Saturday, October 1, 2011

Uncensored Librarians: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Book banning is an aggressive form of thought policing.  It’s The Man trying to control you, trying to tamp down threatening ideas.   Why is The Man always trying to keep us down, man?   It’s because he has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – the seat of his power.   It is fitting that so many banned books involve a protagonist struggling against oppression; be it governmental, economic, religious, or societal– there is always some manifestation of The Man trying to assimilate, commoditize, silence, and in all ways strip a person of their dignity.

In Ken Kesey’s 1962 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Man is actually a woman, the steely despot, Nurse Ratched.   Hers is a literal example of someone who ought to be an inmate running the asylum.  She controls the patients through intimidation, social coercion, drugs and violence.  This is an environment where she can order physical and chemical restraint, isolation, electrical shocks, and even lobotomy.  Her abuses are condoned by the facility’s doctors because they, too, have been manipulated and bullied into accepting the efficacy and rationality of her approach.

All is copacetic in her cruel little world, until the group is joined by Randle McMurphy, a new patient who has conned his way out of prison and into the institution by feigning insanity.  McMurphy is a Good Time Charlie, an unabashed devotee of gambling, booze and women, who is happy to kick back in the relative comfort of the hospital.  While there, he manages to entertain himself by giving the staff a hard time; getting a particular kick out of undermining Nurse Ratched -that is, until he learns that his release is conditional upon her approval.   The power struggle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched becomes, in a very real sense, the fight for his life.  The smart thing for him to do would be to keep his head down and toe the line, but it is not as simple as that – first, it’s contrary to his character, but more importantly he realizes that his rebellion is an inspiration to the other patients, bringing them out of the fog of abusive psychiatry to reclaim their personhood.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest touches on themes of race, homosexuality, patient’s rights, emasculation, governmental control, mental health, sex, drugs, rock and roll – you name it.  It has been challenged or banned in schools on a fairly regular basis since its publication.  On the American Library Association’s website, they note that in one lawsuit against a school district, the book was described as “pornographic… [It] glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.”  But kids love that stuff!  And more importantly, the severity of the imagery and the discomfort it causes shakes a person out of their complacency and allows for a broader and deeper understanding of other people’s experiences.

So reading a Banned Book is, in effect, sticking it to The Man.  I suggest you do just that.

Ransom - Reference

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