One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
by Ken Kesey (1935-2001)
This novel made Kesey’s reputation, made him a lot of money, and thus enabled his activities in promoting the psychedelic movement during 1964-1967. For this reason alone it is an important work. It also reveals some of Kesey’s preoccupations prior to his promotion of LSD. (He was already using LSD and marijuana when the book was written.)
The opening chapters establish Chief Broom as the narrator/observer and as a seriously disturbed inmate of the asylum. They establish the Big Nurse and McMurphy as the antagonists in the work’s struggle. The struggle is over Control/Power. The Big Nurse holds the Power in her ward, and exercises it to maintain order among her inmates. McMurphy, as a nominally “sane” person, cannot submit to her control, and cannot stand to see the other inmates do so. In this context, ‘Power’ means the ability to control the energy of others; ‘Control’ means the urge to exercise power.
Power appears in several guises. It is nakedly exposed in the arbitrary rules of behavior called ‘ward policy’. It is more subtly shown in the failure of the ward’s nominally ‘democratic’ policy to result in actual freedom of choice among the inmates. It is also shown in the hallucinations/nightmares/interpretations-of-reality of Chief Broom. He is preoccupied with the perception of the machinery of control, in the walls, in his mop handle, installed inside inmates, orderlies and the Big Nurse herself. He uses ‘the Combine’ to refer to the otherwise-nameless source of Power and Control in the world at large.
A few excerpts:
(p. 201) Chief Broom recalls the first time people acted like they couldn’t hear him:
“I can … almost see the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the words in here and there, this place and that, and when they find the words don’t have any place ready-made where they’ll fit, the machinery just disposes of the words like they weren’t even spoken.”
(p. 208) Chief Broom, talking to McMurphy, recalls his father:
“What did they want him to give the government?”
“Everything. The tribe, the village, the falls …”
“Now I remember; you’re talking about the falls where the Indians used to spear salmon – long time ago. Yeah. But the way I remember it the tribe got paid some huge amount.”
“That’s what they said to him. He said, What can you pay for the way a man lives? He said, What can you pay for what a man is? They didn’t understand. Not even the tribe.”
(p. 226) The group is on their outing:
A man riding a bicycle stopped to ask what was the idea of all the green uniforms; some kind of club? Harding popped right up and answered him.
“No, my friend. We are lunatics from the hospital up the highway, psycho-ceramics, the cracked pots of mankind. Would you like me to decipher a Rorschach for you? No? You must hurry on? Ah, he’s gone. Pity.” He turned to McMurphy. “Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn’t it? Food for thought there.”
The last half of the book paints McMurphy as a Christ-like figure, sacrificing himself to restore the inmates to a state of manhood. It is all pretty predictable, given the situation Kesey constructs in the first half, and the writing seems to decline in quality as he goes through the inevitable motions.
The interesting aspect of the book is the apparent conviction that society exerts power over the lives of its members, even those who exercise that power to control those who don’t fit into the narrow roles society has prepared for them. Of course this is true.
The LSD experience seems to show through only in subtle ways. Wolfe says that Kesey was under its influence during some of the writing, and that much of that was discarded. One aspect of LSD that seems to have affected Kesey is its apparent ability to see into the minds of people, see what they are thinking. This experience in a mental hospital must have been unsettling at least. However, he has a sympathetic attitude toward the inmates, understanding their world-view, and how it matches and differs from a “normal” one. Of course, it is arguable whether Kesey’s own was/is “normal”, but I can at least suppose he knows what “normal” is.
I found Chief Broom’s vision of the understanding apparatus to be an interesting expression of what I have tried to say in MIA.