Pranksters run loose across the country, reversing the journey West by heading east, unsettling what was settled. The future advertised at the 1964 New York World’s Fair: that was the destination toward which the Pranksters drove. Yet the Fair was just a ploy. They were also heading to New York for the launch of Kesey’s second novel Sometimes a Great Notion. With their doors of perception “cleansed,” however, the Fair appeared to them as it was: lame. The future as designed by clueless technocrats. And just as the Fair was a bummer, so was Millbrook. So they drove home and, as if in reply to the Fair, launched a series of “blissful counterstrokes”: the Acid Tests and the Trips Festival.
Noisemakers announce the arrival of a new year. Let us breathe sighs of relief at 2020’s passing. The year ended with word of a final casualty: hiphop legend MF DOOM. Let this new year be a year of healing. Let portals open onto novel developments: new courses, new branches of study. What’s this talk about time travel, for instance, in the recent Avengers film, Avengers: Endgame? Dr. Strange makes an appearance — as he will again in due course, in the course I teach this spring. Marvel characters invaded the American national-popular imaginary in conjunction with popularization of psychedelics in the 1960s. Early psychonauts like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were, as Tom Wolfe notes, “Super Kids,” turned on by a mix of peyote and Captain Marvel. Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics might speak to this conjuncture. And for magic, let us read Alan Moore’s Promethea.
I circle back as in a refrain toward M.C. Richards, her theme “the act of centering” returning again amid radical declarations, revolutionary self-fashionings, “Movement” speeches, street writings, prison writings, books like Abbie Hoffman’s Woodstock Nation and John Sinclair’s Guitar Army. The personal was fused with the political for these authors. They took psychedelic civil disobedience as locally staged stoned action and amplified it via seizure of airwaves, campuses, streets, courts of law. Kesey and the Pranksters did something similar a few years earlier, though without the militant intent. Theirs was more of a traveling roadshow, coast-to-coast trips across America, La Honda to New York and back. Minds changing themselves on the road, and in so doing, changing the minds of others.
What does it mean in allegorical terms to be either “on the bus” or “off the bus” among Ken Kesey’s group the Merry Pranksters during their cross-country acid trip, the one Tom Wolfe reconstructs for readers in his “New Journalism” classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? It’s the difference between riding with experience, perhaps, and resisting it. Kesey wanted people to ride with it. “No one was to rise up negative about anything,” writes Wolfe, “one was to go positive with everything — go with the flow — everyone’s cool was to be tested, and to shout No, no matter what happened, was to fail” (Wolfe 84). No more uptight, defensive reactivity. Each of us, instead, like the bus a recording device traveling the open road of what Wolfe calls “the true America” (Wolfe 85). Judgment under these conditions appears an arbitrary imposition, as when I set aside Wolfe and peek into Michael Davidson’s “Tale of Cybernetic Buddhism,” The Karma Machine (1975), a novel I discovered while perusing the shelves of used bookstores during a recent trip to San Francisco. This is a book in which the whole world sleeps, a group of revolutionaries called the Geneva Society having bombarded their fellow humans with “Delta-waves,” so as to prepare a critical operation, a utopian intervention to cure the species of “the disease which afflicts it: mortal fear” (Davidson 104). The revolutionaries pitch this as a “democratic exercise,” as they gather “representatives of the common people” to determine the cure. Heads of state are kidnapped and made to carry out the directives of this “people’s assembly.” One of the revolutionaries, a scientist named Strastnik, tells those gathered, “You are absolutely secure, but you are also completely confined. In brief, you are back in the womb, the womb of history! And you are a new conception! May you prove an immaculate one” (Davidson 105). Before reading further, I set down the book, sit Indian-style and meditate. Vibrant experiences of reciprocity are what I seek in order to feel in a new, delightfully intense way. Experiences of ecstatic contact between self and world. Let love lift us through enlargements of perspective, revealing in this way “the pattern that connects.” Eros, a longing both individuated and attached, free and determined simultaneously. Touching the world and being touched by it in return.
How did Ken Kesey and his psychedelic community the Merry Pranksters re-imagine reality through their use of the phrase “the current fantasy”? How does one determine one’s fantasy? Surely it’s by performing these fantasies collectively — in groups, with others. In today’s performance, let us imagine ourselves as psychedelic detectives, researching Michael Bowen and Gary Goldhill, figures Tom Wolfe references as members of the League for Spiritual Discovery in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Goldhill was an English head who worked for the BBC, Wolfe says, until he took some magic mushrooms in San Miguel de Allende, and in so doing discovered “the Management and gave up all, all the TV BBC game and dedicated himself to The Life” (Wolfe 361). Time to dive back into this thing, no? Symbols trigger recollection of forgotten knowledge. They cure us of our amnesia. We realize reality is a hologram — Philip K. Dick’s “Black Iron Prison.” A military coup d’état occurred on 11/22/63. Our duty now is to unravel belief in the frame.