A hyperbole is an exaggeration for emphasis or humour that beats you over the head with its meaning.
(Unless, like in the previous sentence, it’s been worn trite.)
Consider the following Quote taken from the first chapter of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). It describes the Big Nurse, Mrs Ratched, preparing to punish three black orderlies in the mental institution where she works. The narrative is provided by Ol’ Chief “Broom” Bromden, a huge half Indian, who has been a Chronic patient on her ward since the Second World War.
Quote: She goes into a crouch and advances on where they’re trapped in a huddle at the end of the corridor. … She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from lib, she’s so furious. She’s swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform and she’s let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times. … she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load.
Just when you think that’s it, you’re brought back to the image.
…all the patients start coming out of the dorms to check on what’s the hullabaloo, and she has to change back before she’s caught in the shape of her hideous real self.
After about two pages, you realise the language of the Quote is there to stay. The psychedelic descriptions, as well as, the motif of size—whether of the nurse, of the narrator, or of any other patient—repeat throughout the book.
What makes the Quote quiver?
Unapologetic, prolonged exaggeration.
It swings the mood between hallucinogenic and macabre, showing the reader both the insanity of mental illness and the insanity of the proposed cure.
The 1960s were a transitional period in psychiatric care, when shock therapy was widely used and lobotomy was still an option, although it was being phased out in favour of more humanistic approaches. The 1950-60s were also a time of CIA projects that studied the effects of psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, aMT, and DMT on people, and Kesey volunteered to take part in such studies that were conducted at the hospital where he worked as a night aid.
Knowing this, his vivid descriptions—group therapy humiliation, pills and side effects, beatings, electric shocks, lobotomy—gain a chilling historical dimension. The insight he provides rings true even through the fog of fiction.
However, Kesey’s isn’t a myopic tale about a controlling nurse, but rather he explores the idea of a system set up to control people (the combine). He sets the plot where reality is at its thinnest, and where proposing insane investigations into the nature of authority isn’t an insane idea, it’s everyday fact. Good. It’s a rich place to go digging in fiction. We should join him, see what we can turn up in mad-situation thought experiments. Or, as Kesey put it in an interview: If a man doesn’t have a little madness, he never breaks the control lock that gets placed on reality.
Brief personal interlude
Prior to reading the book recently, I lived decades without encountering a single spoiler. My only thoughts were that Cuckoo’s Nest is similar to Catcher in the Rye (huh?) and that it’s a culturally-vital work.
The blurb—boisterous man enters a mental hospital, man rebels against the authority of Big Nurse, they face off—inspired few expectations. That the novel made Time Magazine’s list of 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 inspired a vague it’ll-be-good reassurance.
It was an usual reading state where I both guarded against any psychological assault the book may attempt, and therefore guarded against nothing. I took in the beginning of Cuckoo’s Nest with bewilderment, then I took it at face value, then I achieved a semblance of sense.
Now, how often do you approach a classic book with so little prior knowledge? If the answer is anything but rarely, I’m curious to hear how bravely you live!
What is at the core of the Quote?
A fresh hyperbole conveys a message, forcefully. But if used repeatedly, hyperbole moves beyond the sledge-hammer and humour effect, and becomes a device for hiding other messages: devious behaviour, served as innocent double entendres; insidious problems, masked as increasingly “silly” running jokes; insanity, shrugged off as continued linguistic embellishment; and the truth, swathed in the sugar candy of buffoonery because it would be too bitter to eat up otherwise.
In Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey uses hyperbole in all those ways to meditate on evil, the slippery, ominous kind that is hard to comprehend and hard to fight.
Indeed, when asked by an interviewer for the Paris Review in 1992-3, whether he believes that individuals have to be held accountable for evil, even if they are not the ultimate source, Kesey replied:
I may, as they say in jail, hang the jacket on them, but I’m not the judge. I can expose something, but as you get older and hopefully wiser, you find that blame and punishment beget only more blame and punishment. I’m probably, from another person’s point of view, the Big Nurse in somebody else’s story. The thing that changes as you get older is your belief that certain people are bad forever or good forever. We’re not. It wouldn’t make any sense to write if we were. With blame, you either resist it or you pick up rocks and throw them at who’s to blame. … but a great artist will teach you to love a thing and not want to possess it or alter it—just to love it. You finally have to love Big Nurse. It’s the symbol behind her, the combine, that makes her do what she does. You’ve got to fight that, but finally you have to love them all—the poor, broken human beings, even the worst of them.
Fight the system when it’s wrong, but the love the humans. That’s the message. Love them all.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey. Because you don’t believe that a serious book can be written in the language of clowns. Be prepared for what comes when the fog disappears—truth and life ain’t fairy tales.
- Ken Kesey, The Art of Fiction No. 136, Paris Review. Interviewed by Robert Faggen Issue 130, Spring 1994. A riveting author interview.
- Ten Days in a Mad-House, Nellie Bly. Non-fiction. Going undercover in a 1980’s American Asylum. Non-fiction. Topic of my next post!
- High-Rise, J. G. Ballard. Fiction. Explores one path to insanity. However, if you can contemplate seeing the film without having read the book …