias of Richard Brautigan. His appropriation of the theology is not about eternity as an abstract notion, but is much more about the manner in which the individual engages with his environment, how this method of engagement informs that environment and then, in turn, reaches out into a vast eternity of which this engagement is now an indelible part.

One of the founding truths of Zen is that reality is transient in nature. Everything is in essence impermanent: “life delineates itself on the canvas called time; and time never repeats: once gone, forever gone” (Suzuki 48). Existence is a perpetual flux of momentary impressions and the only constant through each of them is the captive mind, the consciousness that experiences and remembers and categorises these discrete units of being. Because of this, each moment the author’s characters live through becomes microcosmic, interpreted and interpretable only by the rational mind via a system of cross-reference with pre-cognisant images and methods of understanding. Zen Buddhism enables Brautigan to expound upon his theory of lateral time because it gives him a precedent to work with. In this system, it is not just time that is lateral: ultimately everything is. “There is no knowledge of substance. It’s just something we imagine. It’s entirely within our own minds” (Pirsig 134). Robert Pirsig argues that nothing exists simply in its own right. Observation is not a passive act, but an aggressive application of values and “a priori” (135) knowledge in a complex construction of individual awareness. Upon each situation is brought to bear an intricate matrix of personal predispositions which makes reality a wholly individual experience in the first instance and a wholly artificial one in the second. It also proves the transience of existence: by affirming physical truth to be subordinate to predilection, it necessarily also becomes subject to the fickle nature of human consciousness. For instance, in The Tokyo-Montana Express, a female character engages the narrator in a conversation about the landscape: “when she started talking about the mountains, they looked one way and when she finished talking about them, they looked another way” (20). This observation demonstrates that successive experiences add to the repository of knowledge brought to bear in any given situation. All subsequent engagements with the external world, whether they be new engagements or a recollection of prior ones, will be subject to the impressions generated in intervening moments. The fundamental data employed in the process of awareness is essentially subject to constant revision and nothing will ever remain the same in the eye of the beholder. In this instance, the mountains look different because they are now perceived differently, and if perception is what imbues them with their distinguishable qualities then it surely follows that they are different.

To illustrate the point about the artifice of reality yet further, Brautigan includes in one of his novels a narrative that writes itself. Discarded in the wastebasket whilst its author deals with the dejection of a failed relationship, the characters within the text of Sombrero Fallout continue to develop autonomously, the torn fragments of manuscript they exist within starting to glow and congeal. “It was a big decision but they decided to go on without him” (14). The surreal saga of a civil war that breaks out over a mysterious hat then unfolds, but much more significant than the narrative development is the parallel drawn by Brautigan between this melodrama and the physical life of its abandoned author – significant because this is no more real than the fiction he is evidently not writing. At precisely the same instant that these pieces of text are organising themselves he is sitting in his apartment wondering what to do next with his life:


Then he knew what to do. He called a girl on the telephone. She was pleased that it was him when she answered the telephone (13).


He talks to this girl about the casual sexual relationship they have had together for years and she throws a log on the fire and “he put[s] his coat on and start[s] out the door” (14). Except that none of this actually happens: “he hadn’t touched the telephone and there was no such girl” (14). All these scenarios are projections of his emotionally damaged consciousness, nothing more than wishful thinking. But they call into question the effect that emotional distractions have on human awareness at any given time. Effectively there are always going to be psychological or biological impulses that will act as filters on any given external stimuli and these impulses will inevitably further cloud the issue as to what actually constitutes reality. Does the author in Sombrero Fallout actually have to put his coat on for that to become the truth of what happened in his apartment, or does he simply have to imagine a sequence of events that begins with this action for it to become a less literal, but no less significant, representation of what occurred: his state of mind, his lingering hope, his utter desperation?

Conversely, the author’s ex-girlfriend in Sombrero Fallout sleeps peacefully throughout the entire duration of the novel. She dreams incessantly of her father, of Kyoto in the rain, and of a “beautiful spring day in Seattle” (143). These are her realities, the collective elements of her perceptual state of awareness, linked to the physical world of her bedroom by the purring of her cat upon which the state of mind conducive to these reveries depends. In Yukiko’s dreams, Brautigan asserts, “her father [is] an unseen character”, is “everything in the dream that you couldn’t see” (131). Her reality contains not only knowable elements, but also unknowable and unrepresentable ones. Just as critical to awareness, the author implies, are those things that exist negatively, that are experienced only by their absence. In Zen these are categorised as Mu – in simple terms a sense of nothingness, although strictly speaking Zen students are instructed not to “construe Mu as nothingness” nor to “conceive it in terms of existence or non-existence” (Kapleau 83). In secular terms, however, the critical functions of human consciousness are founded on this divide between what is and what is not, when in truth the two are illustrated here as not only interchangeable but, in fact, the same thing. When something is it is so just as definitively because of what it is not. The two concepts are irrevocably intertwined and the impulse of Zen theology to push its students beyond the divisive terms in which they are traditionally contemplated echoes through Brautigan’s text as a call to transcend simplistic notions of being. Yukiko’s father is absent from her dream but it is nevertheless a dream about him. The physical motifs of the landscape and the weather are the essence of her memories from which her father cannot be extricated. Everything is linked. Everything informs and denotes everything else. So it is easy to state categorically that a specific image does not literally feature in a thought process, and not so easy to establish that the same thought process is categorically not concerned with that same image.

For Robert Pirsig, a contemporary of Brautigan’s, the moment of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism is associated to the awareness that reality is a projection from within. It is this precise instant when the realisation hits that “everything you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided” (Pirsig 146) that Satori is finally attained. This convergence is indeed a recurrent theme in Zen literature – the subject and the object being no more than elements of the same phenomenon, equal proponents of an organic reaction that produce this event called experience:


The high distant cry

of the stag tells the hunter

how to blow his horn (Issa 78)


Without the one there would be no other: the two concepts exist in counterpoint only, reliant upon their mirror image for definition. If the hunter only exists because there is something to hunt, then it follows that the reverse is also true. Perhaps the stag does not need his pursuer quite so literally, but without him it would not have that definition – it would not be a stag in the terms that we understand that to mean. The cultural connotations of nobility and natural grace and worthiness of pursuit all hang off this innate relationship between the two sides of the equation. Brautigan employs the same technique:


Here is something beautiful (etc.


Its color begins in your hand.

Its shape is your touch (Brautigan, Mercury 55).


Cause and effect become in Zen a closed circle, a means which has its ends contained within its own origins. Whatever it is that the subject of Brautigan’s poem has “so little left” of, its beauty is the end product of a process of appreciation come full cycle. The beauty itself is not a innate property but an experience, an incident between the subject and the object. Its colour only becomes so when categorised, its shape and texture are only as they are felt to be. The physical properties of the object inform the aesthetic verdict, and the verdict confers upon the object its value. Every instance of being is this way, every interaction with the physical world exists as a dialogue between two halves of the same instance of awareness. These ‘two halves’ are indeed almost a manifestation of Ying and Yang, a notion of fate that is not necessarily concerned with personal destiny but more with the inevitable consequences attendant upon ordering principles and the natural balance of the universe. Brautigan demonstrates in the poem cited above that nothing exists in a vacuum, and that all the elements that constitute our world belong ultimately to an equilibrium which enables relatively stable and unconfused states of consciousness. The moment of contact between human awareness and the physical world is both proactive and reactive. The mind works simultaneously to channel the influences that bombard it and to rationalise, categorise, and project back its own definitions.

A further defining principle of Zen is that of vocation, and it is here that the process of facilitation in the rational mind of the observer is duly acknowledged. If the assumption of a role in any given situation (whether that be a hunter or a passive onlooker) is a fundamental truth of the way consciousness works then it follows that the only way to enhance one’s quality of being is to engage in this process as fully and productively as possible. Wu wei, “action in accordance with the character of the moment” (Watts, Beat 46), becomes the ideal towards which the Zen pupil must strive, performing each action as diligently, economically and characteristically as possible. One example of this in Brautigan’s work would be the effort Lee Mellon and Jesse put into looking for a lost pomegranate in A Confederate General from Big Sur. As Jesse himself exclaims “there was nothing else to do, for after all this was the destiny of our lives” (141). Another example is the “hippie girl” (Revenge 90) of the story ‘A Long Time Ago People Decided to Live in America’ who passes the narrator on the street and “departs beautifully towards all the people that she will ever meet” (91). Each of these instances suggests that our fate is to live through a series of moments (either predestined or random) and the only control we really have is over the quality inherent in the engagement we make with these instants in time.

Knowledge, however, is not the same as knowing and a glimpse of this truth does not necessarily, as Pirsig seems to imply, grant the Zen pupil his coveted state of Satori. This end is only achieved incrementally over long periods of time whereby the student gains ever stronger and ever more sustainable glimpses of the true nature of reality. Enlightenment is not something that can be taught and the pupil is not instructed but rather led by his master through an intricate series of self-discoveries. There are several documented methods used to promote this self-realisation, but none so universally employed as the koan:


Koans deliberately throw sand into the eyes of the intellect to force us to open our mind’s eye and see the world and everything in it undistorted by our concepts and judgements (Kapleau 76).


As Kapleau states, koans are designed to tax the rationality of the Zen student, to infuriate their logical synapses with unimaginable images and irresolvable riddles. Their purpose is to push the exasperated pupil beyond his preconceptions, beyond the rules of physics and commonplace truths that they have been conditioned with since childhood and out into a new transcendental awareness of the universe. The crux of the matter is that the definitions our cultures hold paramount are no more than interpretations, structures imposed upon the world that do not necessarily represent truth and should not be taken for granted when there are alternative methods of thought and experience which could, in the final analysis, prove to be just as valid. Koans are designed to provoke the rational mind and lead it not to any concrete definition of these alternatives but to an awareness that alternatives do at least exist. Upon this realisation the Zen student can then further build his enlightened vision. So the question may be asked as to how “the sound of clapping with one hand” would be (Kit 142). Or the student could be asked to contemplate an answer already provided to a question. ‘Does a dog have a Buddhist nature?’, for instance, the answer affirmed as “mu” (Kit 142) rather than yes or no. This response may seem highly illogical but the Zen koan is so devised as to defeat logic, to take away the primary faculty that human consciousness utilises in its appropriation of the world and force it to work differently, to approach its task differently, and to arrive at different conclusions.

Brautigan utilises koans throughout his work, primarily to provoke his readers with an indication of the infinite potential of the imagination. In his story ‘1/3, 1/3, 1/3’ he includes a very koanesque description of an implausible animal, a miserable “half-dog, half-cat creature” (Revenge 13) which somehow epitomises the sad and compromised poverty of the trailer park it lives in. When it “half-bark[s] and half-meow[s]” with an “Arfeow” (13), it becomes a less figurative object in the text and a much more literal one, defying reason and logic and common sense. The creature is as real as the “black ragged toothache sky” (11), or the trailer’s dirty limp bed, “partner to some of the saddest love-making this side of The Cross” (13). The reader can imagine these other miserable tokens of a grim existence, and can do so because of the specific configuration of emotive words that Brautigan brings together in his sentences. The half-dog half-cat may be less plausible but is ultimately imaginable in precisely the same terms, and so it follows that there is really no difference between it and the bed, the sky or the trailer. They are all actually conceivable at some level within the act of comprehension. Nevertheless, there is an inherent irony in the fact that koans are also intended, in Philip Kapleau’s words, to “liberate the mind from the snare of language” (76). Language is precisely the vehicle Zen masters use to impart koans to their pupils, as it is the vehicle Brautigan utilises to deconstruct logic. It is not so much language itself that is identified as the enemy to Zen Buddhist thought but rather what it represents in its role as the only viable method of communicating and propounding logic statements. Language is an intrinsically logical method: as has already been discussed in previous chapters, it has to conform to a standard and a defined set of rules for communication to be made at all possible. Consequently, it becomes another manacle clasped onto the free consciousness, its forms and customs informing the manner in which thought occurs rather than serving to support the process of awareness. This is why koans are minimalist in nature, presented to their audience with the least possible descriptive elaboration. They are not answers but arrows, hints and clues that mark the way towards realisations beyond the almost incidental content of the anecdotes themselves. The following exemplifies the underlying technique of koan in Brautigan’s work:


I’m haunted a little this evening by feelings that have no vocabulary and events that should be explained in dimensions of lint rather than words (Brautigan, Revenge 101).


Koans are the “finger[s] pointing at the moon” (Watts, Spirit 50), the prompts rather than the focus of attention, and they occur again and again throughout the counterculture at this juncture as aids to social agendas and catalysts of psychedelic experimentation. The Diggers’ street performances can be understood as a kind of physical koan, a jolt to the expectations of bystanders to make them conscious of their enactment of roles. Their free-store signs can be viewed as dialectic koans: “If Someone Asks to See the Manager Tell Him He’s the Manager” (Grogan 374). Whatever form they take, they are all directed towards one goal: to take a concept which seems on the surface to be absolute and to explode its apparent truth, to reveal it as nothing more than an uncontested value in a much larger framework of uncontested values. For example, Brautigan identifies in ‘The Wild Birds of Heaven’ the notion of credit, that great Western technique of subjection, as something worthy of reconsideration. In the first instance, his character explains to the store clerk that he has perfect credit, a claim supported solely on the fact that he is “already 25,000 dollars in debt” (Revenge 39). It is now quite a commonly held view that credit is assigned not on the size of the assets available with which a borrower can repay their debt but on the amount of debt they have already accumulated, but the concept is no less absurd simply because it is commonly considered a capitalist truth. However, Brautigan then switches tack slightly and dispenses with notions of logic and illogic, choosing to illustrate his point instead in a rather more koan-like manner. What follows is an anecdote about how the consumer’s shadow is removed as part of the credit arrangement and replaced with that of “an immense bird” (40). The imagery is bizarre, absurd, vaguely obscene somehow, certainly perplexing. Yet the removal of one’s shadow is no more or less absurd than the unquestioning acceptance of concepts such as credit agreements, no more or less absurd than the willing submission to methods of financial and personal control when in reality it is this submissiveness alone that makes them effective, makes them real. The bird shadow in the story is a form of tangible humiliation to which the consumer submits because he is so conditioned into believing that this is no more than his lot in life, that this is the only way it can be. He is saddled with an albatross and suddenly Brautigan’s koan takes on an almost postmodernist significance: it is leading the reader towards a personal revelation, and just as it can only transmit its message through language, so too must it draw reference from signifiers that the reader can comprehend. Hence the albatross, hence the allusion to Coleridge and the bird hung around the neck as a curse.

Haiku is essentially an extension of this same referential aesthetic, whereby signifiers are stripped bare of elaboration and a very fine balance is struck between the perceptual capability of the reader and the void of description that encourages him to forge a personal visualisation. Haiku is evocative rather than illustrative because perception is rather more evocative than illustrative. “Zen is emphatically a matter of personal experience” claims D.T. Suzuki (362). So is existence, so are cognisance and comprehension: all of these occur on a distinctly individual basis. In Zen, as in the work of Brautigan, reality is the responsibility of the beholder: it can be no more than that which his perceptions inform him of. To understand the manner in which these significations are brought to bear is to become enlightened, is “to learn about oneself [and] to forget oneself” (Kapleau 21).


We met at a bar. We talked for a while. We had a few drinks.


We made love and she had a dog (Brautigan, Tokyo 187).


There is decidedly little for the reader to work with in the prose haiku of Brautigan cited above. The narrator meets a woman, drinks with her, talks to her, has sex with her. She has a pet dog. These are the bare facts. The significance of them is simply not something inherent within the text. The significance is something that the reader engenders, something that depends purely upon “the subjective condition of the one to whose ears it chance[s] to fall” (Suzuki 70). Whether the reaction of the reader is moral or emotional or indifferent is entirely unpredictable. What the anecdote means is therefore indefinable, is arbitrary because it means in whatever way the reader wants it to mean. There is a distinct parallel here between Haiku and postmodernist technique: both encourage the reader to focus upon the terms in which they perceive and upon the act of perception itself, in order to transcend the passive role of the recipient of received meaning. The only difference really between the two schools is in the method of delivery. Postmodernism funnels a cultural eternity’s worth of cluttered cultural signifiers into one point of compressed significance, whereas Haiku starts with the narrow end, the minimum amount of skeletal syllables which force the consciousness through and out into an infinity of awareness. As D.T. Suzuki states: “in one lion are revealed millions of lions, and in millions of lions is revealed one lion” (35). Ultimately, it does not matter at which end of the spectrum consciousness begins its process of rationalisation. From an analysis of multitude is distilled a quality common to all. From the single point of focus is projected this same quality, detected in isolation and applied rather than derived. Whatever the means, the ends are the same, and it is this close alignment of Haiku and postmodernism which appears to have drawn Brautigan to the form. Indeed, he often attempts to imbue his Haiku with postmodernist elements, almost to fuse the two concepts, or to assimilate Haiku in a truly postmodernist style of representation:


A warm thunder and lightening storm

tonight in Tokyo with lots of rain and umbrellas

around 10pm (Brautigan, June 48)


The first half of ‘A Small Boat on the Voyage of Archaeology’ seems almost traditional in its evocation of Haiku. The imagery is sparse but evocative; it is elemental in nature – illustrative of the weather and temperature and water. The verse is very precisely located in time, significantly expressed as a moment rather than a temporal elapse. These are all common characteristics of Haiku and Brautigan seems to be adopting the form quite candidly here, with the syllabic rules being perhaps the only omission. However, there is something about this careful appropriation of the conventions of Haiku that almost seems to undermine the poet’s sincerity, to suggest that it is an appropriation, a pastiche, a “bravura imitation” (Jameson 133) of the form. The poem is about Tokyo, which suggests an element of cultural reference, an inter-textuality creeping into what should be a purely provocative stanza of bare images. The storm and the water and the humidity are all utilised with precision to trigger a recognition of the Haiku form on behalf of the reader. All that is missing from the repository of traditional Haiku signifiers is that of stone or season. The real postmodern twist to the poem, however, comes in the second half where the Haiku form is turned upon itself and effectively negated:


This is a small detail right now

but it could be very important

a million years from now when archaeologists

sift through our ruins, trying to figure us

out (Brautigan, June 48).


From the transfixed moment, Brautigan switches effortlessly to the grand sweep of history. From the bare facts which cage the vacuum into which the reader rushes with his rationalisations, the poet leaps to a lengthy and prescriptive discussion of the significance of his observation. It is this swift change of tack that serves to illustrate the first half of the poem as nothing more than another element in the author’s postmodernist conglomeration of signifiers. The Haiku form becomes for Brautigan but another tool in his invocation of a total cultural awareness. By undermining the first three lines in this way he draws further attention to the increasingly apparent artificiality of his Haiku, the formulaic and calculated nature of its imagery, whilst simultaneously opening the poem up to a wider cultural frame of reference with the archaeologists dusting off remains with their brushes. Surprisingly, however, this destabilisation does not actually negate the impact the Haiku has on the reader. Admittedly it is a departure from the traditional form, but rather than a true pastiche, the postmodernist element seems almost to enhance the poem, to take its principle aesthetic values and to translate them into a universal statement of intent.

To illustrate this accordance a comparison can be made between perhaps the most famous Basho poem (as translated by Wong Kiew Kit) and a rather similar endeavour of Brautigan’s:


Ah! The old pond

A frog jumps in

The water’s sound (Kit 169)


This Haiku explores the continuity of existence, the principle connection between all elements of being. The frog and his pond are indicative of what the poetic form represents: the “microcosm related to transcendent unity” (Stryk 12). Each line of the poem is perfectly self contained, a microcosm within the microcosm, but together they suggest new meanings, new complementary relationships between the components of awareness. As Basho’s frog jumps into his pond he presumably creates a noise. The splash is the result of the physical properties of the frog commingling with the physical properties of the water. The poem, however, does not depict this as a linear sequence of events. It is more of a synchronous experience in the text, a blend of sensual impressions that together forge a moment of awareness. The frog jumps into the sound of the water. He does not create the sound, he enters into the middle of it: the aural and kinetic elements of the incident happen concurrently, too concurrently for a logical rationalisation of linearity to be at all valid. In this manner Haiku emulates Zen by prompting the reader to engage more directly in the spontaneous moments of existence. Pirsig expresses it thus when describing the construct of a moment: “there is no subject and there is no object. There is only a sense of Quality” (294), an immediacy of experience composed of multiple points of stimuli. Brautigan, in turn, emulates this sensual synchronicity in some of his Haiku, and then extends the principle to denote a cultural synchronicity:


Their eyes are filled with the sounds

of what she is doing (The Pill 65).


Some bacon is frying.

It smells like a character

that you like in a good movie.

A beautiful girl is watching

the bacon (Mercury 70).


Brautigan’s Haiku is less microcosmic than that of Basho, is certainly less refined in terms of the rules of the poetic form, but essentially it strives to make the same aesthetic point. The work of each poet attempts to illustrate a unification of existence, a harmonisation of the subject with the objects he perceives, with the manner in which he perceives them, and with the intellectual products of this process of perception. Whereas Basho’s technique is primarily visual, aromatic, tactile, Brautigan’s method is more rational, essentially cultural and sociological in nature. In his appropriation of the form, however, the latter seems almost to be highlighting a direct line of ascendance, a lineage between Haiku and postmodernism. After all, a frog jumping into the sound of water is not that different conceptually to a rasher of bacon frying in a pan and smelling like a film star. Each image invokes in turn a notion of continuity, of synchronicity between different elements of a disparate world. Whether that synchronicity is sensual or cultural in nature is really irrelevant. Moreover, in each instance the emphasis is always placed squarely on the observer: it is the observer’s senses that fire simultaneously; it is the observer’s cultural synapses that trigger a multitude of connotations stretching back over the span of their experience. As Pirsig states: “we take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world” (85). This microcosmic process of reference is what Zen, and in turn Haiku, strive to reverse, encouraging its followers to transcend the reductionist tendencies of consciousness and open themselves up to alternative modes of awareness. This is what postmodern signification strives for also: an evolution of the intellect so that it develops knowledge of the manner in which it knows and in that way enriches the experience of perception.

The apparent schism between Haiku and postmodernism lies in the common perception of the former as an essentially intuitive method of awareness whereas the latter is often maintained, by Jameson and Chénetier and others, to be a fundamentally intellectual exercise. This apparent juncture, however, is only really a semantic problem, and one which Brautigan manages to skirt around with some ease:


An empty


a new


and a bottle


aspirin (Brautigan, Edna 105).


In the poem ‘still life 2’, cited above, Brautigan presents the reader with a very scant repository of images. The nouns have few adjectives attached to them which is again reminiscent of the conventions of Haiku. But the title adds a dimension of cultural reference, the still life tag indicative of various schools of painting, in this instance Cubism perhaps, particularly in light of the subject matter. The ordering of the objects provides an almost skeletal narrative: the lack of money caused by a purchase and resulting in a headache, or resulting in a suicidal depression. The direct manner in which the poet moves between the objects so fluidly lends a certain tone of desperation to the text, an apparent despair on the part of the subject that she has been so casual with her finances. Most significantly, all these realisations about the potential meanings of the poem occur simultaneously in the consciousness of the reader. The narrative significance and the intuitive sense of doom are not consequential discoveries: they coalesce in the mind at precisely the same instant, as does the awareness of the cultural allusion of the title and the bearing that this casts over the rest of the text. In effect, there is no actual difference here between intellect and intuition: the two are but complementary elements in the totality of perceptual awareness in precisely the same way that Basho’s frog and the sound of the water are indivisible components of the same whole. What “transcending the intellect” (Suzuki 45) actually means, in light of this example, is not that the conceptualising function of the mind should be discarded but that it should be appreciated for what it is: a containment method of the senses that can, and should, be understood, and in being understood should be imbued more fully with the other data processing routines that are occurring at the same time. To transcend intellect, then, is to merely rescind its primacy, to equalise and harmonise this component of the genetic makeup of human perception with other, equally valid reactions. This multiplicity is one of the driving ambitions of postmodernism: to understand why any given stimuli produces an intellectual or emotional response and to create of this knowledge an equilibrium which unifies all experience. Indeed, Jameson propounds the same ideal, albeit in decidedly more literary terms, expressing it as the ambition to “abolish the boundary and the distinction between fiction and fact, or art and life” (Jameson, Cultural 75).

Another characteristic Haiku shares with postmodernism is that of lineage. Obviously, the very existence of the latter is dependent upon this concept – cultural heritage is the medium in which postmodernism lives, for without it there would be no vast repository of signifiers from which to draw iconoclastic and ironic points of reference. It is only through social lineage that a narrator’s grandmother can “shine […] like a beacon down the stormy American past” (Brautigan, Revenge 1); it is only by approaching the subject matter “in a roundabout way, including varieties of time and human experience” (Brautigan, Unfortunate 74) that an author can endow his illustrations with a sense of universality and allow his imagery to resonate. The concept of lineage in Zen Buddhism is infinitely more metaphysical than this. Time, as ascertained above, may never repeat, but it is nevertheless both temporal and temporary: “the only permanence is impermanence and change” (Hamill xiii). The only constant in this endless progression is the individual consciousness, perpetually aware and engaged in a rationalisation of these temporal changes which gives them the semblance of continuity:


I mark passing time

beating straw to weave beneath

this cool summer moon (Issa 16)


Yet we ourselves are perhaps not as constant as we assume. As Wong Kiew Kit points out, if the cell replacement ratios that biologists lead us to believe are correct, then we are all ourselves in a state of permanent flux: “the physical body you have now is completely different from the one you had seven months ago” (26). So what is the source of continuity? There must be one or else there would be no Buddhist religion, no teachers and no disciples, no wisdom to pass down and no method of passing it. The answer, put simply, is that the doctrine is the constant: the body of knowledge which directs each individual who comes into contact with it towards a personal realisation of consciousness. It is Zen Buddhism’s attempt to transcend self, and in so doing to transcend mortality and therefore time, that ensures continuity of its teachings:


We […] come and go like leaves on a tree, but the tree remains: and we are the tree (Watts, Beat 43)


It is this timelessness, this perpetuation of universal truth at a level that bridges the limits of any one individual’s physical existence that again ties the principles of Zen so closely to the aesthetic goals of Brautigan’s postmodernist method. After all, it is precisely to this same state of timelessness that this latter technique aspires, drawing on cultural signifiers in so indiscriminate a manner as to simultaneously evoke a cacophony of different cultural eras and draw from them a significance common to all. Brautigan’s postmodernism seeks to make the author’s truths universal by locating them outside of, or above, the physical sequences of time. The Zen Buddhist seeks to immerse himself in a truth that existed before him and will go on existing after him in an attempt to transcend the insignificance of his own short existence. “There is more to life than meets the eye” asserts Brautigan (Sombrero 173), there is experience and significance and truth beyond the banality of everyday awareness, and it is towards an illustration of this that both Zen and postmodernism aspire.

It would be easy to dismiss this commonality of purpose as purely coincidental if the two schools of thought did not use at least some of the same methods in their respective means towards the same ends. There is one element, however, that seems more significant than any of the others: that of humour. In Zen “the comic is deliberately used to break up concepts […] to teach what cannot be taught in words” (Kit 23). Just as the koan is used to illustrate the artificiality of existence, comedy is utilised to make clear its patent absurdity. They each represent a way of encouraging the student to free himself from his assumptions and his repressions. To be truly free one has to be liberated from oneself, freed from ingrained perspectives and personal neuroses, and the most effective method of dispelling phobias is to realise how ludicrous they are and to laugh at them. Zen is a process of awareness that throws its students deliberately into confusion in the hope that they will emerge on the other side with a realisation that this confusion is resolvable in a given context. Comedy is a useful tool because it alleviates the stress that this procedure inevitably invokes as well as aiding in the journey towards enlightenment itself. Brautigan has more of a social than a spiritual agenda, but he utilises the same comedic technique throughout the entire body of his work:





The lengths of folded stream, the waterfalls with their individual price tags, and the inevitable “box of scraps” (Trout 142) in the conceptual sale cited here are all intended to parody the commercialisation of American society. They are reminiscent of water features on sale in a garden centre, but even more obscene because they are not replicas of natural landscapes but the natural landscapes themselves, ripped up and sectioned and valued. It is precisely because the image is so comical that the parody delivers so effective a message. The joke is not so much about teaching what cannot be taught with words but about illustrating the irrationality of American culture in its own terms: irrationally. Potentially everything is susceptible to commoditisation in a capitalistic society and the author’s rather extreme illustration of this relays perfectly the absurdity inherent in the mechanisms of commerce. “How much are the birds?” asks the narrator, to which he is advised “they’re used. We can’t guarantee anything” (Trout 140). The joke is so well executed that it cuts right through to the heart of its subject. Natural resources are not only being seized and then sold back to the populace who initially had free access to these resources anyway, but those doing the selling will not even take any responsibility for the quality of the stolen goods they are providing. The humour is connotational in nature, intended to surprise the reader into a realisation in precisely the same way that the methods of Zen masters are intended to “make the disciples’ minds flow into a channel hitherto altogether unperceived” (Suzuki 237).

Alan Watts provides an informative critique of Zen humour in his work The Spirit of Zen. Therein he describes the manner in which Zen masters are often initially revered by their students and are then forced to refer to themselves comically as “old rice bags” (34) because holiness is an arbitrary distinction they wish not to be endowed upon themselves. In Zen Buddhism, everything is in essence holy, but it is this intellectual classification on the part of the young scholar that bars the way to enlightenment. So humour is used to mock the method of demarcation, to poke fun at the “tyranny and misrepresentation of ideas” inherent within it (Suzuki 270). It is precisely the same technique as applied to Brautigan’s trout stream. To sell a natural object, to demand money for something that should be freely available to all, is obscene. Yet it has long been common practice to sell food and water, organic natural resources. The idea of sections of stream for sale is not really so different from charges levied for other ‘commodities’. To point this out is surely no more than to poke fun at the “tyranny and misrepresentation” of these traditions.

In many ways Brautigan’s appropriation of Zen is not unique – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti all incorporated the notions of Satori and wu wei into their work – but it is only Brautigan in his application of humour and connotational consciousness that captures the real essence of the philosophy in tangible terms. “We are not ordinarily aware of how we are aware” claims Alan Watts (Beat 43). It is this lack of awareness which impedes enlightenment; it is this which stands as a barrier between the individual and a liberated consciousness. Brautigan recognises this juncture implicitly and brings both Zen and postmodernism to bear on the problem in a unified application of method. This is what makes him unique and this is what makes him less “the John Lennon of the hippie novel” (Bradbury 217) as previously cited and more the Basho of the postmodernist counterculture.

One thought on “Richard Brautigan – Chapter 5

  1. ms_cross December 6, 2011 / 6:39 pm

    Neil, lovely to be able to read your ideas. I’d love to discuss our work with you. Can’t wait to meet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s