The Link Between Literature and Mental Illness, Part 5
RICHARD BRAUTIGAN – American Writer (1935 – 1984)
Like Sylvia Plath who took her own life, Richard Brautigan committed suicide by a gunshot to the head. He struggled with manic-depression which continually manifests itself through metaphors, punctuation, and sentence structure in his work. The title of his book, The Pill Versus the Springhill Disaster, in and of itself displays a mind operating in another realm which can invent such a phrase to be the title of his book. In his poem “Hey Bacon!” Brautigan writes:
The moon like:
crisps its desire
i harbor myself
toward two eggs
Similar to Bukowski, Brautigan does not adhere to traditional standards of writing in his style. The break down of words and lack of correct capitalization is one sign of a mind not run by literary conformism. Brautigan opens his poem with an excited address to bacon and polishes it off with an excited explanation point! Brautigan compares the moon to bacon in the simile “the moon like mischievous bacon,” which “crisps its desire,” to reflect on a plate of eggs.
Like Wordsworth who believed high achievement in poetry stems from the ability to reach the common man, a simple moment sitting with a plate of bacon resonates this idea. In a mere few lines, Brautigan is able to turn quickly from an address to bacon, to a simile of the moon, and then swings back to his plate of eggs. This simple stanza magnifies the brain of bipolar constitution and provides a random comparison that jumps from idea to idea with a quick word “while” to tie the two together. Like Bukowski’s letter cited earlier that starts out with a question about his poetry, then runs on a tangential rant about literary conformities, only to return to his initial point, Brautigan also demonstrates his mind working through a tangent. Tangential thought is another attribute of a bipolar mind and clearly presents itself in this stanza, however, the syntax of the words brought together by diction and punctuation offers the chance for a connection within tangential thinking. Brautigan’s thoughts quickly move from one idea to another. His thoughts seem to have no connection or anything in common (like the moon and bacon), yet through stylistic techniques Brautigan takes the reader by the hand and guides them through his thought process. His minds first thought appears to run on a tangent, as it goes from bacon to the moon, then comes back to his plate of bacon, hence, his initial thought returns full circle at the end. The use of the parentheses demonstrates a way to insert a word to connect this idea; it is a way to tie together his analogy or else the reader may get lost in a disconnected thought. This tactic is similar to Dickinson’s use of the dash to bridge ideas together. The choice of parenthesis may also connote how Brautigan hears the verse in his head as he speaks his lines then slides in a word in parenthesis like a whisper to connect the two stanzas. Thus, in a mere few lines, one can see the mind working in different motions within the word choice, simile and juxtapositions of ideas, in and out, and how punctuation plays a key in Brautigan’s ability to communicate what he sees, or how his mind interprets what he sees.
The analogy of a woman in “Xerox Candy Bar” swiftly describes a woman and uses a metaphor to express his idea:
you’re just a copy
of all the candy bars
I’ve ever eaten.
The stanza starts off with “Ah,” followed by a comma. It seems to hover or extend in sound, then switches gears and continues on in three quick simple rhythmical beats. His descriptive simple language is a motif throughout several works of Brautigan and points to his keen awareness of details which can be expressed in simple language. Again, his metaphor is random as he compares a woman to a candy bar, which further points to a mind working in a different realm. Very much similar to Bukowski’s random similes and metaphors, Brautigan stands out among poets with his unusual analogies or comparisons. Both writers manage to capture common everyday occurrences, yet are able to describe these occurrences with unparallel images, similes and metaphors. This bears the question, where in the mind do these fiercely random and unique ideas come from? Are they a result of a chemical imbalance that strings together ideas differently, or a specific chemistry working in the brain that enables them to view the world differently? Or does it happen to be just a coincidence? Assuming it is not a coincidence, there is something of value here to learn from such works about the minds and behaviors of people suffering from a mental illness.
Brautigan use of metaphor speaks to his ability to put words together unlike most writers which attests to his mind viewing the world through a different channel which manifests itself in his work. Brautigan’s “Death Is a Beautiful Car Parked Only,” is a sample of a poem swimming in metaphors:
Death is a beautiful car parked only
to be stolen on a street lined with trees
Whose branches are like the intestines
Of an emerald.
Brautigan opens his poem using the image of a car as a metaphor for death. His line of thought goes from trees to its branches where he provides a metaphor “like the intestines / of an emerald.” Brautigan’s poem is a keyhole into his brain as he looks at a parked car which sends his mind elsewhere to the next line about trees which runs to the next line about the branch and moves from there to an emerald. In one thought, you get three separate beats of ideas that move from one to the other and end up in an unlikely metaphor. Brautigan paints a picture like an eye would see a car parked by a tree, yet he finds meaning in the branches of the tree which he compares to intestines of an emerald. This bears the question, how does his mind come up with that unusual metaphor? Where does this image stem from and what can we learn about the nature of his brain from such examples? We might just be able to track an uninformed individual with signs of manic-depression through the eccentricities of their writings.
Brautigan uses an array of metaphors to describe his subjects which reveals a mind running in a different realm just like that of a manic-depressive. The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, shares several samples of his metaphors: “her face is a maple tree” (A Lady); “her ass looks like a moldy refrigerator” (Mating Saliva); “I float like a phantom facedown in a well like a drowned train just beyond a pile of Eskimo skeletons” (I Cannot Answer You Tonight in Small Portions); “God lives like music in the skin and sounds like a sunshine harpsichord” (Gee, You’re so Beautiful That It’s Starting to Rain); a fart smells like a marriage between an avocado and a fish head” (December). Such examples bear the question, how does manic-depression provide the ability to construct such comparisons in literature?
Typewriter image available from Shutterstock.
Loberg, E. (2013). The Link Between Literature and Mental Illness, Part 5. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/manic-depression/2013/08/17/the-link-between-literature-and-mental-illness-part-5/