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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test | Study Guide

Tom Wolfe

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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test | Themes


New Religion

Throughout The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, author Tom Wolfe makes the case that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were not just a countercultural group that bridged the Beats of the 1950s and the hippies of the late 1960s—they were a fledgling religion. He says it outright in Chapter 11 when he compares the early days of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and other major religions to what the Pranksters were doing in the mid-1960s. Like the founders of religions before them, the Pranksters weren't concerned with a particular theology or philosophy. Their beliefs began with an experience—hallucinations caused by LSD—that their leader, Kesey, interpreted. Kesey is the charismatic, parable-telling prophet in this scenario, and the Pranksters are his loyal disciples. Wolfe even positions Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, who loved Kesey but ultimately betrayed him, as a motorcycle-riding Judas. The Pranksters believed the fate of individuals and the world at large is guided by Cosmo, the unseen creator. To them, taking LSD or other hallucinogenic drugs is the equivalent of a sacrament, which is a religious ceremony that bestows divine grace upon its participants. This message wasn't very different from that of other religions—according to Wolfe, Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic religion, began "in a grand bath of haoma water," which was a drug.

It wasn't just Wolfe who noticed "something so ... religious in the air" whenever the Pranksters were around. Members of the California Unitarian Church were quick to catch on too. It was Paul Sawyer, one of the "Young Turk" leaders of the congregation, who saw a "prophetic figure" in Kesey. ("Young Turks" is a phrase dating to the early 20th century for a brash young leader.) Teenagers flock to the bus not only to take part in the Pranksters' antics but also to listen to Kesey and simply be around him. "He had not taught or preached," Sawyer noticed, but something about him made people want to be around him and to please him. The elder leaders of the Unitarian Church were wary of Kesey and saw him as threat to the spiritual lives of their younger congregants. They weren't necessarily wrong. For all Kesey's protests that he and the Pranksters weren't "on the Christ Trip," they had created something beyond getting high with friends and reached into the spiritual realm.

Power and Control

Ken Kesey becomes obsessed with the concepts of power and control shortly after the Pranksters return from their cross-country trip in 1964. His obsession begins with a game he calls "Power," in which people complete tasks to earn points. The person with the most points then dictates what everyone else does for 30 minutes. "Very allegorical, this game," Tom Wolfe remarks in Chapter 10. In a way, it was a popularity contest—everyone was scored on their tasks by the other group members. But it also masked the fact that Kesey wielded more power than anyone else. Even though he publicly denied being the Pranksters' leader and referred to himself as the "non-navigator" and "non-teacher," everyone knew who was really in charge. Kesey was the one who organized the bus trip, set the group's intention of spiritual ascension, and decided when it was over. He also paid for everything. That in itself supports the argument that he was the most powerful person in the group. If he didn't like something, it simply didn't happen.

Wolfe makes a distinction between control and power in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Power is what Kesey exerts over the Pranksters. That's not a bad thing—he didn't use it to harm people or abuse anyone's trust. Mostly he ensured everyone was cared for and safe. He feels power take over his body when he's high on DMT and thinks he's a god, but as far as Wolfe and readers know, that was a one-time occurrence. Control is what Kesey demonstrates when he makes large groups of people bend to his will. The first time he successfully exhibits it is during the California Unitarian Church conference. He realizes he and the Pranksters can "control the flow of the conference ... simply by drawing the conference into their movie." If they arrive late somewhere, the entire conference goes off course. At the Acid Tests, he learns he can control how people move and feel just by changing the pace of the strobe lights and the intensity of the music. Control over others makes Kesey feel powerful, but he never tries to control the Pranksters. He attempts it only on those who have yet to join them on the bus.

Fame and Celebrity

Tom Wolfe also examines how fame and celebrity affected Ken Kesey and the Pranksters. Kesey became famous after the 1962 publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Even people outside of the acid culture knew who he was. That fame was useful in the Pranksters' early days, especially when the group was still forming. People who had heard of Kesey's interest in LSD through his writing, like Neal Cassady, just showed up at Kesey's house. The bus trip to New York and back cemented Kesey as a celebrity in the counterculture movement, thus endearing him to acidheads and others on social fringes, including the Hells Angels, who were more impressed by Kesey's arrest for marijuana possession than by his literary ability. Kesey's celebrity also gave the Pranksters access to groups outside of the counterculture, like the Unitarians and Vietnam War protesters, which allowed the Pranksters to spread their own message and culture. The Acid Tests were so popular because everyone wanted to hang out with Kesey and his friends.

But by 1965 Kesey's fame was becoming a hindrance. The number of visitors to his home in La Honda grew by the day. Hundreds of people showed up the night of the Beatles concert alone. The stress was hard on Kesey, who thought he and the Pranksters would have one summer of fun and then return to their normal lives. Now he was expected not only to continue the Pranksters' antics but also to make them bigger and better than before. Kesey began experimenting with higher doses of LSD and dabbling in DMT, which took him on a crazy trip that almost ended with his being hit by a car. As the numbers of people enamored with Kesey increased, so did those who misinterpreted his and the Pranksters' message. The Unitarians thought he was a prophet—they didn't understand. The acidheads thought he was just in it for the drugs—they didn't understand. As Kesey's popularity rose, his message diminished in power. By the time the Acid Test Graduation rolled around in October 1966, no one was sure what he stood for anymore. He and the Pranksters faded into obscurity as the hippies took center stage.

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