In the post modern era of literature (1950’s and on), American writers wrote of classic struggles between tyranny and liberty, some from fears of Stalin’s Soviet Russia, others from the demoralization caused by America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was important, these writers thought, to show people just how horrifying government despotism could become. The British writer, George Orwell, had already spoken of the evils of totalitarianism, inspiring later writers to dwell on the horrors of politcal absolutism. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, John D. MacDonald’s Nightmare in Pink, and Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan each deal with the fear that governments can use neuroscience as a means to control people’s minds. Once the mind was manipulated in a certian way, writers dreaded that the common people would be subjected to the ideals of ruling parties and think nothing of it, all due to brain manipulation. Only stored information in books could be the best weapon against such devices.
Ken Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1963. The story centers on a mental health patient, Randle McMurphy, causing as much trouble as he can in a mental hospital. A large lady named Big Nurse rules the ward with an iron fist, but McMurphy believes her authority can be rebelled against. He doesn’t think her rules to be useful or authentic. Her powers only serve to make the other patients miserable. Though he manages to defy Big Nurse’s regulations and smuggles women into the ward, he is caught by the Nurse, who has no choice but to perform brain surgery on McMurphy. When McMurphy returns, he isn’t himself anymore; he no longer wishes to be a fun loving, exciting rebel. This instance illustates Kesey’s fear that those in power(symbolized by the Big Nurse) can perform brain surgeries so as to modify rebel personalities who threaten their control over people. Instead of executing rebels, rulers can simply use science as a means to conform people’s minds to their ideologies.
John D. MacDonald’s Nightmare in Pink, published in 1964, gives certian details as to how this brain manipulation occurs, what techniques neuroscientists were thought to be testing out. Travis McGee, a lady’s man who excels in recovering stolen property and solving crimes, is captured by a group of doctors in charge of a secret mental ward. Dr. Mulligan explains to McGee about the basics of brain surgery: “They go in at the temples, I believe, with a long thin scalpel and stir up the frontal lobes. It breaks the old behavior patterns in the brain” (MacDonald 193). By modifying the traditonal thinking patterns in the mind, doctors can change the way people actually behave. The patients will not have the same beliefs since their thinking has changed. The goal of the scientist will be to literally convert people to an idea or worldview. That way, they will simply not rebel and stand for their own beliefs. They will go from being “dangerous” to friendly conformists.
Shock Therapy is seen by MacDonald to be an even more diabolical means of control. Dr. Varn explains to McGee about a female patient in the ward: “…an electrode was inserted into the area of the patient’s brain…the pleasure area…a transistorized field-current setup was then adjusted to the volume of the signal to give maximum stimulus…the completion of the task would give a ten second stimulus” (MacDonald 197-198). The doctors set up the woman’s brain to where completing a chore will produce a chemical pleasure, similar to highs humans get from eating and sex. No matter what the task is, the patient will perform it so as to experience the same thrill over and over again, as if they are addicted to drugs. In this way, those in power can get others to do whatever they wish for the same chemical high each time. If reward is involved, people are much less apt to rebel against those in authority. Subjects are now slaves to rulers in that their pleasures are used against them. Why rebel against something when it makes you feel comfortable and safe?
If a reward based manipulation doesn’t suffice, then neuroscientists may turn to simply modifying memory. Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel The Sirens of Titan, deals with this instance of scientific tyranny. Unk, a soldier on Mars, is preparing to assist an army in attacking Earth. His commanders have sent him from a mental hospital with a modified memory to where he no longer remembers his past. If he did, he may be less inclined to join a pointless, suicidal war. Afterall, the people on Mars stand no chance against Earth’s soldiers. Unknowingly, Unk has submitted to a kind of military authoritarianism.
But Unk is told by a man whom he executes to look in one of his barracks. When he does, he discovers a letter. The letter reveals that his friend, Stony (the one whom he killed), had discovered that they were being used to go to pointless war on Earth. The military wanted Stony executed for finding this out. Unk was his friend in this respect in that he confided the military’s secrets to him. Unk now knows he has just killed his only friend. The letter is a means of reminding Unk of who he is: “Keep this letter well hidden. And every time you change its hiding place, be sure to tell Stony where you put it. That way, even if you go to the hospital to have your memory cleaned out, Stony can tell you where to have your memory filled up again” (Vonnegut 131). It is a clever way for both men to fight the powers that be, a way to remind themselves of the truths the military is trying to keep from them.
The letter represents Vonnegut’s only hope against government tyranny: the written word. Unk discovers that it was he who had originally authored the letter: “Unk was the hero who had written the letter. Unk had written the letter to himself before having his memory cleaned out. It was literature in its finest sense, since it made Unk courageous, watchful, and secretly free. It made him his own hero in very trying times (Vonnegut 132). Vonnegut argues that literature can remind humans of the virtues and liberties that despotic governments try to find many ways to suppress. As long as the truth is out there, government cannot ultimately stamp out resistance to tyranny. People will discover the truths of humanity through literature and be reminded that there are things worth fighting for. Literature points people to history, which in turns teaches us about things we should support and things we should avoid. But if the government encourages ignorance, then the fight will be much more difficult. People will be unaware of the values that make them human and not mind-controlled slaves. They will be unaware of the freedoms that keep them from becoming caged animals.
The fight against tyranny still goes on today. And those who stand for liberty are well aware that literature is one of the important means in which people are reminded of important things. The truth that these writers express is that no one has the authority to make you think in one way; you, as an individual, have that right. No one else has the right to coerce anything into your mind.
MacDonald, John D. Nightmare in Pink. New York: The Random House Publishing Group. 1964. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. The Sirens of Titan. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1959. Print.