Thursday, February 02, 2012

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Birth of American Freedom

This is the 50th anniversary of the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Few books hit me as hard as that one did -- only Hiroshima and Death of a Salesman have affected me that deeply.  It's not only a timeless allegory, but seems to better and better describe the times years later.

The movie version is wonderfully done, but misses the entire point of the work.  It is Chief and his meditations of the combine that frame the telling of the story, giving it it's meaning.  The Christ figure of McMurphy is the Marlboro Man, the libertarian, Ayn Rand individual, the American, rugged individualistic free spirit.  He brings the American hope of freedom from then system.  He escapes justice through cleverness, getting himself wrongly transferred to the asylum from prison.  Thinking there are systems that can be played, not a system, he denies the existence of the machine, the combine.  The will of the individual, Kesey shows, even at its most audacious and liberated, is no match for the structure.  The combine will harvest it and grind it to dust.

One of my favorite essays in The Grateful Dead and Philosophy was written by my friend and colleague Gary Ciocco and traces the move from the beats to the hippies.  The beats were expressing individuality.  They were atoms bouncing around the void of the American cultural soul.  The next generation were the hippies who latched onto freedom, but moved it from Kerouac's adventures told in ones and twos and created communes.  It became about us, about changing the system itself.  Ken Kesey was the pivot point about which this change rotated in its ninety degree shift.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest details the fatal flaw in the beat philosophy.  The free individual is still inferior to the combine, the system will crush the one.  Freedom cannot be freedom from the machine, but rather freedom only comes in dismantling the machine and for that we must have many hands, we must be together. 

The hippies spoke as much about love as freedom.  Freedom may be possessed by an individual, but love is a relation requiring a lover and a beloved.  It is in relations between people that freedom is found.  In this way, Chief love McMurphy and in his love destroys the machine that destroyed McMurphy and walks out of the asylum into freedom.  Freedom requires relations between people.

Kesey was the intellectual and material bridge from he beats of the 50s to the hippies of the sixties.  His Merry Pranksters were the end of the beat generation and their acid tests created the scene from which the sixties emerged.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a unique point in our cultural history and one whose message must still be heeded in contemporary life.  when you hear a politician campaign on notions of "individual responsibility" what he is trying to do is drive us apart and protect the combine, protect the machine that keeps us from being free.  They invoke freedom and liberty with the intention of subverting it.  fifty years ago, Kesey showed us the trick.  It is now for us to summon our inner-Chiefs.