The Faces of Ken Kesey

Elie Gould

Ken Kesey’s first published novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest saves to be a story that is more than just a simple journey taken with characters. Behind the narrative, in its influence and inspiration, lies the product of a psychedelic trip. A reader has enough control to limit this experience, but diving deeper into the creation of characters like Ratched, McMurphey, and others opens up a world of literary shamanism. 

Kesey worked to be a significant counter-cultural leader in the 1960s, promoting the use of psychedelics as a creative and groundbreaking way to construct an alternative type of consciousness. He went so far as only to thank the man who introduced him to psychedelics, Vik Lovell, in his acknowledgements page as the person:

‘Who told me dragons did not exist,
Then led me to their lairs.’

However, in his prelude to the text, Kesey makes it abundantly clear that the psychedelics he did take were legal, if not even patriotic.

Kesey’s acceptance of psychedelics as part of a counter-culture to literature is not only shown in the acknowledgements page but throughout the novel, in the text, and significantly the images that support it. 

Sketches of patients Kesey met during his time working at a hospital are scattered throughout the novel. The text surrounds and is moved by the illustrations; this brings a considerable focus to them. The focus on these faces that you can see in the story demonstrates poetically the painful reality of human interaction in a mental ward. Human faces are too naked for Kesey; they tend to involuntarily and constantly expose emotions. 

In the prelude to the novel, Kesey describes how these images seemed to bore ‘their way behind my forehead and scribbled themselves.’ This short quote uncovers the outcome of utilising psychedelics for creative purposes; it can be intrusive.

Importantly these sketches’ intrusions work to complement a narrative that relies upon the degradation of a man’s mind through invasive methods like electroshock therapy. In fact, many of the sketches can be seen to influence the narrative directly. For instance, one of the most noteworthy elements of McMurphey’s character is his card set and how he establishes organised gambling for the patients of the ward to imitate some sense of normality. This image of a man playing cards is shown in the adjacent picture.

I have heard some people say that they find the illustrations distracting from the actual story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Usually, I would agree. However, in my opinion, the fact that it was Kesey who authored both the text and sketches makes them reliant on each other to understand the full picture.

These sketches are the inspiration and proof of Kesey’s first-hand knowledge of what it is to be a patient in a hospital during the 1960s. Even if the characters in his text aren’t strictly real, having these pictures present demonstrates the sad reality of what happened to them may be.