Sunday, March 21, 2010
You Are McMurphy, Chief.
Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest
Any book or movie starts the same way. You are thrust into some portion of a character's life. There is a conflict that is resolved or not resolved in some fashion. In this case, you are an inmate who wants out of jail and who thinks you may have found it. You get yourself categorized as psychologically unstable and, ultimately, committed. You are flawed but you have some good qualities. Your key attribute is that you think that you are outside of something that you cannot possibly be outside of. You will find out soon enough.
Ken Kesey never saw the film. They didn't maintain a surreal enough sensibility for him. The book, which is seen through the eyes of a mute Indian named Chief Bromden, was practically hallucinatory at times. The movie, which was probably already pushing it by having a primary character who was a gigantic Indian, focuses on McMurphy's perspective. It is your perspective; the conscious perspective.
This perspective involves some of the flattering aspects that we crave. The anti-authoritarian, iconoclastic, sui generis figure who moves through a thoughtless and rigid environment. He can't, in spite of what would be best for him, keep from indulging his frustration. I can't help but root for him. Calling play by play for the World Series at a blank TV screen as his fellow inmates get more and more worked up. Wisecracking with his clueless superiors. Driving a stolen bus to a soon to be stolen boat prior to what will probably be the only meaningful adventure in the other inmate's adult lives. I can't help but root for him.
The book is a murkier situation. It is, almost exclusively, seen from the perspective of a genuinely distorted Bromden. He sees the 'Combine' in every calculated gesture that nurse Ratched insinuates into the ward. He also sees many things that do not exist. Drunken college students and reactionary prudes refer to this technique as 'the unreliable narrator.' Even drunker graduate students and post-reactionaries know this as a tautology. It's what you say when you can't think of anything meaningful to say.They can't entirely be blamed; even Nabokov bristled against the wisdom of Freud. But Nabokov, this time, this one time, was wrong.
The relevance of Freud to our time is largely his insight and, to a very considerable extent, his demonstration that the ordinary person is a shrivelled, desiccated fragment of what a person can be. That is a quote from RD Laing's The Politics of Experience. I read it back when I was pretending to read so that I might impress some girls. They weren't impressed, but the quote stuck with me. Not because of my carefully developed misanthropy, but because it applies in such a precisely accurate fashion to me. And to everybody that I can imagine. But, I digress...
Randle McMurphy, in short, gets himself committed to an asylum so that he can get out of the monotonies of jail. This happens in the book and the film. After some time it is brought to his attention that his release it at the mercy of his wardens. He tries to acquiesce, but they are on to him. He does his best Cool Hand Luke, but, like Luke, he is broken, and when finally given a chance to escape he sinks back into himself and is lost. He looks around the ward through bleary eyes and forgets.
In the book, McMurphy is often referred to as the bull goose loony. He is that part of you that struggles against the trivia that comprises so much of human existence. He is also that part that gropes your best friend's wife at that Christmas party even though she was just being amiable. He lacks foresight, but he is the reason that you know that you are going to die. He will never leave the party.
The Chief is selectively mute, but he hears everything. He is also broken. Like a dream he is elusive and distorted and animates conglomerate mannequins for any and every person; seven at a time. He deforms reflections that slip through your fingers before you can grasp them. And he will kill McMurphy. And here is why...
McMurphy IS you. You come out of nothing into something for reasons that cannot be described much less assimilated. You put yourself into an inescapable situation whether you intend to or not. Nurse Ratched hovers over you and smiles. She may not even know your name but she still locks the door behind her as she leaves. And every window remains locked as you fumble at the keys. You will never rip the water fountain from its mooring, even if not for lack of effort. The house is spinning a roulette wheel with one hundred trillion zeroes and the red and black will eventually be less than a memory. And then a piece of your brain will disappear, and then nothing.
But Chief Bromden does not understand nothing. I cannot place this metaphor, it seems all too human. Still, somehow, the Chief will recognize what is going on. He will lead you by the hand to a remote part of the casino that is less well lit and that barely throbs to the canned music. He will place his hands over your nose and mouth. You will not struggle. He will call a waitress over. She will look you in the eyes and smile as she asks you what you want; and she will wait for you.