I'm rereading One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. I do this every few years just because I love the velocity, complexity and artfulness of the prose and hope it rubs off on me. But also I revisit the book because its meaning seems to expand more and more every time I go through it. Upon first reading it way back in the day I loved the brash radical bravado of McMurphy, the way he swoops in and tries to save the day, only to be vanquished by evil Nurse Ratched. In that reading, it's almost a classic fairytale in its use of simple, willful tropes: big bad lady nurse/administrator/jailer vs. big brash redheaded lumberjack/gambler/anti-hero. Other readings though revealed for me the slightly silly counter-culture swagger, the moments built to humiliate just for the hell of it, the self-congratulatory feeling sometimes involved in pitting such elemental examples of "good" and "bad" against one another (not to mention the overarching racism involved in the "black boy" orderlies, and so on).
Still, every time I read it I come away with an odd respect for its sense of urgency, the burning need to get at something profound and devastating in the simplest and yet most harrowing language and style.
And much of that style is manufactured because Kesey uses Chief Bromden as his narrator. You could argue that placing Bromden on the periphery and giving him the chore of narration is a form of racism, of framing McMurphy's story through the eyes of the oppressed so McMurphy's oppression can be heightened to the point of Beatnik glamor, but this time reading Bromden's voice really truly got to me, in a way it hasn't before. That exact moment of total connection for me came on page 182, when Bromden is at the end of a flashback concerning a time when he was a little kid living on the reservation, and he's outside the house he lives in sprinkling salt on salmon he and his dad caught. A group of speculators and government workers pull in. They are visiting the reservation in order to talk to his father about buying the land the reservation is on for cheap, so they can build a dam. These characters, like many in the Cuckoo's Nest, are grotesque versions of people Kesey obviously found disgusting -- bureaucrats and landowners and other bourgeoisie types stomping around the world looking for every opportunity to screw it up. But somehow in this moment the grotesque enlightens and does not obscure, and the oppressors glide through the reservation, ignoring Bromden, who wants to tell them he can understand the horrible things they are saying to each other, that he is not invisible. But when he does speak to them, all they do is ignore him.
This is the passage that truly got to me:
I can see the seams where they are put together. And, almost, see the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the words in here and there, this place and that, and when they find the words don't have any place ready-made where they'll fit, the machinery disposes of the words like they weren't even spoken.
How amazing is that? A simple, calm and very accurate summation of what it means to be someone totally on the outskirts of meaning, totally trying to rectify a situation that can't be rectified. This flashback lets us know the origin of Bromden's philosophy, his use of the "combine" as metaphor for way the world works: the "machine" must be fed and constantly repaired, and if you can't cut it as part of the machine, then you to have to be "fixed," have to be institutionalized, tinkered with, eventually de-brained.
Maybe my sensitivity to this moment in the book comes from what's going on in my work-life and -world. I keep going to conferences and meetings about how to help people with developmental disabilities get jobs in the real world, in effect often revamping the way they and the people who love and support them often see what they are capable of. Sometimes in those meetings and conferences I can almost feel that sense that Bromden felt that day outside his house when the government workers come to pay a call: everyone is talking and talking, and filling in the blanks, but no one is listening, and no one is trying to understand how all of this talking contributes even more to the sense of victimhood and powerlessness and futility. Helping people who have developmental and physical and other disabilities be a part of the world, to get employed and be able to contribute in vital ways, is one of the most complicated and scary enterprises you can attempt not only because of the skills the people you're trying to support may need to acquire/work on to get a gig, but mostly because of the way they are perceived, the way they are ignored, and mainly the way they are institutionalized almost as soon as they get a diagnosis. Even the systems meant to "help" them group them into categories and statistics in order to manage their care, and once the systems take over the words just "don't fit." Like Bromden I'm seeing the "seams" all the time, and that sense that when the words are found not to fit the "machine disposes of the words like they weren't even spoken."
How do you disrupt the machine?
I don't think by screaming or pleading to it. The machine does not give a shit. It's simply by sticking to your guns, I guess, never allowing yourself to be mechanized or put into place inside that ongoing machine. You don't talk. You don't show off. You don't make speeches. You listen and you move forward and you make things happen outside of the machine, in spite of it.
At the end of the book, even though McMurphy is the symbol of what it means to be alive in a cookie-cutter culture (or maybe it's because of it), he is lobotomized and brought back into the institution on display for everyone to see. Nurse Ratched wins. And yet Chief Bromden escapes the institution that same day, bursting through a window and running into the wild. His voice in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, beautifully desultory, matter-of-fact, brutally poetic, drives the story home to the point he can no longer live in the place he once called "home."