Suspend Your Disbelief

How Big the Bigness Is: Part II
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How Big the Bigness Is: Part II

In Part II, Scott F. Parker considers Kesey's ties to the "pantheon of writers whose lives threaten to overshadow their work." What did it mean for Kesey to be "as big as he had it in him to be"?

I’m afraid if the world ever tests me on the lessons I should have learned, I will flunk out of this reality altogether.


Though I read them as Oregon books, Kesey’s novels are first and foremost American books. “All the themes of my work have to do with America,” he says in Magic Trip, the documentary eventually assembled from the footage recorded on the 1964 bus adventure. “Travelling across this land, coming to this edge, and then what?” This goes literally for the bus trip, which Kesey, in medias res, considered his greatest achievement: “Novels are a dime a dozen, but there’s only one bus Furthur.” It goes as well for the novels. The Stampers response to their itinerant family’s eventual landing on the shore of the Pacific: “Is this the whole shebang?” The books exist on edges in meaning (the messy line dividing the sane from the insane; Hank Stamper liking best the edge where his forceful clear cut abuts the uncontrolled wild of nature), in craft (the sane-insane Indian narrator of Cuckoo; the complex structure, temporal and POV shifts, use of filmic conceits in Notion), and in composition (Kesey writing so much under psychedelic influence, mirrored by Lee’s stoned letters in Notion). But the edge that cuts the greatest swath through Kesey’s swashbuckling path is the old American mythology of the unexplored. The Stampers’ distress at the sight of the Pacific is their realization that there’s no more away to get to. The delicate Lee goes “back” east to flirt with a life of the mind, but for those who stay there’s nothing left to explore, so they must make a strong final stand. “Never Give a Inch,” the patriarch Henry paints over “Blessed Are the Meek, for They Shall Inherit the Earth. Matt. 6” on a plaque that hangs prominently on Hank’s bedroom wall. This family motto is both made invisible by familiarity and internalized via prolonged exposure. The family faces the river, the rains, the trees as strong men, refusing to back down, knowing no virtues but strength and persistence. They face the union, the town, and the weak kind of men who thrive there.

Kesey bookKesey himself would face the problem of the exhaustible West on a more symbolic level, seeking out (thanks to the government experiments at Stanford that introduced him to drugs) new territories in the interior. As Lewis & Clark in the West, so too Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in the mindscape. Discovering the inner space acid (and other hallucinogens) opened up was for him like “discovering a hole that went into the center of the Earth and you could see jewelry down there, and you wanted your people to go down and enjoy it.” But even as Kesey was on these trips (metaphorically through reality, literally across America), he remained a charismatic leader, guiding the whole thing as much as going along with it. Even though, in a lecture he gave in 1965, Kesey said the most important thing he learned was that “every once in awhile, whatever you’re doing, shooting a basketball or throwing dice or writing or running . . . the attention you have comes to bear on exactly what you’re doing and it isn’t good or bad, just decides that it is . . . and the only thing you can do is enjoy the ride.” But in the same lecture, he readily admitted he wasn’t one to follow: “I wanna handle the ball, I don’t wanna just be thrown around.”

It’s because of his dispositional tendency toward control and leadership that we see in Kesey the archetypal Oregonian—and American—value of self-reliance that’s so prevalent in the early novels. It’s one of the major themes of both Cuckoo and Notion: the virtues of strong men. West as end of the road is still West as most Edenic garden in sight, best local for a man’s self-making. The trees are big in Oregon, and grow as man might he won’t measure up (and cutting them down only ensures he’ll never get the chance to try).

Kesey said in reference to Notion that “the two Stamper brothers in the novel are each one of the ways I think I am.” And true as that likely is for the straight-A, Stanford-fellowship student of Wallace Stegner, the energy of the books, as well as Kesey’s honest and final alliance, lies with the rabble-rousers. It’s McMurphy in Cuckoo who explodes off the page, bringing life to the dead and sedated. It’s Hank in Notion who fights the river, the town, and whoever else wants some, who embodies the can-do, world-be-damned spirit that keeps the book’s pages really turning. These characters exemplify the fighting attitude we sometimes need to survive. But Notion also provides a detailed portrait of Hank’s half-brother, Lee, who, knowing he can’t compete with Hank in strength, attempts to defeat him through subterfuge. Lee is resentful, suspicious, and blames everyone else for his failures, refusing to take responsibility for his own life. That Lee is also compelling and ultimately successful in his ambitions casts doubt on the myth of self-reliance.

And what of Kesey’s credentials as a self-styled Man? A nearly Olympian wrestler; whirlwind of charisma; leader of the opposition culture; claims to inventing or at least popularizing tie-dye, hallucinogenic drugs as inception point of consciousness-altering “journey” or “trip,” the Grateful Dead, and The Sixties as a concept; a roguish country eccentric; a man who abandoned a successful career and life of letters for something only he envisioned, who went after it with no apology. With such a biography, Kesey enters the pantheon of writers whose lives threaten to overshadow their work: Hemingway, Mailer, Kerouac, and Nietzsche for starters. As Kesey wrote in his notes about Notion, demonstrating his Nietzschean leanings, “The human isn’t some kind of complex instrument for receiving stimuli—it is a will, a will.” Like Hank, like McMurphy, Kesey was strongly anti-authoritarian and indifferent to what others said about him. It’s the wrestler in Kesey who says that Hank “knows to stop fighting is to start dying. And he doesn’t accept death. Not the creepy death of religion or the philosophic death of Zen.” It’s the cultural observer in him who thinks explicitly about self-reliance, writing, “This is a quality most Americans think they have or wish they had.” What makes Kesey fundamentally more Hank than Lee is that he shares the self-reliance Hank possess and Lee only envies.

Convo with KeseyI think I have that self-reliance too. (I’d prove it to you with examples if I had to, with boasts, but I don’t give a damn (I tell myself) whether you think I have it or I don’t. I don’t even care if I think I have it. I care only whether I do have it. Either I do or I don’t. And I do. Choose your fallacy; I pluck logic from trees and eat when I’m hungry.) But what Oregonian, what American, per Kesey’s claim, would think otherwise? Do my myths and my heroes mislead me? And if I am seduced, do I give a damn? Am I not entitled to my American myths in all their contradiction? And to facing their limits? “A Stamper doesn’t go back,” Kesey writes in his journal.But when Hank reached the coast he was stricken with that same anguish that had hit old Henry when he reached the coast. Is this the whole shebang?” Reaching the “end of the world” doesn’t get the Stampers nowhere. They’re still up against the thing they were up against. The journey west, not (to borrow from a different Kesey context) the Pacific Ocean, was itself the destination. The proximate goal reached, the inner itch goes unscratched. A self-reliant man requires a world against which to oppose himself, define himself. Or how about, he relies on the world to prove his indifference toward it. It’s an old game with no winners. The best one does is to keep the game going. (Or to walk away. This is Kesey’s drug turn, to abandon or at least deemphasize prideful gamesmanship.) Not everyone feels the need to play this kind of game, but I’ve always been drawn to the people who do. When Lee is traumatized by a deer swimming out to sea, he asks why a deer would do that, drown itself, to which his father responds in true stubborn self-reliant fashion, “Swimming to certain death ain’t the same thing as drownin’.” The animal can, like a man should, choose to fight. See, surviving isn’t the only thing on everyone’s mind. We can’t but choose our own values.

And don’t forget the great notion one sometimes gets, from “Good Night Irene,” is “to jump in the river . . . an’ drown.” I find myself sometimes out at proverbial sea like the deer, and while like Lee I have a notion to sink into the bottomless nothingness of existence (after all, as one character in Notion says: “Man will do away with anything that threatens him with loneliness—even himself”), I ultimately want to affirm with Henry and Hank and McMurphy and Kesey the heroic struggle to stay above water. One thing I read Kesey for is replenishing my reserves. I’m going to keep trying to win, knowing all the while I’m going to lose—Nietzsche’s tragic figure—Kesey’s divine loser:

There’s something about what we’re doing is that [sic] we’re meant to lose, every time. You make these forays, you write these books and you perform this music, but the big juggernaut of civilization continues and you get kind of brushed to the side. But I think all through history there’s been these kind of divine losers that just take a deep breath and go ahead, knowing that society’s not going to understand it, and not caring ‘cause they’re having a good time.

The arbiter of one’s self-reliant credentials lies within. The world’s an unjust, dangerous place. The only thing that’s guaranteed a man is he gets what Kesey prescribes: the chance to be as big as he has it in him to be.

But how big is too big? On acid, Kesey sometimes thought he was god, which recalls the saying—from Ken Wilber, I think—that distinguishes between the mystic and the schizophrenic: “Both say ‘I am god’; only the schizophrenic adds ‘and you’re not.’” In his notes about Notion, Kesey referred to the occasionally appearing omniscient narrator as himself, Ken Kesey the author. By analogy, then, real consciousness is not in the limited I but in the narrated whole orchestrating from above where I can only gaze. Was Kesey’s kind of divinity primarily consciousness-related or megalomaniacal? The question is not merely academic when others start turning to you to lead them somewhere. Where? Somewhere better? Just somewhere else. We’ll follow you.

Kesey’s natural commonness—his down-home Oregon unexceptional side—was the only thing that saved him (if he was saved) and his would-be followers from the trappings of his natural charisma. In The Day After Superman Died he describes leaving the “scene” behind when hippie kids almost burn down his barn. Credit where credit is due: Kesey, founder of the sixties, was clear-eyed enough to see when the game was up. The self-deceit of bolstering a self whose own best insight is that it isn’t distinct from anything else collapses under its own contradiction. If living means anything, though, it means living amidst this paradox. Then again, how big is big enough when a withered self doesn’t deserve the name? And how big is too big? Big as I feels to I? Big as Kesey? Big as America? Big as the West?

Wondering how someone who was in Oregon in the sixties read Kesey, I wrote to my uncle Jim, a curious and thoughtful reader. He answered that he finds in Kesey the product of an ego-absorbed time who fails to say something “about our struggle as humans to live meaningfully. . . . What great noble cause was Hank fighting for?—a just wage for exploited workers? unions? an attempt to save the environment? an alternative to homophobia? Nothing but his family’s dance in the endzone. . . . Instead of tragedy, we get the ingredients of tragedy (Hank’s dad is killed, his wife runs off) turned into the trivial ending of the upraised finger.” For Jim, Kesey is illustrative of the narcissism endemic to our time, a childish impulse that wreaks havoc on its environment until it cripples the foundations it rests upon: eventually there’s nothing left to support the ego that isn’t as self-reliant as it thinks.

My uncle is wrong, of course—in my essay, he’s wrong—not in the facts but in the emphasis. “The Me-Against-the-World ethos is strong in Notion (and of course very strong in Hank),” I responded, saying:

…and part of the book’s appeal is the self-confidence those strong-man passages can rile. But what complicates the book and makes it such an achievement is the opposed role of Hank’s younger brother, Lee, who represents education, sensitivity, mind (vs. Hank’s experience, strength, body). The passages near the end of the book wherein Hank comes to accept that he has lost out to his younger, weaker brother and that his worldview has been defeated (the last has become first) are heartbreaking. That Hank summons the strength to resist giving into what he has learned makes Hank a tragic figure. He goes ahead trying to be the self-reliant hero of his world knowing all the while he can’t ultimately succeed. His brother’s defeated him, his dad (his role model) is dead. But what else can he do? That Lee is also a kind of failure (he defeats Hank, but sees that since he did so by subterfuge he is forever denied the self-respect Hank has) makes the book morally challenging. Neither Hank’s nor Lee’s extreme position is on its own viable. I think the book is itself the compromise between them. As is Kesey the author, who plays up his down-home, country, wrestling, plainspokenness, but also is fluent in Freud, Nietzsche, and can write some of the most exquisite prose ever about Oregon.

I go on to add that Kesey later said that, though he didn’t realize it at the time, Notion was actually about ecological destruction and man’s urge to exploit and move on. Notion is America coming up against the limits of what it can take from the Earth. All that’s left after the Pacific Northwest is Alaska (subject of his later novel, Sailor Song).

Finding restraint on this planet means a certain kind of synthesis between Lee and Hank: it means retaining Hank’s sense of personal responsibility and along with Lee’s rejection of his brother’s take-what-you-can-get swagger. For Lee to accept responsibility for his life would mean that the bitterness of his circumstances is really the taste of his own rotten tongue. If Lee comes back to the family stead and finds logging hard work, nothing to do but put on the boots and rise before the sun. There were no golden days for the loggers, one old timer in Notion reminds us. Olden days just meant working harder for less to show. Technology has made logging easier and more productive, and at Notion’s 1960s moment it’s all to the good. Even though inner emptiness led explorers clear to the western edge, past dreams of forever, there was still no real concept of scarcity. If the land didn’t go forever, at least the ocean did and it would never run out of fish. If Oregon was home to a finite number of trees, they were more than humans could ever topple, try as they would.

The Oregon I grew up in isn’t the Oregon I read about in Kesey. The edge we’re standing on is of a wholly different kind. Gone is the edge of our conquest, here is the edge of our collapse. Maybe my uncle is right, after all—not about Kesey, but about us. From the Oregon ground I stand on now, amidst the clear-cut forests, alongside damned-up, salmonless rivers, it increasingly looks like the stupendous wealth of the last century was borrowed against the future. We’re rich as hell, and something’s ‘bout to bust. When Hank says, “At the edge of a pile of slashing and dozed berry vine the clearing quits and the trees plunge into the sky. It’s the part of the show I like best, this edge, where the cutting stops and the forest starts,” he doesn’t know yet how quickly the forests will back down.

When Kesey was working on Cuckoo he had in mind the advice Stegner had offered in response to a self-indulgent term paper Kesey had written for him at Stanford: “Now go write that novel, but don’t for God’s sake let it turn into self-expression.” Later, when working on Notion, Kesey wrote in his notebook, “This is an argument for Xist again, but I want to be beyond Xist, using it. / How? / I must tap senses—unknown senses only suspected, only dreamed of . . . I must explore all the other world of me. I sense the answer is somewhere in there. Sense is the key I must use to unlock itself—like a Chinese puzzle box.” Recall here Kesey’s conflation of self and narrator in Notion, which I would call naive if I didn’t prefer to call it courageous. His work is self-expression, but not just. It is an exercise in self-creation, but not just. In his early books, Kesey is composing and expressing himself for readers who, he can tell, need to hear what he has to say. This is no humble avocation.

Sometimes a Great NotionI think back on Eugene years and the time at Yachats reading Autograph Man in the unseasonable sun, wondering if I could make something and knowing one day I’d have to try to be as big as I have it in me to be. Why express myself when there’s so much more out there? There is the allness of it all. What I’ve learned, what I think, what I know. It all goes in and in the end something living comes out. The path will lead really somewhere, not just to the edge but over it, and not falling either but soaring up on great gusts of prose like those gulls there, up where I can see it all and edges no longer mean anything to me—Hank and Lee just parts of one larger thing—the subject, transcendent subject. No credit to take and no one to take it. Everything within grasp. This is all happening now, all around.

A decade or so after Kesey’s death I go back to Eugene. There’s a statue of him downtown now: Kesey reading to children. I walk to the statue where homeless panhandle and street artists offer their wares. The dorm where I used to live has been cartoonishly eclipsed by the new basketball stadium, but in some pockets Eugene is still Eugene. I hike up Mt. Pisgah, stop at the memorial for Jed. From the summit, I look out over the Kesey farm way down there in Pleasant Hill. I don’t know yet that very soon I will meet Zadie Smith and we will sit down for tea and I will try my best to thank her—but that’s the future still. For now all I know is that I can see for a long ways today. The air is clear and the view is good. I see green land stretching out past the edge of my imagination, I see rivers, I see mountains, I see trees, and though I can see only so far, amidst everything else I still see possibility.

As I stand here my fingers are dirty, my nails are black with soil, living things grow on my skin. I dig holes with my hands and plant trees. I’ll cut these trees down eventually for paper to record more possibility, but I will go on planting trees, taking responsibility for everyone who came before and everything that comes after. There will be so many trees: evergreen trees—saplings now, they will shelter us, they will provide for us. All over the mountains between the valley and the coast we will plant trees and these trees will grow and they will be big trees and we will grow small and the story will zoom out to a point far above, what that seagull sees high on invisible currents, it will rise higher, and we will stand right here, arms extended, hands waving, and then we will reach down to plant more trees as the light fades out.

Where are you you giants of men, you tree-high legends, you mythical characters . . . statues in the rain, indomitable forces of history? Where are you Stampers? Where are you McMurphy, Bromden? Tee Ah Millatoona, where are you? Where are you John Spain? George Fletcher? Jackson Sundown? Where are you Bowerman, Prefontaine? Gary Snyder, where are you? Elliott Smith, where are you? Where are you Johnnie Ray, David James Duncan, Ray Carver? Where are you Barry Lopez? Linus Pauling, Beverly Cleary, Jon Krakauer, Ursula Le Guin, Winona LaDuke, River Phoenix, where are you? Where are you Ray Atkeson, Bill Walton, Terrell Brandon, Brandon Brooks? Where are your home run balls landing, Dale Murphy? Where are you Tom McCall, John McLouglin, Lewis & Clark, Sacagawea, Chief Joseph, Captain Jack, Chief John, Kam-ai-a-kun, Peo-peo-mux-mux?

Where are you you bear tamers, you lumberjacks, you uncompromising fools, stubborn sonsabitches, rain walkers, river dancers, salmon spirits?

Where are you, Ken Kesey?

I’m right here.

Editor’s Note: In case you missed it, here is Part I of Parker’s essay “How Big the Bigness Is.”

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