Michael M. Boardman (essay date fall 1979)

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SOURCE: Boardman, Michael M. “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: Rhetoric and Vision.” Journal of Narrative Technique 9, no. 3 (fall 1979): 171-83.

[In the following essay, Boardman characterizes One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest as a formal tragedy, focusing on the thematic significance of sacrifice as a variant of the tragic experience.]

Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest illustrates well the difficulties of writing a successful tragic action in the modern world. In large part, the problem stems from what David Daiches long ago termed “the breakdown of the implicit agreement between author and readers about what was significant in human experience,” a collapse lamented by Virginia Woolf, among others. “Only believe,” she wistfully wrote, “and all the rest will come of itself.” But what if many readers find belief difficult or impossible? Any novelist who sets out to free himself from “the cramp and confinement of personality,” who attempts to represent as moving and important a sequence of imagined life, depends heavily, today more than ever, on creating through “rhetoric,” the way he tells his story, a community of values that may not exist in the real world. If an author's donnée is the spectacle of a character passing from happiness to misery—always a difficult subject to represent successfully—and that author wishes to avoid the “disagreeable spectacle” David Hume saw as attendant on “the mere suffering of plaintive virtue, under the triumphant tyranny and oppression of vice,” problems peculiar to tragedy arise to complicate matters. Tragedy, that “higher form of art” than even the epic, can fail to move or convince if the plea to “believe” falls on ears assaulted daily with conflicting claims for credence.1

Among those conflicting claims are the critical formulae that have been used to explain Kesey's first novel. Why should one see One Flew Over as a tragic action, rather than as comic allegory or melodramatic fable? After all, Bromden, whom many regard as the central character, not only does not die, but experiences a kind of liberation. The book also seems to contain far too much humor to be beaten with the stick of tragedy. One justification for seeing the book as tragic is that tragedy, as a formal model, explains better than other conceptions the reasons for the book's specific and general features, its teleology. If, like Sheldon Sacks and Robert Wess, who have both suggested that One Flew Over fits that pattern of the tragic action, we consider, even as a mere possibility, that tragedy may be a form, rather than a special vision or philosophy, capable of appearing in a variety of guises, then the “designedness” of the book, the way seemingly comic elements serve purposes other than the comic becomes clear.2 The tragic model also enables us to explain the source of several complaints about the technique and rhetoric, or “philosophy,” if one prefers, and why they may be misguided, given the hypothesis of tragic form. Finally, moving past the purely formal, we can begin to recognize the difficulties, by no means solved with complete success, that Kesey encountered when he sought to give form and significance to a basic tragic conception. This more general question involves nothing less than the possibility for tragedy in the modern age.


We gain some insight into the magnitude of Kesey's task by sketching out what kind of story this was to be. Take a character who, though basically good, is far from “elevated” in the classic sense, show him subjected to a situation of coercion in which he acts, sacrificially, to help...

(This entire section contains 6039 words.)

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others at the risk of his own destruction, and try to represent the pattern as moving and significant. How can Kesey feel that his notions of the value of human sacrifice will be shared by his readers? If the human condition for many readers—and perhaps more critics—entails necessarily seeing the individual as puny and ineffectual in the face of the void, “doom” becomes not an arresting aberration but a shared condition of existence, as quotidian and unremarkable as eating and drinking. The tragic action entails on the modern author an additional, related burden. To avoid the maudlin or, worse, the simply horrible, the hero must in a real sense choose his doom, with that “noble courageous despair” that raises human misery above the merely dolorous.3 If many readers doubt the meaningfulness of individual choice, a sense of its importance, at least in the self-contained world of the work, must be conveyed by fictional rhetoric. When we have witnessed the last twilight of all the idols and seen the future dim to a nada y pues nada, lending significance to a single act of rebellion becomes a crucial problem of the novelist's art.

A number of modern authors seem so aware of the difficulty that they have eschewed attempting to portray tragic declines and turned instead to delineating static states of futile existence. If there is anything tragic about the characters of Beckett or Vonnegut, or of that contemporary chronicler of the execrable, Jerzy Kozinski, it is that they are condemned to be human. At the same time, other modern authors, such as Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, and, I am suggesting, Kesey, have sought ways to build into their tragic actions sufficiently strong systems of positive belief so that the “fall” approaches, at least, tragic proportions. Often such beliefs are, as it were, the instruments of the telling and not necessarily identical with the author's view of the world; they can by, in Wayne Booth's terms, the “rhetoric” of the “implied author” rather than the reasoned philosophy of the novelist, a distinction virtually identical to Henry James' calling some things of the “essence” and some of the “treatment.” One Flew Over clearly depends on a number of artistic decisions designed to produce at least a temporary community of value so that McMurphy's destruction can be experienced as both plausible and significant. Other, much more general, ethical elements are part of the basic conception, Kesey's “tragic vision,” and he must assume full responsibility for their validity. In the criticism of the book, rhetoric and conception have not always been carefully distinguished, perhaps because some modern criticism tends to assume that any element of thought not obviously repudiated in a novel must be part of its author's intended meaning.

The most serious charge against Kesey has been sexism: a “concealed sexist bias” that makes the book “a bit dangerous.” Peter G. Beidler summarizes and extends the charges: the book has “obvious flaws as a novel—its merely heroic hero, its once-latent (now blatant) anti-feminism, its too carefully contrived plot, setting and characters.”4 Even when critics attempt to defend the novel's basic conception an uncomfortable awareness of the current difficulty in generalizing about questions of value intrudes: “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest was written from the point of view that man's problems are caused by woman who refuses to allow him to play the domineering role which nature intended him to play.”5 In 1962, when Kesey's book appeared, such a “defense” might have ruffled few feathers. But, as Leslie Horst put it, in an essay provocatively titled “Bitches, Twitches, and Eunuchs: Sex-Role Failure and Caricature,” a “liberation” that “exhilarated” one “more than a decade ago” now seems “derogation of women … attractively packaged.”6 Values, that is, have changed and the newly discovered difficulty many readers have with the novel points to a need to understand which ideas really represent Kesey's articles of faith and which are rather elements in his rhetoric of significant fabulation. My contention is that most of what readers have found objectionable is “local” rhetoric designed to allow the reader to experience McMurphy's tragedy as moving and significant. The basic conception left after the rhetoric of “telling” has been distinguished is universal: the significance of sacrifice characteristic of one variant of the tragic experience.


When McMurphy enters the hateful world of the Big Nurse, he reminds the narrator, Chief Bromden, “of a car salesman or a stock auctioneer,” hardly a candidate for martyrdom.7 No one can “tell if he's really this friendly or if he's got some gambler's reason for trying to get acquainted with guys so far gone a lot of them don't even know their names” (p. 21). Against this long-developed instinct for survival wars a common human concern his independence has not extirpated: will he act to help the men or to help himself? At first, he bets he can “bug” the “Big Nurse,” a sexually repressed and supremely efficient force for conformity who has learned to “smell out” the fear of her patients and “put it to use” (p. 17). In numerous important scenes, we learn the extent of her power to prevent noisome independence: she can, in addition to all the little arts of prodding the guilty recesses of her “patients'” consciences, order electric shock, even lobotomize the recalcitrant or merely disruptive patient. The connection between Mac's behaving himself, playing it “cagey,” and staying in one piece becomes clear to us and to him when, after promising to “bug” the nurse “till she comes apart at those neat little seams” (p. 72), he learns that he can be institutionalized as long as the nurse sees fit. He immediately becomes cagey, satisfying, temporarily at least, the Chief's earlier question about his motivation: Mac is for Mac. He has had “no one to care about, which is what makes him free enough to be a good con man” (p. 89), and the first duty of a con artist is survival. The terms of the action are set. If he acts to defy the nurse, he risks destruction, past reminders of which, the “Vegetables,” are conveniently and conspicuously placed around the ward. If he plays it cagey, as all his past experience has taught him to do, not only will he be safe but eventually free.

Kesey's problem with this pattern should be apparent. How could he show McMurphy acting, in a manner entirely out of character, to insure his own destruction? In addition, even if Kesey could find a plausible way to motivate McMurphy's sacrifice, how, given the power of the combine and Nurse Ratched, could the horror of senseless waste be avoided?

Whether Kesey knew it or not, many novelists have sought solutions to similar problems. One of Hardy's greatest difficulties, one he did not always solve satisfactorily, was to give us a sense of the importance of the fall of characters who, “objectively,” are mere toys of the “President of the Immortals.” Conrad, facing a similar problem with Kurtz and, especially, Jim, invented a sympathetic narrator who was personally involved with the tragic figure, invested him with authority, and allowed the intrinsic advantages of a first-person narrator—we tend to trust the “I” unless given reasons not to—to establish the importance of what he has witnessed. Marlow and Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway are just two in a long line of I—narrators designed primarily as rhetorical devices to assist the realization of tragic potential out of seemingly untragic materials. They are not mere devices, of course, since the skilled novelist makes pleasurable virtues of artistic necessities.

But Kesey's problem was more than just persuasion. Not only was McMurphy to give his life away; he was to do so in conflict against a microcosmic representation of a brutal and unforgiving society that valued his independence not at all. The potential for horror was great. Kesey's solution was to create not only a first-person narrator, but one whose entire well being depended on the sacrifice toward which McMurphy gradually moved. The Chief's “fog” is the sign that McMurphy is playing it cagey; for the reader, it is the signal to regret Mac's caution and desire his continued resistance to the Big Nurse, even though we may care greatly for him and fear his peril. When everything seems “hopeless and dead,” when the Chief feels “McMurphy can't help. … Nobody can help,” that is when “the fog rolls in” (p. 110). Kesey carefully handles the relationship between Mac's attitude toward the hospital and the nurse, and the Chief's mental health. Very quickly, one implies the other with almost syllogistic force.

As Mac inches toward destruction—it is never really in doubt, once we have seen the past and present power of the Big Nurse—a corresponding reduction in the Chief's psychosis takes place. The other inmates are part of the immanent and powerful pattern, showing clear signs of independence, sexual and otherwise. If is as if the entire cast of characters supporting Mac and the Big Nurse has been invented to convert and implausible and horrifying tale into one that is inevitable and transcending. There should be no confusion over just who this story if “about.” For all of the Chief's importance and vividness as a narrator, he is still part of the “telling” and not the “essence.” Aside from being one of the strangest “reliable” narrators in fiction, the Chief provides the compelling need that, coupled with that of the other men, drives Mac on. On the other hand, replace Mac with another kind of character, and the entire donnée of the novel changes drastically.

The Chief's desires, and those of the other other men, would not be enough to establish the instability that leads, in a series of gradually more direct acts of rebellion, to Mac's lobotomy and death. Even with “every one of those faces” on the Disturbed Ward “turned toward him” and “waiting” for him to act, something in Mac's personality must make the confrontation inevitable. Here is where Kesey had perhaps his trickiest problem. If the battle were simply between the Nurse's absolute desire for control and Mac's con man independence, we have melodrama. What Kesey does instead is to represent, largely from the outside, through the perceptions of the Chief, a change in Mac. The tragic fate he endures—distinct from the lobotomy and death that are its effects—is to lose his personality in the other men. The McMurphy who leads his twelve disciples down to the sea to fish for salmon has relinquished his role as dynamic and independent rabblerouser. On the trip back, with seas high, he takes a life-jacket, even though they were three short. The old Mac would have played the tough leader, disdaining the whipping waves. But now, “McMurphy hadn't insisted that he be one of the heroes; all during the fuss he'd stood with his back against the cabin. … and watched the guys without saying a word” (p. 240), a reticence equally unusual for Mac. Harding, near the end, sees the change clearly. It hasn't been the nurse “bugging” Mac “about one thing or another.” “That's not what drove you crazy,” Harding says. It was “us,” the men who turned the independence of Mac into the only kind of weakness that could have destroyed him: the ability to care about others (pp. 294-95).

Kesey risked creating a mere comic book hero in Mac, a caricature of real heroism. We do not see the psychological process that turns Mac from egocentric sinner to sacrificial saint; it is portrayed through signs: Mac's uneasiness, noted by the Chief, his “dreadfully tired and strained and frantic” (p. 245) look as he realizes, we surmise, what he must do. For four reasons I can think of, three probably essential and one at least highly desirable, the change must be represented indirectly. For the sake of plausibility, such a drastic change is better shown from the outside. Then too, if we were to see Mac's internal state of confusion, what he feels could become more important that what he does—and his actions form the tragedy, not his state of mind. Thirdly, dwelling on the ruminations of a man who quite clearly is going to act in a manner that will insure his own destruction risks creating that sense of horror at the “triumphant tyranny of vice over virtue” David Hume contended was counter to the tragic. We could become too close to Mac, and our concern for his safety overpower our desire to see him resist. Finally, the dramatic tension—the suspense—is heightened by our uncertainty in conflict with our desire.

That there existed a potential in Mac's “flaw” for melodrama is apparent. Some readers find the comparisons of Mac to Christ not only heavy-handed but inappropriate. But this too is a rhetorical problem: to elevate Mac's actions to tragic proportions, not only must a great deal be at stake (the other men) but his struggle must seem larger than it objectively is. Kesey may intend a “statement” about the “Combine,” the American society with its passion for homogenization; but that “lesson” is present only indirectly as a function of Kesey's need to raise the confrontation above the level of local melodrama. At points such as this, it does seem that the “rhetoric” of tragedy has shaded perceptibly over into conception. Perhaps, once the problem of shared values becomes so crucial, rhetoric designed to create necessary belief actually becomes a part of the author's vision, even if, analytically, the two are always separable.

Many other elements of the novel function as rhetoric to establish the importance of McMurphy's fall, including the sense that it is not merely idiosyncratic, but somehow “true,” universal in its implications and importance. Here is where Kesey has run into the most trouble with critics and general readers. Some of the objections seem merely matters of misreading, but others strike to the heart of what Kesey was trying to do. The Big Nurse, for example, has been seen as evidence of Kesey's “demeaning” attitude toward women, a charge that could be brought against Shakespeare because he created Lady Macbeth. For the dramatic requirements of the story, Nurse Ratched had to be very nearly an incarnation of evil, unthinking or otherwise. For Mac's struggle to seem important, the forces opposing him must not only seem nearly omnipotent, but must not be too “understandable,” and never sympathetic. Here is one place, among many, where Milos Forman, and laudatory critics of the movie version, seem to me to have gone completely astray. The last thing Kesey needed was a “humanized portrait of Big Nurse,” one that would make “viewers wish to know more about the character.”8 We have totally confused the exigencies of representation with life when we argue that given “the opportunity to run that ward in her own right, instead of having to manipulate the rabbity doctor, perhaps Miss Ratched might have run it more humanely.”9 To criticize Kesey for not showing how the Big Nurse got to be a “bitch” is to forget that she is not a real person but a character subordinated to the realization of a tragic plot. A little understanding, where villains are concerned, often courts artistic disaster; with the Big Nurse, as with Iago, the moral terms of the struggle need to be clear in order to prevent confusion.

There is little doubt, however, that Kesey's decision to incarnate the forces of oppression in Nurse Ratched led, under conditions that have become widespread since he wrote the novel, to the current view of the book as “sexist.” Kesey needs a sharp confrontation; but why did he not, I have often been asked, make the director of the hospital a man, and the head nurse his instrument of control, herself in effect another victim? For the sake of immediacy and even plausibility, the threat to the men needs to be visible and present. But that is a weak consideration, since Kesey could have found a way around the problem. We may, finally, be forced to concede that Kesey saw something in the male—female conflict that was “to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.” Before so doing, however, it would be well to examine to what extent, in the text, we are given the impression that Nurse Ratched is the cause of all the men's problems. Surprisingly, we find that Kesey was careful to signal that she too is just a local manifestation of the pernicious desire to manipulate the lives of those too weak to resist. McMurphy's indictment of her occurs early in the novel; critics often quote it, but seldom quote enough.

No, that nurse ain't some kinda monster chicken, buddy, what she is is a ball-cutter. I've seen a thousand of 'em, old and young, men and women. Seen 'em all over the country and in the homes—people who try to make you weak so that they can get you to toe the line, to follow their rules, to live like they want you to. … If you're up against a guy who wants to win by making you weaker instead of making himself stronger, then watch for his knee, he's gonna go for your vitals. And that's what that old buzzard is doing. …

[p. 58]

The words are important: “men and women … people … guy.” Mac here speaks of what the Chief calls “the Combine”: “It worked” on his father “for years.”

He was big enough to fight it for awhile. It wanted us to live in inspected houses. It wanted to take the falls. It was even in the tribe, and they worked on him. … Oh, the Combine's big—big. He fought it a long time till my mother made him too little to fight any more and he gave up.

[p. 208]

His mother, a white woman, reflected the much wider forces that would destroy anyone; but she too was a pawn, and not by virtue of her sex. The Big Nurse, with all the other emasculating women in the book, is to be seen as the Chief sees her: a cog in a big grinding machine. It may be, as Addison C. Bross contends, that Kesey's is a “weary ideology.”10 But it clearly is not so much antifeminist as antiskinnerian.

The sexual problems of the men become, in this view, symptoms of weakness rather than causes. As Harding says, “There's not a man here that isn't afraid he is losing … his whambam. We … can't even achieve masculinity in the rabbit world, that's how weak and inadequate we are” (p. 65). The causal relationship is clear: “weak” therefore impotent. All of the patients, except McMurphy, suffer from “flaws born in, or flaws beat in” (p. 14), like Pete Bancini, who has “been a Chronic all his life” because the doctor at his birth “pinched his skull” (p. 49). Nurse Ratched is just the efficiency expert in this “factory for the Combine” (p. 38); her cruel effectiveness, and the way she represents an entire society, make her, for Kesey's dramatic purposes, a perfect adversary for Mac. She is no more like a “real” nurse than Iago is like a real soldier. That sort of critical naiveté should have disappeared with Thomas Rymer. Even so, there is nothing terribly implausible about her. She plays a part. Harding's ability to look her in the eye and tell her she is “full of so much bull shit” signals the independence that will enable him to leave the hospital. This is the goal on which the tragic impulse of the book depends. To have made the Big Nurse anything “less” than she is—more “human,” more understandable—would have been to attenuate the force of the final victory, as deadly as it must be for Mac.

McMurphy's fate is indeed to become the kind of “savior” he scorns being treated as earlier in the novel (p. 182). All of the rhetoric of the book is designed to make plausible his final attack on the nurse, an act he cannot avoid, that will destroy him, and yet one that is out of character for the “cagey” Mac. Like most tragic figures, Mac's physical destruction is not identical to his doom. His tragic fate is to become fatally dependent on the men, to act in a way that makes clear that he is under the control of their needs and desires. What removes the “conversion” of Mac from the merely melodramatic is that he loses himself largely without recognizing—at least, so that we can see it—what is happening. Harding, usually a perceptive witness, errs for once when he argues, after the fishing trip, that “everything he's done was done with reason” (p. 254). We have seen no process of ratiocination indicating a calculated intention. In fact, at crucial points in the book, when Mac must take another rebellious step closer to lobotomy, what we see is a man who would avoid the confrontation if he could. In the shower room scene, Mac finally makes himself fight only when it is clear that Washington will not leave the men alone, will insist on soaping down the frantic and helpless George. McMurphy reacts, with “helpless, cornered despair” in his voice (p. 261). By keeping the thoughts of McMurphy hidden, by indicating his state of mind through signs the Chief interprets, Kesey manages simultaneously to achieve two difficult ends: we do not question the plausibility of Mac's actions, and we desire more and more that he continue them. Our fears for him are not allowed enough strength to conquer our stronger desires that he act to help the men. It is as if Kesey had discovered that a powerful tragic action could be constructed around the spectacle of a man who is destroyed because he is forced to become better than he was. All the authorial rhetoric at Kesey's command, including the hiding of certain things, had to be employed to prevent such a character from seeming merely pitiful or his destruction evidence of the multifarious horror of existence.

If we grant this description of the formal exigencies of the book, many complaints cease to have objective basis. Some have already been discussed: the portrayal of the Nurse Ratched, the necessity for a somewhat oblique point of view, the alleged sexism. As a further test case, we might ask two simple questions to test the power of the hypothesis: why are the attendants black and why is there a sympathetic female nurse on the Disturbed ward?

The formal requirements I have sketched dictate that the lives of the Chief and the other men must be made as miserable as possible, under the guise of “therapy,” so that our desire for McMurphy to act will be strong. They must be watched, pushed around, even sexually abused, since depriving a person of sexual integrity is especially demeaning. Many of these activities the nurse could not plausibly engage in. The attendants, furthermore, must have sufficient motivation to commit such acts, against men who are not only pitiful but largely helpless. Without spending the time to construct case histories for all the attendants, to make their hate individually plausible, Kesey hit upon the device of making them black and sketching in a kind of collective past for them. The first one watched as “his mother was raped in Georgia while his papa stood by tied to the hot iron stove with plow traces, blood streaming into his shoes … and he never grew an inch after” (p. 28). The choice of black attendants is a kind of shorthand; but Kesey was careful to include signals that he does not think of blacks as inherently cruel. Nurse Ratched had already rejected “thousands” because they did not “hate enough” (p. 27). The attendants are themselves victims, an important point to convey if one wants this confrontation to be not only unique and vivid but universal.

Like the nurse, their individual motives must not claim our interest. They must not become independent of her influence, but act, rather, as her surrogates, vessels into which she has poured her own hate, which is never explained either.

Although she plays no real part in the action, the gentle nurse on the Disturbed ward serves a few of the same rhetorical purposes; she is primarily a device of disclosure. She tells Mac and the Chief that things are not everywhere as bad—though “a lot of it is”—as they are on Nurse Ratched's floor, but she also reminds them (and us) that the Big Nurse “has seniority” and can therefore do what she will. We learn of the possibilities for hope, are assured that the conflict in front of us is an important and general one, and then brought back immediately to the specific horrors of this situation. Although we may not think of this as we read, we are reassured that Kesey himself knows not all women are “bitches” and “ball cutters.”

What remains when we have isolated the elements of Kesey's rhetoric? It is tempting to accept Kesey's own appraisal of his subject, to concur with his often quoted statement that “It's the Indian's story—not McMurphy's or Jack Nicholson's.” But Kesey goes on, immediately, to suggest what I think is the real conception underlying the novel: “The emphasis should … be … on the battle going on in the Indian's mind between this man and the Combine that is loose in America.”11 The Chief, that is, controls our responses to the conflict by himself responding in ways that compel us to wish for McMurphy to act. Several critics have seen the similarities between Bromden, Nick Carraway, and even Melville's Ishmael; but they have not seen that the function of such narrators, no matter how extensive a role they play in the story (or sometimes by virtue of that role), is largely rhetorical: to control judgment and emotional response. The typical conclusion drawn from the example of these novels is that they are “‘about’ many things” and that the question, “whose is the story,” cannot be answered.12 I have tried to demonstrate that when we ask, of Bromden's role as narrator, “for the sake of what,” the answer is clearly to tell McMurphy's story as powerfully as possible. At any point in the novel, our fear or happiness for the Chief results almost entirely from how he views McMurphy.

The tragic conception, then, rests on McMurphy. Kesey is correct, in addition, to suggest that the conflict is between Mac and the Combine. The Big Nurse is a representative. But what gives the book its tragic power, what assimilates it to the great tragedies of all ages, is that the conflict is never merely between figures but leads to an internal struggle, mirrored at every point by the Chief's responses. Despite the vast dissimilarities between Kesey's novel and many of Shakespeare's tragedies, there are yet these two important similarities. The struggle with Nurse Ratched and the Combine becomes, inside McMurphy, a fight between two opposed principles of his being. Like Hamlet, McMurphy must become something other than what he was for the disaster—and the victory that accompanies high tragedy—to take place; and like many of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, McMurphy finds himself in a situation in which the ethically “correct” choice—although it will doom him—is one for which none of his previous experience has prepared him. When faced with the chance to escape at the end of the novel, he calmly turns the opportunity down: “I've took their best punch.” Harding realizes that Mac does not “fully comprehend” what can happen to him (p. 298). But the Chief has already told us that “it was bound to be and would have happened in one way or another … there wasn't any way of him breaking his contract” (p. 296). The “bull goose loony” has become loony indeed; he can no longer care only for his own survival.

That such an “old fashioned” conception, based on convictions of human worth and the value of sacrifice, has provoked some jeers is not surprising. John Barsness summarized the problem:

… it has become increasingly difficult to maintain that rugged frontiersman as hero, particularly since at midcentury the society approaches an overwhelming urbanization, and contemporary literature seems totally preoccupied with non-heroes whose landscapes are concrete and steel and whose primary characteristics are fixed upon failure. In such surroundings, faced with such assumptions, the hero is an anachronism, out of scale and out of kilter with contemporary standards of truth.13

That elements in any author's repertoire of rhetoric might seem outdated in time is not unusual. As Wayne Booth noted, “At one time the invention of the turtle, heading southwest across the highway in The Grapes of Wrath … paralleling in his direction, his helplessness, his determination, and his pace the Joads' hopeless, dogged lives, may seem brilliant. … But after twenty years, that turtle seems decidedly outmoded and obtrusive.”14 The task would seem to be to choose no element of rhetoric that will succumb to time. But realistic fiction demands some reflection of the way lives are lived at any time, and what seems enduring truth in one decade, or one century—say, the universality of the “battle of the sexes”—can evoke indignant protest in the next. In an age, like ours, of value confusion and increased social sensitivity, it may be that authors can please widely only by pleasing blandly, or will have to resort to that last refuge of value timidity, ambiguity.

Tragedy, in whatever medium, is neither bland nor timid. The spectacle of a human being experiencing his or her doom can be one of the most moving and powerful in art. But it cannot occur without the prior existence, or creation, of values shared between author and reader. The “institution” Croce pronounces to be at the bottom of the artistic transaction involves, in the tragic action, belief in the significance of human choice and human sacrifice.15 Much that we have valued in the past, and still do, despite our critical theories of indeterminacy and plurisignificance, would be lost if we actually stopped lending credence, even if only for the nonce, to the systems of belief, often very different from our own, that inform, must inform, tragic works. This is not to say that we should credit any philosophy merely in order to gain a powerful artistic experience. But we must carefully distinguish between what is basic to the tragedian's conception and what beliefs he uses, as instruments, to make the experience possible. To hold artists responsible for every value that appears in their works may seem the height of enlightened social responsibility; but a failure to discriminate among intentions can destroy unnecessarily the noble treasure that is tragic art.


  1. David Daiches, “What was the Modern Novel?” Critical Inquiry I (1975): 813; Daiches first made the point in 1939, in his seminal study, The Novel and the Modern World; Virginia Woolf, “How It Strikes a Contemporary,” The Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1953), pp. 243-44; David Hume, “Of Tragedy,” Four Dissertations (New York: Garland, 1970), p. 199; Aristotle, Poetics 26.

  2. Sheldon Sacks, “Clarissa and the Tragic Traditions,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 2, Irrationalism in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Harold E. Pagliaro (Cleveland and London: Case Western Reserve Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 209-10; Robert V. Wess, “Modes of Fictional Structure in Henry Fielding and Jane Austen” (University of Chicago dissertation, 1970), Appendix i.

  3. Hume, p. 199.

  4. Elizabeth E. McMahan, “The Big Nurse as Ratchet: Sexism in Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest,CEA Critic 37 (1975): 26; Leslie Horst, “Bitches, Twitches, and Eunuchs: Sex-Role Failure and Caricature,” Lex et Scientia 13 (1977): 17; Peter G. Beidler, “From Rabbits to Men: Self-Reliance in the Cuckoo's Nest,Lex et Scientia 13 (1977): 56.

  5. Robert Forrey, “Ken Kesey's Psychopathic Savior: A Rejoinder,” Modern Fiction Studies 21 (1975): 224. Not only is Forrey's judgment suspect, he cannot get the chronology of the novel straight.

  6. Horst, pp. 14, 17.

  7. Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (New York: Viking, 1964), p. 12. Subsequent references are in the text.

  8. Marsha McCreadie, “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: Some Reasons for One Happy Adaptation,” Literature/Film Quarterly 5 (1977): 130.

  9. McMahan, p. 27.

  10. Addison C. Bross, “Art and Ideology: Kesey's Approach to Fiction,” Lex et Scientia 13 (1977), p. 61.

  11. Ken Kesey, in Beverly Grunwald, “Kesey: A Sane View from Cuckoo's Nest,Women's Wear Daily, 18 December 1975, p. 1.

  12. John W. Hunt, “Flying the Cuckoo's Nest: Kesey's Narrator as Norm,” Lex et Scientia 13 (1977), p. 27.

  13. John Barsness, “Ken Kesey: The Hero in Modern Dress,” Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association 23 (1969): 27-33; reprinted in John C. Pratt, ed. “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest”: Text and Criticism (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 420 (my emphasis).

  14. Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 197.

  15. Benedetto Croce, Guide to Aesthetics, trans. Patrick Romanell (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), esp. pp. 3-27.


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Ken Kesey 1935-2001

(Full name Ken Elton Kesey; has also written under the pseudonym O. U. Levon) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, screenwriter, journalist, editor, playwright, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Kesey's career through 2002. See also, Ken Kesey Criticism and CLC, Volumes 3, 6, and 11.

Often regarded as a transitional figure who linked the Beat Generation of the 1950s with the hippie movement of the 1960s, Kesey began his literary career with the best-selling and critically acclaimed novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). Typical of Kesey's fiction, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest focuses on marginalized or nonconformist individuals. These outcasts try to overcome the stigma of their social status and retain their self-respect by opening their consciousnesses to the pleasures of sensuous experience and rejecting the manipulations of a technologically oriented society. In addition, his writings routinely feature inventive symbolism, archetypal characters, and esoteric philosophies derived from Eastern and Native American religions, mysticism, and the occult. Kesey was also an early proponent of the West Coast psychedelic movement from its inception. In the mid-1960s, he founded a group known as the Merry Pranksters, who dedicated themselves to the quest for heightened self-awareness and new forms of expression induced by psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD. Although most critics have recognized One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest as a masterpiece of contemporary American literature, Kesey's subsequent works have attained neither the popularity nor the critical acclaim of his first novel.

Biographical Information

Kesey was born on September 17, 1935, in La Junta, Colorado. He attended primary school in Springfield, Oregon, where his family ran a cooperative dairy farm. As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, Kesey actively participated in fraternities, drama, and wrestling. During his senior year, he married Faye Haxby, with whom he had four children. After earning his B.A. in 1957, Kesey considered pursuing professional acting and wrote the unpublished novel End of Autumn before starting graduate study in creative writing at Stanford University in 1958. While at Stanford, Kesey befriended fellow students Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone and studied under such notable literary critics as Wallace Stegner, Richard Scowcroft, Malcolm Cowley, and Frank O'Connor. Meanwhile, Kesey became involved in the counterculture movement that developed in the Perry Lane area of Stanford, which was modeled after San Francisco's North Beach, the center of the Beat movement. During this period, he also volunteered for government drug experiments, particularly those involving LSD, at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Menlo Park, California. The hospital eventually hired Kesey as an aide in the psychiatric ward where he sometimes wrote while taking peyote during his night shifts. His experiences with both drug use and hospital work became the basis for his first published novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a critical and popular success. By the 1970s, the novel was one of the most frequently taught contemporary texts at American universities. In 1963 Kesey bought a mountain home in La Honda, California, which soon became home to the Merry Pranksters and the center of the LSD-fueled psychedelic movement. The following year, Kesey completed Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), which inspired the Merry Pranksters to make their notorious bus trip to New York City for the novel's initial release. They documented the event with more than forty hours of film that became known as “the movie.” The film was often screened during their so-called “acid tests,” the defining social events of the hippie movement which Tom Wolfe famously chronicled in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). In 1965 Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana but, to avoid prosecution, fled to Mexico, where he made a declaration that he was giving up writing to live his life as though it were literature. Kesey later served five months in the San Mateo County Jail and was released in November 1967. After the death of his mentor and friend Neal Cassady in 1968, Kesey bought a seventy-five acre farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, which remained his primary residence until his death. He briefly lived in London in 1969, where he worked with Apple Records on a failed project to record writers reading their own works. When he returned to the United States, Kesey disbanded the Merry Pranksters and turned away from their lifestyle and drug-use. In 1970 the film adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion premiered, and Kesey produced the unreleased children's film Atlantis Rising. During the early 1970s, Kesey gradually returned to literary endeavors, editing The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog (1971) with journalist Paul Krassner and publishing Ken Kesey's Garage Sale (1973). During the mid-1970s, Kesey wrote six editions of his periodical Spit in the Ocean (1974-1980) and contributed a series of “dispatches” from Egypt to Rolling Stone magazine. Milos Forman directed the film adaptation of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975, which won five Academy Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including best picture and best director. In 2000, when the American Film Institute complied its list of the top 100 films of all time, Cuckoo's Nest was ranked as number twenty. However, Kesey refused to attend the premiere of Cuckoo's Nest until the producers agreed to settle a breach of contract lawsuit and famously stated that he had never seen the film as a result. From 1975 until 1986, Kesey wrote little except for a few articles for such magazines as Esquire and Running. In 1984 Kesey's son Jeb was killed in an accident, and Kesey subsequently dedicated the collection Demon Box (1986) to his memory. He joined the faculty of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon in 1989, where he conducted a three-term graduate seminar that collectively wrote and published a novel within a single year—Caverns (1989). In the early 1990s, Kesey wrote two children's books, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (1990) and The Sea Lion: A Story of the Sea Cliff People (1991), before he published Sailor Song (1992), his first novel in nearly twenty years. Kesey died on November 10, 2001, in Eugene, Oregon, due to complications following surgery for liver cancer.

Major Works

Set in a psychiatric facility in the northwestern United States, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is narrated from the perspective of Chief Bromden, a large, schizophrenic American Indian of mixed native and European ancestry. Bromden feigns being deaf and mute to avoid being “worked on” by the hospital staff, particularly the enforcer guards who he refers to as the “Combine,” a term suggesting both the threshing machine and an agency of normative control. As the novel opens, Bromden views life in the hospital ward as a humorless cartoon fraught with human misery, and his observations of the real world are initially rendered in paranoid terms. For instance, his acute awareness of the staff's desire to control all aspects of the patient's lives leads him to fantasize that the staff mechanically manipulates the patients via electronic circuitry behind the hospital's walls. Bromden's theories are challenged by the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a swaggering ex-Marine, gambler, and braggart, who describes himself as “a good old red, white, and blue hundred-percent American con-man.” McMurphy is immediately identified as a nonconformist by his fellow patients, including Harding, an effeminate intellectual who feels emasculated by his spiteful wife, and Billy Bibbit, an adolescent whose self-image depends on the approval of his domineering mother. McMurphy shows his fellow patients the value of laughter as both a source of sanity and a weapon against repression. Consequently, he engages in a comic power struggle with “Big Nurse” Ratched, an efficient administrator of institutionalized conformity, who demeans and manipulates the patients into attacking one another in the name of “therapy” in order to retain control. At first, McMurphy unsuccessfully tries to abide by Ratched's rules, but he later organizes an unapproved fishing trip and a wild party in the ward where Billy loses his virginity to a prostitute. The next morning, McMurphy attempts to escape, and Ratched threatens to inform Billy's mother about her son's promiscuity. Unable to live with his mother's disapproval, Billy commits suicide. As a result, McMurphy physically attacks Ratched, who subsequently orders restraints and a lobotomy for McMurphy to show the remaining patients that resistance is futile. The incident undeniably affects Bromden, causing him to smother the lobotomized McMurphy to death in order to both deprive Ratched of her victory and to accept responsibility for his and the other patients's complicity in McMurphy's downfall. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest concludes with Bromden escaping from the hospital and making his way to Canada as a sane individual.

Kesey's second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is considered more complex in scope and style than Cuckoo's Nest. Set in the logging town of Waconda, a region on the Oregon coast that had a high suicide rate in the early 1960s, the story recounts the relationship between Hank Stamper, an individualistic logger who defies his neighbors and union organizers by working during a strike, and his half-brother Lee, who wants to seduce Hank's wife to avenge a sexual encounter that he witnessed as a boy between Hank and Lee's biological mother. Despite their capacities for reckless self-indulgence, the brothers come to realize their helplessness and interdependence when Hank's personal rebellion fails and Lee's revenge proves unfulfilling. Presented in the grandiose, mock-epic style of Marvel comic books, Ken Kesey's Garage Sale gathers magazine articles, interviews, and satiric essays written by Kesey and others, including Paul Krassner and Allen Ginsberg. The collection also includes an original screenplay by Kesey, Over the Border, an animated psychodrama based on his flight to Mexico. Balancing Kesey's nostalgia for the mirth of the 1960s with an awareness of the hazards of the countercultural lifestyle, Demon Box presents a selection of Kesey's previously published short stories, articles, essays, and interviews written during the 1970s and 1980s. The work includes Kesey's “dispatches” from Egypt for Rolling Stone, articles on cattle raising (“Abdul and Ebenezer”) and the Beijing marathon (“Running into the Great Wall”), and an elegy for Cassady (“The Day after Superman Died”). Many of the pieces in the collection are narrated by a character named Devlin Deboree, who is often seen as Kesey's alter-ego. Published the same year as On the Bus, Paul Berry and Ken Babbs's account of the Merry Pranksters' 1964 bus trip, The Further Inquiry (1990) offers Kesey's own retrospective on the Merry Prankster years along with an extensive photo album and a mock-trial screenplay that pits a prosecutor named Chest against the testimony of various Pranksters, whom Devlin Deboree defends.

Set in the Ozark Mountains, Kesey's first children's book, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, follows a wily squirrel who decides to stop the bullying of a tyrannous bear and thereby makes the homes of the others animals safe once more. The action of Sailor Song is set in a future world where a series of long-predicted ecological disasters have finally occurred. The novel chronicles life in Kuniak, a run-down Alaskan fishing village inhabited by refugees, transients, and natives who have somehow escaped the pollution, sterility, and demoralization that plagues the rest of the planet. The protagonist is Ike Sallas, a celebrated local hero and a retired eco-terrorist, who confronts Nicholas Levertov, a former convict and popular filmmaker. Levertov intends to exploit Kuniak's safety and comfort by turning the village into a tourist attraction, but his intentions divide the citizens into two factions—one group desires the expected financial windfall from the tourism, while the other wants to leave Kuniak untouched. In the end, however, neither party claims victory as an ecological apocalypse interrupts everyone's plans and dreams. Twister: A Ritual Reality in Four Quarters (1993), Kesey's only play, is a technologically experimental drama which combines numerous references to L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz with a satiric take on popular culture and the modern media. Last Go Round (1994), Kesey's final novel, marks a thematic departure from his previous works and represents a tribute to the cowboy tradition of the roundup. Based on a story Kesey's father told him about the historical 1911 Pendelton Roundup, which involved an African American bronco rider, an older Native American, and a boy from Tennessee all competing for the title of World Champion All Round Cowboy of the West, Kesey's novel re-imagines the men's pursuit of the silver saddle trophy. Although the boy wins the prize, his victory is colored by racial insinuations of a more contemporary era. Ken Kesey's Jail Journal was published posthumously in 2003, collecting Kesey's diary entries written during his incarceration in 1967.

Critical Reception

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest has been a critical success since its initial publication, and its popularity has grown throughout the years. The book has been particularly popular on college campuses where diverse disciplines have adopted the text into their curricula and plumbed its rich variety of contexts. Consequently, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest has been subjected to a wide range of critical interpretations. Scholars have variously perceived the novel as a biblical parable, a Western romance in the American tradition, and a story about freedom from institutionalized repression. Other critics have argued that Kesey's writings carry forward the American literary traditions of the Transcendentalists and the Beats as well as the frontier humor and vernacular style established by Mark Twain and developed by American comic books and cartoons. Some reviewers have objected to the novel's negative portrayals of African Americans and women, but other commentators have asserted that the work's apparent racist and sexist outlook is affected by who the reader identifies as the novel's protagonist—Bromden or McMurphy. While the majority of academics has favored Bromden, maintaining that his unbalanced perspective functions as a distorted reaction to dehumanizing social realities, several have argued on behalf of McMurphy, contending that his brash behavior and language represent his means to freedom from repression and false propriety. The debate about the novel's true protagonist has escalated since the release of the film adaptation, which is narrated from McMurphy's perspective rather than Bromden's, but the cinematic version has also occasioned comparisons with the original text on several fronts. Although many scholars have expressed dismay at Kesey's refusal to develop his writing beyond the early promise of his first novel, some have afforded Kesey's subsequent works a modest reception, particularly his novels. While certain critics have lauded Sometimes a Great Notion for its regional accuracy and stylistic complexity, his last two novels—Sailor Song and Last Go Round—have generated scant interest among scholars. Despite the shadow cast by One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest on Kesey's career, many reviewers have also accorded some value to Kesey's other contributions to American literature, including his original and engaging treatment of American traditions, his skillful construction of anecdotes to reveal the spiritual depth of his heroes, and his insights on human nature that illuminate his principal themes of freedom and the moral responsibility of imagination. Besides his literary accomplishments, observers have also regarded Kesey's impact on contemporary American culture for both better and worse, usually citing his own oft-stated preference to “rather live a novel than write one.”

Thomas Scally (essay date autumn 1982)

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SOURCE: Scally, Thomas. “Origin and Authority: An Analysis of the Relation between Anonymity and Authorship in Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Dalhousie Review 62, no. 3 (autumn 1982): 355-73.

[In the following essay, Scally analyzes Chief Bromden's narration in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in terms of the truth of its meaning rather than the facts of its events.]


It is at least curious that an inquiry should take the beginning as its end, the display of the origin as its purpose. This already suggests that one cannot begin at the beginning but rather only achieves the beginning as a sort of atmosphere radiated by the maturity of those concerns which, in their primitive incompleteness, generated the need for the beginning in the first place. To the extent that any inquiry is an act of separation from its origin, it will necessarily seek that origin beyond the particularity of its own speech. This paper considers what first appears to be only a version of the beginning, namely it deals with the origin of narrative. The attempt to render this version mature is troubled by the tension between the love of example and the desire for principle. To see what the example manifests is to see the principle within what it rules; this task is called interpretation by those who think principles are at bottom preferences, those who are unruled (or perhaps unruly), yet amused, by the need for the beginning. When interpretation itself is the example, then the engagement of example with principle mirrors that marriage of the playful and serious which begets the narrative voice. The courtship of example and principle needs to be heralded by the interpreter, who may or may not realize that the voyeur has a problem. The voice of such a courtship is both story and theory; thus the source emerges in the guise of author to witness that match and recast its significance within the difference between speech and silence. What, then, is this beginning but a loud silence which remembers those echoes which once resounded within it? That gap which begot the appearance of a beginning quickly matures into the inarticulateness which is the author's problem. Why indeed should one say anything at all if what one really needs to know is where to begin?

This need to know where to begin invites us to construct and interrogate the modern version of a beginner, that initiator who circumvents his impulse to originate by representing it in another. The modern's projection of origin into alterity makes problematic the status of his reconstituted beginning. In one sense, then, the difference between example and principle is representative of the separation of the writer from his voice; rediscovery of the writer's beginning will demand an appreciation of how the example seeks independence, how it references a possible speech outside that factual content it initially illustrates. In this separation from its concrete referent the example is empowered to point beyond itself and is freed to mean more than any illustrator could intend. This surplus of reference is the writer's reminder that he not only uses, but also is led by the example.

Stories about gods and creation tell us more important stories about how beginnings are conceived. The many versions of the source are the offspring of our need for it; we shape the source to reflect our conception of ourselves as an outcome of it. In this respect the writer's problem is always a problem of genesis, that is, of demonstrating a responsible relationship to the beginning in the sense that his own voice is conceived as one mode of its insistent presence. The extent to which the beginning is bothersome, is an issue that compels, marks the extent to which one recognizes that claims about the source are really claims about our own resiliency or obduracy in the face of those questions which enclose us. For the source is fundamentally a question, the persistence of that lack of completeness which seems perpetually within us. Claims about the source are then claims about our own capacity to enjoy those discrepancies which animate and come to authorize our inquiry. The source appears as the ground of our need to frame our own appearance in practice and in thought. This conviction that example represents the engaged form of principle suggests that the version of the origin relevant to authority must be first located in the particular, in the mixture of the limit and the unlimited. Yet any consciousness which is compelled by the desire to develop will necessarily become contemptuous of the particularity of its beginning; real achievement demands the triumph over particular conditions, private interests, and even favored examples.1 One can only know that one particular is a better example of the good beginning than another by presuming that such examples can be so treated as to show the order that results from their measure. That the Good is measure is the unexamined assumption with which this paper begins; that the beginning is the highest instance of measure is the formulation it attempts to achieve. That the Good appears phenomenally as standard or measure may indicate that the Good itself does not appear at all and that the sense in which it is a beginning is concealed by the interplay of its counterparts.2

We propose that the conception of origin as lack, gap, or inability is what typifies modern consciousness. The moderns conceive that lack at the core of authorship in a dispersed fashion, as an inability that is without boundary. The modern narrative's love of the unlimited betrays its primitively theological character because it conceives the source as dispersed, unknown, and chaotic. The futility which is consequent upon such a love can be construed as authenticity, the deification of the literal beyond virtue.

Our concern here will be for the origin in the most significant sense possible. We must attempt to look at our relation to our own beginning as revealing the clue to the structure of source-oriented discourse. The central example of this paper, from a modern novel, will demonstrate our commitment to the view that discourse can only aim at the re-discovery of the source. We will imagine our desire to possess the example as measured by our theory about the source. It is so measured in even the initial absence of theory because it is only in the vigor generated by our love of example that our need for theory about that love emerges. The theorist is then responsible only when he can locate evasion, i.e., his own necessary indirection, as an initial moment in the fruition of what is finally one speech. That the beginning as experienced can only be evasion is signaled by the seductiveness of example. The love of example (the exegetical impulse) must become self-conscious if the theorist's authority relative to the source is to know its own genesis.


The narrative voices of many modern novels conceive of themselves agonistically, that is, as engaged in a struggle to discover the relationship between the truth of events and their occurrence. One such troubled voice is Chief Bromden, the narrator of Kesey's novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.3 The Chief does not restrict the truth of events to their occurrence, rather what occurs is so chillingly factual that it rejects meaning. It is within the glacial absurdity of an insane asylum that the Chief becomes capable of telling the story that is the novel. The Chief's struggle with meaning is announced early in the novel when he acknowledges that much of what he has experienced and will tell about would be classed as nightmare or hallucination by those who hear him. Still he insists that his story “… is true even if it didn't happen.” (p. 8) From the outset there is a recognized incongruity between the true and the factual; the Chief's account is strictly phenomenal, its truth intrinsic to its shape, and its sense unmeasured by any standard other than appearance. The imaginative as experienced, as inhabited by truth prior to judgment, is the frame for a derived factuality. In this way, before one even has a world, one already has the truth about it, for the truth is more enclosure than enclosed. Thus before the Chief decides to speak the novel he has realized that the truth of events must be dislocated from what others agree occurs.

One example of the Chief's metaphysics is his belief that beneath the floor of the hospital there lies acre upon acre of machinery, like the workings of a huge dam. Everything that happens in the ward and much that happens in the world is mechanically controlled by something the Chief calls the Combine. The Combine aims at regularity and conformity to such a degree that it will even resort to replacing the insides of a man with tubes and wiring to correct behavior. Though the details of this control are peculiar to the Chief, the basic belief that something huge and impersonal orders things is shared by other characters as well, even by McMurphy, who, though not yet a puppet, eventually claims “… there's something bigger making all this mess …” (p. 181). The local instrument of control for the Combine is Nurse Ratched, the Big Nurse, yet even she is a machine beneath her starched uniform, at least as far as the Chief is concerned. From time to time the Chief is able to witness her turning into a tractor and can smell the oil burning in her gears as she roars past him. Most importantly, the nurse seems able to control time and can slow things to an icy crawl; to the Chief she is like the animator of a cartoon in which all the inmates are characters or like the puppeteer who produces life-like motion with invisible wires.

Like a cartoon world, where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking through some kind of goofy story that might be real funny if it weren't for the cartoon figures being real guys …

(p. 31)

The nurse watches the day room from her glass case; the scene before her takes on that blue-steel clarity again, that clean orderly movement of a cartoon comedy.

(p. 34)

The technicians go trotting off … like cartoon men—or like puppets, mechanical puppets in one of those Punch and Judy acts …

(p. 35)

The nurse represents the very mortality that all try to evade, time's inevitability, made fast or slow, depending on which is more “therapeutic.”

A more particular case of the Chief's bizarre perceptions of what takes place in the ward occurs when one of the other inmates, Blastic, dies one night. (p. 87) The Chief's version of what happens is that the dormitory floor slides away to reveal the machinery of a slaughter-house and demon-like workers who hang old Blastic up by his heels on huge meathooks and transport him out of the ward into a waiting furnace. At the same time the Chief is experiencing all this he is also aware that if he were to relate it to others they would consider him a fool or a dreamer. So he chooses not to speak for the moment because the “truth” of his experience is too incredible, yet he wonders “… if they don't exist, how can a man see them?” (p. 87) Thus the Chief seems inadvertently to have stated what is the novel's real concern, namely the story-teller's problem of making the non-existent perceptible. If the writer's perceptions embody true shapes then the writer's task is to make his own silence before what he sees a provocation for narration, to fashion his own experience of shapes and limits in such a way that he will erase his own inarticulateness while at the same time sustaining the difference between his enlivened perceptions and their impoverished and mechanical counterparts which appear to others.

The Chief's movement from the pretense of deaf-mute to the status of narrator means to him that he has once again become “big” enough to resist the forces of the Combine. The Chief, like all true story-tellers, comes from afar, but his strangeness and his journey are conceptual rather than geographic. The novel is the story of his movement under undisciplined imagining to the place of narrative, from a kind of speechless terror to the song of his own self-transcendence. It is his affinity with McMurphy, the swaggering gambler and yarn-spinner, which makes this growth and this journey possible. McMurphy's promise to make the Chief big again is first of all directed toward the Chief's recognition of his own physical stature and strength. What is important is that McMurphy accomplishes this by persuading the Chief to break his silence and become a fellow speaker, an interlocutor who can devise his own story. The Chief's struggle and regeneration, his resumption of his original shape, is quite literally the movement from silence to speech, and his first task as a writer is to recapture that beginning; the first consciousness he authors is that of himself at the time when he maintained the disguise of a deaf-mute. Self-reflection and authorship thus breathe the same air.

McMurphy is neither totally altruistic in his promise to the Chief nor is he simply a technical aid like a therapist. Rather he provides a model, a medium, against which the Chief can measure himself. McMurphy is the primitive version of a standard, i.e., the standard as model or example. The Chief also sees (p. 208-9) McMurphy as the victim of the same tactics which were used to shrink both him and his father from greatness to insignificance. The Chief, of course, perceives McMurphy to be huge (p. 207); in the swimming pool incident (p. 160) the Chief presumes that McMurphy must be standing in a hole because he suddenly notices himself to be a full head taller than McMurphy. So what begins as a consciousness of “bigness” simply in terms of size and strength becomes a more profound admiration until the Chief can finally speak about stature or size in a way which excludes the physical sense of “bigness” altogether. The Chief realizes that McMurphy's real grandeur resides in his power to be what he is in spite of what he looks like; at the same time he realizes that his own problems originated in his own entrapment by appearance, his resignation to being what he looked like. One can only become larger than one is by being unconcerned about how large one looks.

I'd think he was strong enough being his own self that he would never back down the way she was hoping he would. I'd think, maybe he truly is something extraordinary. He's what he is, that's it. Maybe that makes him strong enough, being what he is.

(p. 152-3)

I was just being the way I looked, the way people wanted. It don't seem like I ever have been me. How can McMurphy be what he is?

(p. 153)

He hadn't let what he looked like run his life one way or the other …

(p. 153)

What causes this recognition on the Chief's part is his sudden appreciation of the flowing beauty of McMurphy's handwriting. The Chief is struck by the incongruity between the handwriting and the gnarled paw which guides the pen until he realizes that this incongruity is primarily his own problem. This incident is quite significant in the Chief's development into a story-teller for several reasons. 1) It has finally become clear to him that what he admires about McMurphy is not really his size or his swagger, but rather his command over himself. McMurphy has the courage to be what he is in spite of what other people expect of him. The strong sense of “big” is thus a triumph over appearance altogether. 2) In the incident in question McMurphy is also shown to be a primitive version of what the Chief can become. McMurphy is a writer in a purely formal sense (his penmanship is admirable, but nothing is said about what he pens); this shows the Chief that there is no real contradiction between what his perceptiveness makes him capable of (being a novelist) and what his appearance suggests (something close to figurine). 3) This recognition also redefines the struggle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, who all along has also been called “big.” Their struggle is not really to see who is stronger in the purely physical sense, rather the bigger will be the one who masters appearance, the smaller will be the one who submits to it in cowardice. In this context McMurphy is clearly bigger because he literally rips off her disguise (her uniform) when he attacks her and also sees her innate viciousness concealed behind the more complex mask of authority.

The Chief finally admires McMurphy most of all for his ability to tell stories. It is in this sense that the Chief considers McMurphy to be truly “big” because this ability shows that he has mastered the language of appearance as well as appearance itself. What the Chief remembers as the culmination to the fishing trip was that McMurphy, in spite of his frantic exhaustion, “… doled out his life for us to live, a rollicking past full of kid fun and drinking buddies and loving women and barroom battles over meager honors—for all of us to dream ourselves into.” (p. 245) Later, during the visit from the whores, the Chief recalls McMurphy and the orderly Turkle swapping tales. Thus McMurphy's talent for replacing the prevailing dread of the ward with the enjoyment of the exaggerated tale makes the Chief grow because it makes him laugh at the foolish face of an authority that is purely institutional. He ultimately begins to wonder who will take McMurphy's place (p. 303) once the nurse inevitably neutralizes him; it is this speculation which brings the Chief to the threshold of narration. What McMurphy's place really is becomes the question which makes the Chief mature and sane.

In terms of his development toward McMurphy's “place” the Chief goes through several stages. He, at first, is able to perceive scenes but does not know their reality status nor is he yet able to order them into the pattern of intelligibility which a story demands. As we have already mentioned, his first attempts to unify his experience are by means of the metaphors of the machine and the cartoon. Though he indeed perceives machines and cartoons which he also acknowledges do not really exist, this still allows him his first sense of distance from what goes on around him because he can look at what entraps him as if from the outside, as if examining the mechanism of a machine or watching an animated scene. Such distance, achieved by charging an experience with already-given sense even at the level of perception, allows the Chief to tell about such scenes as that of Blastic's death without experiencing himself as totally vulnerable to them. He defends himself from such threats by inscribing himself in the world of the ward as a fixture. He adopts a role, the pretense of the deaf-mute, which guarantees that he will be overlooked; he is present in the ward as someone who is almost invisible. We might begin to think of the author as someone who is in the novel in much the same way.4 The Chief is the story-teller who is guileless towards his hearers yet “cagey” towards those who threaten his insularity. His disguise as a deaf-mute guarantees a certain immunity from the horrors of the ward.

He spends his days pushing his broom affecting a distracted daze; he, of course, cannot maintain his distance in all circumstances and so occasionally loses himself in the fog and ends up at the shock shop. He is, then, almost anonymous to the staff yet is the observer of all that goes on as well as of those things which are true “even if they didn't happen.” Here the writer's figure is that of a man struck speechless with clarity; as we will see, the subject, the voice that narrates, will emerge into clarity as the hero (McMurphy) disappears and becomes inaccessible.5 The clarity of the subject is made present by the implied dialogue between the writer and his narrative voice; when we come to see how the narrative voice is the writer's other, we see his own recounting of how his own possibility for enrichment emerged within his own consciousness.

A striking parody of the Chief's visible inscription in the ward occurs when a group of residents and a visiting doctor tour the ward. They pass the Chief as if he were some sort of insect and he pushes his broom beyond them down the hall towards a picture of a man fly-fishing in a mountain stream. As he criticizes the fisherman's technique, the Chief has a strange experience (though he seems to accept it as commonplace and a reason for enjoyment). For us his relation to the picture can be viewed as an emblem of his first undeveloped relation to the place of narrative, the place to hide.

There's a path running down through the aspen, and I push my broom down the path a ways and sit down on a rock and look back out through the frame at that visiting doctor talking with the residents … I can't hear what he says because of the crash of the cold, frothy stream coming down out of the rocks. I can smell the snow in the wind where it blows down off the peaks … It's a real nice place to stretch your legs and take it easy.

(p. 122)

This kind of entry into the picture is consistent with the Chief's disguise as a deaf-mute and with his inability to distinguish the factual from the imaginary. For the Chief the world of the picture is an alcove of the ward, a safe place where he can relax his guard; to the Chief's mind the space of art is continuous with the space of ordinary experience. When he looks back into the ward through the frame of the picture, he seems to be both inside and outside the picture. He is the eye at the edge of the picture, the intersection of art and life. The picture has become so much the context of his gaze that he does not exist at a distance from it, rather he has become invisible and immune by becoming the look (the push) of the picture against the world.6 Something in the depth of field of the picture grasps him and transports his consciousness to the point where the landscape is something other than the picture; he becomes more like the screen or hinge that is the mediator between the picture and the ward. The Chief imagines he disappears from the ward by inscribing himself in the painting on the wall; since the Chief sees picture and world as continuous (i.e., he does not judge the reality of his perceptual field), this entry and disappearance into the look that is the picture is an emblem of the Chief's inscription into the picture that is the hospital ward. The entry into the picture displays in miniature how the Chief deals with the complexity of the larger scene that is the ward. The Chief imagines himself as drawn into, or written into the picture; in other words, he begins to conceive of himself as possessed of a consciousness which can take him places.

Through the pretense of speechlessness and deafness the Chief is able to situate himself in the mechanics of the ward; he then has a place within a literal account of experience (the nurse's account) in spite of his own dislocation with respect to the factual. Disguise and deception (the Chief's caginess) provide a kind of entry, an infiltration by camouflage, into the world of the ward. To those in the ward (with the exception of McMurphy) the Chief has been reduced to the signification “deaf-mute.” His successful pretense creates security and anonymity because he is not categorized as a signifier at all and so presents no threat to other signifiers. He does not have an active position in a system of speech and sense which would engage others in the ward. His mimicry has reduced him to the status of a thing, a pure signified,7 and it is this thing-like beginning that makes him capable of a transcendence denied to those already speaking. That he pretends to begin as less than he is, allows him to become more than he could be without that pretense. He is not in the picture (the ward) as an active element of its movement, but rather is an element in the framing of the scene; he becomes identical with the broom he pushes. He is officially a mutilated remnant of the ward's past violence, but because he is still able to conceal himself by representation of his own design, he acquires a power and an authority over his own beginning. He has been able to render his hiding place holy and invincible to all save McMurphy, whom he considers to be the one who can lead him forth safely. The hero can be the mute subject's interlocutor because the hero is conceived of as savior.


It is then more than ironic that the Chief is the consciousness which tells the story of the conflict between the nurse and McMurphy. The Chief who is our story-teller must be imagined to be one who has overcome the need for the disguise of speechlessness and has emerged as a voice which can comprehend and enjoy the memorial of that necessity. Yet the Chief who is our story-teller does not achieve this voice in a linear fashion, i.e., in the mode that would think of what is transcended as thereby eliminated from the consciousness which lives the moment of the act of narration. Rather the Chief's narrative “strategy” is to re-establish the strength of the consciousness which sought disguise as its “strategy”; his story must preserve the moment when deceit was essential because it is this hiding which is the beginning that is the story's frame. In effect, the Chief re-invents himself in the disguised consciousness (he once again disguises himself, but this time as one disguised) and imagines that speechless figure as the first moment in the genesis of the unmasked speaker who can reproduce his own generation in the monument of narrative. The picture he enters here is not one on a wall, but rather is that of his own primitiveness, his own hiding in the inarticulate origin he now attempts to present as offspring.

From the perspective of the problem of writing the Chief is an icon of an ideal narrator because he imagines himself as the enclosing awareness who is in dialogue first of all with the verbally deprived, yet perceptively lucid, part of himself. Time and history are the modalities which separate such speakers in fact, but the Chief imagines their relation to each other as timeless. In order to write, he somehow must re-invent himself in the position of awaiting his own story. So the speechless Chief's inability to say is in reality his refusal to lose the original sense of his experience, his first knowing,8 in the inscriptive process of writing or speaking. The Chief's inscription of himself in the ward is then the primitive intuition of how he is to appear in his own narration. He must show himself as successfully concealing himself from the nurse of self-indulgence which is both custodian and threat.

On the other hand, the super-Chief (or as the orderly Washington calls him, the ‘soopah-chief’) then narrates as if he were the one who had not yet chosen to speak; the super-Chief can only be the author's figure if that figure is imagined to be itself capable of figuration, i.e., capable of conceiving itself as someone capable of disguise. Kesey's figure is thus a self-conscious figure, a figure which can see narration as a problem, as the aporia which only the deceit of silence can enliven ironically. The Chief is to be seen as shaping his own silence into his muse.

The super-Chief (the figure who narrates) and speechless Chief (the character in whom the narrating figure invests his difficulty as ironically overcome) are thus a picture of the relation between the writer and his voice. The novel then contains a mimesis of the disappearance of Kesey's voice into that of the Chief; he vanishes by investing the voice he needs to possess in the consciousness that is the Chief. Just as the dreamer is one who finally does not see,9 that is, is the one who is not aware of himself as the consciousness which dreams the dream, so the Chief who narrates also must imagine himself as one who is in the ward in the guise of one who neither hears nor speaks. In turn, the author can be said to be in the book as one who does not write.

The Chief's narrative is then the picture of Kesey's full awakening to the notion that the other is discourse; narrative in this novel is shown to be miraculous because it exemplifies the triumph of the writer over his own incapacity to speak by the inscription of that inability in the story told by another (i.e., the story the Chief's pretense allows him to tell). This process is best demonstrated in the Chief's speculations about “taking McMurphy's place” near the end of the novel.

He was in his chair in the corner, resting a second before he came out for the next round—in a long line of next rounds. The thing he was fighting, you couldn't whip it for good. All you could do was keep on whipping it, till you couldn't come out anymore and somebody else had to take your place.

(p. 303)

The Chief is already certain of McMurphy's ultimate disappearance, the disappearance of the one who “doled out his life for them to dream themselves into.” The departure of McMurphy means that the Chief must accept or reject the responsibility for having his own voice. When the burned-out body of McMurphy is brought back into the ward after the lobotomy, the Chief refuses to believe it is really McMurphy and instead calls it a “crummy sideshow fake.” The Chief eventually smothers the life out of this “replica” by covering it with his entire body; he does so because he knows what McMurphy would want. This symbolic merging of the Chief with McMurphy portrays one serious temptation for the development of the Chief's consciousness, namely, he could simply replace McMurphy on the ward and so offer himself as another sacrifice to perpetuate the resistance to the nurse's authority. He even contemplates this for a moment, as is shown by his attempt to wear McMurphy's cap. However, the cap turns out to be too small and the Chief leaves it behind; so he realizes that this imitation would once again be an attempt to derive what one is from what one looks like. He cannot be Murphy and, as the ill-fitting cap indicates, has outgrown his need for him; he is now “bigger” than his model. As his own subjectivity grows to maturity and finds its own voice, the model vanishes into the inaccessibility of vegetation and death. The Chief assassinates the faded image of his mediator,10 to free his own voice from the stranglehold of imitation. Thus, taking McMurphy's place is not a real possibility for the Chief because his own lucidity demands a return to his own beginnings, not the taking up of the life of another, unless a further disguise becomes necessary. He resolves to go back to his home along the Columbia and watch his tribesmen spearing salmon in the spillway of a hydroelectric dam. He says about his source, “I been away a long time.” (p. 311)

For the Chief, McMurphy is an example in the sense of a model and the Chief encounters a problem analogous to that of the writer who wants to understand the proper relationship with example. Both the writer and the Chief must merge with their respective examples, yet they must not do so in a way that would reduce or limit them to the boundaries the example provides. The relationship with the example must be nourishing rather than absorbing in such a way that the story of the example's desirability allows an independent voice to emerge. As McMurphy is the Chief's first model of what he will become, so the example is the writer's first formulation of what he wants to say. One can only be nourished by and grow “big” because of the example when the example can be seen as a necessary moment in one's own emergent novelty; otherwise, the example is no more than idol or slogan.

So for the Chief “becoming big” means both returning to his own origin and, by doing so, becoming capable of telling the story of his own emergence as subject. The Chief's different conceptions of his own size serve to indicate different relationships to his own limits. To fear speech or refuse to speak to protect oneself is to be small, while to be gigantic is not only to speak but to create whole worlds (novels).

It is only in the Chief's narrative that the speechlessness of Kesey, the going-out of oneself necessary for writing, can truly be heard; Kesey is able to “write” the book only by pretending that his own inability to write or speak is the disguise of someone who is able to write and speak. Kesey becomes big enough to write by imagining his inability already overcome in the Chief. In this way the Chief mimics Kesey when he disguises himself in the ward. Just as the pose of the Chief allows him to blend almost invisibly into the ward, so the writer contrives his own disappearance into the book by imagining his own speechlessness as the disguise of one who speaks the book. The author then doubles himself into a scene which others regard; he exteriorizes in art the limitations which excluded him from its initiation and by so doing animates the transformation of his own consciousness into a more developed form. Thus the dialectic of Kesey's creativity is imaged by the Chief's emergence from silence into story.

This is to imagine oneself as somehow authored, fathered, by one's own creation; the offspring, the invented voice, is the progenitor of the author's best self, the self which writes. This reversal of outcome into source is possible because the art which produces the book must embrace that lack which forestalls and conditions the work of writing. So the writer must imagine his own limitations as the tone or hue, the screen of possibility, which permeates a consciousness beyond those limits and which delights in them as its own invention. This struggle of the writer to displace his own silence is exemplified in the novel by the juxtaposition of the Chief's achievement of speech and the loss of speech on the part of Nurse Ratched. She can no longer speak because of McMurphy's attempt to strangle her. When she appears at the end of the novel, she is forced to write her responses to Harding's questions on a notebook. She literally has become “one who must write” because she has lost her vocal power, yet her writing is purely technical, i.e., it functions only instrumentally to communicate information.

‘Hum,’ Harding said. ‘Our conversation was a bit spotty, it seemed. But then, when you are told that you are full of bullshit, what kind of written comeback can you make?’

(p. 307)

The nurse's writing is a writing which is necessitated because speech is excluded organically whereas the Chief's story-telling power coincides with his recovery of and commitment to the power of speech. To the extent that the nurse represents this purely instrumental view of writing (much as McMurphy earlier represented a purely formal view), the novel recommends that the writer must silence the nurse in himself. That is to say, the writer must attempt to obliterate that tendency he has to treat himself in a custodial fashion, the tendency he has to indulge himself in proper care to evade the insistence of his voice.

Working at the limit of the novel, then, are two voices within Kesey himself: the voice which creates the narrator-character and in doing so evades the paradox of attempting to be what it says; the more concealed voice, represented by the Chief's story-telling voice, which realizes the weakness of the evasion and which addresses that evasion by impersonating a character who conceives of it as necessary.

We finally claim that modern narrative conceives of the source as a kind of contrived speechlessness; the pretense that such silence is contrived is the means by which the writer measures his better self against his own insufficiency. Only by representing that insufficiency before the source as already overcome can the modern novelist evade that meaningless chaos he intuitively senses at the heart of things. The modern question is thus how evasion can be construed as measure.


Our analysis of the Kesey example has displayed a pattern of tensions each of which manifests the doubleness enclosing any task of self-conscious representation. We need now to envisage, or perhaps invent, that consciousness which can sustain the opposition between example and principle, evasion and commitment, in an enjoyable (i.e., measured) and significant way. It is not accidental, but essentially instructive, that this task resembles that of the novelist who must shape his characters in such a way that they are independent of his inventiveness, yet mastered by its measured use. It is not enough that the writer have a “genius” for the construction of characters, though he may indeed have this, but such genius must be measured by the inherent demands of the display. Thus genius is measured by the structure of that spectacle it needs in order to exemplify itself. Contrariwise, ingenuity about structure (if we could imagine some novelists as impassioned system-builders) must be measured by continuity in character. The writer's task is then to understand stage and character as things which only appear together, indeed things which only have their being in this togetherness.11

Our task is then much like that of the dramatist when he realizes that his characters have overrun and obscured his stage; or perhaps more accurately, when he realizes that he has never shown the sense in which he is offstage, and consequently has inadvertently been pursuing his task in the disguise of a character all along. The merit of our stage, the Kesey example, is that its inventor has staged his drama in such a way as to represent his own disappearance from it and so has become its author by exemplifying his own exit. For the theorist, where character becomes example, the problem is how to manifest one's own exit from the example in the example itself in such a way that the release from the example is not evasion in the sense of escape but rather an evasion which creates the distance necessary for Reason's eyes to focus. The theorist's problem is how to become his own audience without merely showing-off to himself; this means that the theorist must be his own example.

If we are to become our own examples then we must reformulate the oppositions generated by our treatment of the Kesey novel in such a way that they show the double evasions of entering and existing this example as complementary goods. We have described one type of initiator as he who evades his impulse to originate by re-directing it into another in whom it is embraced as renewal (we called this initiator the modern or he for whom art is measured by evasion).

We have here implied (and elsewhere stated)12 that the apparent opposite of such an initiator is one who not only credits his own impulse but is able to construe it as the consequence of habitation by another and so is inspired from without rather than from a contrivance within (we could call this initiator the epic actor or the classic figure).

Given the descriptions of two such figures there must exist a consciousness which authorizes such description. There must exist an initiatory consciousness for whom these alternatives are distinct yet productive, a consciousness which finds its stage or life in these embodiments. This is to say that the consciousness which presumes to theorize about such figures must embody evasion by turning evasion into principle and must embody principle by the exemplification of evasion in the story of other originators. This initiator must be one who begins by considering given alternatives as already an outcome and captures authority by so enlivening the alternatives that the good of each appears. This is to say that such a consciousness takes the alternatives as something accomplished and seeks to address those grounds which render this accomplishment achievable. This voice will be one for which the figures of the display are developed in such a way that they become characterizations of overcome self-interests; the activity of such a speaker will be neither heraldry (interpretation) nor heroism (creativity) simply, but rather a consciousness committed to the continual recapitulation of the moments of its own development.

In a way, then, the articulation of the differences between the consciousness of a modern novelist and that of the epic voice discloses a subject which does not yet know itself. This subject experiences its own emergence when it interrogates its own interest in concealment and evasion; if principle and evasion are to know their own necessity then that subject which emerges must be one which needs their belonging-together in order to posit itself. Initially such a subject wants to know how it can love example (the modern novel) when the example is disclosed as incomplete and grounded in negativity. What this consciousness initiates is an inquiry into the good of the modern's undisguised refusal to appear undisguised and its apparent sense of futility in the face of the self's refusal to be encapsulated. This inquirer finds its continual animative source in the recognition that the writer always outstrips and outdistances his creation; such difference between the mind and any speeches it can invent is the given which is brought out of hiding by the subject which finds that rationality is its master. In more immediate terms if we are to become such subjects, we must know why those terms which render the example satisfying are not themselves satisfying. Why is it that when we imagine the pursuit of example as an end we find that what we have become in order to take such an end as good is not itself good? Why does the love of example only render us better in a random and accidental way?

This amounts to saying that we are not yet satisfied with our own relation to the Kesey example and that the auto-characterization “lover of example” is not yet fully explicit. Although we have not yet achieved precision about our own relation to example, we have at least distilled several less developed forms of that relation within our own analysis. The character McMurphy personifies a kind of relation to example in the way his speech is punctuated by stories; McMurphy's stories are his examples and these range from quite elaborate tales to one line wisecracks. Within the mechanistic and determined world of the ward, McMurphy is a random factor in that his speech and responses to speech are unpredictable. In this way McMurphy might be seen to represent action itself, i.e., the interruption of a determined process by a free act. McMurphy may not then hold any more general principle which he could articulate, but his relation to example is strong in that his stories and ironies are random miracles13 resisting absorption into the congealed determinacy of the ward. Yet McMurphy's relation to his own examples is finally instrumental, i.e., he uses the stories as a kind of defensive weaponry and as a seduction to his own ends. These are tendencies that our own relation to example should overcome. McMurphy is more a user than a lover of example and is consequently oriented more to display; McMurphy is eloquent, inspired, and compelled by examples but never develops an affection toward them.

The Chief's example is McMurphy himself, the man who has not limited what he is to what he looks like. The Chief's consciousness is finally more developed because his speech not only uses example, but also is about example, i.e., about McMurphy, his primordial model. The Chief asks himself what his relation to example ought to be and does so by narrating that history which produced the separation of the model from himself. The precondition of this achieved independence from the model is remembered as a fellow speaker, not in the sense of another conversationalist, but as one who evokes speech about oneself in the first place and so causes to appear the outline (the cartoon) of what one needs to be. The Chief's relation to example is more developed because it produces self-animation; prior to the entrance of McMurphy the Chief perceived the ward as a kind of cartoon theatre, though he was not yet a figure in its drama. Because of his developed capacity to become McMurphy's interlocutor (i.e., because he conceives of his example as interlocutor) he is able both to imagine his own cartoon replica in the ward and to begin imagining what the cartoonist, the animator of figures (the novelist, perhaps), must be like. He then begins to see that the idea of a speaker or story-teller must exemplify its own transit into exemplification. However, the Chief's relation to example is also incomplete for he loves this specific example, that is to say he is bound to McMurphy and the particularity of that model's personality, but he does not love exemplification itself. The Chief is then the icon of a developed, but still immediate relation to example; he knows that he must be independent of the origin of his voice (i.e., he cannot become a mere imitator of McMurphy), but he cannot formulate what shape that independence will take. The Chief cannot even pose the question of re-integration with his origin because his status as one of its products is not yet clear to him; in Kesey's writing we experience the Chief as one who is still being produced, as a voice still speaking, a voice without the sense that it could be the example loved by another.

Even Kesey, who perhaps can see that the Chief is his own example, cannot be characterized as a lover of example in the full sense because Kesey loves his examples (his characters) from afar and in an abstract way. In the projection of his problem and his speech into the voice of another, in imagining the voice as already achieved in another, he has disembodied himself. There is no identifiable voice of Kesey in the novel, but this in itself is not restrictive unless we are also excluded from any access to the lover because of the beauty of the beloved. We tried to see the relation between the Chief and McMurphy as representing the relation between Kesey and his narrative voice, but we were hindered here by the absence of any account of the differences between the two. It is impossible to treat such relationships proportionately if the original ratios are not somewhere displayed. The Chief's voice lacks an essential alterity which could allow Kesey's own voice to emerge in an indirect and ironic way. Example in the sense of character is thus limited by the necessary immediacy of the character's voice; to overcome his own silence the novelist must empower a character with a voice and so evade the paralysis of his own speechlessness, yet this same invented voice is incapable of developing any fruitfully ironic relation to its own source. In short, the novelist sacrifices so much in the evasion necessary for speech that the voice which emerges is immediately orphaned and incapable of accounting for its own incompleteness.

The theoretical subject, which we seek here, has in example the same opportunity for disappearance which the novelist has in his character, his narrative voice. Theory in the fullest sense (i.e., in the sense that it preserves the good of those stages it transcends) must sustain the tension between the love of lack (the otherness the example recalls) and the love of the full (the sameness the theorist finds in his witnessing). This amounts to the balancing of unlimited vacuum with limited precision, without ever identifying the Same with the Other, or imagining that the precise is a lack. Rather theory must envisage what is lacking in the precise (in this case in the interiority of the psyche, elsewhere the limits of any method which refuses to interrogate itself) and what is precise about the lack (in this case the refusal of the modern to intrude into what he displays as other, elsewhere the belief in any disembodied intelligible). In short, this is to say that the theoretical attempt must be a kind of narrative, the narrative of the theorist's rise to and embrace of his own endeavor as exemplary. This would be to see theory as agency, thought as the highest kind of action.

The theoretical consciousness will resist the temptation to unstory the example by an appeal to expertise or to idolize method to the extent that it pretends that every topic (even its own inquiry) can be taken explicitly. In our own struggle with example it will now make sense to see the exegetical (the unstoried example) and the methodical (the example in the service of conventional limits) as the disrobed figures of what we have called the modern and the ancient. The ancient voice can be understood as an icon of the methodical because it sees itself as in the service of a speaker who has already defined the intelligible limits (epic convention, ritualization, the figure of the muse, would be elements in this mythically-grounded methodology). In the weakest sense the ancient voice would see itself as the work of a cosmic ventriloquist; in the strongest sense it would see itself as enacting the will of a non-human voice, as the selected inheritor of a gift.

The modern voice can be understood as exegetical because it thinks that talk with itself should be unequivocal (i.e., the modern has a precise, a methodical, an ancient conception of its own voice), that it should achieve a single voice as its outcome. Yet at the same time it is clear that this is also a kind of conceptual death because such a voice would finally generate no otherness, no character other than its own grammar. Thus the modern seeks to evade this emergence and confrontation with the death of its voice by remaining within its own example, that is within the character which confronts death as the writer's scapegoat and his hiding place. If the emergence of the subject from that fiction which is termed the “modern world” can only be seen as his dissolution, then the novelist's task is the avoidance and postponement of this appearance in the most artful way, even to the extent of showing another subject emerge. The construction of replicas for a kind of existential dismemberment makes the modern a consciousness intoxicated with its own escape to the extent that the icons generated by that escape seduce the hearers of such a speech into deifying the source of this almost ritual sacrifice. The modern novelist is our Bromius and we his Pentheus; having pursued the fugitive author into the circularity of his own origin, we find only a landscape strewn with dismembered replicas and somewhere nearby we sense, but never see, a smirk.


  1. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (Markham, Ontario: Penguin), 52-3.

  2. Arendt, op. cit., 109.

  3. Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (Markham, Ontario: Penguin Books, 1973). Page numbers cited in my text are from this edition.

  4. In an analogous way, any writer might be construed to be in his work in such a camouflaged way, or the origin might inhabit the particular by residing in it as something silenced by the particular's own concrete character.

  5. Eric Gans, The Origin of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 231-2.

  6. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), 96.

  7. Lacan, op. cit., 207.

  8. Russel Hoban, Riddley Walker (New York: Summit Books, 1980), 17.

  9. Lacan, op. cit., 75.

  10. Rene Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 101.

  11. Arendt, op. cit., 152. Here the inarticulate character of principle is discussed and distinguished from the action it engenders.

  12. Thomas Scally, “The Epic Future” in Maieutics (Winter, 1981), 86-110.

  13. Arendt, op. cit., 169.

Principal Works

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One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel) 1962

Sometimes a Great Notion (novel) 1964

The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog [editor and contributor; with Paul Krassner] (essays and prose) 1971

Ken Kesey's Garage Sale (essays, interviews, journalism, and screenplay) 1973

Demon Box (short stories, essays, and poetry) 1986

*Caverns [as O. U. Levon] (novel) 1989

The Further Inquiry [photographs by Ron Bevirt] (screenplay and prose) 1990

Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear [illustrations by Barry Moser] (juvenilia) 1990

The Sea Lion: A Story of the Sea Cliff People [illustrations by Neil Waldman] (juvenilia) 1991

Sailor Song (novel) 1992

Twister: A Ritual Reality in Four Quarters (play) 1993

Last Go Round [with Ken Babbs] (novel) 1994

Ken Kesey's Jail Journal (diaries) 2003

*Caverns was written as a collaborative novel, published under the collective pseudonym O. U. Levon, between Kesey and thirteen students in his creative-writing class at the University of Oregon.

Elaine B. Safer (essay date summer 1983)

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SOURCE: Safer, Elaine B. “The Absurd Quest and Black Humor in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion.Critique 24, no. 4 (summer 1983): 228-40.

[In the following essay, Safer delineates the absurdist perspective and black humor tone of Sometimes a Great Notion.]

Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) has been acclaimed as a premier example of black humor literature, while Sometimes a Great Notion (1963) has received relatively little critical attention, most of it negative. Commentators have faulted Kesey's second novel for having “quirky and hallucinatory” images, characters who engage in a “self-defeating struggle,” and—in general—for being too diffuse, for having no central unity.1 An absurdist thrust and black humor tone, similar to those in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, give coherence and compelling power to Kesey's long second work and cause Sometimes a Great Notion to be a major contribution to contemporary American literature.

The story of Sometimes a Great Notion details a spectrum of hopes and illusions ranging from Indian Jenny's reliance on magic, to Jonas Stamper's appeal to Old Testament affirmations, to Joe Ben's belief in New Testament fundamentalism, to the union's message of brotherhood's interdependence. Kesey develops the courage, energy, and aspirations of Henry and Hank Stamper and then makes the reader recognize the frailty of man in an alien universe. The characters' frustrated hopes are a constant reminder of what has been defined as the nature of the absurd: “The senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach.”2

Eugene Ionesco defines the absurd condition as “that which is devoid of purpose. … Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” Jean-Paul Sartre, in La Nausée, has Antoine Roquentin experience the absurd when he appreciates that “the world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence,” that “no necessary being can explain existence.” For Roquentin, “a feeling of physical nausea spreads … at the edge, like an oil stain.” Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, explains that such “nausea” or the “absurd” grows out of man's desire for meaning and his disappointment in a universe that is “divested of illusions and lights [where] man feels an alien, a stranger.”3 The absurd refers to man's attempt to use reason to comprehend the unreasonable, his efforts to make sense out of a mad world.

An absurdist vision is evident in the opening passages of Sometimes a Great Notion. The narrator invites the reader to “come look” at the tributaries of the Wakonda Auga, “a river smooth and seeming calm, hiding the cruel file-edge of its current.”4 The reader gradually notices an arm placed dangling from a pole, outside an upper window of the Stamper house. All the fingers of the hand but the middle one are tied down, making a “gesture of grim and humorous defiance” (9). The finger defies not only an absurd universe but also the hostile Wakonda townspeople, who support the lumber union. The severed arm of old Henry Stamper, tied in place by his son Hank, succeeds in conveying the double-edged character of horror and the comic. This “macabre prank”5 develops a feeling of the absurd and black humor that Kesey maintains throughout Sometimes a Great Notion.6

Kesey, like other American novelists of the absurd and black humor, alludes to our post-World War II society in which the memory of the bombing of Hiroshima offers constant pain: “That mighty first boom was only the first faintest murmur of an explosion that is still roaring down on us, and always will be” (505). These memories undermine the heroic, pioneering spirit and emphasize the ephemeral nature of things: for “who played at Dan'l Boone in a forest full of fallout?” (116).

Two scenes in Sometimes a Great Notion show man's ineffectual efforts to cope with a senseless universe. The episodes—one from Hank Stamper's youth, the other from adulthood—act as touchstones for the absurd. The first describes pet bobcats that Hank has retrieved by tunneling through blackberry vines. Hank and his uncle construct a cage for them that sits “majestically” on four high legs near the river's edge. Hank is concerned that the river might destroy the kittens. To calm himself he reasons: “The river would have to rise a good fifteen feet to reach even the legs, and by that time the house, the barn, probably the whole town of Wakonda would be washed away.” The next day, however, a “new bank shines bright and clean … [as if cut by] a huge moon-stropped razor” (101-102). The kittens drown. In the second scene—the woodcutting incident—Hank, his aged father Henry, and cousin Joe Ben work to fulfill their logging contract (against union wishes) with Wakonda Pacific. The experience of working together in the forest causes the three Stampers to feel that they are in perfect harmony with nature: “The three of them meshed, dovetailed … into one of the rare and beautiful units of effort … [like] a jazz group … swinging together completely.” Suddenly the splintered bark from a fallen tree causes the buzz saw to jump out of Hank's hand and bound onward to sever Henry's arm. The accident is described in surreal details: “a bright yellow-white row of teeth appear splintering over the mossy lips to gnash the saw from his hands fling it furiously to the ground it claws screaming machine frenzy and terror trying to dig escape from the vengeful wood” (476-78). The “runaway log” springs downhill, slams into Joe Ben and pins him under water. He drowns in spite of Hank's efforts to save him: “A bubbling of hysterical mirth erupted in Hank's face just as he was bending to deliver another breath to Joe. … [whose mouth was] open and round with laughing” (488). Joe's laughter, Kesey indicates, shows his perception of the absurd and his attempt to face it, but, ironically, the open-mouthed laughter also causes his death.7

Multiple levels of absurdity appear in the story: the metaphysical indicates that “treacherous impermanence”8 of nature, whose rivers overflow all apparent boundaries on the water-soaked Oregon coast; the historical reveals that the memory of Hiroshima destroys heroic potential in a post-World War II society; the psychological shows the bizarre ramifications of an Oedipal situation in which Hank Stamper has an affair with his step-mother, Myra, mother of Hank's young half-brother, Lee, who flees Wakonda at age twelve and seeks revenge; the social demonstrates that absurd man “secretes the inhuman” (Camus, 10) as he uses the machine of a labor union to fight the independent activity of the Stamper Lumber Company. Acting always as background for all other ramifications of the absurd is the painful awareness of man's mortality, the realization that tomorrow brings each person closer to death.

One of the ways of dramatizing the painful awareness of man's absurd mortality is the employment of the quest motif: “Our recent writers portray the universe as a ‘vast practical joke’—and the joke is on everybody, novelist, characters, and readers alike. In such a universe, any quest at all is the quest absurd.”9 The sense of the absurd quest, so powerful in Sometimes a Great Notion as a whole, is particularly pronounced in three episodes: Hank's defiant struggle following his attempt to save Joe Ben's life; the experience of Hank and his half-brother Lee in their final pilgrimage to the Stamper house; and the awkward family boat trip that precedes Myra and Lee's Eastern journey, their psychological quest for a new life (early in the novel).

In traditional quest literature, the hero leaves the known, undergoes a series of adventures, and returns to his people, where heroism is rewarded. In Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey uses Wakonda, a logging town in the Pacific Northwest, to provide a setting for the “heroic quest.” In this contemporary version there is no reward. The protagonists come into confrontation with an alien universe that renders all heroic aspirations absurd. Hank's heroic efforts to rescue Joe Ben fail, and he drowns. Afterward, Hank's ruminations (revealed in interior monologue) are contrasted with the townspeople's optimistic fantasies about an early spring. The narrative commentary that prefaces Hank's ruminations in Chapter Ten10 focuses on man's alienation in a universe where heroic potential is constantly shattered by death. By alluding to the “survivors of Hiroshima” and “that mighty first boom” (505), the bomb that has changed man's gestalt, Kesey shows how Hank's alienation mirrors the aloneness of contemporary man. Hank feels isolated from the universe and from mankind as well. Man's aloneness is accentuated by the glaring contrast between Hank's despair and the townspeople's optimism. Their incongruent reactions help develop the absurd.

On the day of Joe Ben's funeral the sun is unusually bright. Now that the Stamper company has submitted to union wishes and has called off its deal to deliver lumber to Wakonda Pacific, the townspeople look at the November sun and think of the rebirth that comes with an early spring. Their stylized observations create the comedy of farce. The Real Estate man, “tingling with joy and ease,” exclaims: “We're out of the woods; around that old corner.” Brother Walker cheerfully adds, “The Lord is merciful … and eternally just.” Both men seem to be cartoon figures “beaming their brightest and dreaming of great transactions of earth and air … masters of the bright outlook” (507-08). Brother Walker is filled with nostalgia for rebirth, for an affirmation of his system. He feels “that the Lord needed the use of Joe to make Hank Stamper see the Light, so to speak” (515). The banality of these stock figures of optimism contrasts with the interior monologue of Hank, for whom the bright sun's glare, like that of the atom bomb, shines on a world denuded of life and meaning. For Hank “the sun comes out bright as hell, like it was lit with more than light” (520). The light is dazzling “like somehow it scrubs both my eyeballs.” The light pierces Hank like “steel wool.” It is an “open-eyed dream,” a white piercing light that seems to “rub everything away” (520-21). For Hank, the world is denuded of meaning, of joy—the sun gives no warmth, only a glare as though all of nature has been washed away. For Hank there is no sense of God's love or a promised land; only a darkness visible, a hell on earth. To our traditional yearning for reward at the culmination of the heroic quest, Kesey presents an ironic counterpart of hopelessness in a world where chance and randomness prevail.

Camus emphasizes the impossibility “of suppressing the absurd.” He insists: “It is essential to know whether we can live with it or whether, on the other hand, logic commands one to die of it” (Camus, 37) and states: “There is a direct connection between this feeling [absurdity] and the longing for death” (Camus, 5). The will to live is achieved through defiance, but simultaneously evident is man's sense of isolation and death. This underlying pessimism is apparent in the following lines by Leadbelly, with which Kesey prefaces Sometimes a Great Notion: “Sometimes I live in the country, / Sometimes I live in the town; / Sometimes I get a great notion / To jump into the river … an' drown.”11

The second scene to be examined in terms of the absurd shows Hank and his half-brother Lee as they make their way to the Stamper household in the last stage of their quests: Hank's quest has been to get the logs to the Wakonda Pacific Company, and, in the process, to save his cousin Joe Ben from drowning. Lee's quest has been to leave his sheltered, Eastern academic life, return to Stamper Hall, and assert himself as a man. Hank is for Lee a father image: the one who rescued him from the dune's stovepipe hole when he was a child (303) and from the teenage Dayglo Gang on the beach years later (299); he is the courageous individualist who braves the unknown. Ironically, Hank also is the object of Lee's hatred, the half-brother/father figure whom Lee has observed having sexual intercourse with his mother Myra.

In classical psychoanalytic theory, a boy's Oedipal desires cause him to want the mother and fear the father. Kesey gives Freudian theory a twist by having Lee, in his homeward journey, fantasize about supplanting brother Hank as a sexual partner with Hank's wife Viv. The incongruity between the seriousness of Lee's past suffering and the trite language he uses to express present fantasies causes laughter. “I'm sprinting hell-bent backwards,” Lee observes. “I'm taking a running jump at the womb” (293), he continues, as he thinks about Viv. Analyzing his strange situation, Lee exclaims: “All that obscure Oedipal pap … might be approaching some kind of truth” (69). To put himself in the place of Hank with Viv seems to offer Lee what Oedipal fantasies often promise: the mother's love and the power of the father.12 Sharpening the ludicrous quest is Lee's hope that the culmination of the Oedipal fantasy will transform him into “a Captain Marvel” (503).

The incongruity of Hank and Lee's actions accentuates the absurdity of the situation. We observe Hank's courage versus Lee's temerity; Hank's fortitude versus Lee's clandestine plan of revenge; Hank's physical and psychological tiredness versus Lee's puny self-pity; Hank's appreciation of the absurd versus Lee's sorely limited wish-fulfillment dream where all he need do is supplant his half-brother/father in bed with his wife in order to be transfigured into a superhero.

Kesey contrasts Hank and Lee's interior monologues and their experiences prior to their journey homeward, the last stage of the quest. Placed side by side with Hank's heroic action in the woods is Lee's pilgrimage from town to Stamper Hall, with its intent of seducing Viv. While Hank valiantly attempts to save Joe Ben and then his maimed father, Lee, in town—limited by his self-preoccupation and feelings of rivalry—ruminates “over dreary cups of drugstore coffee” (468). He vacillates between self-pity and wish-fulfillment reveries, between being Billy Batson or a Captain Marvel. Lee's comic book references and juvenile clichés make us laugh at his endeavors. Then farce and humor seem to collide, and we find ourselves disoriented and strangely disconcerted by the phantasmagorical quality of black humor that becomes prominent in the homeward journeys of Hank and Lee.

In town, Lee hurries out into the rain, exclaiming: “Viv, here I come, ready or not” (477). Then he trudges home, grimly telling himself he can make it “by gosh.” At the same time, Hank, in the forest, is attempting to explain to Joe Ben that he cannot succeed in freeing him: “I can't! The log here! … I mean look at the goddam waterline where I have to” (481). Lee makes his pilgrimage along the wet highway, “stoically” refusing a ride in order to punish himself “with rain and cold for the sin” he plans to commit with Viv (489). At the time, Hank is trying valiantly to cope with the reality of Joe Ben's death and also with his awareness of the treacherous ease with which nature covers her tracks in the smooth surface of water that covers Joe: “He stared, frowning, at the now placid spot where the strange laughter had exploded” (488).

The conflicting scenes take on surreal proportions as Hank swims across the Wakonda River and enters the house. Then, with bizarre swiftness, everything collapses to a cartoon scene. Kesey depicts Lee as a Billy Batson whose metamorphosis to a superhero fails to materialize: “I don't know what I expected—perhaps to actually find myself swollen to Captain Marvel magnitude, flying away replete with cape, spit-curl, and neon-orange leotard.” Lee thinks to himself: “It was the end of my incantations … finishing the last half of a broken ‘Shazam!’ that all-powerful word that would transform Billy” (503). The use of comic book language and simplistic, wish-fulfillment thinking contributes to the farcical quality of the situation.13

The bedroom scene moves swiftly from farcical to painful aspects of the absurd. Hank peers at Lee through the same hole in the wall that Lee had formerly used to spy on his mother and Hank (500). On a psychological level this touches on what Freud analyzes as being central to the uncanny: the “inner repetition-compulsion” that brings one back to the same situation whether it is being lost and returning to the same street or coming across a number or a name several times. This “involuntary return” causes a “feeling of helplessness and of something uncanny.”14 It adds a strange dimension to the upset of Lee, who, after seducing Viv (the mother surrogate) admits that rather than feeling akin to Captain Marvel, he has “merely created another Billy Batson” (503), “a scrawny and ineffectual punk” (135)15 The “involuntary return” to the same helplessness in the bedroom scene (even though the brothers' positions are changed) develops the comic-grotesque ramifications of the situation.

In this bedroom scene, Hank, who has struggled against nature and society, realizes that “strength ain't real” in an alien world. Cuckolded and defeated, he perceives his helplessness in relation to the treacherous impermanence of things. He realizes that all that man cherishes, suddenly and without warning or reason, can vanish: his bobcats, his cousin Joe Ben, and even the love of his wife Viv. Hank is overcome by retching (502-03).16 Hank's experiences border on the tragic, but, unlike tragedy, Kesey's absurdist work has no sense of meaning, order, or Divine intervention.17 There is only nature's uncanny impermanence, and this appreciation, this fear, this terror underlies the quests in Sometimes a Great Notion.

The trip toward Stamper Hall, at the end of Hank and Lee's trials, is in ironic contrast with the early family boat ride away from the Stamper house, at the first stage of Lee's quest (the third scene to be examined). To describe the retreat of twelve-year-old Lee and his mother Myra across the Wakonda Auga River (37-40), Kesey moves back and forth in time, creating a quality of “anesthetized time,” in which past, present, and future events merge. Kesey describes Lee as wanting to separate his mother Myra from her twenty-four-year-old stepson Hank with whom she has engaged in an incestuous relationship. The young Lee meditates on fantasies of revenge: “Shazam … my magic phrase that would turn me instantly enormous and invulnerable” (135).

The early boat trip scene shows that each member of the Stamper family is involved in a futile quest and, also, that each member's sense of alienation causes him to engage continually in uncommunicative dialogue of the absurd. The departure of wife and son brings to full circle old Henry Stamper's quest East (fourteen years earlier, at age fifty-one) for a wife to care for his ten-year-old son Hank. With irony, the narrator explains that Henry had convinced the attractive twenty-one-year-old co-ed Myra to leave her three horses, two lovers, and a parrot to depart for the exciting wilds of Wakonda, from which, fourteen years later, she is fleeing.

At sixty-five, Henry (still thinking of himself as a robust hero) never doubts Myra's ostensibly sensible reason for leaving Wakonda: to find an Eastern school for their twelve-year-old son Lee. No question of “his young wife's fidelity ever penetrated the old man's cock-certainty,” explains the narrator, with sharp-edged humor, “for the fourteen years she lived in his wooden world” (35). Hank also is unaware of the full dynamics of the flight. He never surmises that Lee knows about the clandestine affair with Myra and thinks of himself as Lee's big brother protector. That each of the Stampers is motivated by his own vision, or notion, makes the members of the family incapable of communicating. Myra apologizes to Henry for having so much baggage and quickly adds: “But I'll be back as soon as possible. I'll be back as soon as possible.” Henry winks at Hank and says, “Can't go too long on san'wiches an' salad when she's used to steak an' potatoes” (37).

To expand the boat scene, Kesey presents the interior monologue of Lee, projected into the future, as he thinks back on his father's superficial comments about the “east schooling” the boy supposedly wanted: “‘Well now’—old Henry spaces his words between oar strokes. ‘Well now, Leland’—in a detached, remote, inviolable voice—‘I'm sorry you think you need’—cords snapping in his neck as he leans backward with the pull—‘need a back East schooling … but that's the long and short of it, I reckon’” (38-39). “A litany spoken over me, Lee thinks later, listened to only for the rhythm … anesthetized time.”

(Now it's done, Hank thought … Now it's finished and I won't ever see no more of her again.) … They row through the glittering water. And reflections swirling gently among the flower petals. Jonas rows alongside, muffled from the neck down in green fog: You have to know. Lee meets himself coming back across twelve years after with twelve years of decay penciled on his pale face. … You have to know there is no profit and all our labor avoideth naught. Jonas pulls, straining at the fog. Joe Ben goes into a state park with a brush knife and an angel's face, seeking freedom. Hank crawls through a tunnel of blackberry vines. … “I'm hollowed out with loneliness,” the woman cries. The water moves. The boat moves with measured heaves.


The passage alludes to many examples of the absurd quest: the cross-reference to Lee's grandfather Jonas, who tried to flee the waterlogged land of Wakonda, but whose body is ironically shipped back and buried in the very river that was his vehicle for escape (24-26); the reference to Joe Ben who hopes that his knife-marred face will enable him to start life anew and break the pattern set by his handsome, debauched father who died in a cabin strewn with girlie magazines—(Joe, of course, dies as a result of the buzz saw accident); the reference to Hank's quest through a tunnel of blackberry vines to secure the bobcat kittens that later drown.

During the pauses in old Henry's conversation, Kesey inserts the interior thoughts of Lee and his half-brother Hank. The brothers' contrary fantasies, or notions, estrange them and cause their conversations to be uncommunicative dialogue of the absurd. For Lee, the rival brother Hank (lover of his mother) seems to lack humanity. Hank, on the other hand, sees himself as a helping father/protector of Lee. Their lack of communication is analogous to that in the absurdist dialogues between Yossarian and Milo Mindbinder in Heller's Catch-22, and between Joe Morgan and Jake Horner in Barth's The End of the Road. Hank jovially observes: “What ya say, bub? You going to like New York for a home? … All them cute little college mice after you, you being such a big stud logger from the north woods?” Henry laughs, “That's right, Leland … that's how I got your mama.” The irony in Henry's words and the arrogance in Hank's cause Lee to glare at his brother and exclaim: “You … just … wait.” Hank indignantly cries, “Me? Me? … You're lucky I don't bust your scrawny little neck.” Henry, missing all cues, comments: “What! … In God's creation! Are you two talking about!” When no more is said he “takes up the oars again, apparently satisfied, and rows on” (39-40).

To intensify the absurdity in Lee's quest for freedom, the narrator makes reference to his later suicide attempt: “Twelve years of decay penciled on his pale face.” We learn that twelve years after leaving his Eastern quest, Lee tries to asphyxiate himself. The stove explodes; the blast tosses the mailman to the middle of the lawn, and Lee steps forward with “comically blackened face … more a caricature of contempt than an affectation—like a mime's expression” (55). Incongruences and exaggeration give a grotesque-comic edge to the episode. Lee explains to the irate postal employee: “I think I'm attempting to kill myself … thank you, but I'm not quite sure I've found exactly the right method” (55). We contemplate the inept Lee and, then, the postman, who, sneezing blood over mail bags, tries to use his reason to comprehend the unreasonable: “I think it was too perfect to be coincidental. … I think the blast was planned” (81). We laugh at the infirmities of these foolish figures; however, our merriment is dissipated by our emotional reaction to the pain Lee experiences. We realize how futile is his quest for change of mind through change of place (by journeying East with Myra). We realize that Lee cannot wipe out the image of Hank and Myra together: “That tangle of arms and legs, sighs and sweat-wet hair telescoped through my bedroom peephole … that was burning out my innocent eyes” (217).

The range of humor in Kesey's absurdist novel progresses from the comedy of farce to the edge of black humor. At the farcical tip of the continuum is the union president Jonathan Bailey Draeger, who believes that all men behave in predictable patterns. He continually jots down anecdotal answers to life's experiences and refers to these anecdotes at later dates. Draeger is an archetype of Bergsonian humor, a personification of “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” We, with superiority, laugh at Draeger in much the same way that we take glee in observing Bergson's clowns as they jump up and down till they seem like inanimate “bundles of all sorts, falling and knocking against each other.” “Gradually,” Bergson explains, “one lost sight of the fact that they [the clowns] were men of flesh and blood like ourselves.” The phrase, “like ourselves,” shows that as we laugh at “the transformation of a person into a thing,” we affirm our belief in a clear separation between what is human and what is inanimate. We have something close to Hobbes' feeling of “sudden glory” or “eminency” at the “infirmities” of the clown, the object of our laughter.18

The “sudden glory” perspective is at one end of the humor continuum. At the opposite end, images of the grotesque disorient us. From the dark-edged vantage point, bouncing clowns would exhibit the uncanny merger of animate and inanimate, mirrored in nature and human nature. We would have no feeling of “eminency” when observing them because we would be unable to separate clearly “men of flesh and blood” from the inanimate. Laughter from such a vantage point would be a helpless, hostile response to the world that reduces man to the inanimate through death.

At this dark tip of the humor continuum, common sense fails us and, as Ruskin pointed out, the “ludicrous” and the “fearsome” seem to merge. Wolfgang Kayser observes that laughter at this point reaches “the comic and caricatural fringe of the grotesque.” There is “a play with the absurd,” an awareness of the “demonic aspects of the world,” and rationalism ceases to be of use. On a psychological level, laughter at the dark end of the humor continuum can be explained as a “grotesque-comic sublimation,” when “the function of the comic is to overcome anxiety while at the same time it is based on already mastered anxiety,” giving the comic a “double-edged character,”19 and causing the nervous laughter of black humor.20

The merging of animate and inanimate, so central to the grotesque aspects of black humor, also is evident in Joe Ben's recollection of “the dark portent he had seen stamped into his father's face—like an expiration date stamped into a borrowed book” (255-56). In another episode, plant and animal merge. We find ourselves peering with Lee at the Darlingtonia plant's “round hole resembling a mouth” and see at the bottom of the tube a “clogging liquid containing the carcasses of two flies and a honey bee” (292). In another passage, the moon seems to take on animation as the young Lee looks at it after falling into a deep dune stovepipe hole on Halloween. The moon seems to be grinning like a cheshire cat: “everything gone but the black reminder and the jeering grin” (301). The grin is reminiscent of the man-made jack-o'-lantern that appears to laugh at goblins at Halloween (277). The grotesque progression from inanimate to animate and vice versa adds a sharp-edged tone to the depiction of the alienated, absurd world.

Kesey's continual movement from the ludicrous to the calamitous disorients us. As a result, we become aware that we live in a bizarre, cartoon world, where abortive suicides show up with a blackened face that appears to be “a caricature of contempt … like a mime's expression (55); where ruined, handsome old men (like Joe Ben's father) die in a “lonely mountain cabin full of girlie books” (112); and where depressive young academicians, like Lee, are told by psychiatrists: “So … you may be neurotic as hell for the rest of your life, and miserable … but I'm afraid never completely out. … Sorry to disappoint you” (68). There is a frenzied tone to this brittle humor that accompanies the absurd. It is the comic-grotesque tone of black humor, the same as that which emerges as we observe old Henry's grim gesture of the finger of defiance against a senseless universe in which heroic energy can be annihilated totally by the chance stroke of a buzz saw.

One recalls Bromden's observation in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: “It's the truth even if it didn't happen.”21 This perspective encourages us to appreciate the connection between dream and reality. In Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey guides the reader by explaining: “Besides, there are some things that can't be the truth even if they did happen” (70). This point of view indicates the possible fictionality of our nightmare world: Lee's mother Myra could not have plummeted forty-one floors to her death (72), nor can we be “trapped by our existence” (72). Heroes like Hank cannot be destroyed; he and Lee must fulfill their logging contract with Wakonda Pacific. We refuse to think that they are on the same river that Jonas tried to use as a vehicle for escape but was buried in, the river that Lee and his mother Myra traveled across in an effort to escape their past. Hank and Lee cannot be “the two tiny figures leaping foolishly from log to log” (598; italics added).

Such grim absurdity in Sometimes a Great Notion is reminiscent of that in Catch-22, when Yossarian uses a raft to row to Sweden, and in Bruce Jay Friedman's Stern, when the protagonist imagines that the prejudiced Kike man will eventually treat him as a human being: “Stern saw himself writing and producing a show about fair play, getting it shown one night on every channel, and forcing the man to watch it since the networks would be bare of Westerns.”22 This grim humor also is similar to that in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, when Bromden yearns to follow the path he had seen the frolicking dog take, without recalling that the dog had galloped to the same spot as an oncoming car (272). Sometimes a Great Notion, like One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, has an absurdist thrust and black humor tone that “makes us shiver as we laugh.”23


  1. Irving Malin, “Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion,Books Abroad, 39 (Spring 1965), 218; Kingsley Widmer, “The Post-Modernist Art of Protest: Kesey and Mailer As American Expressions of Rebellion,” Centennial Review, 19 (1975), 124, comments on the poor depiction of a “self-defeating struggle of manly and unmanly brothers and heroic egotism”; Leslie Fiedler, “Making It with a Little Shazam,” Book Week, 2 August 1964, p. 10, argues that the novel lacks unity.

  2. Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. 6, uses the phrase to describe absurdist drama.

  3. Eugene Ionesco, quoted in Esslin, p. 5; Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New York: New Directions, 1959), pp. 175-76; Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O'Brien (New York: Random House, 1955), p. 5. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  4. Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion (1963; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1969), p. 1. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  5. James F. Knapp, “Tangled in the Language of the Past: Ken Kesey and Cultural Revolution,” Midwest Quarterly, 19 (Summer 1978), 402, uses this phrase.

  6. Fiedler, p. 11, observes: “This vulgar gesture of contempt [seems] … the true symbol of his [Kesey's] noblest and funniest meaning.” However, Fiedler criticizes Kesey for not being able to hold it “long enough or heroically enough or comically enough” to sustain the novel.

  7. W. D. Sherman, “The Novels of Ken Kesey,” Journal of American Studies, 5, No. 2 (August 1971), 195-96, points out: “This had been Hank's philosophy: laughter in the face of absurdity. … Had Joby not laughed, he may have been saved.”

  8. Kesey uses this term (p. 95) to emphasize the absurd.

  9. James E. Miller, Quests Surd and Absurd (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 26.

  10. For convenience, I have numbered Kesey's eleven chapters. Chapter Ten includes pp. 505-46.

  11. From the song, “Good Night, Irene.”

  12. Kesey seems to have combined Freud's emphasis of a boy's Oedipal desire for the mother and Adler's “masculine goal” theory, which stresses the quest for power. See Sigmund Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex: The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, trans. A. A. Brill (New York: Modern Library, 1965), pp. 533-629; Patrick Mullahy, “The Theories of Alfred Adler,” Oedipus Myth and Complex (New York: Grove Press, 1955), p. 114.

  13. Eric Bentley, “Farce,” in Robert W. Corrigan, ed., Comedy: Meaning and Form (San Francisco: Chandler, 1965), p. 289, speaks of farce as “joking turned theatrical”; L. J. Potts, Comedy (London: Cheltenham Press, [1948]), p. 151, observes that farce is “comedy with the meaning left out”; see also Jessica Milner Davis, Farce (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pp. 1-24.

  14. Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” trans. Alix Strachey, Collected Papers (New York: Basic Books, 1959), IV, 390-91.

  15. Fiedler, p. 10, calls Lee an “impotent and envious witness.”

  16. We are reminded of Sartre's Antoine Roquentin who continually tries to control his physical nausea caused by the “fundamental absurdity” he experiences (Sartre, p. 174).

  17. Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, trans. Ulrich Weisstein (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), p. 186, observes: “Tragedy opens precisely within the sphere of the meaningless and the absurd possibility of a deeper meaning—in fate, which is ordained by the gods, and in the greatness of the tragic hero.”

  18. Henri Bergson, “Laughter,” in Comedy, ed., Wylie Sypher (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1956), pp. 84, 97-98; Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, Natural & Politic, ed., Ferdinand Tönnies (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1928), p. 32.

  19. John Ruskin, “Grotesque Renaissance,” in Stones of Venice, Ch. 3, The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1904), XI, 151, observes: “The grotesque is, in almost all cases, composed of two elements, one ludicrous, the other fearful”; Wolfgang Kayser, pp. 187-88; Annie Reich, “The Structure of the Grotesque-Comic Sublimation,” Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 13 (1949), 166.

  20. For discussions on black humor see Bruce Jay Friedman, ed., “Foreward” to Black Humor (New York: Bantam, 1965), pp. vii-xi; Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill, America's Humor (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 498-506; Max F. Schulz, Black Humor Fiction of the Sixties (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 3-16; Brom Weber, “The Mode of ‘Black Humor,’” in The Comic Imagination in American Literature, ed., Louis D. Rubin (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 361-71; Mathew Winston, “Black Humor: To Weep with Laughing,” Comedy New Perspectives, ed. Maurice Charney, New York Literary Forum, 1 (Spring 1978), 31-43; Elaine B. Safer, “The Allusive Mode and Black Humor in Barth's Giles Goat-Boy and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow,Renascence, 32 (1980), 89-104.

  21. Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (New York: Signet, 1962), p. 25. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  22. Bruce Jay Friedman, Stern (1962; rpt. New York: Pocket Books, 1970), p. 43.

  23. Irving Malin, “Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest,” in Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, ed., John Clark Pratt (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 434, says this about Kesey's first novel; see also Joseph J. Waldmeir, “Two Novelists of the Absurd: Heller and Kesey,” in Pratt, pp. 401-11; James E. Miller, “The Humor in the Horror,” in Pratt, pp. 397-400; Terry G. Sherwood, “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Comic Strip,” in Pratt, pp. 382-96.

Janet Larson (essay date summer 1984)

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SOURCE: Larson, Janet. “Stories Sacred and Profane: Narrative in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Religion and Literature 16, no. 2 (summer 1984): 25-42.

[In the following essay, Larson traces the dialectical and dialogical implications of the narrative in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.]

In his “wry codicil” to the “Definition of Man” which opens Language as Symbolic Action, Kenneth Burke observes that this symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal is “rotten with perfection.” Goaded by Aristotle's principle of entelechy to make plans for our own completion—plans that could extend with “perfect logic” to our complete extinction (16-20)—we are storytelling animals and creatures who live in stories. Theologians have drawn upon such an understanding of human nature and culture to develop powerfully appealing accounts of life and faith as story. But what kind of stories shall we have? Ethicists David Burrell and Stanley Hauerwas write that

a true story could only be one powerful enough to check the endemic tendency toward self-deception—a tendency which inadequate stories cannot help but foster. Correlatively, if the true God were to provide us with a saving story, it would have to be one that we found continually discomforting.1


If the world is made not out of atoms but out of stories, what assures us that the narrative structures of our beliefs about God and ourselves bear truth and not fruit that is “rotten with perfection”? Northrop Frye has reminded us that while “truth and falsehood are not literary categories,” for the critic they “represent the directions or tendencies in which verbal structures go, or are thought to go” (17). If it is possible to identify a story form that tends toward truth, that works toward its liberation for the hearers, it would be both dialectical and dialogical. In this essay, I will be tracing the implications of such a story form in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Two distinct narrative expressions of telos together define the form of Ken Kesey's novel: myths, in a vitiated contemporary American mode, and parables, as understood chiefly but not exclusively from Jesus' dominant form of teaching in the gospels. Kesey exposes an idolatrous American archmyth and its parallel god-myth, but he also presses further to test the redemptive power of parable lived and told by his characters and through his book. While Cuckoo's Nest is not a Christian novel—for its wisdom is explicitly secular—its dynamic narrative structure models the possibility for genuine transcendence in this world and liberates its readers through a dialectic of myth and parable. In so doing, Kesey's novel imitates in its non-supernatural way the “logous tēs pisteōs” (words of faith) New Testament writers claim to tell and overturns the “bebēlous kai graōdeis mythous” (profane and old wives' fables) which St. Paul urges his fellow Christians to reject (I Tim. 4:7). It is only as McMurphy's own profane myths and those of the men in the institution are subverted through the power of parable that Kesey's transformed messiah can save and be saved from stories that are rotten with perfection.

In The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade has set forth the ancient function of myth to bring into the present, through the narration of the gods' creative acts, “the irruption of the sacred into the world … that establishes the world as a reality.” This ontological function of myth is yoked to its cultural function: that “which narrates this sacred ontophany,” which “alone reveals the real,” becomes the paradigm for all important activities in a religious culture, vouching for what is done (97-98). Warner Berthoff emphasizes the “principle of generosity” in these basic functions of myth. Its chief purpose is

not explanation (in the sense of interpretation) but recovery, preservation, organization, continuance. … The essential character of myth is plenitude and accommodation, above all the accommodation of the collective mind of men to their own incessant experience.


That accommodation is also personal: myths give individuals faces to put on. Thomas Mann, arguing for the need to assume an ancient mythic mantle, has called myth “the legitimization of life; only through and in it does life find self-awareness, sanction, consecration” (314-22).

In this personal appropriation of myth, one might discern the effort to achieve self-transcendence. Yet to the extent that one loses oneself in the legitimizing story—as Burrell and Hauerwas remind us that Albert Speer enclosed himself in the image of “Hitler's architect”—one can perfect the grand illusion, what Ernest Becker has called the “vital lie,” with which we protect ourselves from the consequences of our own and others' acts (ch. 4). If myths are “organs of reality,” in Ernst Cassirer's phrase, how can the reality thus created be judged for its truth? Sacred myth is not self-conscious; it cannot stand outside itself, for to the primitive mind enclosed in its myths, there is no other “real” place to stand. When personal myths are reinforced by all-embracing culture myths, it becomes considerably difficult for the unaided individual to achieve the critical standing place of “self-awareness.” And for the society whose basis of integration is questionable, as Kenneth Burke cautions, cultural myths that give expression to this integration can become a social menace (Literary Form 314-22).

John Dominic Crossan has formulated structural definitions of myth and parable that, with qualifications, will prove particularly helpful in identifying the narrative structure of Cuckoo's Nest, in naming the kinds of stories told within this fiction, and in tracing their theological and ethical implications.2 Drawing upon the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Crossan describes what goes on in the deep structure of myth:

an opposition between two terms that cannot be reconciled (binary oppositions) will be represented by two fictional surrogates, and these replacements will allow a reconciliation or mediation which the original pair could not receive.

Through this logic, the mediation may yield an actual “gain” in the story, like the recovery of the Golden Fleece, but the fictive gain is not crucial: “the whole process of mediation and reconciliation implies in itself a gigantic gain,” for one establishes “in, by, and through myth the conviction that mediation is possible” (Interval 51-53). In the realm of myth, dissonances are harmonized; the abstract pattern of rounded closure ensures belief in satisfying solutions in general. Crossan sees the danger in this; Berthoff, in his less skeptical conception of myth, calls it “organized plenitude” (282-83). But in the world of modern history, plagued by failed fictions, many myths do not preserve the plenitude their organization would seem to promise; these Northrop Frye in The Secular Scripture would consign to his category of “kidnapped romance,” stories assimilated into ideology of the ascendant class and peddle for the mass consumption of docile citizens for whom these tales cannot really perform the profound functions of myth although they may seem to (26, 57). In a fractured and skeptical world, popular myths struggle to keep alive the belief in mediation and in rounded closure at the risk of mass delusion. It is these bogus myths that are exposed in Cuckoo's Nest.

In his typology of story, Crossan opposes parable to myth:

Parable is always a somewhat unnerving experience. You can usually recognize a parable because your immediate reaction will be self-contradictory: “I don't know what you mean by that story but I'm certain I don't like it.”

(Interval 56)

Instead of reconciling contradictions, the logic of parable creates them within a given situation. At the heart of the parabolic event, “the structure of expectation on the part of the hearer and … the structure of expression on the part of the speaker” are diametrically opposed; in this battle of basic structures, the parable effects “the reverse of what the hearer expects” through a typical sequence of operations: Crossan calls them advent, reversal, action (Interval 66). The familiar situation in which, for example, Jesus' parables typically begin is shattered by what Crossan calls God's “advent,” his act of sovereign freedom that upsets the hearer's cherished story, his righteous expectations, his ethical code. Advent brings a polar reversal of these expectations, and reversal initiates new action, “open[ing] up new worlds and unforeseen possibilities” for Prodigal Sons and their brothers, Publicans and Pharisees (Parables 34). To be truly human, Crossan says, “and to remain open to transcendental experience, demands a willingness to be ‘parabled’ …” (Interval 56)—not only in stories, but also in the surprising reversals of our temporal lives.

The relationship between myth and parable in Crossan's typology should now be evident: myth “establishes world. … Parable subverts world” (Interval 59). In the act of subversion, parable is not anti-myth but “shows us the seams and edges of myth”:

To live in parable means to dwell in the tension of myth and parable. … [Parable] is a story deliberately calculated to show us the limitations of myth, to shatter world so that its relativity becomes apparent.

(Interval 56, 59-60)

If the storyteller begins to mediate the newly created contrast, “the story starts slipping … back into myth” (Interval 55). Correlatively, if the person who has been parabled begins reorganizing his life to achieve and sustain a static coherence, he too has slipped back into living by myth rather than remaining open to the experience of being “parabled.”

This hardening of the outlines can make story idolatrous. As Paul Tillich argues in Dynamics of Faith, myths cannot be removed, for they are the language of faith; but they can be broken, so as to acknowledge their finite character. To break free of idolatrous faith, the modern believer must recognize the myth as a story which is not in itself sacred—and therefore no longer the story of traditional religious societies—but which points beyond itself as a provisional symbol of one's ultimate concern (48-54). In this way Tillich makes room for myth in the skeptical modern world. Parable, I would go on to argue, is a peculiarly appropriate narrative form in which to express a faith that is not wholly demythologized in Bultmann's sense, but that lives in tension with myth, that accepts its human stories as provisional and “broken.” One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a novel that is critical of its own formulations, shows us that, particularly in a modern world ridden by bogus myths that make false promises to order our existence and bring delusive comfort, an appreciation of the parable's truth-bringing power becomes crucially important in our personal and collective lives. Further, for all its secular wisdom, Kesey's novel points to the power of the Christian story in particular by placing at the center a naturalized version of Jesus as the Parable of God.

In “The Nature of Art under Capitalism,” Kenneth Burke writes that art which makes for acceptance of its culture

enables us to “resign” ourselves by resolving in aesthetic fusion trends or yearnings not resolvable in the practical sphere. … [But such art] tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable … at a time when the very basis of moral integration is in question. …

In such times art “must have … an element of suasion or inducement of the educational variety,” that is, “a large corrective or propaganda element …” (Literary Form 320-21). The adjectives in Burke's statement suggest quite different narrative modes of inducement, “propaganda” being perhaps the least useful and certainly least attractive of forms. For if story is to save from delusion and corruption, its way of addressing the reader's experience must acknowledge its psychological and moral complexity—something propaganda cannot afford to do. The gain of parable as a corrective teaching device is that it is so constructed to induce us to change our expectations, experiencing them as lost in order to learn something entirely new.

Especially in its play and film versions, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest has been taken by many as a propagandistic story for the flower-child revolution. But Kesey's book is much more than counter-propaganda directed against America's dreams of order. The novel narratively exposes an American pseudo-myth of gain; it also challenges a conception of deity that is quite compatible with the American dream: the myth of an omnipotent sky-god who flies over the world, touching down just long enough to pluck out the “cuckoos.” These challenges come through a transformational, shifting logic that generates the liberating power of Kesey's work, a dialectic of myth and parable. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest exposes the relativity of story in a parabolic way, for the dialectical structure of the narrative constitutes an attack on the structure of expectation set up by the novel's own title. Through a process of story-reversals, of losses and gains, by which both readers and characters in the novel learn, Kesey persuades us to believe in the possibility of winning—through sacrifice, even death—an authentic transcendence within the natural order.

Before Chief Bromden even sees the newcomer, he hears the Word—a “loud, brassy voice” that “sounds like he's way above them, talking down, like he's sailing fifty yards overhead, hollering at those below on the ground. He sounds big … (Cuckoo's Nest 10). For the Indian, McMurphy is a “giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine,” from all the social forces that crush men (255). At the opening of the novel, this red-headed hero appears to be the mythic figure which the title promises. Bursting into the deadly institutional quiet with an apparent hierophanic surplus of being, Mac performs a larger-than-life role for the lifeless inmates, who crave a sense-making story that demands of them no personal change. While Kesey's culture-hero suffers initially from no explicit “Christ complex” like Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, McMurphy revels in his personal pop mythology, which stretches from the American past of the legendary logger, “the swaggering gambler, the big red-headed brawling Irishman,” to the present of Superman, Captain Marvel, the Lone Ranger on “the TV set walking down the middle of the street to meet a dare” (189). Relishing himself as an emblem of “transcendent human possibility,” in Terry G. Sherwood's phrase, Randle Patrick McMurphy at first takes on the lineaments of a “mythic Christ.” Sherwood argues that the simplistic moral oppositions this heroic design requires prevent Kesey's novel from being a serious work; the book projects, like the comic strip, a world only as it ought to be (96-100). If Cuckoo's Nest remained thus enclosed in this pop-mythic pattern, it would indeed risk indulging a self-deceptively simple morality, for the sake of popular entertainment or counter-propaganda. But the “cartoon world … where the figures are flat and outlined in black,” as Bromden calls it (31), is not Kesey's vision: it is his paranoid narrator's delusion. This structure must be broken if the whole saving story is to be lived and told.

As the Indian's “primitive” religious imagination suggests, the attraction of the McMurphy hero as a “giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine” is rooted in the appeal of ancient myth to a sick man terrified of formlessness. As his narrative opens, Bromden sets the stage for nothing less than the primordial struggle between dragon and sky-god (Tiamat and Marduk, Cetus and Perseus) that in myths of the beginnings establishes the world (Symbolic Action 383).3 Miss Ratched, who can blow herself up to more than human size in the Indian's imagination is the center of an evil technological priestcraft; sitting “in the center of [a] web of wires like a watchful robot” (26), she inhabits a mechanical dragon's lair, where this female version of the “beast that was, and is not, and yet is” is as ontologically elusive as the dragon of the Apocalypse, to which Kesey refers in the novel's dedication. The head nurse of the ward is an opponent truly worthy of the larger-than-life McMurphy.

But the power of these opposing mythic terms must be diminished if the narrator is to get well. The archetypal enemy, the Combine, must be defeated as an idea (myth) because, representing all the ways “these things can be rigged” (27), it licenses Bromden's paranoid conviction that he is a victim who can at least play “deaf and dumb” safely in this enclosed fantasy. Bromden's image of his Champion as immortal hero must also diminish, change into mortal shape. The Indian puzzles over the logic of two possible answers to the question of identity: If Mac is One who “came out of the sky” he is surely the superhuman rescuer from the mythic Combine; but if Mac is “merely” human, surely he cannot save. Mac's continued presence in the institution as a real man who “is what he is” gradually subverts the Indian's imaginary world that dictates these false choices—these binary oppositions that prevent him from accepting the far more ambiguous, unfixed terms of historical experience. McMurphy comes to Bromden as parable by reversing these expectations: he is a “mere man” who redeems the time, rescuing other men not by touching down briefly in their world as a superhuman force, but by deeply enmeshing himself in their suffering experience. It is only as McMurphy becomes less mythic to the inmates and to himself that he can rescue them from the comfortable nest of their delusions and empower them to be what they are in the world as it is.

Understanding the structure of these transformations is essential for seeing what kind of “Christ figure” McMurphy is and is not. Students of this novel have noticed many of Kesey's deliberate parallels drawn from the life of Christ. It is peculiarly appropriate, however, that these historical parallels “begin to emerge only in the last quarter of the book,” as Theodore Ziolkowsky has observed (266, n. 19).4 For by then Mac has moved away from his initial position as an ahistorical “mythic Christ” to become another kind of authentic messiah in human time. Just as Christ crucified, the Parable of God in the gospels, subverted the expectations of his world through the power of his weakness and the wisdom of his foolishness (I Cor. 1:20-25), so the parabolic McMurphy scandalizes the prevailing idolatries by succeeding ever more recklessly through failure, breaking Bromden's self-enclosing myth and becoming a parable for the men; he risks being martyred in the cause of his friends' liberation and is resurrected through the new life he brings to his followers—not, however, as a mythic Jesus or “Christ dream,” but as a just and compassionate fellow human being. But he is no Son of God reincarnate in fiction; the Christlike pattern is complicated by the reality of his own resurgent sinning. If McMurphy becomes saving as he becomes parable for others, the others are also a needed parable for him. And McMurphy, unlike Nathanael West's false messiah, is willing to be parabled.

This is the central double reversal in the novel; but Cuckoo's Nest overturns expectations more than once, and in more than one way. The mutual transformations of the men and of Mac are effected not by a single dramatic shift but, on a much more closely discriminated scale, through the repeated alternations of two distinctive forms of story logic. Again and again in the narrative, parable (with its dynamic open structure of advent/reversal/action) breaks the perfect designs of resurgent popular myth (with its rounded closure), exposing the provisionality of story. This repeated dialectic eventually forms a pattern in the novel that makes moral and existential sense out of the discontinuities, regressions, dreamlike sequences, disjointed flashbacks, clearer memories, and stretches of forward-moving action that constitute the narrative complexity of Kesey's work. Each time parabolic breakage occurs, expectations are overturned, values are redefined, plans are changed, emotional security is upset, and fresh action is forwarded for a while until the delusive certainties of the men's and McMurphy's myths reassert their old seductions. These alternations in the action are accompanied by the actual storytelling of myths and parables, with their different rhetorical situations and effects. And yet, even though the narrative movement of Cuckoo's Nest depends upon the breakdown of stories that foster mere acquiescence, Kesey remains tolerant of the human need for legends and mythic play-acting as his characters live through the pain of coming to awareness. This tolerance I do not sense in Crossan's treatment of myth. More usefully, Kenneth Burke writes that along with efforts to change the structure of society

must go the demand for an imaginative equipment that helps us to make it tolerable while it lasts. Much of the “pure” or “acquiescent” art of today serves this invaluable psychological end. For this reason the great popular comedians or handsome movie stars are rightly the idols of the people.

(Literary Form 322)

For such reasons does the heroic McMurphy legend linger through the last pages of the novel. But it is embedded in Kesey's dynamic fictional world of provisional stories that undergo continual reformulation; and in the concluding paragraphs, myth does not have the final word.

Even at the novel's opening when Mac is most celebratively identified with popular mythology, his parabolic potential for the men is evident. With his unexpected laughter and songs, he threatens “the whole smoothness of the outfit” (39), as though he were pure subversion aiming at “simply the actual disruption of the ward for the sake of disruption” (25). After the first group therapy session, Mac unsettles the inmates' theories of Big Nurse as either the “tender angel of mercy, Mother Ratched” or as “the juggernaut of modern matriarchy” (58, 68) and sets out to expose the seams of her myth: he is going to “Bug her till she comes apart at those neat little seams, and shows, just one time, she ain't so unbeatable as you think” (72). By the end of Part I he has done it, but the reversal and new action come not quite in the way anyone expects.

Mac's small successes in early skirmishes with Big Nurse are entertaining, but he cannot diminish her power by his own pop-myth performances: he must first change the men's image of themselves. (As Crossan says: “It takes two to parable” [Interval 87]). Mac then tries to teach these losers that they can “win” at the gaming table; to their myth of total failure, he opposes the antimyth of capitalistic success. But an antimyth does not disturb the hearer's structure of expectation; and this one is only another version of the institution's myth of the powerful against the weak. Besides, the men play only for paper money and a poker-table peripety. When the odds are seriously against them in a real power-game (as in the first vote on the World Series), the men back down. What they must learn is a different kind of heroic winning that challenges the myths of power and gain by transforming the meaning of failure.

An unexpected parabolic event points this way when McMurphy, typically inviting bets and bragging of his legendary strength, tries to lift the control panel in the tub room. No emblem of transcendent possibility now or a TV hero, Mac shows himself a man with a body shaken by strain who has the courage to try even though “he knows he can't lift it,” even though “everybody knows he can't” (121). Mac thus begins to take on the lineaments of a new kind of “gambling fool.” As the inmates' images of him change, the way is opened for their expectations of themselves to change, and for action on their discovery that risking oneself is also a way of succeeding as a human being.

This acted parable has almost immediate results on the men Mac has been “trying to pull … out of the fog” (132). Their second, successful vote on the baseball game, a gesture of independence from ward policy, initiates a rapid series of reversals, losses, and gains. By the time the outraged Ratched comes apart, making her lose control has become much less important than the men's gain of a new structure of expectations. Better than actually watching the old World Series on television, the men “see” a new “world”—their new communal assertion and collective laughter. And now Mac sits next to an empty TV screen, entertaining them not with pop-culture antics in place of TV's mass media fantasies but with parabolic stories: true accounts of efforts to win that had turned out losses which Mac laughs at now, and stories about losers who, even “blindfolded and backwards,” had defeated the expected winners (152). As Part I closes, the Indian has ventured outside the enclosure of his fantasy to see the whole absurd scene objectively and to laugh at it. If his hero has out-witted an enemy, the victory has come not on the terms of myth but on the unsettling terms of parable. Bromden's willingness to be thus parabled signals his capacity for healing—and for telling the whole story.

Part II begins by working out the ironies of a nice counterpoint: Nurse Ratched seeks now to expose the seams of McMurphy's myth (“a Napoleon, a Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun”) with an antimyth that this “mere man” will sooner or later prudently enclose himself in self-interest (146); meanwhile, Mac's actual generous presence on the ward as a mere man has an increasingly salutary effect on his “buddies.” Even with the tragic results of Mac's temporary defection in Part II, when he retreats self-protectively and a disillusioned Cheswick lunges into the deep water to his death, we see Mac's lasting influence as parable for the men: they still gaze at him with a look “like they wished things didn't have to be this way” (165). And just when they have nearly given up on their champion, he breaks their structure of expectations again by recklessly running his hand through the Nurse's spotless window. By this foolish gamble, Mac risks not financial loss or limited physical pain as before, but permanent commitment in an institution for the insane.

The works that follow this perilous victory are his increasingly daring therapies for the men, culminating in the fishing trip. Their biggest risk, the journey repays them with both successes and failures as they learn to laugh at the chaos they make in their struggles with the deep. By Part III McMurphy has grown to be considerably more real than an emblem of sheer transcendence. That complexity is now reflected in the unfolding of Bromden's fuller humanity as a courageous and compassionate human being. Already Mac has made the Indian “bigger” in personal power than his fatalistic fantasies had allowed, but such power carries with it the danger of psychopathy; Bromden's consciousness as a social being must be empowered too. Appropriately, this expansion is not manifested in clear vision alone, which might still imply the passive attitude of a wise but uninvolved onlooker; awareness, as Burrell and Hauerwas observe, is more like speaking than like seeing. In Part III what Bromden discovers is that he must talk to save himself and others. He must venture out of the fog to name his experience in the existentially open territory of dialogue. Parable, which depends upon a dynamic relation between teller and listener in a way myth does not, helps to prepare Bromden for this engagement with others in the fluid space of social relationships.

Bromden's first social challenge is the reconstruction of his personal story for another. McMurphy helps the Chief to find his voice by telling a boyhood story of his own about the “worth” of speaking out despite its material “cost” (206-7). Bromden acts on this surprising parable by talking about his own past and discovers that for the loss of what is not true in his myth of the White Man's exploitation and the Red Man's total weakness, he gains both sympathy and judgment from his listener. McMurphy is there to question, to ask for clarifications, to object, to empathize through dialogue as well as through story that is dialogical. Dialogue and dialectic clarify and refine thought; and during a silence when Bromden is arguing internally, he follows the sequence he has learned through speaking with another person, three times making a statement, questioning it, correcting it, and affirming a restatement, working toward a truer account of his history (210). Yet their midnight talk ends in fantasies as McMurphy spins a yarn about a wild Heaven in which Bromden is the superlatively sexual hero. The Indian needs such stories, mingled with the laughter that acknowledges their provisionality, as old expectations of himself are reversed and he works toward clearer consciousness.

With the spoken word, Bromden's narrative in real time properly can be said to begin. His action in open time—with an uncertain future—flows from this point in the novel. His first words had been an involuntary “Thank you” for a stick of gum: speaking also brings Bromden out into the world of others where there are both gifts and demands. Much earlier in the book, the befogged and paralyzed cigar-store Indian had seen faces floating by asking him for help: “I can't do nothing for you either, Billy,” he had imagined himself saying. “You know that. None of us can. You got to understand that as soon as a man goes to help somebody, he leaves himself wide open. … Put your face away, Billy” (131). Nevertheless, the faces had kept “filing past”—for, as Martini (hallucinating bodies in the showers) says, “They need you to see thum” (176). Bromden has been trying to put the faces away by making them into mere signs that read “I'm tired” or “I'm dying of a bum liver” (131). The impact of McMurphy's parabolic presence is to liberate the faces from these signs so that they take on fully human dimensions for the Indian, who also gains a face of his own that is no longer trapped screaming behind mirrors. As his narrative in open time begins, Bromden sheds mythological thinking to become a human being present for others.

In Part IV as the men return toting salmon like “conquering heroes,” Mac threatens to turn back again into myth, into a friend too good to be true, like Jesus or Santa Claus (243-49). Big Nurse determines to destroy the men's new heroism by launching her final attack on the McMurphy legend, whose terms have significantly shifted from “Attila the Hun” to “martyr” and “saint” (252). Harding offers a weak defense with the demoralizing theory that there are neither gifts nor givers but only “the dear old capitalistic system of free individual enterprise, comrades,” and its “good old red, white, and blue hundred-percent American con man” (254). This “whole bit” is not adequate to explain their friend; and the cynical Harding desperately needs more. But as the men ask, “What's in it for ol' Mack?” (250), McMurphy re-enacts the opportunistic role of “Nobody's fool” with which he has been charged, and the capitalistic counter-myth seems to be winning again.

The men's mythic expectations are once more shattered when Mac steps forward to defend a vulnerable inmate from the cruel pranks of the aides. The importance of this moment as parable for the men is underscored by Bromden's response. By joining Mac in a fray which neither can finally win, Bromden shows that he has gained the compassion to identify with others' losses, as well as the courage to throw himself into an open situation “without thinking about being cagey or safe or what would happen to me,” thinking only about “the thing that needed to be done and the doing of it” (258).

Reversal has led to action, and when the action is punished by Electroshock Treatment, the impact of the parable is not lost. In the foggy aftermath, it is by reordering fragments of his past largely in parabolic patterns that Bromden painfully reconstructs his identity toward the clear moment of his full awakening. The hunting incident with his father which he recalls, the memory of his white mother's challenge to the old Indian ways, and the stories of his grandmother's life/death/resurrection follow in his mind as a lifelike sequence of losses and gains, the ambiguous contradictions he must face in his continued living (271-75). When he emerges as an openly speaking and hearing member of the human community after this, the Chief is capable of his own liberation.

As the men's transformation in the background and Bromden's in the foreground show, the combat at the heart of Cuckoo's Nest is not simply, as it first appears, the opposition of Champion and Enemy (the sky-god myth), or People against the Institution and Machine (the Combine myth), or the Weak against the Strong (Harding's rabbit myth), although these conflicts are anchored in real power relations in the book. The central conflict is between the men's endemic tendencies toward self-deception and their capacities for generating truer, more adequate stories about themselves and their world. And just as parable is “story grown self-conscious and self-critical” (Interval 57), so Bromden's dialectically constructed narrative increasingly becomes aware of itself. While he does not simply demythologize McMurphy's story—for remnants of legend linger in the descriptions of Mac's last performances—the transformed narrator's very awareness that the pop myths are broken testifies to the saving power of Mac's parable for his friends.

In Cuckoo's Nest, master and disciples become transformed in the encounter with each other. The men are also an “advent” for McMurphy that turns his familiar world upside down and challenges him to new and unforeseen acts. Mac too needs to be parabled: the protective “cartoon world” of his shallow individualist persona must be transformed if he is to enter the multidimensional human community. The sign of his grace is that McMurphy is open to the reconstitution of his image and to the lesson of limit, indeed to the lesson of his own mortality.

Introducing himself through his master-image—“McMurphy, buddies, R. P. McMurphy, and I'm a gambling fool”—he does not at all hide the fact that he has come not to be a sacrifice but to “trim you little babies like little lambs” (11-12). A “smart gambler,” Mac plans to “look the game over awhile before [drawing him]self a hand” (47). But the game he sees is not what he expects. Although he has begun in the spirit of enterprise he later laughs at “how funny the whole thing is” (113); and by the end of Mac's first parabolic encounter with the men, he feels “he's been trapped some way” (69). The surprising, crazy story of the patients' utter defeat forces him to listen to their expressions of suffering, and he watches Harding with “puzzled wonder … like it's the first human face he ever laid eyes on” (60). After the first revelatory group therapy session, he begins examining his values and later dreams night after night not of signs but of individual faces.

Mac keeps drifting back into old games of self-interest even as he moves toward his redemption from that capitalistic world. His first savior role is the perfect “con” (getting what he wants while making others think they are getting what they want): he will become the Champion of this pitiful circle without taking risks, by gambling on a sure thing. Ironically, this is his disciples' own game of self-protection (78). In Part II the tables are turned on him: by coming to him like he is “some kind of savior,” he says, without warning him of the “risk [he] was running,” the men have “conned ol' R. P. McMurphy.” Stepping right out of this deep water, he tells his buddies: “You got to swallow your pride sometimes and keep an eye out for old Number One” (182). Yet he cannot achieve insensibility to the men's continuing need. Nor can he find a harmonizing explanation for their shocking news that they are voluntary inmates: this scandal to his winning principle he cannot “seem to get straight in [his] mind” (185). If Mac is to be saved and saving, he must, as the resident doctors say, “give up his bit,” reverse his master-image, and become a “gambling fool” who wins by losing. When he runs his hand through the glass at the end of Part II, he breaks his own self-encapsulation in an individualist myth; the man dedicated to “gambling on all levels” has escalated the perils and redefined the meaning of his vocation.

That he has not entirely disengaged himself from the gambler's dream of gain is evident yet in Part IV when McMurphy exploits Bromden's new physical strength by persuading the men to bet on it. When Bromden scruples to refuse his share of the winnings, the baffled McMurphy asks, “Now what's the story?” His comrade steps in as parable: “We thought it wasn't to be winning things …” (257). In the next critical scene, Mac acts on Bromden's “story” by defending the helpless George from the cruel aides, just as Bromden acts on the parable Mac has been for him. The ring of expectant faces goads McMurphy to make an irrevocable choice against the remnants of his master-image, for he knows he cannot finally win. As his “helpless, cornered despair” (261) forecasts, he seems to know that this event will lead him to give his last gift, his life.

Thinking forward to the end of the story, Bromden muses that “It was like he'd signed on for the whole game and there wasn't any way of him breaking his contract” (296). In this new “world series,” McMurphy had also been signed on and the stakes are very high. The suicides of Cheswick and Billy Bibbitt are sobering proof that Mac has risked, as Nurse says, “Playing with human lives—gambling with human lives”; but it is not, as she further charges, because Mac thinks himself “to be a God!” (304). For her psychopath theory is only another version of her dream of manipulation. It also implies an inadequate conception of deity as transcendent power, rather than as the paradoxical God of the Bible who requires sacrifice and is himself the satisfying sacrificial love—that courageous compassion which Mac has in his imperfect way imparted to the others because he has risked participating in their reality. Now, his last desperate gamble with his own life is an act of justice as well as an act of love that consummates his incarnation from mythic into mortal shape, an obedience unto death for the friends “making him do it” (304).

Billy's suicide is a harrowing parabolic event that launches Mac's final reversal. It also shows us that the revolution of consciousness which we have attended through the book is not in itself enough. Hearing Nurse's self-legitimizing explanation moments after Billy's death, Mac instantaneously grasps the reality of human limit: people are not inviolable, and institutional stories have real power over people's lives. Billy's self-deception had been an enemy, but Nurse Ratched is an enemy too, not just a paranoid projection. McMurphy's lunge to strangle her makes a frontal attack on an institutional lie, tackling the larger structure of untruth which has victimized Billy and in which the Nurse plays the leading role. Accepting his parable, McMurphy is drawn swiftly to his death. The men, accepting theirs, venture out not at all assured of their futures, but strong enough to try living their lives outside the mythic entrapments of the institution.

Bromden's triumphant leap from the asylum with all the symbolic force of a resurrection from the tomb may seem to turn the parable of McMurphy back into myth. But Kesey does not perfect the form of his story by harmonizing all the contradictions his work has raised. His conclusion is poised on a paradox of death/life that opens up the story for the survivors; and some of the remaining details and ambiguities suggest a conclusion appropriate to the dynamic provisionality of all the novel's storytelling and to its own narrative structure.

Bromden's escape coalesces two opposed images that have been kept separate through most of the book: images of lifting associated with mythical transcendence (only a hero of legendary strength could have lifted the control panel that Bromden lifts) and images of shattering associated with parabolic breakage (only one who now sees himself as human can shatter this prison and enter the contingent human world). The event occasioned by lifting and shattering is both transcendental and descendental: he flies, he falls. “The glass splashed out in the moon, like a bright cold water baptizing the sleeping earth,” he writes (310). Joyously celebrating beauty, he is also reminded, with deliberate invocation of the sacrament, that one enters a new life by being baptized into a death.

As the narrative nearly slips back into myth, Bromden nonetheless goes on to show us that he has entered no legendary life outside the contingencies of human time; rather, in his ending he is finally aware of himself as a temporal being. The entrapping mythic present of his opening paranoid formula, “They're out there,” has been replaced by the sense of the past now measured and assessed: “I been away a long time” (311). Leading up to these last words, he thinks through his plans in the closing paragraphs and imagines that the world he will encounter is neither entirely in the grip of a Combine conspiracy nor better than it really is. Aiming to “look over the country” in order to “bring some of it clear” in his mind, Bromden heads toward whatever is “out there”—the tragedy of Indians who have “drunk themselves goofy” and the comic absurdity of Indians spearing salmon again in the dam's spillway—in the provisional, surprising world (311).

Bromden heads toward the highway “in the direction I remembered seeing the dog go” to hitch a ride toward home (310). The memory recalls Bromden's first time at the symbolic window in an important prefiguring scene that had mingled threat with promise. In the tranquil autumn night, a flock of Canada honkers were crossing the moon, led by one that looked like “a black cross opening and closing.” When the geese pass out of sight, a dog continues loping in their direction “steady and solemn like he had an appointment.” A car's headlights loom; Bromden sees the “dog and the car making for the same spot of pavement.” What had happened next he never knew, for he had been taken away from the window (156-57).

Recalling this earlier passage is an appropriate way for Kesey to open the end of his novel. Bromden will have to live in the tensions that have moved his narrative forward, with its combat between closed and open forms of living and of telling and with its many conflicts between disillusion and believing, sin and regeneration, dying and living. Kesey's work has a complex structure with many crossings and re-crossings, most fundamentally a dialectic between the tragic and the comic in a tale of loss and gain. Across its moon flies not a sky-god, transcendent and distantly beautiful, but a black cross, opening and closing, moving into the dark.


  1. I am indebted to Professor Walter R. Bouman for his paper, “Piety in a Secularized Society,” read at Valparaiso University in 1977, which called my attention to “Self-Deception and Autobiography …” and to John Dominic Crossan.

  2. The adequacy of Crossan's definition of parable to describe the actual parabolē of Jesus has been debated. See, for example, Semeia 1 (1974) and John Cobb. Whatever its technical limitations of applicability to the gospel stories, however, Crossan's understanding of parabolic story and action does accord with the design in the gospels of Jesus as the Parable of God and, in Kesey's novel, of McMurphy's story.

    Parabolē encompasses many kinds of figurative language; although metaphor is part of the event of Jesus' parables through which consciousness is transformed, I do not treat metaphoric structure in this essay.

  3. Burke cites ten elements from the earliest known type of “combat myth” which are present in the opening episodes of Cuckoo's Nest.

  4. See also David M. Graybeal and George M. Boyd.

Works Cited

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1974.

Berthoff, Warner. “Fiction, History, Myth: Notes toward the Discrimination of Narrative Forms,” Interpretation of Narrative: Theory and Practice. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Boyd, George M. “Parables of Costly Grace: Flannery O'Connor and Ken Kesey,” Theology Today 29 (1972), 161-71.

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

———. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Burrell, David, and Stanley Hauerwas. “Self-Deception and Autobiography: Theological and Ethical Reflections on Speer's Inside the Third Reich,Journal of Religious Ethics 2 (1974).

Cobb, John. Orientation by Disorientation, Presented in Honor of William A. Beardslee. Ed. Richard A. Spencer. Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1980.

Crossan, John Dominic. The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story. Niles, Illinois: Argus, 1975.

———. In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Graybeal, David M. “On Finding the Cuckoo's Nest,” The Christian Century 93 (4 August 1976), 688-89.

Kesey, Ken. “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest”: Text and Criticism. Ed. John C. Pratt. New York: Viking, 1973.

Mann, Thomas. “Freud and the Future,” The Modern Tradition. Eds. Richard Ellman and Charles Feidelson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Sherwood, Terry G. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Comic Strip,” Critique 13 (1971), 96-100.

Tillich, Paul, Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.

Ziolkowsky, Theodore. Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Further Reading

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Burroway, Janet. Review of Last Go Round, by Ken Kesey. New York Times Book Review (10 July 1994): 11.

Burroway discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Last Go Round.

Clark, Meg. Review of Last Go Round, by Ken Kesey. Whole Earth Review 88 (winter 1995): 63.

Clark praises Kesey's inventiveness in Last Go Round and comments that “Kesey has once again stepped out of his norm.”

Cooper, Marc. “Return of the Rebel.” Maclean's 99, no. 44 (3 November 1986): 8, 10.

Cooper highlights the parallels between Kesey's prose style and cinematic techniques in Demon Box as well as the collection's anti-establishment politics.

Gelb, Hal. Review of Twister, by Ken Kesey. Nation 259, no. 17 (21 November 1994): 625-28.

Gelb compares the themes, characters, and style of Twister to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Gilmore, Mikal. “Ken Kesey's Great American Trip.” Rolling Stone, nos. 885-886 (27 December 2001-3 January 2002): 58-62, 144.

Gilmore chronicles the cultural impact of Kesey's life experiences, including testimonials from author Tom Wolfe, the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, and the Hell's Angels's Sonny Barger.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Review of Last Go Round, by Ken Kesey. New York Times (7 July 1994): C18.

Lehmann-Haupt offers a generally positive assessment of Last Go Round.

McMillen, Liz. “Ken Kesey Weaves His Magic Spell, Turns Graduates of Creative Writing at U. of Oregon into Published Authors.” Chronicle of Higher Education 36, no. 18 (17 January 1990): A15, A22-A23.

McMillen recounts the conception and publication of Caverns, a novel collectively written and published by Kesey's students at the University of Oregon in 1989.

Sinclair, Iain. “Suet and Swimsuits.” New Statesman 14, no. 2950 (9 October 1987): 29.

Sinclair examines the tone and characters of Demon Box.

Sodowsky, Gargi Roysirar, and Roland E. Sodowsky. “Different Approaches to Psychopathology and Symbolism in the Novel and Film One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Literature and Psychology 37, nos. 1-2 (1991): 34-42.

Sodowsky and Sodowsky compare the perspectives on psychopathology and symbolism in the prose and cinematic versions of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Veeder, Mary Harris. “A Shelf of Memory Makers.” Chicago Tribune Books (11 November 1990): 6-7.

Veeder comments on the subject matter and style of Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear.

Waxler, Robert P. “The Mixed Heritage of the Chief: Revisiting the Problem of Manhood in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Journal of Popular Culture 29, no. 3 (winter 1995): 225-35.

Waxler explicates the significance of Chief Bromden's gender and mixed heritage in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in terms of the patriarchal values that defined mid-twentieth-century American culture.

Additional coverage of Kesey's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 25; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beat Generation: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 22, 38, 66; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 204; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 11, 46, 64; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 16, 206; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 66; Something about the Author—Obituary, Vol. 131; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

Peter L. Hays (essay date summer 1988)

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SOURCE: Hays, Peter L. “Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Dante's La Vita Nuova.Explicator 46, no. 4 (summer 1988): 49-50.

[In the following essay, Hays identifies the significance of an allusion to Dante Alighieri's La Vita Nuova at the end of part three of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.]

Ken Kesey ends part three of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by having Randle Patrick McMurphy lead twelve disciples over the water, inspiring them with his life and energy. At the conclusion of the section, Kesey has McMurphy confess his basic philosophy, his underlying reason for committing himself (pun intended) to the welfare of his fellow inmates in the mental ward of the veterans' hospital: “So my colors were flown, and from that day to this it seems I might as well live up to my name—dedicated lover. …”1

The anecdote that McMurphy tells about his past on these last two pages of part three is emotionally moving, especially since Kesey has concealed internal rhyme throughout the passage,2 but it also seems like macho boasting on McMurphy's part about having had sexual intercourse with a girl at the age of ten. Seeing a fragment of a dress in a tree, he says, “The first girl ever drug me to bed wore that very same dress. I was about ten and she was probably less … at the most eight or nine. …” (217). It is not braggadocio, however, if we realize that Kesey intends an allusion to Dante's Vita Nuova, not as obvious a literary reference as the white whales on McMurphy's undershorts, but an allusion nevertheless. Mack is “about ten,” and the girl is less, “eight or nine.” In La Vita Nuova, Dante writes that he first saw Beatrice “almost at the end of my ninth year” and “at the beginning of her ninth year almost,” he describes the colors of her dress, as Kesey would do, and he describes how “from that time forward, Love quite governed my soul”3—for which Mack's she “taught me to love, bless her sweet ass” (218) is a functional, if not exact equivalent.

Thus Mack's going to bed at ten years of age with a girl even younger should be read not as an impossible biological feat or as sexual boasting, for these would undermine the confidence in Mack that Kesey has established at this point in the novel; rather the incident should be interpreted as Kesey's underscoring of Mack's humanitarianism and altruism, his caritas masquerading as eros, his dedication to “a new life” ruled by love and giving of himself. McMurphy is indeed inspiring his fellows, putting his spirit into them, or as Bromden says it, doling “out his life for us to live” (218).


  1. Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (NY: Signet, 1962) 218. Subsequent quotations from the novel will be paginated in the text and will refer to this edition.

  2. Cf. Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, ed. John C. Pratt (NY: Viking, 1973) ix-x.

  3. Dante, The Viking Portable Dante, ed. Paolo Milano (NY: Viking, 1947) 547-48. The translation of La Vita Nuova is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Chris Goodrich (essay date 15 June 1990)

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SOURCE: Goodrich, Chris. “On the Bus with Kesey, Viking and Thunder's Mouth.” Publishers Weekly 237, no. 24 (15 June 1990): 34-5.

[In the following essay, Goodrich recounts the circumstances surrounding the publication of Kesey's The Further Inquiry and Paul Perry and Ken Babbs's On the Bus, which both commemorate the Merry Pranksters's transcontinental bus trip in 1964.]

The entire country was in for a long, strange trip in 1964 when Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters left for New York City from La Honda, Calif., aboard a psychedelically painted school bus driven by “Cowboy Neal” Cassady and bearing a destination sign reading “Further.” Capturing the legendary event on paper has proved to be an equally odd trip; although Tom Wolfe's best-selling The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (FSG, Bantam; 30-odd printings) described the expedition in some detail, the major participants themselves have had trouble convincing publishers to do a book on the Pranksters. Until now, that is; with the bus trip having clocked up its 25th anniversary and the 1960s evoking more nostalgia these days than regret, both Thunder's Mouth and Viking have committed to heavily illustrated, high-profile books on the subject. Viking will publish Ken Kesey's The Further Inquiry (150-plus color photos, 50,000 first printing) in October, a book that represents just one of three Kesey titles from the publisher in 1990; Thunder's Mouth will publish Paul Perry and Ken Babbs's On the Bus (paperback, 120 photos, 10,000 first printing) in November.

The two projects kicked around the publishing world for some time before finding their respective homes, partly because of doubts about the market and partly because the bus trip—which was undertaken with a film in mind—seemed so difficult to render in book form.

On the Bus originated in the mid-1980s, when Perry, a magazine editor who had previously worked with Kesey, suggested the head Prankster let him put together a book proposal based on the Prankster archives—hours and hours of film and audiotape, plus hundreds of photographs—sitting in an outbuilding on Kesey's farm. Babbs (dubbed on the bus trip “The Intrepid Traveller”) was a natural collaborator, since he too was a writer and a Kesey neighbor. He was also someone who had already tried to marshal support for a similar project, and in fact had been giving an “On the Road” audiovisual performance since 1981. But the proposal was ill-fated; agent Nat Sobel sent it out to some 20 publishers without generating much interest. “It was one of those books where art and commerce clash,” says Perry, for while many editors loved the idea behind the book, it always encountered skepticism from production or sales departments.

Sobel eventually stopped sending the proposal out, but when he mentioned it to Neil Ortenberg, publisher of Thunder's Mouth, Ortenberg reacted with enthusiasm. “I knew it was going to be a terrific book,” he says now, citing the involvement of Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Baba Ram Dass, Robert Stone, Jerry Garcia and Hunter Thompson. Perry says “the cooperation was extraordinary—practically everyone said, ‘God, this is a great idea, all the participants are dying off.’”

For his part, Babbs transcribed the audiotapes from the bus trip, including some of the raps that made Neal Cassady famous.

“It was a real '60s project,” says Perry. “You pick up participants along the way, and you don't know where you're going.” On the Bus's gradual expansion is reflected in its subtitle—The Compleat Guide to the Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the Birth of the Counterculture.

The history of Kesey's own book is even more checkered. Written as a screenplay in the late 1970s, The Further Inquiry—a spaced-out courtroom satire in which Neal Cassady's spirit is put on trial for unspecified crimes—never sold to Hollywood and ended up buried in Sterling Lord's files. Submitted as a book, it was turned down at least once by Viking—so the story goes—until it was rediscovered in 1988 and offered to editor David Stanford, himself a Bay Area native, bus-trip aficionado, and sometime farm-hand. (Charles Verrill, Kesey's editor for Demon Box, his last book, had left Viking to become an agent.)

Stanford visited Kesey in Oregon, saw the rotting hulk of the bus in the author's field, and the experience reconfirmed his enthusiasm for the book—as did Viking's recent sales conference. “The reps loved the book,” he says. “We put on the Grateful Dead and ran some bus footage—it was wild.”

Like Ortenberg, Stanford knew a book on the bus trip would succeed only to the extent that its design conjured up the spirit of the '60s. Viking designer Michael Kaye did the job, says Stanford, giving the book “a whole new level of graphic complexity”—which included a corner-of-the-page photographic “flip book” of Cassady, “fastest man alive.” Graphic treatment aside, the impact of both books derives largely from the archival photographs themselves, most previously published; the majority were taken by “official” Prankster photographer Ron “Hassler” Bevirt, but a good many are by Allen Ginsberg.

Ortenberg and Stanford met to make sure the photographs in the two books didn't overlap, and that cooperation reflects the publishers' sense that the titles complement one another. As former Viking publicity director Victoria Meyer said in a very '60s frame of mind, “Anyone interested in the subject will want to have both books.”

The Further Inquiry stands somewhere in the middle of what has been a flurry of Kesey-inspired activity at Viking. In January it published Caverns, a mystery created in collaboration with some of Kesey's University of Oregon writing students under the pseudonym O. U. Levon; in October, Viking Puffin will publish Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, an Ozark tale that originally appeared in Demon Box; sometime in 1991 Puffin will also publish Shoola and the Sea Lion, an adaptation of an Indian tale. The commotion will culminate in fall 1991 with Sailor Song, an environmentally conscious novel involving a film company's arrival in Alaska to film a children's book—Shoola and the Sea Lion, of course.

Kesey was quite willing to talk to PW about his works in progress, but as it turned out, couldn't be reached for comment. His phone has often gone unanswered in recent days, explains Stanford, because Kesey, other Pranksters and newer friends have been outside repainting “Furthur” for its trip to the ABA.

Charles Bowden (review date 21 October 1990)

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SOURCE: Bowden, Charles. “The Magic Bus.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 October 1990): 1, 7.

[In the following review, Bowden contrasts Kesey's recollections in The Further Inquiry with those of Paul Perry and Ken Babbs in On the Bus.]

There was a bus.

You were either on the bus or off the bus.

In the summer of 1964, Ken Kesey and some friends boarded a 1939 International Harvester school bus named Furthur or Further (the spelling varied). The sides screamed with swirls of bright paint, a style soon to be called psychedelic; the back sported a deck and motorcycle, and a turret punched through the roof. The vehicle was armed with endless supplies of movie film, an intricate sound system that could broadcast and record whatever interesting decibels happened by, and a larder of LSD and marijuana. At the wheel was Neal Cassady, a.k.a. Dean Moriarty, the phantom helmsman of a generation dreaming of going on the road after reading Jack Kerouac's novel. Probably no one on Earth had seen such a sight before.

The idea was to travel to the New York World's Fair, do some dope, have some experiences and make a movie at the same time. Tom Wolfe based a best seller (more than 30 printings), The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, on Kesey, the bus, and his band of Merry Pranksters. Furthur had the face that launched a thousand hippie school buses. Now, a quarter century after the ride, two new books try to figure out what happened on the bus.

Paul Perry and Ken Babbs' On the Bus is a scrapbook (with 100 black-and-white and 16 color photos) that mixes simple narrative with observations by various Merry Pranksters, transcripts of tapes made at the time, and comments by observers like Hunter S. Thompson, Gordon Lish, Jerry Garcia and others. The book gives a handy history of LSD, and a chronicle of Kesey and the Pranksters after the bus ride—the acid tests, the busts, and the eventual descent of the band into relatively ordinary lives.

For Furtherologists, it constitutes a treasure trove of material and will fuel many dissertations in pop culture or deviant behavior. For anyone seeking solid ground in the stoned information system of Merry Pranksterdom, the book has real dates, a map of the route and many other hard little kernels of fact to cling to in the afterflashes of an acid trip. The various visits by Hunter Thompson to the text function as ice picks in the brain. The inventor of gonzo here functions as the sane person who has wandered into a madhouse—for example, his chilling account of a gang rape at a Prankster-Hell's Angels party.

Kesey's book, The Further Inquiry, originally written as a script, imagines the trial of the ghost of Neal Cassady by the authorities. It is confusing at first, laid out in an unconventional manner (there is a flip book of Cassady photos that makes him whirl and shout), always bizarre, and above all, alive.

Kesey has one of the battered reputations in American letters—the young hotshot who cranked out a best seller, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and then wrote the big book. Sometimes a Great Notion, a novel that most critics did not like, and that has been largely dismissed by all but a cult following since its publication.

On the Bus has Kesey saying: “Unless you get up very near that precipice where you're likely to make a fool of yourself, you're not showing much of how you feel. You're playing it safe—the way Hemingway did most of the time.” After finishing Sometimes a Great Notion, he got on the bus, stepped off the precipice, and stopped writing novels. At one level, both these accounts describe how Ken Kesey tried to detox from modern American fiction.

The two books overlap but do not compete. Perry and Babbs nail down the record. Kesey wrestles with the meaning. And both volumes are dominated by one dead man. Neal Cassady, a creation who successfully blows Kesey to the edge of the page.

Cassady was the street kid from Denver who stole 600 cars before he was 16, the sojourner in reform schools and prisons, the pal of the Beats such as Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg and William Burroughs, the man who made a living changing tires, the nonstop talker who never really got around to writing but whom everyone else wrote about. He showed up at Kesey's house three days before the bus left, signed on as a tire expert, and quickly took over the action.

One of the key moments in the trip occurred when the bus got stuck in the mud at Wikieup, Ariz., and a tractor came and pulled it out. During the wait, the passengers swallowed a lot of LSD and wandered along a desert stream, stoned out of their minds. When the bus is finally freed, in Kesey's screenplay. Ken Babbs shouts, “We've done it. We've done it! … We've won!” Kesey chimes in with, “We've conquered! Conquered! … Some the worse for wear, perhaps, but conquered nevertheless.” A few pages later, Cassady puts a different spin on the hours doing acid in the desert. “That's the whole thing we've been talking about,” he explains. “It is. Can't you freaks see it?”

See what? The bus trip by and large was full of humdrum events, or failed meetings. At Larry McMurtry's in Houston, one Prankster wanders off stoned and naked to be nabbed by cops and left behind. In New Orleans, the crew decides to take a swim, stumbles onto a beach for blacks only and leaves in time. A New York meeting with Kerouac fails when he scorns their hospitality.

They descend on Millbrook, Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary's acid-research center in New York State, a huge mansion where spiritual inquiries are made into the meaning of the drug experience. Kesey, Cassady and band arrive with smoke grenades, a desire to boogie, and when West meets East it just doesn't work One of the joys of On the Bus is Alpert's (now Ram Dass) explanations of why he failed to sense that this visitation of modern Vandals mattered at all. So why are we recalling a botched bus ride on paved interstate highways 25 years after the event?

Because something happened back then, something that we've chosen to see as perhaps beginning with a ride in a 1939 International Harvester school bus. Something that can be scented in the manic raps by Cassady that both books record, the incoherent chatter that makes a kind of sense.

Here is Cassady at the wheel, stoned with a joint in his hand, driving a bus with essentially no brakes down the Jersey Turnpike toward the bowels of New York, and riffing: “All right, I'll bring it down. Bring it down gently. Gotta bring it down. … I think the elementals are getting through! They get through in a continuing pattern. In other words: In every force, in every world, in every stream, in every structure—like, say a road—its weakest link, the road is no better than its weakest link, you see? Now the weak spot is always attacked by the highest of the next lower forces. Like a second dimensional, third dimensional, fourth dimensional … worlds separate, but worlds that still touch. … We are actually fourth-dimensional beings in a third-dimensional body inhabiting a second-dimensional world!”

For several years now, there has been a cottage industry of '60s nostalgia. And a counter-industry of denunciations—Just Say No—of whatever bonfires the '60s lit. These two books are about something else: genesis. They contain a lot of what those years looked like and sounded like, some of what they meant, and much more important, a few moments of feeling that capture why their memory won't seem to go away. There is a stoned Hunter Thompson racing his motorcycle in pursuit of mysterious red lights only to find after an hour or so that he is four feet from the taillights of a terrorized family in a sedan. There is Neal Cassady's ghost being tried by the authorities for poisoning American life.

The verdict is still out. Read these books if you are interested in who dunnit.

George J. Searles (review date 14 January 1991)

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SOURCE: Searles, George J. “On the Road Again.” New Leader 74, no. 1 (14 January 1991): 20-1.

[In the following review, Searles contrasts the content and style of The Further Inquiry with On the Bus, commenting that On the Bus “surpasses Kesey's effort in virtually all respects.”]

From all appearances, Ken Kesey is a hot item again. During the past year, Viking has released three Kesey-related titles, and more are on the way. Last summer, the Eugene (Oregon) Ballet Company staged an adaptation of his Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. In October, Kesey read that Ozark fable over National Public Radio.

On the scholarly front, the University of New Mexico Press is preparing an anthology of interpretive essays about his renowned work, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). Kesey himself has attracted attention by venturing into collaborative writing with graduate students at the University of Oregon. And the Smithsonian Institution wants to acquire the psychedelically-painted school bus that transported the novelist and his Merry Pranksters on their legendary 1964 pilgrimage from California to New York.

As most readers will recall, that drug-fueled odyssey was celebrated in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). The best-seller chronicled the wanderings of “the Hieronymus Bosch bus … with the destination sign in front reading ‘Furthur’ [sic] and a sign in back saying ‘Caution: Weird Load.’” Now we have been given two more accounts of the trip: Kesey's own The Further Inquiry, and Paul Perry and Ken Babb's On the Bus.

Kesey's version is a curious amalgam—part picture album and part a surrealistic courtroom trial where the late countercultural folk hero, Neal Cassady, is being charged with upsetting the status quo. Various witnesses are summoned to provide testimony concerning his involvement in the bus trip shenanigans. But the book jacket's promise of “a serious meditation on the '60s” turns out to be merely another instance of characteristic Prankster hyperbole. The scores of photographs by longtime Kesey associate Ron Bivert so predominate (there's even a “flip book” built into the lower right-hand corner) that by comparison the farcical proceedings of the trial hold little interest. The format, with one odd-sized column of dialogue running down each page, also minimizes the text.

The deliberately anachronistic design is meant to recall such cultural artifacts as Abbie Hoffman's Woodstock Nation, Jerry Rubin's Do It! and the pop graphics of Milton Glaser. Still, too much use is made of posterization (the photographic process whereby a picture is rendered in two or three unnatural, sharply contrasting colors), and every page is superimposed over a color shot of a lovely, cloud-filled sky. The real intention here clearly is not to study Cassady's charismatic personality or the role he played in the social revolution of the '60s, but to convey a sense of the wide open, spaced-out abandon that was a hallmark of the period.

Nonetheless, those years were a mix of political activism and guerrilla theater, each reinforced by the other. And in the drive to pitch a new, less inhibited Weltänsicht to a generation ripe for change, the antics of Cassady, Kesey and company played an important part. One witness tells the jury the Pranksters helped to combat “a growing complacency with the ethical direction of the state, a hardening of the heart which finally spreads to render the victim's perceptive senses paralyzed, so that the only sights, sounds and ideas that can be accepted by the person are those already prescreened and marked permissible. … Thought patterns repeated over and over form a mental screen. … Once formed, the screen becomes impenetrable. The disease spreads until the entity has lost all its powers of spontaneity. This mental net was suffocating our sovereign states in 1964. Our country was dying!”

Melodramatic as that assessment is, it makes a valid point. A good deal of the Pranksters' appeal—and significance—derived from their being among the first organized groups to publicly challenge the stifling, bureaucratized conformity that was a legacy of the Eisenhower Administration. Unfortunately, The Further Inquiry fails to seriously develop its case, or to satisfactorily explore Neal Cassady's mystique. It does, however, manage to give us a feeling of what life was like outside American mainstream culture at the dawn of the Hippie era.

Paul Perry and Ken Babb's On the Bus is basically a photo collection, too, yet it surpasses Kesey's effort in virtually all respects. By treating Cassady as a part of the larger Prankster pageant, rather than making him the book's focus, the authors are better able to dramatize how “the torch had been passed from the Beat to the Psychedelic, with Cassady as the driver, the tour guide, the swing man, foot in both eras, the flame passing from Kerouac to Kesey.”

To an even greater degree than The Further Inquiry, this paperback resembles an impressionistic collage—a jumpy, self-indulgent cut-and-paste job. But it is a very good one. Editors at Thunder's Mouth Press worked closely with Perry (himself a former editor) and Prankster Babbs to achieve an effective orchestration of the disparate elements. Moreover, people at Viking were consulted to ensure minimal duplication of material.

Divided into four sections—“Origins,” “The Trip,” “The Acid Tests—and Beyond,” and “Aftermath”—On the Bus covers far more territory than Kesey's Inquiry. Not surprisingly, the authors culled from a wider range of sources, drawing upon the photos taken by Bivert and assorted Pranksters, as well as the observations of poet Allen Ginsberg, “gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson, Kerouac's biographer Ann Charters, and others. Thompson and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia contributed forewords, and extensive commentaries are included from a variety of other literary and paraliterary figures like Robert Stone, William S. Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Baba Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) provides a particularly interesting description of the Pranksters' visit to LSD guru Timothy Leary's League for Spiritual Discovery at the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook, New York: “They came in with the idea that this was going to be a meeting between East and West, the acid tribes of the different coasts. I don't think our group was into any part of the myth. … There were great philosophical differences between us and the Pranksters. … I think that the Pranksters … were making more of a social-political statement than we were. Millbrook was primarily a research space.”

Whatever, the LSD experience is fundamental to these books, and that raises a troublesome matter. Neither one sufficiently acknowledges the harshly discordant flipside of the '60s drug rhapsody. Tellingly, Kesey dedicates The Further Inquiry “to Neal, and Page, and Gordon, and Bubbles, and Cass, and Tramp, and Janice, and Pigpen, and Tim, and Billy, and other casualties from this vector,” but that is the extent of his recognizing the issue. Thunder's Mouth editors Neil Ortenberg and Michael Schwartz at least saw fit to observe in a jittery epilogue that “the innocence with which it [LSD] is regarded may seem anomalous to the contemporary reader. However, the use of certain drugs in the 1960s occurred in a somewhat different context from that of drug use in the 1990s.” By waffling, though, they sell the subject short. And if all this were not bad enough, both volumes contain cavalier descriptions of dreadful sexual exploitation, unmitigated by any hint of misgivings.

Their weaknesses notwithstanding, The Further Inquiry and On the Bus would be fitting additions to the library of anyone interested in the literary counterculture or, indeed, the counterculture in general. And the number of such readers seems to be increasing steadily, accounting in part for the current Kesey renascence and the profusion of other works purporting to illuminate aspects of the Beat/Hippie scene.

Perhaps the renewed interest can be explained by the simple passage of time. The notorious bus trip took place more than 25 years ago. Now hyperenfranchised boomers who came of age during Kesey's original heyday are looking back nostalgically at that period when members of their generation defined themselves by whether they were, in a metaphorical sense, “on the bus”—when, in short, there was still a bus to be on.

Kesey recently put it this way to an interviewer: “We caught a wave back then. Drugs had something to do with it, but the wave happened in science, cinema, art, music, and politics. Once you've caught that wave, you're addicted. You want to catch another one.”

Brooke K. Horvath (review date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Horvath, Brooke K. Review of The Further Inquiry, by Ken Kesey. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 2 (summer 1991): 252-53.

[In the following review, Horvath describes The Further Inquiry as an “unambitious offering” in comparison to Kesey's other works but concedes that the book is nonetheless “provocative.”]

Perhaps, like so many others, Ken Kesey was derailed by his own early success. Certainly everything since One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, though interesting, has seemed to ask not to be compared to those first two books. Kesey's Garage Sale and Demon Box particularly stand in relation to the novels as, say, the Beatles' white album stands in relation to Sgt. Pepper: as work that almost successfully voids the grounds for comparison. And the same might be said of The Further Inquiry; it is not that the book is not worth the reader's attention—it is—but that, coming from Mr. Kesey, it is a rather unambitious offering.

In screenplay format, The Further Inquiry is the story of a trial meant to examine both the Merry Pranksters' cross-country bus trip and, more specifically, the role played in that adventure by Neal Cassady: to what extent were the trip, LSD, and Cassady forces for good or ill? As the trial unfolds, various on-and-off-the-bus Pranksters present their testimony, in the process offering readers an insider's feel for what Stewart Brand describes as “that two-wheeled corner we all took one fine decade.” Not surprisingly, Cassady is ultimately vindicated, as is the Prankster life-style, though not without some character failings—mostly those of the testifiers—having been revealed en route (leaving one to wonder how some of these “participants” will feel about Kesey's presentation of them here).

As Deirdre English observes in the Times, Kesey does shy from too close a look into some of the more unpleasant details of what he wrought, and readers unacquainted with the basic story (still told best by Tom Wolfe) may find the book too private, too much an insider's address to other insiders. But for those fascinated by the sixties, or by the fiction Kesey has been longest at work on (himself), The Further Inquiry will charm. No small part of this charm is the book's visual appeal, for which Michael Ian Kaye's colorful design work must be acknowledged as well as the more than 150 color photographs of the trip—many solarized or otherwise doctored—contributed by Ron Bivert. The photos are creatively located throughout, within and around a text widely bordered by cloudy sky, and, to enhance the book's cinematic flavor, each page contains a frame of a film of Cassady dancing and which can be riffled flip-book fashion.

All in all, The Further Inquiry effectively evokes the Day-Glo days of high Pranksterism it calls to account, and although the book may not be a no-holds-barred investigation, it is a provocative look back at a time that remarkably once was and, once once, can never be again.

Charles Perry (review date 30 August 1992)

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SOURCE: Perry, Charles. “Far North by Northwest.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 August 1992): 3, 8.

[In the following review, Perry criticizes the themes, characterization, and style of Sailor Song.]

Eighteen years ago, I was Ken Kesey's interpreter/guide on an expedition to the Great Pyramid. When we weren't poking around for mysteries in the Egyptian sands, I was hoping he'd tell stories about his Acid Test days in 1965 and 1966. Kesey, though, wanted to discuss Proust and Hemingway and Turgenev.

Big surprise. Of all the people who talked about the Death of the Novel in the '60s, he had seemed most in earnest. After all, this was the guy who'd written One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. It meant something when a genuine major novelist declared he'd given up writing in favor of putting on LSD parties.

But by 1974 Kesey was talking about the novel again. This was heartening; did it mean he was actually going to write a third novel? Then the '70s passed, and the '80s, and he published nothing but essays, sketches, children's stories and one chapter of a collaborative novel.

At last we have a novel-sized book, titled Sailor Song. You might call it an ecology tract in the form of a sci-fi story set in the future, or a memoir of what it's like to be a former media figure and youth guru. The further you get into it, the more it might strike you as a short story padded out four or five times its natural length. What it's not, unfortunately, is a novel to set beside Cuckoo's Nest.

Here's the story: In a Greenhouse Effect future 30 to 50 years from now, Alaska has the same romantic allure that Hawaii had in the '50s. So a film crew comes to a pristine (though squalid) Alaskan fishing village to shoot a faux-Eskimo folk tale which is one of the 21st Century's most beloved children's stories.

It comes out that the film company also plans to develop a theme park in the village. The bourgeois pig film/theme park interests firebomb a newspaper that opposes the development, but the novel's hero, Ike Sallas (a formerly world-famous eco-terrorist who has read the great 19th- and 20th-Century novels and is described as a Greek god with Elvis Presley eyes), is unable to rouse the village masses against them. Then Sallas' trademark eco-graffiti reappear and somebody releases the film company's sea lions into the sea.

At this point we expect to see the masses rallying to the sea lions' cause and casting out the developers, but nothing so obvious happens. Instead, an apocalyptic storm, which apparently has to do with a mysterious reversal of the earth's polarity (and smells of nitrous oxide: hmmm), wreaks vast havoc all over the world, in particular driving computers and clocks haywire and bleaching paints that aren't made from natural ingredients.

The mysterious storm seems to be some analog of the mental shipwreck of a psychedelic high. (The title Sailor Song comes from “Suzanne,” the Leonard Cohen '60s anthem in which Jesus says all men will be sailors “until the sea shall free them.”) During the storm, a Russian Orthodox priest has an ecstatic revelation that it means the end of the need for meaning; meaning is nothing, clarity (he has a blinding vision of the jack of spades and the ace of hearts) is all.

How delightful for the people in the novel, I guess. But has the need for meaning ended for us, too? If so, why write meaningful novels? Why not just run a dairy in Oregon? It looks as if Kesey has never quite escaped the intellectual cul-de-sac that led him to throw LSD parties instead of writing.

Perhaps this is actually an attempt at a novel without any search for meaning, a novel about immersion in life. Nearly all the story action takes place in four chapters, and the remaining 17 concern themselves with inconsequentialities, mostly loafing, drinking and chat.

Kuinak, the Alaskan village, is as full of colorful lowlifes as Cannery Row—by no coincidence, it even has a hotel called the Bear Flag. It's nowhere near as much fun, though, because scarcely any of them has a distinctive voice, and many are gratuitously improbable (one can do square roots in his head faster than they can be keyed into a calculator; an ornery Cornish sea cap'n turns out to be one of the greatest chefs in the world).

There are countless digressions. The beloved children's tale about a crippled Eskimo spoon maker is printed in full, taking up pages 159 to 194 (the reader may suspect the movie version will be about as gripping as Clan of the Cave Bear. At the height of the apocalyptic storm, the narrative is interrupted to explain how an unlicensed radio broadcaster (a “disbarred doctor” from Australia) happened to move to Alaska.

In one chapter, Sallas flies off (for no reason even he can give) to rescue the square-root calculating genius, Billy (The Squid) Bellisarius, from a religious cult. The rescue party escapes on a runaway railroad handcar racing downhill to Skagway, where it fortunately flies off the tracks into the sea so they don't all get killed. It's the most exciting passage in the book, but we wonder why they didn't just fly back in Sallas' airplane.

Mostly there is talk—aimless, irritatingly self-conscious talk. The characters bray and banter and chide and chaff, straining for wry, pseudo-folkish bons mots no matter whether they're fishing or falling in love or facing death in a runaway handcar. Father Pribilof, the Russian Orthodox priest, even joshes with God (“Very well, Show-off!”) as if He were an old fraud like himself.

Most of the characters' lines—including some of the women's—sound as if they were meant to be read by Burl Ives. The excruciating dialogue (one character actually says, “Farewell, gentles all,” to his drinking buddies) could have something to do with the stitched-together quality of the plot. The characters' rueful familiarity might reflect their resentment at being forced into action that doesn't proceed from character.

Kesey's old mastery still shows here and there, notably in descriptions of nature (the storm is a pip), but everything else in this book is shot through with unease, as if some deep evasion is going on. Whatever's eating Kesey, it has—alas for him, and alas for us—made him forget nearly everything he once knew about telling a story.

Joe Chidley (review date 7 September 1992)

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SOURCE: Chidley, Joe. “A War for the Future.” Maclean's 105, no. 36 (7 September 1992): 50.

[In the following review, Chidley outlines the plot of Sailor Song, praising the novel's vision and insight.]

Ken Kesey has had a long break between novels—28 years. After two successes while he was in his 20s, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), Kesey went on to become America's itinerant wild man, founding the so-called Merry Pranksters club and touring the United States in a revamped school bus. When journalist Tom Wolfe made that LSD-fuelled trip the subject of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968, Kesey achieved mythic status on the American literary and counterculture scene. Now, after three decades during which he has tried his hand at screenplays, essays, short stories and children's literature, the Oregon-based author, 56, has finally written that third novel—and it is full of wonders. With Sailor Song, Kesey proves that despite the long hiatus, he is still in full control of the narrative form.

Sailor Song is a rollicking, expansive drama of love, corruption, independence and community responsibility, played out against the backdrop of a world falling apart. Kesey begins with a stark hypothesis: in 30 years, all of the current environmental doomsday scenarios have come to pass—global warming, ozone depletion, mutations and mass extinctions resulting from humanity's overuse of pesticides. In the nightmare world of the early 21st century, Alaska is the last pristine wilderness, a backwater mecca for those seeking solace from the horrors to the south. “From Alaska there's no place left to go,” writes Kesey. “The moon? Mars? … No game, sorry. The planet Earth is the ball we were pitched—it's the ball we have to play. So it came down to Alaska, the Final Frontier as far as this sick old ballgame goes.”

Kesey's outpost is fictional Kuinak, a remote, dingy fishing village where a ragtag collection of eccentrics and recluses struggles to maintain a meagre existence. The town's leading citizen is Ike Sallas, “the Greek-god guy with the Elvis Presley eyes,” as one character describes him. A middle-aged ecoterrorist-turned-fisherman, Sallas is a modern version of the frontier hero. Disillusioned with the environmental fight and by the inability of humanity to make real change, he has retreated to Kuinak to find peace and solitude. He finds neither. His boss, a florid fisherman named Carmody, goes missing at sea. A fight between bowling-alley magnate Omar Loop and his daughter Louise's ex-husband needs breaking up. And while Sallas is busy dealing with everyone else's problems, a magnificent yacht sails into the harbor, carrying a high-priced Hollywood film crew led by an albino ex-convict named Nicholas Levertov, who plans to make a multi-million-dollar movie with Kuinak as the setting—and who promises that everyone in town will get very, very rich.

The film crew's arrival throws the formerly simple, if offbeat, life of Kuinak into chaos. (“Look out shit,” Kesey writes, “here comes the fan.”) Levertov makes Kuinak over into a false-front Hollywood set—“Stripped and cleaned and simplified, then blown up big as a house, so the actual bulk of the thing diminished it, belittled it, so the treasure that had once been alluring and just out of reach, else what's heaven for? had been devalued.” The town divides into two camps: the majority who, seduced by Levertov's promise of wealth, agree to sell their lifestyle to celluloid, and a small group, led by a reluctant Sallas, who wants Kuinak to remain the way it is. A war for the future of the community begins.

Stripped of its context, the novel's plot reads like a recipe for high farce, and it does poke well-aimed fun at the movie industry, land developers and the foibles of small-town northern life. But Sailor Song transcends the merely humorous. Kesey's patient development of a world about to self-destruct is fascinating. And he successfully weaves a moving and mature love story into the complicated tale. Kesey's colorful, often profane, descriptions of life on and by the sea are realistic and vigorous. And behind the frequently hilarious incidents in the novel is an artfully crafted sense of impending doom. Kesey steers the central confrontation into a timely, humane metaphor for the relationship between contemporary Western society and the planet it appears to be destroying. Among the exploiters, the sellouts and the preservers of Kesey's Kuinak, there are no villains or heroes, only lonesome souls looking for shelter from the inevitable storm.

Kesey presents a vision of humanity that is homely and forgiving. A salty confection whipped up with care, Sailor Song is evidence of a prodigious talent that has been absent for far too long.

George J. Searles (review date 7 September 1992)

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SOURCE: Searles, George J. “As the Flag Unravels.” New Leader 75, no. 11 (7 September 1992): 20-1.

[In the following review, Searles assesses the literary achievement of Sailor Song within the context of Kesey's career.]

It has been quite a while since One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) established Ken Kesey as an important American writer. Nevertheless, his long-awaited third novel [Sailor Song] proves he is still deserving of his reputation.

Set in the early 21st century, this big, teeming book takes as its locus the fictitious Alaskan fishing village of Kuinak, somewhere north of Skagway. A tougher and dirtier version of Northern Exposure's Cicely, the engagingly rundown little community provides a safe if grub-by haven for its rowdy inhabitants: a mix of “Deaps” (Descendants of Early Aboriginal Peoples) and Lower-48 misfits. They include such colorful figures as hard-drinking Alice the Angry Aleut, former eco-terrorist Ike Sallas (known as the “Bakatcha Bandit” during the environmental wars of the now-bygone 1990s), and the irrepressible Emil Greer, Sallas' self-styled Rastafarian sidekick.

Much of the sense of realism that informs Sailor Song derives from on-site “homework” done some years ago. Long narrative passages, loaded with specialized terminology and meticulously rendered detail, offer a wealth of accurate reportage about saltwater fishing. They are the hallmark of Kesey's penchant for first-hand experience. Before writing Cuckoo's Nest, he worked as a psychiatric aide in a veterans' hospital; to gather background for Great Notion he spent time with loggers.

Kesey foresees Alaska as the final frontier, and Kuinak is a last refuge for the gritty, self-reliant lifestyle he seems to admire most. The heroes of his earlier novels—R. P. McMurphy and Chief Bromden from Cuckoo's Nest, and the Stamper clan of Great Notion—would feel right at home in this town, with its belly-up-to-the-bar ambience. It is also a place of equal opportunity: In these bare-knuckled environs women are no less two-fisted than men, and Native Americans are treated no differently than everyone else.

Maybe the reason is simply that misery indeed loves company. Remote as Kuinak is, its people must suffer the severely compromised circumstances of Kesey's envisioned future. The world is in extremis, with everything winding down, wearing out, devolving toward entropy. On all fronts the artificial has replaced the genuine. The Alaskan outpost has to make do with synthetic liquor, synthetic dope, even synthetic experience, as people don high-tech goggles to seek solace in virtual reality.

Enter Foxcorp Studios, a big-time Hollywood moviemaker intent on using Kuinak as the setting for a film version of the children's classic Shoola and the Sea Lion (written in the novel by a New Jersey woman under an Eskimo pen name, but actually published by Kesey himself last year). Addressing Sallas and friends, a Foxcorp representative declares:

I am the Mouth from the South and the official speech man for Foxcorp, and first off I want to take the proper-tune ditty to thank you one and all, citizens of Kuinak, from the bottom of our corporate heart for the warm welcome your wonderful community has afforded us. … It's also my joyous task to welcome you to the Silver Fox, folks, because, and I'm shooting straight here, you got something we want. What is that, may you ask? You may. And I'll tell you. You got what is called in the biz a location, a spectacular location with scenery still un-trammeled—everything south of here has just about been trammeled … if you haven't noticed—but your sky is still clear and your air still sweet … if one overlooks the smell of fish guts … and we got something you want. Namely, big bucks, folks, let's tell it like it is—big bucks, hot deals, and high times. All you have to do is let us use your location. Clean deal or what?

Like the “Combine” in Cuckoo's Nest or the union in Great Notion, the film moguls are obviously agents of evil. They quickly transform Kuinak into a cinegenic yet bogus version of itself. Buildings are painted, eyesores are removed, props are erected. The village is declawed and made sterile, and the locals collaborate in their own undoing. Lured by the mystique of Hollywood, the promise of profit and the prospect of orgiastic revels aboard the company's huge wing-sail yacht, they allow themselves to become swept up in a feeding frenzy. Even the Loyal Order of Underdogs, Kuinak's ragtag fraternal organization, is drawn into the folly, hiring on as a home-grown security force.

Terrible mayhem ensues, culminating in a rebellion of Nature itself. Kesey takes a giant leap here, arranging for a global cataclysm brought about by the spontaneous reversal of the earth's magnetic poles—a freakish catastrophe that roils the seas, triggers devastating ice storms, and dooms the electronic age. All magnetic memory systems are “deleted, tape and disk, mainframe and backup; all digital chipware scrambled; all nations in turmoil, all people in godless despair.”

This would be a bit much if it were meant to be taken straight. Throughout his career, though, Kesey has repeatedly altered the actual in his fiction, where the trip is as important as the destination, if not more so. Sailor Song is an embodiment of its own claim that “the best way to get an angle on … history … is to give up on the facts and look at the legend.” The worldwide chaos that concludes the story is, of course, symbolic, much like the falcon's disorientation in W. B. Yeats' “The Second Coming,” which is cited in the book.

On the one hand, Kesey's legend offers a cautionary message, found in such details as the “flaws in the flag's fabric, the signs of irreversible unraveling.” He goes on: “A faulty equation must have been allowed to creep into the intricate formula of warp and woof at the Korean flag factory. Or had been planted there on purpose like a recombinant virus. Small wonder you didn't want to lean down and look close—it was your flag unraveling, the one you'd fought for. Invested in. Life savings. Small wonder you shouldn't want to watch the flaws become monthly more obvious.”

On the other hand, Sailor Song is a gambol—the kind of exercise in risk-taking and myth-making that has always been Kesey's long suit. He includes a great deal of purposeful foolery, flooding the narrative with farcical incongruities, crude asides, wacky in-jokes, and countless allusions to literary classics and popular culture. Bob Dylan pops up alongside Yeats; John Steinbeck shares the stage with the Beatles; John Synge competes with Kesey's friends the Grateful Dead (referred to as “The Dreadful Great”); and everywhere there are salutes to, and the unmistakable influences of, fellow novelist Thomas Pynchon.

Despite its gloomier features, the book's closing scene is upbeat and ends on a note of “victory.” What we have before us, then, is a fast, bumpy, careening tale closely akin to the runaway railway-car ride survived by Sallas, Greer and a drug-dealer called “Billy the Squid,” or to the fabled psychedelic bus trip that the author and his Merry Pranksters braved in 1964. In sum, Sailor Song is vintage Ken Kesey: not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but certainly instructive, and never boring.

Roger Rosenblatt (review date 26 October 1992)

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SOURCE: Rosenblatt, Roger. “The Acid Test.” New Republic 207, no. 18 (26 October 1992): 41-3.

[In the following review, Rosenblatt discounts Kesey's credibility as a “writer-writer” in Sailor Song, labelling Kesey instead as a “culture-writer,” which, Rosenblatt believes, compromises the novel's relevance for future generations.]

A moment in Tom Wolfe's [sic] On the Bus comes rushing like a flaming flamingo: Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters are noising across America in their stupid, drug-fueled, day-glo, mantra-rapping, strobe-lit 1939 International Harvester school bus, when they pull up in Houston at the home of Larry McMurtry, who shyly emerges with his little boy at his side. Spotting the freaks, he is naturally confused, but he is also naturally good-natured, until a character whom Wolfe calls Stark Naked, because she is, leaps from the bus and scoops up McMurtry's little boy, shrieking, “Frankie! Oh Frankie! My little Frankie!” McMurtry, desperate to believe that he is still living on Planet Earth, touches her on the shoulder and stammers, “Ma'am! Ma'am! Just a minute, ma'am!”

You know this sort of moment. You are suddenly flung into the company of lunatics who like you, and you are strung between wanting to be with it and praying that these people will blow up. If you do not know this sort of moment, read Sailor Song. It is Ken Kesey's first novel in twenty-eight years. May he wait twenty-eight more.

They were hardly great books, but there was something good and good-hearted in Kesey's first two novels, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), and so I wanted to like the new one. The '60s are so easily trashable these days. It would be nice to think of Kesey as one of the rhinestones in the trash. But he, or rather his writing, makes critical kindness impossible. The new novel is plotless and idealless and pointless in its overflow of parables, anecdotes, and caricatures. But that is not what transforms the reader's disappointment into sadness. It's the suspicion, born long before this book appeared but amply confirmed by it, that Kesey could have been a pretty good writer-writer, but chose instead to be a culture-writer.

A writer-writer writes to be read. A culture-writer writes to be oohed. The distinction may be vividly illustrated by the career of Norman Mailer, who made a Kesey-like choice many years ago. After Harlot's Ghost,Ancient Evenings, and Tough Guys Don't Dance; after the Hamptons movie, the T.V. boxing, the bullying, and the interminable parties, all that remains is the spectacle of a diabolically energetic show-off so desperate to be noticed that he will never be recognized. But if you go back to The Naked and the Dead, or further back to a short story Mailer wrote at the age of 18 called “The Greatest Thing in the World,” there is a writer-writer, raw but real. The pressure on writer-writers to become culture-writers has never been greater, and neither has the interest of the media in what used to be the literary world; and so more and more literary figures are becoming entertainers. And bad ones.

What is Kesey's new novel about? I'll try. It is set in the future, in the Alaskan fishing village of Kuinak, where the DEAPs (Descendents of Early Aboriginal Peoples) abound. As do the LOUD (Loyal Order of the Underdogs, who cry “woof”), Alice Carmody, the Angry Aleut (“she's always got to go against the grain”), and the hero, Ike Sallas, “the Bakatcha Bandit,” so-called for some unclear valiant activity during the environmental wars of the 1990s. (Don't ask.) Why Alaska? “Because Alaska is the end, the finale, the Last Ditch of the Pioneer Dream.” Into the midst of these pranksters sails a ship owned by a Hollywood movie company led by a mogul named Gerhardt Steubins, seeking to make a film of The Sea Lion, a children's book written by somebody named Ken Kesey. Then lots of things happen, I think. The movie-makers are so hot for their project, they murder a few Kuinakians, while Ike the hero seems to be off in pursuit of a drug-dealer. In the end the village explodes in an apocalypse that has to do with electricity, and everyone chants the word “Squid.”

In a recent Esquire, Kesey wails that East Coast critics will never understand him, while drawing on the supportive authority of, uh, Mailer. But the critics are not incorrect, except in their patience. For Kesey, again, made the choice of the culture-writer in taking encouragement from the wrong muses. His fiction is full of the kind of material that used to belong to the new journalism. This material is readily recognizable on several levels, the most accessible of which is style. Style to the culture-writer is not writing, but a kind of animated macho typing. Here is a characteristic passage from Sailor Song:

“Folks, the great Gerhardt Steubins!” A very old man with pewter-grey hair and black eye patch stepped into the room's silent gape. If Ike had hoped to find some sinister foreign mastermind at the center of this glitzy web, he was vastly disappointed; this mastermind had a drawl from the Ozarks and a grin like what was left from a baked Virginia ham. The internationally famous Gerhardt Luther Steubins was a big, turkey-necked shambler from the All-American South. Ike imagined that in his prime he had probably carried another couple dozen pounds of working muscle on that gnawed frame, but the old man still looked amazingly fit. The tan arms were still cabled and the gnarly hands looked like they'd seen a lot of rough use.

Such prose is busy dazzling itself with itself, which has the effect of keeping the reader out of the novel, the way people sometimes tell funny stories to keep other people at a distance: the laughter makes a wall. No wonder Kesey is so transparently worried about how the critics will receive him; he is them. His writing screams its own insecurity. Its intent is mainly to impress. Vitality is supposed to do the work of intelligence. Color is allowed to stand in for coherence. Above all, this is the sort of prose that prides itself on its own absence of discipline. Kesey is hardly the only contemporary American writer not to understand that it requires great discipline to seem undisciplined.

But the errors of the culture-writer are more than matters of style. He mistakes invention for imagination, and he adopts craziness as a view of the world. The first of these errors leads him to believe that bizarrerie is sufficient for art. Invent some wacky, improbable, unheard of person, language, or circumstance, and that will do it. (The influence in recent decades of “magical realism” has only made the situation worse.) Think of it this way. Invention in literature is like building a house starting with the porch. Imagination begins at the hearth, usually something quite simple and recognizable in human experience. From that core it may sprout wings, beaks, and flames, but the reader is always drawn to, and by, the core.

The culture-writer's most serious error, however, lies in his sense of life. He comes to see human experience as essentially wild and crazy. Whether he is led to this view by style and invention, or whether style and invention are the products of the view, the result is a literature that sees the world as purposeless and freakish. This is something much less strict and serious than irrationalism. Of such writing one does not ask, “What is here?” What is here is painfully obvious. One asks instead, “What is missing?” And what is missing are recognizable human conflicts and the thoughts and feelings of people one cares for. The collapse of such writing into mere effects is no surprise: this is literature that has lost touch with everything but itself.

The neglect of such fundamentals is owed, I think, to fear—the fear of appearing plain and unattractive. That fear in turn is fueled by a mistrust of the reader, who is not relied upon to take the time to appreciate the beauty in a simple story or a simple theme. Art thus becomes a window of opportunity rather than a window on life. Instead of living according to his own sense of time, the culture-writer produces prose for busy people. The only part of the reader that such a writer wishes to capture is his or her attention. And that is best done by making a noise.

Again, to be fair to Kesey, the world of the past few decades has justified such an assumption. We live in a culture that has a horror of a lack of publicity. The private life is scorned, except insofar as it furnishes the material for a public life. This may be good news for talk show hosts, but it is bad news for writers, for surely privacy is what makes writing writing. It is all very unpublic business, the work of the writer-writer. The work of the culture-writer is that of the public relations man. The irony, of course, is that the culture-writer is so eager to be fused with his times that he is likely to disappear with them. And so Kesey is as good as forgotten now. He also had the bad luck of being aided and abetted in his wrong choice by his readers, specifically by the '60s young who seized upon the celebration of anarchy in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and passed over the book's older and richer theme, which had to do with the conflict of good with evil. Kesey, too, went with anarchy. The kids of the '60s saw anarchy as what Kesey himself believed in, and eventually Kesey seemed to agree.

But between Cuckoo's Nest and the Merry Pranksters' ride came the writing of Sometimes a Great Notion. This was a book to reckon with, a morality tale as basically simple as Cuckoo's Nest and elephantine in the style of Wolfe (Thomas, not Tom), but clearly the work of a writer living and struggling inside his subject. You did not have to buy the story of the Stamper brothers or their battle (Kesey must have been the only counterculture writer to pit his heroes against the unions) to recognize a serious, private strain in the author. Love nature, trust your instincts, drop out, tune in: he was vulgarizing the old nineteenth-century message of Transcendentalism, but even in its vulgar form it seemed to have an authentic life in him. He was working something out for himself. He did not scream for attention; he was overheard.

It's amazing how much damage a single bus can do. Kesey's bus ruined him, as nature became electrified and instincts became laced with LSD and mescaline. True, he entertained millions. Kesey has always had a way of tugging at one's affection and admiration. There is no denying that within the antics and the books there are unmistakable traces of a good man wrestling for his soul. Even in the swamps and polar wastes of Sailor Song one feels the presence of an honorable searcher for “truth.” The search is still touching. The writing, however, is empty, and it leaves the reader empty. That is what happens when a writer allows himself to be owned by a moment. In the end he has to shout louder and louder to be heard, and Sailor Song is precisely such a shout. In the Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalogue, Kesey wrote, “O kkkk, I think I've got it.” But it got him.

Ken Kesey and Robert Faggen (interview date 1992-1993)

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SOURCE: Kesey, Ken, and Robert Faggen. “Ken Kesey: The Art of Fiction CXXVI.” Paris Review 35, no. 130 (spring 1994): 58-94.

[In the following interview, originally conducted during several visits between 1992 and 1993, Kesey discusses his literary influences, his relationship with the Beat writers, the effects of drugs on his writings, the cultural influence of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, the nature of evil and terror in America, and popular American culture.]

Ken Kesey was born in Colorado in 1935. His father, a rancher and outdoorsman, moved the family to Oregon in 1943. Kesey attended the University of Oregon, where he became a champion wrestler. After graduating, he received a Stegner fellowship from Stanford and studied fiction under Malcolm Cowley, Wallace Stegner and Frank O'Connor. His classmates included Ken Babbs, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. Kesey's first novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, was published in 1962, followed by Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964. Both received considerable acclaim, and jointly they established Kesey's reputation as a vital force in American literature. At the center of both are what Kesey calls “little warriors” battling large forces. Some critics have praised his work for its maverick power and themes of defiance; others have questioned his wild and paranoid vision.

During the last thirty years Kesey has become famous as a renegade prophet and prankster. In 1964 Kesey and a band of friends, the “Merry Pranksters,” set off on a cross-country tour on the psychedelic bus Further, driven by Neal Cassady. In this “unsettling of America,” they staged a variety of shows and psychedelic-drug experiments, which became the subject of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Kesey's exploits led to an arrest on marijuana charges, a flight to Mexico and eventually three months in jail. Kesey then returned to his farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, and to many he seemed to have disappeared from the literary scene.

The 1970s saw both of Kesey's novels made into films. Sometimes a Great Notion starred Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, who directed it. Kesey had little to do with the immensely successful film One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and says he has never seen it. Since then he has occasionally come back into print with minor works such as Kesey's Garage Sale.Demon Box, a collection of experimental stories, was published in 1986. In 1987 and 1988, Kesey led a creative-writing class at the University of Oregon. In order to limit rivalry among students, he decided to have the class members make equal contributions to a novel. The finished work, Caverns, was published under the pseudonym O. U. Levon.

In recent years Kesey has been taking a new bus, Furthur II, on tour and arranging festivals for amateur performers. He has written two books for children, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear and The Sea Lion. He travels around the country giving readings of these works in full Native American costume at children's hospitals and schools. The story of The Sea Lion also forms the center of Sailor Song (1992), Kesey's first major novel in twenty-eight years. Set in the near future, it is the story of what happens to a small Alaskan fishing village when it is selected as a location by a Hollywood movie company.

Kesey and fellow Prankster Ken Babbs have just completed a book about the Pendleton roundup. He has also finished a play, Twister: A Ritual Reality in Four Acts, which he plans to take on the road.

This interview was conducted during several visits with Kesey at his Oregon farm in 1992 and 1993. He lives in a spacious barn that was built in the 1930s from a Sears Roebuck catalog. The steps ascending to his loft study are decorated, as are many parts of the barn, in bright Day-Glo colors. Kesey works late into the night, observed, as he points out, by a parliament of owls.

[Faggen]: Your only formal studies in fiction were as a fellow in Wallace Stegner's writing program at Stanford. What did you learn from Stegner and also from Malcolm Cowley?

[Kesey]: The greatest thing Cowley taught me was to respect other writers' feelings. If writing is going to have any effect on people morally, it ought to affect the writer morally. It is important to support everyone who tries to write because their victories are your victories. So I have never really felt that bitter cattiness writers feel toward their peers.

Yet you had a difficult relationship with Stegner. What were the differences between you?

Shortly after Cuckoo's Nest came out, I did an interview with Gordon Lish for a magazine called Genesis West. I don't remember exactly what I said about Stegner, but it made him angry. When I heard he was angry I tried to see him, but his secretary wouldn't let me in. We never spoke again after that. Wally never did like me. At one point, I read that he had said he found me to be ineducable.” I had to stew for a long time over what Stegner didn't like about me and my friends. We were part of an exceptional group, there's no doubt about it. There was Bob Stone, Gurney Norman, Wendell Berry, Ken Babbs and Larry McMurtry. All of us who were part of that group are still very much in contact; we all support each other's work. Stegner was the great force that brought us all together. He put together a program that ruled literature in California and, in some ways, the rest of the nation for a long time. Stegner had traveled across the Great Plains and reached the Pacific but, as far as he was concerned, that was far enough. Some of us didn't believe that it was far enough, and when we went farther than that, he took issue with it, especially when it was not happening in the usual literary bailiwicks that he was accustomed to. I took LSD, and he stayed with Jack Daniel's; the line between us was drawn. That was, as far as he was concerned, the edge of the continent, and he thought you were supposed to stop there. I was younger than he was, and I didn't see any reason to stop, so I kept moving forward, as did many of my friends. Ever since then, I have felt impelled into the future by Wally, by his dislike of what I was doing, of what we were doing. That was the kiss of approval in some way. I liked him, and I actually think that he liked me. It was just that we were on different sides of the fence. When the Pranksters got together and headed off on a bus to deal with the future of our synapses, we knew that Wally didn't like what we were doing, and that was good enough for us. A few years ago, I taught a course at the University of Oregon. I began to appreciate Wally much more after I had been a teacher. Every writer I know teaches—at some point, even if you don't need the money, you have to teach what you were taught, especially if you were taught by a great coach.

Did you experience at Stanford drive you to an anti-intellectual stance?

The reason you read great authors—Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Thoreau, Emerson—is not because you really want to teach them, though that's one of the things you find yourself doing because you know it's important that they be taught. You study literature because you're a scholar of what's fair. It's just a way of learning how to be what we want to be. We go to concerts to hear a piece by Bach not because we want to be intellectuals or scholars or students of Bach, but because the music is going to help us keep our moral compass needle clean.

What connection is there between Ken Kesey the magician-prankster and Ken Kesey the writer?

The common denominator is the joker. It's the symbol of the prankster. Tarot scholars say that if it weren't for the fool, the rest of the cards would not exist. The rest of the cards exist for the benefit of the fool. The fool in tarot is this naive innocent spirit with a rucksack over his shoulder like Kerouac, his eyes up into the sky like Yeats, and his dog biting his rump as he steps over the cliff. We found one once at a big military march in Santa Cruz. Thousands of soldiers marching by. All it took was one fool on the street corner pointing and laughing, and the soldiers began to be uncomfortable, self-conscious. That fool of Shakespeare's, the actor Robert Armin, became so popular that finally Shakespeare wrote him out of Henry IV. In a book called A Nest of Ninnies, Armin wrote about the difference between a fool artificial and a fool natural. And the way Armin defines the two is important: the character Jack Oates is a true fool natural. He never stops being a fool to save himself; he never tries to do anything but anger his master, Sir William. A fool artificial is always trying to please; he's a lackey. Ronald McDonald is a fool artificial. Hunter Thompson is a fool natural. So was the Little Tramp. Neal Cassady was a fool natural, the best one we knew.

Neal Cassady was a muse to the Beats and became one to you as you started writing. When did you first encounter him?

It was 1960. He had just finished the two years he served in the pen. He showed up at my place on Perry Lane when I was at Stanford. He arrived in a Jeep with a blown transmission, and before I was able to get outside, and see what was going on, Cassady had already stripped the transmission down into big pieces. He was talking a mile a minute, and there was a crowd of people around him. He never explained why he was there, then or later. He always thought of these events as though he was being dealt cards on a table by hands greater than ours. But that was one of my earliest impressions of him as I watched him running around, this frenetic, crazed character speaking in a monologue that sounded like Finnegans Wake played fast forward. He had just started to get involved in the drug experiments at the hospital in Menlo Park, as I had. I thought, “Oh, my God, it could lead to this.” I realized then that there was a choice. Cassady had gone down one road. I thought to myself, are you going to go down that road with Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac—at that time still unproven crazies—or are you going to take the safer road that leads to John Updike. Cassady was a hero to all of us who followed the wild road, the hero who moved us all.

Were there literary influences as well?

Many of us had read Ginsberg's Howl, Kerouac's On the Road, Kenneth Rexroth's work, Ferlinghetti's. I knew their work when I was a student at the University of Oregon. I had a tape of Ferlinghetti saying, “I'm sitting now outside of my pool hall watching the hipsters come by in their curious shoes.” I wanted to go down to the North Beach area and see Mike's Pool Hall. That's where I met Ken Babbs and Bob Kaufman, a great poet and a casualty of exploration of the synapses.

Do you think the drug experimentation produced mostly casualties? Do you think Cassady was one?

I think most artists who, as the saying goes now, “push the envelope,” wind up as casualties. If you think about the history of writers and artists, the best often don't end up with pleasant, comfortable lives; sometimes they go over the edge and lose it. I've been close to enough casualties to learn how to avoid that pitfall. Some critics like to argue that some of the beats had a death wish. Cassady certainly didn't have a death wish. He had a more-than-life wish, an eternity wish. He was trying to recapture, as Burroughs says, the realities he had lost. He was storming the reality studio and trying to take the projector from the controllers who had been running it. When that happens you are bound to have some casualties.

How did Cassady become the driver of your bus, Furthur?

Cassady was around us often. There was one incident in particular when he truly impressed me not only as a madman, genius and poet but also as an avatar—someone in contact with other powers. He took me to a racetrack near San Francisco. He was driving and talking very fast, checking his watch frantically, hoping we would get to the track on time. If we got to the track just before the last three races, we'd get in free. We made it just in time, and we bet on the last two races. Cassady had a theory about betting he'd learned in jail from someone named Knee-Walking Jackson. His theory was that the third favorite at post time is often the horse most likely to upset the winner and make big money. Cassady's strategy was to step up to the tellers at the ticket booths just at post time. He'd glance up to see who was third favorite and put money on that horse. He didn't look at the horses, the jockeys or the racing sheets. He said to me, “This is going to be the one, I can feel it.” He asked me for ten bucks, and I gave it to him. He put three dollars down with my ten. Given the odds we would have made some good money. We went right down to the line to watch, and it was a close race, neck and neck. I'm no horse fan, but I was getting into it because it looked like the third favorite could win. There was a photo finish and Cassady suddenly tore up his tickets and left. I followed him back to the car and could hear the announcement: “We have a photo finish, and the winner is …” It turned out to be the favorite. Neal was so confident of his vision that if he lost he never waited around or looked back.

Cassady was a hustler, a wheeler-dealer, a conniver. He was a scuffler. He never had new clothes, but was always clean, and so were his clothes. He always had a toothbrush and was always trying to sell us little things and trying to find a place where he could wash up. Cassady was an elder to me and the other Pranksters, and we knew it. He was literally and figuratively behind the wheel of our bus, driving it the way Charlie Parker worked the saxophone. When he was driving he was improvising an endless monologue about what he was seeing and thinking, what we were seeing and thinking and what we had seen, thought and remembered. Proust was his literary hero, and he would quote long passages from Proust and Melville from memory, lacing his revelations with passages from the Bible. He was a great teacher, and we all knew it and were affected by him.

What did you learn from Cassady?

I've listened to the tapes from the bus trip and reread his letters and autobiography—The First Third—for years. I've tried to distill his teachings as best I can. The most important lesson is also the most ironic: most of what is important cannot be taught except by experience. His most powerful lesson behind the rap was not to dwell on mistakes. He used the metaphor of driving. He believed that you got into trouble by over-correcting. A certain sloth, he thought, lets you veer into a ditch on the right side of the road. Then you over-correct and hit a car to your left. Cassady believed you had to be correcting every instant. The longer you let things go, the longer you stayed comfortable, the more likely the case that you would have to over-correct. Then you would have created a big error. The virtue of continual, engaged experience—an endless and relentless argument with the self—that was his lesson.

What do you think of Wolfe's account of you and the Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?

When the galleys came out, we all read through them in one session. I had no major problems with the book then, though I haven't looked at it since. When he was around us, he took no notes. I suppose he prides himself on his good memory. His memory may be good, but it's his memory and not mine.

You met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg at a party in Manhattan during the bus trip. What happened at that encounter?

That was the first time I had met Kerouac. It was an important moment for me. I'd known Ginsberg and Dick Alpert—before he became Ram Dass—back at Perry Lane. Ginsberg was good friends with Vik Lovell, the guy who got me involved in the Menlo Park hospital and to whom I dedicated Cuckoo's Nest. Ginsberg and Alpert were part of IFIF, the International Federation for Internal Freedom. That was the Millbrook psychological experiment group that included Timothy Leary. Our group on the bus was known as ISIS, the Intrepid Search for Inner Space.

I have thought about that meeting hundreds of times since then. We wanted Kerouac to be the same way he was when he wrote On the Road. I find the same thing happening to me when people show up and expect me to be the way I was twenty-five years ago. Kerouac seemed offended by our wildness, particularly by the way we were wearing American flags draped around our heads. He thought we were being derisive of the United States. But we weren't. We just liked the looks of dressing in the flag. I was disappointed in myself for not going up to him and sincerely expressing how much his work meant to me. But it wasn't the right time, and I needed to say it in a letter.

After Kerouac died, his agent gave me a letter from his wife, Stella. She was very bitter that people had passed Jack by and instead were looking at people like me as the new literary lions. I wrote her back and told her that I couldn't hold a candle to him. His life's work will stand for centuries. I can't say that about Mailer or Updike or Kosinski. But I believe that people will be reading On the Road centuries from now as the true lens into our time.

In his writing Kerouac was true to his vision to the end. He believed there were drama and glory in the most mundane parts of our lives. And all things—running across a football field, the smell of leaves, the sound of a car—became charged with romance in Kerouac's imagination. Kerouac didn't have to have much money, and he didn't have to be famous. But he was part of the ongoing exploration of the American frontier, looking for new land, trying to escape the dust bowls of existence. He had a deep connection to the American romantic vision. Kerouac was a giant to the end, a sad giant. But then giants are usually sad.

How much of Neal Cassady went into the making of Randle P. McMurphy?

He's part of the myth. The Irish names—Kesey, Cassady, McMurphy—were all together in my mind as well as a sense of Irish blarney. That's part of the romantic naïveté of McMurphy. But McMurphy was born a long time before I met Neal Cassady. The character of McMurphy comes from Sunday matinees, from American westerns. He's Shane that rides into town, shoots the bad guys, and gets killed in the course of the movie. McMurphy is a particular American cowboy hero, almost two-dimensional. He gains dimension from being viewed through the lens of Chief Bromden's Indian consciousness.

You were working at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Menlo Park participating in experiments with psychedelic drugs. How much did those drugs affect you or help you to write Cuckoo's Nest?

I was taking mescaline and LSD. It gave me a different perspective on the people in the mental hospital, a sense that maybe they were not so crazy or as bad as the sterile environment they were living in. But psychedelics are only keys to worlds that are already there. The images are not there in the white crystals in the gelatin capsule. Drugs don't create characters or stories any more than pencils do. They are merely instruments that help get them on the page.

Do you use LSD or other drugs when you sit down to write?

It's impossible for me to write on LSD—there are more important things to think about. Hunter Thompson can do it, but I can't. It's like diving down to look at coral reefs. You can't write about what you've seen until you're back up in the boat. Almost every writer I know drinks to ease the burden of being out on the cliffs, so to speak. But writing under the influence of drugs is a little like a plumber trying to fix the pipes without being able to work the wrench.

I did write the first several pages of Cuckoo's Nest on peyote, and I changed very little of it. It had little effect on the plot, but the mood and particularly the voice in those first few pages remained throughout the book. There were also some sections of Sometimes a Great Notion written when I was taking mushrooms. Again, the effect is more on mood and voice than on vision. But for the most part, I don't write under the influence of LSD or other drugs.

Do you take notes when you use LSD or other hallucinogens?

Yes, sometimes I use a little tape recorder for notes. There's often a big difference between what you think you wrote under the influence and what you actually recorded. One time a friend of mine and I were taking LSD and thought we had written “The History and Future of the Universe.” What we actually wrote down was something on the order of “If you pick your nose long enough the world will unravel.” But often when I am taking LSD, there is an accessing of a universal pool of images, forms that I often find, for example, in Indian art. By the time I started taking peyote and LSD, I had already done a great deal of reading about mysticism—the Bhagavadgïtä and Zen and Christian mystical texts. They helped me to interpret what I was seeing, to give it meaning. You don't just take the stuff and expect understanding. It's also important not to be in a hellish place with LSD or it can be a hellish experience. You need to be in a secure setting.

Do any of the visions you have using LSD get translated into your writing?

I'm fond of computer analogies. There are visions written on those programs that are hard to access or convert to the writing programs. I like to take it mostly for the spiritual experience.

Do you recommend LSD as a tool for writing?


To go back to Cuckoo's Nest, it seems that Chief Bromden's perspective is crucial. What was the origin of his character?

Some have described Bromden as schizophrenic. But his is a philosophical craziness, not a clinical illness. I knew Indians who would eat mushrooms and sit and stare at the beach until the beach started back at them. They're not unlike Baudelaire twisting himself so that he could look at flowers in a different way. They're still flowers, and he knows they're flowers but he also sees them as eyes, looking back at him. That's what Chief's craziness is all about. The idea is to regain control of reality so it's no longer presented by public relations people or funneled through a Coca-Cola bottle. The reaction against control is often violent and destructive and lashes out in all directions, even against things that are beneficial. If a man doesn't have a little madness, he never breaks the control-lock that gets placed on reality. It's facing the vast ocean alone, without the safety of land or boat.

My father used to take me to the Pendleton roundup in northern Oregon. He would leave me there for a couple of days. I spent time hanging around the Indians living in the area. I used to take the bus back down through the Columbia River Gorge where they were putting in the Dalles Dam to provide electricity to that part of Oregon so the fields could be irrigated. But it was also going to flood the Celilo Falls, an ancient Indian fishing ground along the Columbia. The government was using scaffolding to build the dam. When I first came to Oregon, I'd see Indians out on the scaffolds with long tridents stabbing salmon trying to get up the falls. The government had bought out their village, moved them across the road where they built new shacks for them. One time, as we got closer to this dam project, we were pulled over by the cops. We were in a big line of traffic. The bus driver got out and walked up to see what was happening. He came back and told us, “One of them crazy drunk Indians took a knife between his teeth and ran out into the highway and into the grill of an oncoming diesel truck, which was bringing conduit and piping to the dam project.” I thought, “Boy that's far out.” Finally, he couldn't take it anymore. He just had to grab his knife, go out into a freeway and run into a truck. It was really the beginning of Cuckoo's Nest—the notion of what you have to pay for a lifestyle. It started an appreciation in me for the Indian sense of justice and drama. I mean, it's dumb and nasty, but that's class, and the fact that he had the knife between his teeth, that's style. So this Indian consciousness has been very important in all of the stuff that I write. It's not just in Cuckoo's Nest. The character Indian Jenny in Sometimes a Great Notion is very close to the character of Alice in Sailor Song. It is the dispossessed Indian spirit that's trying to reconnect with the white male spirit.

In describing the Native American who hurled himself at the truck, you said he had both class and style. How do you distinguish between class and style?

A woman who was a circus acrobat did one act for thirty years. She climbed atop of a 180-foot aluminum pole and stood on her head as her brother balanced her. One day she fell and died, and I remember reading about it in the paper. She fell, the pole fell, because it got too far over, and her brother couldn't keep up with it; he probably stepped on a peanut. She began to fall but she held her pose the whole way down and didn't scream. And of course she must have thought about it thousands of times, “What am I gonna do if it ever gets to the point where I know I can't stop it, it's going to go all the way over and I'm going to die. Can I hold my pose and not scream?” She did, and that's class. Paul Krassner, who was there, told me, “Yeah, but the fact that when she hit, she did the splits, that's style.” So class is more important than style but they're connected.

What authors and works do you consider strong embodiments of class and style?

Hemingway, because he built his work very rigidly and structured it with a lot of muscle. But Faulkner is so much better. In “The Bear,” the prose just tumbles out like water out of a spring, especially in that primeval moment when we see a man posed on the back of the bear with the knife, hugging and hanging on. There is class in the character and class in the style. This takes training and discipline beyond anything Hemingway could imagine. This is Faulkner being true to a very deep source and letting it run, letting it go, not perverting it. Hemingway's prose holds up a mirror. He walks around in front of it and works on style. Faulkner's prose doesn't have time for a mirror. It's tumbling and tumbling, and this takes trusting and courage.

Eudora Welty has tremendous class, not just in her work, but in the way she walks, the look in her eyes, the way she has conducted her life. Kerouac had lots of class—stumbling drunk in the end, but read those last books. He never blames anybody else, he always blames himself. If there is a bad guy, it's poor old drunk Jack, stumbling around. You never hear him railing at the government or railing at this or that. He likes trains, people, bums, cars. He just paints a wonderful picture of Norman Rockwell's world. Of course it's Norman Rockwell on a lot of dope.

Jack London had class. He wasn't a very good writer, but he had tremendous class. And nobody had more class than Melville. To do what he did in Moby-Dick, to tell a story and to risk putting so much material into it. If you could weigh a book, I don't know any book that would be more full. It's more full than War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. It has Saint Elmo's fire, and great whales, and grand arguments between heroes, and secret passions. It risks wandering far, far out into the globe. Melville took on the whole world, saw it all in a vision, and risked everything in prose that sings. You have a sense from the very beginning that Melville had a vision in his mind of what this book was going to look like, and he trusted himself to follow it through all the way.

What do you see as evil in the world and how do you depict it?

In my novels and stories, evil is always the thing that seems to control. In Cuckoo's Nest, it's the combine. In Sometimes a Great Notion, it's the symbol of the river, eating away, leveling, trying to make that town the same. In Demon Box, the villain is entropy. That natural running-down of energy is the fear that the refrigerator is going to be empty, that we're not going to have enough of something; that fear makes you vulnerable to every kind of scam artist trying to sell a solution. But the real villain is not entropy. It's the notion that entropy is the only choice. And there are a lot of other choices that we can find in religion, philosophy or art.

In Cuckoo's Nest, Big Nurse is often regarded as the embodiment of evil. Do you think that is an accurate representation of her?

Recently, I was over in Newport, at the opening of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, which has been seven years in the making. I was performing The Sea Lion in the Newport Performing Arts Center. Afterwards a white-haired old woman approached me and said, “Hey, you remember me?” I looked her over, and I knew I remembered her, but had no idea who she was. She said, “Lois.” It still didn't click. She said, “Lois Learned, Big Nurse,” and I thought, “Oh my God.” She was a volunteer at Newport, long since retired from the nursing business. This was the nurse on the ward I worked on at the Menlo Park hospital. I didn't know what to think, and she didn't either, but I was glad she came up to me. I felt there was a lesson in it, the same one I had tried to teach Hollywood. She's not the villain. She might be the minion of the villain, but she's really just a big old tough ex-Army nurse who is trying to do the best she can, according to the rules that she has been given. She worked for the villain and believed in the villain, but she ain't the villain.

Do you believe that individuals have to be held accountable for evil, even if they are not the ultimate source?

I may, as they say in jail, hang the jacket on them, but I'm not the judge. I can expose something, but as you get older and hopefully wiser, you find that blame and punishment beget only more blame and punishment. I'm probably, from another person's point of view, the Big Nurse in somebody else's story. The thing that changes as you get older is your belief that certain people are bad forever or good forever. We're not. It wouldn't make any sense to write if we were. With blame, you either resist it or you pick up rocks and throw them at who's to blame. Wendell Berry talks about that when he says we all have the capacity to do evil but we have to learn to forebear it. What keeps us from being monsters are Emerson and Thoreau and the Beatles and Bob Dylan—great artists who teach us to love and hold off on the hurt. The hurt is inside of us, and of course we can always randomly hurt something, but a great artist will teach you to love a thing and not want to possess it or alter it—just to love it. You finally have to love Big Nurse. It's the symbol behind her, the combine, that makes her do what she does. You've got to fight that, but finally you have to love them all—the poor, broken human beings, even the worst of them.

Your novels have been popular in eastern Europe and translated in the former communist-block countries. How do you account for that?

They were allowed in all the communist-block countries because the authorities considered them anti-American. Totalitarians never see themselves as being totalitarians; they always see that in the other guys. And Cuckoo's Nest is, to some extent, anti-American. It's about American terror. Big Nurse works for an American bad-guy, the combine, the inhuman part of American industrialism.

Why did you break off from writing the screenplay for Cuckoo's Nest?

I was contracted to do the screenplay, but they wanted me to do it a certain way, leaving out the narrative thread of Chief's perspective and making Big Nurse the center of evil. And there were other disputes.

What do you think of the movie?

I've never seen it. We were arguing with lawyers, and the issue was whether I had been paid adequately. I was fussing with them. They said, “Why are you coming on like that, you'll be the first in line to see that movie.” I said, “I swear to God I'll never see that movie.” I did it in front of the lawyers, and I'd hate to go to heaven and have these two lawyers calling me on it. I mean, to lie to a lawyer, that's low.

Do you see the inhuman evil present in nature?

No, evil is part of the human consciousness. A baboon may get a harem and rape and hurt, then some other baboon will tear that baboon up eventually. It's part of baboonery, and it's gonna be there. The evil force isn't interested in baboons or daisies. The evil force wants to hang human souls on its walls for some reason, and I don't think of it as satanic. It's lukewarm. As Christ says, hot and cold are cool, but evil is lukewarm, and it's a drag.

When I see bad-looking bikers with black leather studs on their wrists hanging out at the Oregon Country Fair, I take it as a sign of health. No, I don't want them hanging around, but trying to eliminate them all, arrest them all, legislate against them all—that's evil. I have asked feminists, “If you could, would you eliminate all male chauvinist pigs? If you could come up with some kind of spray to spray in the air and do away with them, would you? Would you do away with all scorpions and rattlesnakes, mosquitoes?” Mosquitoes are part of the ecosystem. So are male chauvinist pigs. You've got to fight them, but you don't try to exterminate them. A purifying group or system that would eliminate them all—that would be an evil force. Anytime you have a force that comes along and says, “We will eradicate these people,” you have evil. Looking back in history, what has seemed the worst turns out not to be the worst. Imagine how the Catholics must have talked about Galileo, how he must have seemed a great evil to them. But as time went on, it turned out that he was not only a good human being but good for the Catholic church.

Your heroes are often little warriors against big enemies. If the writer is a “warrior,” who is his enemy?

When I begin to try to follow the money, as they say in All the President's Men, up the evil ladder, past the businessmen, past the Mafia, past the leaders in the state, I ask, “Who is doing the stuff, who is pulling the cords?” It looks an awful lot like God. It's the big fascist in the sky. But all of this religion, government and civilization bending towards God is dangerous. There's nothing worse for a forest than to have all the trees be the same. So you think, well maybe this isn't God. Maybe this is the famous Antichrist who's been the bad guy all along. The good guys, the real God, are hippies in tie-dyes out at the Oregon Country Fair, who are providing a sprinkle of mischief and chaos to keep things from becoming mud all over. As Burroughs says, the job of the writer is that of an exterminator. You're trying to battle the evil bugs that have crawled into our works and get in the way of exploring the hollow. Zora Neale Hurston and Louise Erdrich are good examples of warriors. So is Tom Robbins. People laugh and point at him, but that's just because he's on the west coast, and he won't dress up in the right clothes. His prose is like that motley that the fool wears, and it's easy to be impatient with him, but he's a warrior the same way that old Hunter Thompson is a warrior.

Are there other contemporary evils for which you believe the writer has to account?

In Kurt Vonnegut's book Cat's Cradle the worst thing that ever happens to a marine is mud, and there is a thing called ice-nine that you can add to mud to solidify it. But then all the mud around the world starts to go solid. We have to try to fight anything that is going to create solid mud worldwide.

Sometimes a Great Notion begins and ends with the image of Henry Stamper's amputated arm with its middle finger extended. Did you structure the book around this image?

The image of the amputated arm came to me before I knew whose arm it was. Writing the book was the way to figure out who belonged to the arm and why. In writing the book I figured out what the symbol meant. First, I thought that Stamper was the hero, fighting the union's attempt to control the family. But in retrospect, the river is the controlling force the family is battling. The Stamper brothers, Hank and Lee, are matching wills and egos over Vivian. When Vivian leaves at the end, she leaves the people she loves for a dark future, but one in which she isn't controlled. Mother Nature throws off the forces that try to control her. Old feminism, women's lib, had something to do with that, but I didn't know it at the time.

Sometimes a Great Notion is much more ambitious than Cuckoo's Nest. Do you think it is as successful?

It's my best work, and I'll never write anything that good again. It's a question of time spent on it. I worked on Notion for two years without interruption, exploring symbols and characters and letting the narrative take its own way.

Did you have a model for the narrative experimentation in Sometimes a Great Notion?

Orson Welles's film The Magnificent Ambersons influenced Sometimes a Great Notion quite a lot in its ability to move narrative along by going from situation to situation with just a few lines of dialogue by one of the characters. Someone would say the next thing we needed to know, and there would be a cut to that shot. The first part of The Magnificent Ambersons covers quite a long period in a very short time, and you get to see the characters in a structured, stylized way—they step out on stage and deliver lines that help with the exposition. That influenced me in terms of structure.

After Sometimes a Great Notion, you set out on the bus, Furthur. What did you want to explore?

What I explore in all my work: wilderness. I like that saying of Thoreau's that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Settlers on this continent from the beginning have been seeking that wilderness and its wildness. The explorers and pioneers were out on the edge, seeking that wildness because they could sense that in Europe everything had become locked tight with things. The things were owned by all the same people, and all of the roads went in the same direction forever. When we got here there was a sense of possibility and new direction, and it had to do with wildness. Throughout the work of James Fenimore Cooper there is what I call the American terror. It's very important to our literature, and it's important to who we are: the terror of the Hurons out there, the terror of the bear, the avalanche, the tornado—whatever may be over the next horizon. It could be the biggest, most awful thing in the world. As we came to the end of the continent, we manufactured our terror. We put together the bomb. Now even that bomb is betraying us. We don't have the bomb hanging over our heads to terrify us and give us reason to dress up in manly deerskin and go forth to battle it. There's something we're afraid of, but it doesn't have the clear delineation of the terror the Hurons gave us or the hydrogen bomb in the cold war. It's fuzzy, and it's fuzzy because the people who are in control don't want you to draw a bead on the real danger, the real terror in this country.

What is the “real terror” in America?

When people ask me about LSD, I always make a point of telling them you can have the shit scared out of you with LSD because it exposes something, something hollow. Let's say you have been getting on your knees and bowing and worshipping; suddenly, you take LSD, and you look, and there's just a hole, there's nothing there. The Catholic church fills this hole with candles and flowers and litanies and opulence. The Protestant church fills it with hand-wringing and pumped-up squeezing emotions because they can't afford the flowers and the candles. The Jews fill this hole with weeping and browbeating and beseeching of the sky: “How long, how long are you gonna treat us like this?” The Muslims fill it with rigidity and guns and a militant ethos. But all of us know that's not what is supposed to be in that hole. After I had been at Stanford two years, I was into LSD. I began to see that the books I thought were the true accounting books—my grades, how I'd done in other schools, how I'd performed at jobs, whether I had paid off my car or not—were not at all the true books. There were other books that were being kept, real books. In those real books is the real accounting of your life. And the mind says, “Oh, this is titillating.” So you want to take some more LSD and see what else is there. And soon I had the experience that everyone who's ever dabbled in psychedelics has. A big hand grabs you by the back of the neck, and you hear a voice saying, “So you want to see the books. Okay, here are the books.” And it pushes your face right down into all of your cruelties and all of your meanness, all the times that you have been insensitive, intolerant, racist, sexist. It's all there, and you read it. That's what you're really stuck with. You can't take your nose up off the books. You hate them. You hate who you are. You hate the fact that somebody has been keeping track, just as you feared. You hate it, but you can't move your arms for eight hours. Before you take any acid again you start trying to juggle the books. You start trying to be a little better person. Then you get the surprise. The next thing that happens is that you're leaning over looking at the books, and you feel the lack of the hand at the back of your neck. The thing that was forcing you to look at the books is no longer there. There's only a big hollow, the great American wild hollow, that is scarier than hell, scarier than purgatory or Satan. It's the fact that there isn't any hell or there isn't any purgatory, there isn't any Satan, and all you've got is Sartre sitting there with his momma—harsh, bleak, worse than guilt. And if you've got courage, you go ahead and examine that hollow. That's the wilderness that I've always wanted to explore, and it's connected to the idea of freedom, but it's a terrifying freedom. I'm working on a book called The Seven Prayers of Grandma Whittier. The idea is to take someone who is a very strong, very devout Christian and put her into a situation in which she loses her faith and show how she wrestles and comes back from this hollow. And so my grandma, who's a hundred years old this year, and I are in some way linked in an excursion into her dark hole of Alzheimer's. You know she must be something even though she can't remember the Lord's Prayer or read the Bible anymore. She's alive, but that's it. You can go into that hollow and still come out of it and have a positive life.

And that hollow is, for you, the new wilderness?

That's the new wilderness. It's the same old wilderness, just no longer up on that hill or around that bend, or in the gully. It's the fact that there is no more hill or gully, that the hollow is there and you've got to explore the hollow with faith. If you don't have faith that there is something down there, pretty soon when you're in the hollow, you begin to get scared and start shaking. That's when you stop taking acid and start taking coke and drinking booze and start trying to fill the hollow with depressants and Valium. Real warriors like William Burroughs or Leonard Cohen or Wallace Stevens examine the hollow as well as anybody; they get in there, look far into the dark and yet come out with poetry.

Have you ever felt that you were going too far into void, getting too twisted to come out?

Many times I feel I have been way out, but I always come back. I have my family, my wife, Faye, the farm, chickens and cows. The earthly world calls out to you in clear voices that you must come back. Those earthly voices are far better than anything I've heard crying in the night.

After Sometimes a Great Notion, you seem to have grown dissatisfied with the novel as a medium. Do you prefer public performance?

Yes. The first rule—whether you are a writer or a dancer or a fiddle player or a painter is—don't bore people. My dad used to say that good writing ain't necessarily good reading. A lot of people think good writing is like the compulsories in figure skating; it goes round in circles and doesn't go anywhere. If I'm going to skate, I'm going to race.

At one point, I was trying to write an illuminated novel with pictures and different kinds of print, experimenting with visual form as well as prose form. It's not right yet. But I haven't felt like I have taken a vacation from my work. I feel that I am continuing to probe into that big hollow, but the traditional form of the novel won't do. My metaphor has been that I've been dating Emily Brontë, and the old dame just ain't putting out like she used to. The novel is a noble, classic form but it doesn't have the juice it used to. If Shakespeare were alive today he'd be writing soap opera, daytime TV or experimenting with video. That's where the audience is. The audience is there even if there's a lot of mediocrity in the writing. I have just completed a play, Twister. Writing drama for a live audience is exciting, almost addictive.

What do you think of when you think of an audience?

I was in a quandary about my audience when I was working on Notion until I realized that I'm not writing for the east coast literary establishment. I am writing for Mountain Girl and Jerry Garcia's oldest girl, Annabelle—she's a great Stephen King fan. She just reads and reads. She likes something that's got a little zip to it. At one point, I realized that's whom I'm writing for. If Annabelle Garcia reads this book, gets excited and grins about it, then I have hit my audience, and all the rest just ricochets.

Some of your most recent works have been children's stories, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, as well as The Sea Lion, which also appears as part of your recent novel, Sailor Song. What are the attractions and challenges of writing for children?

When you go into the arena before a group of kids you don't care what Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said about you in previous reviews in The New York Times. Your strokes are broader, because all the little fine brush lines are lost on a kid. But the message beneath them has to be clearer. In a kid's story like Pinocchio the message is clearly communicated—if you lie your nose gets bigger. In a novel you have to conceal it, or you're accused of being too obvious. When you're writing for kids all you have to have is a good story; it will be accepted. Also, you can tell whether it works when you read it to a kid. It's hard for a writer to tell when a novel works.

When you were five your maternal grandmother, Grandma Smith, told you the original story of Little Tricker.

What I remember most about the way she told the story are the repetitions, the series of threes in the events, the alliteration in the language. She taught me the speech rhythms that are essential to being a good storyteller. There is a drumbeat, in which you have to get your idea across in a breath. She also taught me a great deal about irony. When you think of irony you've got to think of an outside force looking in. Irony doesn't exist without a god of some kind. Irony is not a trait many kids learn. It's not just God sitting up there laughing at you; there's the whole universe sort of grinning wryly at you. The main point she taught me is how essential wonder is to a storyteller. The storyteller himself has to feel wonder in order to communicate it. Somehow I don't think that sense of mystery can be taught to you by your parents. It has to be taught by your grandparents or perhaps your aunts and uncles.

Did Grandma Smith inspire you to become a writer?

It was all part of doing magic shows when I was a kid. For one thing, you have to talk, explain things as you go along. I would go to farm producers' meetings with my dad and perform tricks for farmers and their kids. I always found a mean little redheaded kid in the audience. I would get him up on the stage and announce that I was going to tell a story about the pasteurization of milk. Chuck, my brother, helped me with an ice pick and a funnel. I pretended to bore a hole in the top of this kid's head with the ice pick, explaining that you had to use redheads because they are a whole lot more hotheaded than most people, and I poured the milk on top of his head, letting it run past his eyes, and explaining how when it comes down out your elbow, it's pure. Then I'd pump the milk out the elbow. A story went with each magic act, and the stories enhanced the act. This is what a shaman does; he has a little story, and a few tricks along with it, a dance, some drumbeats, a painted set and some beads strung together. Writing is just one of those parts. It has been elevated to the point that people think it is the “thing.” It isn't. Shakespeare doesn't come alive until it's on stage. It's about performance.

Sailor Song is your first novel in twenty-eight years. Do you consider it a comeback?

Michael Douglas said to me when we were talking about doing a stage version of Cuckoo's Nest, “Oh yeah, this would be a great comeback.” I said, “Good God, I didn't know I'd gone anywhere.” I feel what I did with the bus, what I'm doing with my new play Twister, the political activity around here, reading these stories in children's hospitals, is all part of the same work. You put on a different costume. But you're always a shaman. The fire pit changes its shape. The fire gets more civilized when you're doing a reading back at the St. Mark's Church In-The-Bowery, but you're still a shaman. I haven't slacked off at all. But it has been really important and tremendously gratifying for me to finish a big book because no matter what you say, every writer knows that the novel is the bear and, as Faulkner says, every so often the dog has to go against the bear just to keep calling itself the dog. I set out to do this book in the early 1980s but got dragged away, mainly when my son Jed was killed. That really took the wind out of my sails. During that time I did a lot of other things that were just ways of avoiding this book. I brought out Demon Box, a compilation of stories about the farm and the bus in what I think of as the comedown years—my gonzo time. But Viking wanted me to use my name and everybody's real names. Demon Box is fiction, although not many people would appreciate the fact that some of the stories happened and some of them didn't. The Furthur Inquiry, a screenplay about the bus, turned up in a box back at Viking. Caverns, a collaborative novel from a writing class I taught at the University of Oregon, was brought out. So these books came out as I was trying to avoid getting back to Sailor Song.

What was the genesis of Sailor Song? You published The Sea Lion, the children's story which appears in Sailor Song, before the novel. Did one precede the other or did they evolve together?

When I began Sailor Song I didn't have the story thought out, just the vision of what happens when a movie company comes to a little Alaskan town and takes it over. I needed a story within the story; I wanted it to be an ancient-seeming story, around which the larger tale could be folded. Then, as Larry McMurtry says, it was the job of the fiction writer to make stuff up, so I made up The Sea Lion. Although the two stories pretty much evolved together, the ideas behind The Sea Lion began when my brother and I went up to see an Indian storyteller in Washington up on the slopes of Mount Saint Helens. A family called Laluska makes masks up there. Those Northwest Indian images are tremendously powerful and as yet pretty much unused. They haven't been bled dry like many of the images from the Plains Indians and from the Ojibwa art back on the east coast. I saw that there was a terrific power to these faces and masks, especially the eyes. You could see that it came from the way wood knotholes are worked by surf, giving them the look of leather. They have taken it and styled it beautifully so that you can see that surf-worn quality more clearly. This was in some way connected to the story. You can't really separate the mask and the look from the story and the performance. Just hanging a mask on the wall makes it a piece of art in the museum, but if you put it on and use it as part of a story, then the story comes alive; the mask comes alive. The look of these masks was the way I wanted my work to look in the reader's mind. Fiction is when you twist what's out in front of you and stylize it so it's more clearly seen by the reader—just the same way that the Indian carvers can create an eye that looks more like an eye than an eye—a fictional eye that enables you to see better than the true eye did. That's what good fiction is always about. Reading Moby-Dick, you see a whale more clearly than you could see him by going over to the coast and watching through a pair of binoculars. It's the stylization of the whales that lets you see inside and outside of them, their mythical as well as their mundane qualities.

In the title essay of Demon Box, you express remorse about the intrusion of the filmmaker and the artist's eye into both private suffering and uncorrupted wilderness. The effect of Hollywood on an Alaskan town is the dramatic center of Sailor Song. Have you come to view the film industry as an evil?

Well, writers have always had a real love-hate relationship with Hollywood. Even if your book sells really well, you don't make that much money out of it unless Hollywood picks it up. So you want Hollywood's attention, yet you don't want it. There's a saying, often attributed to Hemingway, that sums up my feeling about having your novel turned into a film: “I don't like to see my bull turned into a bullion cube.” In Sailor Song, I'm not really trying to put Hollywood down. It's just another force moving on this earth. It has its benefits and it's a nuisance. We know movies better than novels. Most writers have seen more movies than they've read books. It is the common denominator, two hours of story. Sometimes you'll get something that will go well into a miniseries like Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. The miniseries is not a bad form because the story can be developed in a leisurely way.

Has the vanishing of the frontier and wilderness changed what it means to create an American hero?

In western novels, especially Zane Grey novels, there is a code of the West that the hero and most of the characters in the novels adhere to. It has to do with fairness, courage, but in a lot of ways I think it mostly has to do with forgiveness. A guy in a Zane Grey novel can be a real bad outlaw, running with the bad bunch, but he comes up against a woman who changes his heart and his ways, and the good guys who have been after him accept him back into the fold. The code of the West is that you may have done a lot of bad stuff in the past but you can always turn over a new leaf at any point and change. The problem now is that the good guys aren't the good guys anymore. You don't want to turn over a new leaf and become part of society because you've seen society's dirty underwear, and it isn't much better than the bad guys' dirty underwear. Then you drop out of the hero business.

In Sailor Song there is a conflict about how to read the Indian story, “The Sea Lion.” One character sees it as meaningless for American audiences looking for symbols and plots. Do you believe stories should have a discernible meaning?

I'm for mystery, not interpretive answers. When I was working on Caverns, I found out that one of the problems was that students kept looking for the answers to symbolic riddles and believed that modern fiction is supposed to supply you with the answer. The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking. I've never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

How did the class show its desire to provide an answer?

One student tried to tie Caverns up in a Buddhistic bag. There were thirteen of us contributing to the book. Without telling any of us, he introduced into the last chapter four pages of material that was pure Diamond Sutra; it came from the Rajneesh. He was a disciple all along, and he had been keeping this in his mind. His answer was the same kind of dogma that people spout when they think the answer is Christ or environmental awareness. Anytime they do that they're already joining with the forces of ice-nine-hard mud.

What was your response to the student writer?

After his reading, the class was just ready to string him up. He had violated one of the most important taboos in writing fiction. “What are you gonna to do to him?,” someone asked. I said, “We're not going to do anything. We're not gonna talk about it. We won't speak of it. We will not ever speak again of this to him at all.” He came in the door and he said, “What do you think of my new piece?” So we didn't speak of it. The last week of class went on, and he began to get a strange look in his eyes. We had sent him to some kind of literary Coventry. It had to be taken care of because what I had told the class in the beginning of year was that I was going to try to teach them the job of the serious writer in modern America as best I could. It was my last day of class, and I was trying to give some kind of closing lecture to tie this up in a little package they could take home with them. I told them they had all read and studied, that they could all write. They knew fiction far better than I did. If there had been a test, they'd have just walked all over me because they knew the history of literature and the history of style better than I did. But I told them, “So you guys can write, and well enough that one of these days you're going to have a visitation. You're going to be walking down the street and across the street you're going to look and see God standing over there on the street corner motioning to you, saying, ‘Come to me, come to me.’ And you will know it's God, there will be no doubt in your mind—he has slitty little eyes like Buddha, and he's got a long nice beard and blood on his hands. He's got a big Charlton Heston jaw like Moses, he's stacked like Venus, and he has a great jeweled scimitar like Mohammed. And God will tell you to come to him and sing his praises. And he will promise that if you do, all of the muses that ever visited Shakespeare will fly in your ear and out of your mouth like golden pennies. It's the job of the writer in America to say, ‘Fuck you God, fuck you and the Old Testament that you rode in on, fuck you.’ The job of the writer is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful. Anytime anybody says come to me and says, ‘Write my advertisement, be my ad manager,’ tell him, ‘Fuck you.’” The job is always to be exposing God as the crook, as the sleaze ball. Nelson Algren says the job of the writer in America is to pull the judge down into the docket, get the person who is high down where he's low, make him feel what it's like where it's low.

Do you believe that an author imposes his own cultural vision on his readers in this way?

I think that the artist should feel obligated to force whatever he can upon his audience and be the authority because if he doesn't, some advertising man will. Ronald McDonald will be out there telling people what to think. The cynic who says, “Oh, none of this counts anymore,” is wrong. I can remember when I thought that too. But the older you get, the more you see people in the past who have thoughts that last. Things you think you're saying for the first time ever, have been said better before by Shakespeare, though they may need saying again. As Faulkner says, there are the old verities. Revenge is about the same as it always was.

Stephen L. Tanner (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Tanner, Stephen L. “Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest and the Varieties of American Humor.” Thalia 13, nos. 1-2 (1993): 3-10.

[In the following essay, Tanner correlates the humor of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest to certain distinctive patterns in the tradition of American humor, focusing on parallels between nineteenth-century frontier humor and the urban technological society of mid-twentieth-century America.]

Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) has enjoyed remarkable success. It is a widely acclaimed and popular-selling novel; a dramatic version starring Kirk Douglas appeared on Broadway and has been revived on college campuses; and a 1975 film version starring Jack Nicholson was a box-office success and received six Academy Awards. It has frequently been used as a text in a variety of disciplines: literature, psychology, sociology, history, medicine, and law. It is of special interest to students of humor not only because of its comedy but also because its principal theme is the therapeutic nature of laughter. When the brassy Randle Patrick McMurphy breezes into the mental hospital, the first thing he notices is the absence of laughter: “I haven't heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing.1 Prompted by this absence of laughter and the plight of its victims, McMurphy becomes an unlikely savior disseminating a gospel of laughter. In a climactic scene on a fishing boat off the Oregon coast, the narrator, himself one of the mental patients, describes the liberating effects of laughter from a sort of cosmic perspective.

It started slow and pumped itself full, swelling the men bigger and bigger. I watched, part of them, laughing with them—and somehow not with them. I was off the boat, blown up off the water and skating the wind with those black birds, high above myself, and I could look down and see myself and the rest of the guys, see the boat rocking there in the middle of those diving birds, see McMurphy surrounded by his dozen people, and watch them, us, swinging a laughter that rang out on the water in ever-widening circles, farther and farther, until it crashed up on beaches all over the coast, on beaches all over all coasts, in wave after wave after wave.


The cosmic dimension of this scene—the novel's epiphany—epitomizes Kesey's playfully-conveyed theme of salvation through laughter.

In addition to asserting the therapeutic possibilities of laughter and harrowingly demonstrating the indispensability of humor for combating the negative aspects of an increasingly urban and technologized society, the novel reasserts the vitality of certain distinctive patterns in American humor, particularly those of nineteenth-century frontier humor. It is not only a demonstration of these varieties of American humor but also a celebration of them. The novel brings patterns of frontier humor to bear on the urban, technological society of mid-twentieth-century America. These patterns provide within the novel a release from a constricting society similar to the release provided by the frontier itself during the nineteenth century. The humor of Cuckoo's Nest is both an example of and a tribute to a distinctive and persistent rural, vernacular, demotic tradition in American humor. Part of the book's popularity results from our enduring affection for the unsophisticated, unpretentious, but self-reliant folk humor which evolved along America's shifting western boundaries.

Some confusion about Kesey as a humorist resulted from his role as a counterculture hero and drug guru during California's psychedelic revolution in the early sixties. He was labeled a “black humorist,” a term which enjoyed considerable currency in the sixties but has faded from the critical lexicon because it was difficult to define, indiscriminately applied, and eventually mistaken for a racial term. In the late sixties, trying to make sense of black humor as a concept, Hamlin Hill identified its tone as “belligerent, pugnacious, nihilistic.” As humor moves into the black zone, he observed, it heads for the irrational and valueless, not seeking the sympathetic alliance of the audience but deliberately insulting and alienating it. He quoted Lennie Bruce as defining the creed: “Everything is rotten—mother is rotten, God is rotten, the flag is rotten.”2

Five years earlier, the year after Cuckoo's Nest appeared, Hill had characterized modern American humor as Janus-faced. One face looks upon the native strain rooted in the preceding century, which affirms the values of “common sense, self-reliance, and a kind of predictability in the world.” The protagonist of this variety of humor “faces an external reality with gusto and exuberance,” said Hill. “Even when he launches forth into his version of fantasy, the tall tale, he is based solidly upon the exaggeration of actual reality, not upon nightmare, hysteria, or delusion.”3 Hill labeled the other strain the dementia praecox school. The anti-hero of this humor is neurotically concerned with an inner space of nightmare and delusion where unreliability and irrationality abound. Clearly Hill had in mind the trend in modern urban humor to dramatize a sense of inadequacy, impotence, and defeat before the complexities and destructive potential of our century. Its protagonists are repressed, squeamish, and hypersensitive. Their individuality and self-confidence have been compromised by life in a depersonalizing mass society. Thus, in Hill's view, modern American humor “releases itself in both the hearty guffaw and the neurotic giggle; it reacts to both the bang and the whimper.”4

Hill's essays are helpful in clarifying Kesey's relation to the varieties of American humor. Although the principal subject matter of Cuckoo's Nest is dementia praecox and its narrator begins his story in a nightmarish state of neurotic fantasy and delusion, the novel is clearly founded upon the values of self-reliance and common-sense harmony with nature. Its victory is that of sanity over insanity, strength over neurotic victimization, and nature over misguided technology. McMurphy's initial exchanges with Harding are confrontations between “the hearty guffaw and the neurotic giggle.” McMurphy is the bang, Harding the whimper. Ultimately, of course, McMurphy's brash, earthy, noncerebral humor vanquishes Harding's cynical, intellectual, and timid attempts at wit.

Similarly, although Kesey used techniques associated with so-called black comedy, particularly during the period following Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion when he turned from writing to escapades with the Merry Pranksters, he never espoused the attitudes underlying that kind of humor. He gained notoriety within the California counterculture, but his roots were in rural Oregon and a family heritage of frontier values and vernacular stories. He has never strayed far from those roots. His fellow drug guru, Timothy Leary, who had no particular affinity for such roots, acknowledged this a few years ago when he said of Kesey: “I have always seen him as very Protestant and quite moralistic, and quite American in a puritanical way. And basically untrustworthy, since he is always going to end up with a Bible in his hand, sooner or later.”5 Mark Twain once said, “Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever. By forever, I mean thirty years.”6Cuckoo's Nest has met that thirty-year criterion, and its humor is largely Twain's variety in source, method, and purpose. It is the kind of humor that E. B. White described as playing, “like an active child, close to the big fire which is Truth. And sometimes the reader feels the heat.”7 In the last sentence of the novel's first chapter, a natural place of emphasis, the narrator makes this claim for his story: “But it is the truth even if it didn't happen” (13). This functions as a sort of thesis sentence for what follows and indicates how fundamentally different Kesey's aims were from those of black humor. Kesey drew upon a native tradition of humor that uses craziness and good-natured lying in the cause of sanity and truth.

Recognizing the pitfalls of delineating sources and influences in humor, I want to demonstrate the links between Cuckoo's Nest and what, for convenience, I call frontier humor. By this term I mean the indigenous, largely vernacular traditions of humor whose development during the nineteenth century has been described by scholars such as Rourke, De Voto, Blair, Hill, Inge, Cox, and Lynn. The critical literature generated by the novel has identified some of the similarities between Cuckoo's Nest and frontier humor, but more extensive and specific parallels can be found than has hitherto been the case.

To begin with, McMurphy is a Westerner, a product and anachronistic afterimage of the frontier. He has lived all around Oregon and in Texas and Oklahoma (186). In the frontier spirit of freedom and movement he has wandered restlessly, “logging, gambling, running carnival wheels, traveling light-footed and fast, keeping on the move …” (84). His hand is like “a road map of his travels up and down the West” (27). Kesey himself came from a family of “restless and stubborn west-walkers” (a phrase from Sometimes a Great Notion). They were not pioneers or visionaries but just a simple clan looking for new opportunities. He once described his father, whom he greatly admired, as “a kind of big, rebellious cowboy who never did fit in. …”8

Kesey draws upon popular culture to link McMurphy with the most familiar hero of the frontier—the cowboy. He smokes Marlboro cigarettes and is described as “the cowboy out of the TV set walking down the middle of the street to meet a dare” (172). He has a “drawling cowboy actor's voice” (232). Before his first meeting with Harding, he says, “this hospital ain't big enough for the two of us. … Tell this Harding that he either meets me man to man or he's a yaller skunk and better be outta town by sunset” (24). He has a “cowboy bluster” and a “TV-cowboy stoicism” (62, 73). He sings cowboy songs in the latrine and has Wild Bill Hickok's “dead-man's hand” tattooed on his shoulder (83, 77). Just before he assaults Big Nurse he hitches up his shorts “like they were horsehide chaps, and pushe[s] his cap with one finger like it was a ten-gallon Stetson” (267). Harding refers to McMurphy with an allusion to the Lone Ranger: “I'd like to stand there at the window with a silver bullet in my hand and ask ‘Who wawz that 'er masked man?’” (258).

In similar ways, McMurphy is identified with other frontier types like the logger and gambler. As part of a filmscript writing course he took at the University of Oregon, Kesey prepared an outline for a TV series to be called “Legends,” a treatment of American folk heroes. He was fascinated by such figures as Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, and Pecos Bill. McMurphy is a product of that tradition, with its bragging, exaggeration, and humorous treatment of violence. When McMurphy fights the captain of the rental boat and then the two cheerfully sit down to drink beer together, we are witnessing a familiar pattern in frontier humor. When McMurphy and Harding square off to brag about which is the crazier (frequency of voting for Eisenhower being the principal measure), we are witnessing a fresh twist to the ring-tailed roarer confrontations of old-Southwest humor.

Kesey told me he didn't see the film version of the novel because he was disgusted with the casting of Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. He referred to Nicholson as a “wimp.” I'm sure he considered him too urban, too lacking in the Western vernacular strengths that inspired his conception of McMurphy. His own pencil drawing of McMurphy suggests rugged physical strength.9 When asked whom he would have cast for the role, he said Gene Hackman would have been a better choice.

Americans have always loved the rustic or apparently simple character who appears naive but is really bright and clever. A current version is the TV detective Columbo. The type appeared early in American humor in the form of country hicks outsmarting city slickers, bumpkins getting the better of greenhorns. It is part of an anti-intellectual current in American humor. Drawing from a rural oral-tale tradition represented in his family particularly by his maternal grandmother, Kesey composed Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear,10 a backwoods animal fable similar to those told by Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus. It is a story of the clever little guy who defeats the wielder of unjust power. Arthur Maddox, a musician with roots in rural Missouri, composed music to accompany the narration, and Kesey has performed it with symphony orchestras across the country. It is a tribute to his grandmother and to the oral-tale tradition she perpetuated. Kesey seems to share Joel Chandler Harris's opinion that the oral “literature of the common people,” “pungent and racy anecdote, smelling of the soil,” embodied “the humor that is characteristic of the American mind—that seems, indeed, to be its most natural and inevitable product. …”11

McMurphy, of course, is a vernacular hero from that tradition, and the bully he combats is not simply Big Nurse, but also the technological “Combine” she represents. Harding explicitly identifies this aspect of McMurphy when he acknowledges his intelligence: “an illiterate clod, perhaps, certainly a backwoods braggart with no more sensitivity than a goose, but basically intelligent nevertheless” (56). Elsewhere, he cautions the patients to avoid being misled by McMurphy's “back-woodsy ways; he's a very sharp operator, level-headed as they come” (224). Kesey himself was a diamond-in-the-rough when he arrived at Stanford from rural Oregon, but his new friends soon discovered a brilliant mind behind the down-home, college-jock exterior.

Other parallels with frontier humor are many. The novel employs homely but vivid similes, such as “shakin' like a dog shittin' peach pits” (122). McMurphy wrenches language in a way reminiscent of characters in Huck Finn and the Southwestern humor which inspired Twain. For instance, when Harding mentions “Freud, Jung, and Maxwell Jones,” McMurphy replies: “I'm not talking about Fred Yoong and Maxwell Jones” (56). McMurphy often communicates in anecdotes. Their frontier-humor flavor is illustrated by the one about a rough practical joke which backfires. A man at a rodeo is tricked into riding a bull blindfolded and backwards, and he wins (139). This bears a family resemblance to Twain's anecdote of the genuine Mexican plug in Roughing It. Similarly in the tradition of Twain, McMurphy nearly outdoes Huck Finn with his creative lying to the service-station attendants in order to protect his friends. He even receives a discount similar to the way Huck received money with his lie to the slave hunters in Huckleberry Finn (200-201). The novel's humor is at times scatological and often earthy and exaggerated, as in the description of Candy reeling in a salmon, “with the crank of the reel fluttering her breast at such a speed the nipples just a red blur” (211). Like a good deal of frontier humor, the novel involves masculine resistance to feminine order and control. “We are victims of a matriarchy here,” complains Harding (59). Even the novel's narrative method, one of its most important aspects, can be linked with frontier humor. It is an original and rather bizarre adaptation of the frame technique often used in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the hallucinating narrator allows for the elements of tall tale and exaggeration so characteristic of the native variety of American humor.

Another important inspiration in the conception of McMurphy are the genially pictured rascals, subversives, and con men so endemic to American humor. Blair and Hill observe that “a procession of comic men and women whose life work combined imaginative lying with cynical cheating has been one of the most persistent groups that our humor has portrayed” (43). As new frontiers opened, imaginative scoundrels, in language that raised homely colloquialisms to high art, perpetrated new scams. Everyone is familiar with Twain's king and duke. Several entire books are devoted to the American con man, tracing the type from the Yankee peddler to The Music Man. Kesey had a special affinity for this brassy, fast-talking sort of personality. Beginning with his theater activities in college and continuing through the Merry Prankster years up to the present, he has availed himself of every opportunity to play this role.

McMurphy's glib pitchman quality is conveyed by auctioneer and particularly carnival imagery. On first impression he reminds the narrator of “a car salesman or a stock auctioneer—or one of those pitchmen you see on a sideshow stage, out in front of his flapping banners …” (17). He is likened to an “auctioneer spinning jokes to loosen up a crowd before the bidding starts” (22). Three other times we are reminded of his “rollicking auctioneer voice” and his “auctioneer bellow” (72, 199, 268). Bromden refers to him as “a seasoned con” and “a carnival artist” (220). Harding calls him “a good old red, white, and blue hundred-per-cent American con man” (223). McMurphy himself explains that “the secret of being a top-notch con man is being able to know what the mark wants, and how to make him think he's getting it. I learned that when I worked a season on a skillo wheel in a carnival” (74). He talks Dr. Spivey into suggesting a carnival in group meeting (97). He draws eyes to himself “like a sideshow barker” (233), and, as his example takes effect on his fellow patients, they are infected with the same quality. When Bromden returns from a stint in the “Disturbed” ward for resisting the aides, the faces of the other patients light up “as if they were looking into the glare of a sideshow platform,” and Harding does an imitation of a sideshow barker (243).

But as one reflects on the carnival motif, it becomes increasingly interesting and complex. In this world of con or be conned, McMurphy is not always in control. Big Nurse is also a sort of technological-age con artist, and when her schemes are in the ascendancy, she is described as “a tarot-card reader in a glass arcade case” (171) or “one of those arcade gypsies that scratch out fortunes for a penny” (268). And the patients, including McMurphy, are described as “arcade puppets” (33) or “shooting-gallery target[s]” (49). The carnival motif persists but is shaded from the vitally human barker toward the mechanized, toward humanoid machines that manipulate people and forecast the future. Harding, describing shock treatment to McMurphy, compares it to a carnival: “it's as if the jolt sets off a wild carnival wheel of images, emotions, memories. These wheels, you've seen them; the barker takes your bet and pushes a button. Chang!” (164). McMurphy, of course, has not only seen those wheels, but has operated them, and therefore Harding's words stun and bewilder him. When he realizes he has been committed and is liable to shock treatment, he is transformed from con man to mark: “Why, those slippery bastards have conned me, snowed me into holding their bag. If that don't beat all, conned ol' R. P. McMurphy” (166). Later, when he is wheeled back from a lobotomy, Scanlon refers to him as “that crummy sideshow fake lying there on the Gurney” (270). So during the course of the story, McMurphy (and to some extent the other principal patients) function as con men, marks, and sideshow freaks. The novel's poignancy, of course, results from McMurphy's ultimate breaking of the con-or-be-conned cycle by sacrificing himself for others.

Cartoons are another variety of humor that plays a role in the novel. Like the cowboy motif, they are part of popular culture. One of Kesey's characteristic achievements is his use of popular culture (Westerns, horror films, comic books, popular music, etc.) for artistic purposes. And like the cowboy motif, cartoons are related to certain patterns of frontier humor. Bugs Bunny is the quintessential American con man. Tom and Jerry, Popeye, and others are lively unsophisticated versions of the little guy versus the bully. America's native forms of humor, with their demotic appeal, naturally provided many themes, characters, and situations for comic strips and animated cartoons. Cuckoo's Nest makes strategic allusions to the cartoon genre. Harding speaks of their “Walt Disney world” (61). When McMurphy reads, it is “a book of cartoons” (151). As in cartoons, characters swell up large when they are angry or feeling strong and shrink when they are embarrassed or frightened. An hallucinating narrator permits such description; that's part of the brilliance of Kesey's narrative strategy. For example, Pete's hand, as Popeye's might, swells into an iron ball when he resists the orderlies, and when he socks one of them against the wall, the wall cracks in the man's shape (52). This is a cartoon cliché, and much of the novel's violence is of this cartoon variety. But as with the carnival motif, the cartoon imagery has its dark side. The patients are “like cartoon men” (37) in a negative sense. “Their voices are forced and too quick on the comeback to be real talk—more like cartoon comedy speech” (36). Theirs is “a cartoon world where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking through some kind of goofy story that might be real funny if it weren't for the cartoon figures being real guys” (34).

What conclusions can be drawn from Kesey's use of these varieties of humor and particularly the parallels with frontier humor? I suggest first of all that he used the patterns of frontier humor not simply for comic effect but because he wished to assert the values embedded within them against a constricting and depersonalizing urban mass society. There is a nostalgic and celebratory quality in their use combined with a conviction that such values are not merely relics of a vanished frontier. His second novel, less comic and more ambitious, glorifies these values even more forcefully, a fact that disturbed his radical counterculture friends, whose attitude toward frontier values was ambivalent. Though Kesey went on to immerse himself in the attitudes and behavior of urban radical culture, Norman Mailer was correct in observing in the late eighties that “Kesey has stayed close to his roots and was probably absolutely right to do it.”12 My second conclusion is that Kesey skillfully used varieties of American humor in order to offer a subtle and moving examination of institutionalized victimization and of the hardy human strength and unpretentious self-sacrifice that can alleviate it. The cartoon motif is likewise implicated in Kesey's sympathetic treatment of what the novel calls the culls of the Combine. On the whole, the novel demonstrates the enduring vitality and remarkable adaptability of frontier humor.


  1. Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (New York: New American Library, 1962), p. 65. Further references will be included in the text between parentheses.

  2. Hamlin Hill, “Black Humor: Its Causes and Cure,” Colorado Quarterly 17 (1968): 59.

  3. Hamlin Hill, “Modern American Humor: The Janus Laugh,” College English 25 (1963): 171.

  4. Hill, “Modern American Humor,” 176.

  5. Quoted in Peter O. Whitmer and Bruce Van Wyngarden. Aquarius Revisited (New York: Macmillan, 1987), p. 11.

  6. Quoted in E. B. White and Katherine S. White, eds., A Subtreasury of American Humor (New York: Coward-McCann, 1941), p. xxii.

  7. Quoted in White, p. xviii.

  8. Ken Kesey, “Excerpts Recorded from an Informal Address by Mr. Kesey to the Parents at Crystal Springs School in Hillsborough, California, Presented under the Auspices of the Chrysalis West Foundation,” Genesis West 3. 1-2 (1965): 40.

  9. Ken Kesey, Kesey's Garage Sale (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 10.

  10. See Ken Kesey, Demon Box (New York: Viking Press, 1986).

  11. Quoted in Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill, America's Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury (New York: Oxford Press, 1978), p. 29.

  12. Quoted in Whitmer, p. 63.

Tom Shone (review date 23 July 1993)

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SOURCE: Shone, Tom. “Going Cuckoo.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4712 (23 July 1993): 19.

[In the following review, Shone assesses the plot, style, and themes of Sailor Song, commenting that Kesey's prose has the “bounce of a piece of verbal pop art.”]

Asked how he lost all of his teeth, a character in Ken Kesey's new novel [Sailor Song] replies, “Would you like to know one at a time?” The response is typical of a book in which characters trail enigmatic and eccentric prehistories like ticker-tape streamers, and whose names are soaked in home-brewed mythology: Alice the Angry Alert, Billy the Squid, and the book's reluctant hero, Ike Sallas, the Bakatchka Bandit.

Home, in their case, is the small Alaskan fishing village of Kuinak, an ecological idyll in an otherwise decrepit twenty-first century. Populated by Deaps (Descendents of Early Aboriginal People) and a motley crew of social cast-offs from the south—including Ike and his gang, the Loyal Order of Underdogs—Kuinak comes under threat when a shipful of Hollywood producers sails into town to turn it into a prettified backdrop to their adaptation of a classic Eskimo children's story. As Ike reflects, the last outpost of America's pioneering spirit had become “kind of neo-retro. They had been in the backwash so long that they had become the front without realizing it.” The stage is thus set for a parable of lost ethnic innocence.

It seems appropriate that, after twenty-five years, Kesey should choose to write a novel like this. In leaving the cities and trailer homes to the brat-pack/dirty realist young pups, and heading out to sea for more mythic sport, Kesey follows in the wake of those other 1960s renegades, John Barth, Peter Matthiessen, Robert Stone and Robert Pirsig (in Sinbad the Sailor,Far Tortuga, Outerbridge Reach and Lila, respectively). The futuristic setting also seems a neat way for Kesey to put some distance between himself and the era which made his name. And which has held his one master-work (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest) in the suspended animation of cult teenage adoration ever since; the tabula rasa of the future holds obvious appeal.

It's false-bottomed one, however, for nothing dates like past visions of the future, and if the futuristic drugs or bed-swapping don't clinch it, then the characters' talk of “zam”, “zaxing”, and “zoners” does: we are back in that golden age when writers still raided the end of the alphabet to give their neologisms spangle. We are back to the “zam-kapow!” of Marvel comic strips or, perhaps, Roy Lichtenstein paintings. Indeed, Kesey's fondness for conga-line descriptive chains (“Righteous stand-up honky-tonker”) and generous helpings of alliterative glitter (“ridiculous old rake caught red-handed”) gives Sailor Song the bounce of a piece of verbal pop art.

His characters pinball around like unbreakable cartoon freaks, particularly Ike, who owes his “Bakatchka Bandit” tag to his days as an airborne eco-terrorist. When he hears that his friend Billy the Squid is being held captive by a Christian Fundamentalist sect down South, he comes out of retirement to rescue him, in a sequence of unashamed—and highly enjoyable—swashbuckling swagger. It's the first of many interludes in which Kesey simply takes a vacation from his main plot to do what he most enjoys: a backslapping session with his male protagonists.

It covers up, perhaps, for the fact that the main business of the novel is not all that clear. On his return, Ike finds that the producers plan not just to prettify Kuinak temporarily—with fake totem poles, extra-rugged cliff tops and the like—but they want to build an airport and turn the village into a full-time tourist park. There seems no reason for this other then Kesey's desire to move his novel's thematic goalposts to accommodate a broader lament: “Ah, the old days, over and done—swept away by the winds of special-effects damage, by American Anarchy, the new Disorder of the Ages. Into the firepit and gone for good.” I have no idea what this means. As with Pynchon's Vineland, there is a novel in here somewhere about all that Kesey has silently lamented during his wilderness years, but the twenty-first century fishing village of Kuinak would not seem to be the time or place for it.

Michael D. C. Drout (essay date August 1993)

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SOURCE: Drout, Michael D. C. “Hoisting the Arm of Defiance: Beowulfian Elements in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion.Western American Literature 28, no. 2 (August 1993): 131-41.

[In the following essay, Drout investigates the thematic and stylistic relationships between Sometimes a Great Notion and the medieval epic Beowulf, interpreting the former as a representation of a contemporary heroic archetype rather than an existentialist “absurd quest.”]

Although Ken Kesey is possessed of a modern sensibility and is strongly influenced by the philosophy of existentialism, he fashions Hank Stamper, the protagonist of Sometimes a Great Notion, in the image of archetypes out of the dim mythic past of the Beowulf poet. Hank is the dominating, triumphant hero of the Germanic past, Americanized and brought into the modern age. Like Beowulf, he exemplifies a type of courage that can rise above entropy and even death. Though Kesey does not deny that the powers of chaos and darkness will eventually carry the day, he presents Hank's defiance of these powers as an alternative to either despair or absurd laughter.

Most critics who have investigated Sometimes a Great Notion have interpreted Hank as an “absurd hero” who struggles, like Sisyphus, against the uncaring universe. In the existentialist world-view the struggle itself, not the goal struggled for, is what gives meaning and purpose to existence, and the ultimate impossibility of the quest to subdue unconquerable nature makes the struggle both absurd and poignant. Elaine B. Safer's view is typical of those critical assessments that see the novel as a work informed by existentialism. She describes Sometimes a Great Notion as “comic absurdism” and “black humor,” interpreting the action of the novel as “an encyclopedic spectrum of expectation and hopes that fail” (138). While the hopes of many characters do indeed fail, the final image of the novel, Hank and Lee leaping from log to log while a tugboat pulls the booms downstream to meet the “impossible” contract, belies Safer's contention that in the end the story is best explained by an existentialist interpretation. “Knowing that there are no victorious causes, I have a liking for lost causes: they require an uncontaminated soul, equal to its defeat as to its temporary victories,” writes Camus, defining the existentialist perspective (64). But Hank's cause is not lost: even more than Beowulf, he achieves victory. His chronicle needs to be read not as an example of the existentialist “absurd quest” but as a depiction of the heroic archetype Kesey has called “Man the Winner” (Strelow 72).

M. Gilbert Porter first noted the presence of Beowulfian elements in Sometimes a Great Notion, pointing out that when Hank's brother, Lee, imagines his homecoming he sees: “an atavistic time and place, a haunted mere where Heorot is ‘mighty Stamper hall,’ its ‘Great Ruler’ old Henry Stamper, whose ‘grisly visage’ rules over a ‘horde’ of kinsman in ‘plaid shirts, spike boots’” (62).1 The parallels between the novel and the epic extend far beyond this scene, however. The displays of Henry's and Grendel's severed arms are only the most obvious congruence between the two works. Hank and Beowulf possess many of the same characteristics, including leadership, physical prowess and an unwavering spirit. Both heroes fight unrelenting battles against overpowering forces of destruction. And both Hank and Beowulf are examples of the unbending warrior defiant in the face of overwhelming odds. It is important to note, however, that Kesey's novel is not a simple recasting of the poem; Kesey uses the traditional material for his purposes and freely changes elements. But even though Beowulf cannot be used as a skeleton key to unlock the novel, an understanding of the relationship between the book and the poem can provide a deeper understanding of Sometimes a Great Notion.


Characters in separate works often possess similar characteristics, so the appearance of shared traits is not prima facie evidence of a genetic literary relationship. Nevertheless, the specific congruencies between the traits of Hank and Beowulf indicate an intertextual relationship between the two heroes. Beowulf and Hank derive their comparable identities from their kinship and their extraordinary physical accomplishments. The former serves to place them as part of a larger whole, the latter to distinguish them from their less celebrated kin. Beowulf is consistently referred to by noun-epithet formulas which denote his kinship. He is “the son of Ecgtheow” or “of the kin of Ecgtheow.” An Anglo-Saxon's identity was primarily that of his kin-group (Whitelock 31), and Beowulf performs his great deeds for the glory of his house. Tragically he, like Hank, has no sons to carry on his line. Hank, though more of an individualist than Beowulf, also views himself in terms of his kin. Kesey, in his preliminary work on Sometimes a Great Notion, has Hank say:

It's all relative. If America gets into a war with Russia, I'm on America's side. If we get invaded from Mars I'll fight with Russia to put 'em down. If Oregon gets in a fight with California, I'm on Oregon's side. Figure it on down. If it's the Stampers against the town, I'm with the Stampers, and if it's me against the Stampers, I'm with me! You want to know which side I fight for? The side I'm on.

(Strelow 75)

Hank, like Henry before him, views himself as a Stamper first and foremost. Though he has done his duty to the other groups to which he has a responsibility—playing football for his high school, fighting for America as a Marine—his primary allegiance is to his family, more specifically the loyal familial core that resides in Stamper Hall. Hank is not bonded to all those who share the Stamper name—witness his mere tolerance of Aaron and John and his active dislike of Orland. But his fidelity to his immediate blood kin is absolute, as is shown in the two times he rescues Lee on Halloween.

To bring honor to their kin Hank and Beowulf engage in feats of almost superhuman strength and endurance, particularly in the areas of fighting and swimming. When Beowulf introduces himself to the court at Heorot he tells Hrothgar:

[This] truth I tell:
that I possess greater sea strength
for hard struggles in the
waves than any other man.

(Klaeber, lines 532-34)2

Beowulf demonstrates his great “sea strength” by swimming in the ocean for five days, fending off monsters with the sword he carries in one hand. Later we learn that Beowulf took to the sea after his lord Higelac was slain. The warrior broke through the shield wall of the Frisians and swam to freedom encumbered by thirty suits of armor that he brought back to his people as booty. And when Beowulf fights Grendel's dam he must swim down through the haunted mere, battling against the sea-monsters that infest its waters. The watery realm, then, is a place of danger and testing, in which a warrior proves himself able to hold his place against the overpowering forces of nature.

The corollary to Beowulf's “sea strength” is Hank's prowess against the river's force. When Lee envisions Hank,

the picture that came on the clearest was of his long, sinewy body diving into the river, naked and white and hard as a peeled tree … this was the predominant image. … [Hank] used to spend hours swimming steadily into the river's current as he trained for a swimming meet. Hours and hours, swimming steadily, doggedly, and remaining in exactly the same place a few feet from the dock.


Hank is the only character in Sometimes a Great Notion to swim across the river, and he accomplishes this feat many times. Even when Hank is at his weakest—sick, struck by the runaway tree, and beaten by Evenwrite's toughs—he is still able to swim the river to return to Stamper Hall. Not merely a demonstration of physical prowess, Hank's personal defiance of the river represents his struggle against the chaotic powers of nature. The river is Hank's most powerful and persistent adversary. It attacks him by assaulting the things he loves: it kills Joe Ben and the bobcat cubs, gnaws at the foundations of the house, and destroys the barn. The river, like time, will eventually triumph and sweep everything to the sea. Being “run out to sea” (340) is Hank's view of ultimate failure. To Kesey, “The sea is surrender. Not the sea itself. No, it is a conqueror; it is the giving in to it that is surrender” (Strelow 53). Hank and Beowulf defy the sea and the river and the powers of non-human nature that these entities symbolize. The heroes' strength in the water is not merely an expression of their extra-human power; it is a metaphor for their struggles against the entropic flow of time, which, even for the greatest heroes, eventually leads to death and dissolution.

Hank and Beowulf also exert power in the world of men. They are both leaders and fighters of great renown. When Beowulf disembarks from the Geatish ship the Danish coast guard recognizes him as an extraordinary warrior:

There is one of your
men in war gear that is not a “hall” man
if his countenance does not belie, this one, who is
adorned with weapons,
is a glorious sight.


There are many references in the poem to Beowulf's surpassing size and strength. He is described as being “the strongest of men” (789). He has the strength of thirty men in the grip of his hands (379-80). Hank is also noted for the power of his physical presence. Lee sees him as “hard as a peeled tree” (69). To Joe Ben he is “unnatural stout,” possessed of arms “like number ten cables” that give him the ability to “hold a double edged axe straight out arm's length for eight minutes and thirty-six seconds” (327). He is one of the “Ten Toughest Hombres this side of the Rockies” (110), able to defeat men like Biggy Newton, who are thirty or forty pounds heavier.

Both Hank and Beowulf must defend their social positions against jealous rivals. Beowulf defeats his primary challenger, Unferth, merely by a flyting, a ceremonial combat of words. Hank and Joe Ben engage in a flyting with Evenwrite and Draeger when the two union men travel to Stamper Hall (358-63). Hank must also defend his status in a more physical and bloody manner. He “always [has] to be goddammit working up to fighting with some-guy-or-other” (460). His bouts with Biggy Newton, only the latest of many opponents, are regular and, despite their ferocity, as stylized as Beowulf's flyting. The two heroes' participation in ritual combat and their public triumphs over seemingly impossible obstacles serve to define and then reinforce their heroic stature in the view of their respective societies.

Hank's and Beowulf's shared characteristics are too closely analogous to be merely coincidental. The traits that Hank possesses link him firmly to the tradition of the unyielding warrior of which Beowulf is the archetype. This warrior, once established by an author or poet, exists to be tested. Many of the tests and trials that Hank undergoes have parallels in the Beowulf story.


Heroes must have mighty opponents in order to demonstrate their greatness. A great hero who merely intimidates and punishes puny mortals does not remain a hero for long. In both Sometimes a Great Notion and Beowulf, the hero's worthy adversary is the untameable power of the chaotic universe. For Beowulf this power is represented by the three monsters he battles, particularly Grendel, the least “civilized” of the three. Hank's challenges are the river and forest, and the resentment of the inhabitants of Wakonda. Both heroes overcome these adversaries only at tremendous cost, both to themselves and their retainers.

Hank's life is one of continual struggle. He loves the forest, but his vocation is to cut it down. Though Hank seems to achieve a kind of satori from his appreciation of nature, what Kesey describes as “Hank's bell” (83), he never wavers in his determination to reduce the chaotic independence of trees to the controllable, useful substance of wood. But the forest is always regenerating itself and encroaching on Hank's world. It is a force with the power to crush humans with its “swinging green fist” (501). The forest's power makes it, according to Porter, “a challenging and worthy opponent” for Hank (40).

Beowulf, too, must struggle through fen and forest to meet his challenges and reaffirm his heroic stature. The forest that surrounds Grendel's mere is a place of darkness and fear where:

Then the tossing waves mount up.
Then the wind stirs to the dark clouds,
hostile weather, until the sky becomes gloomy.
The heavens weep.


This description is similar to the passages at the beginning of the novel in which Kesey describes the power of the Oregon climate and wilderness to destroy men. The constant, overabundant growth of plants and the unrelenting pressure of the river and the rain drove Hank's grandfather, Jonas Stamper, away from Wakonda. And if the forest does not drive a man away it can make him insane. Kesey describes several suicides in the novel, and most of these take place in the woods.

The natural power that Henry and Hank do battle with is vicious and deadly. Just as the river reaches out and destroys Hank's bobcat kittens, the forest reaches out to kill the people whom Hank loves. On the fateful day when Henry, Hank, and Joe Ben struggle to finish cutting their logging quota, the forest, characterized as a monster, attacks:

[Hank] turns back to the log in time to see a bright yellow-white row of teeth appear splintering over the mossy lips to gnash the saw from his hands … [Henry's arm] waves limp then disappears a second beneath the row of teeth before the log springs on downhill.


Those teeth coupled with the previously mentioned “green fist” combine to deal the Stampers the closest thing to a death blow the clan has suffered. Joe Ben is trapped by the runaway tree and drowned by the river. Henry's arm is torn off, an injury that leads to the old man's probable death. It appears that the great quest, the “impossible-to-meet” logging contract, will not be fulfilled.

Of course the power of the forest to harm the Stampers has been magnified by the poorly directed fury of Evenwrite and the machinations of Draeger. Of the two, Draeger is the more dangerous and damaging. He is a coldly calculating, machine-like man who accomplishes his ends by “rational manipulation of human beings by exploiting their fear” (Tanner 69). He does not attack in the open but rather through patience, subterfuge, and trickery. His is the way of the river patiently undermining the bank beneath the cat cage rather than the runaway tree crashing down the hill. This subtle attack is more painful to Hank than the actual physical punishment that he absorbs. In Kesey's working drafts of Sometimes a Great Notion Draeger's name was originally Drake (Strelow 79), which comes from “draca,” the Old English word for “dragon.” Kesey later changed the name to Draeger, from OE “dreogan,” meaning “to endure.” Since Kesey did graduate work in English at Stanford, it is not unreasonable to suppose that he knew the etymology of these words and changed the name as the character of Draeger and his symbolic purpose became clearer to him. In both One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion Kesey took extreme pains to select names for his characters that held significant hidden meaning (Porter 4). The duality of Draeger's function in the novel is appropriately represented by the two names that Kesey has chosen for him. He is the destructive force that wreaks havoc on the Stampers and, like Beowulf's dragon, represents the “undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad” (Tolkien 21). He is also the less dramatic but more debilitating force of chaos that gnaws at the foundations of strong men.

Both heroes eventually defeat their respective dragons, but their victories are costly. At the conclusion of Sometimes a Great Notion Henry is either mortally wounded or dead, Joe Ben has been drowned, and Viv is lost to both Hank and Lee. The mill has been partially burned and the boathouse dynamited into the river, and there is the possibility that when Hank and Lee return from their trip down the river Evenwrite and his henchmen will have burnt Stamper Hall. Beowulf's victory over the dragon is likewise pyrrhic. Beowulf himself dies in the battle, and we learn from the poet that the Franks, once they learn of Beowulf's demise, will soon attack the now-leaderless Geats. But neither Hank nor Beowulf ever surrenders. To the end they retain their heroic strength and determination, defying unconquerable chaos.

This defiance is represented by the severed arms. The central symbols of both the novel and the poem, they summarize the two heroes' responses to the slings and arrows of a chaotic universe. When Beowulf defeats Grendel in his first battle he wrenches off the monster's arm. The next morning the celebrating troops in Heorot hang this arm from the rafters.

That was a clear token,
a hand which the battle-brave one laid down,
the arm and shoulder. There was all together
Grendel's grip under the high roof.


The display of the arm represents Beowulf's victory in re-establishing the security of the hall as a barrier against the dark and chaotic world outside. It is a gesture of defiance to the powers represented by Grendel, the “march-stepper,” the creature from outside the lighted circle of human control. By hanging the arm, the warriors of Heorot celebrate their triumph even though they know it to be transitory.

Henry's arm is the central symbol of Sometimes a Great Notion, the image around which the entire story revolves.

Twisting and stopping and slowly untwisting in the gusting rain, eight or ten feet above the flood's current, a human arm, tied at the wrist, (just the arm; look) disappearing downward at the frayed shoulder where an invisible dancer performs twisting pirouettes for an enthralled audience.


Kesey's thought processes in devising the image of the arm are instructive.

Start with the house in the present. Give it a sense of Urgency!

With perhaps a human leg. This is a good grabber, but what does it mean? …

What it is, is defiance on old Henry's part. A grim humorous defiance—of what? The Union for one, joining for another. Weakness for another. …

Perhaps an arm instead, tied around the wrist as the hand seems to be gripping the rope. Holding itself out of the water, the hand gripping as though it would climb out of the water.

Now. … this arm will give me a reason. My reason is to tell about it. …

So the book is on the surface a long exploration of the arm. And why someone would hang such a symbol of defiance. …

And everything has to have bearing on that arm's being there. Everything leads to the hanging of it.

(Strelow 50-52)

Henry loses the arm through the action of overpowering external forces. At the time of the accident the lost arm vividly demonstrates the power of these forces to crush the mere mortals who try to resist them. But Hank appropriates this symbol and turns it into a universal gesture of rebellion. The arm no longer represents the power of nature to destroy, but instead shows the strength of men to defeat temporarily its seemingly unbeatable forces. Hank's ability to make such a gesture even after he has lost almost everything he has loved indicates the extent of his heroism. He is invulnerable to the forces that can destroy lesser humans, and, like Beowulf, he gives hope to those who seek to defy the end mandated by the entropic universe. Hank's apparent defeat has brought the spirits of the townspeople to their lowest point in years.

At the same time, Hank is at his own spiritual nadir. His decision to relent has caused him to lose his identity and power. Effort against such overwhelming forces would surely be absurd. But even at this lowest point Hank can differentiate between absurdity and overwhelming odds, and he explicitly rejects the absurd quest in favor of real action. When Viv drives him to Joe Ben's funeral, Hank looks out at the land and imagines himself grabbing a handful of vines and using them, like steel wool, to “scrub the world to a fare-thee-well” (545). He sees himself scrubbing until he is exhausted, but when he inspects his work he finds that “instead of things getting brighter and clearer, it's just made [things] duller. Like it kind of faded the color” (546). Hank scrubs with greater energy, but his effort only serves to make the world

… bright all right, like a movie-show screen when the film breaks and you got nothing to look at up there but the bright white light. Everything else is gone. I throw away the steel wool; it's fine to brighten things up with once in a while, but too much of it, man, can rub everything away.


Hank recognizes and rejects the absurdity in trying to brighten “everything.” This waking dream is the first step on Hank's return from fatalism to victory. By rejecting absurdity and willing himself to triumph, Hank breaks out of the Sisyphean, existentialist pattern represented by his struggle against the river. It is safe to assume that his revival and triumph will, even as it angers them, restore to the citizens of Wakonda their hope in life.


In his notes Kesey wrote that he wanted to “be beyond Xist [existentialism], using it” (Strelow 71). By presenting not merely the grim or absurdly laughing toil, but instead the open, grinning defiance of Hank Stamper, he presents a model of “the exaltation of undefeated will” that Tolkien finds in Beowulf (22). The force of Hank's will is evident in the fight against Biggy Newton when Hank thinks: “Look here, Lee, he can whip me but he can't run me! … And if he don't run me he don't ever really whip me, do you see?” (340-41). Hank's and Beowulf's wills are examples of what Tolkien calls “Northern courage,” which he sees as unyielding bravery in the face of the sure knowledge that “within Time the monsters would win” (25, 27). Tolkien theorizes that even at the time of the Beowulf poet the notion of eternal, inevitable defeat was beginning to be replaced by the Christian conception of the eventual triumph of the good. But Kesey has gone back to the pagan past in which the monsters, the powers of darkness and chaos, will in the end win. Even if Evenwrite and his thugs do not burn Stamper Hall, the river will one day eat away the last bit of bank and bulkhead and sweep the house away. Hank will eventually lose a bar fight. He will one day die.

But the knowledge of the final dissolution of human beings and their works does not impart the gloom to Kesey's novel that is so common in other works informed by existentialism. Instead, the presence and challenge of an unavoidable fate elevates to mythic status those heroes who struggle and, albeit temporarily, succeed against it. Kesey demonstrates that the inevitability of death does not preclude the possibility of victory. Beowulf's triumphs are not lessened because he died and they were undone. Hank Stamper is likewise a triumphant hero regardless of his eventual fate, and through Hank, Kesey demonstrates that a modern sensibility is not incompatible with a belief in the power of human beings to triumph against overwhelming odds through the application of simple, indomitable will.


  1. Bruce V. Roach (1981) makes a connection between Old English literature and Kesey's fiction. But Roach focuses on possible pedagogical uses of the film adaptation of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in the context of a Beowulf class and only tangentially relates Kesey's work to Anglo-Saxon literature.

  2. All references to Beowulf are from Klaeber, third edition. References are to line numbers rather than page numbers. The translations are literal and are my own.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O'Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.

Kesey, Ken. Sometimes a Great Notion. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Klaeber, Fr., ed. Beowulf: Third Edition. Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1950.

Porter, M. Gilbert. The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey's Fiction. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Roach, Bruce V. “One Flew over the Mere.” Old English Newsletter, 14:2 (1981): 18-19.

Safer, Elaine B. Contemporary American Comic Epic: The Novels of Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, and Kesey. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.

Strelow, Michael, ed. Kesey. Eugene, Oregon: Northwest Review Books, 1977.

Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Whitelock, Dorothy. The Beginnings of English Society. New York: Penguin Books, 1952.

John Zubizarreta (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Zubizarreta, John. “The Disparity of Point of View in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Literature/Film Quarterly 22, no. 1 (1994): 62-9.

[In the following essay, Zubizarreta examines the treatment of Randle Patrick McMurphy's heroism in both the novel and the film One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, contrasting the experimental narrative perspective of the novel with the plot structure of the film.]

Ken Kesey's novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is probably best known by its movie version, in which Jack Nicholson plays the rowdy, sexually bold outlaw who opposes at every chance the dispassionate, prudish, authoritarian nurse of a horrific mental ward where patients are reduced to passive, emasculated, invertebrate victims of an inhuman bureaucracy. Randle Patrick McMurphy, the ostensible hero, romps and rants through the film, making shambles of the nurse's order and gaining the audience's implicit approval. We cheer jubilantly as our lusty protagonist pokes and prods the sexless nurse, inspiring one inmate, Chief Bromden, to assert his masculine prerogative and independence by breaking out of the asylum in the final scene.

But text and film differ in the presentation of McMurphy's heroism, for the novel employs the subtlety of an untrustworthy point of view, adding a complex dimension of irony not available in the film. Kesey's novel is written from the unstable perspective of the paranoid schizophrenic Indian who is not much more than an auxiliary character in the movie. The novel's unreliable narrative voice results in tangled verbal ambiguity, but in the film, McMurphy is protagonist and hero, and the viewer's sympathy is engaged by the character's roustabout charm and apparently sacrificial motive to “cure” the other patients of their respective ailments. In the novel, Mack offers only a tenuous salvation perceived dimly through Chief's foggy paranoia and schizophrenic dementia. Ultimately, the reader ponders the reality of the entire narrative, the efficacy of McMurphy's heroism, and the validity of Chief's exuberant escape from the ward, issues not at all raised by the movie. In 1992, Kesey's novel celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, and the film is nearly two decades old, yet both have remained strong works of art and popular culture, compelling us to reexamine the unique relationship of text to film.

One key to the complex artistry of the novel is Kesey's manipulation of Chief's point of view. The author's interest in experimental narrative perspective is suggested by a letter written to Ken Babbs during the early stages of the novel's development: “I'll discuss point of view for a time now. I am beginning to agree with Stegner, that it truely [sic] is the most important problem in writing. The book I have been doing … is a third person work, but something was lacking … so I tried something that will be extremely difficult to pull off. … Think of this: I, me ken kesey, is stepped back another step and am writing about a third person auther [sic] writing about something. Fair makes the mind real, don't it? (Pratt 338-39). Kesey evidently was dissatisfied with the direction his written work was taking, a course adopted successfully and lucratively by Milos Forman's film a little over a decade later. As a strictly third-person work—the vantage point of the camera lens, for example—Cuckoo's Nest the movie portrays the typical adventure of Joseph Campbell's monomythic hero who is called to adventure, who engages the forces of darkness, who struggles with doubt and temptation, and who triumphs in the end either by personal victory or by transferring his virtues to others through sacrifice. In the book, however, Kesey adds another dimension of meaning that brings into play an irony that grows as the reader gradually understands the unreliability of the narrator's rendering of events and rationalizing of his own text's significance. The difference is between the literalness of a third-person account of a hero's cycle and the ulterior messages of an ironic subtext. As Michael Wood writes, “The game being played [in the novel], our implication in the Chief's vision and our resistance to it, our attempts to see it as just crazy or just literary, even our desire to believe in it, is a special, bookish form of hide-and-seek, which requires text and readers, can't be played with images on a screen and an audience in a cinema” (3). Marsha McCreadie, on the other hand, consciously ignores the crucial disparity of point of view in her understandable enthusiasm for the film: “There are structural changes from novel to film (the most outstanding being the omission of Chief Bromden's first-person point of view), and some alterations in the characters. But it doesn't seem to matter—the momentum and the spirit of the original have been retained” (125).

In the film, McMurphy's position as hero is uncontested. His call to adventure is the challenge offered by Nurse Ratched, whose strict authoritarianism and repressed womanhood represent what Robert Boyers has called “a tendency toward antiseptic desexualization which is abhorrent” (46). As the contest intensifies, the audience steadily sides with the psychopathic misfit as he provokes the inflexible, prudish Miss Ratched into a battle that takes on the proportions of myth: man versus woman, good versus evil, freedom versus confinement, individuality versus conformity, sex and death in perpetual antithesis. When Mack discovers that the other patients on the ward are voluntary, he wises up momentarily, backs off on his assaults, and undergoes a period of doubt during which he is tempted to follow the rules in order to speed his release from the asylum. But true heroes must complete their cycle of experience and return to the world of light with some redemptive boon, and McMurphy's destiny as hero compels him to reengage the Nurse in combat on behalf of the patients. After Billy Bibbit, Mack's fawning disciple in the sexual arts, commits suicide because he is shamed by Miss Ratched's insinuations of the dirty, guilty nature of his promiscuous frolic with a squiggling tart, our hero attacks the monstrous nurse and is carted off to be lobotomized. The lobotomy, we are led to believe by action and symbol, is the nurse's brutal castration of Randle's randy masculinity. But Mack attains his final victory, for, as Joseph J. Waldmeir asserts, “with the sacrifice of his own manhood he buys back the manhood of most of the other inmates” (202). Chief, until now a secondary character in the film, assumes Mack's role, lovingly suffocates the hero, and bursts through the windows of the institution by hurling the very same washtub basin that McMurphy had tried earlier to lift unsuccessfully: the gesture signifies Mack's transferal of power to Chief, who escapes to a more natural world and to the presumed wholesomeness of regained sanity while the cinema screen fills with the image of another loony crying out in jubilant, vicarious triumph.

Very neat, very tidy, and very popular among the counter-culture crowd of the sixties, grown up and subdued a bit by the film's seventies milieu. Yet what audience—in the defiant sixties or the gilded, prudent nineties—wouldn't cheer the rambunctious likes of Randle McMurphy, cavorting rebelliously through a celluloid landscape of sterile, white walls; inhuman, dictatorial nurses; insensitive, violent orderlies; and absurd, debilitating rules of order? But the novel is a different work altogether, narrated by an “obviously psychopathic ‘I,’” as Leslie A. Fiedler puts it, and composed more as if it is “dreamed or hallucinated rather than merely written” (179-80, 183). Chief Bromden—the paranoid schizophrenic through whose tenuous, disturbed reflections we judge the action and significance of the novel—admits that he has been on the ward “the longest … longer'n anybody. Longer'n any of the other patients” (16). Chief's perceptions are grotesque and weird, propelling us into a phantasmagoric world of drug-induced visions and haunting images of a painful, repressed past of an emasculated Indian father, a treacherous white mother, and a humiliated native people. Bromden refers to “[h]um of black machinery” (the Negro orderlies); “[s]ound of matched cylinders” (patients breathing in mechanical unison); “miniature electronic elements … microscopic wires and girds and transistors … designed to dissolve on contact with air” (daily medication pills); and the strange, ubiquitous fog that permeates the ward and recurs in Chief's paranoic descriptions with haunting frequency: “Before noontime they're at the fog machine again but they haven't got it turned up full; it's not so thick but what I can see if I strain real hard” (3, 31, 33, 39).

The straining to see is the key to Chief's narration: Bromden's perspective is hallucinatory and hyperbolic, narrative qualities expressed best by his depiction of his salvational champion, McMurphy, and the hero's nemesis, Miss Ratched. The oversized, mythical dimension of both Mack and Big Nurse as antipodal figures in a life-and-death contest of wills sets up the popular views of the novel represented by the “comic realism” of the film version (Kroll 113). Terry G. Sherwood, for instance, traces the novel's connections to comic strip superhero fantasies and shoot-'em-up Western Lone Ranger dramas, John A. Barsness to indigenous western American folk tales in which “the good guys always triumph over the bad guys” (Pratt 421), Raymond M. Olderman to romance legends of a “successful Grail Knight” (37), and both Richard B. Hauck and Bruce E. Wallis to the transformed figure of the comic but efficacious Christ in modern guise. Such criticism confirms the strong appeal of the literal plot. But Sherwood is right in adding that the superficial action of the story—the level of communication assumed in the film—leaves us with a “somewhat sentimentalized over-simplification of moral problems,” for the real genius of Kesey's novel emerges from the ambiguity of Chief's account, which is, according to Sherwood, “perhaps imaginary.” Sherwood argues that “all events in the book are hallucinations” and reminds us that Bromden “begins his narration in the asylum, recalling past events …” (108-09). Chief, himself, calls attention to his own unreliability as narrator: after describing a cast of eccentric characters in an admittedly “crazy, horrible … goofy and outlandish” scene perceived through the nightmarish, thick fog of his distorted view, Chief says, “But if they don't exist, how can a man see them?” (87). Or, after observing the stain of Miss Ratched's lipstick on her cup, Chief remarks, “[S]he couldn't be wearing lipstick that color. That color on the rim of the cup must be from heat, touch of her lips set it smoldering” (149). Or, perhaps most convincing, Chief's introduction ends with his confession, “I been silent so long now it's gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen” (8).

Ranting and raving, indeed. The syntactical ambiguity of the first line, “They're out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them” (3), suggests Chief's residence in the ward at the present moment as he begins his retrospective narrative and therefore calls into question the reality of his supposed escape at the end of the novel. The ambiguity is reinforced after Chief receives shock treatment for helping his hero during a fight with the orderlies. The electrotherapy sends Bromden into a mental tailspin—a “foggy, jumbled blur which is a whole lot like the ragged edge of sleep, that gray zone between light and dark, or between sleeping and waking or living and dying”—and in the midst of his incoherent gibberish—“AIR RAID … man, Man, MAN, MAN … broad and big with a wink like a star. … Tingle, tingle, tremble toes … one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo's nest” (271-72)—Chief repeats the line in present tense, “They're out there. Black boys in white suits peeing under the door on me …” (275). How much has really transpired by the time McMurphy completes his role as ostensible “cowboy saint” or Bromden as self-appointed “Indian poet” at the end of the novel (Pearson 91)?

Omitting the intricacy of an unreliable point of view offers the reader no alternative but to read the story literally, as a straightforward hero narrative: dramatically effective, entertaining, comic, and inspiring—precisely the level of meaning of what Michael Wood calls “the literalism of Forman's rendering” in film (4). But such a reading lacks the complex effects of Chief's hypnogogic drama in which the principal players are hyperbolized metaphors of Bromden's desperate desire for freedom, self-worth, and humor. Wood argues that “Chief sees metaphors. When men are described as rabbits, the rabbits hop before his eyes” (3). Hence, Ratched is “Big Nurse” (3), with “[p]recise, automatic gesture” (5), enameled “doll's face and … doll's smile,” and huge breasts that are her anomalous “outsized badges of femininity” (151): “A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big, womanly breasts on what would of otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it” (5-6). In contrast, McMurphy is the exaggerated, charismatic hero whose bravado, lustiness, and apparent concern for the humanity of the inmates make him Chief's choice as Ratched's match: “He sounds big. I hear him coming down the hall, and he sounds big in the way he walks, and he sure don't slide; he's got iron on his heels and he rings it on the floor like horseshoes. He shows up in the door and stops and hitches his thumbs in his pockets, boots wide apart, and stands there with the guys looking at him. ‘Good mornin', buddies.’ … He talks a little the way Papa used to, voice loud and full of hell …” (10-11). This is the classic myth of good guy versus bad guy, exploded by the schizophrenic imagination and transplanted to the repressive world of Ratched's ward. Within the context of his madness, Chief's narrative, in other words, may be the product of what he wants desperately to be true rather than what likely is true—an elaborate, hallucinated metaphor of his disturbed emotional, sexual, familial, and tribal history. The hero story, without the ironies and subtextual ambiguities of a mentally ill first-person narrator, makes good Oscar-winning cinema but encourages the discerning reader to join Michael Wood in his criticism of the film: “Can it be true that the insane are merely scared, that it's all the Nurse's fault, and that a good fuck would cure many a pathology? Isn't there something unfeeling about such optimism? Kesey's novel doesn't prompt such questions, because it is safe inside the Chief's narration … but Forman's movie does, and this reminds us how simplified it is, both psychologically and politically” (4). Jack Kroll agrees: “By opting for a style of comic realism, Forman loses much of the nightmare quality that made the book a capsized allegory of an increasingly mad reality” (113).

Kroll also argues that the film's focus on the conflict between McMurphy and Ratched results in the creation of “thinned out” characters, a criticism applicable to a reading of the novel without irony and narrative ambiguity. Big Nurse, for example, “seems much more of a sexist concept—Woman as Castrator” (Kroll 113). Her fitting counterpart is McMurphy, the rowdy, sexual maverick who in the novel swaggers in his iron-heeled cowboy boots while singing, “My wagons are loaded … my whip's in my hand” (89) and who describes to the effeminate Harding Miss Ratched's “genius for insinuation” (61) as not “peckin' at your eyes. That's not what she's peckin' at … Why, don't you know, buddy? … At your balls, buddy, at your everlovin' balls” (57). Mack also wears black satin underpants suggestively printed with “big white whales with red eyes,” a literary allusion to Moby Dick turned obscene: “From a co-ed at Oregon State … a Literary major. … She gave them to me because she said I was a symbol” (81). When our hero's unsatisfactory job of cleaning bathrooms causes Big Nurse to utter, “Why, this is an outrage … an outrage,” McMurphy responds, “No; that's a toilet bowl … a toilet bowl,” later adding further provocation by scrawling lewd remarks backwards under the toilet bowl rims so that when Miss Ratched inspects with her compact mirror, “she gave a short gasp at what she read reflected and dropped her mirror in the toilet” (151).

This is the stuff of popular comedy and cinema, to be sure, but as Kroll observes, “Kesey's many-leveled book had to be simplified by Forman, and he does this with clarity and shape. What's lost is the powerful feeling at the center, the terror and the terrifying laughter” (113). Elaine B. Safer's view is that “Forman—in the movie—has supplanted Bromden's interior monologue with concrete detailed scenes. He has exchanged surreal description for realistic presentation of patients in an institutional setting. In this setting, Forman develops scenes which stress comic realism” (134). The comic realism of the film produces a humor different from the unsettling, grotesque comedy of Chief's psychosis, with its bizarre juxtaposition of the sanity of the outer world versus inner madness and, conversely, inner sanity versus the madness of the outer world. Chief's external confinement within the walls of Ratched's ward, the setting of McMurphy's heroic struggle with Big Nurse as Chief sees it, is less disturbing than his imprisonment within his own mental instability because of the more limitless, more profoundly frightening dimensions of his own dementia. The black humor of the book becomes more of a “crazy comedy of manners” in the film (Kroll 113). As Safer indicates, “In the movie … the ability to perceive the dimensions of humor in pain and pain in humor … is forfeited for the one-dimensional level of slapstick humor …” (136).

Yet, the movie is “a well-made film that flares at times into incandescence” (Kroll 113) with “extraordinary” performances and “brilliant” moments (Wood 3-4). We delight, after all, in McMurphy's war, fought on our behalf, against the symbols of authoritarianism and conformity. We cheer him on because like Chief and the other inmates we crave a “giant come out of the sky to save us from the Combine” (255); like the loonies in the cuckoo's nest we wouldn't dare “stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn't the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need …” (304). The film gives the cinema audience the kind of story that Chief creates for himself out of need, the kind of blown-up, irreverent, comic hero adventure in which we participate vicariously. In fact, many of the novel's initial readers in the sixties wanted to see Kesey's message in these terms. In 1970, for instance, one interviewer for The Whole Earth Catalogue tries adamantly to make of Kesey some sort of psychedelic guru spokesman for the subversive counter culture of his generation:

Who's drawing the line? Who's putting people in jail? Who's killing people in the streets?
What difference does it make?
Don't you have any vision?
You ask me if I've got any vision. I've got three kids. I mean I'm invested in this world. I prune my trees even though I'm not going to have fruit for two years in a row. … The thing that you want is something that you're going to have to go find somebody else to get it from, because I can't give it to you. … No, listen, what this country needs is sanity. Individual sanity, and all the rest will come true.
You can't do it any other way. You work from the heart out, you don't work from the issue down.

(Garage Sale 205)

Kesey understands the difficult ironies and ambiguities involved in taking on the Combine, a knowledge that Chief assumes only in his brief moments of clarity, the authenticity of which is ultimately uncertain because of the schizophrenic's predictable unpredictability. For example, passages such as “McMurphy was teaching me. I was feeling better than I'd remembered feeling since I was a kid, when everything was good and the land was still singing kids' poetry to me” (243) are balanced by admissions that Mack “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” (227); by discoveries such as “I'm just getting the full force of the dangers we let ourselves in for when we let McMurphy lure us out of the fog” (142); or by grim analogies between Mack and Old Rawler, a “guy up on Disturbed” who killed himself when he “[c]ut both nuts off and bled to death, sitting right on the can in the latrine, half a dozen people in there with him didn't know it till he fell off the floor, dead. What makes people so impatient,” Chief adds, “is what I can't figure; all the guy had to do was wait” (123-24). McMurphy, sadly, cannot wait; he works from the issues down, always in motion restlessly against the forces of confinement and conformity (his initials are R. P. M., the contemporary macho revved up for combat against the impassive, immovable Combine).

Chief's method of protest is simply staying put and being “cagey”; he hides his chewed up pieces of Juicy Fruit gum under his bed, pretends to be deaf and dumb, and waits out his time within the terrifyingly boundless new frontier of his madness, a point aptly made by Fiedler: “It is only a step from thinking of the West as madness to regarding madness as the true West” (185). Cuckoo's Nest, then, is truly a western in a double sense: on the one hand, as the film presents it and as Chief would like to believe, a traditional story of good guys and bad guys complete with Indians; and, on the other hand, as the complex literary product of an unstable narrator, a haunting and grotesquely comic acting out of Chief's fragmented, schizophrenic mind: the “West of Madness,” the new frontier, the new reality (Fiedler 185).

Tom Wolfe, one of Kesey's friends during the author's experimentations with LSD, is one of the first readers to understand the ulterior significance of Bromden's narration and the discomfiting ironies and subtleties that accompany the unreliable first-person point of view. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe recounts Kesey's struggle with the composition of the novel:

From the point of view of craft, Chief Broom was his great inspiration. If he had told the story through McMurphy's eyes, he would have had to end up with the big bruiser delivering a lot of homilies about his down-home theory of mental therapy. Instead, he told the story through the Indian. This way he could present a schizophrenic state the way the schizophrenic himself, Chief Broom, feels it and at the same time report the McMurphy Method more subtly.


The homilies are, in fact, delivered in the film with popular, effective force. But the novel portrays a McMurphy whose bravado is undermined repeatedly by images of the futility of escape, resistance, and belligerent opposition: the factory girl who yearns for Chief to take her away from hopeless enslavement in a cotton mill (36-37); Old Rawler's suicide in Disturbed (123-24); Cheswick's suicide drowning after he feels betrayed because Mack will not back him up against the Big Nurse (165-66); Billy Bibbit's gruesome suicide at the end of the book when he cuts his throat (304-05); or Bancini's limp rebellion, which earns him only a sedative that leaves him mumbling feebly, “I'm … tired. … awful tired” (49-53).

Kesey makes every attempt to counterbalance the wave of acclamation that he knows accompanies the appealing hero tale as presented by Chief and that later is intensified by the popular film. In an interview published in 1971, Kesey cautions against what Wolfe terms “the McMurphy Method.” The interviewer comments on the revolutionary message of the book; Kesey responds, “Ah. I see. Well, I think that either sticking a leg in a pair of bell-bottoms or loading a canister into an anti-aircraft weapon may or may not be a revolutionary act. This is only known at the center of the man doing the act. And there is where the revolution must lie, at the seat of the act's impetus, so that finally every action, every thought and prayer, springs from this committed center” (Garage Sale 218). Undoubtedly, Milos Forman was attracted to the spirit of revolt in the novel when he was making the film, for McCreadie reports that in an interview Forman quips, “I have always liked stories which deal with individuals in conflict against the so-called Establishment. … It's sort of a Czech film” (131). McMurphy, therefore, gets the laughs, but perhaps Chief is the actual revolutionary hero of the cuckoo's nest, for despite the confusion, subversive irony, and unreliability of his narration, the text remains as testimony of the constructive power of imagination, even if that imagination is lost in an outer loony bin of chronic crazies or in an inner funhouse of schizophrenic madness: “Fair makes the mind real, don't it?” (Pratt 339).

We wonder, finally, if Kesey doesn't have Chief's brawling idol in mind when he recounts in the 1970 interview an incident through which he exposes the limitations of expecting to change one's outer world without suffering loss while, at the same time, gently expressing his fondness for the charming, foolish Quixotes who try:

KESEY: I'll tell you a little story. Wolfe was there and this was towards the end of the time he was hanging around. We were up at my brother's farm, Spaceheater House, and we were moving this statue up onto the wall, and he had painted it with pigment. He had not used the right stuff, so the paint had never dried. Tom Wolfe was out there, and he had his note pad, and me and Ramrod were trying to move this thing up on the wall, and obviously we needed help. And there was only the three of us, and Tom Wolfe was out there, and he was dressed the way he always dresses, in his blue suit, and we finally says, “Goddammit, Tom, give us a hand.” So he put his note pad down, and he went to put it up there, and he got this huge swatch of red on the side of his coat, of oil pigment. We stood there, in this moment of realization, and I told him, “You just can't expect to fool around with it without getting it on you.” And that's the last time I ever saw Tom Wolfe. But I love him.

(Garage Sale 207)

How or if the film portrays the complexity of Kesey's view continues to fuel critical dialogue among writers such as Donald Palumbo, Thomas J. Slater, and George B. MacDonald, whose works address the various issues of transforming literature to film. The McMurphys of text and cinema may share external characteristics, winning our hurrahs as they walk tall against the debilitating, oppressive force of the Combine. But the renegade Irishman of the novel is perceived differently because of the complicated effects of Chief Bromden's narrative perspective. In the opening scene of the novel, Chief retreats into the shadows of the broom closet where he tries to escape to the safety of what he remembers as a saner, happier past, but “like always when I try to place my thoughts in the past and hide there, the fear close at hand seeps in through the memory” (6). The closet is only one form of darkness and retreat; the real terror in the humor of the book is the unbounded territory of madness, the abysmal power of personal blackness, the fright of “my dark,” as Chief says (4, italics mine). Indeed, Chief's private darkness is much greater than that which we experience in public cinema when we enjoy Cuckoo's Nest the film.

Works Cited

Barsness, John A. “Ken Kesey: The Hero in Modern Dress.” “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest”: Text and Criticism. Ed. John Clark Pratt. Viking Critical Library. New York: Viking, 1973, 419-28. Rpt. from Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association 23.1 (1969): 27-33.

Boyers, Robert. “Attitudes toward Sex in American ‘High Culture.’” Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Sciences March 1968: 36-52.

Fiedler, Leslie A. The Return of the Vanishing American. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.

Hauck, Richard B. “The Comic Christ and the Modern Reader.” College English 31 (1970): 498-506.

Kesey, Ken. Garage Sale. New York: Viking, 1973.

———. “Letter to Ken Babbs: [‘Peyote and Point of View’].” In Pratt 336-39. Rpt. from Collection in U of Oregon Library.

———. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. 1962. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Kroll, Jack. “You're All Right, Jack.” Newsweek 24 Nov. 1975: 113-14.

MacDonald, George B. “Control by Camera: Milos Forman as Subjective Narrator.” A Casebook on Ken Kesey's “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.” Ed. George J. Searles. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1992. 163-72.

McCreadie, Marsha. “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: Some Reasons for One Happy Adaptation.” Literature/Film Quarterly 5 (1977): 125-31.

Olderman, Raymond M. Beyond the Waste Land. New Haven: Yale UP, 1972.

Palumbo, Donald. “Kesey's and Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: The Metamorphosis as Novel Becomes Film.” CEA Critic 45.2 (1983): 25-32.

Pearson, Carol. “The Cowboy Saint and the Indian Poet: The Comic Hero in Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Studies in American Humor 1 (1974): 91-98.

Safer, Elaine B. “‘It's the Truth Even If It Didn't Happen’: Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Literature/Film Quarterly 5 (1977): 132-41.

Sherwood, Terry G. “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Comic Strip.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 13.1 (1971): 96-109.

Slater, Thomas J. “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: A Tale of Two Decades.” Film and Literature: A Comparative Approach to Adaptation. Studies in Comparative Literature 19. Ed. Wendell Aycock, and Michael Schoenecke. Lubbock: Texas Tech UP, 1988. 45-58.

Waldmier, Joseph J. “Two Novelists of the Absurd: Heller and Kesey.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 5 (1964): 192-204.

Wallis, Bruce E. “Christ in the Cuckoo's Nest: or, the Gospel according to Ken Kesey.” Cithara 12.1 (1972): 52-58.

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968.

Wood, Michael. “No, But I Read the Book.” The New York Review of Books 5 Feb. 1976: 3-4.

Elena Semino and Kate Swindlehurst (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Semino, Elena, and Kate Swindlehurst. “Metaphor and Mind Style in Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Style 30, no. 1 (spring 1996): 143-66.

[In the following essay, Semino and Swindlehurst focus on the metaphors that inform Chief Bromden's worldview in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, asserting that the character's idiosyncrasies lead to both his mental and physical liberation.]


Roger Fowler coined the term “mind style” in 1977 to describe the phenomenon in which the language of a text projects a characteristic world view, a particular way of perceiving and making sense of the world. In William Golding's The Inheritors, for example, the reader must contend with the peculiar mind style of Lok, the Neanderthal man whose point of view is privileged in the first and longest part of the novel. Lok appears to have little understanding of human agency and of cause-and-effect relationships, and he seems to believe that inanimate entities are capable of volition and deliberate actions. An analysis of the language of the novel reveals that such impressions can be traced to the text's unusual shortage of transitive constructions with animate subjects and to its frequency of inanimate nouns (such as “bushes” and “log”) serving as subjects of verbs that normally require an animate agent (such as “twitch” and “go”) (Halliday; Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel 104-06; Leech and Short 31-36 et passim).

Fowler's work and others' subsequent studies have isolated a range of linguistic phenomena that can contribute to the projection of mind style, including primarily choices of vocabulary, grammar, and transitivity (Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel, Linguistics Criticism; Leech and Short; Bockting Character and Personality, “Mind Style”). In this essay we highlight the way in which metaphorical patterns can also be instrumental in the creation of mind style (see also Black). Our discussion focuses particularly on the mind style of the narrator in Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and builds on the cognitive approaches to the study of metaphor developed by George Lakoff and others over the last two decades (Lakoff and Johnson; Johnson; Lakoff and Turner).

In the first part of the essay we outline the theoretical background to our claim that the notion of mind style and the cognitive theory of metaphor can be usefully combined. We then discuss the way in which Kesey exploits metaphor in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest to convey the narrator's idiosyncratic view of the world and his progress towards mental and physical liberation.


In a recent article, Ineke Bockting offers the following definition of mind style:

Mind style is concerned with the construction and expression in language of the conceptualisation of reality in a particular mind.

(“Mind Style” 159)

This definition rests on two central assumptions. The first is that what we call “reality” is the result of perceptual and cognitive processes that may vary in part from person to person; thus individuals may differ in their conceptualizations of the same experience: for example, in how they identify people and entities, in how they attribute agency, responsibility, and goals, in how they establish temporal and causal relationships, and so on. The second assumption is that language is a central part of the process by which we make sense of the world around us; thus the texts we produce reflect our particular way of conceptualizing reality.

The study of mind style therefore involves the identification of linguistic patterns that account for the perception of a distinct world view during the reading of a text. The notion of “patterns” is particularly important here. Mind style arises from the frequent and consistent occurrence of particular linguistic choices and structures within a text. As Fowler puts it:

Cumulatively, consistent structural options, agreeing in cutting the presented world to one pattern or another, give rise to an impression of a world-view, what I shall call a “mind style.”

(Linguistics and the Novel 76)

In some cases, such consistent choices may be so unconventional that the result is a puzzlingly opaque account of what turns out to be a fairly ordinary and familiar event. Such is often the case in the part of The Inheritors that reflects Lok's mind style as well as in the section of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury narrated by Benjy, a mentally retarded thirty-three-year-old. The linguistic devices used in these novels to produce two almost impenetrable world views have been analyzed in great detail (on The Inheritors see Halliday; Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel, Linguistic Criticism; Leech and Short; and Black; on The Sound and the Fury see Fowler, Linguistic Criticism; Leech and Short; and Bockting, Character and Personality, “Mind Style”). They include underlexicalization (for example, Lok's use of the term “stick” to refer to a bow), peculiar transitivity patterns (for example, a low frequency of transitive constructions with animate subjects), and the prevalence of simple grammatical structures (for example, the use of coordination rather than subordination). In her analysis of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Bockting argues that peculiarities in the ways in which narrators report other people's words can also be exploited in the creation of mind style. She shows that the narratives of the three Compson brothers are characterized by different but consistent patterns in the representation of other characters' speech, and that these can be interpreted as symptoms of different types of mental disorder (Character and Personality 41-92; “Mind Style” 162-72).

Overall, however, the notion of mind style is not restricted to highly opaque texts or to narratives reflecting pathological disorders. Fowler discusses, for example, the peculiar mind style typical of the protagonists of Gothic novels, who constantly feel threatened by mysterious and potentially dangerous surroundings (Linguistics and the Novel 106-09). Here the narratives pose no problems of comprehension, but simply reflect a heightened awareness of the force and power of nature. Geoffrey Leech and Michael Short make explicit the point that all texts present their own particular mind styles, which may be attributed to characters, narrators, or authors, and that all mind styles could be ranked on a scale ranging from “natural and uncontrived” at one extreme to “unorthodox” at the other (188-89). Indeed, since no representation of reality is totally neutral or objective, it is undeniable that mind style is an inherent property of all texts. On the other hand, it is difficult to see the practical usefulness of the concept at the “normal” end of Leech and Short's scale, where (as Short himself recently noted) mind style cannot be easily distinguished from more general definitions of style (Short 2504). In other words, although in theory mind style applies to all texts, in practice its relevance is limited to cases where a text's view of reality is perceived by the reader to suggest a particularly striking, idiosyncratic, or deviant understanding of the world. In such cases, an analysis of mind style provides a useful way to understand the workings of the text and to explain its effects.

Further complicating the definition of mind style is its close relationship with the concept of point of view. Clearly, we can perceive a character's mind style only if we are presented with his or her point of view. The reverse, however, is not always true. The access to a character's point of view does not necessarily imply access to his or her mind style. For example, the openings of both Dickens's Great Expectations and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man take the point of view of a child. Only the latter, however, projects a child-like mind style through its use of simple sentence structures and of lexical terms such as “moocow.” Great Expectations, on the other hand, does not even attempt to recreate the cognitive habits and limitations of Pip as a young child. At a basic level, therefore, point of view and mind style are clearly distinct: point of view concerns the angle or perspective from which the fictional world is presented, and mind style the way in which the fictional world is perceived and conceptualized by the mind whose point of view is adopted.

Unfortunately, such a simple explanation does not account for all potential difficulties. Fowler introduced the notion of “mind style” as an alternative to “ideological point of view” or “point of view on the ideological plane,” both of which he describes as excessively “cumbersome” terms (Linguistic Criticism 150). Since then, however, the two notions seem to have taken on separate definitions; studies tend to deal exclusively with one (on ideological point of view see, for example, Simpson) or the other (on mind style see Leech and Short; Black; Bockting, Character and Personality, “Mind Style”). Having carefully reviewed these discussions, we believe it is possible to make a distinction between ideological point of view and mind style that could find application not just in academic research but also in the teaching of language and literature. Ideological point of view refers specifically to the attitudes, beliefs, values, and judgments shared by people with similar social, cultural, and political backgrounds. For example, the attitude toward native Africans that Conrad attributes to Marlowe in some of his novels is best described as part of a particular ideological point of view. Mind style, on the other hand, refers to the way in which a particular reality is perceived and conceptualized in cognitive terms. It relates to the mental abilities and tendencies of an individual; such traits may be completely personal and idiosyncratic or they may be shared, for example by people with similar cognitive habits or disorders. In short, ideological point of view captures the evaluative and socially shared aspects of world views, while mind style captures their cognitive and more idiosyncratic aspects. Which concept should be applied will depend on which features are perceived to be foregrounded in the world view of a particular text.


The last twenty years have witnessed what Gerard Steen has called a “cognitive turn” in the study of metaphor (3). Traditionally, metaphor had been regarded as a deviant and striking use of language, typical of specialized genres such as poetry and political oratory. Since the late 1970s, however, linguists, psychologists, and philosophers, who have started to consider metaphor a cognitive as well as a linguistic phenomenon, have highlighted its pervasiveness in both language and thought. The work of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner, in particular, has led to a view of metaphor as a central cognitive tool that we use to structure abstract, unfamiliar, and less clearly delineated domains, such as love, life, and language (the tenors or target domains of the metaphors) in terms of concrete, familiar, and more clearly delineated domains, such as containers, journeys, and machines (the vehicles or source domains) (Metaphors We Live By; The Body in the Mind; More than Cool Reason).

The cognitive approach to metaphor focuses particularly on conventional metaphors and their implications for the world view of the members of a particular culture. Lakoff and Johnson, highlighting recurring metaphorical patterns in the English language, claim that these metaphors must reflect associations across domains that are part of the shared conceptual system of English speakers. The frequency of linguistic metaphors such as “I've had a full life” and “get the most out of life,” for example, suggests that the conventional conceptual metaphor “Life is a Container” is central to the way in which English-speaking cultures conceive of the domain of life (51). Conventional metaphorical patterns, in other words, are seen as an integral part of the particular world view of a culture or linguistic community. Conversely, nonconventional uses of metaphor provide an opportunity to go beyond culturally shared modes of thought by offering new ways of looking at reality (Lakoff and Johnson 53; Lakoff and Turner 67ff.). In their work on poetic metaphors, Lakoff and Turner show how poets not only invent new metaphors but often make creative use of the conventional metaphorical resources that characterize everyday language. For example, they extend conventional metaphors to include new connections between domains, elaborate them in original ways, or join them together in new combinations. As a consequence, while poems are largely understood in the light of the conventional metaphorical system of a particular culture, they may also offer new views of reality precisely because poetry allows conventional metaphors to be used creatively and nonconventionally.

This essay builds on the cognitive approach to metaphor in a number of ways. First, whereas cognitive theorists have highlighted the relationship between conventional metaphors and the world view of a particular culture, we explore the way in which consistent and nonconventional metaphorical patterns within a particular text reflect the conceptual system of its creator (or, in the case of Kesey's novel, its first person narrator). We suggest that, at an individual level, the systematic use of a particular metaphor (or metaphors) reflects an idiosyncratic cognitive habit, a personal way of making sense of and talking about the world: in other words, a particular mind style. Second, we suggest that the concept of mind style is highly relevant to the cognitive theory of metaphor since it can capture the cumulative effect of consistent and idiosyncratic uses of metaphor throughout a text. In their study of poetry, Lakoff and Turner discuss the effects of nonconventional metaphors both individually and in combination and show how a detailed analysis of the metaphorical system of a particular poem accounts both for the way in which it is understood and for the view of reality it projects. In our study of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, we extend Lakoff and Turner's work by focusing on the creative use of metaphor throughout a novel and on its implications for the reader's perception of the narrator's view of reality. Our analysis provides further insight into some of the points that Lakoff and Turner make in relation to metaphor in poetry. According to Lakoff and Turner, while the conventional basis of many poetic metaphors makes it possible for poets to communicate effectively with their audiences, it is the creative way in which they employ conventional metaphors that enables them to convey fresh and original perspectives on reality. Similarly, Kesey creates the peculiar mind style of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest not through a set of completely new metaphorical connections, but by developing and combining a small number of conventional metaphors in English. Thus, on the one hand, the novel's mind style strikes readers as characteristic and deviant, and on the other hand the narrative remains accessible and comprehensible in spite of the peculiarities of the narrator's world view.

Metaphor's potential for creating mind style has received relatively little attention. Although most critics concerned with mind style comment on the effects of similes and metaphors, they tend to treat them as local phenomena or as relating to lexical patterns or transitivity. Fowler, for example, mentions metaphor among the “local devices” that “may suggest specific reinterpretations of experience at particular points in the text,” but he apparently overlooks the possibility that texts may display patterns of figurative language (Linguistic Criticism 150). Most discussions of metaphor in relation to mind style have been largely limited to personification. Both Fowler and Leech and Short, for example, comment on the way in which personifying metaphors may be used to project a world view that attributes a potentially threatening animacy to nature (Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel 108-09; Leech and Short 198-99).

Surprisingly, in spite of the work of Lakoff and others over the last fifteen years, discussions of mind style since the “cognitive turn” have continued to ignore the role of metaphor. One may speculate that the implications of a theory focusing on conventional uses of metaphor may be slow to filter through to an area such as that of mind style, where the emphasis is on deviant and idiosyncratic uses of language. As we have suggested, however, the insights of cognitive theorists that connect conventional metaphors and culture also hold important implications for connecting idiosyncratic uses of metaphor and individual world view. Indeed, metaphor's relevance to mind style can be seen in Elizabeth Black's “Metaphor, Simile and Cognition in Golding's The Inheritors,” the only study to date in which the cognitive theory of metaphor is applied in examining the world view of a particular novel. Black argues that Lok's alien view of reality derives from Golding's systematic and creative use of conventional metaphors to give life to inanimate objects. She also points out that many expressions that a reader would normally understand as metaphors appear to be literal representations of Lok's perceptions or, indeed, instances of underlexicalization. In this way, she argues, The Inheritors juxtaposes two incompatible mind sets. Black also shows how a crucial transition in Lok's intellectual development is marked by a shift from metaphor to simile. After the moment when, in the words of Golding's narrator, “Lok discovered ‘Like,’” he acquires the capacity to distinguish between similarity and identity and to engage in analytical thought. Black does not, however, explicitly discuss the theoretical advantages of combining the notion of mind style with the cognitive theory of metaphor.

In our analysis of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, we will go further than Black's study does in investigating the significance of the contrast between simile and metaphor and in exploring the way in which an author may elaborate on and combine conventional metaphors to project a distinctive mind style. In addition, we will show how Kesey varies metaphorical patterns as the story unfolds to chart the development of the narrator's mind style.


Critical acclaim and popular opinion have elevated Kesey's first novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, published in 1962, to something of a modern classic, much read and written about as well as adapted for film. The novel is narrated in the first person by the half-Indian “Chief” Bromden, one of the patients in the mental institution where almost all of the action occurs. Bromden is a long-term patient (most describe him as a paranoid schizophrenic), and the novel traces the stages of his liberation beginning with the arrival on the ward of a new admission, McMurphy, and ending with the narrator's escape from the hospital. This gradual process of liberation is triggered by McMurphy's rebellion against Miss Ratched, the “Big Nurse” who runs the psychiatric ward by means of a dehumanizing and repressive regime of terror. Although at the end McMurphy is mercifully killed by Bromden after a lobotomy has reduced him to a vegetable, his influence allows Bromden and most of the other patients to recover enough self-confidence and humanity to face the outside world again.

The novel is in a sense a product of its time, the anti-authoritarian and iconoclastic sixties, celebrating the rebellion of an individual against the system. In particular, it reflects contemporary dissatisfaction with established psychiatric practices and institutions—lobotomy and electroconvulsive therapy, institutionalization and overreliance on drugs—and it points the finger at society. Suggesting that the novel can be seen as more than this, however, critical commentary has ranged from the psychological and the mythical or religious—which describes McMurphy variously as the Grail Knight and a Christ figure, a kind of disruptive redeemer who loses his life in the process of saving others—to those that challenge what some view as the novel's racism and sexism, in which the Big Nurse and her black assistants embody the evil forces of a repressive hospital and a repressive society (for a broad overview of different approaches, see Searles).

Although some critical attention has been given to Kesey's use of metaphor (see, for example, Adams, Kunz), no study to date has focused systematically on figurative language in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest or on the way in which Bromden's narrative projects a distinctive and idiosyncratic mind style. Our analysis will focus on Bromden's consistent use of similes and metaphors involving underlying conceptual metaphors in which almost everything (society, the hospital, the therapists, the inmates, and Bromden himself) is a machine. The patterning of these similes and metaphors charts the variations of Bromden's mood and his progress towards a different view of the world.


From the very beginning of the novel, Bromden's language, non-standard in a way that convincingly creates the sense of his interior monologue, produces the impression of a mind that works oddly, that tends to perceive things in an unusual way: the impression, in other words, of a distinct and identifiable mind style. Consider, for example, the novel's opening (sentence numbers have been supplied for easy reference):

They're out there (1).

Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them (2).

They're mopping when I come out of the dorm, all three of them hating everything, the time of day, the place they're at here, the people they got to work around (3). When they hate like this, better if they don't see me (4). I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio (5).

“Here's the Chief (6). The soo-pah Chief, fellas (7). Ol' Chief Broom (8). Here you go, Chief Broom … (9).”

Stick a mop in my hand and motion me to the spot they aim for me to clean today, and I go (10). One swats the back of my hands with a broom handle to hurry me past (11).

“Haw, you look at 'im shag it (12)? Big enough to eat apples off my head an' he mine me like a baby (13).”

They laugh and then I hear them mumbling behind me, heads close together (14). Hum of black machinery, humming hate and death and other hospital secrets (15). They don't bother not talking out loud about their hate secrets when I'm nearby because they think I'm deaf and dumb (16). Everybody think so (17). I'm cagey enough to fool them that much (18). If my being half Indian ever helped me in any way in this dirty life, it helped me being cagey, helped me all these years (19).

I'm mopping near the ward door when a key hits it from the other side and I know it's the Big Nurse by the way the lockworks cleave to the key, soft and swift and familiar she been around locks so long (20). She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her and I see her fingers trail across the polished steel—tip of each finger the same colour of her lips (21). Funny orange (22). Like the tip of a soldering iron (23). Colour so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can't tell which (24).

In these sentences, as striking as the odd perceptions is Bromden's tendency to present as “facts” events that the reader is more likely to attribute to his altered state of mind, for example, his claim that the orderlies “commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.” The nature of the “truth” of the tale is problematic: Bromden is, in spite of himself, a partly unreliable narrator, and as a result readers must decide for themselves which parts of his narrative really happen in the world of the story and which only take place in his imagination (see Ryan 113). In addition, Bromden's language exhibits some of the linguistic deviations frequently discussed in studies of mind style. In sentence 4, for example, when he uses the normally transitive verb “hate” without an object (“When they hate like this”), he seems to suggest that, in his world view, hating is not necessarily a transitive activity, but a psychological condition that does not always require a target.

By far the most striking feature of Bromden's narrative is his systematic reference to images related to machines: the orderlies possess “special sensitive equipment” by which to perceive Bromden's fear, their eyes are like radio tubes, and their whispered talk is the “hum of black machinery”; and the color of the Big Nurse's fingers and lips is like “the tip of a soldering iron.” Over the course of the narrative we discover that Bromden spent a year studying electronics at college and then joined the Army as an electrician's assistant during World War II. Thus, while he has great familiarity with electronic and mechanical objects, he is also afraid of machines because he associates them with the war and in particular the air raid in Germany that precipitated his current mental disturbances.

Bromden uses the familiar but threatening domain of machinery to talk about a wide range of subjects from the world in which he lives, particularly those he finds frightening or confusing, such as the hospital or others' emotional outbursts. Bromden's language thus contains a great variety of linguistic realizations of conceptual metaphors drawing on the source domain of electrical and mechanical objects. These metaphors creatively extend some common conventional metaphors in English, such as “Minds/People Are Machines” (for example, “I'm not functioning properly today” and “I'm running out of steam”), and “Institutions/Activities Are Machines” (for example “a well-oiled mechanism” and “putting a spanner in the works”) (see also Lakoff and Johnson 27; Lakoff and Turner 132). In other words, the central characteristic of Bromden's mind style can be traced to a very limited subset of conventional metaphors that have been systematically extended and that serve as the core of his conceptual system. This explains the imbalance in Bromden's linguistic and mental abilities: due to his background knowledge, he is overlexicalized in the semantic area of machinery, but he is relatively underlexicalized when it comes to the inner workings of people and, to some extent, society. He therefore draws on one area to make up for some of his limitations in the other. As we will also show, however, machinery images represent more than just a cognitive habit, or Bromden's favorite way of making sense of and describing the world; on many occasions, the language of the novel suggests that the distinction in Bromden's mind between source and target domains tends to break down so that he seems to believe that people, for example, really are machines. As a consequence, Bromden's use of machinery images also becomes a symptom of his mental disorder.


As is evident from the opening of the novel, Bromden's mechanical images can take the form of similes such as “eyes glittering out … like the hard glitter of radio tubes” and “[l]ike the tip of a soldering iron” or of metaphors such as “hum of black machinery.” In other cases we are faced with expressions that the reader could interpret as metaphors but that appear to be, for Bromden, literally true, as in the reference to the “special sensitive equipment” the orderlies use to detect Bromden's fear, which may be not a mechanical metaphor for their perceptual abilities but a literal representation of what Bromden believes to be the case. This alternation between similes, metaphors, and what we may oxymoronically describe as “literal” metaphors turns out to be a consistent feature of Bromden's narrative. Consider the following examples, all relating to the Big Nurse:

(a) [s]itting there is silence … quiet as an electric alarm about to go off.


(b) Her nostrils flare open, and every breath she draws she gets bigger. … She works the hinges in her elbows and fingers. I hear a small squeak. She starts moving, and I get back against the wall, and when she rumbles past she's already big as a truck, trailing that wicker bag behind in her exhaust like a semi behind a Jimmy Diesel. Her lips are parted, and her smile's going out before her like a radiator grill. I can smell the hot oil and magneto spark when she goes past, and every step hits the floor she blows up a size bigger, blowing and puffing, roll down anything in her path!


(c) [H]er skill, her fantastic mechanical power flooded back into her, analysing the situation and reporting to her that all she had to do was keep quiet.


The three quotations contain different linguistic realizations of one of Bromden's favorite conceptual metaphors: “The Big Nurse is a Machine.” In (a) this underlying association is realized by means of a simile, “quiet as an electric alarm about to go off.” As explicit comparisons, similes highlight some form of similarity between domains perceived as clearly distinct. Thus, (a) suggests that for Bromden the Big Nurse and electric alarms are different types of entities, and he likens them simply to render his perception of the tenseness of the situation. In (b), on the other hand, Bromden combines similes (“big as a truck,” “like a semi behind a Jimmy Diesel,” “like a radiator grill”) with expressions that lack explicit markers of comparison in describing the Big Nurse's anger in terms of machinery (“she works the hinges in her elbows and fingers”; “I can smell the hot oil and magneto spark when she goes past”). Because they are interspersed with similes, the latter expressions can be interpreted as straightforward metaphors whereby the projection of the source onto the target domain does not threaten the distinction between the two. And yet, the reference to such details as hinges and the smell of oil may also suggest some confusion in Bromden's mind as to the literal or figurative status of his description of the woman's anger. In (c) we find no similes: the claim concerning the Big Nurse's “mechanical power” can be seen either as a metaphor for her ability to evaluate the situation or as a literal account of Bromden's understanding of her reaction.

As we mentioned earlier, Black has pointed out similar ambiguities in The Inheritors, arguing that they result in the perception of a conflict between the reader's and the character's world views. Indeed, it is often claimed that a literal interpretation of metaphors results in the construction of an impossible world, one that clashes with what we regard as the “real” world (Levin; Eco 68). In Kesey's novel, a literal reading of the machinery imagery results in a world in which people are made up of mechanical parts. What is interesting about Bromden is that he seems to oscillate between a figurative and a literal use of machinery images and that this oscillation reflects his paranoid tendencies: when he is relatively calm and happy, the references to machinery tend to be more clearly figurative (and also tend to decrease in frequency, as we will show below); when he is frightened and under stress, they reflect his distorted perceptions, his belief that he inhabits a terrifying world in which the machinery in everything breaks through its thin layer of skin at every available opportunity. In other words, his knowledge of machines serves both as a useful means of thinking and talking about the world and as a source of delusion and obsession.


The source domain of machinery is what Bromden uses to grapple with almost every aspect of his life, and he draws on a wide range of mechanical objects: radios, robots, electrical tools, trucks, radiators, engines, electric saws, drills, and clocks. In order to fully appreciate Bromden's world view, we now turn to those aspects of his world that serve as target domains of the machinery metaphors.

At the most general level, Bromden sometimes adopts a conceptual metaphor that can be stated as “The World is a Machine Room.” For example, a memory of an early encounter with the government developers who negotiated the expropriation of his tribe's land has the sun “turned up brighter than before” (165), and the swing on which one of the strangers is sitting “nailed out at a slant by the sun” (166). More specifically, it is the organization of society that Bromden systematically describes in terms of machinery. The world outside the hospital is run by what he calls the Combine, which unites the industrial giant with the combine harvester: huge, multipurposeful, unwieldy, efficient, lethal. The term is deliberately vague, but Bromden makes clear from the start that the Combine is “a huge organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as she [the Big Nurse] has the Inside” (27). The word “adjust” clearly suggests a mechanical component that can be altered slightly to work more efficiently.

Bromden's overlexicalization in machine terminology is evident in his description of the Combine's method of “networking the land with copper wire and crystal” (210) and in his perception of the Combine's power: after leaving the hospital for the fishing trip organized by McMurphy, he is able to “feel the pressures of different beams and frequencies coming from all directions, working to push and bend you one way of another, feel the Combine at work” (186). The Combine is the massive mechanism that reduced his father to a shriveled drunkard (“It worked on him for years”) and that Bromden blames for the awful conformity and compliance he “sees” (unlike McMurphy and the others) when they are heading for the ocean: the “string of full-grown men in mirrored suits and machined hats,” “the five thousand houses munched out identical by a machine,” and the “five thousand kids in green corduroy pants and white shirts” (186-87).

The mental hospital in which Bromden has lived for the past twenty years plays a crucial role in the Combine's control over the world. He describes the ward as

a factory for the Combine. It's for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back into society, all fixed up and good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse's heart; something that came in all twisted different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold.


More specifically, the metaphorical system that forms the backbone of Bromden's world view includes the following conceptual metaphors: “The Hospital is a Machine Room,” “The Staff are Robots,” “The Patients are Broken Machines,” and “Treatment is the Repair or Installation of Mechanical Parts.” Miss Ratched is “a high-ranking official” for the Combine (148) and, as we have seen, often the target domain of machinery metaphors. Indeed, her surname is a near homophone of “ratchet,” “a mechanism that engages the teeth of a wheel permitting motion in one direction only” (McMahan 146). Bromden conceives of the Big Nurse's power, in particular, in terms of an electrical current that “extends in all directions on hairlike wires too small for anybody's eye but mine: I see her sit in the centre of this web of wires like a watchful robot” (27). The apparent ease with which the Big Nurse communicates her orders to the orderlies is also explained in terms of electric waves that they can transmit and receive, thanks to their “special equipment”:

Years of training, and all three black boys tune in closer and closer with the Big Nurse's frequency. One by one they are able to disconnect the direct wires and operate on beams. … They are in contact on a high-voltage wave length of hate, and the black boys are out there performing her bidding before she even thinks it.


The machine model also accounts for Bromden's sense that he lacks control over his actions and thoughts, his feeling that he is being controlled by intangible forces. The source domain of machinery makes these intangibles concrete, makes them “real,” and provides a physical justification for his disorientation:

Everything the guys think and say and do is all worked out months in advance, based on the little notes the nurse makes during the day. This is typed and fed into the machine I hear humming behind the steel door in the rear of the Nurses' Station. A number of Order Daily Cards are returned, punched with a pattern of little square holes. At the beginning of each day the properly dated OD card is inserted in a slot in the steel door and the walls hum up.


Even the passing of time in the ward is subject to mechanical control: the Big Nurse opens the throttle to create an “awful scramble of shaves and breakfasts and appointments and lunches and medications” or reverses the dial to “dead stop” (64).

The condition of different categories of inmates in the ward is explained in terms of different types of mechanical faults. While the so-called Acutes are “still sick enough to be fixed” (17), long-term patients such as Bromden himself are beyond repair:

What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can't be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.


Although such descriptions seem to suggest that Bromden passively accepts the system and its methods, his accounts of the treatment implicitly convey Kesey's own critique of mental institutions. The cure administered by the hospital is described as the insertion into the patient's brain of “head installations” (18) or “controls” (45) that produce a dull machine-generated conformity. Once discharged, a fully adjusted patient turns into a model worker and citizen

as the Delayed Reaction Elements the technicians installed lend nimble skills to his fingers. … When he finally runs down after a pre-set number of years, the town loves him dearly and the paper prints his picture.


Bromden openly dismisses what, for the hospital, is an adjustment “success” as “just another robot for the Combine” (19).

The source domain of machinery is also employed by Bromden to account for his own experiences and reactions. In his description of the unrestrainable panic triggered by the orderlies' attempt to shave him, he says, “it's not a will-power thing any more when they get to my temples. It's a … button, pushed, says Air Raid Air Raid, turns me on so loud it's like no sound” (12). As we discussed earlier, the machine model enables Bromden to explain his impression that time moves slowly or quickly, and also to account for the background noise in his head: the walls “whir and hum” (31) with the workings beneath the surface or produce a “dull, padded rumbling somewhere deep in the guts of the building” (71).

Bromden is underlexicalized in relation to emotions and to the workings of his own mind. As a result, he conceives of even his bouts of dislocation and anxiety in terms of mechanical metaphors. A key feature of Bromden's consciousness is the fog machine: he believes that his intermittent sense of disorientation must come from some outside mechanism, and he therefore conceives of his confusion as concrete rather than abstract and as caused by the robots who control him:

Right now, she's got the fog machine switched on, and it's rolling in so fast I can't see a thing but her face, rolling in thicker and thicker. … And the more I think about how nothing can be helped, the faster the fog rolls in.


Once again the use of the machine metaphor has its roots in Bromden's past experience: the military fogging of overseas airfields, the purpose of which was to mask secret activity or to obscure a target. This experience has given him the mechanical model of “an ordinary compressor,” the sound of which he now associates with an impending sense of dislocation: “I heard the compressor start pumping in the grill a few minutes back … and already the mist is oozing across the floor so thick my pants legs are wet” (105). Bromden's mind is beset by sounds, both real and imaginary, and the panic attacks announced by the fog machine are often accompanied, as above, by incontinence, for which he must find an external cause. The fog provides safety from potentially threatening contact with the environment (“you can slip back in it and be safe” [102]) and also explains some of Bromden's difficulties in relating to others: an almost obsessive observer, he has withdrawn from human communication, both verbal and physical, and the fog accounts for the way people suddenly loom up in his consciousness, much too close for comfort, or drift into his frame of vision, off-center and unreachable. He feels himself to be at the mercy of unpredictable human movement, always unable to reach out, or threatened with sudden unexpected contact:

then some guy wandering as lost as you would all of a sudden be right there before your eyes … so clear both of you had to look away.


There's old Pete, face like a searchlight. He's fifty yards off to my left, but I can see him plain as though there wasn't any fog at all. Or maybe he's up right close and real small, I can't be sure.


Thus, the target domains of Bromden's machine metaphors include phenomena that he has difficulty understanding (for example, communication between the Big Nurse and the orderlies and his own psychological states); situations that he finds upsetting (for example, the Big Nurse getting angry); and experiences that make him feel vulnerable and frightened (for example, contact with the staff in the ward, the routine in the hospital, the world outside). The source domain of machinery enables him to use what he knows best to make sense of what he finds difficult. The machine images, moreover, express his constant fear and sense of helplessness in the face of a system that seems unbeatable and, when used in what appears to be their literal sense, reflect his view of reality distorted by paranoia. The reader also knows, however, that even at their most literal Bromden's machine images say something “true” about the world they help to portray. They expose the mechanization of contemporary society, the dehumanization of psychiatric patients in Kesey's America, and the effects of electro-shock therapy. Bromden's account of himself as a casualty of a mechanical world is in this sense perfectly accurate. Harding, one of the Acutes, says, “I've heard that Chief, years ago, received more than two hundred shock treatments. … Look at him: … a six-foot-eight sweeping machine, scared of its own shadow” (59). In this sense it is possible to apply to Bromden's references to machinery the gloss with which he prefaces the telling of his story: “it's the truth, even if it didn't happen.”


A second recurring conceptual metaphor, which Bromden often combines with machinery metaphors, is “Powerful is Big,” where power and strength are related to size. In quote (b) above, for example, the Big Nurse's anger is described not simply as a mechanical metamorphosis, but also as a progressive swelling of the body: “every breath she draws she gets bigger. … [S]he's already big as a truck … [A]nd every step hits the floor she blows up a size bigger” (79). Indeed, the repeated use of the adjective “big” in reference to Miss Ratched reflects Bromden's fearful perception of her power rather than her actual size. Conversely, loss of power and strength is described as a decrease in size. Bromden himself is six feet eight inches (“the biggest Indian I ever saw,” according to McMurphy), but he feels that his experience has physically shrunk him. He says to McMurphy, “[y]ou are bigger and tougher than I am. … I used to be big, but not no more. You're twice the size of me” (17). Bromden sees his father's experience, too—his marriage to a “town woman” and the government's systematic dismantling of his tribal heritage—as a process of shrinking:

Everybody worked on him because he was big, and wouldn't give in, and did like he pleased. … He fought it a long time till my mother made him too little to fight any more and he gave up. … he was too little anymore.


In contrast, as we have already seen, anger and distress make people swell physically in Bromden's eyes. Ruckly, provoked by one of the aids, “turns red and his veins clog up at one end. This puffs him up” (19). His memory of Pete Bancini's loud outburst has his arm “pumping bigger and bigger” and eventually “swell[ing] and clench[ing] shut” (46). Physical size is combined in Bromden's world view with mechanical (and inhuman) power; the Big Nurse's “puffing up” in rage renders her “big as a truck” and then “a size bigger” (79) or “red and swelling like she's gonna blow apart any second” (113).

In the descriptions of McMurphy, on the other hand, size correlates from the start with positive human qualities: “He sounds big … he's as broad as Papa was tall. … I see how big and beat up his hands are” (15). He is “the big redheaded brawling Irishman, the cowboy out of the TV set walking down the middle of the street to meet a dare” (155), and a “giant come out of the sky” (210). When McMurphy challenges the system, in Bromden's view “he gets bigger and bigger” (112). Immediately before he smashes the window of the Nurses' Station he is “big as a house!” (155). McMurphy's ability to induce warmth, confidence, and strength in Bromden is also conveyed in terms of physical effects on the size of the narrator's own body. When Bromden shakes hands with him.

my hand commenced to feel peculiar and went to swelling up out there on my stick of an arm, like he was transmitting his own blood into it. It rang with blood and power. It blowed up near as big as his.


Bromden needs McMurphy's promise to restore his size through his “special body-buildin' course” in order to believe himself capable of lifting the control panel that he eventually uses to break out of the hospital. Triggered by McMurphy, the gradual revival of Bromden's own humanity and self-esteem is consistently described in terms of physical growth: “I looked down and saw how my foot was bigger than I'd ever remembered it, like McMurphy's just saying it had blowed it twice its size” (210). The almost magical as well as physical effect of McMurphy's presence among the ward's patients is expressed in a particularly powerful metaphor when Bromden describes the laughter on the fishing trip: “It started slow and pumped itself full, swelling the men bigger and bigger” (195).

As in the case of the machinery metaphor, Bromden's equation of power and physical size corresponds to a conventional metaphor in English: “Powerful/Strong/Important is Big.” This metaphor is reflected in such idiomatic expressions as “here comes the big boss” and “today is the big day,” where “big” does not suggest actual physical size but rather status and importance. Indeed, the history of adjectives such as “great,” for example, shows a shift from a concrete meaning relating to size to a more abstract meaning having to do with importance, success, and power (as in “a great achievement” and “a great leader”). What is peculiar about Bromden's mind style is his systematic and partly creative use of the metaphor as well as the impression that what is metaphorical for the reader is in fact literally true for him. The usefulness of such metaphors, both in the everyday world of the reader and in Bromden's world view, lies in their capacity to describe abstract and elusive phenomena in physical, concrete terms. As Lakoff and Johnson put it:

[O]ur experiences with physical objects (especially our own bodies) provide the basis for an extraordinarily wide variety of ontological metaphors, that is, ways of viewing events, activities, emotions, ideas, etc., as entities and substances. …

Once we can identify our experiences as entities or substances, we can refer to them, categorize them, group them, and quantify them—and, by this means, reason about them.


This observation explains Bromden's difficulty in dealing with abstract concepts such as mood and character: the “Powerful is Big” metaphor allows him to make sense of the mysterious processes of personality development in the more familiar terms of changes in bodily mass.


In the previous section we began to show how Kesey uses the “Powerful is Big” metaphor in the novel to convey changes in Bromden's conception of himself. The restoration of his ability to perceive the actual size of his body corresponds to a new awareness of his individual personality, his freedom, and his right to a place in the world outside the hospital. These changes can also be charted according to the patterning and use of the mechanical metaphors we discussed earlier. Our analysis in section 4.2 highlighted the elements of Bromden's world that constitute the target domains of machinery metaphors. We will now focus on the two major aspects of Bromden's experience that are not described by Bromden in mechanical terms, namely his positive memories and McMurphy.

Bromden's narrative includes occasional nostalgic flashbacks on his childhood, a happy time predating the building of the hydroelectric dam that deprived his tribe of their territory and their livelihood. These flashbacks are dominated by Bromden's relationship with his father and revolve around their joint hunting and fishing expeditions:

Papa tells me to keep still, tells me that the dog senses a bird somewheres right close. We borrowed a pointer dog from a man in the Dalles.


It called to mind how I noticed the exact same thing when I was off on a hunt with Papa and the uncles and I lay rolled in blankets Grandma had woven, lying off a piece from where the men hunkered around the fire as they passed a quart jar of cactus liquor in a silent circle. I watched that big Oregon prairie moon above me put all the stars around me to shame.


I used to be real brave around water when I was a kid on the Columbia; I'd walk the scaffolding around the falls with all the other men, scrambling around with water roaring green and white all around me and the mist making rainbows, without even any hobnails like the men wore.


This is the period of Bromden's life that precedes the traumas, humiliations, and loss of confidence that gave rise to his mechanistic view of the world. The contrast between his representations of the past and of the present could not be more striking: on one side there are nature and strong personal ties, on the other technology and alienation. The recovery of his ability to remember a life not dominated by his mechanistic world view is a central part of Bromden's development over the course of the novel. He explicitly expresses surprise and pleasure upon discovering that he is newly able to linger on his childhood:

I was kind of amazed that I remembered that. It was the first time in what seemed to me centuries that I'd been able to remember much about my childhood. It fascinated me to discover that I could still do it. I lay in bed awake, remembering other happenings.


Toward the end of the novel, the resurgence of the past in Bromden's mind becomes the manifestation of his victory over the system. The representation of his thought processes during his final electro-shock treatment begins with a brief reference to “AIR RAID” (223) but then develops into more than three pages of memories involving his father, uncles, and grandmother. When he comes around, he realizes that for the first time he has deliberately avoided the long daze that normally followed shock treatment, and he triumphantly declares “[I] knew this time I had them beat” (226).

McMurphy, who triggers Bromden's development, is also the only major character in the story who, up until the last pages of the novel, Bromden does not describe in mechanistic terms. In contrast, as we showed earlier, the rest of the ward's patients and its staff are frequent target domains of the machinery metaphors. McMurphy embodies the free and natural humanity lacking or repressed in the inmates of the hospital. The sound of his laughter as he enters the ward for the first time makes Bromden “realize all of a sudden it's the first laugh I've heard in years” (15), and his physical presence makes Bromden aware that the ward has accumulated over the years a whole range of smells, but “never before now, before he came in, the man smell of dust and dirt from the open fields, and sweat, and work” (83).

The contrast between Bromden's perception of McMurphy and that of everyone else in the hospital is particularly evident in the description of McMurphy's failed attempt to lift the control panel. As we have shown, Bromden tends to represent any increase in emotional or physical tension by combining the two metaphors “People are Machines” and “Powerful is Big.” Such metaphoric representations apply not only to the Big Nurse (see, for example, (b) above), but also to the patients themselves. When Pete Bancini prepares to punch one of the aids who has been annoying him, Bromden sees

the hand on the end of that arm pumping bigger and bigger as he clenched and unclenched it. … I saw it swell and clench shut, flow in front of my eyes, become smooth—hard. A big rusty iron ball at the end of a chain.


With McMurphy, however, the mechanical transformation does not occur:

His arms commence to swell, and the veins squeeze up to the surface. He clinches his eyes, and his lips draw away from his teeth. His head leans back, and tendon stand out like coiled ropes running from his heaving neck down both arms to his hands.


Bromden continues to perceive McMurphy differently as long as the system is unable to impose its hold on him, or, in Bromden's terms, as long as “[t]hey haven't got him fixed with controls” (105). In the final part of the novel, McMurphy's strength is first weakened by multiple shock therapies and ultimately annihilated by a lobotomy. Only at this point is McMurphy described in mechanistic terms: after the operation, Bromden notices, his eyes are “like smudged fuses in a fuse box” (253). Clearly, the use of a simile suggests no confusion in the narrator's mind between McMurphy and a machine, but this similarity is enough to persuade Bromden that killing McMurphy is the only way to prevent his self-sacrifice from becoming a reminder for future patients “of what can happen if you buck the system” (253).

Throughout its domination by the machine model, Bromden's mind struggles to find a different mode of thought. An alternative source domain is provided by McMurphy, whose speech is dominated by the metaphor “People are Animals.” Immediately after being admitted to the ward, McMurphy tries to find out which of the patients is the “bull goose loony” (20). After taking part in the first group meeting, he describes the patients as a “flock of dirty chickens” (50) and their behavior as a “pecking party” (49). He then initiates a debate over whether the men are chickens or rabbits (55) and describes the Big Nurse as a “bitch” and a “buzzard” (52) (see Kunz). This alternative metaphor for people has a gradual but noticeable effect on Bromden's mind style. As the novel progresses, animals begin to loom larger in Bromden's memories of the past, in his rare glimpses of the world outside the hospital, and in his descriptions of other people (see also Robinson). Harding's perpetually moving hands, for example, are “free as two white birds” (21) or “creep out from between his knees like white spiders from between two moss-covered tree limbs” (51). In the final sequence of the novel, after the drunken party, Billy and Candy are described as “two owls from a nest” and “fat cats full of milk” (246), while McMurphy's plight in the face of the Big Nurse's revenge is compared to that of a cornered animal, beaten but still part of the natural rather than the mechanical world (250). Most striking of all, Bromden's own sense of liberation is metaphorically expressed towards the end of the fishing trip: he feels that the laughter has lifted him above the motor boat and the “diving birds,” and he is “skating the wind with those black birds” (195), flying free.


In section 3.1 above, we suggested that the linguistic realization of the conceptual machinery metaphors in Bromden's narrative correlates with the variations in his mental state. We now turn more specifically to the way in which the frequency and use of machinery metaphors chart the development of Bromden's mind style throughout the story.

The episode in which McMurphy tries to get at least one of the Chronics to raise his hand in order to win the patients' right to watch the World Series on television represents a crucial turning point in the narrative. The episode is crucial because, after it has become clear that all the other Chronics are unreachable, it is Bromden's hand that is raised. This act marks the end of his noncommunication as well as his determinate and conscious movement out of the machine metaphor. He initially expresses the lifting of his hand as an involuntary gesture, controlled by an external mechanism:

I can't stop it. McMurphy's got hidden wires hooked to it, lifting it slow just to get me out of the fog and into the open where I'm fair game. He's doing it, wires.


Immediately afterward, though, he corrects himself: “No. That's not the truth. I lifted it myself” (113). This passage highlights the way in which the machine metaphors provide a world view in which Bromden has no free agency and, consequently, no responsibility: by seeing himself always as a victim of some mechanical whim, he has no will to fight. On the other hand, by rejecting the mechanistic model of himself, Bromden slowly acquires an awareness of his ability to change the world around him that culminates in his fight with the orderlies, his merciful killing of McMurphy, and his flight from the hospital.

The episode of the raising of the hand, which occurs nearly halfway through the novel, does not, however, mark the end of Bromden's use of machinery metaphors: the move away from his mechanistic world view is very gradual and by no means complete when the novel ends. It is true, however, that the frequency of machinery images decreases after he admits that he deliberately supported McMurphy's motion with his vote. By our count, 82 machinery images may be found in the 112 pages that precede this episode and only 27 such images may be found in the remaining 143 pages. This count translates into an average of just over 7 instances of the machinery metaphor every 10 pages in the first part of the novel and just under 2 for every 10 pages in the second half. While such crude figures do not do justice to the more subtle variations in frequency that chart Bromden's changes in mood, they do provide a sense of his progressive rejection of the mechanistic view of the world.

One reason the machinery metaphors continue to appear through to the end of the novel is that Bromden repeatedly expresses his new sensations of freedom and happiness in terms of the breakdown of machines. McMurphy's changing fortunes in the struggle against the Big Nurse cause alterations in Bromden's emotional condition that he sometimes expresses by referring to the state of repair of the fog machine: during his moments of optimism he explains his clarity of vision by concluding that the fog machine must have broken down (127), while fear and pessimism are accompanied by the realization that the fog machine has been fixed and is functioning again (92). In the second half of the novel in particular, crucial moments in Bromden's liberation are metaphorically described as the breakdown of the machinery that has dominated his life. This is how he expresses the palpable effect caused by the arrival on the ward of the young woman whom McMurphy has persuaded to take them out on the fishing trip:

There was a blue smoke hung near the ceiling over her head; I think apparatus burned out all over the ward trying to adjust to her come bursting in like she did—took electronic readings on her and calculated they weren't built to handle something like this on the ward, and just burned out, like machines committing suicide.


What is striking here is that the apparatus itself is personified in the final simile, where the machines are compared to people committing suicide. In other words, humanity is breaking into Bromden's mechanistic view of the world. Similarly, during the fishing expedition Bromden interprets his own relaxation and happiness as the destruction of the mechanical parts inside him: “I smelt the air and felt the four cans of beer I'd drunk shorting out dozens of control leads down inside me” (192).

In other words, the development of Bromden's world view is marked in part by a rejection of the machinery metaphor and in part by the expression, through metaphor, of his new belief that the machines can be beaten. Indeed, his escape from the hospital can only occur after the realization during the secret night party that “[m]aybe the Combine wasn't all-powerful” (239).


Our analysis has shown how consistent metaphorical patterns can be employed to project a characteristic and partly deviant mind style. We have shown how in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest the use of varying linguistic realizations of conceptual metaphors drawn from the source domain of machinery results in the readers' perception that the narrator has a peculiar and at times distorted way of understanding and describing the world around him. We have also shown how variations in the use and frequency of metaphorical patterns convey changes in the mind of the narrator. The latter is particularly crucial in a novel like One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, where the focus is both on the progress of the tale told and on the development of the teller's own perception of the events he is narrating (see Hunt).

Kesey's greatest achievement in the novel is his ability to create images that can be understood as literal for the narrator and as figurative for the reader: even the most obvious examples of Bromden's distorted perceptions (such as the fog machine and the Combine) can function as sharp and suggestive metaphors for the machine-dominated world that the novel aims to expose. A further example of Kesey's genius is his creation of a mind style that is both strikingly different and extremely accessible: while we immediately sense the oddity of Bromden's world view, we have no difficulties understanding what he is talking about even when his use of the machinery source domain is at its most dense. As we suggested earlier, Kesey forms his narrator's mind style by creatively extending metaphors that are conventional in English. The conventionality of such metaphors as “People are Machines” and “Powerful is Big” accounts for the accessibility of Bromden's mind style, while their creative and systematic use accounts for the strikingness of his view of the world.

Clearly, combining the notion of mind style with the cognitive approach to metaphor benefits both theories. On the one hand, the concept of mind style holds important implications for the theories developed by Lakoff, Johnson, and Turner: it highlights the connection between idiosyncratic uses of metaphor and personal world view, and it accounts for a possible effect of nonconventional metaphorical patterns in texts. Our analysis of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest has also shown how some of Lakoff and Turner's claims concerning the creative use of conventional metaphors in poetry can be applied to literary narratives. On the other hand, the theory of cognitive metaphor enables scholars to account for a crucial tool in the creation of mind style, which deserves much more attention than it has thus far received. We hope that the approach demonstrated in this essay will open up productive new avenues in the study of novelistic prose.

Works Cited

Adams, Michael V. “Sex as Metaphor, Fantasy and Reality: An Imaginal Re-Encounter with Ken Kesey and the Counter-Culture.” Indian Journal of American Studies 15 (1985): 83-95.

Black, Elizabeth. “Metaphor, Simile and Cognition in Golding's The Inheritors.Language and Literature 2 (1993): 37-48.

Bockting, Ineke. Character and Personality in the Novels of William Faulkner: A Study in Psychostylistics. Amsterdam: U of Amsterdam P, 1993.

———. “Mind Style as an Interdisciplinary Approach to Characterisation.” Language and Literature 3 (1994): 157-74.

Eco, Umberto. The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Fowler, Roger. Linguistics and the Novel. London: Methuen, 1977.

———. Linguistic Criticism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.

Halliday, Michael A. K. “Linguistic Function and Literary Style: An Inquiry into William Golding's The Inheritors.Literary Style: A Symposyum. Ed. Seymour Chatman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971. 330-65.

Hunt, John W. “Flying the Cuckoo's Nest: Kesey's Narrator as Norm.” A Casebook on Ken Kesey's “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.” Ed. George J. Searles. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1992. 13-24.

Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. London: Pan, 1973.

Kunz, Don. “Mechanistic and Totemistic Symbolization in Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.A Casebook on Ken Kesey's “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.” Ed. George J. Searles. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1992. 81-102.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Turner. More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Leech, Geoffrey N., and Michael H. Short. Style in Fiction. London: Longman, 1981.

Levin, Samuel R. “Duality and Deviance: Two Semantic Modes.” Possible Worlds in Humanities, Arts and Sciences: Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 65. Ed. Sture Allén. New York: de Gruyter, 1989. 260-66.

McMahan, Elizabeth. “The Big Nurse as Ratchet: Sexism in Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest.A Casebook on Ken Kesey's “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.” Ed. George J. Searles. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1992. 145-50.

Robinson, Daniel. “The Awakening of the Natural Man in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Notes on Contemporary Literature 21 (1991): 4-6.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Short, Mick. “Mind-Style.” Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistic. Ed. Roger E. Asher. Oxford: Pergamon, 1994. 2504-05.

Simpson, Paul. Language, Ideology and Point of View. London: Routledge, 1993.

Steen, Gerard. Understanding Metaphor in Literature. London: Longman, 1994.

Searles, George J., Ed. A Casebook on Ken Kesey's “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.” Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1992.

Paul Nastu (essay date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Nastu, Paul. “Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Explicator 56, no. 1 (fall 1997): 48-50.

[In the following essay, Nastu explores the relationship between One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and the visual and thematic elements of American animated cartoons.]

Critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Terry Sherwood have discussed Ken Kesey's use of “comic strip principles” and “pop culture” in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (Sherwood 382), but no critic has yet noted the visual and thematic elements of American animated cartoons which the novel seems to borrow. Sherwood points out that “Kesey's references to comic strip materials are not just casual grace notes but clear indications of his artistic stance” (382-83); but he fails to address Kesey's obvious connection with the absurd world of Looney Toons and the animated comic. Cartoon imagery is a major aspect of Chief Bromden's pathologically skewed point of view, which Kesey employs in parts 1 and 2 of the novel. Bromden's schizophrenic world is full of elements of slapstick comedy and the manipulations of reality often associated with Saturday morning characters such as Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and Bugs Bunny. As Harding explains, putting words to the images we witness through Bromden's eyes, “All of us here are rabbits of varying ages and degrees, hippity-hopping through our Walt Disney world” (Kesey 62).

The cartoon imagery Kesey uses to paint his “Walt Disney world” is evident when looked for. Scanlon is described at one point as “constructing a make-believe bomb to blow up a make-believe world” (31), an example of a much-used cartoon ploy (think of Bugs pulling a bomb out of thin air and handing it to Daffy Duck) wherein, in the make-believe cartoon world, no one ever gets hurt, just as Scanlon's bomb only causes damage in his mind's eye.

In another scene Bromden describes the voices of attendants as “forced and too quick on the comeback to be real talk—more like cartoon comedy speech” (33). In cartoon talk one-liners trip over one-liners, as in the first conversation Harding has with McMurphy where witty lines fly back and forth from one “Bull Goose Loony” to another (19). Another comedy technique used in cartoons is violence—make-believe violence in which only temporary damage is done. When the technicians in the novel say of Taber, “Check his head—we may find evidence of a need for brainwork” (35), a funny line in itself, Chief Bromden thinks of “Punch and Judy acts where it's supposed to be funny to see the puppet beat up by the devil” (35). There is violence in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and death, but much of the violence causes no damage when damage should occur (51).

Some of the clearest cartoon images are seen during Pete's fight with the attendants. When Pete repeatedly complains of being tired during a Group Meeting, his arm is grabbed by one of the attendants. “The hand on that arm … commenced to swell up. … They [don't] see the hand … pumping bigger and bigger … become smooth—hard. A big rusty iron ball at the end of a chain” (50). Anyone familiar with Popeye has seen this happen on television. Then the attendant is “whammed flat against the wall … then slid[es] down to the floor like the wall there was greased … and the plaster cracked just the shape of how he hit” (51). The cartoon imagery is completed when other attendants come to the rescue. They freeze, “the big one and his tiny image, in exactly the same position, left foot forward, right hand out … like machines throttled full ahead and with the brakes on” (51). In a cartoon, the brakes would be released, the legs would spin in a unfocused circle, and a layer of dust would rise from the floor.

Another element of cartoons is the use of repeated phrases such as, “What's up, Doc?” and “I tawt I taw a puddytat.” In Kesey's novel, these repeated cartoon phrases are mirrored by Old Pete's, “I'm … [t]ired” (40, 49, 50, 53, 130, 135), the man on disturbed who repeats, “I wash my hands of the whole deal” (264, 266), and Ruckley's “Ffffuck da Wife” (46, 135). Bromden describes Old Pete as “an old clock that won't tell time but won't stop neither … just keeps ticking and cuckooing without meaning nothing” (53). In cartoons, the phrases used by Bugs and Tweety Bird take on the same meaninglessness, becoming signposts to the absurdity of the world the characters live in, reminding us of the loony nature of both environments.

Even the physical attributes of some Saturday morning loonies seem to closely resemble the characters in Kesey's novel. For instance, compare Yosemite Sam with McMurphy. Both have the attributes of a satirical American cowboy. Yosemite has red hair and always wears a Lone Ranger mask. McMurphy has red hair and is referred to as a Lone Ranger (295). When he's upset, Yosemite puffs up and gets bigger. His spurs jangle when he swaggers across the floor. Bromden says of McMurphy, “We [make] him stand and hitch up his black shorts like they were horsehide chaps, and push back his cap … like it was a ten-gallon Stetson … and when he walk[s] across the floor you [can] hear the iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile” (305). Both characters also have the tendency to break into song. Critic Greg Ford has described Yosemite as “risible and fallible by virtue of his over-aggressiveness” and notes “his easily galled and consternated, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better desire to prove his gumption and gusto” (Adamson 108). McMurphy proves that he has the same gumption over and over, most explicitly in his bet with the other patients that he will “beat [the Big Nurse] at her own game” (70).

The speech patterns of the two characters, down to the western drawls, are also similar. The first words Yosemite Sam speaks, when he meets Bugs Bunny in the 1945 Hare Trigger, are, “I'm Yosemite Sam! The meanest, toughest, rip-roarin'est, Edward Everette Hortenest hombre, what ever packed a six-shooter” (Adamson 108). Some of the first words we hear from McMurphy are, “tell Bull Goose Loony Harding that R. P. McMurphy is waiting to see him and that this hospital ain't big enough for two of us. … if I'm bound to be a loony, then I'm bound to be a stompdown dadgum good one. … either he meets me man to man or he's a yaller skunk and better be outta town by sunset” (9). The tone of both introductions contains the same aggressiveness and Who's-going-to-beat-me? attitude. In both, the mythical cowboy is satirized and his comic attributes magnified.

Why wouldn't Kesey see thematic connections between his loonies and those of Warner brothers? The cartoons are full of disrespectful, go-against-the-norm characters that stand up to anything. Consider Washington Post critic Tom Shales's view of Bugs Bunny: “I love him, because of his attitude toward the Establishment, his absolute refusal to take any stuff from anybody” (Adamson 18). That, too, is the driving force behind McMurphy's chronicle. In both cases we want to see what kind of mayhem the character will cause next.

Works Cited

Adamson, Joe. Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.

Kesey, Ken. “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest”: Text and Criticism. Ed. John C. Pratt. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Sherwood, Terry G. “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Comic Strip.” “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest”: Text and Criticism. Ed. John C. Pratt. New York: Penguin, 1977. 382-96.

Bennett Tracy Huffman (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Huffman, Bennett Tracy. “Twister: Ken Kesey's Multimedia Theatre.” Modern Drama 43, no. 3 (fall 2000): 453-60.

[In the following essay, Huffman outlines Kesey's attempts to incorporate technology in Twister to create a new dramatic environment, positing that the play redefines the boundaries between traditional dramatic conventions and new textualities as the vanguard of contemporary cultural politics.]

In 1993, following a Grateful Dead concert in Eugene, Oregon, Ken Kesey held the world premiere of Twister: A Ritual Reality in Four Quarters Plus Overtime If Necessary at the National Guard Armory. A play structured loosely around the characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, since its inception Twister has seen manifestations and utilized technologies in a wide variety of media, including text, costuming, music, lighting, lasers, projection of puppet silhouettes, still and video images, pyrotechnics, hypermedia, e-mail, and computerized edited video. In the play each of the major characters faces turn-of-the-twenty-first-century crises in the world today: The Hungry Wind, The Lonely Virus, and The Restless Earth, which deal, respectively, with tornadoes and hurricanes that bring famine, AIDS and other plagues, and earthquakes, all of which Kesey cites as being on the rise. Kesey is trying to revolutionize theatre through the co-opting of ritual, and, through the use of new technologies he hopes to re-encode the customs of theatre within which Twister is invariably presented. For Kesey, theatre is neither solely ritual nor completely drama in a traditional sense: he unerringly challenges the view of theatre's obsolescence and brings forth a critical element to today's new communication channels (Kesey, personal interview). Kesey's use of technology attempts to create a dramatic arena never seen before and actually redefines the boundaries between drama and new textualities as the vanguard of contemporary cultural politics.

Twister is Kesey's most recent publication, a theatrical play, his first ever published, released by Key-Z Productions as a set containing the ninety-nine-page text and a two-hour video of the play that Kesey spent four years editing from footage of the fifteen performances he produced between August 1993 and September 1997.1 During Kesey's Acid Test period, a four-year span in which he developed a series of early performance art experiments, he performed with a group of friends who called themselves the Merry Pranksters. The cast of Twister includes Kesey himself as Oz, Merry Pranksters Ken Babbs as both Thor and Frankenstein and George Walker as the Tinman, as well as occasional appearances by figures such as Allen Ginsberg as Rabbi Judah Buddha Whitman and Huey Lewis as Elvis.2 Essentially a rock musical, with a score performed by Jambay, Twister employs a great deal of technical gadgetry in its production, much of which Kesey and the Pranksters developed in the 1960s. Some of the evolution of Twister and its reception by audiences has been in the realm of new media, including a Web page, e-mail, and video. The final video product was edited over a four-year period on computers originally lent to Kesey by George Lucas, director and producer of the Star Wars films.

In the introduction to the text of Twister, which is also posted on Kesey's Web page, Kesey discusses some of the experiences that inspired him to produce the play.3 He says he “began to notice something different in some of the faces on the evening news, in particular the faces of disaster victims” (2). Disasters are for Kesey spaces of high drama. He describes people coming together when confronted with adversity in storms, and floods, and earthquakes: “strong faces of all colors, ages, and castes, all united in a mutual effort.” What Kesey finds in these faces is an expression of “Strength and Sanity” in the face of disaster (3). He goes on to describe a journey to tornado-torn Fort Wayne, Texas, with writer friend Larry McMurtry, in which they drive to see “the devastation a twister can leave” (6). The devastation is a woundedness in the survivors of natural catastrophes. Kesey describes a town in which the people are overwhelmed by the disaster and occasionally unable to rise to the challenge of survival. He says, “It had been months since the tornado but the citizens were still dizzy. Divorces had doubled; crime was down by a half. Pregnancies were soaring and so were suicides” (7). The tornado apparently disorients people in such a way that their priorities become radically altered. Kesey says that despite the disorientation of the citizenry, their voices expressed “sanity and strength—and dignity” (8)—all the elements necessary for survival. Ultimately, Twister promotes flexibility and adaptability, compassion, and hope as responses to world problems. These are not actual solutions to any of the problems explored in the play; there is no call for an end to the destruction of rain forests, no cry for a cure for AIDS, but, rather, actions of honour with which to get through difficult times. At the very end of the Twister video, Jambay sings, “Hard times need strong rituals.” Twister attempts to be a strong ritual that will evoke strength, sanity, and dignity for people to survive difficulties.

Twister is an example of postmodern drama that, as we have seen, employs modern technology to create a complex technical stage environment. Twister also illustrates a highly literary postmodernism in its text. One of the major influences on the concept of Twister is the 1986 BBC production of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (Kesey, personal interview). In The Singing Detective, the postmodern cutting and fading between fictional worlds, real-time experience, hallucinations, and memories is all channelled through the point-of-view character. In Twister there are multiple levels present, but no central character through whom we have these worlds interpreted. Dorothy is the closest thing to a main character in the play, but we do not really see the action of the play through her eyes.

The text of Twister, initially written by Kesey, was revised heavily by the collective group of actors in the process of rehearsals, both at Kesey's home and at theatrical venues on the road. Twister's costuming is elaborate and professional in appearance; especially good is George Walker's Tinman, complete with a lighted and beating heart, a quart of gear oil suspended above his shoulder like a plasma canister, and smoke puffing up from his funnel hat. The stage lighting is complex in that it had to consider the multiple projections of the puppet silhouettes of the talking crows, still images, and video images, all of which requires its own projector and thus its own space on the scrim backdrop. Each of the three types of projections requires its own station backstage, which caused some extremely crowded situations at different venues on the road. The liquid crystal video projector used was originally lent to Kesey by filmmaker Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy; My Own Private Idaho; Good Will Hunting). The play also makes use of a laser, at one point, to introduce the Angel Gloria.

The pyrotechnics employed in the play are primarily used for Thor's weather map; a large sheet of metal connected to an electrical battery. Thor explains the world's increase of extreme weather patterns, using a steel rod as a pointer. When the rod comes into contact with the map, sparks fly. Attached to the map are various firecrackers, sparklers, and pinwheels, which Thor sets off by immersing them in enough sparks from the pointer. A flash bomb is used for the appearance of Dorothy behind the scrim backdrop in the first act, and green smoke is employed in association with the Wizard of Oz himself.

All of the technology described thus far—the music, lights, flashing images, and crackling fire—works to overwhelm the senses of the audience. The overthrow of the senses is a technique Kesey employs in order to give the ritualistic aspects of the play the greatest possible impact upon the audience. Bertolt Brecht identified two impulses in modern Epic drama—one to amuse, the other to instruct (130); Twister attempts to do both, and, through a polysemous contextualization, to be of epic proportions. One reason that Kesey chose to produce a play rather than write a novel of Twister was to take advantage of the immediacy of amusement and instruction inherent in the dramatic form. Brecht wrote of Piscator's experiments with theatre that they “began by causing complete theatrical chaos” (130). Kesey, sensing this about the modern stage, though probably not specifically instructed by Brecht's writings, suggests that the synthesis of responses to the “end times” before us should be that “[i]t has to be chaotic” (Twister 86). Thus the play ends with a cacophony of all the musical numbers from the play being performed simultaneously, in order to symbolize a positive, assertive political chaos.

One of the essential elements of Twister is that it attempts to break beyond theatre and into ritual. Kesey has said that

[m]agic is seeing something that extends beyond the visible. … Ritual is necessary for us to know anything. … A ritual has to be a little dangerous. … The rituals we are trying to put together, we don't know what they are, but we feel the hunger for them … Everywhere I go, I feel the hunger for people wanting to be a part of a ritual.

(Interview with Rick and Fenex)

Kesey is trying to revolutionize theatre by co-opting ritual. Part of the ritual magic he tries to create is through the chaotic overwhelming of the senses, much as a tribal feeling among the participants of the Acid Tests would be achieved by overwhelming the senses through the use of drugs. Kesey is not the first writer to attempt this, though he is one of very few contemporary novelists who have turned to writing for the stage. The theatre of the absurd, the theatre of cruelty, the plays of Bertolt Brecht, and even Shakespeare's dramatic works—in fact, any theatre of importance in the last 400 years—has tried to co-opt ritual in order to revolutionize theatre. And, naturally, Western theatre comes out of a classical Greek tradition in which ritual and theatre were indivisibly linked. According to J. L. Styan, Jean Genet's ritual theatre adopted and altered forms so “that his stage should mirror the true reality, and tried to dissolve the aesthetic barrier which separates play and audience by shaking the very supports that make it work, its conventions” (156). Kesey's technique for shaking up the theatrical supports in Twister is less symbolic than Genet's, more direct, because Kesey actually wants the house and the stage to become one. This unification is not always achieved, since the environment within which Twister is invariably presented places the audience inexplicably into theatre's coded world from the moment of entering the theatre or purchasing a ticket; this is on a discursive peak very distant from that of any ritual with which the audience can identify. Until Twister can be performed in a venue where the stage literally descends to the level of the gallery, eliminating the physical distinction between stage and audience, most audiences will continue to remain in their seats.

Just as Kesey's initial interest in performance art in the 1960s was conceived as a response to what he called “material madness,” Twister tries to be politically instructive in an overly commodified culture, outside traditionally ritualistic environments like churches or movie theatres. At the climax of the play, the Angel Gloria appears on stage, and her first words are “Be amazed” (89). It is amazement that seals lessons in Kesey's theatre, and it is this kind of magic amazement that Kesey sees as being at the peak of performance art. Kesey's need to perform fills a void he felt in publishing novels, where the feedback is slanted mostly through critics. In order to maximize his interaction with the audience, his theatre demands their participation.

One of the ways in which the play attempted to seed the audience with participants was through education on Kesey's Web page. As people began to read about the play in advance of attending a performance, theatregoers began e-mailing Kesey, volunteering to participate. There are three specific roles written into the script for these recruits, one for each of the three acts: Spinners (dancers), Shouters (singers), and Boomers (drummers). On 24 March 1998, when asked about the success of involving audiences of Twister in participating over the course of the fifteen performances of the play, Kesey wrote, “With every show [of Twister] the audience got more and more into it [being part of the play]. We got better at luring them in, but I think it was the E-mail that made the difference. We were reachin them and teachin 'em” (e-mail). The presence of audience members who were instantly willing to stand up and participate in the drama helped to encourage a greater number of spectators to walk up on stage when invited, towards the end of the play, by Oz. In the video, there are moments not in the text when characters directly address the audience in engagement; for example, Dorothy says “Get into it, guys” when the audience fails to “get” or respond to a joke. This kind of direct confrontation is designed to shake the audience out of their complacency.

Called a “Ritual Reality,” Twister plays upon an ever-changing possibility of what the play virtually is. The projected video at the opening of the play includes footage of the actors backstage and outside the theatre, presenting the actors themselves as characters playing characters. The actors are famous people, to varying degrees, so their presentation in the video represents a scale of persona from, for instance, Kesey as self, to Kesey as counterculture hero, to Kesey as actor, to Kesey as character. Some of the preliminary images are of Kesey and other actors and famous personalities outside the play, such as Mountain Girl,4 on the bus, which brings in a whole other counterculture context. Just as the play tries to bring the audience into the play, it also tries to bring itself into the “real world.” At one point in the playtext, Kesey himself, who plays Oz, speaks as himself, playing with the distinction between character, actor, and author. The video images at the end of the play include a medley of footage from Kesey ventures outside of Twister, including a bonfire night at Kesey's farm as early as 1989, the 1992 Field Trip, and the 1994 Hog Farm pig-nic with Timothy Leary and Wavy Gravy, as well as a string of cultural icons ranging from Hells Angels and Mad Max to geishas and old “Biddies” (95-96). Dorothy is played by an unknown actress who, in the text, refers to her four abortions; in an obvious reference to Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in the Hollywood film, Oz refers to her drinking problems (22-23).

The play makes reference to many cultural icons and figures, among them Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, Jim Morrison, John Dillinger, Archie Bunker, O. J. Simpson, the Grateful Dead, Republicans, soap operas, Beautyrest, Samsonite, Nike, Birkenstocks, Prozac, Madison Square Garden, the Smithsonian Institute, the Department of Environmental Quality, Waco's Branch Davidians, FedEx, and Bosnia. The Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation are referred to three times during the play. The science-fictionized flavour of the entire play complicates the action because, unlike the Wizard of Oz film, the play explains no envelope of objective reality. In a sense, the video clips from the beginning and end of the play that include the actors in other contexts make objective reality itself the envelope. The shotgun effect of the cultural references creates a commercial media environment in which the audience has tuned in to a band where all stations seem to converge. The first act opens and closes with the image of the television colour bars test pattern, making the play, on one level, a television broadcast.

Twister is made deceptively subtle by weaving between the positions of ritual and virtual reality. The contexts in which the play refers to itself include an ever-changing range from the original Wizard of Oz film to an Oz sequel, a theatre, a television station called OZTV, a hospital, a sports arena, an airport, a university classroom, a computer virtual reality, and “reality” itself.

The first instance of postmodern self-reflexivity occurs when Oz tells Dorothy that “We have quite an impressive line-up waiting in the wings to assist you tonight” (20). This comment reinforces the theatricality of the play. Much later, Dorothy breaks up a fight between Frankenstein and Elvis by saying, “You can butt heads later backstage” (84). A third of the way through the play, Dorothy addresses the audience directly, a postmodern trope that has its roots in the habits of Shakespeare and some of his predecessors, but which is distinct from Renaissance drama: “We're all persuaded, right? (she leads the audience)” (37). Here Dorothy reinforces the stage presence of the play, whereas earlier she has textualized the setting: “I don't think I was shanghaied into this script to solve your inner-city situation” (35). Here the action is rhetorically shifted, literally, “into” the text itself, so that the play is virtually taking place on the page, though it is as likely to be viewed on stage or in video format as it is to be read. At the same time, by using contemporary urban language, Kesey invokes the political aspects of the real world.

One of the most effective and quick blurrings of these contexts, or levels, in which the play is working occurs when the Tinman explains his dilemma: “No, it was my heart, my foolish heart. It loves not wisely but too much. And too many. Then again it might have come in through my modem—I network a lot. And I have shared my oilcan a time or two” (52). Like the Scarecrow, who says earlier in the play that he should have asked Oz for a mind instead of a brain (35), the Tinman has a heart, but, like most hearts, it is unwise. In obvious reference to AIDS, which is named only once in the play, the Tinman's language takes the audience quickly through a romantic/sexual context, to a virtual-reality computer context (in which the virus the Tinman has is an electronic one), to an implied academic/business world networked social virus (such as Legionnaires' Disease, years ago), to drugs (the shared oilcan symbolizing, obviously, shared hypodermic needles). This effective mixing of metaphoric contexts is one of the most literarily interesting elements of the play.

The character Legba, the African god of rhythm, says he joins the play because he was “clicking through the channels, y'know, when I click across this flick” (61). Here the play becomes itself a process of channel surfing, with the myriad media images inserted in the video images projected on screen and the verbal invocation of cultural icons as media bites in a televised context. Dorothy refers to herself as a kind of Gibsonesque cyborg5 or a computer game character when she berates Oz for her situation in the play:

You drag me out of a warm bed and toss me in this snake-pit without so much as even a pardon me ma'am, and then you blindside my dog with a cheap fiddle then you download my memory with enough nightmares to last me the sleep of eternity.


Toto has been genetically altered, in the play's initial tornado sequence, so that he is a hybrid between a dog and a violin. Dorothy's downloaded memory infuses all reality in the play with the potential for virtuality.

Poking fun at so many things, and so much aware of its own textuality, as we have seen, Twister does not fail to include poststructuralist theory in its cultural critique. Near the end of the play, Dorothy says, “It's time we deconstructed this Crazy Carousal, don't you think?” (82). In this way the play itself is also inviting criticism from the “real world,” as well as criticizing itself.

The weakest part of the play is the story the narrator tells about King Otto the Bloody of Germany at the turn of the year AD 1000.6 Elsewhere in the play there are chilling moments of technical surprise, as when Dorothy first sees the enormous faces of Oz and Glenda projected on the scrim backdrop, for example, or the beginning of Act Three, which starts with the sealing of a coffin, seen from the inside. The play uses humour often, and, though often the humour falls flat, it is also infectious, as the particular frames of reference are constructed through the play's process. The tone of the play grows on its audience. Although it will probably not seem funny out of context, the part that made me laugh out loud while reading the play came when Dorothy tries to guess what the Tinman's mumbled “Own a long” means: “A longboat for a quick escape? Am I getting warm? A longbow? The long arm of the law? A longlegged long pig from Long Island?” (58). This wordplay is what Kesey uses both most and least effectively. The best musical number is the Z to A litany of viruses running rampant in the world today, delivered in Act Two by Glenda and the Tinman to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain.” There is also a humorous dance routine with Dorothy and Frankenstein in Act Three.

The world premiere of the video film of Twister was presented in Springfield, Oregon, on 11 April 1998.


  1. Twister was intended for publication by Penguin, but the author and the publishing company had a falling-out. Instead, Kesey's son, Zane, has published it, and it is available online from <http://www.key-z.com/=.

  2. There is some confusion concerning Lewis's performance in Twister. He played the part of Elvis in the first production of the play in 1993, despite being listed as playing “himself.” Simon Babbs played Elvis in subsequent performances of the play.

  3. References to Kesey's introduction to Twister are to the printed version.

  4. Mountain Girl, a.k.a. Carolyn Adams, joined the Merry Pranksters in 1964. Becoming Kesey's lover, she gave birth to their daughter, Sunshine, in 1966. Mountain Girl was later married to Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia for more than a decade. In 1996, after Garcia's death, she moved to Eugene, Oregon, where she lives today.

  5. William Gibson is commonly considered the founder of a branch of science fiction writing known as “cyber punk,” which takes as one of its main themes the manipulation of human and animal biology through technological means. Gibson's novels include Neuromancer,Mona Lisa Overdrive,Johnny Mnemonic, and All Tomorrow's Parties.

  6. Kesey published this section in the New Yorker as “Otto the Bloody.”

Works Cited

Baum, L. Frank. The Wizard of Oz. 1900. New York: Rand McNally, 1956.

Brecht, Bertolt. “On Experimental Theatre.” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Trans. John Millet. 1964. London: Methuen, 1965. 130-35.

Kesey, Ken. E-mail to author. 24 Mar. 1998.

———. Interview with Matthew Rick and Mary Jane Fenex. 21 Jan. 1993.

———. “Otto the Bloody.” New Yorker 28 Dec. 1998-4 Jan. 1999: 58-60.

———. Personal Interview. 24 Aug. 1998.

———. Twister: A Ritual Reality in Three Quarters Plus Overtime If Necessary. Eugene, OR: Key-Z Productions, 1999.

———. Key-Z Productions. Twister: A Musical Catastrophe. 1999. 25 Jan. 2001 <http://www.key-z.com/=.

———. Web page. 25 Jan. 2001 <http://www.intrepidtrips.com/=.

———, dir. Twister: A Ritual Reality. Screenplay by Kesey. Perf. Kesey, Ken Babbs, George Walker, and Karen McCormick. Key-Z Productions, 1998.

Potter, Dennis, screenplay. The Singing Detective. Dir. Jon Amiel. BBC/Austral. Broadcasting Corp., 1986.

Styan, J. L. Modern Drama in Theory and Practice. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Douglas Brinkley (essay date 18 November 2001)

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SOURCE: Brinkley, Douglas. “A Final Word from the Last Merry Prankster.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 November 2001): 7.

[In the following essay, Brinkley assesses the cultural impact of Kesey's life and writings on American society within the context of the events of September 11, 2001.]

The Willamette Valley was still blanketed in a misty predawn darkness when the horrendous news hit an Oregon dairy farmer named Ken Kesey, author of such enduring fictional classics as One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion: Suicidal terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more than 4,300 people. “Everything was so clear that day, so unencumbered by theories and opinions, by thought, even,” the 66-year-old novelist e-mailed friends 10 days after the tragedy. “It just was. All just newborn images, ripped fresh from that monstrous pair of thighs thrust smoking into the morning sunshine. All just amateur cameras allowing us to witness the developing drama in sweeping handheld seizures. All just muffled mikes recording murmured gasps.”

On that fateful day, Kesey—who died of liver cancer on Nov. 10 in Eugene, Ore.—was gripped by sadness but not by The Fear. For decades in his robust fiction, intrepid bus trips and renegade proclamations, he had warned of future disasters and the need to overcome them with bedrock courage and stoical perseverance, just like the 300,000 sturdy pioneers who struggled along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. “Throughout the work of James Fenimore Cooper there is what I call the American Terror,” Kesey told The Paris Review in 1994. “It's very important to our literature, and it's important to who we are: the terror of the Hurons out there, the terror of the bear, the avalanche, the tornado—whatever may be over the next horizon.”

Readers first encountered Kesey's vision of terror in his 1962 classic One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, in which a modern psychiatric ward became a chilling metaphor for oppressive American society. The roguish, Randle Patrick McMurphy, is rewarded with a frontal lobotomy by the book's end. Defiance in the face of terror and unjust circumstances became a Kesey hallmark. His second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is about a stubborn Oregon logging family, the Stampers. Their maxim—which appears as a central theme throughout the sprawling narrative—is: “Never give a inch!” The entire book is a gritty Pacific Northwest adaptation of Ralph Waldo Emerson's seminal essay “Self-Reliance.” Kesey understood that rugged individualism is the prize attribute in a society dominated by nuclear weapons, Orwellian Groupthink and Public Opinion Polls. Following the success of Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey exploded on the consciousness of our culture when he threw an LSD party in San Francisco and saw half of America show up. Overnight he became an outlaw celebrity, “the last wagon master,” as Larry McMurtry called him, for painting a 1939 International Harvester bus named “Furthur” in Day-Glo colors and traveling from California to New York with his happy cohorts, known as the Merry Pranksters. Their goal was to unsettle America with their goofy LSD-inspired antics.

Lost in this semi-cartoonish portrayal—popularized by Tom Wolfe in his best-selling Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—was the most important side of the real Kesey: the public moralist. Convinced that the military-industrial complex was menacing the survival of democracy, Kesey used his psychedelic bus to jar the mores of conventionality that blindly believed Lyndon Johnson's claim that we were winning the Vietnam War or DuPont Chemical Co.'s assurances that it wasn't polluting the Great Lakes. “What we hoped,” Kesey later noted with apocalyptic brooding, “was that we could stop the coming end of the world.”

Although Kesey abandoned novel writing for 28 years following Sometimes a Great Notion, he returned to the genre with the publication in 1992 of Sailor Song, a futuristic saga of human survival that takes place in a fly-speak Alaskan fishing village called Kuinak. The lead character, Ike Sallas, is an Earth First!-type eco-radical straight out of the pages of an Edward Abbey novel. But it's really too late. Global warming (or The Effect) is slowly melting the polar caps and when Sallas is marooned in an inflatable motorboat during a storm's ferocious peak, a direct result of The Effect, he lounges back in the boat's bottom and lets it run into the strong wind. “Might as well try to get comfortable,” Sallas says. “You never know how long the End of the World is liable to take.”

Kesey's exploration of global disaster was explored even further in his play Twister: A Ritual Reality in Four Quarters, premiered in 1993 following a Grateful Dead concert in Eugene. The play—in which Kesey played the main character—is structured around the characters from Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, all of whom are confronted with third millennium crises: The Hungry Wind, The Lonely Virus and The Restless Earth. Baum's memorable characters are hammered with inconveniences such as tornadoes, plagues and earthquakes—all of which Kesey insisted were increasing in both frequency and velocity.

Given his penchant for contemplating the unexpected, Kesey's e-mail reaction to the absurd terrorist attacks of September is worth considering. His first inclination was to conjure up a distant historical analogy. “Well, I can remember Pearl Harbor,” Kesey wrote. “I was only six but that memory is forever smashed into my memory like a bomb into a metal deck. Hate for the Japanese nation still smolders occasionally from the hole. This 9-11 nastiness is different. There is no nation to blame. There are no diving Zeros, no island grabbing armies, no seas filled with battleships and carriers. Just a couple dozen batty guys with box knives and absolute purpose. Dead now. Vaporized.”

But when it came to retaliating against the Taliban for the heinous crimes, Kesey turned pacifist. He had been staunchly against the Persian Gulf War and was in full dissent mode when it came to another U.S. war in the Middle East. His literary explorations in human nature had convinced him that an eye for an eye philosophy was bankrupt. “Of course we want their leaders,” Kesey wrote, “but I'll be damned if I can see how we're gonna get those leaders by deploying our aircraft carriers and launching our mighty air power so we can begin bombing the crippled orphans in the rocky, leafless, already bombed-out rubble of Afghanistan.” And while 90٪ of the American people—including me—thought President George W. Bush delivered a superb address to the joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, Kesey, watching from his living room in Pleasant Hill, Ore., shook his head in weary-eyed disgust. “Bush has just finished his big talk to Congress and the men in suits are telling us what the men in uniforms are going to do to the men in turbans if they don't turn over the men in hiding,” he lamented. “The talk was planned to prepare us for war. It's going to get messy, everybody ruefully concedes. Nothing will ever be the same, everybody eventually declares. Then why does it all sound so familiar? So cozy and comfortable? Was it the row after row of dark blue suits, broken only by grim clusters of high-ranking uniforms all drizzling ribbons and medals? If everything has changed (as we all knew that it had on that first day) why does it all wear the same old outfits and say the same old words?”

Such sentiments were considered unpatriotic heresy in the early days of the war on terrorism. It was a time to proclaim “United We Stand,” pin an American flag on your lapel and salute the commander in chief. Celebrity artists appeared on TV telethons to raise money for the victims of the attacks while liberals of every stripe swallowed hard and admitted that President Bush had exceeded their low expectations. But Kesey, like some stubborn old-growth redwood tree, refused to join their ranks. He was by trade and temperament a dissenter in time of war, always poised on the precipice of the abyss, thumbing his nose at authority and championing the individual: underdog over big government.

For Kesey—the iconoclastic artist—lived by a simple motto he clung to with the tenacity of a pit bull. The job of the writer, he said, is to kiss up to no one, “no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful.”

Randall Sullivan (essay date 27 December 2001-3 January 2002)

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SOURCE: Sullivan, Randall. “And We Bid You Good Night.” Rolling Stone, nos. 885-886 (27 December 2001-3 January 2002): 62, 144.

[In the following essay, Sullivan reports on the events of Kesey's memorial service.]

“Who the hell was ever from Oregon?” some unnamed sophisticate asks in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Ken Kesey was—and proud of it. Kesey's memorial service in Eugene on November 14th was a testament to how essential a man can be not only to his time but also to his place.

The people—more than 1,000—who overfilled the old McDonald Theater were themselves evidence of how broadly Kesey had penetrated the heart of the state he called home. “The last time I saw him in the hospital, Ken told me he was going to help me fill this place up,” said Kit Kesey, a nephew who has been operating the theater as a concert hall for nearly a year. “I didn't know it would be like this.” Looking out across the seated multitude, the Kesey clan could see dreadlocks and buzz cuts, silver ponytails and blue-tinted bouffants, die-hard hippies and hard-bodied jocks, old men in tie-dyed T-shirts and other old men in formal black suits, crying babies in the aisles and grinning Deadheads in the balcony. The cross section would have delighted Kesey, as his family knew.

“People may have a hard time understanding this,” his widow, Faye, said on the afternoon before the service, “but Ken would rather be remembered as a good Oregonian than as a great writer.” When she and her husband moved their family back home from California in 1965 and took up residence on the family farm outside Springfield, where Ken converted a barn into a house and a shed into an office, not many people expected him to stay long. In fact, he never lived anywhere else again. “He loved his community and was committed to it even in matters of life and death,” she said. “He felt it was important to show his confidence in the competence of the people who were taking care of him here. He refused all offers to be moved somewhere else for treatment.”

The fight against the cancer in Kesey's liver couldn't be won. During the early-morning hours of November 10th, two weeks after doctors removed forty percent of the diseased organ, he died in his room at Sacred Heart hospital in Eugene. He was sixty-six.

On the morning of his funeral, Kesey's coffin, made of local cedar and fir, painted with swirls of blue, yellow, orange and purple enamel—psychedelic indeed—rested on a theater stage that had been converted to a kind of altar. Next to the podium was a large color photograph of Kesey wearing a blue shirt dotted with white stars and the touring cap that had covered his head for much of the past twenty years. His expression in the photo (chosen by Faye) was a little distant but not uncaring, as if he were already looking on from the other side of life and smiling with bemused benevolence, encouraging everyone out there to be anything but afraid. The lobby was filled with spectacular flower arrangements sent from all over the country, including blue and purple orchids sent by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, who had attached a note reading, “May the four winds blow you safely home.”

Mourners included literary figures and rock stars, but the people who mattered most to Ken Kesey were those who knew that he had made his earliest public appearances on this stage, back in the late 1940s, when he and his brother Chuck had performed a magic act. “Ken was not just a writer, he was a performer, an actor, a singer and an orator,” said his junior high school music teacher, Alice Peck. And a shaman, too, she agreed. “He was so multifaceted. People were always trying to put him in some kind of box. But he was too big for any of them.

“I saw a lot of Ken,” she continued, “whenever he got kicked out of another class, they'd give him a choice of going either to music or to shop, and he always chose music.” It was in her class that Ken and Faye met, as seventh-graders, in 1948. A number of Peck's colleagues had not enjoyed Kesey as much as she had, she acknowledged. “I remember hearing other teachers say that they thought he was right on the fence, either crazy or a genius.”

Kesey's classmates knew him as the big man on campus, a champion wrestler and a football player so shrewd that the coach had him calling signals. He won a wrestling scholarship to the University of Oregon, where he wrote his first published short story but was better known as the star of campus theatrical productions. His later success as a novelist and his emergence as the leader of the Merry Pranksters were, for people from his hometown, not all that surprising.

“The one thing Kesey didn't want to be was ‘defined,’” said his closest friend, the merriest of the Pranksters, Ken Babbs. Babbs, one of several speakers at the memorial service, struggled to explain that Kesey, especially as he grew older, had seemed to stand above and beyond his literary accomplishments, and that when a man was possessed of such enormous presence, it seemed almost not to matter what he had done before acquiring it.

Kesey's longtime New York agent, Sterling Lord, was scheduled to speak on “The Writer and the Man,” but he devoted nearly all of his time to the latter, recalling how his thirty-six-year-old daughter, who barely knew Kesey, wept when she learned of his death. “She explained that she always felt safe in his presence, safer with Ken than with any person she ever met,” he said.

When asked what she would like people to remember about her husband, Faye replied, “He valued his family more than his writing, and his writing probably suffered for it. For Ken, being available to go to his son's football game or his daughter's concert was always more important than how many pages he wrote that day. Ken's greatest joy in life was having his family and friends here on the farm for Sunday potluck.”

Kesey had refused to give any interviews to the Eugene Register-Guard the first ten years he was back in Oregon, saying he didn't want his grandmother to have to read about his past. When he finally did speak to the local paper, he described his ambition thusly: “I just want to do what I can to keep Oregon a good place for all of our children.”

At his memorial service, the closing remarks were delivered by Babbs, who settled with his family on a farm near Kesey's in 1966 and never left either. He and Kesey used to love to call themselves the “Pleasant Hillbillies,” Babbs said. Elegantly grizzled and cheerfully befuddled, unable to recall many names or dates, yet still possessed of a smile so winning he could be forgiven for just about anything, Babbs began a speech titled “Let's Make This Short” by promising his audience he wouldn't talk for more than a couple of hours. He got laughs with a description of how the original Prankster bus, Furthur, which has been sinking into a swamp out on Kesey's farm for more than thirty years now, was still looking pretty good, except for where the kids had torn off pieces to sell to tourists as souvenirs.

Babbs then put on the blue cap Kesey once had worn at Acid Tests, the one with captain across its front in gold thread, and turned serious, recalling remarks Kesey had made when Jerry Garcia died, about how a movement wasn't a movement if it ended when the leader died. What Kesey had started almost fifty years ago would continue, Babbs promised: “The flesh may be gone, but the work goes on. It's all still alive.”

Babbs was most affecting when he tried to tell the crowd how large his dead friend's heart had been. He talked about a reading Kesey once gave in Phoenix. After it was over, Kesey signed his name on whatever people handed him and paused to talk to anyone who approached. Finally the theater's manager said they had to shut the place down. Kesey moved out to the front steps. When the security guards chased him away from there, he withdrew to a bench at a bus stop across the street, and stayed there until four in the morning, signing autographs and shaking hands.

Another time, when some local idiot broke into his home, Babbs remembered, Kesey vowed to forgive and forget, even after learning that the thief was bragging to neighbors about what he had done. Then he realized his dead father's cuff links were missing. He and Babbs drove directly to the trailer in the woods where the thief lived. The place looked like a meth lab and he was scared, but Kesey charged in and came out a few minutes later with the missing cuff links. The amazing thing, though, was that as soon as Kesey had those in hand, “he said they could keep the other stuff they took,” Babbs said. “He just let it all go.”

After Babbs left the microphone, the service ended with a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a reading from what Kesey considered his best book, Sometimes a Great Notion, and, finally, a recording of Jerry Garcia singing an a cappella excerpt from what might be the ultimate anthem of acidhead spirituality, “We Bid You Good Night.”

Pallbearers, who included former Merry Pranksters George Walker and Mike Hagen, carried the casket out through the lobby, loaded it onto the second edition of the Prankster bus, Grandfurthur, and headed out to the farm, where Kesey would be buried in a spot he had chosen when he first moved there, next to his son Jed, killed in a bus accident seventeen years ago. “He was always very moved by those old John Wayne Westerns,” Faye said. “Where the people gather in some little cemetery on a hill to lay one of their own to rest. He always said that was the way he wanted to be buried.”

At just about sunset, he was.

David Bowman (essay date March-April 2002)

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SOURCE: Bowman, David. “Still Crazy after All These Years.” Book (March-April 2002): 34-5.

[In the following essay, Bowman summarizes the highlights of Kesey's literary career.]

On November 10 last year, Ken Kesey, the leader of the Merry Pranksters, pulled what might be his greatest gag: dying just before the fortieth anniversary of his 1962 classic, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. The novel, which was just republished in a new, anniversary edition, is a 300-page battle of wills between iconoclast Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched (“Big Nurse”), the tyrant in charge of the asylum where McMurphy is feigning insanity in order to beat jail time. It provided, as Kesey's own life eventually would, a transition between the cool beatnik rebellion of the '50s and the hippie bacchanal of the '60s.

Kesey wrote the book in 1959, while working as a night attendant at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, California. In a sense, though, the process started earlier, when Kesey, a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford, participated in a series of “psychomimetic” drug experiments that were allegedly secretly funded by the CIA. Kesey was paid to take psilocybin, mescaline and LSD, and soon began tripping on his own time at his home in Palo Alto's bohemian neighborhood. By the time he started working in Menlo Park, the drugs had made a deep impact on Kesey, and they colored his perceptions of the ward's patients. “They were not so crazy as the sterile environment they were living in,” Kesey would later say in an interview with The Paris Review.

He soon abandoned a Jack Kerouac-influenced novel he was writing called Zoo and began a story about an institution similar to his place of employment. Kesey wrote at work, “jumping every time I heard a lock rattle and stuffing the pages out of sight in the wastepaper basket.” He was writing in the third person, but one night he ate some peyote and rewrote the beginning of the book in the voice of Chief Bromden, aka Chief Broom, a schizophrenic American Indian.

“Something was lacking,” the author explained in a letter to his friend and fellow Merry Prankster Ken Babbs. “[Bromden] will be a character to be influenced by events that take place, he will have position and personality, and character that is not essentially mine (though it may, by chance, be).” Kesey finished the book in less than a year.

Malcolm Cowley, the editor of Kerouac's On the Road and one of Kesey's professors, sent the manuscript to Viking with a note reading, “Here's the loony-bin novel I've been talking about.” It was published on February 1, 1962, priced at $4.95 and was quickly acclaimed. Among its greatest admirers was the actor Kirk Douglas, who purchased the stage rights. A stage version of Cuckoo's Nest starring Douglas opened the following November at Broadway's Cort Theatre, but it closed after eighty-two performances.

Over the years, it has been rumored that a real nurse from Menlo Park, the supposed inspiration for Nurse Ratched, sued Viking for libel. Not true—although that nurse did approach Kesey after the book was released. “Ken was giving a reading at the aquarium in Newport, Oregon,” his wife, Faye, remembers. “A lady came up and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ There was something familiar about her, but he couldn't remember what. Then she said, ‘Big Nurse.’ Ken was absolutely tongue-tied. And she laughed and said, ‘Don't feel bad about that. I learned a lot from that book. No nurse wants to be like that.’”

But there was, in fact, a libel suit. Gwen Davis, a novelist herself, filed it shortly after the book came out. Davis claimed that she had been portrayed as “the Red Cross woman,” a character present only in the novel's rare first edition, who is portrayed in an unflattering light. (Bromden hallucinates that she's naked, with a string of “half a dozen withered objects” tied to her waist.) The case was eventually settled out of court, and in later editions of the book the character is a man named “Public Relation.”

Undeterred, Kesey continued to work on his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, which was released in 1964 to mixed reviews. His agent, Sterling Lord, whom Kesey shared with Kerouac, remembers asking him what he was going to write next. “I'm going out to live a little,” Kesey replied.

Live a little indeed. Although Lord says Kesey and Kerouac were “quite different people,” that “Ken gave of himself” and “Kerouac was the opposite.” Kesey now found himself very much on the road. He bought a 1939 International Harvester school bus, painted it, christened it “Further,” grabbed some friends (who would later become the Merry Pranksters) and drove to the East Coast to celebrate the publication of Sometimes a Great Notion. The trip, a rolling drug party, was famously described in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and did much to kick off the fervor of the late '60s.

It would be twenty-eight years before the appearance of Kesey's third novel, Sailor Song. In the meantime. Kirk Douglas' son Michael went to work producing a film version of Cuckoo's Nest. Kesey wanted Kirk to play McMurphy, but Babbs remembers that Michael thought his father was too old for the part. Jack Nicholson was cast in the role instead, and the movie hit theaters in 1975—it won several Oscar awards. Kesey, meanwhile, sued the producers over a contractual dispute, swearing he would never watch the film. “Come on,” one of the lawyers said, “you're going to be the first in line.”

Faye assures that he kept his word. “I'd hate to go to heaven and have that lawyer calling me on it,” Kesey always said.


Kesey, Ken (Vol. 11)


Kesey, Ken (Vol. 3)