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.
Take the load off the self and place it on The Band (or, due to licensing issues, a band called Smith). The Easy Rider soundtrack remains for me a peak moment in 60s psychedelia. Despite decades having passed since its release, it still managed to turn me on to revolution and liberation when I first encountered it while rifling through my parents’ LP collection as a teenager in the 1990s. I picture every time while hearing it beautiful, peaceful people relaxing in nature. Let’s lie barefoot in the grass passing a joint. Fuck the system. Simply turn from it and walk away. Such has been my conception of Utopia ever since. Angel-headed hipsters singing, banging tambourines, harmonizing under umbrellas in a rainstorm, committing themselves eternally to growth and becoming. Tom Wolfe calls this ideal “Edge City” in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: a place where “it was scary, but people were whole people” (50). Theaters there play movies like Hellzapoppin featuring American midcentury comedy duo Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson. (Wolfe died, by the way, this past May. In a final interview with Rolling Stone in 2017, he insisted he never tried LSD.)
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.