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.
Breakthrough discovery: one of the CIA front organizations used to conduct research on psychedelics in the early 1960s was a group called the “Society for the Study of Human Ecology.” (Some publications, however, also refer to the group as the “Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology,” and in 1961 it changed its name to the “Human Ecology Fund.”) The society’s president upon its founding in 1955 was a Cornell scientist named Harold Wolff, and its executive director and treasurer was a former Air Force colonel and expert in brainwashing named James F. Monroe. At some point, however, Carl Rogers (who, along with Abraham Maslow, helped to found the decade’s humanistic psychology movement), served alongside Monroe on the board of this organization until it was disbanded in 1965. Another humanistic psychologist named George A. Kelly also served on the board. So far, the most extensive info I’ve found about the group appears in John Marks’s The Search for the Manchurian Candidate (1979), a book that draws upon documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
I relish the multimedia composites featured at the start of Wormwood, the new Netflix series from Errol Morris about the mysterious suicide of CIA employee Frank Olsen, one of the casualties of Project MK-Ultra. The series makes abundant use of screens within screens, the mind left straddling levels. In this act of mirroring, we find ourselves. My sister-in-law and her husband, however, unimpressed by Wormwood, recommend I watch an anime series called One Punch Man. Eventually we settle on Gremlins, as if choice of film is of some moment. I listen bewitched to the song of the Mogwai: a metaphor, no doubt, for the importation of drugs and electronics devices from the Far East into American society. Revenge via “gizmos” and heroin. With Wormwood weighing on my mind, I find myself projecting onto Gremlins a “War on Drugs”-era narrative of the psychedelic revolution gone haywire — drug culture as national nightmare. This was of course one of the key allegories hammered home to me during my childhood via D.A.R.E. and Narc. But like so many films of the 1980s, it also emphasizes the cruelty of the rich and of people in general. Think of the father character as Daddy CIA, bringing home to his teenage son a shiny, brightly-wrapped package, gotten at a “junk” shop in Chinatown. After an explosion of Orange Sunshine, kids like Corey Feldman start running around dressed like trees. Like a wired artichoke, out pops the comic book Id.
The term “mogwai,” remember, refers to a kind of “devil” or “demon” in Chinese culture. So sayeth the purveyors of ancient myths. What happens, though, when the African-American scientist character starts to inject these mogwai with hypodermic needles? It’s as if someone left the culture’s brain exposed in a darkened laboratory. “Do you hear what I hear?” asks the television. “Do you see what I see?” Coming this Christmas: Takeover by foreign power. All the invaders need do is suspend the postal service, fuck with traffic signals, and seize the airwaves, and the nation is theirs. Note, though, that in the movie, the forces of anarchy don’t succeed at overpowering the community until the gremlins find their way to the water supply.