Ken Kesey

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The job of the writer is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful.
We think we’re in the present, but we aren’t. The present we know is only a movie of the past.

Ken Kesey (17 September 193510 November 2001) was an American writer, most famous for his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and as a cultural icon whom some consider a link between the "beat generation" of the 1950s and the "hippies" of the 1960s as a founding member of the Merry Pranksters.

See also:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (the 1975 film adaptation of Kesey's novel)

Quotes[edit]

I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.
If you're on the bus, and you get left behind, then you'll find it again. If you're off the bus in the first place — then it won't make a damn.
I'm for mystery, not interpretive answers. ... The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking.
I've never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.
  • Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range . . . come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River . . .
  • The Grateful Dead are faster than light drive.
    • Inside cover of "The Grateful Dead" LP (1967)
  • We are always acting on what has just finished happening. It happened at least 1/30th of a second ago. We think we’re in the present, but we aren’t. The present we know is only a movie of the past.
    • As quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) Ch. 11
  • There are going to be times when we can't wait for somebody. Now, you're either on the bus or off the bus. If you're on the bus, and you get left behind, then you'll find it again. If you're off the bus in the first place — then it won't make a damn.
    • As quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
  • Nothing lasts.
    • As quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
  • I believe that with the advent of acid, we discovered a new way to think, and it has to do with piecing together new thoughts in your mind. Why is it that people think it's so evil? What is it about it that scares people so deeply, even the guy that invented it, what is it? Because they're afraid that there's more to reality than they have ever confronted. That there are doors that they're afraid to go in, and they don't want us to go in there either, because if we go in we might learn something that they don't know. And that makes us a little out of their control.
    • As quoted in the BBC documentary The Beyond Within: The Rise and Fall of LSD (1987)
  • Leary can get a part of my mind that's kind of rusted shut grinding again, just by being around him and talking, 'cause that's where he works. He knows that area of the mind and the brain, and he knows the difference between the two areas. He's a real master at getting your old wheel squeaking again. … When we first broke into that forbidden box in the other dimension, we knew that we had discovered something as surprising and powerful as the New World when Columbus came stumbling onto it. It is still largely unexplored and uncharted. People like Leary have done the best they can to chart it sort of underground, but the government and the powers do not want this world charted, because it threatens established powers. It always has.
  • This is just shit. It's happening. No blame. Happening and on the rise it would appear. What can we do to delay it? Probably zilch. To stop it? Likely less. But to survive it? Now that sounds more promising. There is evidence of bad shit having been survived before. Ancient Advice Left in cave by Wise French Caveman: "When Bigbad Shit come, no run scream hide. Try paint picture of it on wall. Drum to it. Sing to it. Dance to it. This give you handle on it." So Twister is my try.
  • I'm for mystery, not interpretive answers. ... The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking. I've never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.
    • "The Art of Fiction" - interview by Robert Faggen, The Paris Review No. 130 (Spring 1994)
  • God... your book is beautiful!
    • To Peter Reich on his memoir: A Book of Dreams about his early life and his father Wilhelm Reich.
  • There's something about what we're doing, [which] is that we're meant to lose... every time! We make these foires, write these books and perform this music, but the big juggernaut of civilization continues and we've been kind of brushed to the side, but I think all through history there's been these kind of divine losers that just take a deep breath and go ahead—knowing that society's not going to understand it—and not even caring, because they're having a good time.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)[edit]

I'm so crazy I plan to vote for Eisenhower again this November.
The ward is a factory for the Combine. It's for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is.
You have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.
I been away a long time.
  • One flew east, One flew west, One flew over the cuckoo's nest.
    • A children's folk rhyme quoted in the front pages of the book.
  • They're out there.
    Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.
    • First lines, Ch. 1
  • It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen.
    • Ch. 1
  • Damn, what a sorry-looking outfit. You boys don't look so crazy to me.
    • Ch. 1
  • He who marches out of line hears another drum.
    • Ch. 1
  • Mr. Bibbit, you might warn this Mr. Harding that I'm so crazy I admit to voting for Eisenhower.
    Bibbit! You tell Mr. McMurphy I'm so crazy I voted for Eisenhower twice!
    And you tell Mr. Harding right back — he puts both hands on the table and leans down, his voice getting low — that I'm so crazy I plan to vote for Eisenhower again this November.
    • Ch. 1
  • This is what I know. The ward is a factory for the Combine. It's for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse's heart; something that came in all twisted and different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold.
    • Ch. 4
  • I can't help it. I was born a miscarriage. I had so many insults I died. I was born dead. I can't help it.... I'm tired.
    • Ch. 5
  • Maybe not you, buddy, but the rest are even scared to open up and laugh. You know, that's the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn't anybody laughing. I haven't heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing.
    • Ch. 5
  • But if they don't exist, how can a man see them?
    • Ch. 7
  • 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.
    • Ch. 9
  • "But I tried though," he says. "Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much, now, didn't I?"
    • Ch. 11
  • Later, hiding in the latrine from the black boys, I'd take a look at my own self in the mirror and wonder how it was possible that anybody could manage such an enormous thing as being what he was.
    • Ch. 17
  • But just as soon as we got to the pool he said he did wish something mighta been done, though, and dove into the water.
    • Ch. 18
  • Alla you! Quit bugging me, goddammit!
    • Ch. 21
  • 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.
    • Ch. 22
  • While McMurphy laughs. Rocking farther and farther backward against the cabin top, spreading his laugh out across the water — laughing at the girl, at the guys, at George, at me sucking my bleeding thumb, at the captain back at the pier... and the Big Nurse and all of it. Because he knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy. He knows there's a painful side; he knows my thumb smarts and his girlfriend has a bruised breast and the doctor is losing his glasses, but he won't let the pain blot out the humor no more'n he'll let the humor blot out the pain.
    • Ch. 25
  • "What worries me, Billy," she said — I could hear the change in her voice — "is how your mother is going to take this."
    • Ch. 29
  • He gave a cry. At the last, falling backward, his face appearing to us for a second upside down before he was smothered on the floor by a pile of white uniforms, he let himself cry out: 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.
    • Ch. 29
  • I watched and tried to figure out what he would have done. I was only sure of 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.
    • "Chief, in Ch. 29
  • I been away a long time.
    • "Chief, in Ch. 29

The Paris Review interview (1994)[edit]

"Ken Kesey, The Art of Fiction No. 136" by Robert Faggen, in The Paris Review No. 130 (Spring 1994)
Nobody had more class than Melville. To do what he did in Moby-Dick, to tell a story and to risk putting so much material into it. If you could weigh a book, I don’t know any book that would be more full.
When people ask me about LSD, I always make a point of telling them you can have the shit scared out of you with LSD because it exposes something, something hollow.
Real warriors like William Burroughs or Leonard Cohen or Wallace Stevens examine the hollow as well as anybody; they get in there, look far into the dark, and yet come out with poetry.
One of these days you're going to have a visitation…
  • When I see bad-looking bikers with black leather studs on their wrists hanging out at the Oregon Country Fair, I take it as a sign of health. No, I don’t want them hanging around, but trying to eliminate them all, arrest them all, legislate against them all — that’s evil. I have asked feminists, If you could, would you eliminate all male chauvinist pigs? If you could come up with some kind of spray to spray in the air and do away with them, would you? Would you do away with all scorpions and rattlesnakes, mosquitoes? Mosquitoes are part of the ecosystem. So are male chauvinist pigs. You’ve got to fight them, but you don’t try to exterminate them. A purifying group or system that would eliminate them all — that would be an evil force. Anytime you have a force that comes along and says, We will eradicate these people, you have evil. Looking back in history, what has seemed the worst turns out not to be the worst.
  • I was performing The Sea Lion in the Newport Performing Arts Center. Afterwards a white-haired old woman approached me and said, Hey, you remember me? I looked her over, and I knew I remembered her, but had no idea who she was. She said, Lois. It still didn’t click. She said, Lois Learned, Big Nurse, and I thought, Oh my God. She was a volunteer at Newport, long since retired from the nursing business. This was the nurse on the ward I worked on at the Menlo Park hospital. I didn’t know what to think and she didn’t either, but I was glad she came up to me. I felt there was a lesson in it, the same one I had tried to teach Hollywood. She’s not the villain. She might be the minion of the villain, but she’s really just a big old tough ex-army nurse who is trying to do the best she can according to the rules that she has been given. She worked for the villain and believed in the villain, but she ain’t the villain.
  • I like that saying of Thoreau’s that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” Settlers on this continent from the beginning have been seeking that wilderness and its wildness. The explorers and pioneers were out on the edge, seeking that wildness because they could sense that in Europe everything had become locked tight with things. The things were owned by all the same people and all of the roads went in the same direction forever. When we got here there was a sense of possibility and new direction, and it had to do with wildness.
  • When people ask me about LSD, I always make a point of telling them you can have the shit scared out of you with LSD because it exposes something, something hollow. Let’s say you have been getting on your knees and bowing and worshiping; suddenly, you take LSD and you look and there’s just a hole, there’s nothing there. The Catholic Church fills this hole with candles and flowers and litanies and opulence. The Protestant Church fills it with hand-wringing and pumped-up squeezing emotions because they can’t afford the flowers and the candles. The Jews fill this hole with weeping and browbeating and beseeching of the sky: How long, how long are you gonna treat us like this? The Muslims fill it with rigidity and guns and a militant ethos. But all of us know that’s not what is supposed to be in that hole. After I had been at Stanford two years, I was into LSD. I began to see that the books I thought were the true accounting books — my grades, how I’d done in other schools, how I’d performed at jobs, whether I had paid off my car or not — were not at all the true books. There were other books that were being kept, real books. In those real books is the real accounting of your life.
  • It’s the same old wilderness, just no longer up on that hill or around that bend or in the gully. It’s the fact that there is no more hill or gully, that the hollow is there and you’ve got to explore the hollow with faith. If you don’t have faith that there is something down there, pretty soon when you’re in the hollow, you begin to get scared and start shaking. That’s when you stop taking acid and start taking coke and drinking booze and start trying to fill the hollow with depressants and Valium. Real warriors like William Burroughs or Leonard Cohen or Wallace Stevens examine the hollow as well as anybody; they get in there, look far into the dark, and yet come out with poetry.
  • One of these days you're going to have a visitation. You're going to be walking down the street and across the street you're going to look and see God standing over there on the street corner motioning to you, saying, "Come to me, come to me." And you will know it's God, there will be no doubt in your mind — he has slitty little eyes like Buddha, and he's got a long nice beard and blood on his hands. He's got a big Charlton Heston jaw like Moses, he's stacked like Venus, and he has a great jeweled scimitar like Mohammed. And God will tell you to come to him and sing his praises. And he will promise that if you do, all of the muses that ever visited Shakespeare will fly in your ear and out of your mouth like golden pennies. It's the job of the writer in America to say, "Fuck you God, fuck you and the Old Testament that you rode in on, fuck you." The job of the writer is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful.

Trip of a Lifetime (1999)[edit]

Quotations from an interview in The Sun Times (29 August 1999)
When people ask me what I think is my best work, it's the bus. There're lots of books, but there's only one bus.
Doing magic, you not only have to be able to do a trick, you have to have a little story line to go with it.
What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world.
  • I got high on psychedelics before I was ever drunk. I never smoked. Then LSD came by. And to me it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened... And, of course, the best drugs ever were manufactured by the government.
  • You can't trust the quality any more...
    • On why he seldom took LSD in his later years.
  • I have known a lot of people to go down and out — they kill themselves with alcohol or downers. But I've never known anybody to go up and out.
  • LSD lets you in on something. When you're tripping, the idea of race disappears; the idea of sex disappears; you don't even know what species you are sometimes. And I don't know of anybody who hasn't come back from that being more humane, more thoughtful, more understanding.
  • A TV crew came over 10 years or so ago, on the anniversary of the discovery of LSD, and those guys were trying to push me towards saying how bad it was. They wanted me to talk about the dark underbelly of the drug culture. And I said, I'm not going to talk about that because I've never seen it, except in kids doing stuff that I don't know about and I'm not interested in... I've never taken crack and I've never taken ecstasy; none of us has. I don't want to take some strange drug and end up chewing my tongue for 12 hours.
  • What I always wanted to be was a magician... My real upbringing when I was a teenager was doing magic shows, all over the state, with my father and brothers. Doing magic, you not only have to be able to do a trick, you have to have a little story line to go with it. And writing is essentially a trick.
  • When people ask me what I think is my best work, it's the bus. There're lots of books, but there's only one bus.
  • The real crazies who are looking for a messiah... after an hour or so they realise I'm not it and go off and look somewhere else.
  • What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world.

Quotes about Kesey[edit]

  • Kesey creates finally in McMurphy a modern unhero or anti-hero who expands himself, through a gradual shift in his concern from himself to those around him, into the role of the traditional hero. It is a strange and preposterous role... In the modern world, such a hero, individualistic to the point of disaffiliation but at the same time altruistic to the point of self-sacrifice, is by definition absurd; and all people and actions touched by such heroism are tinted by its absurdity.
    • Joseph J. Waldmeir in "Two Novelists of the Absurd: Heller and Kesey" (1964)
  • Kesey practices what has come to be known as Gonzo journalism. The reporter, often intoxicated, fails to get the story but delivers instead a stylishly bizarre account that mocks conventional journalism.
    • R. Z. Sheppard in Time magazine (8 September 1986)

External links[edit]

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