Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sometimes you have to be looney to see it rightly

One of the books I've read many times without tiring is Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I'm not gonna delve into a deep literary discussion here (I've graduated from that some years ago! Yes!). But I'd like to share the book because of the insights the persona (not the main character) makes throughout the whole novel.

The persona is Chief Bromden--his dad is Native American, so he uses the "normal" name of his mom. He's a big guy ("You're as big as a mountain!" as McMurphy--played by Jack Nicholson in the movie--says the first time they meet) and yet he doesn't see himself as big at all.

Surely everyone knows this book takes place in an asylum; hence, Chief Bromden is a Chronic, a patient who has little to no chance of ever getting better, and getting out. And this is just one of the interesting peculiarities of the book: it is written from the point of view of a crazy guy, but as you read along it doesn't seem like he's crazy at all. That's because suddenly the reader is made to see another perspective--one is made to understand "big" and "small" according to Chief, and somehow the pieces do fit together. Take this dialogue from the 1975 film, for instance:

Chief Bromden: My pop was real big. He did like he pleased. That's why everybody worked on him. The last time I seen my father, he was blind and diseased from drinking. And every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he don't suck out of it, it sucks out of him until he shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs didn't know him.
McMurphy: Killed him, huh?
Chief Bromden: I'm not saying they killed him. They just worked on him. The way they're working on you.

The book, of course, goes deeper into Chief Bromden's mind better than the film does (every medium has its strength). That's perhaps why the beginning of the book leaves a very foggy and whoozy feeling. Like about time, for instance:

The Big Nurse is able to set the wall clock at whatever speed she wants by just turning one of those dials in the steel door; she takes a notion to hurry things up, she turns the speed up, and those hands whip around that disk like spokes in a wheel. The scene in the picture-screen windows goes through rapid changes of light to show morning, noon, and night — throb off and on furiously with day and dark, and everybody is driven like mad to keep up with that passing of fake time; awful scramble of shaves and breakfasts and appointments and lunches and medications and ten minutes of night so you barely get your eyes closed before the dorm light's screaming at you to get up and start the scramble again, go like a sonofabitch this way, going through the full schedule of a day maybe twenty times an hour, till the Big Nurse sees everybody is right up to the breaking point, and she slacks off on the throttle, eases off the pace on that clock-dial, like some kid been fooling with the moving-picture projection machine and finally got tired watching the film run at ten times its natural speed, got bored with all that silly scampering and insect squeak of talk and turned it back to normal.

She's given to turning up the speed this way on days like, say, when you got somebody to visit you or when the VFW brings down a smoker show from Portland — times like that, times you'd like to hold and have stretch out. That's when she speeds things up.

But generally it's the other way, the slow way. She'll turn that dial to a dead stop and freeze the sun there on the screen so it don't move a scant hair for weeks, so not a leaf on a tree or a blade of grass in the pasture shimmers. The clock hands hang at two minutes to three and she's liable to let them hang there till we rust. You sit solid and you can't budge, you can't walk or move to relieve the streain of sitting, you can't swallow and you can't breathe. The only thing you can move is your eyes and there's nothing to see but petrified Acutes across the room waiting on one another to decide whose play it is. The old Chronic next to me has been dead six days, and he's rotting to the chair. And instead of fog sometimes she'll let a clear chemical gas in through the vents, and the whole ward is set solid when the gas changes into plastic.

Lord knows how long we hang this way.

Sounds a bit like science-fantasy fiction, but don't some days just feel like that? As if somebody is controlling time and making the minutes tick by so slowly that you can't bear the wait, or so fast you don't know where it all went.

In connection with the new year (did you see this coming?), I suppose one resolution we could make in such a weird-paced world is to take important events slowly and make good, well thought-out decisions... and then to keep ourselves busy enough with worthwhile endeavors so that the time doesn't tick by so slowly the way it usually does in idleness. And maybe when the times are urging us to go carelessly onward with what they call "modern lifestyle" (last I checked "modern" meant early 20th century), to never be afraid to be the looney one and stand up for what keeps us dignified, big and small people alike.

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