"The sea is surrender. Not the sea itself. No, it is a conqueror. It is giving into it that is surrender."
Ken Kesey wrote this arresting passage and I don't think I've ever come across anything truer written about the ocean. If you give yourself over to the ocean and its limitlessness, which I do three times a day, a willingness to acquiesce can arise and help you properly temper yourself and your ambitions in the world run by people who can't see the ocean even if they stand inches away.
These lines do not originate from Kesey's two classic novels set in Oregon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, which I've read a combined total of 10 times and always find something new to reappraise when I do.
Last spring, I found these wonderful words in the marginalia of one of Kesey's manuscripts in the collection of his papers at University of Oregon. Before reading Kesey's words on surrender, I hadn't associated him with the ocean. In Cuckoo's Nest, the dominate image from nature is the dead and entombed Celilo Falls.
In Notion, well,that book is one sustained explosion of living Oregon Coast nature: rain, trees, rivers, birds, and a few sentences about the sea, but no memorable ones. It defined a special sense of Pacific Northwest place for all time and subsequently influenced every memoir (and most novels) written about the region.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Nest, and I invite everyone reading this to delve into the novel for the first time or reread it. Most of us encountered Nest in high school as a required rebellious text in the Age of Aquarius. The book fell out of favor with the advent of the Reagan Era and was eventually eclipsed by the movie, released in 1975. The cinematic adaptation is an undisputed classic, but it stripped away all the Native American and Celilo Falls imagery, which, if you've read the novel, is the true literary engine that drives the narrative and shapes the metaphors.
I just finished teaching Nest to my seniors at Newport High School. I thought it went well and I taught the book with an increased urgency. Not sure why. Maybe because in the days of constant testing and loss of creative arts electives, I think the educational establishment with its concomitant link to America's corporate agenda, does a much more efficient job than 50 years ago of preparing the youth to serve the Combine, as Kesey memorably described the capitalist conformist machine in Nest.
They don't use the lobotomy anymore to control the miscreants. They simply hand out prescription drugs like candy and make it cool to own shiny gadgets and pay to work and socialize on them 24 hours a day. They also expect a student to incur $100,000 in debt to afford a bachelor's degree to better himself and his country. We talk about this in class and I openly wonder about my complicity with the Combine.
During this last read of Nest, I gave its crucial deep sea fishing scene more scrutiny, probably because the more I live near the ocean, the more I become obsessed with it.
Kesey writes, "Two whores on their way down from Portland to take us deep-sea fishing in a boat! It made it tough to stay in bed until the dorm lights came on at six-thirty."
What ensues is a small group of patients from the state mental hospital led by the anti-hero Randle McMurphy experiencing a raucous deep-sea fishing excursion with important implications for the men. The fishing allows the patients some much-needed freedom, a simple purpose, physical therapy, and a connection to something magical with exponentially more potential to heal them than Nurse Ratched's diabolical machinations back on the ward.
In the novel, the scene takes place in Florence, and Kesey writes of the ocean: "The swells slid by, deep emerald on one side, chrome on the other….We hit the bar and dropped into a canyon of water, the bow of the boat pointing up the hissing crest of the wave going before us, and the rear down in the trough in the shadow of the wave looming behind us…"
Kesey knew his waves. He spent a lot of time on the Oregon Coast and had a place in Yachats for many years. He died in 2001, but his books live on. I believe they still sow seeds. Pick up his first novel and join us celebrating the extraordinary and timeless accomplishment of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Kesey was 27 years old when it came out.
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Books mentioned in this post
Matt Love is the author of Love and the Green Lady: Meditations on the Yaquina Bay Bridge: Oregon's Crown Jewel of Socialism