Of Cuckoos and Kings


Having a life-long phobia of mental institutions, I shy away from situations that refuse to make sense. Some have attributed this to my having had an alcoholic father and responding with an über-rational expectation of analyzing how other people would likely act. Whatever its cause, the fear is real. So thirty years ago, when I watched One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I assumed it would be the last time. It was a relatively recent movie at the time, and it was required viewing for one of my college courses. With my phobia I really couldn’t get beyond the heebie-jeebies to consider what was going on beneath the surface, which is to say, most of the movie. Well, a few decades will cure many ills and I sat down to watch the movie again and my own experiences of asylum-like, heartless institutions in the intervening years had indeed hardened me a bit. I noticed much that I’d missed the first time around. For one thing the story of King David kept coming to mind.

For those who read the Bible somewhat objectively, David is a player, and not always the most admirable character. He has a subtle charm that wins the reader of the books of Samuel back time and again. He steps into a situation where his ambition is held back by a kind of Nurse Ratched named King Saul. So what does David do? He pretends to be insane and runs off to join the Philistines. He gathers a band of miscreants about him and goes to towns taking what isn’t his. He even brings a forbidden woman into his house. As R. P. McMurphy goes through these same shenanigans, he comes to really love young Billy (Saul’s son Jonathan). In the course of the movie our ersatz David takes a suffering nation and heals it. There, however, the parallels end and Ken Kesey’s story takes over.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Kesey intentionally drew on the story of David—that would be crazy talk—but I do often wonder about the aphorism attributed to his son Solomon that there is nothing new under the sun. There were those who felt that Solomon had lost touch with reality as he sat down to write Ecclesiastes. The great stories, in some sense, have already been told. But not all. Those of us who write seek new truths, and sometimes use ancient sources to do it. David is remembered as one of the great biblical characters. One of the reasons, undoubtedly, is that he is so fallibly human—he’s not impossibly pious like Moses, or unfailingly sad like Jeremiah. He is a good man with peccadilloes for which we are willing to forgive him just for the pleasure of watching him go on. No, Kesey may not have had the Bible in his hand as he dreamed up the character of R. P. McMurphy, but he produced a true representation nevertheless. Of course, I might just be insane myself.

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