Friday, February 06, 2009


Robbing the Cuckoo's Nest

Until recently, I had seen the film but I had never read Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The book is all about America's culture of death. Chief Bromden, the novel's narrator, calls it "The Combine" and it was The Combine that sucked the life out of his father, robbed his tribe of their land along the Columbia River, and then drowned the Celilo Falls. The mental hospital that is the main setting of Cuckoo's Nest is part of The Combine and Nurse Ratched is its living embodiment.

Not coincidentally, all three of novel's main characters are Army veterans. Chief Bromden says, "I was hurt by seeing things in the Army, in the war." McMurphy's Army record is summed up succintly: "Distinguished Service Cross in Korea, for leading an escape from a Communist prison camp. A dishonorable discharge, afterward, for insubordination."

In contrast to Bromden and McMurphy, Nurse Ratched has internalized the worst of military values and adapted them to the civilian world. As Robert Faggen writes of her in his introduction to the 2007 Penguin Classics edition:
Funny though she may seem at times as Big Nurse, her manipulative skill and ability to destroy by insinuation render her an infuriating and insidious corporate tool. She executes her cold professionalism with an unshakable sanctimonious piety. A former army nurse--part of the military hierarchy--she does her job without emotion, and her almost puritanical sexlessness makes her inscrutable and indeed "wretched." She represents a sentimental culture that has taken genteel manners into the workplace to fill the void empty of any other compelling spiritual or moral authority. ... This beneficent beast of prey enforces benefits calculated to soothe the inmates out of their wits.
When manipulation and "genteel manners" fail her, the "Big Nurse" falls back on the brute force of her orderlies, drugs, electroshock therapy, and finally, in the case of McMurphy, lobotomy. By 1975, when the film was released, James W. Gibson's cultural "New War"--fought over issues of "power, sex, race, and alienation"--was already under way. Hollywood was one of the main weapons used to wage the "New War" and, thus, there is no mention of the Army in the film.

When Hollywood got Cuckoo's Nest in its clutches they left in much of the latent misogyny but robbed the novel of most of its powerful cultural and political critique. Crucially, in the film, Chief Bromden's voice and his back story almost disappear. The Combine, in concept or word, is never uttered or identified. Thus, although the mental hospital and Nurse Ratched still don't come off well in the film, the larger system/society that destroys people and their fishing grounds and produces 'mental patients,' mental hospitals, and Nurse Ratched is left unexamined. For its efforts, Hollywood gave itself all five major Academy Awards for the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Funny how that works.

See also "Celilo Falls Video"

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