The Mace & Crown, October 11, 1982
One Flew East: Writer Ken Kesey at ODU
Editor's Note: Writer Ken Kesey appeared at ODU recently for the university's fifth annual Literary Festival. Kesey has written two novels: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Published in 1962 and later adapted for film, And 1964's Sometimes a Great Notion . His essays and short fiction have appeared in various publications; most recently he covered the first Chinese Marathon for Runner's World Magazine. Kesey is also known as the leader of the Merry Pranksters whose antics are chronicled in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The ODU Activities Programming Board made Kesey 's appearance Possible.
The following sketches and impressions of Kesey are taken from his lecture, reading, and conversations with the Journalist. The article is divided into passages with an introductory quote from something Kesey has written.
Monday night October 4, at a Party for Allen Ginsberg Ken Kesey is standing in the corner of a brightly lit room. He is surrounded by people as he slowly weaves his way out of the crowd. He's wearing an orange shirt that laces at the collar. The once red hair is grey now, yet the sideburns remain long and sharply trimmed at the earlobes. Kesey has friendly bleach-blue eyes. "Hello," he says, and leads the way outside for a breath of air.
Right and left there are other things happening just as bad---crazy, horrible things too goofy and outlandish to cry about and too much true to laugh about ... if I was fool enough to try and tell anybody about it they'd say, idiot, you just had a nightmare; things as crazy as a big machine room where people get cut up by robot workers don't exist.
But if they don't exist, how can a man see them? --Chief Broom Harding is trying to be funny.
'Now. Pre-cisely, what was It you saw in these-ah-dreams?' McMurphy don't crack a smile. 'I don't know, man. Nothing but faces, I guess--just faces.' --One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
"It's hard to be an artist now," he says. Kesey is sitting on the front porch, talking with Ginsberg about dreams, art, and life. Someone asks Kesey about Reagan, and the president's decreased funding to the arts. Kesey thinks Reagan was right: too many "mediocre artists" living off the government, the novelist says.
Kesey believes that in today's society a person would have a better chance of making a comfortable living in business or computers. An artist, he says, doesn't have a very good chance of success. "I think it's easier to be a pro football player today than to be a writer," Kesey says. He has four children who are in school. Kesey says they're studying for careers that will let them live well.
But Kesey isn't recomending a career choice. "The real artists, the ones who have something to say," he explains, "can't be stopped. There'll always be artists."
The writer also feels that the art of recent times has not been as important as earlier art. Kesey attributes artistic apathy to the omnipresence of television and other such mediums. "People have lost a sense of story," he says. "In the 60's we cut ourselves loose from word order and form. We thought that when we broke word order we would break through the end of the world (the chaos that marked the era, and continues to rage, Kesey says)." He adds that the art of that time was "Rorschachian," in that it attempted to understand the world through unconventional abstractions.
The nature of art, according to Kesey, is not to depress but to celebrate the excitement of life. "The first rule of literature," he says, "Is that it must have a happy ending." He doesn't like art that is neurotic or degrading. "Why pay money to see the human condition degenerated?" Kesey asks.
He adds that today we're living in a world of "over-hip," a world where everyone knows the right thing for everyone else. He cites the recent Jack Kerouac Festival in Colorado. "Everyone was trying to run down Kerouac's life, and they weren't upholding his works," the novelist exclaims. "They want to find out what goes on in the dark when the books are closed." He thinks an artist's life should be dealt with separately from his work, and that a hero should not be destroyed maliciously. ''We need myths and magic," Kesey says.
You can make a mark across the night with the tip of an embered stick, and you can actually see it fixed in its infinity. You can be absolutely certain of its treacherous impermanence. And that is all. --Sometimes a Great Notion
Kesey is riding in a car on his way to the lecture Tuesday. He talks about how important things are often impermanent.
He says he has just spent all of last year researching Northwest Indian myths. The author wants to write a ballet featuring the Indian legends, and have the music written and performed by rock group the Grateful Dead. "I want the Dead to write the music and score for an orchestra,'' Kesey explains, "and put the Dead down in the orchestra pit where they belong! The Dead are the best!"
The Greatful Dead traveled with Kesey to the site of the Indian rituals, where they saw the rites performed by the Kwakutl, Tlingit, and Hiada Indian tribes. Kesey wants the Dead to do the ballet because "They won't be remembered unless they do something permanent."
Kesey says the performers are enthused about the project, and that Bill Graham, the rock promoter, is very interested in staging the production. Kesey doesn't want the ballet to be just another rock performance, or rock "opera." He wants it to be something special and lasting.
The ballet will becalled 'The Sea Lion," and will concern a boy who finds a magic amulet of god. Later, the boy must contend with magical powers and the designs of necromancers.
Kesey believes the ballet would be a success, and would preserve the mythology of the Indians as well as returning the sense of story and art to people.
"I'd love to see Baryshnikov do it!" Kesey laughs.
A river smooth and seeming calm, hiding the cruel file-edge of its current beneath a smooth and calm-seeming surface. --Sometimes a Great Notion
Kesey speaks of his trip to China, as the car passes through the streets of Norfolk.
''It was wonderful. The American press was given the red carpet treatment." But Kesey feels that the U.S. is not as friendly toward China as it could be. "We're not behaving well toward them," he comments.
"China is reaching out to us. They're tired of playing with Russia. They want to play with us." Kesey adds that America has a lot to gain from its friendship with the Eastern nation. "China is important to us. We have nothing to gain by selling weapons to Taiwan--the Chinese take that as an affront. Reagan's problem is that he doesn't understand the Oriental sense of pride. We're insulting them."
The Chinese society, Kesey notes, is still reeling from the influence of Mao. "They can recover," he believes, "because their society is the oldest there is."
While in China Kesey visited a museum that houses an ancient stone bearing the original twenty-two letters of the Chinese alphabet. "Some of the letters in that alphabet," Kesey says, "are the same letters of our English alphabet." And Kesey believes that language is thus passed down from civilization to civilization; expression is natural. "Those letters," he says, "are in our DNA, our genetic makeup."
Tuesday, October 5, Kesey's lecture in Webb Center: "A battle is being fought for knowledge, and the battle is being fought by English teachers," Kesey says. He is speaking again of art and the lack of cultural sophistication. He says it's hard for teachers to excite students over the classics, but that without such literature a person is not prepared to understand life. "Without the hook of literature," Kesey says, "you can't know anything."
He adds that the classics require "distancing," or the test of time. "There have been no great books in the last thirty or forty years," Kesey remarks. He also believes that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not a classic.
Kesey believes that clear language is necessary to clear expression. "The more you know about writing the more you appreciate form," he says. "Power is being able to express yourself. Language is beautiful."
Tuesday night, Kesey's reading, the Life Sciences Auditorium: He is wearing what he calls his ''Chinese suit,'' a sort of blue-white attire complete with a silk tie and red dragons--all bought in China.
Kesey reads an article he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine, an excerpt from his The Prayers of Grandma Whittier, published in the magazine Spit in the Ocean which Kesey and his contemporaries put out, and a child's fable. The novelist reads enthusiastically. He gestures strongly, and makes the words come alive. His voice plays with the characters and their dialects. Standing there Kesey somehow resembles Mark Twain.
He also reads brief character portraits from a book on Alaska he's currently writing. Previously, Ke8ey says, he's been too busy bringing up his family to work on writing. But now, with his children in school, he has the time to write again.
After the reading, which was well attended, Kesey talks about writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and how his work in a mental hospital helped him present the characters In a realistic way. "I didn't even have to make those guys up," Kesey says.
Pete stoody there in the middle of the floor...'! can't help it. I was born a miscarriage. I had so many insults I died. I was born dead. I can't help it. I'm tired... You got chances... you got it easy. I was born dead an' life was hard...! been dead fifty-five years.' --Pete the Chronic
"The madness of those men was really Just a weariness," Kesey explains. He says that the small disappointments of life added up and wore away at the men.
"I was in Disneyland once," Kesey recalls, "and I saw this guy sitting with his family In one of those monoralls4 they have there. And the guy had tried so hard to make it perfect--he was there with his wife and kids, and he'd probably taken the week off from work. And all his family could do was complain. He was trying to let them have a good time. he wasn't doing anything.. But Icould see the muscles of his arms flex as he gripped the back of his seat. He gripped tighter and tighter. He wanted things to be right and they weren't.
"That's the kind of weariness that Cuckoo's Nest is about." Kesey, however, is unhappy with the screen version of his novel. "The people In Hollywood always think they do things right, but they never do," he says. The novel is narrated by Chief Broom, an Indian. The film is told from the viewpoint of Randle McMurphy, a boisterous individual. The film consequently dwells more on the battles and arguments between McMurphy and the hospital administration than with the observations of the Indian.
Later in the evening Kesey relaxes in the Rathskeller, and watches some of the musicians at the Folk Festival.
Then the audience asks Kesey to sing a song. He goes to the stage, takes a guitar, and sings a "regional folk song" he wrote called "Death Valley Dolly." It's a jocular song, and the crowd likes it.
I remember that Kesey was talking earlier about preserving culture and the purpose of art. "Art can pull you out of the end of the world. Art should glorify and uplift the human heart," he says. "We can't turn our back on life. Even if the world were about to end, we still must not abandon life. If we do, we'll lose the wonder of it all."
For that mighty first boom was only the first faintest murmur of an explosion that is still roaring down on us, and always will be walked on... trying to decide if he was saner or crazier than when I last saw him. I decided he was. --Sometimes a Great Notion