Archive for April, 2008

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Essay 1 for Contemporary American Lit

April 27, 2008

This is an essay I wrote about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for my last lit course of college. This class has interesting books for us to read, but the lectures are pretty slow and boring. Mostly I’m just putting in my time, waiting to graduate. There’s nothing that will kill your enjoyment of a good book faster than being required to pay attention to EVERYTHING and jot it down in the margins as you go, so I’m trying to avoid that, too.

The following essay won’t make sense unless you’ve read the book. Since I wrote it starting at 3 in the morning, it might not make sense, even if you have.

When I first noticed the tense shifts, my first idea was to jump to a conclusion about their relevance to Bromden’s sanity. I thought that it was related to his fogging out, and how time seems to slip away from him a lot. That’s sort of right- his psychosis certainly does have a temporal element, but the tense shifts aren’t there to point that out; the narration does a fine job of that on its own. The tense shifts are there to signal the Chief’s struggle to claim and retain a sense of agency, and that sense of agency is directly related to his mental health. As the one becomes more secure, so does the other, and the places where the tense shifts from present to past and back are strategically selected to emphasize this internal struggle without being so clumsy as to write it on the wall.

The book starts in the present tense. At this point Bromden is clearly nuts, and very passive. “So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling a big load. I hold my breath and figure, My God this time they’re gonna do it!”(p.5) Even when his hallucinations show him things that he is afraid of, he doesn’t take action to escape them, he only watches passively.

“This morning I plain don’t remember. They got enough of those things they call pills down me so I don’t know a thing till I hear the ward door open.” P8

When Bromden remembers an incident in which he saw another patient try to seize control of his own situation, the prose slips into past tense. Old Pete is making his last stand against Nurse Ratched: “Then old Pete was on his feet. “I’m tired!” was what he shouted, a strong, angry copper tone to his voice that no one had ever heard before. (p.45)” Bromden has sympathy for Pete’s struggle, and the first hints of a latent desire to reclaim control of his own life are symbolized in this use of the past tense. A flashback using the past tense might seem to be a hard sell as being particularly symbolic, but this passage begins a pattern that continues to the end of the book.

During the television vote, Bromden’s perception changes from present tense to past tense within the same passage: “McMurphy’s got hidden wires hooked to it, lifting it slow just to get me out of the fog and into the open where I’m fair game. He’s doing it, wires…No. That’s not the truth. I lifted it myself. (p. 123)” The whole passage is in the present tense, except for the sentence where Bromden takes credit for his own decision, which is in the past tense. In the very next sentence, the prose shifts back to the present tense. “McMurphy whoops and drags me standing, pounding my back.” Bromden has again surrendered his agency, and is back to being dragged along by McMurphy.

Later, as if to suggest a growing ease with claiming responsibility for himself, there is a passage of extended narration in which Chief uses the past-tense, but does not immediately describe any real agency on his part. “The way the Big Nurse acted so confident in that staff meeting, that worried me for a while, but it didn’t make any difference to McMurphy. All weekend, and the next week, he was just as hard on her and her black boys as he ever was, and the patients were loving it. (p. 137)” But when that passage moved beyond narration to immediate action, we see that this bit will show the Chief asserting control in his life again. “But this one night, a few nights after the big meeting, I woke up and the dorm was clean and silent; except for the soft breathing of the men and the stuff rattling around loose under the brittle ribs of the two old Vegetables, it was dead quiet. A window was up, and the air in the dorm was clear and had a taste to it made me feel kind of giddy and drunk, gave me this sudden yen to get up out of bed and do something. (emphasis mine, p. 141)” Up to this part in the story, the Chief hasn’t had a spontaneous urge to do anything. Even something as simple as walking to the window and looking out at the night is forbidden, and his transgression of this law is an uncharacteristically active thing for him to do.

And then, within a single paragraph, at the instant this small bit of agency is taken from the Chief, the tense shifts back to present: “The dog was almost to the rail fence at the edge of the grounds when I felt somebody slip up behind me. Two people. I didn’t turn, but I knew it was the black boy named Geever and the nurse with the birthmark and the crucifix. I heard a whir of fear start up in my head. The black boy took my arm and pulled me around. “Ill get ‘im,” he says. (p.143)”

After McMurphy realizes that he’s one of the very few inmates who is committed, he seems deflated, tired. At this point in the novel, the final swing of agency from McMurphy to Bromden begins in earnest. The chapter ends with: “The two technicians come back from coffee and go back into that room [the Shock Shop] across the hall; when the door whooshes open you can smell the acid in the air like when they recharge a battery. McMurphy sits there, looking at that door. “I don’t seem able to get it straight in my mind…. (p. 168)”

After seeing McMurphy in that state of human doubt and fear, some part of the Chief begins to realize that the benefits that McMurphy has brought to the ward will not survive him without the other inmates taking responsibility onto themselves. The next chapter starts and continues in the past tense. “Crossing the grounds back to the ward, McMurphy lagged back at the tail end of the bunch with his hands in the pockets of his greens and his cap tugged low on his head, brooding over a cold cigarette.” And later… “I wanted to tell him not to fret about it, and I was just about to come out and say it when he raised his head and shoved his hat back and speeded up to where the least black boy was walking and slapped him on the shoulder and asked him, ‘Sam, what say we stop by the canteen here a second so I can pick me up a carton or two of cigarettes.’” In this brief scene, Bromden is right on the verge of breaking his decades-long silence to comfort McMurphy when Mack makes his decision: he’s going to go to war with Nurse Ratched, and to hell with the consequences. Although Bromden doesn’t do anything in this chapter, he gets yet closer to his eventual escape. And at the same time McMurphy starts down the road that will lead him inexorably towards his merciful death at Bromden’s hands.

The pattern repeats itself throughout the rest of the book, culminating in the final battle between Ratched and McMurphy. Each new defeat McMurphy inflicts upon her brings more confidence to Bromden, and each setback takes a little bit of it back. By the time Part IV rolls around, almost everything is written in past-tense, and Chief Bromden becomes a more and more active character, rather than merely a colorfully unreliable narrator. The only exception to this starts on 241, where Bromden and McMurphy are in the Disturbed ward, where the police state aesthetic is even stronger, and Bromden is afraid they have gone too far. “[a nurse] handed us each a little paper cup. I looked in min, and there are three of those red capsules. This tsing whirs in my head and I can’t stop. “Hold on,” McMurphy says. “These are those knockout pills, aren’t they?” As the inevitable consequences of their rebellion fall upon Mack and Bromden, Bromden regresses, loses the self confidence to claim his own agency and begins to hallucinate again.

During electroshock, his sense of time slips again, and he flashes back to his time in the Army and his childhood. When he comes to, he finds himself at the crisis point and is forced to make a decision. He chooses to fight to control his own destiny. “It’s fogging a little, but I won’t slip off and hide in it. No…never again… I stand, stood up slowly, feeling numb between the shoulders. The white pillows on the floor of the Seclusion Room were soaked from me peeing on them while I was out. I couldn’t remember all of it yet, but I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands and tried to clear my head. I worked at it. I’d never worked at coming out of it before. (p.249)” Kesey underlines this with a mid-sentence (!) tense shift, and the novel remains in the past-tense until the final page.

The pattern linking tense shifts to Bromden’s agency is clear, but the reasoning behind was difficult to puzzle out. I suspect that the past tense is used to symbolically emphasize Bromden’s ability or inability to put his past behind him. The traumas in his life primarily revolve around being helpless in the face of an uncaring world, and they remain looming, half-remembered figures in his mind for most of his stay in the hospital. At the end, he begins to focus on the future, his past becomes clear to him, and it is just as clear that it is over and the future is what matters.

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Petition Whoring

April 14, 2008

So I signed a petition the other day, and then emailed it to a bunch of people I know. But the website I was doing it off of said “Sorry, but we’re not working right now, try back later.” So I did, three or four times. And it always said that it didn’t work. I ended up doing it manually, and it worked just fine that time.

This morning, I woke up to about a half dozen emails of people bitching me out for sending them the same thing 5 times. It seems that the website was telling me a vile lie, and that it worked just fine. Mostly, the people who wrote back to me about this were really rude about it, because I guess in their world, email glitches NEVER EVER HAPPEN. Unfortunately, I am not so lucky. I do not live in a magical world of rainbows and blowjobs where we are never forced to put up with the unpleasant. I live in a world where the Internet is just like everything else- it never quite works the way it is supposed to, and mature people just learn to live with it. What they don’t do, generally, is make snap judgments and assume the worst of the people who are trying to get them politically involved on important issues.

So fuck you all, go die in a fire.

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Smells Like Liberty

April 7, 2008

I sure do love living in the Land of the Free. It’s so great when people of differing views can come together in respectful dialog:

Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) interrupted atheist activist Rob Sherman during his testimony Wednesday afternoon before the House State Government Administration Committee in Springfield and told him, “What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!

“This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God,” Davis said. “Get out of that seat . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”

THIS is why atheists care about religion polluting government.

EDIT: Audio can be found here. I just LOVE that smarmy, condescending tone.

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Charlton Heston is Dead

April 5, 2008

Charlton Heston is dead at age 84. This raises one immediate question in my mind: can we take his guns yet?