I’ve been aware of Ken Kesey for a long time, since I’ve read books by or about people he associated with, like Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I’ve also been aware of this book for a long time, and knew it was set in a lunatic asylum, but had never read it before.
But though I have known about it for a long time, it was not long enough. I should have read it in my late teens or early twenties, which was when I was most concerned about the boundaries between sanity and madness. That was when I most appreciated Ginsberg’s poem Howl, written for his friend Carl Solomon, who had the electric shock therapy that was then a fashionable treatment for certain kinds of mental illness.
Most of the action in the book takes place in a ward of a mental hospital, presided over by a tyrannical nurse, whose measure of her patients’ progress is how amenable and cooperative they are with her arbitrary rules. Her rule is threatened by a new patient, McMurphy, who questions the rules and the values behind them, and keeps demanding changes, while the nurse keeps threatening him with electric shock therapy.
The book was written in 1960 and published in 1962, and that is when I should have read it. Like Ken Kesey, I was too late for the Beat Generation and too early for the hippies. Americans seem to have names or letters for all sorts of generations, but no one mentions ours, the Beat-Hip Generation.
In 1960 I was studying Sociology I at Wits University. The Sociology Department was presided over by Professor G.K. Engelbrecht, a disciple of the functionalist school, whose mantra was “youth must adjust”. The function of social institutions, like schools, churches, universities, families and all the rest was to facilitate the adjustment process. Those who failed to adjust were dysfunctional members of society, and, in extreme cases, were labelled as mentally ill, and that is what the book is about. Mental illness carried a stigma, the stigma of failure to adjust.
All that has changed. Psychology in the 1960s was all about -phrenias and -pathys, which have all but disappeared. Today it is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma.
Halfway through my year of Sociology I with Prof G.K. Engelbrecht I went to a student conference where an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, read a paper on Pilgrims of the Absolute, which pointed out how countercultural Christianity really was, and characterised “adjustment” as the selling of one’s heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world. As for one’s mental balance, the devil take it, and indeed he took it long ago. What happened at the Fall? The whole world lost its balance; why should I be concerned about keeping mine?
So in the book McMurphy is a disruptive influence in the ward, at least in the eyes of the nurse, but he manages to secure a brief respite for some of the patients when he organises a deep-sea fishing trip away from the hospital, and they have to cope with all kinds of obstacles that threaten to scupper it. Are the loonies managing to function in a sane society, or are they in fact the only sane ones in a mad society where everyone seems out to get them and make their lives miserable?
In some ways McMurphy is a secular version of the Fool for Christ. He plays the part of the silly fool, and the English word “silly” is derived from the Greek saloi, which means blessed.