The Electric Kool' Aid Acid Test
By Tom Wolfe; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; $5.95 (pp. 416)
A LOT OF ACID has flowed under the bridge since Ken Kesey dropped his first cap of Sandoz nine years ago. Ken Kesey, the novelist who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), is--if one were to believe Tom Wolfe's chronicle of his recent life--responsible for a lot. Hippies, for example, communal living, flamboyant costumes, strange puns for people's names (like Stark Naked, or Mal Function, or Black Maria), new words (like "bummer"--a term borrowed by Kesey from the Hell's Angels), and mixed psychedelic happenings (with the difference that at Kesey's happenings--The Acid Tests--you were served LSD).
Whether Kesey is in fact responsible for all this is, I think, a moot point. But he was taking LSD in late 1959, "a full two years," as Wolfe says, "before Mom&Dad&Buddy&Sis heard of the dread letters and clucked because Drs. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were french-frying the brains of Harvard boys with it."
KESEY'S first trip in a supervised hospital experiment is beautifully described by Wolfe. Forced to stay in a hospital bed, all he had to do for entertainment was look at the ceiling:
It began moving ... not in a crazed swirl but along its own planes ... of light and shadows and surface not nearly so nice and smooth as plasterer Super Plaster Man intended with infallible carpenter level bubble ... not so foolproof as you thought bub, little lumps and ridges up there and lines ... like spines on crests of waves of white desert movie sand each one with MGM shadow longshot of the ominous A-rab coming up over the next crest for only the sinister Saracen can see the road and you don't know how many subplots you left up there Plaster Man, trying to smooth it "all" out ... with your carpenter's level ... to make us look up and see nothing but ceiling ... because it has a "name" ceiling ... no room for Arabs up there in Level Land, eh Plaster Man"
Acid was too good not to be shared. At that time the stuff was still legally available, and Kesey took to turning on all his friends. At Kesey's rustic La Honda home anyone who felt they belonged there was welcome to live off Kesey, tank-up on acid, paint themselves day-glo if they wished, and freak out among the Redwoods.
And so the Merry Pranskters were born, including in their number such people as Neil Casady (Dean Moriarity of Kerouac's On the Road), and many other luminaries. Their mission was to freak out each other and the straights. Their tools were colorful clothes, painted faces, odd expressions, strange names for each other, and the secret weapon, LSD.
Their whole communal Merry Prankster life was an insult to the established order. They had placed a complex public address system in the trees that surrounded the house, and they soon took to broadcasting at the neighborhood: "This is non-station KLSD, 800 micrograms in your head, the station designed to blow your mind and undo your bind, from up here atop the redwoods on Venus." Or they would invite say all of California's Hells Angels for a visit to the community of La Honda.
BUT more interesting than their super-sound system or their super orgies, was the kind of communal consciousness that developed at La Honda. Everyone knew what everyone else was thinking, or thought they did. Everything, by Kesey's command was brought "out front." If you were angry with someone, desired someone, hated someone, you said so directly. Soon everyone seemed to be thinking the same things at the same time, and I am you as he is you as you are me.
The Merry Pranksters brought their message, or just themselves to the whole country by means of a magical mystery tour, a cross-country trip in a pyschedelic magic bus with loudspeakers on top, a sleeping bag for screwing, acid in the portable fridge, and lots of merry pranks along the way: "... in Barry Goldwater's home town ... they put a streamer on the bus reading 'A VOTE FOR BARRY IS A VOTE FOR FUN.' And they put American flags up on the bus and Casady drove the bus backwards down the main drag of Phoenix ... The citizens were suitably startled, outraged, delighted, non-plussed." Of course the bus looked like it had been painted by Hieronymus Bosch, a sign in back of the bus said "Caution: Weird Load" and everyone had painted their bodies in various day-glo ways.
And the final instrument for bringing the Word were the Acid Tests ("Can you pass the Acid Test?"), mixed-media happenings at which LSD was served diluted in Kool Aid). The just-born Grateful Dead would make music. There were plenty of things to play with, like fingerpaints or day-glo, movies to watch, strobe lights, and Pranksters directing the show.
INEVITABLY Kesey came in conflict with the society he was trying to transform or freak out. He was busted for possession of marijuana and fled to Mexico. There he played at Outlaw for a while. Eventually he came back to the States, freaking out the California cops by appearing at public functions, even being interviewed on T.V., and then evaporating like the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Kesey became the F.B.I.'s most wanted man, not so much for his enormous crimes, but for the way he refused to take the F.B.I. seriously, sticking his tongue out at law and order. They got him of course, trapping him finally in a traffic jam on the L.A. Freeway. And then, when they finally had him nabbed dead to rights, they let him go.
It seems that Kesey's lawyer made a deal with the Court. Kesey was to be released on condition he would go among the hippie masses (by this time there were hippie masses, such was the strength of the Word), and tell them to stop taking LSD.
Well he did tell them as his lawyer had promised he would, and then again he didn't. What he said was, it's time to graduate from acid: "Once you've been through that door you can't keep going through it again." He never said acid shouldn't be the first step. He said you had to make the kind of consciousness acid created deeper, more permanent, without the drug.
But by this time there were Hippies on the cover of Life, the Haight was in bloom, and everyone seemed to be turning on with something. It was bigger than both of us, and no one was listening to beyond-acid talk. Not even from Ken Kesey.
So ends Tom Wolfe's book.
TO WOLFE Ken Kesey is a Christ-like figure, the founder of a new religion. He stands at the center of a band of disciples ("The Merry Pranksters") and interprets for them the meaning of a new experience.
It is well to remember, as Wolfe says, that the religions we have today did not begin as the sets of moral precepts we know them as. They began with a new experience, and new ethics grew out of the new state of consciousness that this experience caused. It might be the direct experiencing of God say, or of Nirvana.
The experience that united the Merry Pranksters was, of course, LSD. One of the derelictions of Wolfe's book is his failure to delineate the ethical attributes of the LSD experience. He fails to describe the coherency of the Prankster's experience of acid and what they did in the world. But with all the acid that has been taken since by so many different people, the "meaning" of acid in the world, the ethical attributes of acid consciousness are becoming clear.
This is to say that many of the Prankster activities that Wolfe describes with such fanfare of exclamation marks are now common currency. LSD is no respecter of persons, of individuality. Though Wolfe implies that people are copying what the Pranksters did, it seems more likely that the same kind of consciousness and the same ideas come to people who take the same drug.
This may, along with the mass media, account for the stereotyped nature of hippie style. And in part the hippies are simply an anti-style, the negative of the affluent middle-class life style. After all there are only so many things you can do to blow straight people's minds.
WHAT blew their rigid old minds most of all was that Pranksters, hippies, heads, looked so extraordinary. Something startling, the extraordinary introduced into the everyday, is in a way a definition of the prank. The hippies and what they did were like pepper on ice cream for the straight world.
The Prankster motto was "Never trust a Prankster." But that simply meant "Expect the Unexpected." And then learn to love it. When you take LSD you either learn to groove on the unexpected, or you freak out. The unexpected is always there, right under our noses, and acid makes you see it. No matter how hard the plasterer tries to make the ceiling level there is always room for an A-rab to hide.
So much of our present situation is the response of fear, of hatred of the unexpected. Wallace's followers are scared of hippies, scared of long hair, scared of blacks, in part simply because they're different. Kesey and the Pranksters could have made a small difference. A prank properly performed could have given people a chance to adapt to the unexpected, to play along with it if they wanted to, to groove on it.
To imagine such pranks a Prankster would have to first overcome his own fears, save his own soul, The idea of bringing it all out front is an attempt to examine all the dark corners of one's own soul, to act out one's pent-up hatreds, one's repressed desires, aggressions, fantasies.
For in part what is so terrifying about the Chinese or the blacks is that we have unconsciously made them symbols for the unknown, unexpected aspects of our inner life. And if we could grow to accept the unknown within ourselves we wouldn't have to plaster every ceiling, every place, every person, until it is a level level level world.
These political, ethical consequences are implicit in the Prankster way of life, in the experience of acid itself. And perhaps if Kesey hadn't been busted (he eventually served a year's sentence), he could have invented the kinds of pranks that would help people to be less scared of the world and of themselves.
KESEY'S only explicit political advice was given in a speech to a huge Berkeley peace rally. It was "to say fuck the war and just turn your back on it." This leads Wolfe to an asinine prediction of the "death" of radical politics, the end of organized demonstrations. He not only predicts, but at the end of the book describes this non-event as if it had actually occurred.
But acid did have implications for radical politics, even if Wolfe misses them. Acid perhaps revealed the true extent to which our own minds form the social reality we accept as given. It gives us leverage to move outside the kind of stolid consciousness society has formed for us, and which it reinforces. It shows us that there are alternative kinds of consciousness that lead to new kinds of political activity. Many have found again that you can, to a greater extent than expected, react to events the way you choose to act, not the way they want you to.
THOUGH little of what I have said is explicit in Wolfe's book, many of Kesey's actions do seem to point towards the meanings I've described. In effect these meanings are attributes of the acid experience, and Kesey was among the first to explore it.
But he hasn't been the only one, and each one who follows him down the acid trail makes his experience seem less unique. Wolfe never makes us feel we are in the presence of a great teacher.
By means of his style Wolfe does attempt to force feed a significance into what we read. For a moment the trick works, and an aura of newness shimmers about Kesey and the Pranksters. I believed myself to be in the presence of some new prophet, of a new and radical insight. But then, a moment away from the presence of the style, and the outlines of the event began to blur, the figure of Kesey himself became insubstantial. In the end the Christ-like robes Wolfe fashioned for Kesey are much too large. We are left with another acid-head and a bunch of kooky kids who did a few krazy things.
This shrinking effect--the way the book diminishes in memory--is the fault of Wolfe's own style. Fun to read, it is still frenetic, hopped up with exclamations, interjections aplenty. It is a hey-look-no-hands way of writing. No character can come to life in this style. There is, ultimately, Wolfe's style operating in a vacuum, doing tricks, pulling rabbits out of hats. And only later does one realize that--as on some acid trip--both rabbit and hat were imaginary.