I sit in the sun room at the back of the house listening to birds, wondering about the status of the statue, a Native American chief holding a peace pipe across his knee, an item I accepted as an “inheritance” after the death of my grandparents. It was an object that fascinated me; I remember sitting with it, contemplating it with reverence upon encountering it in my grandparents’s “rumpus room” as a child. How else is one to act in this being’s presence? Is what Ken Kesey does through his invention of Chief Bromden, the “half-Indian” narrator of Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a form of “literary redface”? The Western was a popular genre in the culture of Kesey’s childhood. The novel imagines an encounter between Bromden and a “red-faced Irish brawler” named Randall Patrick McMurphy. Both men are war veterans committed as patients in a mental institution run by the novel’s communist-matriarch supervillain, Nurse Ratched. Communism is figured as an emasculating threat, an overly demanding mother, a superego intent upon world-ordering through replacement of nature with machinery. Capitalism, meanwhile, appears via McMurphy as a kind of confidence trick. It allows patients to enjoy sex and alcohol. It gets them gambling and making bets. And best of all, it’s willing to sacrifice itself like Christ so that natives like Bromden can be “made big again.” Bromden is the one saved by novel’s end. He smothers the lobotomized and defeated McMurphy, throws a control panel through a window, flees the ward, and returns to nature.
Noisemakers announce the arrival of a new year. Let us breathe sighs of relief at 2020’s passing. The year ended with word of a final casualty: hiphop legend MF DOOM. Let this new year be a year of healing. Let portals open onto novel developments: new courses, new branches of study. What’s this talk about time travel, for instance, in the recent Avengers film, Avengers: Endgame? Dr. Strange makes an appearance — as he will again in due course, in the course I teach this spring. Marvel characters invaded the American national-popular imaginary in conjunction with popularization of psychedelics in the 1960s. Early psychonauts like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were, as Tom Wolfe notes, “Super Kids,” turned on by a mix of peyote and Captain Marvel. Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics might speak to this conjuncture. And for magic, let us read Alan Moore’s Promethea.
I circle back as in a refrain toward M.C. Richards, her theme “the act of centering” returning again amid radical declarations, revolutionary self-fashionings, “Movement” speeches, street writings, prison writings, books like Abbie Hoffman’s Woodstock Nation and John Sinclair’s Guitar Army. The personal was fused with the political for these authors. They took psychedelic civil disobedience as locally staged stoned action and amplified it via seizure of airwaves, campuses, streets, courts of law. Kesey and the Pranksters did something similar a few years earlier, though without the militant intent. Theirs was more of a traveling roadshow, coast-to-coast trips across America, La Honda to New York and back. Minds changing themselves on the road, and in so doing, changing the minds of others.
Reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest again with students, I find us wanting as readers to separate the book’s countercultural critique of the Combine from its racism and its misogyny. On race, as on gender, Kesey maps power-relationality ass-backwards. The novel erupts into an episode of cruel racial violence when black orderlies threaten to hose down the book’s white male patients. When one of the orderlies sprays a germophobic character named George, the book’s redheaded TV-cowboy brawler protagonist Randle Patrick McMurphy lashes out with racial epithets and starts swinging. In reality, of course, it was black children, not white men, who were sprayed with fire hoses on the streets of Birmingham, AL by racist white police officers on May 3, 1963, just one year after the novel’s publication. By teaching the book, the country’s racism lies there exposed: Oregon’s history as a white-only state, with laws forbidding black people from living in its borders upon its entry into the union in the midnineteenth century; the persistence of antiblack sentiment more than a hundred years later even among 1960s counterculturalists like Kesey. These are sobering facts, are they not? Even among those who had found the enlightenment of LSD, these ideas persisted. Granted, in Kesey’s case, enlightenment came courtesy of MK-Ultra. Not the most auspicious set and setting. Yet this, too, is part of the tale’s appeal. Kesey was there, present as a participant in events of world-historical importance, the effects of which are still being felt today.
I stand on my back deck staring at fallen leaves, listening, building a sense of place, attending to sights and sounds generated by neighboring beings: birds, squirrels, planes, trees, automobiles. A small bird lands beside me and sings to me, dancing in rapid increments. It pecks, it eats, it leaps, flitting to and fro. Capitalism encloses us in its habitus, its time-discipline, its states and estates. Yet there in its borders and interstices, in its gutters and margins, fugitive life proceeds apace. Imaginary bagpipes drone betwixt dueling leafblowers. A sound blown in honor of comrades who died 40 years ago today in the Greensboro Massacre. Mysterious books call out to me, rise off shelves and land in my hands, ready to be read. By these means, I happen upon The Knee of Listening by Franklin Jones, aka Da Free John, sensing immediately in his use of language evidence of a fellow head. Jones began graduate study in English at Stanford University in 1961. He must have been part of Ken Kesey’s cohort. At the very least he volunteered as a subject in the same drug experiments as Kesey, MK-Ultra experiments run out of the Veterans Administration hospital in the early 1960s.
What does it mean in allegorical terms to be either “on the bus” or “off the bus” among Ken Kesey’s group the Merry Pranksters during their cross-country acid trip, the one Tom Wolfe reconstructs for readers in his “New Journalism” classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? It’s the difference between riding with experience, perhaps, and resisting it. Kesey wanted people to ride with it. “No one was to rise up negative about anything,” writes Wolfe, “one was to go positive with everything — go with the flow — everyone’s cool was to be tested, and to shout No, no matter what happened, was to fail” (Wolfe 84). No more uptight, defensive reactivity. Each of us, instead, like the bus a recording device traveling the open road of what Wolfe calls “the true America” (Wolfe 85). Judgment under these conditions appears an arbitrary imposition, as when I set aside Wolfe and peek into Michael Davidson’s “Tale of Cybernetic Buddhism,” The Karma Machine (1975), a novel I discovered while perusing the shelves of used bookstores during a recent trip to San Francisco. This is a book in which the whole world sleeps, a group of revolutionaries called the Geneva Society having bombarded their fellow humans with “Delta-waves,” so as to prepare a critical operation, a utopian intervention to cure the species of “the disease which afflicts it: mortal fear” (Davidson 104). The revolutionaries pitch this as a “democratic exercise,” as they gather “representatives of the common people” to determine the cure. Heads of state are kidnapped and made to carry out the directives of this “people’s assembly.” One of the revolutionaries, a scientist named Strastnik, tells those gathered, “You are absolutely secure, but you are also completely confined. In brief, you are back in the womb, the womb of history! And you are a new conception! May you prove an immaculate one” (Davidson 105). Before reading further, I set down the book, sit Indian-style and meditate. Vibrant experiences of reciprocity are what I seek in order to feel in a new, delightfully intense way. Experiences of ecstatic contact between self and world. Let love lift us through enlargements of perspective, revealing in this way “the pattern that connects.” Eros, a longing both individuated and attached, free and determined simultaneously. Touching the world and being touched by it in return.
How did Ken Kesey and his psychedelic community the Merry Pranksters re-imagine reality through their use of the phrase “the current fantasy”? How does one determine one’s fantasy? Surely it’s by performing these fantasies collectively — in groups, with others. In today’s performance, let us imagine ourselves as psychedelic detectives, researching Michael Bowen and Gary Goldhill, figures Tom Wolfe references as members of the League for Spiritual Discovery in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Goldhill was an English head who worked for the BBC, Wolfe says, until he took some magic mushrooms in San Miguel de Allende, and in so doing discovered “the Management and gave up all, all the TV BBC game and dedicated himself to The Life” (Wolfe 361). Time to dive back into this thing, no? Symbols trigger recollection of forgotten knowledge. They cure us of our amnesia. We realize reality is a hologram — Philip K. Dick’s “Black Iron Prison.” A military coup d’état occurred on 11/22/63. Our duty now is to unravel belief in the frame.
I perform a mind game wherein I imagine a psychoanalytic interpretation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a novel not just seen through the eyes of its half-Native American narrator, Chief Bromden, but somehow also set in the character’s head, his paranoid delusions causing him to hallucinate — by which I mean “literalize,” or “externalize” — the internal struggle between his Superego and his Id as a struggle between the characters of Big Nurse and Randle Patrick McMurphy. Then again, instead of psychoanalysis, we could sub in Marxism as our master discourse and read the novel as a Cold War allegory and/or a satire of the postwar order. Like all good political allegories, the work can be read on several levels or scales of being: the personal, the spiritual, the national-historical, and the world-historical all somehow homologous. The Nurse’s effort to cast aspersions on McMurphy’s motives resembles the progressivist critique of industrial robber-baron capitalism, just as the incident in the shower room represents the Zoot Suit Riots. If interpretation of this sort places me in the camp of the novel’s wheelchair-bound WWI veteran Colonel Matterson, so be it.
We can heal ourselves by placing ourselves in the presence of beautiful aesthetic objects like the new Dire Wolves cassette, Shootout at the Dildo Factory.
Or even better, given our mood at the moment, how about the new cassette from Lake Mary & Talk West on Cabin Floor Esoterica? Lo-fi improvised folk by a midwestern American guitar duo.
What I settle on, however, in my restlessness, in my hunger for uplift, is The Magicians Saw by Alex Meets Sand.
I see sand, fuzz, whiskers, sliced grapefruit, etchings of a state from memory. Bars of sunlight atop a grey carpet. While listening, I begin to eye Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as an American adaptation of Plato’s allegory of the cave. McMurphy shows up, a new Admission to the cave, with pants and shirt from the Pendleton Work Farm “sunned out till they’re the color of watered milk” (12). Dude’s been out in the SUN. The Cave has been updated; it’s far more brutal than it was for the philosophers of ancient Athens. They’ve added a “brain-murdering” room called the “Shock Shop.” And the freed individual, the one who ascends and returns — he, too, has changed. Where once he was a philosopher-king, now he’s a psychopathic “fights too much and fucks too much” capitalist. The men in the cave, we’re told, are like sleepwalkers “wandering round in a simple, happy dream” (16). From the moment of arrival onward, however, McMurphy charms them and helps them wake.
The hypno-therapeutic invocation at the start of the new Netflix series Babylon Berlin works as would a spell cast to ensure suspension of disbelief. It sinks the show’s audience immediately into a weirdly liminal, malleable state. The camera mimics, externalizes, makes public a property of mind, the power of the negative. Amid a non-place housing an infinity of potential signs, the mind invents for itself improvised picture-events. Mirror images evolve together like the reflecting surfaces of a kaleidoscope. Culture unfolds this way, too. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, workshopped in Wallace Stegner’s creative writing seminars at Stanford, prompted Stegner’s angry rebuttal, All the Little Live Things. The Kesey novel imagines escape from the Combine (AKA the White Christian Settler-Colonialist Superstate) through cross-racial alliance between figures representing Native Americans and working-class whites. Kesey stages this alliance by rewriting and altering the outcome of the moment of cultural encounter, with character types and lines of dialogue borrowed from Hollywood Westerns. Kesey himself attempted in the years that followed to live out and embody this imaginary resolution with his cohorts, The Merry Pranksters. Stegner, having been there at the birth, so to speak, of this logic informing Kesey’s self-fashioning, acknowledges as much by linking Jim Peck, the Kesey character in All the Little Live Things, with Shakespeare’s Caliban. The one who forges this equation is none other than the Stegner novel’s narrator-protagonist Joe Allston. Where Kesey staffs the Combine with Nurse Ratched, Stegner places on the throne of All the Little Live Things’s California Eden a hot-tempered patriarch, a stern father intent on nipping hippiedom in the bud. Stegner’s novel, remember, comes out in 1967, the same year as the Summer of Love, the same year California vowed to “clean up the mess at Berkeley” by electing Ronald Reagan as its governor — the story of Oedipus thus given a new ending, with the attempted patricide quelled and the rivalry prolonged into the future.