Ken Kesey: Prankster, Magician, Fool

An interview, an anecdote, and an iconic portrait

Recently, I had a new insight into The Fool. 

The surprising source was Ken Kesey, whose One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1968) became one of the 20th century’s best-known novels, and was adapted into Jack Nicholson’s most famous movie.

Kesey was not only a literary icon, it seems—but also a student of Tarot.

Though I don’t know how seriously he pursued that study, I do know that his remarks on The Fool expanded my understanding of this pivotal trump. They came in a 1994 interview, published in the Paris Review . . . . 

The interviewer asks:

What connection is there between Ken Kesey the magician-prankster and Ken Kesey the writer?

And Kesey responds:

The common denominator is the joker. It’s the symbol of the prankster. Tarot scholars say that if it weren’t for the fool, the rest of the cards would not exist. The rest of the cards exist for the benefit of the fool.

The fool in tarot is this naive innocent spirit with a rucksack over his shoulder like Kerouac, his eyes up into the sky like Yeats, and his dog biting his rump as he steps over the cliff. 

That fool of Shakespeare’s, [played by] the actor Robert Armin, became so popular that finally Shakespeare wrote him out of Henry IV. In a book called A Nest of Ninnies, Armin wrote about the difference between a fool artificial and a fool natural

And the way Armin defines the two is important; the [Shakespearean] character Jack Oates is a true fool natural. He never stops being a fool to save himself; he never tries to do anything but anger his master, Sir William. 

A fool artificial is always trying to please; he’s a lackey. Ronald McDonald is a fool artificial. [Gonzo journalist] Hunter Thompson is a fool natural. So was [Charlie Chaplin’s] Little Tramp.

For me, this distinction added another layer of meaning to The Fool — something else to think about when the card appears in a reading. Is it representing “a fool natural” or “a fool artificial”?

I haven’t found out much more yet about Kesey’s relationship with the Tarot, but two entertaining items did come to light.

First: 

Maureen Hurley, who was sort of accidentally involved with the Tarot/counterculture connection, shared this recollection on her blog:

Ken Kesey once sent me rather unusually inscribed checks to purchase some new age tarot cards I was selling. My job at Western Star Press, located in the basement of Alice Kent’s big Victorian house in Kentfield, was sorting tarot decks.

It seems some malfunction at the printing plant had jumbled hundreds of decks into one huge pile, and Maureen had to find a proper sequence of 78 cards from the pile to fill each order. (I love imagining this!)

That was in 1971, and the deck in question seems to have been John Cooke and Rosalind Sharpe’s T: The New Tarot, which was marketed as “a Tarot for the Aquarian Age.” (The design of the cards is very hard to characterize, so have a look here.)

Second: 

Kesey appears as the Knave of Chalices in Hexen 2.0, Suzanne Treister’s truly unique Tarot project. And the card itself is a miniature biography.

The “Kesey card” is just a hint of why Hexen 2.0 is fascinating. Whatever you think the limits of Tarot might be, Treister has gone one step beyond—so here’s a longer Exploration Project story about her work.