Wednesday, May 19, 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Watching that movie on cable last night (it's been a long time. Danny DeVito NOT playing "Danny DeVito"? "Introducing" Brad Dourif? Christopher Lloyd? Scatman Crothers? Who wasn't in that movie?), and thinking about this article by Adam Gopnik (on which much more later, I hope), and I realized a central truth of the teachings of Jesus, one Gopnik touches on but doesn't quite put his finger on. That central truth is this:

Ideas don't matter. Things don't matter. People matter.

Nurse Ratched, in the film, is all about the idea of order. The poor inmates of the hospital, all of whom save perhaps the "Chief" and certainly McMurphy, are there voluntarily (and we would today diagnose them as having emotional problems, at worst, and not confine any of them, even if they begged us to), are all about "normal," which they are convinced they are not (as McMurphy tells them, they're no worse off than the average "assh*le" on the street). The Chief is obsessed with the idea of survival (he tells the story of his father, a "big man", and he doesn't mean physical size, who was beaten down because of his "bigness". The Chief will avoid that outcome in his life at all costs.). All of them make the mistake of thinking ideas matter. In this very odd and neo-Fryean sense, McMurphy is the Christ figure, the one who challenges the doctrines of the Pharisees, represented here by Nurse Ratched and her systems of control (to quote The Matrix; and I promise never to do that again. Well, until next time....). If you think I'm wrong, compare Nurse Ratched's shaming of Billy for sleeping with a woman, a shaming that leads directly to his suicide, to the reaction of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John. The Christ figure (if not "the Christ") is all about people, not ideas. People matter. Ideas he resolutely tears to shreds.

"Do you see this woman?," he asks Simon the Pharisee. She matters; not Simon's ideas of propriety, purity, cleanliness, or even hospitality (or lack thereof). What about the Prodigal Son? The woman with the lost coin? The unjust steward? The vineyard owner? The pearl of great price? What are those parables except lessons in what matters, and what matters is not ideas of order, or propriety, or honoring parents. What matters is people. Every time, what matters is people. The kingdom of heaven is like the daily loaf of bread, made by a woman's hands, using yeast (a symbol of uncleanness; the unleavened bread isn't unleavened only because the Israelites had to bake in haste. Unleavened bread is "clean".) . The kingdom of heaven is like the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep untended to find the one lost sheep.

People matter. Individuals matter. Lives matter. The community cannot have "life into the ages." Only individuals can. The community can deny the sanctity of beggars, whores, and tax collectors. But the ideas of sanctity espoused by the community don't matter. People matter. So Jesus eats with people. Not with whores or beggars or tax collectors. Those are ideas. Jesus eats with people.

2000 years later, we're still coming to grips with that fact. Or, as in Gopnik's case, in an otherwise fine article, missing the point altogether.

"And O-U-T spells 'out'!"


  1. I suppose I am moved to say a word for order and institutions because, as is known to Our Host, I am now about ten days into a three month, on and off, stay at a children's hospital. Here it is clean, efficient, with an ordered army of professionals coming through the door day and night: surgeons, pediatricians, nurses, dieticians, neurologists, psychologists, pulmonologists, gastro-enterologists, radiologists, physical therapists, and the like.

    I am all for individual charity, but this particular institution has been around now sixty years or so, refining and extending its mission. I think there were some 6,000 operations performed on children last year along. I met a little pre-teen girl yesterday afternoon whose spine had been so bent that her rib cage had started scraping her pelvis. She will now not die. And she is almost straight.

    I am always overwhelmed here by the amount of good that is done. And of course I understand that there are in fact organizations conforming to the pattern of "One Flew over the Coo-coo's Nest," where order stifles, where humanity is crushed by a rage for tidiness. Organization, order, can increase the evil of individuals. But because it can also magnify the good, I need to keep reminding my romantic self that institutions may be subject to distortions not risked by individuals, but, in the long run, it is not "institutionality" that we need shun, but the temptations they permit to de-humanization.

    The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath. That's not a reason to ditch the sabbath, but to keep it even more devoutly, precisely because it was made for man.

  2. I don't read "Cuckoo's Nest" that literally. I, too, work for an organization which requires order imposed on chaos, and compels minds to conform to useful ways of thinking.

    "Cuckoo's Nest" is a metaphor, and like all metaphors, a flawed representation of reality. The hospital is intentionally nightmarish; the "patients" intentionally weak and broken and scared (in that, not unlike anyone I know, or have known). As I said, in reality such a place, while it might have existed when Kesey wrote his novel, would not exist today. Kesey's vision is one of society imposing a vision of "normal" on people whom it doesn't fit. My brief experience with the Texas mental hospital in Austin (representing an employee there) convinces me that, if anything, the system today errs in the opposite direction.

    I actually think order is a good thing: how else to interpret the "wisdom" that is the heart of the teachings of Jesus, who, after all, is not the Socrates (accurately, I think) described in Kierkegaard's "Concept of Irony". That is, the agent of chaos who uses irony to simply undermine everything and devour everything including, finally, irony itself.

    No, the vision of Jesus is of the basileia tou theou, where you can buy food without money, and wine without price. It is the place of order based on God's compassion, not humanity's version of what is most convenient and best serves those in power. To that extent, Kesey's metaphor is a trenchant one, and a truthful one. And reminds me, not at all incidentally, of the basic thread running through all the parables.

  3. Not that I much disagree. Probably the wrong metaphor at the wrong time......

  4. Probably the wrong metaphor at the wrong time......

    An enduring truth I learned from preaching: you can never be sure who is listening, or to what. Interpretation is a tricky thing, and I understand yours completely.

  5. I realy like "Cuckoo's Nest". Thanks

  6. Of course, there is a strand of Western thought (in particular in Anglo-American thought) that adopts the notion of "original sin" and says that, as people are intrinsically evil, you can't trust people and hence people don't matter, neither do the institutions they create. The only "thing" you can trust is "the Hand of God", or, secularized, "the Invisible Hand (of the free market)" ... i.e. people don't matter, ideas don't matter, things don't matter ... the only thing that matters is fate.

    At some level free-market capitalism is based on a certain "Calvinist" (although I'm not sure if Calvin would recognize it) conception of original sin and predestination.

  7. The only "thing" you can trust is "the Hand of God", or, secularized, "the Invisible Hand (of the free market)" ... i.e. people don't matter, ideas don't matter, things don't matter ... the only thing that matters is fate.

    Correct. Which is an idea: both "fate" as a concept (show me a picture of "fate") and the idea that "fate" alone matters.

    I am quite distinctly pointing a finger at Christian doctrine here. No two ways about it.

  8. Yes. Fate is an Idea. How could I have missed that?

    One of the great ironies of Anglo-American, Neo-Liberal thought is that for all of its rejection of "rationalism" and "idealistic metaphysics" in favor of what purports to be an empiricism, this so-called empiricism's embrace of the notion of "the invisible hand", whether it be the hand of God or the hand of the Free Market, is perhaps the biggest leap into Platonism (as applied to everyday living, at least) of them all. I guess it's no surprise that today's American political right, even as it lays claim to be a movement of "everyday 'Murkins who live in the real world and not in ivory towers", is rooted (via Strauss) in Platonic thought.

  9. Thanks for this great post, i find it very interesting and very well thought out and put together. I look forward to reading your work in the future.
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