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 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.