Friday, August 5, 2016

Bigotry, with a side of truth and beauty.

I finally read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nestthe most misogynistic novel to endure in the American canon. After lowering my hackles for the last time, I wondered how any real sense of humanity can survive in the grip of such a worldview. But in spite of everything, this novel manages it.

Ken Kesey may or may not share his novel's cartoonish misogyny and racism. I hope not. Anyone who perceives most of the world as Warner Brothers caricatures deserves pity and a wide berth. But in its more reflective passages, Cuckoo's Nest scrapes the world down to its most beautiful, illogical, and indifferently real moments. Falling leaves seem to become the birds they touch. A dog, ecstatically drunk with the odors of the asylum's lawn (you can feel its joy, so intense as the narrator watches behind locked windows), suddenly heads for the road and an oncoming car. 

The novel also gives terrifying life and depth to the society-as-machine metaphor. Characters bleed rust and screws instead of blood. Trains deposit white-collar worker clones at depots like insect eggs. And the narrator dreams of a human charnel house in the asylum basement that disposes of the hospital's weakest patients with hooks, knives, and conveyor belts. 

Kesey might not personally share his novel's murderous contempt of women and its 19th-century brand of racism, but he is responsible for it. He is responsible for the leering and conspiratorial "black devils" that do not pass for people, and for the fake-out rape that constitutes the protagonist's heroic last stand. It is strange to admire the beauty of someone's writing in spite of this malice, in spite of its flat characters and inflated villains. Kesey himself said in a 1989 interview with NPR's Terry Gross that without the narrator's most reflective moments, the story would be a simple melodrama. I would go further and call it a farce. 

But in its entirety, the novel proves that misunderstanding some aspect of the world (which I know we all do, to some degree) does not invalidate us as observers of the world. It handicaps us, but we can still see and share true things: our emotions, beauty, pain, bewilderment, injustice. This is why, as a woman, I can appreciate a misogynist treatise like Cuckoo's Nest. Not for its misogyny, but for its best, most beautiful parts, for the truths that survive its handicapped perspective.

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