One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

Review by Sam Spruce 
by Ken Kesey

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A cultural bomb shell which exploded in the early 1960's and is still smoldering furiously.  A good read as a fiction, this book is a profound insight into the cultural mechanisms of repression in society.  If you wonder why you are screwed up or why the society feels screwed up this book will give you an insight.

Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in 1959.  It was published in 1962 to considerable acclaim.  The novel is multifaceted and on one level is a dramatic story about a man, Randle Patrick McMurphy, who first gets imprisoned for battery and then effectively claims insanity and is moved to a psychiatric ward.  He is expecting this to be the easier option and arrives full of confidence and a general air of rebellion.  Nurse Ratched, who runs the ward, is an austere authoritarian and controls the patients with her matronly calm but iron grip and coercive methods.  This becomes a power struggle between McMurphy and Nurse Randle.  Although McMurphy seems often to win the local battles and gain points over Randle by getting the patients to vote against her on watching the World Series on television and by organising a fishing trip for the patients, eventually Nurse Randle gets the overall control when things go too far with a party McMurphy organises including alcohol and prostitutes.  The ending of the book is dramatic and very moving as one patient commits suicide and Randle gains ultimate control over McMurphy when he tries to strangle her on account of causing the patient's suicide and so McMurphy is deemed so mentally dangerous that it warrants a frontal lobe lobotomy as a remedy.

A great and moving story but the real significance is the brilliant way Kesey unravels and exposes the subtle, insidious, oppression and repression mechanisms of control in this western consumer culture.  Nurse Ratched is the archetypal pillar of society.  She wields total control over the unfortunate victims in her care.  She uses enticement, entrapment and double bind oppression to a masterly degree.  She is condescending, always right, and unbearably sanctimonious.  McMurphy, on the other hand, is what one might call a likable rogue.  Kesey cleverly has him imprisoned for battery and gambling and charged with (but never convicted of) a crime which can be seen as both serious and understandable.  The charge is rape which in the severest description is a hideous crime and can be classified and categorised as such by impersonalised authority but in reality he had sex months before it was legal with a consenting and willing 15 year old.  In some respects McMurphy represents the naivety of the general population in his expectation that the authorities are what they pretend to be.  That is that they uphold agreed upon values of the population.  In other words that they also believe in those values of humanity and goodness.  But this naivety leads him to buck the system and to refuse to be oppressed and diminished by the overt pressure in the belief that "they" cannot win because it would be against their own values.  But slowly and surely he becomes more and more embroiled in the confrontation and the ultimate battle of who has control.  Eventually with the devious and unholy behaviour of Nurse Ratched the "authority" literally takes his brain out to disable him.  A profound insight into the mechanisms of oppression in our culture.

There is far more to this book than first meets the eye.  Kesey is also famous for his Acid Test parties in the 1960's and his long standing friendship with Timothy Leary of LSD fame.  This book marks the beginning of an enquiring career into the dynamics of human interaction and conceptualisation.  Although Kesey studied literature, creative writing and journalism, the content or interests of his life centred around what could be called psychology.  He was acutely aware of the controlling dynamics in culture and the narrator of One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest, the half-Indian inmate "Chief" Bromden, becomes the vehicle for portraying the overlaying similarities in the controlling mechanisms on all levels.  In summary the chief conceptualises these "forces" calling them the "Combine" which insightfully illustrates the "Combine Harvester's" mechanistic way of harvesting and the similarities between the penal system and the mental health system and the self perpetuating oppression in the culture.  There are connections with specific governmental policies of oppression and of the cultural emasculation of men.

Overall it is a historically significant novel and marks the early dawning of a higher consciousness in humanity that has yet (2009) to be fully realised.


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