One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my all-time favorite movies. Like two of my all-time favorite books, The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the movie is essentially the story of the individual versus society — a favorite theme of mine.
What I like best about America is that it was launched as an experiment in personal freedom. But the United States has been a rigorous exercise in getting individuals to get along with each other. That tension has always intrigued me.
We all live and work in systems. These systems, whether familial, governmental, communal, societal, religious or professional, often constrain us. So we rebel and wrestle and try to liberate ourselves from their grip or ceiling. But they also enhance, strengthen, even free us to become more than if we go it alone.
Our plans for this summer issue got derailed by Barack Obama coming for commencement. As that clamorous national story consumed the University for two months, we were caught in currents beyond our control, trying to make sense of a wild whitewater ride.
Now, in the post-commencement calm, looking for a meaning that explains this issue, I keep returning to this recurring theme: We are all wrapped up in systems.
In this issue Terry Keeley ’81, a Wall Street financier, offers a forthright picture of the nation’s economic crisis, a kind of examination of conscience about the morality of riches and his role in that environment. Faculty member Ann Tenbrunsel talks about the dangers of “groupthink,” and Dan Philpott writes about inspiring his students to bring change through political systems. A poet ponders the mysteries of power, and a well-intentioned doctor laments his inability to help those mired in poverty at a place that betrays his desires.
This spring’s commencement story, too, was ultimately a tale of individuals grappling with institutional, religious and legal systems. And the power of authority. And civil disobedience. And reconciling one’s conscience with competing principles and convictions. Discerning the tenets of Catholic and university. Staying true to oneself, and trying to get along with others — or not.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has some great moments. Like when the main character, Randle McMurphy, breaks his followers out of the mental ward and takes them fishing. Or when his visionary play-by-play of an imaginary baseball game has them cheering jubilantly. Or when he learns his disciples are in the asylum voluntarily. Or when Chief Bromden sacrifices the lobotomized McMurphy and, having seen what happened to the one who bucked the system, uses the baptismal font to find his own release.
Cuckoo’s Nest and some other all-time favorites — The Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke and The Great Escape — use oppressive systems as metaphors to celebrate personal triumph. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this would appeal to a product of the Woodstock generation, given our tug-of-war with authority, conformity and The Establishment. But the question of how individuals come together is an eternal paradox of the human condition.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.