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The search for an authentic identity in Cuckoo’s Nest and GATTACA.

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How do Ken Kesey and Andrew Niccol use a ‘split subject’ as the protagonist of their texts One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and GATTACA to explore the search for an authentic identity?

[What follows is a 600 word excerpt from a possible essay responding to this topic]

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and GATTACA both take as their central concern the theme of social control, within societies that seek to impose upon their members a utopian ideal of authentic being, in the form of conformist ‘perfection’. The antagonists of such control, of a controlling drive imposed from without by the dystopian social order of the world in which they find themselves, are the ‘protagonists’ of didactic texts which unambiguously oppose such control. Such protagonists must therefore paradoxically impose their own version of ‘perfection’ – or at least authentic being – upon their world in order to defeat the social order they oppose. To avoid such a trap of replacing one form of dictatorship with another, both texts show their protagonists in the process of becoming, in ways which problematize ‘identity’ as unfixed or free potential, rather than as rigidly defined and antagonistic ‘subjects’ who thereby become slaves to their opposites: ‘I can only be McMurphy / Vincent because I am not Ratched / Anton’.

The narrative arc of both texts is not merely based on the struggle against a social order and system of control, but a struggle in becoming or achieving an authentic identity for each protagonist. Kesey handles this by way of a reluctant Christ figure (which may be a tautology, depending on your theology), while Niccol mines the richness of the film noir genre to complicate the stolen identity motif of the Vincent / Jerome dyad. By cheating GATTACA as a ‘borrowed ladder’, Vincent not only undermines the very notion of a fixed, genetically predetermined identity (one that characterises so many utopian projects), but contingently achieves success with the help of many others, not as the perfected individual or ubermensch. A similar split exists between Bromden and McMurphy, whose defeat of Nurse Ratched is also replicated by all the ward patients, not just the ‘protagonist’.

GATTACA and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest celebrate the victory of split subjects – Vincent / Jerome / Eugene and McMurphy / Bromden – over the unitary and conformist subjectivity of GATTACA and the Combine. The importance of this distinction can be seen in both texts’ painstaking use of point-of-view, which is why Milos Forman’s film version fails in this respect with its diminishing of Bromden’s role for the sake of Jack Nicholson’s bravura performance as McMurphy. While both GATTACA and Cuckoo’s Nest end with signs of the ‘whole subject’ escaping the limitations of their conformist prisons – Bromden returning to the woods from the imprisoning hospital and Vincent ‘returning to the stars’ as he escapes the confinement of earth’s gravity – these carry with them the stain of the Other, through sacrifice. The deaths of McMurphy and Eugene, literally transformed into objects from being the abject of their respective dystopian societies (respectively a lobotomised vegetable and a wheelchair bound cripple), as the necessary corollary of the subject’s freedom, make sacred the authentic act of coming into being and remind us of the inevitability of loss and contingency, which conformist societies seek to deny. Such societies paradoxically seek to maintain the in-valid or the chronic, so that the perfected conformist subject of utopian society can be shown, as in a distorted mirror, the imperfection that they must be constantly on guard against. The sublimation by sacrifice of McMurphy into Bromden and Eugene into Vincent removes this antagonistic difference that characterises social conformity, signifying both the cruelty left behind and a newly acquired authentic identity which, like Walt Whitman, ‘contains multitudes’.

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