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Behavior Against Action: In Watermelon Sugar

by Gerhard Hoffmann

Brautigan bases his novel on the antagonism between behavior and action and employs a full-scale model of life and force, including passion and violence to ironize satirically and playfully a reduced model of well-regulated, communal behavior. Drained of emotion, desire and action, the ideological worldview of order approaches the status of entropy, of the inanimate. The novel presents a pastoral idyll, allusively called iDEATH, where everything has become inanimate, indeed is made of watermelon sugar: houses, books, graves, statues, food, fuel; even "[o]ur lives we have carefully constructed from watermelon sugar" (WS 1). Though death is not eliminated, it is made beautiful. The dead rest in glass coffins on the bottom of the river with foxfire inside "so that they glow at night and we can appreciate what comes next" (WS 60). Everything that might stir thoughts of old times, like books and paintings, and the machines that might revive action, competition, and strife, are heaped up in the "Forgotten Works". People seem to live in harmony and satisfaction. Emotions and actions are reduced to the gentle life of behavior without psychological depth, without questionings, without past and future. Love and pain that might intensify life and cause a person to act individually are neither known nor understood. But there are built-in signs of disruption and dissatisfaction. A violent drunk, inBOIL, and his gang defect from the gentle life, and desire to revive action and emotion. Maintaining that the tigers, whose violence was formerly a threat to the community, are the real iDEATH, while the "unity" and "wholeness" of the gentle life is only material and mechanical in kind, they commit violent action against themselves, cutting themselves into pieces in front of the disgusted inmates of iDEATH. Their action, however, is as meaningless in this context of undisturbable "peace" as Margaret's suicide out of the desire for a love that is no longer reciprocated by the man she loves and is in fact quite contrary to the rule. The narrator, her former lover, who watches her hang herself on an apple tree, does not understand much but deep down obviously feels a lack and a desire for a different life, since he does not sleep well and is in the habit of taking long walks at night for no given reason. His inner disturbance can be included into the gentle life because it is also reduced to "behavior" and does not explode into open feeling or individual action. In this book the (emotional and intellectual) whole of a person has been replaced by a partial being that becomes fantastically fixed. Beauty has been devitalized, harmony turned into entropy. Desire, emotion, and action are here seen as personal and therefore in this kind of gentle-life community as anti-social, but, paradoxically even in their fantasticality, they are the only "real" things there are.

Wherever else in postmodern fiction beauty, harmony and peace are suggested by a quiet surface of life — for instance in the extra-terrestrial alternative world of the Tralfamadorians, who cherish harmony and happiness grounded on the surrender of variability, individuality, and personal action in Vonnegut's? Slaughterhouse-Five — they are, with only a few exceptions, unfavorably contrasted with the life and force principles of vitality, struggle, and movement, which have become, in one way or another, together with the life force of the imagination, the main positive frames of reference, as many of the exemplary texts that we discussed and will discuss prove. The high esteem given in postmodern fiction to the dynamics of difference, movement, struggle, to energy, fluidity, and chaos, to dissemination, deferral, and multiplicity, of course corresponds to the general trend of deconstructionism, to the aesthetics of "crisis", "displacement", "absence", "violence", or "madness", to the principles of movement, nomadism, endless deferral of meaning, asserted by Foucault?, Derrida?, Lyotard?, and Deleuze-Guattari. It is one of the basic ironies of postmodern fiction that the life-principle that manifests itself in action can only be concretized within the reductive forms of the system, in acts of obsession and paranoia, in self-reflexive acts of the imagination, or, ex negativo, in devitalized forms of behavior that are fantasized into sterile irreality and appear to signify the loss of the sense for action.

From Modernism to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005: 561-562

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