Illustration by Bob AulIt's as simple and straightforward as any high school science experiment: combine hope and incompetence, and the results are inevitably embarrassing. The latest proof of this has been provided by the Placentia-Yorba Linda School District's removal of Ken Kesey's 1963 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from its high school core reading list.
The hope is pretty easy to identify: parents hoping to keep their children permanently sealed in a state of purity, chaste in body and mind. One of the parents who complained about the use of Cuckoo's Nest in an Esperanza High School class told The Orange County Register, "This is the filthiest book on the curriculum. It has no place on any list." But as every high school kid knows, parents are terribly innocent. They lack entirely the worldliness of teenagers, so such parental hysteria is just something one tolerates, looking forward to the day when they—the parents—grow out of it.
Politicians, unfortunately, cannot be ignored so easily. It is only natural that in such a Nixon-haunted landscape as this school district one would encounter the fondest hope of the hard Right: finding a way to keep the '60s from ever having happened. Lacking any breakthroughs when it comes to time travel, they have had to muddle along by distorting history (Yorba Linda, of course, being the home of the sacred temple of historical distortion, the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace) and occasionally, when they are lucky, chucking a bit of the period down the memory hole, where it will hopefully disappear forever.
The choice of Kesey's counterculture classic is, however, where the incompetence comes in. First, not wishing to appear to be book-banning yahoos, district officials claimed they were removing the book from the core curriculum because it is not state-approved. This sad little attempt to pass the buck fell apart with just one phone call: the Register reports that the book is in fact state-approved—and, what's more, that the state education department actually recommends it for high school use. So instead of appearing to be ordinary book-banning yahoos, the district officials now appear to be book-banning yahoos who can't even cobble together a decent lie.
But that is the smallest sign of the officials' incompetence. The real measure of their incompetence can be found in the belief that banning Kesey's novel will make any difference. It's too late: the book has seeped too deeply—or perhaps it would be better to say too broadly and shallowly—into the culture. Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with popular culture knows that. The title is almost a clich and can be invoked without fear of confusion. The meaning with which the name "Nurse Ratched" is freighted is so readily and widely understood that even the laziest standup comic can get a laugh from it. The story is so often parodied on TV that if you are watching something set in a mental asylum that features a big, silent Native American—or Homer Simpson escaping an old-age home, or Amy Sedaris escaping a youth camp in Comedy Central's Strangers With Candy—you know that a major appliance will soon be pitched through a nearby window.
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I feel particularly qualified to write about how well-known One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is among people who've never read it because I'm one of them. I haven't even seen the movie. And yet, through years of seeing clips of the movie, hearing stories of the movie's making on talk shows, reading references to the movie and the book in reviews of other works, and just generally being aware of popular culture, I find that I can easily hold up my end of the conversation with people who claim to love either the book or the movie—or both. I am a perfect product of postmodern learning. Sometimes it even turns out that I know more than fans, like who won an Oscar for playing Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, and don't pretend you knew that). One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of those books that belongs to a category the brilliant Italian writer Italo Calvino named in his novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveler: "Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too." Against such books, there is nothing even the combined might of all of Orange County's school districts can do.
If the school district in question really is concerned about the book's influence, it should make every effort to see that it is taught at Esperanza High. Only then will students understand what's really objectionable about the book. I'm not speaking of the book's quaint references to sex and sexuality, but its very 1960s take on madness: that madness is a truer, more creative and liberating way of perceiving the world than sanity. (According to an intelligent friend who actually has read the book, this actually is the book's theme, not simply the distortion of the pop-culture osmosis by which the story has reached the rest of us).
The idea that madness is simply another way of perceiving the world—perhaps even a better way—is not only the stuff of beer-fueled barroom bull sessions but also a facile idea that has proved particularly seductive to the liberal imagination ever since R.D. Laing's work on schizophrenia became popular in the late '60s. (It's also possible that many people adopted similar notions from Aldous Huxley, whose Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell they never read but heard about while listening to Jim Morrison.) It fits too smoothly with the genuine insight—often rejected by conservatives—that norms of behavior have specific social and temporal, rather than eternal and supernatural, origins. Recognizing the relativity of social norms is one thing; declaring madness a positive good is something else entirely—so entirely something else that one is amazed the bureaucrats at Placentia-Yorba Linda don't recognize Cuckoo's Nest as yet another chance to bruise the much-hated and rare Liberalus orange countias.
But banning a book that someone has declared "the filthiest" won't help students grapple with ideas floating around at least since William Blake. Too bad; students will absorb those ideas anyway. The only question was whether the school district prefers them to receive such instruction from its teachers or Homer Simpson. We now have the answer: D'oh.