Kenneth Elton “Ken” Kesey (1935 –2001) was a counter-cultural figure of American literature. He considered himself a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the Hippies of the 1960s. In a 1999 interview he said “I was too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie.” At Stanford in 1959, Kesey took part in a CIA-financed study named Project MKULTRA, which studied the effects of psychoactive drugs, and he wrote many detailed accounts of his experiences. Among his works are End of Autumn (1960), his masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Last Go Round (1994), Twister (1994, a play) and Kesey’s Jail Journal (2003, collection of essays).
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Narrated by the gigantic but docile half-Indian “Chief” Bromden, who has pretended to be a deaf-mute for several years, the story focuses on the actions of the rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, a transferee from a prison work farm to a mental hospital. The ward is run by the tyrannical nurse Ratched whom McMurphy constantly antagonizes, thus upsetting the routines. MacMurphy tries to enlighten the life of the poor men treated there, but he will be lobotomized and reduced to a vegetative state, silent and motionless. To make him die with dignity “Chief” Bromden suffocates him with a pillow and then escapes to return to his tribe’s lands .
K. Kesey thought these patients were not insane, rather that society had refused them because they did not share the conventional ideas of how people should act and behave.
In 1963 the novel was adapted into a successful stage play by Dale Wasserman and in 1975, Miloš Forman directed an adaptation for the cinema, starring Jack Nicholson.
This is what “Chief” Bromden says of the electroshock session he and his friend Mc Murphy have to undergo after causing disturbance.
Put on those things like headphones, crown of silver thorns over the graphite at his temples. They try to hush his singing with a piece of rubber hose for him to bite on.
“ ‘Mage with thoothing lan o lin.’ ”
Twist some dials, and the machine trembles, two robot arms pick up soldering irons and hunch down on him. He gives me the wink and speaks to me, muffled, tells me something, says something to me around that rubber hose just as those irons get close enough to the silver on his temples–light arcs across, stiffens him, bridges him up off the table till nothing is down but his wrists and ankles and out around that crimped black rubber hose a sound like hooeee! and he’s frosted over completely with sparks.
And out the window the sparrows drop smoking off the wire.
They roll him out on a Gurney, still jerking, face frosted white. Corrosion. Battery acid. The technician turns to me.
Watch that other moose. I know him. Hold him!
It’s not a will power thing any more.
Hold him! Damn. No more of these boys without Seconal.
The clamps bite my wrists and ankles.
The graphite salver has iron filings in it, temples scratching.
He said something when he winked. Told me something.
Man bends over, brings two irons toward the ring on my head.
The machine hunches on me.
thorns: (here) electrodes
to bite on: to put the teeth into
mage…lan o lin: disconnected sentence sung by the patient
twist some dials: turn the machine indicators
soldering irons: tools used to join metals
wink: quick movement of the eye to mean agreement
stiffens: makes him becomes rigid
bridges him up : pushes him up to make an arch with his back
wrists: connection between arms and hands
ankles: connections between legs and feet
frosted over: covered with
Gurney: rolling stretcher
jerking: trembling visibly
moose: elk (alce, referring to the Chief’s appearance)
will power thing: being with a will of his own
Seconal: medicament to calm
clamps: metal bands
filings: tools to levigate