Transcendentalism Revived: The Fiction of Richard Brautigan
by Manfred Putz?
Though concealed by blithe indifference, carelessness, and ostentatious flippancy, a secularized and diluted version of Transcendentalism is discernible in the works of Richard Brautigan. Perhaps this was not immediately obvious when A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan's first novel, became an instant success, particularly with the heterogeneous movement contemporary America calls the counter-culture. The novel, which defined almost the entire compass of Brautigan's future works, takes a hip view of the squareness of life in technologyland. Full of exotic, erotic, narcotic interludes, it offers striking images of what many young people believed; for them, Brautigan became a curious blend of Hesse's Magic Theater in America and Siddhartha in Big Sur. But it is Emerson's statement in "Self-Reliance," — "The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner... is the healthy attitude of human nature" — which reads like a prescription for the life-style of Brautigan's heroes.
Indeed, we can now see that the autobiographical narrators of Trout Fishing in America, and In Watermelon Sugar, the librarian in The Abortion, or Lee Mellon and Jesse of the Big Sur novel all seek liberation via self-sufficiency. Detachment from contemporary society and rejection of its despised values is their program, just as it was for Thoreau who stated, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." Lee Mellon builds his cabin in the loneliest part of Big Sur and, with Jesse, models his life on local predecessors, Indians who "lived on roots and limpets and sat pleasantly in the rain." Their life reflects, somewhat sloppily, Thoreau's idea about the "necessaries of life" (by which he meant food, shelter, clothing, and fuel) as the only indispensable prerequisites of a liberated and truly human existence. But, where Thoreau was predominantly serious in tone and sense, Brautigan's heroes pretend to be playful. Where Thoreau was elated by the divine, they prefer the lower registers of a giddy existential experiment. In characterizing the atmosphere of Ken Kesey's similar experiments in new modes of primitivism, Tom Wolfe? says, "It was Walden Pond, only without any Thoreau misanthropes around."
Aside from the Transcendentalists, there are other models in American literature offering life-styles of inspired primitivism which trade the blessings of civilization for a promise of independence and retreat. In fact, according to Leslie Fiedler?, in Love and Death in the American Novel, "this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood," is at the root of the American literary tradition. Probably closest to the spirit of Brautigan's characters is Natty Bumppo and those who are called, by Henry Nash Smith, "Sons of Leatherstocking," rugged, lonely individuals whose constant westward movement is a retreat from organized society as well as a symbol of their freedom and individuality. Brautigan's heroes desperately seek what the Leatherstockings achieved almost effortlessly as vagrants in a land beyond order, commitment, and rigid social stratification. However, what spoils the analogy between the Sons of Leatherstocking and Brautigan's roaming hipsters is the hipsters' lack of pioneer spirit. The Lee Mellons and Jesses have long been to the promised land, discovering nothing left to be conquered, and also discovering that conquest was not worth-while anyway.
Nevertheless, these figures are typical of American literature, where, as D.H. Lawrence? observed, the tendency is to define independence as freedom-from rather than freedom-to. Brautigan seems obsessed with characters who evade, dodge, and finally float free of contemporary repressions. Appropriately, his novels (except perhaps In Watermelon Sugar) center on journeys like the long, erratic trip called Trout Fishing in America. Whether they lead to seclusion, as in A Confederate General from Big Sur, or out of it, as in The Abortion, they embody the same momentum of flight. Specifically, Brautiganians want to escape the corporate state, characterized by pressures of an all-pervading economic machine, the mechanisms of urban life, a society whose main objectives are producing and consuming, and the degradation of everything to a commodity. Inevitably, then, Brautigan's heroes have become heroes of a youth movement that is militantly anti-competitive, anti-commercial, and at odds with what John Kenneth Galbraith? calls the "imperatives of technology and organization." Not so inevitably, the evasion of such imperatives is strongly reminiscent of nineteenth century predecessors, who are summarily referred to as Transcendentalists.
In both Brautigan and the Transcendentalists the unacceptable values and the senseless activities of society propel the escapees into evasion and retreat. Thoreau claimed to have known both the world of nature and the man-made world of civilization, saying of the latter: "Society. . . has no prize to offer me that can tempt me; not one." Thoreau was at odds with the authorities of the state: "Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society." His attitude was anti-commercial and he foresaw the dangers of a society of competitive consumer-producers. This is his enlightening formula for alienation, its most stigmatic quality: "Men have become the tools of their tools." It is abundantly clear from Emerson's writings that he, too, was ill at ease with the symptoms of a dawning industrial age and its mass society. Man's flight into nature, he observed, is "inseparable from our protest against false society." The young Emerson was as estranged from the society of Brahmin Boston as any of today's dissenters is from his society.
The Transcendentalists, in fact, were the heretics of their own time, not only countering New England Unitarianism but also questioning the precepts of a scientific rationality which came to dominate civilization. They denounced mere understanding (in the Kantian sense) as lacking divine inspiration. They wished to replace it with "reason" or a divinely inspired knowledge, and believed that imagination, wonder, and amazement could lead beyond all previous modes of mundane experience. Similarly, Brautigan's rebels denounce the results of mere rationality, recognizable in the shape of everything contemporary, and wish to return to supra-rational inspiration, imagination, wonder, and amazement. In doing so, they, too, become heretics, radiant with their contempt of today's world. Brautigan's rebels oppose the whole governing body of rational knowledge and technology in modern civilization and their flights of bizarre imagination as well as the cultivation of metamorphosis, surrealism, and startling absurdities provocatively emphasize their different way of thinking.
Nature was at once a Transcendentalist's sanctuary, study, and prime object of worship. The Transcendentalists strove for a fresh, unspoiled, innocent perspective which would allow them to look at the world as if it had never before been the object of contemplation. To those capable of contemplation, nature would yield its true character and reveal itself as the "vast promise" and eternal symbol it is. Anything could serve as a starting point for this process of spiritual elevation. As Emerson put it, "the universe is represented in every one of its particles" and "things admit of being used as symbols, because nature is a symbol, in the whole, and in every part." Moreover, there was no doubt where this symbol pointed to and what the other half of its mythically broken unity was. "Well may we study nature," Orestes Brownson said, "for, as a whole and in the minutest of its parts, it is a manifestation of the Infinite, the Absolute, the Everlasting, the Perfect, the universal Reason, — God."
This idea of the symbolic value of all things in nature effected radical change in the theory and practice of literature. Emerson's insistence, for example. "that there is no fact in nature which does not carry the whole sense of nature," led to a celebration of minute details of the concrete world. Trivia and unadorned facts could now become the substance of poetry. Brautigan is one of many modern inheritors of this legacy. Marginalia of every-day life, minute details of what is left of the world of nature, trivia, simple facts and simple people as well as down-to-earth experiences are part of the fabric of his novels. This is the narrator's voice in Trout Fishing in America: "I remember that childhood spring when I studied the winter long mud puddles of the Pacific Northwest. I had a fellowship. My books were a pair of Sears Roebuck boots, ones with green rubber pages. Most of my classrooms were close to the shore." What follows is the narrator's attempt to regain the intimate relationship with an unspoiled world he enjoyed in younger days. In Trout Fishing in America the search for the lost paradise extends into a bouncing, leaping, spinning trip all over the country. As we accompany him, the narrator observes a fact here, reflects a phenomenon there, and, on the whole, acts like a disorganized Thoreau. Nature provides him with a colorful stage-setting for his scenario of fanciful events which turn every moment into a happening. The pastoral — sometimes even with the characteristically Transcendentalist touch of the divine — becomes Brautigan's favorite retreat. What he cannot find in contemporary society he hopes to find in what is left of the "other" world. Like his nineteenth-century forefathers, he deals in polarities which can only be unified at a higher level.
Brautigan's parable, In Watermelon Sugar, holds the most extreme expression of his belief in the redeeming powers of nature. The book treats, allegorically, the relationship between modern holocaust and original harmony and beauty. Techniques of the comic strip, with its superhuman good in conflict with subhuman evil, lend themselves conveniently to this polarization. The world of iDeath, mysterious paradise somewhere in Watermelon Sugar, is counterbalanced by a region known as the Forgotten Works. The former stands for the pastoral world and its beauty, while the latter represents the apocalyptic nightmare Brautigan holds today's industrial machine has become. In iDeath people are gentle, friendly, understanding; the Arcadian dream of the 375 inhabitants shows all characteristics of a communal unity. The Forgotten Works, on the other hand, are inhabited by a bunch of nervous, dirty, decrepit bums who are continuously drunk on the horrible stuff they distill from the very garbage the Works yield. Brautigan dramatizes the clash between these two representative systems when he has both parties quarrel over the precise meaning of iDeath, thus suggestively invoking the age-old question of the "right" knowledge which can redeem man. He leaves us in little doubt that for the people of iDeath the very name of the town suggests the death of the "I": living there does away with the individual's egocentric, aggressive, competitive drives and substitutes a communal "We." In contrast, inBoil and his gang demonstrate their idea of the death of the "I" when they slowly kill themselves before their horrified spectators by cutting their own bodies to pieces. In Trout Fishing in America Brautigan had indicated concern that modern civilization and its unchecked commercialism might win the war against nature and sanity. Near the end there is a scene in a Cleveland wrecking yard? where nature in the form of his beloved trout-streams is finally cut up, itemized, and conveniently stored away for sale. In the parable In Watermelon Sugar, however, he allows the allegory to express his conviction that nature will dominate all forces which try to erase her. In the end, the corpses of inBoil and his gang are buried, the Forgotten Works closed forever. Unlike the actual America, of which Brautigan had once regretfully said that it was "often only a place in the mind," the natural Utopia of Watermelon Sugar has asserted its reality and, what is more, its superiority to competing forms of the real world.
Not only the imitation of the flight from a dehumanized society and the retreat to the contrasting integrity of nature give Brautigan's literary attempts a curiously Transcendentalist slant. A host of other attitudes, ideas, and convictions indicative of Transcendentalist thought come surging back (usually in a diluted form) in his literary manifestos of the hip culture. In the novel In Watermelon Sugar he displays a tendency toward mysticism, though in a strangely secularized fashion. He frequently has recourse to the self as a source of truth and final orientation (an Emersonian feature) and he often tries to withdraw to a purer, inner world. There is also the Transcendentalist taste for experiments in communal living (reminiscent of Brook Farm or the Fruitlands experiment), explicitly meant to reject corrupt society. There is a preoccupation with the redemption of man, recognizable though it seems to run counter to the indifference and apparent shallowness Brautigan uses as a cover. And there is, finally, a shift from the restrictions of historical consciousness to the importance of the everlasting here and now, a shift of emphasis whose advent America witnessed through Transcendentalism and whose results are still discernible in modem works other than Brautigan's. Most of Brautigan's semi-fictitious characters could subscribe to Emerson's rather quaint-sounding description of himself as "an endless seeker with no Past at my back." Almost any of them inadvertently follows Thoreau's complementary prescription to obey the spur of the moment.
In view of this continuity of attitude, it is not surprising that, in the works of Brautigan and some Transcendentalist writers, various formal consequences bear a striking resemblance to one another. The Transcendentalists objected to an excess of form in their writings (though works such as Walden possess surprisingly close-knit structures). Their intellectual and emotional flexibility, their consideration of all facts, their attention to heterogeneous details, but most significantly their reservations about mere rationality and a corresponding belief in the inspirational powers of the moment did not support a rigidly structured organization of material. Hence their preference for the journal or diary which allowed them to note down impressions at random and always respond to the moment. In Brautigan's fiction we observe similar consequences. Most of the novels collect random impressions and observations; they consist of occasional excursions into the realm of reflection and an odd narrative episode here and there. Notable for their absence of organization, these books float along without effort until they materialize as a kind of free-style diary. What holds their amorphous bodies together is the narrative center, usually in the form of an all-pervasive "I". Brautigan, like Thoreau, does not wish to cloud the fact that he means "I" when he writes "I" and deliberately turns his autobiographical writings into what William Carlos Williams? once described as "fictionalized recall." Moreover, the form of Brautigan's novels reflects other predominant modes of his general attitude. Here the prevailing tendency was one of evasion and seclusion; there the author uses his fantasy and the projections of a productive imagination as vehicles of escape. Finally, he is led into a dialogue with, and about, himself which allows for the existence of other participants only when they can follow him into retreat or when they serve as starting points for his otherwise exclusive flights into a world of mock reality.
Yet, in spite of all resemblances Brautigan fails in his imitation of Transcendentalist attitudes and in his dual effort at dissociation and retreat. The reason for this failure lies in his absurd attempt to tread nineteenth-century paths that no longer lead where they once led. In every Brautigan novel, the primary aim of characters and author is to disentangle and transcend. But Brautigan's idea of transcending proves hopelessly outdated. Charles Reich? and Herbert Marcuse?, two analysts of contemporary cultural evolution, would agree that today transcending is again the strategy of the hour. Marcuse, in particular, stresses, in what he aptly calls "Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society," that — if we want to live human lives — we will have to transcend "the established universe of discourse and action toward its historical alternatives." In his view, these historical alternatives are the "arrested and denied possibilities" of contemporary life and most of the possibilities he alludes to boil down to forms of a freedom which Brautigan's protagonists so avidly seek. But Marcuse stresses, too, that "the possibilities must be within the reach of the respective society; they must be definable goals of practice." This warning remains unheard in Brautigan's attempt at unreflected and individualistic transcendence. One of the contradictory hypotheses of Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man is that "advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future." In other words, Brautigan and his characters are up against a society which no longer permits easy detachment. Marcuse has actually commented on abortive escape movements such as Brautigan's. "But such modes of protest and transcendence," he writes, "are no longer contradictory to the status quo and no longer negative. They are rather the ceremonial part of practical behaviorism, its harmless negation, and are quickly digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet."
The fate of Brautigan himself illustrates the failure to escape the mechanisms of contemporary life. He started as a convinced enemy of commercialism; he did not write primarily to sell; he did not want to become a figure in the professional literary world. Many of his works (mainly the poems) were privately printed and distributed gratis. They contained attacks on an insanely commercialized world. But the system with its immense absorbing faculties is able to commercialize anything — even attempts to annihilate it. In poking fun at the ideology of success Brautigan, too, has become a success. Today the name Brautigan is a trademark of the fashionable, his books are objects of indiscriminate consumption; the man himself is an item of commerce.
Brautigan's failure to transform nineteenth-century attitudes into a meaningful answer to twentieth-century problems can hardly surprise, if one considers what is probably the most crucial distinction between him and his predecessors. Transcendentalism was a predominantly religious movement. Behind the detachment from all-absorbing society and the retreat to nature a distinctly religious motivation was at work. This orientation gave the Transcendentalists' flight its direction and it made nature and the simple life intermediary symbols of a universal truth and a higher order of the divine. Hence Christopher Pearse Cranch's definition of Transcendentalism as the movement that "soar[s] ever higher and nearer the great source of Truth, Himself." Soaring away and thus transcending is also Brautigan's wish. But the concrete aim of the Transcendentalist step beyond has vanished, and with its exit nature and divine primitivism have lost their symbolic qualities. They no longer function as thoroughfares, but instead become dead ends. What is worse, they have turned into states and abodes which neither invite nor permit permanent residents. Brautigan seems to be conscious of this failure from time to time; consequently a sense of futility, waste, of being too late, and an imminent threat of being corrupted and finally taken over by the enemy taint his picture of nature. It is for this reason that the energy of repulsion carries him only a short distance in the direction of his dream. Then he realizes that neither staying nor transcending is possible; and so the energy of the potential escapist spends itself oscillating between a predicament he wants to escape and a state which remains unsatisfactory because transitory. There is no end to such a flight. It has become a pretentious, empty gesture, an activity for its own sake; whoever participates in it must eventually be transformed into a vagrant spending his life shuttling between two worlds — the one unacceptable, the other uninhabitable.
Brautigan continuously plays with symbols which can no longer be used in their original sense. He unwittingly drags precepts of the past into a present where they have neither meaning nor place. At best his sense of liberation and his amazement at his temporary escape may fleetingly amuse him and a few of his followers. But disenchantment is always close at hand, and the endings of Brautigan's novels indicate flashes of awareness that nothing has been solved. People return whence they came. Or things simply dematerialize. The alternate endings of A Confederate General from Big Sur are sped up to 186,000 endings per second, equal to the speed of light. Anything able to reach this magic barrier (reaching it is in fact impossible) can no longer be regarded as a material object.
In 1958, Norman Podhoretz? published an article on Beat literature and the San Francisco writers in particular, taking a then fashionable swing at what he called the "Know-Nothing" movement. Of Jack Kerouac's works he said: "What you get in these... books is a man proclaiming that he is alive and offering every trivial experience he has ever had in evidence." Perhaps Brautigan's fiction, too, establishes only this fact. And perhaps, though there are obvious shortcomings in Brautigan's works, they still represent a limited achievement at a time when the nonconformist, free-wheeling individual is threatened with extinction.