The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test Summary
Tom Wolfe writes about Ken Kesey, a promising young writer, during Kesey's experimentations with LSD from about 1961 to 1964. Kesey leaves his home in Oregon to do post-graduate work on a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University. There he encounters LSD and other psychoactive drugs while volunteering as a research subject. The effects of LSD on Kesey's perceptions draw him and others into the regular use of LSD, marijuana and amphetamines. A...
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The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test Study Guide
Tom Wolfe Biographies (3)
Essays & Analysis (2)
What makes New Journalism different from other forms of journalism?
New Journalism was a style pioneered by writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson during the 1960s as a way to combine traditional journalistic techniques with the power of fiction prose. Wolfe's writing in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is an attempt to not only describe what the Merry Pranksters were doing, but also to access their experience. Through his often confusing prose and creative use of punctuation, Wolfe employs New Journalistic techniques to transport readers, helping them to comprehend the essence of what it was like to actually be at an Acid Test, high on LSD.
What is the Movie? Discuss its importance in the Pranksters' activities.
The Movie was the way in which the Merry Pranksters filtered the real world through the lens of LSD. When the Pranksters took LSD, they felt they were being transported into another time and space that transcended the real world. The Movie was the way in which the Pranksters kept a frame of reference for what was real and what was not. The Pranksters also felt they could draw other people into the Movie simply by wishing it. They attempted to draw the Beatles into the Movie, though they were ultimately unsuccessful. The Movie also helped them to create an alternative world for the rest of the real world to see. Their plan was to edit and distribute the Movie to the public as a way to expand their influence in the wider world.
Discuss the differences between the Merry Pranksters and the Beat Generation.
Though the Merry Pranksters and the Beat Generation shared a common lineage of white middle-class rebellion, there were significant differences between the two groups. The biggest difference was an awareness of race. While the Beat Generation venerated African-American culture as the epitome of "cool," the Pranksters didn't seem to care much about race and were largely oblivious to the social and economic distinctions between classes in the U.S. The other big difference was the way in which the two groups dealt with authority. The Beat Generation, though they had their troubles with the law, largely tried to stay under the radar of the authorities. The Pranksters, however, sought to flaunt their lifestyle, and seemed to feel invincible in front of the police.
How does Wolfe ethically interpret the use of LSD and the Acid Tests?
Though Wolfe attempts to take an unbiased look at the growth of LSD in the 1960s, the reader can discern several ethical interpretations in his writing. Wolfe hints that the use of LSD causes the user to become disinterested in the world and lackadaisical about ethical outcomes. This is best seen when he describes many of the former leaders of the leftist student movement and the Civil Rights movement who started taking LSD. As he describes it, once these young people began to take LSD they became disinterested in their social activism and instead became focused only on the drug. Though Wolfe withholds judgment on these individuals, the reader is left with the feeling that these young people could have continued their work towards social justice, but instead threw it away to use drugs.
Discuss why Wolfe believes Kesey and The Pranksters to be the start of a religious movement?
Wolfe sees the Pranksters as a new religious movement because they embody two of the most prominent characteristics of highly successful religious groups: they have a charismatic leader, and they hold the key to an experience that others want to have. Kesey is charismatic and influential, and is able to hold the Pranksters together even in the most difficult of circumstances. In fact, it is only during his absence that the group begins to fall apart. When he leads the Unitarian conference, one of the youths there even begins to call him the "prophet" Kesey. According to Wolfe, the Pranksters' experience is similar to those that drove other religious movements: St. Paul, for example, had an "experience" on the road to Damascus, and Zoroastor had a kind of psychedelic moment as well. It is their shared experience, and the ability of their leader to transmit that experience to others, that give the Pranksters their strength.
Why do you think The Pranksters and the followers of Timothy Leary don't get along?
The Pranksters and the Learyites don't get along because they have two different visions for the use of LSD. The Learyites see LSD as a way for an individual to find a higher state of being and to use that state of being to transform the world around them. Leary's experiments largely focused on what kind of LSD trip would create the most favorable conditions for the individual. The Pranksters were much more reckless with their use of the drug. Their experience was more focused around making the individual feel good, and was not particularly concerned with the outside world. This is made clear when Wolfe describes the wreckage that was often left in families and communities by those who chose to abandon their responsibilities for the allure of the drug. Though both the Learyites and the Pranksters eventually failed in their attempts to bring LSD into the mainstream, Leary's use of the drug was far more subdued than the Pranksters'.
Do you believe that Wolfe's prose is ultimately successful in re-creating the psychedelic movement?
Ultimately, Wolfe's prose is more successful in forging the way for a new kind of journalism than it is in truly recreating the experience of the Pranksters. Wolfe's writing style is decidedly unique: he utilizes strange phrases and punctuation to disorient the reader, and relies heavily on describing an individual's dress and appearance in order to realistically portray a character. Oftentimes, the way a person looks is directly correlated with how that person acts and feels.
Wolfe's prose conveys the intricacies of the Pranksters' world, but cannot help the reader transcend space and time. In a way, Wolfe's prose is limited in exactly the same way that the Pranksters' use of acid is limited: it can be a stepping stone to transcendence, but it can never actually take a person there.
What is intersubjectivity?
According to the Pranksters, intersubjectivity occurs when two individual consciousnesses are blended into one. In such a state one consciousness is able to know what the other consciousness knows. For the Pranksters, this is the ultimate state of transcendence while on LSD.
During the book, however, the Pranksters only reach this state one time: during their trip to see the Beatles. In that chapter Wolfe describes how the lights and sounds that the Pranksters create on the bus all work to form a "cloud" in which they are all caught up. The state, however, is only temporary, and they soon came back down to earth when their trip goes bad at the concert.
The state of intersubjectivity seems elusive, and for most of the Pranksters taking acid is a gamble. Sandy, for example, never seems to recover from several bad trips. Clearly, the great goal of intersubjectivity is fraught with considerable danger.
Why do you think Kesey's Acid Test "Graduation" fails?
The Acid Test Graduation is thought up by Kesey, ironically, while he is tripping on acid in Mexico. Kesey sees the Graduation as a way to move the psychedelic movement beyond reliance on the drug and its effects. However, Wolfe suggests that internally, Kesey thought up the Graduation as a way to re-enter the United States after his bad visit to Mexico.
The Graduation fails because, though Wolfe and Kesey himself might have seen the Prankster movement as the beginning of a new religion, the movement cannot sustain itself without the use of LSD. Even at the Graduation, many partygoers take the drug and then leave when the experience didn't live up to past Acid Tests. The failure of the Acid Test Graduation signals the end of the Pranksters and their quest to create a religion out of their movement. They simply can't experience transcendent power without the use of LSD.
What is symbolized by the name of the bus, "Furthur?"
The Pranksters name their bus "Furthur" because the bus symbolizes the act of taking their Prankster lifestyle into the normal, real world. The Beat Movement never really succeeded in gaining access to the mainstream, but Kesey believes his movement can achieve this goal because of the awesome powers of LSD.
Naming the bus "Furthur" represents the audacious confrontation between reality and the transcendent experience. The Pranksters drive the psychedelic bus into mainstream society and confront issues like conformity, racial injustice, and class difference not to demand change, but rather to suggest that these differences need to be transcended through the pseudo-religious experience of LSD. They deliberately spell the word incorrectly in order to convey their unwillingness to conform to the rules of traditional society.