The Landscape of Insanity; Applying Visual Mapping to Perspectives in Ken Kesey’s Work

‘There is a worse kind of disorder then that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate; I mean the disorder in which a large number of possible orders glitter separately…Utopias afford consolation: although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are allowed to unfold…Heterotopias are disturbing.’

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, p48, New York, 1970.

In an essay on the English Rustic Tradition called the “State and Estate of Nature”, Ann Bermingham refers specifically to the ‘Enclosures’ of English countryside that took place in the eighteenth century when she says: ‘Precisely when the countryside – or at least large portions of it – was becoming unrecognisable, and dramatically marked by historical change, it was offered as the image of the homely, the stable, the ahistorical’1. Landscape has always played an ambivalent role in the social identification of humankind not because its nature is constantly shifting, but because conceptions of it are continuously loading it with changing values. Barnes and Duncan comment in their introduction to Writing Worlds, that: ‘we use an expanded concept of the ‘text’: one that includes other cultural productions such as paintings, maps and landscapes…These should all be seen as signifying practices that are read, not passively, but, as it were, rewritten as they are read’. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey arranges the identity of his narrator, Chief Bromden, against his environment in a fragmented, overtly illusory, and often disproportionate way. The difficulties which Bromden has in coherently arranging his ‘readings’ of the world around inform his own characterisation, but the highly descriptive way in which this translates brings to issue the idea of ‘madness’ but also sheds light on the perception process involved in the location of identity in environment more generally.

Bromden’s account is in fact an account of his surroundings – a large proportion of the ‘action’ takes place as the ‘act of perception’. He plays the part, for us, of ‘perceiver’, but perceives not simply a hellish dystopia but a constant stream of incomplete utopias. Kesey’s writing anticipates Jean Baudrillard’s statement that ‘America broke with Europe, and with history, when it undertook to make utopia real…it is not conceptualising reality, but realising concepts and materialising ideas, that interests them’2. In this sense, Bromden’s attitude is firmly rooted in American culture. Paradoxically, this is also in line with typical ‘schizophrenic’ behaviour. The Chief finds his way through the world around him (which is often ‘fogged-up’ by the ‘Combine’) by attaching supposedly irrational significance to the social icons around him in his carrying out of the normal human process of ‘prospect’. Every prospect, in the words of Wordsworth, is a ‘prospect of the mind’3 and the ‘mindscape’ of Harding, for example, describes the ward as a hunting ground:

‘This world belongs to the strong, my friend…The rabbits accept their role in the ritual and recognise the wolf as the strong. In defence, the rabbit becomes sly and frightened and elusive and he digs holes and hides when the wolf is about’

-Harding sees Big Nurse as the ‘wolf’ when her supposed role is as a ‘protector’, but by this stage we are already aware that ‘wolf’ is a far more accurate metaphor. Harding’s view (and my use of the term ‘prospect’ above) is reminiscent of Jay Appleton’s landscape conceptions of ‘prospect’ and ‘refuge’ in the ‘experience of landscape’4. Appleton’s concentration on the idea of clarity of vision, and the importance of vision for the self-affirmation of the subject.

Peter Barham, in Schizophrenia and Human Value, tells us that ‘it is social (and therefore moral) agents with whom we have to contend in talking about the “course” of a schizophrenic illness’5. In its apparently (and physically) sterile hospital environment, the plot of the book seems to take place in a purely social environment. On first impressions it would seem that there is no possibility for landscape analysis – a mental hospital has a scientific ‘white’ inertness which deliberately surrenders relationships with a ‘natural’ environment in favour of scientific precision. However, as we delve beneath the surface of Chief Bromden’s ‘crazy’ narrative, it immediately becomes obvious how much ideas of power and social force in the book depend upon his vision of the world around him. ‘Landscape is a socialised image’, as James Turner says, and this book is about the landscape of the human mind.

One of the many ideas about mental illness (left over from last century) which the book seems to set out specifically to undermine, is the idea that ‘the patients have no longer any regard for their surroundings’6. Bromden obviously does, introducing us to his world with what linguists call a ‘deictic’7 statement: ‘They’re out there’. Bromden’s vision is evidence of an outlook which Harding himself, in the book, refers to as ‘Walt Disney’, but the denial of the narrative to adopt any consistent use of traditional ‘realism’ is coupled with a very strongly identifiable perception of historical images. There is a great deal of reference to traditional ideals of science and nature, containment and escape, microcosm and macrocosm, and the frontier/pioneer ‘American Dream’, and the ward is ‘a little world Inside that is a made-to-scale prototype of the big world Outside'(p43) This leads us to assume that theatrical treatment of ‘proportion’ and size representation deserves more than just the label of ‘the mapping of the natural world by a twisted mind’. The book is all about the ‘mapping’ of a decentred self, but the plausibility of Bromden’s gradual self-discovery through the discovery of his surroundings makes rather the grounds of ‘poetry’ than ‘insanity’. The question of whether Bromden (or anybody, for that matter) belongs in a mental hospital is subordinated by the constant reminder that we should not, and cannot, take our perception of the visual world for granted: ‘its the truth, even if it didn’t happen'(p13).

In terms both of ‘prospect’ and its relationship to the ‘mapping of ideals as such, there is quite a strong element of the road movie/picaresque in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, in that it creates landscape through the human eye, and the visualisation of the main character is through a patriarchal and utopian “American Dream” kind of perception. Within Bromden’s voyage through the unfathomable world of the ‘all-powerful Combine’ are incorporated escapes into ‘other’ wildernesses, in his dreams, his memories, and in ‘real’ represented time (it is very important to envisage how these three ‘planes’ of perception are conflated in the book, of course). In fact, his whole ‘escapee’ discourse is slightly reminiscent of the advertisements of the early nineteenth century America, inviting people to ‘run for land’8. As we see from his own dreams of countryside, the Indian ‘prospective’ view is very different, possibly more ‘elastic’ than the rigid paleface obsession with exerting the map, a ‘socially constructed form of knowledge’9 on the landscape. One of the most important ‘real-time’ escapes that the patients experience is the very ‘Hemingway-esque’ fishing trip, and in fact the ‘fisherman’ image casts an eerie shadow throughout the book10.

It is noticeable that the Chief, although half American Indian, can conceive of landscape in these ‘frontier mentality’ terms, although we see a complex subversion of ‘prospect’ positions on page 102. Bromden, having actually stepped into a picturesque painting on the wall, a ‘real nice place to stretch your legs and take it easy’, looks out on the ward. He sees the cold snow from the picture seep into the ward, and the doctors pull their coats around them. This flaunts the tenets of accepted visualisation, but it would be reductive to just see that far. Bromden himself, at this moment is in both a subject and object position. He is part of the landscape and at once an onlooker. This is reiterated on page 126, when, soon after this incident, Bromden talks about his appearance: ‘I’d take a look at my own self in the mirror…It wasn’t even me when I was trying to be that face…I was just being the way I looked, the way people wanted…’

From the very outset of his narration, Bromden’s dialogue commodifies his surroundings and himself in a very unique way, and we can begin to read his ‘mindscape’ as his ‘identity’. It is perhaps relevant that my argument is based around Bromden, not McMurphy (around whom the film is based), and that this essay concentrates on landscape. Is Bromden a symbol of landscape himself, a vehicle which we, as readers, see as an ‘indirect prospect symbol??? Although Bromden comes from an Indian tribe, the book does not necessarily ‘promote aboriginal America’ or locate Bromden any more securely because of his roots. Obviously ‘colonisation’ is significant in the overarching battle for social and cultural dominance which takes place in the book, but it is one of its strengths that the escape into the wilderness often witnessed by his dreams has no firmer stamp of authenticity than his dreams of the technological workings of the ‘combine’. In fact, the two – nature and science are often conflated in his monologue. For example, with reference to the ‘real time’ world of the book, ‘Most of us’, says the Chief, ‘are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired'(p17). Referring to ‘dream world’:

‘I get the funniest feeling that the sun is turned up brighter than before on the three of them. Everything else looks like it usually does – the chickens fussing around in the grass on top of the ‘dobe houses, the grasshoppers batting from bush to bush, the flies being stirred into black clouds around the fish racks by the little kids with sage flails, just like every other summer day. Except the sun, on these three strangers, is all of a sudden way the hell brighter than usual and I can see the…seams where they’re put together. And, almost, see the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the words in here and there, this place and that, and when they find the words don’t have any place ready-made where they’ll fit, the machinery disposes of the words like they weren’t even spoken.”(p165, one of Chief Bromden’s memories of childhood, the location of his identity which he rediscovers in the course of his dreams)

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest resists the strictures imposed by ‘naturalism’ by presenting the perspective of a ‘social deviant’ as the vehicle of narration. There is a great deal of reference to a pastoral view of America through the eyes of the half Navaho narrator, and the institutions of the ‘civilised’ world are all part of the “all-powerful combine”. Thus the dialogue is very novel, and creates a kind of ‘hyper-real’ discourse, demanding a familiarity not so much with the real world, but with typical recognised perceptions of it.

He does not refer to the ‘carnival wheel of images, emotions, memories'(p147) of his mental life in metaphors. Things like the freezing of the clock by Big Nurse actually happen. Although McMurphy points out to the Chief: ‘You stand a head taller’n any man on the ward’ he replies: ‘No, I’m way too little…You’re twice the size of me’. The hospital orderlies are all controlled by tiny, invisible electronic wires, and when Bromden does come across the outside world – when he looks out of the window, he recounts:

‘Its fall coming, I kept thinking, fall coming; just like that was the strangest thing ever happened. Fall. Right outside here it was spring a while back, then it was summer, and now its fall – that’s sure a curious idea’

-for the first time in years he is not ‘technologising’ the world around.

It is interesting to note that potential disruption is anticipated in the changing of set surroundings. Big Nurse’s self-cast part depends upon the avoidance of role subversion which could occur in the destabilisation of ‘normal’ environment. When the patients are discussing the carnival idea, at ‘group therapy’, Bromden narrates: ‘”I agree that it may have a number of therapeutic possibilities” she says, and waits. She lets that silence rear up from her again…Everybody knows that’s all there is to the carnival'(p89). That ‘silence’ is almost as visible as one of the patient’s hands which mutates to a huge iron ball when he ‘gets mad’, and certainly as tangible as Big Nurse’s hate: ‘He can feel it blast against him like a blizzard wind, slowing him more than ever'(p80). When Bromden first shakes McMurphy’s hand he recounts how ‘my hand commenced to feel peculiar and went to swelling up out there on my stick of an arm, like he was transmitting his own blood into it. It rang with blood and power. It blowed up near as big as his, I remember…’.

The visible strengths of the text make it immensely tenable and feasible, and this is something which is missed in the film representation of the story. In fact, if it were to really represent the book, the T.V. screen would arguably be very layered and perspective would be disproportionate, like Alice in Wonderland, or those famous Gulliver’s Travels illustrations, of a huge Gulliver, surrounded by tiny Lilliputians. Instead, the Chief plays a supporting role to Jack Nicholson’s characterisation of McMurphy, and the format is traditional realism.

The image of McMurphy is what breathes life into the ward full of scared ‘rabbits’, and McMurphy has to die at the end to give the others life. Despite the Christ-like imagery (p222, when receiving shock treatment, McMurphy says’…annointest my head with conductant. Do I get a crown of thorns?’), the quest for voice in the book, and the rejuvenated Fisher-King (Bromden?) is “no new Godhead – it may provide us with a cause for the incredible element of fact, but unlike God it provides no purpose for life”11 (Beyond the Wasteland). McMurphy is seen by the Chief as an iconic cowboy-figure – full of life and resilience but ultimately just playing a part which is gradually ground down by Big Nurse (‘They see you’re big, now. Now they got to bust you’, p171). McMurphy comes into the ward and wreaks havoc because of his ‘normal’ attitude, his boisterous sense of humour, and his rebel qualities. There is never any doubt that we are expected to see him as ‘hero’, and Nurse Ratched (tellingly dubbed ‘Big Nurse’) as ‘oppressor’.

As far as cartoon perception goes, the problem which the chief has instigating order into his world is reminiscent of traditional problematics in the correspondence between vision and word.12. This eventually simply serves as a reminder to the reader that perspective is a construct, and that perception is subjective. It also accuses the readers themselves of the preconception of this setting as ‘like a cartoon world, where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking through some kind of goofy story that might be real funny if it weren’t for the cartoon figures being real guys'(p31).

It is arguable that this book is shackled by the decade of its production, Ken Kesey’s notoriety as a drug experimenter and L.S.D. promoter (parts of Cuckoo’s Nest were written during Kesey’s experiments, in fact). However, despite the newly-fashionable acceptance of ‘madness’ in the nineteen-sixties, the book tends to interrogate the reader’s ideas of ‘madness’ in a way that has a much wider historical foundation (however recognisable these ideas are to us as readers) in the redundancy of traditional labels and preconceptions.

If the concept of escape is subject to this totalitarian landscape, then the world is indeed a sad place – and that is not simply the world between the pages of the book. Can we really deny the theatricality of the roles played on the ward of the ‘outside world’ we are shown by Bromden? Is this ‘all-powerful combine’ powerful enough to have contained the multiplicity of escape imagery and narrative we are given during the course of the book? The unique and valuable relationship between characterisation and landscape in Cuckoo’s Nest, as well as showing how in many ways the book is , in fact about history, one of the (multiple) central plots being the idea of Bromden, the narrator, rediscovering his personal and cultural history. The book is in many ways a tragedy, because Bromden, whose cultural (Indian) roots have been colonised, eventually finds release through escaping, but the escape is fundamentally flawed.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is an intensely visual book and depends, for its setting, one a lurid and flamboyant descriptiveness. Its weaving, mutating, and swelling perspective is, far from a simple description of an ‘alternative world’, an inquiry into the location of the twentieth-century identity. Bromden leaves us with the words: ‘I been away a long time’, but perhaps a better epithet for the experience of the landscape is:

‘He who walks out of step hears another drum’.

1Chapter 1, “The State and Estate of Nature”, p9 of Landscape and Ideology:The English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860, by Ann Bermingham, Thames and Hudson, 1987.

2Jean Baudrillard, America, New York, 1988, cited by Jonathan Smith, in Writing Worlds, Barnes/Duncan (eds), Routledge, 1992. p83.

3The Prelude, Book 2, line 354, by William Wordsworth. Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth/Coleridge, 1805.

4In fact, his book is called The Experience of Landscape, and in it he talks about humankind’s flouting of the laws of safety, the hunting philosophy, the dichotomy of an exploring animal, in that exploration is always accompanied by the possibility of running for shelter. He also mentions ‘the desire to see without being seen'(p84), and the power of the ‘indirect prospect symbol’: ‘Towers may be seen to be powerful indirect prospect symbols; their whole design and structure is aimed at expressing elevation above thge surrounding country’, all of which are integral to the understanding of Bromden’ treatment of his environment. McMurphy ‘keeps trying to draw us out of the fog, out in the open where we’d be easy to get at'(p102).

5Schizophrenia and Human Value, p 2, Peter Barham, Blackwell, 1984.

6Dementia Praecox and Paraphrenia: an essay translated by R.M. Barclay, by Emil Kraepelin, Edinburgh, 1919.

7Deixis is the spatial, or ‘pointing’ element of speech.

8There is an interesting paper in The Iconography of Landscape (Cosgrove and Daniels/ed,Cambridge, 1988)which discusses the early guidebooks given to immigrants to the United States, describing how ‘guides stressed the principles of spatial selection in chosing between routes, places, areas, and types of land'(p180). That this is an integral part of American cultural identity is made plain by references to ‘the emerging “socio-spatial relations” of suburban America in the early decades of the twentieth-century'(Towards a Geography of the Consumer Society – Working Paper 3. by David Clarke, School of Geography, Leeds University, 1991).

9From p227 of The Iconography of Landscape. J.B.Harley’s essay on Maps, Knowledge, and Power.

10Raymond Olderman, Beyond the Wasteland, suggests the at the main plot of the book works upon the blueprint of the ‘Fisher-King Myth’, and refers to Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. Olderman sees this as a twentieth-century fixation, and it is easy to read the legend into this book. A knight frees the wasteland of the modern world from its spiritual desertion by asking the correct questions, thus delegating some definition of overall purpose to the chaotic domain of the Fisher King.


12I am refering specifically, here, to a statement about Andrew Marvell’s writing which I noticed, and which points out the problematics of fitting a confusing world of visual images into an ordered linguistic system, moving from one artistic medium to another: ‘The lines:”The nectarine and the curious peach/Into my hands themselves do reach” – could only be rendered visual by Walt Disney – there are no direct equivalents between poems and pictures’. A Changing Culture. Seventeenth Century England. 1618-1689. Open University Course: A203. Video presented by Cicely Palser-Havely.