Insights from the Counterculture, Part 2: Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest
Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest

The second in our series of quotes by leading writers of the Counterculture. Read more wisdom from Hunter S. Thompson and Abbie Hoffman.

I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.

The frontiers we broke into in the ’60s are still largely unexplored.

The Haight is just a place; the ’60s was a spirit.

The ’60s aren’t over; they won’t be over until the Fat Lady gets high.

The fundamentalists have taken the fun out of the mental.

If you’re a Conservative, why aren’t you behind conserving the land?

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.

All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.

The flock gets sight of a spot of blood on some chicken and they all go to peckin’ at it, see, till they rip the chicken to shreds, blood and bones and feathers. But usually a couple of the flock gets spotted in the fracas, then it’s their turn. And a few more gets spots and gets pecked to death, and more and more. Oh, a peckin’ party can wipe out the whole flock in a matter of a few hours, buddy, I seen it. A mighty awesome sight. The only way to prevent it—with chickens—is to clip blinders on them. So’s they can’t see.

But a system made secure by the protective plating of humor and pretense always runs the risk of having its protection get out of hand. A relationship based on jokes invites jokes; jokes about anything—and jokes about anything are now and thenbound to cut too close to the truth.

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.

The best of all possible cages… What more can one ask?

What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.

[H]e’s finished with that; it’s like an old clock that won’t tell time but won’t stop neither, with the hands bent out of shape and the face bare of numbers and the alarm bell rusted silent, an old worthless clock that just keeps ticking and cuckooing without meaning nothing.

Memory whispers someplace in that jumbled machinery.

But it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.

Truth doesn’t run on time like a commuter train, though time may run on truth. And the Scenes Gone By and the Scenes to Come flow blending together in the sea-green deep while Now spreads in circles on the surface.

It isn’t by getting out of the world that we become enlightened, but by getting into the world… by getting so tuned in that we can ride the waves of our existence and never get tossed because we become the waves.

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—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.

Plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom.

We can count how many seeds are in the apple, but not how many apples are in the seed.

Photo courtesy of Robert Altman.
Photo courtesy of Robert Altman.

Ken Kesey is best known for his book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  For more titles, please see his page at Amazon.


IMAGE: Ken Kesey

IMAGE: Kesey via Altman


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  • Milicent Cranor

    Milicent Cranor is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy. She has worked as a creative editor at E.P. Dutton, a comedy ghostwriter, and editor of consequential legal and scientific documents. She has also co-authored numerous peer-reviewed articles for medical journals.