Last night, we dove into the most challenging text of the course so far: Ken Kesey’s counter-culture classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We began by generating discussion questions on the text, which are included in their entirety below:
With many of the questions focusing on the narrator Chief Bromden, we spent quite a bit of time examining his role in the book. We considered why Kesey might use a neurodivergent narrator (Bromden is often diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic). Some of our answers included the idea that a ND perspective helps the reader blur the line between the insane and the sane, which is one of the major objectives of the text. After all, if we like and believe Bromden, we are intellectually and emotionally cozying up to a schizophrenic mind–one that sees hallucinations and has grand conspiracy theories about the Combine, an imagined mechanical system that Bromden believes controls all of the residents of the hospital through surveillance and other means. If we are close to this type of narrator, we might also believe that other residents in the hospital are more sane than insane, including the closeted homosexual Harding and the sexually repressed Billy.
By his own admission, Bromden is more interested in the truth than in facts, and this is another reason for him being an ideal narrator: there may not be a literal fog that roles in, but the mind of Bromden conjures the perfect metaphor for the kind of haze that many of the residents must experience–the fogginess created by prescription drugs, the mental fog that accompanies many mental disorders (especially dementia), or even the fog of lies that Nurse Ratched and her aides perpetuate. Bromden’s paranoid delusions about the Combine also point to a larger truth–that the neurodivergents in the hospital are completely under the control of the staff–and more broadly, that society itself is systematically purging its ranks of the mentally unsound. We can see that Bromden has internalized this system by adopting the classification system of “Acutes” and “Chronics,” and labeling himself a “Chronic,” or someone thrown away by society.
After the break, we continued our discussion of the novel, using three quotations by Michel Foucault, Bruno Bettleheim, and Freud (via Lois Tyson) to deepen our analysis of the text. Roughly a contemporary of Kesey, Foucault argues in Madness and Civilization that asylums begin to have a therapeutic function starting in the late nineteenth century. Instead of merely confining the mentally unstable to prison-like environment, the new asylums begin a moralizing and socializing rehabilitation. The problem, for Foucault, is that the moralizing impulse of the institution results in the mentally unsound being considered morally degenerate–sinners who need to be righted through therapy and treatment. We can see this kind of moralizing in Cuckoo’s Nest in the figure of Nurse Ratched, who uses surveillance and judgment (two important ideas to Foucault) to confess the men of their own guilt.
The second quotation came from Bettleheim, and in it, he advances the idea that institutions are places where autistic individuals can unlearn their “autistic response” to their emotionally distant mothers. Bettleheim suggests that children need to be broken down, unlearn their previous behaviors, and then relearn more appropriate responses within the safe environment of the school/clinic. In discussion, we discovered some key connections to Cuckoo’s Nest: the men are stripped down, literally and figuratively, as they enter the hospital. Their training is social in nature: they are supposed to learn ways of acting in social settings. Of course, under the sadistic Ratched, they mostly learn how to destroy each other. One key question that was raised: do we lose “autistic culture” by trying to erase typically autistic behaviors, such as stimming, in a home or in an institutional environment?
Finally, it was on to Freud, and a brief summary of his tripartite model of the mind: superego, id, and ego. Group members here suggested Freudian symbolic reading of the text, with McMurphy representing the id (fucking and fighting) and Nurse Ratched representing the superego (the embodiment of social conventions). Could our narrator serve as the intermediary ego, negotiating the demands of the hospital with those of his newfound friend McMurphy? Perhaps. We ended by considering whether this symbolic a reading really fits what we know about Kesey: if he was skeptical of much of what he saw in the mental hospital where he worked, would he advance such an allegorically Freudian cast of characters? Still, Kesey does seem influenced by Freudian thought: his male characters talk about their castration anxiety in no uncertain terms (Nurse Ratched is a “ball-cutter”), and their are hints that other characters may be understood from a Freudian perspective: Billy, for example, seems to have some kind of Oedipal complex occurring with his dominant mother.
Overall, a good, free-flowing discussion of an interesting, provocative book. See you next time.