The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Critical Essays

Tom Wolfe


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“We blew it!” Kesey said, and he was right. Although the Merry Pranksters were dead, however, Pranksterism had a profound effect on American—indeed on all Western—culture, spawning happenings, acid rock music, performance art, light shows, and a host of other countercultural trademarks. Perhaps the greatest testament to the Pranksters’ influence is the Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour (1967), a commercially successful variant of the forty-five-hour film the Pranksters made of their cross-country bus trip (a film which the Pranksters never quite got around to editing).

The film serves as dubious proof of just how far Kesey was willing to go beyond all semblance of structure in his efforts to enter the now, the flow. Writers, too, Kesey believed “are trapped by artificial rules. We are trapped in syntax.” He seemed to agree with 1960’s media guru Marshall McLuhan that “writing was an old-fashioned and artificial form” and so intended The Movie to be “a total breakthrough in terms of expression.” It was to be, as were the acid tests, the means for expressing the inexpressible, more by doing or facilitating than by actually saying. “If you label it this, then it can’t be that.” “To define it, was to limit it,” for “it” was “the Unspoken Thing.” Far from permitting understanding, according to the Pranksters, structure impedes it. Like the American Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, the Pranksters’ preferred art form was the conversation. Conversation, Cassady’s nonstop monologues in particular, simply flows, and to go with the flow is to escape the confines of convention and to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary (another comic-book superhero motif). It is the experience, not the expression, which matters, the entry into that higher reality, out of space, out of time, where everything exists synchronically, “in sync.” For some, the question was how far to go with the flow. Of one woman, Wolfe writes, “She had gone with the flow. She had gone stark raving mad,” a line which appropriately echoes that archskeptic, Henry Adams, who had nearly a century earlier claimed that the flow (of energy) led inevitably to madness and entropy, in other words to death. For Wolfe, the question is a bit different: “How to tell it?” (“it” again being the...

(The entire section is 958 words.)