#3: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
In trying to understand the Boomer, I have learned that most of what you think of as Boomer culture from the 1960s & 70s was in fact just Boomer teenagers getting passed around at parties by 30-something beatnik chickenhawks.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the story of Ken Kesey & the “Merry Pranksters” driving across America in a tie-dyed bus “blowing minds”, & they’re just the most tedious & insufferable people you can imagine - especially the narrator.
I picked this book up because Tom Wolfe was pretty perceptive about the status-seeking bullshit going on with “coastal elites” & the welfare bureaucracy in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. I was trying to get an honest look at the drug culture - but Wolfe literally thinks Ken Kesey is the next Jesus, & refuses to acknowledge the obvious evidence that he is meticulously cataloguing of what drugs are doing to these people.
Fortunately he’s a thorough writer with an eye for detail, so you do get to see the real story, but it’s in little swatches of the background, behind the stuff he really wants to talk about (how cool it looks if you spray your hand with silver paint & put it in water & then look at it. While high.)
He’s desperate for you to see it, how mind-blowing it is, how it would blow your mind (but, like, the visuals aren’t even the point, man, it’s the whole experience, maaaaaaan.) He makes fun of his subjects for talking like this, but it’s just as tiresome when he does it with Princeton elocution. If you pick this up on Audible, just put it on 3x when he starts talking about “day-glo” or “fractals”, you won’t miss anything.
The real story is that LSD does what the CIA intended for it to do: it eliminates routine, “common-sense” understanding, making everything around the user seem hyper-novel, & making them extremely disinhibited & suggestible. Wolfe lovingly describes the Pranksters’ discovery of “inter-subjectivity”, wherein individual consciousness melts away into a “colonial mind”, & the characters are continually shocked to discover that they were “thinking the same thing”. (From the outside, this looks like them just saying “wow, yeah, far out” in response to anything that is said to them.)
You can imagine therapeutic applications for a person whose hardened, routinized thought processes are badly dysfunctional - which is why psychedelics seem to work on depressives, etc. - but The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is basically the story of why those processes are generally pretty useful & shouldn’t be lightly discarded.
The Pranksters live in absolute filth - Wolfe lovingly describes the “love bunk”, the unwashed communal sleeping bag for sex on the bus, in terms I won’t repeat. Women in various degrees of undress & unconsciousness appear to be fair game for anybody on the bus. One of these, named “Stark Naked”, eventually bolts out of the bus nude, scoops up a stranger’s child, & begins shrieking & weeping for “her own divorced-off little boy”. She is immediately arrested & committed to a psychiatric ward; Wolfe intones like a shaman that “she had completed her trip.”
In Canada, they pick up “a nice little girl with lips as raunchy as a swig of grape soda, tender in age but ne’mind, ready to go, & she is on the bus, christened Anonymous, down to her bra & panties, which she prefers”. Obviously her family calls the police, who find the bus & pull them over. But with the girl now high & nude & coated in body paint, the cops don’t recognize her description, & move along. Wolfe finds this hilarious - the Merry Pranksters sure gave it to those dumb square cops, trying to return a kidnapped girl to her family - & hopes you will too.
Yet another woman - described as “some blonde from out of town” - is gang-raped “in various places, at least fifty times” by a group of Hell’s Angels. Wolfe describes the scene with sweaty fascination, but (he insists) without judgment. “That is her movie,” he says: “it truly is, & we have gone with the flow.”
At another of their parties, a character whom Wolfe colorfully describes (but does not name) announces that he “just had an eight-year-old boy”, & the crowd laughs. (Wow, yeah, far out!) Wolfe, perhaps realizing this goes too far even for his hip audience, pretends not to know what this means.
You can’t imagine a more ordinary bunch of self-involved, callous, cowardly shitheels getting this kind of reverence in any other era - & that probably had a lot to do with the fact that they were (maybe knowingly) state assets with unlimited access to mind control drugs.
We don’t know what to do with victims of crime who don’t understand themselves to have been victimized. No one in this book protests or otherwise indicates nonconsent - even as they submit to degradations no normal person would consent to - because the drugs pretty much obliterate their capacity to moralize or judge. Not only that, but they swear up & down that the problem isn’t the obvious squalor & indignity of their lifestyle, it’s all these judgments & hang-ups - & the prescription for judgments & hang-ups is, of course, more drugs.
This wouldn’t be a relevant problem to me, here & now, if it was restricted to recreational psychedelics. But what is really strange is the way the ascendancy of the counterculture seems to have carried this wireheaded indifference to ugliness & humiliation throughout American culture since the 1960s. It doesn’t seem like a change that profound & dangerous could possibly have been transmitted just through music & movies. I’m not saying it was elves.