Grant me my ignorance.
Don’t encroach on this spinning enigma
with false facts
The part I was written was one
naïf & wary.
Let me embrace the grandiosity
Let me stare dumbstruck at
the weight of all
I do not know.
Let me revel in subtle discovery,
leaving findings grand & mythical
And should I unearth a shard–
a dull and fractured fragment
Don’t feel it’s weight puny
shuck it into the desert
of the known.
Let me treasure it as a monument,
if simple & unadorned.
When a sane man, Randle McMurphy, enters an insane asylum to get out of prison, he turns life in the ward upside-down. The book’s fictional narrator is the patient who sleeps next to McMurphy. He’s an American Indian of giant stature, named Chief Bromden, who’s become convinced that he’s shrunk. Besides childhood problems stemming from his father’s emasculation—i.e. having to take his white mother’s name (hence, Bromden) instead of the more usual family name of the father—Chief is haunted by war. Our narrator has the hospital staff convinced that he’s a deaf-mute (and probably mentally deficient, as well) and thus has a unique view of the ward, the staff speaking freely before him.
McMurphy is everything the other patients are not. He’s gregarious, confident, and risk-loving. He’s also a con-man extraordinaire—hence, his ability to trick the authorities into shifting him out of hard labor and into the mental hospital. But he’s not completely lacking in morality, and displays a kind of hard-nosed compassion. While the patients are occasionally distressed by McMurphy’s behavior, they find his willingness to stand up for them (at least when it’s in his best interest, though later a sense of justice or camaraderie guides him) worth the price of his wheeling and dealing.
McMurphy’s real opposition is Nurse Ratched, a former Army nurse who runs a tight ward. Nurse Ratched is used to controlling the patients through a combination of soft power (maternally convincing them that she acts in their best interest), bullying, and fear of the treatments she can get the doctors to rubber stamp (namely electro-shock and—in extreme cases—lobotomy.) However, she’s met her match with McMurphy. He can play patients and doctors as well as she. He, too, is capable of being cool and cunning at the same time. He’s able to provide a counterbalance to the authoritarian democracy in which she asks the patients for votes after telling them what to think. The reader doesn’t know how, but knows this conflict between McMurphy and Ratched must come to a head to be resolved once and for all, and it is (but I’ll leave the how to the reader.) At times McMurphy seems to be ahead, and at other times Ratched has the lead.
The book was influenced by Kesey’s discussions with patients at Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, where he worked as a night aide. Interestingly, Kesey volunteered for a study of hallucinogens during the same period (funded by the CIA as part of MKUltra), and, thus, for some of the conversations he was baked on LSD. At any rate, the experience had profound impact on him, and he became convinced that not all the patients were insane. Many, he believed, just didn’t fit well in society or families, and were pushed into institutions. The themes of the book are that differentiating sanity from insanity isn’t always easy and that mental healthcare professionals had too much power–and often wielded it unwisely.
The story is well crafted with an intense ending. The characters are developed, and this isn’t easy for the mentally insane—though Kesey’s experience with LSD may have helped on that end. Though we only really experience the insanity of Chief, because the perspective is his and he’s one of the few patients that legitimately seems to have trouble differentiating reality from illusion (at least through much of the book.) But we don’t really know how much of Chief’s problem is from his medication, and how much is the illness. There’s a beautiful descriptive scene in which Chief comes off his meds and is looking out the window watching a dog and the world go by. It’s vivid.
I’d highly recommend this book. It’s an evocative story with insights into mental health, some of which—sadly—are as valid today as they were then.
History has—fairly or not—relegated the Marquis de Sade to status as the author of four violently sexual novels and the eponyms (i.e. sadism and sadist) that arose from those works. He produced many more conventional works than libertine / sadomasochistic ones (including plays, stories, essays, and correspondence), and has been credited among the leading developers of the modern short story. While his philosophy tended to be both extremist and inconsistent, it was also in the vanguard of rationalist thinking that eschewed superstition, put mankind squarely in the realm of nature, and advocated cherishing the body (if tending toward a hedonistic approach, but contrasting with religious thinking in which the body was a mere empty vessel—a burden to be gratefully cast off at death.) The man also lived through fascinating times astride the French Revolution, while spending much of his adult life in prison.
Phillips emphasizes the unfair oversimplification of Sade’s work, ideas, and place in history. That said, he does give special attention to the four libertine novels (i.e. “Justine,” “Juliette,” “120 Days of Sodom,” and “Philosophy of the Bedroom.”) This attention is spread across the book’s seven chapters as Phillips deemed relevant. While the author wants us to recognize Sade was more complicated than we might think, he also suggests that the libertine novels tell us the most about the man’s philosophy and his personal psychology. If it sounds like Phillips is a mere champion of Sade, he does mix in strong criticism with his defensive positions.
The first chapter is a biographical sketch of the life of the Marquis de Sade. Sade’s life story has been the subject of more than one book, so this is that biography greatly condensed. The chapter is designed, as its heading suggests, to separate the man from the myth. In this more objective telling of Sade’s life, one learns some interesting facts. For example, Sade held a judicial position in which he could have passed sentence on his ex-in-laws for whom he had no love. However, the ultra-violent sadist set them free because he didn’t believe in the death sentence, and knew they would be doomed to it if he did otherwise. This is representative of the contradiction of Sade, but it’s also not. Sade distrusted violence in the hands of groups and government even while he swore it was the way of nature between individuals. There is a seed of truth in his apparently irrational stance, and that is that we humans are inescapably of nature.
Chapter two is entitled “Man of Letters” and it looks at Sade as an author and scholar. Here we learn about the breadth and depth of Sade’s work which included comedies, tragedies, and satires, and in which plays out in several media. Chapter three is about Sade’s stance as an atheist, which could have gotten him killed before or after the Revolution, and it was a much more lethal stance than his life as a pornographer. (Note: I use “pornographer” as the authorities might. Phillip makes a point [upon which I agree] that most of Sade’s libertine writings are too disgusting and/or violent to achieve eroticism. Some would classify them in the horror genre rather than that of erotica.)
The fourth chapter describes Sade’s life around the French Revolution. He was in prison at times before and after, but—as mentioned–at one point was given a judgeship. Phillips points out that at one point Sade’s prison cell overlooked a yard in which Robespierre’s guillotine operated as the revolutionary’s “Terror” was in progress. (As has been true on numerous other occasions, revolutionaries can more than match the brutality of those they overthrew.) It seems likely that witnessing executions had a profound influence on Sade’s psyche and philosophy.
Chapter five is about Sade’s theatricality. Besides being a playwright, Sade was known to act and also to use theatrical elements in his other written works. Phillips specifically notes this tendency with respect to “120 Days of Sodom” in which much of the action revolves around four libertines listening to stories of old prostitutes, which the libertines then try to reenact or outdo in person.
Chapter six delves into an area of great controversy: Sade’s views on women. Sade has often been dismissed as a she-hating misogynist. This reputation isn’t without reason, despite the fact that Sade’s libertine characters are brutal to males over which they have power in similar fashion. However, one sees in both “Philosophy of the Boudoir” and “Juliette” a more nuanced view. The former is a girl’s coming of age story (coming to age as a lady libertine, though), and the latter is a counterpoint to “Justine” in which tragedy after tragedy befalls a virtuous female lead (in “Juliette,” Justine’s separated sister–who took to vice in accord with the ways of nature as Sade saw them–experiences prosperity beyond all expectations.) The take-away is that Sade may have been a hater of goody-two-shoes women, but his views on Jezebels seems to border on affectionate.
The final chapter considers Sade’s perspective on liberty. Like his positions on femininity and philosophy, it’s a mixed bag of muddled views, but it doesn’t lack for boldness. As mentioned, Sade saw both the before and after of Revolution and was inherently distrustful of any party in power. He’d been an aristocrat (if a scandalized one) and he’d been freed from the royal dungeons–thus currying temporary favor among revolutionaries. And, of course, he’d watched many a head roll wondering if his day wasn’t soon to come. He saw mankind in the Hobbesian state of nature, and couldn’t help but have it reinforce his established views.
The book has numerous graphics. One should note that many of these are line drawings of a sexual and / or sadomasochistic nature. There are also “further reading” and “references” section, that are a little longer than average for books in this series.
I’ve reviewed a number of books in this “A Very Short Introduction” series put out by Oxford University Press. They are designed to give one the core information on a subject in a compact package. This one is slightly longer than average for the ones I’ve previously reviewed (i.e. usually 100pp, this one is about 140pp), but not severely so–particularly given it being in the humanities.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to separate the Marquis de Sade from his myth. It’s not straight biography, and–if that’ s specifically what you’re looking for–it may not be your primary choice, but I’d still recommend it for some of the information on specific subtopics addressed.
This posthumous collection gathers together 180 poems of Maya Angelou. A collection of collections, it amasses six of Angelou’s collections as well as four stand-alone poems, and is said to represent the entirety of Angelou’s published and publicly released poetry. (Actually, it’s said be all of her poetry, but I suspect even a poetic genius like Angelou had notebooks of fragments and pieces with which she never made peace.) Her famed collections: “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie,” “Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well,” “And Still I Rise,” “Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing,” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” are presented as released.
Angelou’s poetry tends toward the playful and melodious even when its topics are angry or distressing. She favors short pieces that have rhyme and rhythm that please the ear—at least in those early collections for which she is most recognized. Reading the poetry chronologically, I noticed a shift toward a little bit longer free verse poetry—though always with attention to the issue of sound (if not to creating song-like sound.) As this was my first reading of this collection, some of this perception of shifting length and style may be an illusion created by the fact that the freestanding pieces are toward the end, and they tend to have been released for special occasions that called for longer run times. But maybe she felt that poems of dissent and social commentary ultimately called for a more discordant quality. Delivering a jeremiad with pop tune catchiness can feel as though it undermines the message—though it also makes a commentary about the nature of being underdog.
I don’t want to suggest that Angelou’s work doesn’t capture the happy and hopeful as well as the daunting, because it is. But poets deal in emotion, and that means confronting dark topics such as slavery, racism, domestic violence, etc. Her use of dialect language breathes authenticity into her poems and builds the emotional weight of them, which often supports the song-like quality. And there is plenty of precedent in music for delivering hard material in a melodious package.
I’d recommend this collection to poetry readers. It’s powerful and poignant, and makes a beautiful sound.