Ken Kesey: love and regret
March 10, 2010 § 2 Comments
First the love: Ken Kesey was an outstanding writer; among those who so believe there are two schools: A) those who think it’s OK that Kesey didn’t write much after the two great early 1960s novels (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion) and B) those who don’t think it’s OK. I’m of the latter group.
I can still see my young self, sitting in the red chair in my parents basement laughing and stirring to the pages of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I loved McMurphy; I had grown up around guys like him in a northwest milltown. Wild and untamed guys you would meet at Herfy’s Hamburger stand on a Friday night getting ready to ride their motorcycles on a whim to Montana (to see a girl). I also liked the group therapy scenes in which each characters’ fears and nuttiness emerges; I like the descriptions of northwest scenery – finally the northwest makes it into some good fiction, I remember thinking at the time. On the downside I thought Kesey kept underdeveloped the black flunkys of the psyche ward. I don’t think Kesey really knew what to do with them. Why were they black, specifically? This is never explained. They don’t even work out as some kind of sociological symbol. I also thought nurse Ratched underdone. Kesey, the skillful writer, as he showed in his portraits of the mental patients, could have done more to humanize her. Kesey had the perfect narrator, the perfect point-of-view in the character of the Indian, Bromden, whose depth, stealth watchfulness, knowingness allowed Kesey to go in any direction, in or out of focus, sharp or clear.
Sometimes a Great Notion should have inspired a school of fiction, a movement, hundreds of imitators but it didn’t. It was snubbed by the east coast literary establishment. It did not get the critical attention it deserved. When this, his 2nd novel, came out, I wonder if Kesey didn’t see himself, sudenly, in the same postion as William Faulkner a few decades earlier: he had staked out original literary territory and now the only way he could win and maintain it would be to write up another brace of novels defending it, defining and clarifying (uggh, what a horrible term in this context) it–as, again, Faulkner did with his Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, after writing The Sound and the Fury. Whatever the case, Kesey did not follow Faulkner, and, in fact, declined to write novels at the level of Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey went on to become a counter-cultural figure, a kind of old-time medicine man, promoting the use of LSD and marijuana as life enhancing enhancements for American leisure–and consciousness expansion. Kesey made a choice and I believe it was a literary choice; let’s take a look.
Yes, you can say that Kesey’s attitude and program expressed a kind of freedom that might have been lacking in 1950s America but only if you define freedom in the most delicate and parochial of terms. Yes, America was a conservative country up until the hippy freedoms took root: hair was cut short and interracial marriage was generally not accepted and divorce was a social stigma. I remember a classmate of mine whose parents got divorced and he ended up moving away from our tight knit community. Teen pregnancy was frowned upon. A large swath of social pathology was not approved of publicly. My grandmother had a very hard time telling me of the shame she experienced when her parents divorced when she was a little girl in the 1920s. It was almost like she was describing the Salem witch trials. So, yes, there did exist social stigma to overcome. But personal freedom was available if not widely and vastly seized; Kesey was out-of-line to make grand claims for his originality of intent or purpose. Yet, it is hard to measure his influence because it was so vast. Are we better with drugs rampant and a reflexive anti-authority bent to our society? Not so sure. For KK to try to make the case for his own repression is not right. His gifts were recognized and sought after. He could have called the shots in any number of areas of social or civic or academic life. That he chose a kind of fiction to live in is disappointing. He was never really repressed. He didn’t have the money drive? OK, but he could have stretched himself more. If drugs were such wonderful things then where are the results of that enlightenment? Every college campus dorm is a mini Acid-Test cum rock concert; the authorities have not kept up pace with the nihilism. KK would not admit that individual achievement is the cornerstone of identity, not communal drug romps. KK could have chosen his place within American letters at any phase. Instead he retreated–well, not a retreat–but what would you call it? He was a father and a family man. He responded to community and family needs. Even so, we wanted him to give more to literature than he did. Isn’t that is the crux? Artists give and who are we to demand that they give give give? Still, it rankles to imagine KK backing away from such great gifts.
Saul Bellow is right: there is, was, or can be a tremendous power in writers: a power of style. Kesey is a case in point, as were the Beats, and perhaps Hemingway before him. They hit on something that young people responded to. Truth does not matter here. It is the style that counts and writers can be very powerful when it comes to style. Take KK: you have an abundantly talented young man. He can do with words what people enjoy tremendously. He innovates and sets his own course. He can do anything call the shots, as they say. Then he swerves off into gadfly areas of knowledge: drugs, communal happenings, rock festivals, etc. He imputes to things bigger problems than really exist (that is what the whole counter culture did). I would give anything to hear Kesey on Proust or Gaddis or Bellow, but I suspect Kesey didn’t give a rip for any of these. Problem is, once you declare for writing or literature you do belong to a club or a guild. You can deny this (KK already belonged to a guild by virtue of his novels), but it is still true. You owe it to yourself–if not your fans–to explore the guild, i.e., the history of literature; I’d hate to see in Kesey another American re-inventing the wheel as is our wont.
Drugs, and the counter-culture that Kesey helped foment, were the hammers that opened fissures in US society. When you hear debates about Texas school board debating this or that aspect of America, gays, guns girls whatever this is the fissure that the 1960s opened. Problem is, America wasn’t all that oppressive and the liberators were not all that liberating. There was a fascist strain in the counter culture movement; conformity reigned. These ideas were always present in western literature. Kesey claimed that Neil Cassidy lived the perfect novel, but that is an absurd statement if you believe the point of novels is that others can share in them and you communicate a literary experience…a reflection of a lived experience. Kesey, the supreme individualist, turned his back on the novel for communal pleasures of hanging out and drugs and partying and dressing up in jester’s uniform. It’s not that he was so unconventional; when you really scratched at him he was totally conventional. For real non-convention you have to turn to Kesey’s novels or to Nabokov and Lolita. And what of the dangers of LSD? It did twist people’s minds around nothingness and panic. The guy should have booted all the hangers on out long before he did. Drugs turned into anarchy which turned into a power play. In the wider culture, the worst elements came forward and dominated the weaker. You could see this in Haight Ashbury when all the drug dealers moved in and dominated all the runaway kids, and then later when the motorcycle gangs got involved in the drug trade. Bad news all the way around. Look at the toll drugs took on a generation of musicians.
Anyone who didn’t catch the strains of fascism in the hippie/drug/counterculture/new left was blind. Worst of all, the counter-culture didn’t grasp any clear idea of who or what the enemy was. Hence, the childish bashing of all authority. If you’re going to make great claims for the ultimate things: consciousness, peace, love and cosmic understanding you must also account for the lowest things: brutality, oppression, mass murder and that the counter-culture could not do. Drugs may liberate yes, but for Kesey, to still be beating the drug drum through the 1980s and 90s, when every drug was available to every frat house in the nation–was simply unbelievable. If the magic of drugs was ever going to make itself felt it would have made it felt by then. Move on is something Kesey declined to do; he always maintained that some authority out was to get you; with no recognition of how generous and benign America really could be.
Kesey, with a personal integrity and a personal magnetism intact over the decades, nonetheless got sidetracked by performance art, communal espri di corps, gatherings of the tribe, a kind of free-floating love and peace, this and that and a strange brew of New Age flimflam. What of individual striving and achievement? He wrote a novel cherishing those qualities and ideals. In a modern democracy identity comes through achievement.
As Eric Hoffer wrote, America not hospitable to mass movements of any sort, so much reinventing the wheel in Kesey’s ideology; he knew he should have cleared out the trash and cut the bullshit long before; that there was no enlightenment to be had in dope and low-grade tricks and nonsense. He let go of that vision of himself as a young striver and competitive literary scholar…as if you don’t get better with effort…what we missed…greedy as we are…
Coda: I read this over and it seems harder on Kesey than I meant it to be. I do love his writing and find his life fascinating to contemplate. He is gone now and we can only speculate or continue to speculate about his career–Kesey himself was one of the grand speculators about Ken Kesey. Surely the indifferent reception of Sometimes a Great Notion wounded him. He took time off to party and celebrate youthful confidence and defiance. The party, unfortunately or not, lasted a long time; and his advocacy of hallucinogins threw the seriousness of his artistic achievement out of whack. He lost a son in a horrible bus accident in 1984; no one, I believe, had any right to demand anything more from him after that.