Friday, 26 August 2011

The Raft of the Medusa

Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault (26 September 1791 – 26 January 1824) was a profoundly influential French artist, painter and lithographer, known for The Raft of the Medusa and other paintings. Although he died young, he became one of the pioneers of the Romantic movement.

Born in Rouen, France, Géricault was educated in the tradition of English sporting art by Carle Vernet and classical figure composition by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, a rigorous classicist who disapproved of his student's impulsive temperament, but recognized his talent. Géricault soon left the classroom, choosing to study at the Louvre instead, where he copied from paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Diego Velázquez, and Rembrandt for about six years, from 1810 to 1815. There he found a vitality which he preferred to the prevailing school of Neoclassicism. Much of his time was spent in Versailles, where he found the stables of the palace open to him, and where he gained his knowledge of the anatomy and action of horses. WIKI

Géricault was beautiful, controversial, supremely talented. He had an affair with his aunt. The pair had shared an intense bond since Géricault's boyhood, but by his twenties he had matured into an eye-catching figure.

His teacher Carle Vernet claimed he 'had never seen such a good-looking man ... his legs were, above all, superb': Alexandrine-Modeste clearly thought so too and aunt and nephew started an affair. In 1816 Géricault fled to Rome in an attempt to distance himself from the imbroglio but he was back within a year and in 1818 Alexandrine-Modeste gave birth to his son. It was, therefore, in a state of turmoil that he started work on The Raft of the Medusa.

“Théodore Géricault was the quintessential Romantic artist: he died young and in torment, leaving behind him one great masterpiece and the legend of a painter touched by both genius and madness. 'Suffering is real and pleasures are nothing but imaginary,' he said; it was an extraordinarily bleak outlook and what is truly terrifying is that he believed it.

The painting that made his reputation was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1819 as “The Scene of a Shipwreck”, but is universally known as “The Raft of the Medusa”. It tells the macabre story of one of the most notorious scandals of Restoration France: the abandonment on a jerry-built raft of 147 passengers and crew of the frigate Medusa when it came to grief off the coast of Senegal in 1816.

As the Royalist captain, officers and more well-to-do passengers headed for the shore in the ship's boats they cut the rope towing the raft, leaving those clinging to its planking to their fate. Provisioned with six barrels of wine, two of water and a sack of soggy biscuit, the castaways' ordeal lasted for 13 days, during which time they suffered from exposure, malnutrition, dehydration, mutiny, murder and, most thrillingly for the audience back in France, cannibalism.

When the raft was finally sighted there were only 15 skeletal survivors left and strips of flesh - human biltong - were hanging on the mast to dry. When the full story of the abandonment of the raft came to be known in France it became a liberal cause célèbre, the perfect example of the callousness of Royalist misgovernment.

Until the second decade of the 19th century, action painting in France—whether dealing with mythic, religious or historical events, and even if violent in content—often lacked real energy. In France, the gorgeous colours and symmetries of Poussin in the 17th century, the chiselled nobility of David in the late 18th and the austere beauty of Ingres at the start of the 19th, all gave way to the explosion of Romanticism. One painting, above all, might be said to have initiated the new movement: Théodore Géricault's ‘The Raft of the Medusa.’”
From the daily telegraph 1 April 2007
Michael Prodger

Géricault revolutionized the depiction of real events, taking for his subject a scandal only a few years old and "romanticizing" it. While the painter visited hospitals and morgues to study the moribund and cadavers, the figures on the raft here hardly look as though they have just suffered through dehydration, starvation, cannibalism and madness. They are muscular. Some are beautiful.

Today's viewer will probably respond less to this picture's political and historical relevance than to the drama of its composition. In terms of art history, it looks both backward and forward.

“"The Raft of the Medusa," while maintaining the symmetry of Poussin, changes painting once and for all. It is sculptural and architectural, but depicts no architecture. Two great overlapping triangles, suggesting both a ship's sails and the ocean's waves, define the space. They also contain 19 human figures (one barely visible, four others quite obscure) in various postures, combinations and stages of life: the living, the dying and the dead, old and young, black and white, male and—perhaps—female. Some have faces; others turn away from us. We can read the painting both from left to right and from bottom to top.

The picture represents a specific moment. The survivors have just sighted the Argus, the boat that will eventually rescue them but is now a speck on the horizon, actually passing them by. At the top, two men, one an African crew member, are waving banners, shirts or kerchiefs. The figures express a range of emotions, from eagerness and exultation to incredulity, despair, hysteria, resignation and apathy. Géricault's preliminary sketches (one smaller canvas hangs elsewhere in the museum) document the growth of his ambitions for the painting. The most shocking figure, absent from the earlier sketch, is a dead person on the lower right. Its gender is uncertain: Géricault used a male friend as his model, but the chest looks womanly. The head is outside the frame. We see primarily the person's midsection, with pubic hair exposed. Whoever this is, or was, has one leg still wrapped around a beam of the raft. Clearly the person will soon slip into the sea.

Another apparently dead youth has the beauty of a Greek sculpture. The most arresting figure, the only one staring straight out at the viewer, is an older, well-muscled man who supports the youth, perhaps his dead son. He looks like someone out of Michelangelo. His gaze suggests his transcendence of both hope and despair.

The painting's center has what seem to be cracklings or bubbles, which distort both the figures and their colour. The painter's use of bitumen on his palette came at a cost: This particular black appeared lustrous at first, but over time it created a wrinkling that cannot, according to the experts, be corrected.

If not as great a colourist as Delacroix, Géricault made an appropriate palette of deathliness. The picture's primary hues are sickly, pallid grey and yellow flesh tones, but there is a range of hues from alabaster to black. The colouring seems to work against the classic muscularity of the figures' bodies.

But there is more. Nature frames humanity. At the painting's bottom, top and sides, the waves and sky—in their colour and brush strokes both intense and delicate—compete with the humans for our attention. The planks of the raft, especially when viewed from up close, reveal delicate brushwork applied meticulously to reproduce the grain and colour of the wood. Flickers of light on the beams leaven the thick brown impasto.

First and last, there's action itself. Not just the waving gestures of the men at the top, but also the play of sea and light. The wind is blowing from right to left, against the tilt of the human action. The light shines from left to right. The two forces operate in perfect antithetical harmony. Géricault learned from Caravaggio all about chiaroscuro, and then went on to discover by himself a way of depicting human life and death in a painting that contains both natural tempestuousness and compositional calm. He has put pictorial symmetry at the service of ferocity. Two dimensions have never felt less flat.

Gericault’s preparations for the painting were meticulous: he befriended Alexandre Corréard, the Medusa's engineer who had survived the ordeal of the raft and who, with the ship's surgeon, Henri Savigny, had written a celebrated account of the shipwreck; he commissioned the ship's carpenter to build a scale model of the raft; and, most notoriously, in order to immerse himself in death he filled his studio with the heads and limbs of executed criminals borrowed from a nearby hospital. The paintings he made from these body parts are the most horrific still lifes in art, but also among the most beautiful.

The Raft of the Medusa itself is an enormous work, measuring more than 23 feet by 16: 7 meters by almost 5. To paint such a subject at such a size for the official Salon can be seen as a sign of political protest but it can also signal an artist who has lost all sense of what is appropriate.

The other pictures he was producing at this period - scenes of graphic sex and murder - also reveal a severely disturbed man. Within a couple of years he was painting portraits of inmates of a mental asylum, possibly as a fellow patient. Géricault was no clear-headed agitator but a man whose grip on reality was loosening.

Today, “The Raft of the Medusa” hangs, with other large canvases of that period, in one of the Louvre's grand galleries. It has darkened with time. Some of its figures are barely visible, and many details are occluded.”
From Willard Spiegelman’s essay; “Revolutionary Romanticism.”

Sadly, I haven’t seen Géricault’s painting.

Friday, 19 August 2011


“Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight. Another form of synesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people's names with a sensory perception such as smell, colour or flavour. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). Therefore, synesthesia literally means ‘joined perception’.”
From Synesthesia for kids.

Synesthesia has intrigued me, ever since I first heard of the condition. The idea that the senses can merge. It doesn’t make sense, but if you think about it, it’s a concept that occurs regularly, as we think, talk, make out way around the world. We talk about feeling ‘blue’, when we are sad. We can be ‘red hot’, with anger -- denoting the emotional outburst, and the burning pain that shocks us when we touch something that is too hot. ‘A grey day’ for gloomy. ‘Green’ for a naïve person.

These are just examples I can think of quickly. There must be many more. I think that as writers, we use this spillage, and merging of the senses, without even thinking about it. We explore and plunder sensory experience, in order to communicate with our readers. I’m not saying that means that we are synesthetes, but the fact that we can understand the concept, even vaguely, and use it in our writing, even have a dialogue about it, means that maybe synesthesia is something that is inate within us; even though it may be hiding.

It is well known that our sense of smell is connected to memory. To this day, the scent of a certain type of polish, takes me back to a little hotel in Greece, a holiday some thirty years ago. They used the polish to clean the marble staircase. When I inhale the scent, I can feel the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the marble against my bare feet. I can hear the sound of the crashing Aegean sea; feel the salt water bathing my ankles.

Am I weird to think that ‘anxious’ looks worried? Or that exaggerate looks like something that is exaggerated. Perhaps I am weird, but I have talked to other people who have the same feelings about words. That the word on the page, looks like the emotion it conveys. I close my eyes when I have a facial massage and I see beautiful colours. Shimmering yellows, purple and blue. I see numbers when I listen to Bach and I know exactly what Kandinsky means with his colours and geometric shapes. And what Mondrian means with ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie. I can feel the heat and the beat, the rhythm and rumble of the city.


“One theory Kandinsky adopted was Theosophy, which proposes that creation is based on a geometrical progression starting from a single point. This contributed a lot to the forms and expressions of the Kandinsky paintings.

Pythagoras said that the earth was ruled by geometric shapes, as was all matter.


Another inspiration for the famous Kandinsky paintings was Fauvism, a method that uses colours subjectively, for instance, to express the artist’s experience; and not objectively, ie. merely to describe the physical appearance of an object.”


“The Wassily Kandinsky paintings were influenced by, first and foremost, Kandinsky’s knowledge of and love for music and spirituality. When he was younger, Kandinsky played the piano and the cello. Remarkably, Kandinsky was able to relate his music and such terms as “harmony” into the Kandinsky paintings. Many people had difficulty understanding how Kandinsky was able to pull this off.”

I heard an anecdote about a man who had been totally blind from birth. He was asked; “What do you thing of when someone speaks of the colour red?” He replied swiftly; “The sound of a trumpet!”

I don’t know if that little anecdote has anything to do with Synasthesia, or if it is something else entirely -- but it is certainly intriguing. Here’s another; Perhaps you are completely convinced that Wednesdays are light red. Perhaps the letter “q” might be brown to you. To another person, “q” might be yellow. It appears that Synesthesia is entirely subjective and deeply personal.

"What would be truly surprising would be to find that sound could not suggest colour, that colours could not evoke the idea of a melody, and that sound and colour were unsuitable for the translation of ideas, seeing that things have always found their expression through a system of reciprocal analogy."

Charles Baudelaire

In “The Man Who Tasted Shapes,” by Richard Cytowic, his dinner host apologized, "There aren't enough points on the chicken!" He felt flavour also as a physical shape in his hands, and the chicken had come out "too round." This offbeat comment in 1980 launched Cytowic's exploration into the oddity called synesthesia. He is one of the few world authorities on the subject.

Sharing a root with anesthesia ("no sensation"), synesthesia means "joined sensation," whereby a voice, for example, is not only heard but also seen, felt, or tasted. The trait is involuntary, hereditary, and fairly common. It stayed a scientific mystery for two centuries until Cytowic's original experiments led to a neurological explanation—and to a new concept of brain organization that accentuates emotion over reason.

That chicken dinner two decades ago led Cytowic to explore a deeper reality that, he argues, exists in everyone but is often just below the surface of awareness (which is why finding meaning in our lives can be elusive). In this medical detective adventure, Cytowic shows how synesthesia, far from being a mere curiosity, illuminates a wide swath of mental life and leads to a new view of what is means to be human—a view that turns upside down conventional ideas about reason, emotional knowledge, and self-understanding.
From The MIT Press.

Perhaps synesthesia is a forgotten skill of long ago. Something, that as primitive people we had as part of our survival skills. I don’t know.

Friday, 12 August 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Sometimes, something snaps inside our heads. We become disconnected; we can’t find our way. We are lost. We may be confused, babble, see visions. Sometimes, people take us away. The world whispers about us; around us. People say that we are mad.
And it is madness that inhabits the world of Ken Kesey’s novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Not just madness, fear inhabits that world too.

I can’t claim, by a long way, to have read every novel written in the twentieth century, but I’ve read a helluva lot, and I really do believe that Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, published in 1962, is one of the finest. It’s startling in its originality; Kesey’s use of language is stunning in his poetic prose. He twists metaphor until it strains like tortured metal, and threatens to snap, and all the while, instantly, the reader knows exactly what Kesey is talking about. His novel deserves its reputation as a classic work of literature.

The narrative takes place in “the Big Nurse’s” ward in a mental institution. It sounds as if you are in for a tough read, but you’re not. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is funny, Kesey’s sharp sense of humour rescues the book from bleakness.

The novel is also poignant and ultimately heartbreaking.

The two main players in Kesey’s novel are McMurphy and “the Big Nurse;” Nurse Ratched.

Kesey has gravitas. His writing has dignity. Our emotions may be miniscule, set against the great profundities that human beings have to pit themselves against, but any writer who can make us think; “yes, I have felt like that too,” is worthy indeed.

Kesey demonstrates this understanding after McMurphy observes in the group therapy session, how the residents turn against Harding. “Pecking at him, like he was a wounded chicken”, all under the eye of Nurse Ratched and the doctor. McMurphy says that Nurse Ratched is a “Ball breaker” -- she sits with a small smile on her face as Harding is emotionally castrated.

The Chief describes Nurse Ratched;

“Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh coloured enamel, blend of white and cream and baby blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils -- everything working together except the colour on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom. A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big womanly breasts on what would otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.”

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is told in the first person, by Chief Bromden. The Chief is a patient on the Big Nurse’s ward. He has been there the longest of all the patients, and despite being considered a hopeless case, he has learnt to carve out a life for himself. He knows how to survive. The staff and patients all think that the Chief is mute; deaf and dumb. He isn’t; he can hear as well as anyone, and if he chose to, he could speak. Through the Chief, readers are treated to a cynical look at society and its rules. He refers to the authority figures in the book as “The Combine”, in reference to the mechanical way they manipulate individuals. The story is really a modern day parable about the abuse of power.

The Chief introduces us to the ward. We immediately understand that this is a domain of lost souls. People with no power, who at some time in their lives have had their grip on sanity slip, never to regain their footing.

Enter, Randle P. McMurphy.

Faking insanity to get out of prison for a battery charge, McMurphy immediately begins upsetting Nurse Ratched’s routines, embroiling the two in a power struggle. As an upbeat character, McMurphy easily convinces the other patients—including the stuttering Billy Bibbit, the effeminate Dale Harding and the germaphobic George Sorenson—to gamble, to vote to watch the World Series on TV, to take a fishing trip and to start questioning the demands of the hospital staff. McMurphy is a strong, but flawed character; one who, at times, struggles with the expectations he has manipulated and the consequences he has brought about. 

McMurphy represents the freedom that the patients have voluntarily given up – and it is McMurphy who shows them how to find the courage to reclaim their place in the world.

When McMurphy first enters the ward, the thing that immediately distinguishes him, aside from his lack of fear, are his jokes. He laughs out loud at everything, and makes fun of everyone. Laughter is very rarely heard in the ward, and by not taking anything too seriously, McMurphy is able to exert power over it. He manages to avoid any sort of insult or invasion by making a joke of it. And laughter is something that men do. McMurphy’s gut wrenching belly laugh is absolutely male. The Chief notices McMurphy’s calloused hands; his sunburnt skin. McMurphy is a man; a concept that the men in the ward have forgotten. Even through the pervasive odour of hospital smells, the stench of incontinence, the Chief scents on McMurphy;

“…the man smell of dust and dirt from the open fields, and sweat, and work.”

McMurphy, having bet the rest of the men that he can get the Big Nurse to crack within a week, makes his first step by the use of a long joke. The Big Nurse is unable to fight back because it takes her by surprise. By making fun of her, he subverts her authority, and eliminates any power she might have over him.

McMurphy tells the other men jokes in an attempt to get them to laugh, but such an act smacks of rebellion, and the other men are unable to accomplish it. Laughter is equated with strength and an ability to not take everything seriously. It also means having an emotional reaction to something that isn't fear, an idea of which the men of the ward are terrified.

When for the first time, the men take part in the joke, pretending to be dangerous mental patients, they frighten the people around them into treating them with respect, giving the men a feeling of power. They become a team against the world, which they always were, but a team with an ability to actively fight back. For the first time, the joke is at the expense of the society that has terrorized them.

McMurphy laughs at seeing the men the way they are, both laughing at them and with them. He is able to survive for so long against the world that has destroyed the rest of them because he can laugh at it. He takes everything seriously by taking nothing seriously. He doesn't deny that there is pain and hardship, but he refuses to let that define and ruin him.

But McMurphy misunderstands the enormity of what he has taken on. He is playing a dangerous game. These men, really are people who are very ill. They are emotionally frail and while McMurphy reminds them of what it is like to have fun, there is danger ahead. And Nurse Ratched is a formidable foe.

The Chief muses;

"I thought for a minute there I saw her whipped. Maybe I did. But I see now that it don't make any difference.... To beat her you don't have to whip her two out of three or three out of five, but every time you meet. As soon as you let down your guard, as soon as you lose once, she's won for good. And eventually we all got to lose. Nobody can help that."

McMurphy slips up and shows the danger of constant jokes. The Big Nurse warns him of the possibility of a lobotomy, but instead of taking it seriously, he turns it into a joke about his testicles. McMurphy has no intention of backing down at this point, but by turning the warning into the joke, he increases the chances of it being acted upon.

Friday is the day that the men go to the X-Ray room to get checked up. While they wait, McMurphy notices another door and asks where it leads. Harding tells him that it goes to the Shock Shop, and explains the theory behind electro-shock therapy. Once again, it is revealed that the Big Nurse has the power to order such treatment as well as lobotomies. McMurphy realizes that it's the system that's behind everything, and tries to explain this to the rest of them; how even if they got rid of the Big Nurse, things wouldn't change, really. The men don't understand, and Harding finally admits that they've noticed that he's stopped fighting against the Nurse. McMurphy agrees, and tells them he realised he had as much to lose as the rest of them. Harding tells him no, McMurphy has more to lose, since all the Acutes are there voluntarily. McMurphy can't believe this, and he starts accosting all of them, until Billy Bibbit breaks down.

"'You think I wuh-wuh-wuh-want to stay in here? You think I wouldn't like a con-con-vertible and a guh-guh-girl friend? But did you ever have people l-l-laughing at you? No, because you're so b-big and so tough! Well, I'm not big and tough.'"

It’s the beginning of a downward spiralling tragedy, that for the Chief culminates in triumphant liberation, and ends in disaster for others.

McMurphy gets the doctor on his side, and they organise a fishing trip. It’s a chance to remind the men of who they are, outside the confines of the hospital. On the fishing expedition the patients laugh and feel complete humans again. This happens with McMurphy's guidance, his laughter booming in the face of chaos.

But later, all the men who went on the boat trip have to take a special shower, because Nurse Ratched thinks they might have caught some sort of bug. While they're in the shower, the black aides attack George, trying to get him to put on salve. George refuses, because of his neatness obsession and pathological fear of germs. McMurphy steps in to defend him, and he gets in a fight with the aides. The Chief helps throw them off, and the two of them get strapped down and sent up to “Disturbed”.

Things are dangerously out of control for McMurphy. This passage, where they are driving home from the fishing trip, stands out for me. The Chief narrates;

“Then -- as he was talking -- a set of tail-lights going past lit up McMurphy’s face, and the windshield reflected an expression that was only allowed because he figured it’d be too dark for anybody in the car to see, dreadfully tired and strained and frantic, like there wasn’t enough time left for something he had to do…While his relaxed, good natured voice doled out his life for us to live, a rollicking past full of kid fun and drinking buddies and loving women and barroom battles over meagre honours -- for all of us to dream ourselves into.”

This is a story of sacrifice. While the Chief and McMurphy are waiting for Electric Shock Treatment, Kesey sprinkles his prose with Christ images.

McMurphy arranges himself willingly on the table in a crucifix; arms outstretched, his ankles clamped together, he’s clamped down at the wrists.

“They put graphite salve on his temples. ‘What is it?’ he says. ‘Conductant.’ the technician says. ‘Anointest my head with conductant. Do I get a crown of thorns?’”

Electro Shock Treatment is an obscene ritual and Kesey tells it so casually and that’s what makes it so horrifying. It is only when the Chief describes McMurphy’s body arcing, as the volts slam through him, that the reader offers up a silent scream.

“…light arcs across, stiffens him, bridges him up off the table till nothing is down but his wrists and ankles…”

The Chief is brought back to the ward, and the rest of the men greet him like a hero. They ask him all sorts of questions about what's going on with McMurphy, and when he responds, no one thinks it odd that the Chief is talking now.

The Big Nurse sees that McMurphy's legend is growing, and while he's away he's just getting bigger and bigger, so she starts making plans to bring him back down. The men anticipate this, and work out a plan to get McMurphy out of the ward that Saturday, forgetting it's the day that McMurphy has set up for Billy's date with Candy. They tell their plans to McMurphy when he returns to the ward, but he refuses to leave until after that night. He says to consider it his going away party.

McMurphy bribes the night aide, Mr. Turkle, with the promise of “booze and broads“, in order to get him to open up a window that night. Candy is late, but when she arrives, she's got a friend with her, the woman, Sandy, who was supposed to be with her earlier at the boat trip. The group hides from the night supervisor, and proceeds to get drunk on the liquor the women brought with them, along with whatever medication Harding can get out of the cabinet. Billy and Candy eventually sneak off for some privacy, and Harding tries to get McMurphy to leave. McMurphy asks why the others don't come with him, but all of them need a little more time. He asks Harding what made them so scared. Harding isn't able to say, exactly, just that they were beaten down by the rest of the world for the things they did, and who they were, and that they didn't have the strength to fight back. McMurphy says that he's always had people bugging him, and it's never brought him down that much. Harding admits that this is true, but that he's figured out who drives strong people like McMurphy to weakness.

"'Yeah? Not that I'm admitting I'm down that road, but what is this something else?'
'It is us.' He swept his hand about him in a soft white circle and repeated, 'Us.'" 

It's five am, and McMurphy decides to get some sleep before leaving. He says goodbye to Harding and the Chief, then settles into bed. All of them fall asleep and don't wake up till the black aides come on the ward at six-thirty.

Harding tries to get McMurphy to leave in the morning, but he claims that he's too drunk too move. When roll call shows that Billy is missing, the aides and the Big Nurse do a room check. They find him and Candy in bed in one of the rooms. Nurse Ratched is shocked, and keeps telling Billy how ashamed she is for him, but Billy doesn't seem to notice, just gets his clothes together and comes out into the hall. He responds to her questions without a stutter. However, the Big Nurse knows what buttons to push in the end. "'What worries me, Billy,' she said- I could hear the change in her voice- 'is how your mother is going to take this.'"  Billy immediately panics. He begs Nurse Ratched not to call his mother, and when the nurse refuses, he starts to blame the fact that he was in bed with a woman on everyone else in the room, saying they made him do it. He is taken away to wait alone in the doctor's office.

All the men sit down in the day room, and they tell McMurphy that they don't blame him at all, they know it wasn't his fault. He just relaxes and looks like he's waiting for something. The doctor yells for the nurse from his office, and she and the aides go running. She comes back alone, and speaks directly to McMurphy. She tells him that Billy cut his throat with some instruments in the doctor's desk.

"'First Charles Cheswick and now William Bibbit! I hope you're finally satisfied. Playing with human lives- gambling with human lives- as if you thought yourself to be a God!'"

She goes back into her office. The Chief knows that McMurphy is going to do something, and at first he thinks to try and stop it; but then he realises that he can't stop it, because he and the rest of the men of the ward are forcing McMurphy to do it. They force him to get out of his chair and go over to nurses' station. He rips open the Big Nurse's shirt, revealing those too large breasts, and tries to strangle her.

When the doctors and aides rip him off her, he cries out. The Chief describes it as;

“A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn't care any more about anything but himself and his dying.”

McMurphy’s fate is sealed. When he is returned to the ward, he has had a lobotomy. The mythology of McMurphy lives on. The men on the ward discuss whether this ruined spectacle is really him.

“After a minute of silence, Scanlon turned and spat on the floor. ‘Ah what’s the old bitch tryin’ to put over on us anyhow, for craps sake. That ain’t him.’”

“‘Nothing like him,’ Martini said.”

“‘How stupid she think we are?’”

The chief knows it is McMurphy and he tries to think of what McMurphy would have done.

“I was sure of only one thing: he wouldn’t have left something like that sit there in the day room with his name tacked on it for twenty or thirty years so the Big Nurse could use it as an example of what can happen if you buck the system. I was sure of that.”

Nurse Ratched may think that she has won the game, but the Chief’s final actions before he leaves the ward, make it a hollow victory.

The title of the book is a line from a nursery rhyme.

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.

Chief Bromden's grandmother sang this song to him when he was young, and they had a game about it.

The inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came while working on the night shift (with Gordon Lish) at the Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital. There, Kesey often spent time talking to the patients, sometimes under the influence of the hallucinogenic drugs, with which he had volunteered to experiment. Kesey did not believe that these patients were insane, rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave. Published in 1962, it was an immediate success; in 1963, it was adapted into a successful stage play by Dale Wasserman; in 1975, Miloš Forman directed a screen adaptation, which won the "Big Five" Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director (Forman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman).

Kesey was originally involved in creating the film, but left two weeks into production. He claimed never to have seen the movie because of a dispute over the $20,000 he was initially paid for the film rights. Kesey loathed the fact that, unlike the book, the film was not narrated by the Chief Bromden character, and he disagreed with Jack Nicholson being cast as Randle McMurphy (he wanted Gene Hackman). Despite this, Faye Kesey has stated that Ken was generally supportive of the film and was pleased that it was made.

Thanks to Jan Vander Laenen, for suggesting Gustave Courbet's Le Désespéré to head this post.

Friday, 5 August 2011


The sad case of Oscar Wilde is well documented, and has been told many times in films and television adaptations of his life. He was the archetypal darling of London society, but one of the first celebrities to be crushed by the British establishment.

Oscar was warned about courting controversy, by his fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw. It was a warning that Oscar should have heeded.

“Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish writer and poet. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. Today he is remembered for his epigrams, plays and the circumstances of his imprisonment, followed by his early death.

Wilde's parents were successful Dublin intellectuals, and their son showed his intelligence early by becoming fluent in French and German. At university Wilde read Greats; he proved himself to be an outstanding classicist, first at Dublin, then at Oxford. He became known for his involvement in the rising philosophy of aestheticism, led by two of his tutors, Walter Pater and John Ruskin. He also profoundly exploredRoman Catholicism, to which he would later convert on his deathbed. After university, Wilde moved to London into fashionable cultural and social circles. As a spokesman for aestheticism, he tried his hand at various literary activities: he published a book of poems, lectured in the United States of America and Canada on the new "English Renaissance in Art", and then returned to London where he worked prolifically as a journalist. Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress, and glittering conversation, Wilde had become one of the most well-known personalities of his day.

At the turn of the 1890s, he refined his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of dialogues and essays, and incorporated themes of decadence, duplicity, and beauty into his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The opportunity to construct aesthetic details precisely, and combine them with larger social themes, drew Wilde to write drama. He wrote Salome (1891) in French in Paris but it was refused a licence. Unperturbed, Wilde produced four society comedies in the early 1890s, which made him one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London.” WIKI

In 1884 Wilde married Constance Mary Lloyd (1858-1898) with whom he would have two sons; Cyril (1885-1915), who was killed during World War I, and Vyvyan (1886-1976).

The events that would bring Oscar Wilde to the Old Bailey began four years earlier in the summer of 1891 when Wilde, then thirty-eight years old, met a promising twenty-two-year old poet named Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie") at a tea party.  The two became extremely close.  Douglas took great pleasure in the interest shown in him by Wilde, already a major literary figure.  Douglas called his elder companion "the most chivalrous friend in the world."  Wilde saw in Douglas not only a lively intellect, but a young man with an Adonis-like appearance. Wilde made no secret of his interest.  Douglas later said, " He was continually asking me to lunch and dine with him and sending me letters, notes, and telegrams."  He also showered Douglas with presents and wrote a sonnet for him.  They stayed together in each other's houses and in hotels, and went on trips together.

Lord Alfred Douglas "Bosie" was the son of John Douglas, 9th Marquis of Queensberry It was the beginning of a tumultuous relationship that would cause many problems for Oscar and eventually lead to his downfall. Alfred had a tempestuous relationship with his father which did not help matters. He disapproved of his son's lifestyle and when he learned of his openly living with Wilde, he set out to defame Wilde. 

Lord Alfred Douglas

Queensberry was an arrogant, ill-tempered, eccentric and perhaps even mentally imbalanced Scottish nobleman best note for developing and promoting rules for amateur boxing (the "Queensberry rules").  Queensberry became concerned about his son's relationship with "this man Wilde."  His concern was temporarily alleviated at the Cafe Royal in late 1892, when his son introduced him to the noted literary figure.  Wilde charmed Queensberry over a long lunch with many cigars and liqueurs.  By early 1894 Queensberry concluded that Wilde was most likely a homosexual and began demanding that his son stop seeing Wilde: "Your intimacy with this man Wilde must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies,"

For the opening performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 at St. James's Theatre in London the Marquis planned to publicly expose and humiliate Wilde. Oscar took legal steps to protect himself against the 'brute’.

Four days later at the Albemarle Club--a club to which both Wilde and his wife belonged, Queensberry left a card with a porter.  "Give that to Oscar Wilde," he told the porter.  On the card he had written: "To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite”. Two weeks later Wilde showed up at the club and was handed the card with the offensive message.  Returning that night to the Hotel Avondale, Wilde wrote to Douglas asking that he come and see him.  "I don't see anything now but a criminal prosecution," Wilde wrote.  "My whole life seems ruined by this man.  The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing.  On the sand is my life split. I don't know what to do."

The first serious problem for Wilde growing out of his relationship of Douglas came when Douglas, still a student in Oxford, gave an old suit to a down-and-out friend named Wood.  Wood discovered in a pocket of the suit, letters written by Wilde to his youthful friend.  Wood extorted £35 from Wilde for return of most of the compromising letters.  Wilde later described the money as a gift to enable Wood to start a new life in America.  Two other would-be blackmailers were given smaller amounts of money after returning the remaining letters.

However Oscar’s downfall came not from blackmailers, but from the Marquis of Queensbury, Bosie’s father.

Wilde, Douglas, and another long time friend named Robert Ross visited a solicitor, Travers Humphreys.  Humphreys asked Wilde directly whether there was any truth to Queensberry's allegation.  Wilde said “no”.  Humphreys applied for a warrant for Queensberry's arrest.  On March 2, Queensberry police arrested Queensberry and charged him with libel at the Vine Street police station.

Travers Humphreys asked Edward Clarke, a towering figure in the London bar, to prosecute Wilde's case.  Before accepting the case, Clarke said to Wilde, "I can only accept this brief, Mr. Wilde, if you assure me on your honour as an English gentleman that there is not and never has been any foundation for the charges that are made against you."  Wilde answered that the charges were "absolutely false and groundless."  Wilde left Clarke's office to join Douglas for a quick trip to the south of France before the trial.

About a week before the trial was set to began at the Old Bailey, Wilde returned to London, where numerous close friends advised him to drop his libel suit.  George Bernhard Shaw and Frank Harris, two well known friends of Wilde's from the literary world, pleaded with Wilde to flee the country and continue his writing abroad, possibly in more tolerant France.  Douglas, who was also present at the luncheon with Shaw and Harris, objected.  "Your telling him to run away shows that you are no friend of Oscar's," Douglas said, rising from the table.  "It is not friendly of you," Wilde echoed as he departed the restaurant with his young friend.

On April 3, 1895, the first trial of Oscar Wilde--with Wilde in this case cheering the prosecution--began at Old Bailey.  Queensberry, wearing a blue hunting stock,  stood alone, hat in hand, in front of the dock.  Wilde, wearing a fashionable coat with a flower in his button-hole, chatted with his attorney.  Meanwhile, in another room in the building, a group of young men--gathered by Queensberry to substantiate his charge--laughed and smoked cigarettes.

Sir Edward Clarke delivered the prosecution's opening statement.  Clarke's address impressed even Edward Carson, Queensberry's attorney, who said "I never heard anything to equal it in all my life."  Clarke attempted to take some of the sting out of on key piece of evidence that Queensberry planned to introduce.  He read one of Wilde's letters to Douglas that might suggest to many readers the existence of a homosexual relationship.  Clarke admitted that the letter "might appear extravagant to those in the habit of writing commercial correspondence," but said it must be remembered that Oscar Wilde is a poet, and the letter should be read as "the expression of true poetic feeling, and with no relation whatever to the hateful and repulsive suggestions put to it in the plea in this case."

After brief testimony from Sidney Wright, the porter at the Albemarle Club, Wilde took the stand. 

He began by lying about his age, which he said was thirty-nine (he was actually forty-one).  Under questioning by Clarke, Wilde, with easy assurance, described his earlier encounters with--and harassment by--Queensberry.  To Clarke's final question, "Is there "Is there any truth in any of these accusations [of Queensberry]?", Wilde answered: "There is no truth whatever in any of them." That afternoon the prosecution closed its case without calling, as was widely expected, Lord Alfred Douglas as a witness.  No testimony that Douglas might give, no matter how forceful, could save Wilde's case.

When Carson announced, in his opening speech in defence of Queensberry, that he intended to call to the witness box a procession of young men with whom Wilde had been sexually associated, the atmosphere in the courtroom became tense.  Edward Clarke understood his client was in serious personal danger.  An 1895 Act, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, had made it a crime for any person to commit an act of "gross indecency."  The Act had been interpreted to criminalize any form of sexual activity between members of the same sex.

After trial that evening, Edward Clarke met with his famous client.  "When I saw Mr. Wilde," Clarke later recalled, "I told him it that it was almost impossible in view of all the circumstances to induce a jury to convict of a criminal offence a father who was endeavouring to save his son from what he believed to be an evil companionship."  Clarke urged Wilde to allow him to withdraw the prosecution and consent to a verdict regarding the charge of "posing."  Wilde agreed, and the next morning Clarke rose to announce the withdrawal of the libel prosecution.

Queensberry's solicitor, meanwhile, had forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions copies of statements by the young men they had planned to produce as witnesses.  At 3:30 p.m., an inspector from Scotland Yard appeared before Magistrate John Bridge, to request a warrant for the arrest of Oscar Wilde.  Bridge adjourned the court for an hour and a half, apparently to give Wilde time to make his escape from England on the last train to the Continent.

Wilde, however, had lapsed into "a pathetic state of indecision."  Meeting with Douglas and his old friend Robert Ross at the Cadogan Hotel, Wilde wavered back and forth between staying and fleeing until, he said, "The train has gone--it is too late."  When Wilde learned from a journalist calling at the hotel that a warrant had been issued, Wilde went "very grey in the face."  He sat quietly in his chair drinking glass after glass of hock and seltzer.  Soon Wilde's name was removed from the advertisements at playbills at the St. James Theatre, where The Importance of Being Earnest was still being performed.

The first criminal trial of Oscar Wilde opened at Old Bailey on April 26, 1895.  Wilde and Alfred Taylor, the procurer of young men for Wilde, faced twenty-five counts of gross indecencies and conspiracy to commit gross indecencies.  A parade of young male witnesses for the prosecution testified regarding their roles in helping Wilde to act out his sexual fantasies.  Although Wilde was not prosecuted for sodomy, there was little doubt by the end of the trial that he might have been.  Almost all of them expressed shame and remorse over their own actions, and Wilde seemed to be left conflicted by their testimony.  (Later Wilde compared his encounters with "feasting with panthers."  Wilde wrote that "the danger was half the excitement.")  On the fourth day of trial, Wilde took the stand.  His arrogance of the first trial was gone.  He answered questions quietly, denying all allegations of indecent behaviour.  The most memorable moment of the trial came in Wilde's response to a question about the meaning of a phrase in a poem of Lord Alfred Douglas.  Prosecutor Charles Gill asked, "What is 'the Love that dare not speak its name'?"  Wilde's response drew a loud applause--and a few hisses:

"The love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare.  It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.  It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are.  It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the "Love that dare not speak its name," and on account of it I am placed where I am now.  It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection.  There is nothing unnatural about it.  It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.  That it should be so the world does not understand.  The world mocks it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

The jury deliberated for over three hours before concluding that they could not reach a verdict on most of the charges (the jury acquitted Wilde on charges relating to Frederick Atkins, one of the young men with whom he was accused of having engaged in a gross indecency.)  On May 7, Wilde was released on bail to enjoy three weeks of freedom until the start of his second criminal trial.

The Liberal government determined to go all-out to secure a conviction in Wilde's second trial, even when people such as Queensberry's attorney Edward Carson were urging, "Can you not let up on this fellow now?"  There is much speculation about the government's aggressive position on the Wilde case.  Prime Minister Rosebery was suspected of having had a homosexual affair, when he was Foreign Minister, with Francis Douglas, another one of Queensberry's good-looking sons.  It was shortly after Francis Douglas was "killed in a hunting accident" (probably a suicide), that Queensberry went on the rampage against Oscar Wilde. There is plausible evidence in the form of ambiguous letters to conclude that Rosebery was threatened with exposure by Queensberry or others if he failed to aggressively prosecute Wilde.  It is interesting to note that during the two months leading up to Wilde's conviction, Rosebery suffered from serious depression and insomnia.  After Wilde's conviction, his heath suddenly improved.

Corruption in politics? Surely not. But it is thought by many, that only enormous pressure from the establishment kept Rosebery's name out of the Wilde trial and kept a serving British Prime Minister from ending up in the dock himself, a trial which would have eclipsed even the trials of Oscar Wilde.
From; Callum James blogspot

Wilde's second prosecution was headed by England's top prosecutor, Solicitor-General Frank Lockwood.  Although the trial resembled in many way the first, the prosecution dropped its weakest witnesses and focused more heavily on its strongest.  Lockwood had the last word in the trial, and used it to offer what Wilde described as an "appalling denunciation [of me]--like something out of Tacitus, like a passage in Dante, like one of Savonarola's indictments of the Popes of Rome." 

After over three hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict: guilty on all counts except those relating to Edward Shelley.  Wilde swayed slightly in the dock; his face turned grey.  Some in the courtroom shouted "Shame!" while expressed their approval of the verdict.

The Wilde trials caused public attitudes toward homosexuals to become harsher and less tolerant.  Whereas prior to the trials there was a certain pity for those who engaged in same-sex passion, after the trials homosexuals were seen more as a threat.  The Wilde trials had other effects as well.  They caused the public to begin to associate art and homo eroticism and to see effeminacy as a signal for homosexuality.  Many same sex relationships seen as innocent before the Wilde trials became suspect after the trials.  People with close same sex relationships grew anxious, concerned about doing anything that might suggest impropriety.

Wilde served two years in prison, the last eighteen months being spent at Reading Gaol.  He came out chastened and bankrupt, but not bitter.  He told a friend that he "had gained much" in prison and was "ashamed on having led a life unworthy of an artist." 

Adopting the name Sebastian Melmoth, Wilde went to Paris, penniless, and is said to have reunited with his friend and lover of many years, Canadian journalist Robert Baldwin "Robbie" Ross (1869-1918), who was also executor of Wilde's estate. He took up residence in the Hôtel d'Alsace on rue des Beaux-Arts. On his deathbed, Ross by his side, Wilde was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church and received Extreme Unction. Oscar Wilde died of meningitis on 30 November 1900. He now rests in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris; Ross' ashes were added to the angel-adorned tomb in 1950.
Oscar’s trial notes are from; Douglas O. Linder
The Trials of Oscar Wilde:

“All trials are trials for one's life, just as all sentences are sentences of death; and three times have I been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, the third time to pass into a prison for two years. Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.”--"De Profundis"