Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kesey

Hello! I hope you’re all as healthy and safe as possible, and that you get something valuable by contemplating the below review.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

Randal McMurphy & George Hanson – The Rōbert [Cholo] Report (pron: Rō'bear  Re'por)

“I think McMurphy knew better than we did that our tough looks were all show, because he still wasn’t able to get a real laugh out of anybody. Maybe he couldn’t understand why we weren’t able to laugh yet, but he knew you can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side to things. In fact, he worked so hard at pointing out the funny side of things that I was wondering a little if maybe he was blind to the other side, if maybe he wasn’t able to see what it was that parched laughter deep inside your stomach.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the better books I read in high school. I recently reread it, and since I never reviewed it on my blog to begin with, I thought I would do so now. What ensued was massive inner conflict.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s about a group of patients in a mental hospital in the 1960s. They spend their time fearing and obeying the dictatorial Nurse Ratched. Then a man named Randle Patrick McMurphy enters the ward. He refuses to obey her, and he gets the other patients to overcome their own fears of her, too. Hilarious chaos results.

The story’s told by one of the patients in the ward, a Native American named Chief Bromden. He pretends to be deaf and dumb, so he’s more of an observer than an actor, but he does have previous experience of how authorities oppress people. So, because Bromden narrates, the story of a few men becomes a metaphor for society as a whole. This means it can make a lot of different points about government, society, and rebellion.

When I had first read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I had sympathized completely with the patients. Maybe this was because I’d watched the Jack Nicholson movie right before reading the book, or maybe it was because Kesey’s actual book had seemed to portray the patients to be immensely sympathetic. You could even argue that Kesey drew parallels between people in the Bible and the patients so readers would relate to them more. In any case, I had sympathized with the patients, and I’d only focused on the great points Kesey made about society and government, and ignored whatever hadn’t seemed to relate to those points. I’d thought that individuality and sincerity were at the core of this book, and I had believed it to be amazing.

Now, when I reread the book, I was surprised by how much sexism and racism there was in it. Kesey indirectly chalked all of the world’s woes up to wives, mothers, female government agents, and nurses. The patients were racist towards the black ward orderlies. Meanwhile, there was Kesey, making his biblical comparisons and glossing over all of those questionable parts by framing them as ways that the patients resisted oppression. That was grounds for thinking of the book as awful.

But I still thought there might be something to be gained from reading this book. It made good points about society (the importance of laughter, the importance of self-empowerment, the importance of individuality, the importance of voting, etc.). It was also very well-written from a technical standpoint, and it had one of the best streams-of-consciousness I ever read.

I thought maybe we could learn constructively from the book’s sexism and racism—if we were critical of it and tried to see the dynamics behind it, we could figure out how to prevent it.

Then I asked myself, was this book actually worth reading? I was conflicted until I tried to figure out what the book was really about. Then, I realized that the saintly ideals of individuality and sincerity weren’t at this book’s core. Sexism and racism were. The ideals were just ways for Kesey to distract readers from the fact he was using those ideals to indirectly rationalize that core. For instance, in Kesey’s view, women were at the heart of the “establishment” that suppressed individuality and sincerity. Since the establishment was portrayed as bad, women were bad, and attacking women in the name of individuality and sincerity was portrayed as good. It’s hard to explain without writing an essay, but I hope you get what I’m saying–the book’s end wasn’t individuality and sincerity, but justifying ill will towards women.

Anyway, Cuckoo’s Nest exposed the mess of humanity and inhumanity and how they could coexist in the same book or person or world and be glossed over. Everything could be rationalized and covered up by something else that looked saintly. Things could seem both amazing and awful at the same time.

But couldn’t things, including books, just be amazing?

So in the end, I have decided that this book isn’t worth reading. Enjoy something completely amazing instead.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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