Bromden, What Will it Take To Make You Capitulate? / by Bryce Hidysmith

 Some light body horror for sale in BUD Airport, Nov. 2018. I’m fairly sure they were skincare products.

Some light body horror for sale in BUD Airport, Nov. 2018. I’m fairly sure they were skincare products.

< Soundtrack: Grimes - We Appreciate Power >

I’m surprised that I’ve never seen either the left or right Accelerationists talk about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ll be disregarding the film adaptation, which, though it has some high-grade acting, misses the entire point of the novel due to consequence of its medium making the acts of McMurphy the dram, rather than the commentary of Bromden. The interior perspective of Chief Bromden is, frankly the uniquely interesting part of the book; the rest is just an uncouth prison drama. I’m inclined to think that a better way to think about OFOTCN is that it’s a story from the perspective of Bromden, as he is only able to contextualize the triumph of pseudo-capitalism in America as something equivalent to a unfriendly artificial intelligence of the paperclip maximizer variety. He terms this process as “the Combine.” The goals of the Combine are pretty well stated in this section:

The Big Nurse tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine. The slightest thing messy or out of kilter or in the way ties her into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury. She walks around with that same doll smile crimped between her chin and her nose and that same calm whir coming from her eyes, but down inside of her she’s tense as steel. I know, I can feel it. And she don’t relax a hair till she gets the nuisance attended to - what she calls “adjusted to surroundings.”
Under her rule the ward Inside is almost completely adjusted to surroundings. But the thing is she can’t be on the ward all the time. She’s got to spend some time Outside. So she works with an eye to adjusting the Outside world too. Working alongside others like her who I call the “Combine,” which is a huge organization that aims to adjust the Outside as well as she has the Inside, has made her a real veteran at adjusting things. She was already the Big Nurse in the old place when I came in from the Outside so long back, and she’d been dedicating herself to adjustment for God knows how long.

"The Outside” of course refers to outside the psych ward, as “the Inside” refers to inside the psych ward. This next quote points to perhaps the core conflict of the book:

Across the room from the Acutes are the culls of the Combine’s product, the Chronics. Not in the hospital, these, to get fixed, but just to keep them from walking around the streets giving the product a bad name. Chronics are in for good, the staff concedes. Chronics are divided into Walkers like me, can still get around if you keep them fed, and Wheelers and Vegetables. What the Chronics are - or most of us - are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.

And, later:

Yes. This is what I know. The ward is a factory for the Combine. It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart; something that came in all twisted different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold.

Bromden blames himself for failing to fit into the Combine’s progam, while also understanding that the Combine’s program is destroying everything he values. The mental patients, as “culls from the Combine’s product” are unable to participate in the American system, which is to say adequately adapted to an artificial environment built by the Combine manifesting its destiny all over the place. However, Bromden still frequently takes the perspective of the Combine as legitimate, as seen in the above quote. McMurphy, only feigning insanity in the hope of avoiding a sentence of hard labor, is able to act outside of the frame control of “the Combine,” leading to the events of the book. The central tragedy of the novel should not be understood as McMurphy’s failure to successfully lead a rebellion of inpatients, but Bromden’s simultaneous self-knowledge of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the system he lives within, and his inability to take a perspective that’s able to critique it with an external source of justification.

I’ll leave off here, as it’s probably just best to read the book to get Bromden/Kesey’s perspective on what the goals of the Combine are, but it’s worth noting that the video game Half-Life 2 would later take this idea and run with it, naming their alien adversary after the Combine. In Half-Life 2, the Combine a force that attempts to fold all technological and biological life into itself, draining entire oceans in the process. It’s not as though the Combine has a goal in Half Life 2 other than unifying the universe into a single program of behavior at all costs. They don’t appear to have values other than convergent instrumentality in service of unity of control, leading them to come off as comically evil in a uniquely justifiable way. The highly threatening aliens that invaded the Black Mesa Complex in Half Life 1 are implied to be refugees from the Combine, and under the maxim of ‘the enemy is my enemy is my friend,’ they chose to ally with humanity against the greater threat of the Combine in pt. 2. This is some oddly deep literary criticism for a blockbuster video game, but Valve was pretty great back in the day.

Lastly, I think it’s probably worth noting the lyrics to the Panic At The Disco Song “High Hopes,” which I will certainly not link here. It peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 earlier this year, and which sends a chill down my spine every time I heard it on the radio:

Mama said
Fulfill the prophecy
Be something greater
Go make a legacy
Manifest destiny
Back in the days
We wanted everything, wanted everything
Mama said
Burn your biographies
Rewrite your history
Light up your wildest dreams
Museum victories, everyday
We wanted everything, wanted everything