This place matters

This place matters

Sunday, November 20, 2011

One Flew East and One Flew West

I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest before I read it. So when I neared the end of the book, I already knew how the story would end; tragically, in case you haven't read it. And I remember pausing at the end of the last chapter right before the shit hit the fan. Remember saying to myself that if I stop reading right now, the bad things won't happen. The book will end on an up note and I can tell myself that everything turned out okay in the end. I remember feeling this weird sense of power at that thought. Like I could control the future by refusing to see it. I finished the book, for the record.
I recently read James Wolcott's terribly titled Still Cuckoo After All These Years. It's maybe a little bit snooty and intellectual, but maybe I only think that because I'm not intellectual enough. But seriously:
Despite its impressionistic reveries, its invocations of the great wide American space beyond its scrubbed walls, Cuckoo's Nest conducts its dramatic business with an unabashed, cartoon-stroked theatricality...
That's the kind of fancy talk I would have used in college to gloss over the fact that I spent all night chain smoking and watching cartoons, rather than reading the book I was supposed to read. Unless my mom is reading, in which case, scratch the chain smoking.


Anyway, the author talked about symbolism and social commentary and Big Brother and emasculation. And sure, I can see it... it's just that it had never occurred to me to do so. The novel at its surface level says so much that I never thought to look deeper. 
See, Ken Kesey had been a hospital aide, had had experience with people in mental hospitals and people with mental illness. The picture he painted of the way the patients at the book's mental hospital wasn't all that different from the one I saw working with kids with disabilities and later adults with mental illness. The evil orderlies from the novel? Those were my coworkers, and there was nothing you could do about it. You could catch one or two of them in the act of being evil, but there were always a dozen more where they came from. You can fire people for abuse, but you can't force them to see their charges as people. That much hasn't changed from when the novel was written.
And of course, they don't use drugs like Thorazine as much anymore, and they don't give people lobotomies. But if you're under the impression they don't do shock "therapy" anymore; that it isn't administered punitively like in the novel anymore, you've been tricked. It's probably more the exception than the rule nowadays, but I know more than one person who lost entire chunks of their memories being shocked against their will (and more than one person too, who didn't think shock therapy was that bad, to be fair).
I always tell people that working at  the adult group home in Akron back in 2004-2005 wasn't quite One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but it was damn close. Nurse Ratched at least had some schooling - the lady who carried the clipboard at our group home was an uneducated and willfully ignorant person who thought people with schizophrenia were possessed by demons and that all they really needed was Jesus. Grown men and women were treated like helpless children and worse. You'd sit in that place and look around and there were all these people who could have had a chance at a real life; independence, a job, a family, if only they were given help rather than whatever cocktail would keep them quiet and... well, if you were wondering where I got this ugly cynical streak, that's where. 


But is it possible Kesey wasn't just chronicling, waking America up to the way it treated its mentally ill? Certainly, there's lots of fodder for someone who would say that the message is more symbolic than that. Maybe Nurse Ratched stands for the American government of the 1960s - denying people the right to speak out and exercise their liberties, assuring the dissidents that it was for their own good. Maybe Kesey was trying to say that laws against drug use are holding people back from experiencing life, and the people making the laws are only pretending to be out for what is best for them. The orderlies could certainly stand for the police in Kesey's world view. 
Or maybe it's a message less friendly. Maybe it's a cautionary tale about what happens when power shifts, when women and minorities (the orderlies, it's repeatedly pointed out, are black) take control. Maybe he's trying to say that white men have allowed themselves to become submissive in the name of equal rights. I don't know enough about Kesey's own political opinions to know whether that's anything he'd ever espouse, but it's certainly one way you could read it. Maybe, going down that road, the Chief is supposed to be a reminder of what happens when one race sublimates another.
I'm not making a case for any of this. The fun of the blog is you don't have to go digging around in dusty works of literary criticism to support what I'm saying, I can just bullshit you. And I don't even have to use fancy phrases like "impressionistic reveries" to prove to you I read the book.


But, coming back to what I was saying earlier, I'd be disappointed if Cuckoo really were just an allegory, really was speaking about society as a whole rather than the treatment of people in institutions specifically. We like to ignore people with mental illness, and we like to pretend that the things that go on in mental hospitals really are for the clients own goods. I hope that people read the book or watch the movie and think to ask if we're still treating people with mental illness that way, if things have gotten better. I hope that people read the book or see the movie and come a step closer to seeing people with disabilities as human beings. 
There's this great episode of the show Northern Exposure that I really wish I could find a clip of. A couple of characters are debating the symbolic significance of the poem Casey at the Bat, talking about how it stands for post-colonialism and whatnot, and one of the characters pitches a baseball to another. When the batter misses, the other character says that Casey at the Bat is like that feeling in the pit of his stomach right that moment. The feeling you get when everything's riding on you and you choke. I think a lot of the time, we spend so much effort reading into what we're reading that we miss the author's most basic message.
But what do I know? I'm not even sure what impressionistic reveries means.
This is the third post I know of in which I've talked about
one bird and posted a picture of an entirely different sort of bird.
Which leads me to wonder why I have so damn many pictures of birds
in my library anyway.

No comments:

ShareThis