Ken Kesey, graduating college in Oregon with several wrestling championships and a creative writing degree, made a classic mistake: he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to find himself. He rented a house in Palo Alto (this was the 1950s, when normal people could have houses in Palo Alto) and settled down to write the Great American Novel.
To make ends meet, he got a job as an orderly at the local psych hospital. He also ran across some nice people called “MKULTRA” who offered him extra money to test chemicals for them. As time went by, he found himself more and more disillusioned with the hospital job, finding his employers clueless and abusive. But the MKULTRA job was going great! In particular, one of the chemicals, “LSD”, really helped get his creative juices flowing. He leveraged all of this into his Great American Novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and became rich and famous overnight.
He got his hands on some extra LSD and started distributing it among his social scene – a mix of writers, Stanford graduate students, and aimless upper-class twenty-somethings. They all agreed: something interesting was going on here. Word spread. 1960 San Francisco was already heavily enriched for creative people who would go on to shape intellectual history; Kesey’s friend group attracted the creme of this creme. Allan Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, and Wavy Gravy passed through; so did Neil Cassady (“Dean Moriarty”) Jack Keroauc’s muse from On The Road. Kesey hired a local kid and his garage band to play music at his acid parties; thus began the career of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.
Sometime in the early 1960s, too slow to notice right away, they transitioned from “social circle” to “cult”. Kesey bought a compound in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, an hour’s drive from SF. Beatniks, proto-hippies, and other seekers – especially really attractive women – found their way there and didn’t leave. Kesey and his band, now calling themselves “the Merry Pranksters”, accepted all comers. They passed the days making psychedelic art (realistically: spraypainting redwood trees Day-Glo yellow), and the nights taking LSD in massive group therapy sessions that melted away psychic trauma and the chains of society and revealed the true selves buried beneath (realistically: sitting around in a circle while people said how they felt about each other).
What were Kesey’s teachings? Wrong question – what are anyone’s teachings? What were Jesus’ teachings? If you really want, you can look in the Bible and find some of them, but they’re not important. Any religion’s teachings, enumerated bloodlessly, sound like a laundry list of how many gods there are and what prayers to say. The Merry Pranksters were about Kesey, just like the Apostles were about Jesus. Something about him attracted them, drew them in, passed into them like electricity. When he spoke, you might or might not remember his words, but you remembered that it was important, that Something had passed from him to you, that your life had meaning now. Would you expect a group of several dozen drug-addled intellectuals in a compound in a redwood forest to have some kind of divisions or uncertainty? They didn’t. Whenever something threatened to come up, Kesey would say —the exact right thing—-, and then everyone would realize they had been wrong to cause trouble.
But what were Kesey’s teachings? Oh, fine. He talked a lot about movies. Everyone had a movie. The cops had a cop movie, businessmen had a businessman movie, trauma victims had trauma victim movies. Everyone was just reading their script, doing what was expected of them. But with enough enlightenment (realistically: drugs), you could break out of other people’s movies – not just refusing to play the part they assigned you, but making them question the role they assigned themselves. You could rewrite your own movie, stop being an actor and take control of your own life. That woman in the picture, who put the flower in the barrel of the gun as the riot police stared her on: she was channeling Kesey. The riot police have their riot police movie, where you either back off or fight against them or do some other reasonable riot-police-related thing. If you can break out of that, just be yourself, your repetoire of possible actions expands to infinity.
There was some big New York celebration of Ken Kesey’s second novel. The Merry Pranksters decided to make a road trip out of it. They got a school bus, painted it in crazy psychedelic colors, set the destination plaque on the front to “Further”, and all crammed aboard. Neil Cassady took the wheel; everyone else got super high on drugs, dressed up in the craziest costumes they could think of, crowded around the windows and on the roof, and set out on a quest to deprogram everyone in middle America (realistically: shout at them and act crazy). For a five thousand mile round trip, they abused every drug known to man, had wild sex, played pranks (in Arizona, they pretended to be a campaign stunt for ultraconservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater), and generally bonded. A couple of people predictably went psychotic and had to be let off at local mental hospitals, but as Kesey’s gnomic proverb went, “you’re either on the bus or off the bus”.
By the time they got back to their California compound, they had become legends. Various gurus and counterculture figures came to seek audiences with Kesey; they all left convinced that something had happened, even if they couldn’t put it into words. The Hell’s Angels, notorious for crashing hippie parties and then fucking everyone up, came to Kesey’s compound, and Kesey…somehow socially hacked them. They ended up behaving like perfect gentlemen the whole time, then left promising to play support for Kesey if he ever needed it. Kesey got invited to speak at a Unitarian meeting on the evolving counterculture. Somehow he…hacked…the Unitarians, so that all of the younger attendees (and some of the older ones) were following Keseyism and not Unitarianism by the end of the conference.
(you can make jokes about “what’s the difference?”, but I don’t know enough history to know if Unitarianism was its current ultraliberal hippieish self at the time, or how much of that is actually because of Kesey hacking their conference)
The Bay Area counterculture was going to unite for a giant anti-Vietnam rally. They were going to march on the military base! They were going to start a revolution! They invited Kesey as their speaker, and Kesey decided he would hack their movie. He repainted his bus in military camo, then covered it in swastikas. At the head of a literal battalion of military-uniformed, swastika-bearing Merry Pranksters, he marched onto stage and declared that protesting a war was much like fighting in a war, in the sense that either way you were playing the war movie. He was going to do something different. He was going to play “Home On The Range” on his harmonica on stage, for no reason, until the organizers forced him to stop. Which they couldn’t do, because he was surrounded by loyal cultists doing a pretty good army imitation. So in the midst of what was supposed to be the beginning of a violent revolution, a swastika-clad Kesey stood on stage and played “Home On The Range” on his harmonica, until everyone got confused and dispersed.
Energy started to build. Kesey couldn’t be stopped. His momentum was too strong. It was one thing after another. The Beatles started making clearly Kesey-inspired albums. All the hip people of San Francisco begged him to lead them, show them the way forward. Kesey obliged. He started holding a series of parties – first small, then gradually larger – called Acid Tests. Everyone would take LSD. But not just LSD. The LSD would be modulated, amplified a thousand times by every bit of technology and ingenuity the Merry Pranksters could dream up. Strobe lights, black lights, surround-sound, the true multimedia experience. Kesey had invented the rave. The Grateful Dead, now his official cult band, followed him everywhere. Owsley Stanley, a weird scientific prodigy who at one point was personally responsible for synthesizing the majority of the world’s LSD, became his audio guy, and invented large swathes of modern audio processing. They were doing things light-years beyond what anyone had done before, and they were doing it at scale: 6,000 people attended one 1966 Acid Test.
Finally, Caiaphas and the Pharisees decided they had seen enough. The police swooped down. LSD was legal at the time, but the Merry Pranksters were using so many other illegal drugs that it didn’t matter. Kesey was arrested on marijuana charges, potentially carrying a long prison sentence. He decided to do the same thing any reasonable person would: fake his suicide and flee to Mexico.
It went badly. The fake suicide was spotted almost immediately, because Kesey couldn’t resist writing an overly dramatic, slightly hilarious suicide note. Also, without Kesey’s stabilizing presence, the Merry Pranksters immediately fell to backstabbing and infighting. Kesey’s St. Peter figure, Ken Babbs, tried his hardest to hold everything together, but despite some victories (for example, inventing the concept of spiking Kool-Aid with LSD) it all collapsed. Everyone decided that life without Kesey wasn’t worth living, boarded their highly conspicuous psychedelic bus, and crossed the Mexican border to hunt him down. The police noticed this and sent their own agents to Mexico to hunt him down (what’s the Spanish for “did any of you see a bus painted bright rainbow colors full of screaming half-naked people pass through here recently?”). Also, somehow some hot hippie girls who were into Kesey managed to track him down, which did not bode well for his concealment from police. There followed a complicated Mexican manhunt which at one point involved Kesey jumping onto a moving train.
Finally Kesey realized: he’s in their movie. The cops-and-fugitive movie. He’s got to break out of that frame. So he dresses as a cowboy, gets on a horse, crosses the border back into America through some sort of cowboys-do-what-they-want exemption, and goes back to San Francisco. There he becomes the most public fugitive in the history of crime, speaking at various hippie events, attending various concerts, and giving interviews to the press – always disappearing just before the police arrived. His fame shoots past the stratosphere and into the Outer Empyrean.
Finally, inevitably, the police nab him. He’s still very rich from his Cuckoo’s Nest royalties, so he gets great lawyers who are able to bargain down to a minor marijuana charge. As icing on the cake, Kesey gives a speech. He says that, during his time in Mexico, he’s realized that it’s time to go “beyond LSD”. The judge is intrigued. During Kesey’s absence, hippiedom has grown from a small avante-garde to a giant movement, and become Public Enemy #1 in the eyes of the law. And here’s the Chief Hippie himself, saying what sort of sounds like “kids shouldn’t do drugs”. This is good enough for them! They let him out on bail for the one minor marijuana charge he still has going, on the condition that he preach his “beyond LSD” message to vulnerable youth.
(is it just me, or might the San Francisco legal system contain some of the stupidest people in the whole of human history?)
Kesey calls in all his favors. He rents one of the biggest concert halls in the Bay Area. He books the Grateful Dead. He calls forth the Hell’s Angels. He tells everyone – everyone to be there. He is going to tell them how to go beyond LSD and usher in the New Project. They are going to have the Acid Test Graduation, where the greatest Acid Test of all time transitions seamlessly into some grand post-LSD future that Kesey has planned.
Except – people like LSD. They like being hippies. They like taking drugs, then talking about how this is totally going to be the next stage of human evolution, man, if only the squares could see it. They like having sex with the torrent of hot women who are coming to the 1960s Bay Area to have sex with hippie guys. The famous hippie rock bands like being famous hippie rock bands. The wacky hippie philosophers like being wacky hippie philosophers. If Jesus Christ held a Second Coming in 1200 AD, and asked everyone to gather in Jerusalem for further instructions, would they go? Maybe the Pope likes being the Pope. Maybe bishops like being bishops. Maybe they don’t want to move to the next stage.
And so Kesey is betrayed. The Grateful Dead have another engagement. The concert hall is – oops – otherwise occupied. The financial backers are mysteriously low on cash. What should have been the crowning event of everything gets unceremoniously cancelled, “with no time left to start again”.
So Kesey says fuck it, he’ll do it all from an abandoned warehouse owned by the Pranksters. No music, no fancy lights, no crowds. Just whoever still holds the faith and wants to come and listen.
They come. Not everybody, but some people. The people who know. The hippest of the hip, the ones who haven’t abandoned the cause.
Kesey gets up on stage, faces all of them, and…
…just kind of rambles for an hour or two. Mumble mumble beyond LSD mumble. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Kenneth E. Kesey has lost the Mandate of Heaven. Maybe he left it in Mexico, during the chaos of flight. Maybe it got beaten out of him by the cops, or extracted from him in jail. Maybe it slunk away in shame when all his friends betrayed him. But it’s not there. It’s gone.
A few months later, he goes to trial on his minor marijuana charge. He gets six months in jail, about the usual punishment for a charge like that. He spends six months in jail. Then he moves back to Oregon. He lives there in relative obscurity for another thirty years, writing occasional short stories and giving occasional interviews to reporters and historians.
There, I saved you from having to read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Tom Wolfe is as famous as they get. And the book jacket claims that EKAAT “defined a generation”. I couldn’t stand it. Wolfe is trying to do some kind of experimental fiction where he portrays the Merry Pranksters in the style of an LSD trip. But I don’t want my nonfiction novels to have the style of an LSD trip. I want them to just tell me the piece of history they’re supposed to be about. Wolfe is a great writer, journalist, and historian. When he wants to, he can draw out exactly what’s so fascinating and amazing about this incredible piece of history. But in order to get to those moments, I have to read through prose like:
EXCEPT FOR HAGEN’S GIRL, THE BEAUTY WITCH. IT SEEMS LIKE she never even gets off the bus to cop a urination. She’s sitting back in the back of the bus with nothing on, just a blanket over her lap and her legs wedged back into the corner, her and her little bare breasts, silent, looking exceedingly witch-like. Is she on the bus or off the bus? She has taken to wearing nothing but the blanket and she sheds that when she feels like it. Maybe that is her thing and she is doing her thing and wailing with it and the bus barrels on off, heading for Houston, Texas, and she becomes Stark Naked in the great movie, one moment all conked out, but with her eyes open, staring, the next laughing and coming on, a lively Stark Naked, and they are all trying to just snap their fingers to it but now she is getting looks that have nothing to do with the fact that she has not a thing on, hell, big deal, but she is now waxing extremely freaking ESP. She keeps coming up to somebody who isn’t saying a goddamn thing and looking into his eyes with the all-embracing look of total acid understanding, our brains are one brain, so let’s visit, you and I, and she says: ‘Ooooooooh, you really thinkthat, I know what you mean, but do you-u-u-u-u-u-u-u- ueeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” — finishing off in a sailing trémulo laugh as if she has just read your brain and !t is the weirdest of the weird shit ever, your brain eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee —
in a black blanket —
Reaching out for herself,
she woke up one morning to
find herself accosted on all
surrounding her threatening her
with their voices, their presence, their always
desire reaching inside herself
and touching her obscenely upon her
desire and causing her to laugh
with the utter
of it. . .
— but no one denied her a moment of it, neither the conked-out bug-eyed paranoia nor the manic keening coming on, nobody denied her, and she could wail, nobody tried to cool that inflamed brain that was now seeping out Stark Naked into the bouncing goddamn — stop it! — currents of the bus throgging and roaring 70 miles an hour into Texas, for it was like it had been ordained, by Kesey himself, back in San Juan Capistrano, like there was to be a reaction scale in here, from negative to positive, and no one was to rise up negative about anything, 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.
I am not against experimental fiction. But I wish people would restrict the experimental fiction to bad books, so that it isn’t in the way of me learning actually interesting stuff.
One thing I did appreciate about Wolfe was that he really knew his anthropology of religion. This thing, where one guy suddenly starts radiating this sense of knowing, and then a knot of disciples forms around him, and then predictable consequences ensue: this has happened again and again in human history. If I’d had to read this same story, written by someone who didn’t realize he was writing about a trope – didn’t realize that instead of an indiscriminate catalogue of events, he should focus on the way this illuminates the general principle, or differs from it – it would have been annoying. Instead, Wolfe gets it exactly right.
I’m less convinced Kesey understood what was going on. At one point (p. 193) he says:
We’re not on the Christ Trip. That’s been done, and it doesn’t work. You prove your point, and then you have 2,000 years of war. We know where that trip goes.
But it’s never clear exactly what he’s doing to avoid that trip. And although there are worse problems to have than “failed to sufficiently differentiate yourself from Jesus”, this is about the limit of Kesey’s self-awareness – at least as described in this book. It’s weird to think that a prophet’s biographer knows more about religion than the prophet themselves, but that’s the impression I walked away with. If Tom Wolfe had started a cult, it would have gone somewhere.
A few years ago, I reviewed PIHKaL on Alexander Shulgin. Shulgin and Kesey are twin titans of modern drug culture: Shulgin invented the drugs, Kesey invented the culture.
Why care about Bay Area drug culture? One could give Captain Barbossa’s answer: “You better start caring about Bay Area drug culture, Miss Turner: you’re in it!” I don’t really use psychedelics myself, but I have a couple of patients – and a few acquaintances – who are on the Kesey trip. Some of them have taken the Kesey trip all the way to the psych hospital and the borders of schizophrenia. Others still think they’re making new discoveries, getting closer to the place Kesey called Edge City where you can gaze off the end of the world into the mysteries beyond. Even beyond my own social circle, it’s unclear how much the world in general owes Bay Area drug culture. A lot of important movements – environmentalism, meditation, wellness, vegetarianism, antipsychiatry – trace at least some of their origins to that strange froth. Over thirty million Americans have taken psychedelics – probably disproportionately intellectuals and creative people. If the drug actually changes people’s minds, in some important way, then that’s a big deal. If some alien supercomputer had been simulating world history from Mesopotamia onward, would its predictions start going haywire sometime in the 1960s? Would the alien programmers charged with debugging it eventually find that money, power, and the other usual suspects had sufficed before then – but that afterwards the simulation needed to include some very specific aspects of mushroom biochemistry?
Or one could give H.G. Wells’ answer: “New and stirring things are belittled because if they are not belittled the humiliating question arises ‘Why then are you not taking part in them?”. One of two things must be true. Either psychedelics are a unique gateway to insight and happiness, maybe the most powerful ever discovered. Or they have a unique ability to convince people that they are, faking insight as effectively as heroin fakes happiness. Either one would be fascinating: the first for obvious reasons, the second because it convinces some pretty smart people. If the insight of LSD were fake, its very convincingness could tell us a lot about the mind and about how rationality works.
The story of Ken Kesey doesn’t do much to clarify the situation. On the one hand, Kesey becomes a very successful cult leader, attracting some of the most creative people of his era. He is able to accomplish larger-than-life feats like taming the Hell’s Angels, escaping the FBI, and inventing modern party culture. Everyone who meets him ends up enchanged, terrified, or both. This sounds like the sort of thing we would expect of someone who’s successfully developed Secret Wisdom Into The True Nature Of Things.
On the other hand, Kesey’s followers are unable to replicate his success. Kesey tries to communicate what he has to his followers; first out of basic desire to help, and later because he knows he’s going to have to flee to Mexico and leave them on their own. He handpicks his successor, Ken Babbs, who is respected and liked by the rest of the Pranksters. But the moment he leaves, everything collapses. Tom Wolfe lampshades this quite cruelly. Every grudge, conflict, and personal failing comes out into the open, and the whole movement comes tumbling down. Then when Kesey’s back on bail, he picks up the pieces, says just the right words to everybody, and they all come together again as if nothing happened. Then he’s out again, and everything collapses a second time. The impression one gets is that Ken Kesey is a special person, with LSD playing a supporting role at best. Did LSD help give Ken Kesey his powers? Unclear. Did it give anything at all similar to the dozens of other bright people who took it under Kesey’s supervision? Clearly not. But then what made Kesey special? Did he have a unique Book Four style experience? When? How come I just read his entire biography and don’t see anything of the sort?
And what are we to make of Kesey’s own exhortation that seekers needed to move “beyond LSD”? What was his Acid Test Graduation? I don’t know if Wolfe’s impenetrable writing style failed me here, or if Kesey was inherently unclear on this. There were hints that maybe he thought some of the paraphernalia of drug culture – the strobe lights, the acid rock music, the multimedia experience – could produce the psychedelic state without needing drugs. Seems pretty false.
And what is the whole “mandate of heaven” thing? This is my term; Wolfe didn’t make such a big deal of it. But reading the book, it really does seem as if at some point after his bail, Kesey lost his effectiveness. He tried to draw people in and they didn’t come. He tried to change everything but it wouldn’t change. Then he gave up, moved to Oregon, and did approximately nothing for the next thirty years.
The best I can do in making sense of this story is to think of Kesey as having unique innate talents that made him a potential cult leader, combined with the sudden rise in status from being a famous author and the first person in his social scene with access to LSD. Despite the connotations of “cult leader”, Kesey was overall a good person, genuinely wanted to help people’s spiritual development, and genuinely thought LSD could do this. LSD formed the content of his cult, the same way Messianic Judaism formed the content of Jesus’ cult. It also made his life easier because of the drug’s natural tendency to make people think they are having important insights. When he, attempting to genuinely discover a spiritual path, decided to change the content and go beyond LSD, he lost that crutch, his people betrayed him, he became less confident in himself, and eventually he gave up.
But it’s interesting how often malevolent cult leaders have turned to drugs since then – so often that I see it listed in some lists of cult warning flags. It’s especially surprising since we usually think of LSD as helping people break out of systems of mental control – why would you give it to somebody you’re trying to brainwash? One hypothesis that I think Wolfe points at in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is that LSD keeps you constantly convinced you’re on the verge of some great revelation that will change everything. This both makes you more skeptical of everyday society – they don’t have the revelation! – and more vulnerable to spiritual predators, who can say that yes, they have the great revelation, and if only you follow them for a little longer you might get it too.
Kesey rode this wave innocently, carried on by the same hopes as his followers. Some benevolent god judged him mercifully and granted him a quiet retirement writing short stories in the woods of Oregon, which is a lot better than how these stories usually end. I’m more nervous about anyone who tries the same strategy today.
I was about to comment on this too. I hope they fix the formatting soon. The narrow column makes it very annoying to read.
I suspect the unclosed italics also led to the column width error.
Scott, the issue is that you italicized the book title with link and never closed that tag; just adding a closing </i> there will suffice.
Thanks. That was very interesting and I appreciate not having to read the book myself now.
Scott expands my consciousness through books-I-never-would-have-read, man.
I don’t mind experimental so long as it’s comprehensible – I haven’t read the book, but in the quoted passage Wolfe seems to stay on the right side of the line.
I’m sure the formatting screwups will get fixed, also I noticed three typos as I was reading but upon rereading can only find this one:
should be “By the time they got back…”
Anyways, interesting take on the book. I read it in my dirty hippie days (late 90’s) and was much more positively receptive to it. But it was written for people like me.
I think one thing that struck me as genuine wisdom in Kesey’s “graduation” idea was his point (vehemently contested by Owsley, among others) that if LSD was a door (think Huxley’s Doors of Perception), then you should take that metaphor seriously. And why would you keep going through the same door again and again?
There is an answer that nobody gave to that, namely that we all go through the doors of our houses again and again. But Kesey and the other 60’s acid-heads thought of themselves as on a journey, in which case it makes sense: why would you re-start your journey over and over? If there’s an insight, a harmony, to be obtained from LSD, then once you’ve gotten it, move on.
I think the idea Scott gives of LSD as a sense-of-profundity generator is pretty much on the nose: everything feels deep, man. Which is great when you’re actually engaged in thinking about something deep, perhaps less so when you’re actually staring at tinfoil or whatever. And can be downright psychologically dangerous when you’re contemplating something negative and paranoid.
There’s a scene in a biography of Arthur Koestler (can’t remember the title) where he stops by one of Huxley’s acid sessions in California. They’re all listening to some Beethoven and feeling how deep and profound it is in their bones, but his takeaway was that he would have felt that anything was just as profound, and thus Koestler avoided becoming a proto-hippie. (Then again, this was right around when he moved away from being one of the few prominent strongly anti-communist leftists to becoming obsessed with parapsychology and other bullshit, so… eh.)
Personal experience, not really that relevant:
I did a bit of acid in my late teens and 20s (perhaps 15 times or so, nothing like Kesey et al), and haven’t felt the need to go back for many years (although honestly I kind of feel like it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some again in the nearish future, I took some magic mushrooms for the first time in many years last year and it was pretty great). Everything was super profound, though I have trouble remembering most of the specifics. It can a helpful tool for therapy, I believe, simply because it helps you actually listen to what people (including yourself) are saying, and if you’re with people you trust and who have your best interests at heart, it can be a great catalyst. That being said, I firmly believe that there is no particular insight that drugs of any kind are necessary for, though there are plenty that they can help with.
I had a somewhat classic “bad trip” that had effects that spilled over into the rest of my life for a good three or four years. (It would take a very long time to explain remotely accurately, but I wasn’t a wreck for all that time or anything, just there were echoes that had an occasional impact in my sober life, and more frequent fucking terrifying echoes when I smoked weed, which was 1-3 times a week back then. I kind of fixed it through semi-rational thinking, too, which is the only case I can think of in my life where I actually changed myself for the better deliberately.)
Is it because i am a coward that I find it super hard to reconcile this
No that’s a fair point.
Mostly I think the context, circumstances and emotional state which led to it happening are so far in my past that I’m not particularly worried about it any more. And even if I did have some moments of raw existential terror or whatever, I think I would be able to deal with it once it had passed.
But perhaps I’ll hold off for a while longer.
It’s fun to read this and then read The Right Stuff, which is in one sense about exactly the same thing (transformative Sixties cultural figures) and in another about exactly the opposite (incredibly intense military test pilots-cum-astronauts, not laid-back hippies).
As a low-key project, I’ve been been trying for a while to grok the stuff happening in the Sixties and Seventies, since I think most of the groundwork for our current culture was laid there. Tom Wolfe was about as well-placed as anyone to capture it, but I didn’t feel like I got a lot out of deep understanding out of either book and especially out of Electric Kool-Aid… — it’s too close, too personal. I come out of it feeling like I’ve made friends with the people it covers, but not that I’ve learned anything about what makes their subculture tick. Plenty of the kind of stuff you learn about your buddies at 2 AM after six beers, but that’s just trees and I still feel like there’s a forest out there.
I think it helps a lot to read a few of the books that were actually the drivers of the movements. E.g. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to pick the obvious one, just about any of Alan Watts’ works (I think the best might be Tao, The Watercourse Way, thought that was actually posthumous and not influential in the way that The Way of Zen was), and something like Hoffman’s Steal This Book.
They’re all trees, but knowing enough of those helps you get a better picture of the forest.
Listening to the careers of artists like The Beatles helps too, seeing their shift that happens after they decide to jump on the hippie bandwagon.
I’m not sure of the best forest-level works, though.
One novel that I thought gave me something of a “feel” for the Sixties was American Pastoral by Roth. (It’s really only about the intense social activism of the day, though, not about the LSD idea.) I wasn’t there, so maybe it doesn’t actually capture it, but the Boomers who lived through it gave it great reviews.
I am generally not that fond of Roth but thought this was a great book.
I thought that was a glorious portmanteau of enchanted and changed.
I saw it in the mould of ’embiggen’ (which, I’ve read since, genuinely is a perfectly cromulent word, it exists in some old text)
I can’t find it now, but I remember reading that embiggen started as an example of an uncromulent word. Somebody wrote something in Latin and made up a Latin word- essentially the Latin version of embiggen. Then someone else criticized it, saying (more or less), “Yes, it’s clear what you mean, but it sounds dumb; as if you had written ’embiggen’ in English.”
Found it! Greek, not Latin. Also, Wikipedia says the Simpsons writers didn’t know that someone else had already used the word, which is entirely plausible for a word that appeared once in 1884.
“New Verbs. – I am not going to try to settle the question started by Mr. Walford. I believe it beyond the power of Prof. Skeat or any other scholar or grammarian to settle what substantive, or even adjective, shall be turned into a verb when the many-mouthed beast takes it into its head to make one. Umpired, in the sense of of a launch that carries the umpire, is assuredly not a good coinage. But is there much danger of its going beyond the boating slang of the river? I think not. Cricket has its slang; football has its slang; and lawn tennis has its genteel slang. But fresh slang coming up destroys old slang, and it is this we must look to, and not to grammarians, to rid the dictionaries of the jargon that “neweth every day.” Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? [Greek text], but the people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly. After all, use is nearly everything.
The Greek is “ἀλλ’ ἐμεγάλυνεν αὐτοὺς ὁ λαός” (all’ emegalunen autous ho laos) which is from Acts 5.13. The sentence literally means “but the people made them big.”
The word that he translates as “embiggen” is “ἐμεγάλυνεν” (emegalunen) which is a form of μεγαλύνω (megaluno). It’s a combination of the root μεγαλ- (megal-) “big” and the suffix -υνω (-uno) “to make something X” so “embiggen” makes sense.
The word is pretty common in New Testament Greek and, according to the dictionary entry, it dates to at least the classical period. I’m not really sure what makes it barbarous, nothing about the verb strikes me as ugly.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum:
My soul doth embiggen the Lord.
The weirdest part of the story for me is how small a life Kesey settled for in the end. It’s as though Steve Jobs, after being ousted from Apple, had decided to become a monthly columnist for Dr. Dobb’s and nothing more. Given what Kesey was able to do with the Merry Pranksters, you’d think he would have wanted some larger (though respectable) role in his later years.
Perhaps that was the point. Once you have achieved ataraxia, no more need to strive or search:
Well, sure. I can understand that some people get to a point where they are Done. Finished. Complete. My own father is almost there now.
But it seems strange to me that that point should be surprisingly wealthy but increasingly obscure writer of short fiction residing in the Oregon backwoods. For anyone.
I don’t know, that sounds pretty nice to me. Financial security, retirement in what I understand to be some of the nicest scenery & forests in the world, enormous status in your particular subculture, and the freedom to dink around with whatever minor projects amuse you without ever going through the struggle of Making A Major Statement. (Actually, sounds almost exactly like Frank Herbert post-Dune, with the minor difference that it was Washington, not Oregon.) Making enough money to retire to the backwoods describes many peoples’ ideal life, and is a time-honored pattern in commerce: make money in the city, retire to the estate.
Definitely an ideal situation, but it must have been hard to watch his ducklings continue in a different direction than he wanted. The review (or maybe the book) was unclear if he really stopped believing in LSD or whether he was just trying to keep out of legal trouble.
Yeah… I have to admit, if I was independently wealthy, I’d move to the middle of the desert, and build weird cars. mostly in the post-apocalyptic genre.
That part wasn’t obvious from Scott’s review, and I think it makes a big difference. It’s one thing to be living in a nice cabin in the wilderness and receiving a steady stream of idolizing visitors (especially if really attractive women), invitations to speak at events, etc. A completely different thing to be living in a nice cabin in the wilderness, knowing that you are unwelcome among those who used to idolize you, uninvited to their events, and can’t afford to travel about crashing their parties anyway. If Kesey’s post-LSD life approximated the former, then yes, that’s a pretty good retirement. i was thinking Late Heinlein rather than Late Herbert, but either one works so long as a subset of your old fans are still actively fannish.
Kesey did what many ex-hippies did and returned to his old life, which in his case was writing fiction set around the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately he never came close to matching his early successes.
I think (this is very much me reading between the lines and extrapolating from TEKAAT) he genuinely realized that continuing down the path he had set for himself would do more harm than good, and that there was little or nothing he could do in the public eye that would be helpful. So he just stopped. It happens.
And living a quiet life in the backwoods is the dream of a lot of people. I’d imagine he’s had enough confused youngsters coming to visit him on pilgrimages, some of them insanely hot women, to keep feeding his ego.
It does make me think that something passed out of him shortly after he returned from Mexico.
It seems to me that LSD type drugs should be described as overstimulating the “belief circuitry” of the brain. Similarly to how Meth works on desire and drive and MDMA works on social connection, it strengthens the feelings and removes the barriers to forming new associations of the type that would would normally be blocked/discarded by inhibitions or selection. In a sense it opens the mind to things it could think but would be blocked by the paradigms or rules constraining cognition. This would explain how it helps break people free from their “narrative” or bad mental patterns and also why people become less rooted the more they use.
After thinking about this I now want to see a sci-fi setting that uses “Synthetic Faith Injections” as social tool.
Karl Friston, of free energy fame, recently wrote a paper specifically on the topic of psychedelics. His conclusion was that they (and certain serotonin receptors in general) reduce the strength of one’s top-down priors, thus permitting more bottom-up signaling and allowing a “revision of… heavily weighted high level priors”. The analogy we always used was that LSD turns you into a toddler for a day.
Here’s a quote from the paper:
(of course, repeated “ego dissolution” can have… undesirable outcomes.)
Do you have an opinion of other Tom Wolfe works? I haven’t read this, but it sounds rather experimental. I really liked “I am Charlotte Simmons” and wonder what you (Scott, or others) think of it.
(Posted a little premature, you go on to answer the first part generally)
For what it’s worth, outside this review I’ve heard nothing but good about Wolfe.
The Right Stuff is interesting enough if you’re into NASA. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is his best novel. This NYT review is a very good encapsulation of Wolfe’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
A Man in Full has an interesting enough premise, but I really suspect that Wolfe wrote the novel entirely for the sake of one scene involving a cracker, a Jew and a horse. There’s also a big subplot involving stoicism that fails to pay off.
Back to Blood is a strange, rambling story about an unlikely friendship between a macho Cuban-American cop and a well-dressed Yalie WASP journalist (remind you of someone?) set in Miami. I tuned out completely around the point where Wolfe tells us that an art show is being attended by movie stars named Leon Decapito and Kanyu Reade and expects us to take him seriously. This book doesn’t even have a Wiki summary so I kind of wish someone would finish it just so I could find out how it ends.
Bonfire of the vanities and A Man in Full were the other two I read. In the latter I learned way more than I needed to about horse breeding, perhaps that’s what you are referring to?
The “In the Breeding Barn” chapter of the late 1990s “A Man in Full” is Wolfe’s peak as a prose stylist. I actually don’t much like his famous 1960s prose style, as seen in Kool-Aid Acid Test. I think Wolfe is a great analyst but it took him a long time to develop a great prose style and he only achieved that for part of one book.
But Wolfe was super-ambitious and worked very hard to turn himself from a famous journalist into a famous novelist. In 1972 he’d trash talked the top novelists of the era and said he could do better.
But then he found out fiction is really hard and took him a long long time. He embarrassed himself signing a contract to publish his first draft of “Bonfire” in Rolling Stone in serial form. Dickens had published his novels in magazines, so how hard could it be? But “Bonfire” wasn’t very good in “Rolling Stone,” so he totally rewrote “Bonfire,” changing the main character from a writer to a bond trader, making it far more relevant to the 1980s.
Wolfe then spent a decade on his next book, A Man In Full. He was going great guns, but with about 100 pages to go he had to have a quintuple bypass operation, which set off manic-depression, and the last 100 pages are much worse in quality.
The mark of a man living life in full.
That horse scene in A Man in Full is a little too memorable. I enjoyed the book, but don’t remember much beyond that scene. It was the thing that got me reading Epictetus, though.
I thought the banker was a well-drawn character. He had ended up with so much less than what he hoped for. It made a lot of sense he would do something desperate for a way out.
It took me a few minutes to remember the horse scene, because it’s so weird and jarring that I don’t think of it as part of the book.
I can tell you how Back to Blood ends. Macho cop solves the art forgery thing and the high school teacher thing. His ex-girlfriend ends up disgraced. He ends up with the daughter of the college professor.
One thing I’ve never understood about Wolfe — I only read Bonfire and a book of essays called “Hooking Up,” both of which are, basically, “conservative.” I’m sort of surprised that early in his career he wrote not only weird stuff but seems to have supported the weird cultures. Did he make a rightward shift?
Aren’t his novels about celebrating diversity, just like his early books?
The obvious turning point is his earliest book widely cited by the right, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), which are both about leftist activists being fake. But that doesn’t make it right-wing. It could be a left-wing lament. Similarly, he condemns the modern left idea of celebrating diversity as fake. But his late non-fiction seems conservative in a straight-forward way.
Something I’ve long wondered about is whether Tom Wolfe had CIA contacts. Perhaps he had heard about MKULTRA through friends in the CIA?
Wolfe got his Ph.D. at Yale in American Studies, which was a department closely aligned with the CIA. He later worked as a reporter for the Washington Post, another CIA-aligned institution, where he reported on Castro’s revolution in Cuba.
The CIA was always a rather literary agency: e.g., counterintelligence head James Jesus Angleton had started a literary magazine that published T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
On the other hand, as a Southern conservative, Wolfe wouldn’t have fit in with the CIA’s Northern liberal culture. The CIA, for example, promoted the abstract expressionist style of painting, which Wolfe had much fun lampooning in “The Painted Word.”
There exists a strand of American conservatism that’s proud of American culture precisely because of how crazy it is. P.J. O’Rourke is another example of this tendency.
Tom Wolfe was always conservative. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia a proud son of the Confederacy. He was proud of an ancestor who died at Gettysburg. His father was editor of the magazine “Southern Planter,” a how-to journal for the rural squirearchy.
Late in life, Wolfe let his protege Michael Lewis read his letters from his youth. Lewis noted that when Wolfe was an undergrad baseball player at Southern genteel Washington and Lee College he was a well-adjusted but slightly dull young Southern gentleman. But when he arrived at Yale for his Ph.D. in American studies, he suddenly turned into what he remained for the next 65 years: a brilliant satirist of Northern liberalism.
I loved The Bonfire of the Vanities. I found him very good at writing characters who are sympathetic even when they’re not admirable, and admire his talent for injecting dry humor into sordid situations. I haven’t read anything else of his as of yet, though.
Also, by sheer coincidence, I began reading it around the time that the Trayvon Martin fiasco hit the networks. Make of that what you will—I’m still not sure whether drawing any parallels is appropriate.
Tom Wolfe’s novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities” about the “hunt for the Great White Defendant” was published a few weeks before Tawana Brawley and Rev. Al Sharpton kicked off the contemporary hate hoax fad.
“Bonfire” is likely the most prophetic novel about America published in the last 40 years. Judge Richard Posner wrote in the mid-1990s upon rereading “Bonfire:”
“When I first read The Bonfire of the Vanities … it just didn’t strike me as the sort of book that has anything interesting to say about the law or any other institution…. I now consider that estimate of the book ungenerous and unperceptive. The Bonfire of the Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of thing we attribute to Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the American legal system.
“The book was written before Michael Milken was convicted and Clark Clifford indicted; before investment bankers and securities brokers were dragged, crying, in handcuffs from their offices on charges of criminal fraud that often turned out to be unsubstantiated; before courthouses became scenes of violence; before the Tawana Brawley fraud; before the trials of the police who beat up Rodney King; before the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal in the first of those trials; before the trial of the rioters; before the indictment of O.J. Simpson. American legal justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even thought the book was written before the intersection had come into view.”
And of course “Bonfire” might be even more predictive of the 2012-? period.
And somehow the same book contained a pretty devastating depiction of rich entitled Wall Street traders that continues to inform modern critiques–if you’ve seen anyone sarcastically refer to finance guys as “Masters of the Universe”, that’s a Bonfire reference.
Wolfe is a hell of a writer.
There’s his first book of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which started off his style as the New Journalism. It’s not quite as good as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test because it’s a selection of unrelated essays and he’s just getting started, but as a historical document of the early to mid-60s it’s worth reading.
Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flack catchers is really entertaining. The Radical Chic part is really mean but in a fun way and the Mau Mauing part is very interesting sociology.
Here’s a link to the Radical Chic part: http://nymag.com/news/features/46170/
Don’t miss his hilarious history of modern architecture – From Bauhaus to Our House. Now, I can’t walk by a modern building without thinking of this book.
I tried to read EKAAT after reading Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion and loving them both. I found Wolfe’s style annoying and none of the antics described in the book seemed to shed any light on Kesey the writer.
(OTOH Kesey’s post-60’s writing is trash and Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was actually a pretty good representation of the 80’s.)
Kesey’s post-60’s writing is not worth reading, with the exception of Last Go Round, credited to Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs, 1995. It’s an excellent, semi-historical account of a long ago Pendleton rodeo, with a bit of semi-autobiography on life in Oregon back when Ken and Ken were young.
Sometimes a Great Notion is one of my favorite books ever. Cuckoo’s Nest I thought was just okay. Funny how that happens. (Liked the Bonfire of the Vanities but thought A Man in Full was his best.)
I haven’t read the book, but the movie of Sometimes a Great Notion is one of the few movies I have seen—and I still remember parts of it.
“We believe in keeping our contracts.”
“A fine philosophy—for the Nineteenth Century.”
“Do you have a better century?”
Well, that was interesting.
I was born in 1955 and lived through that era, in a university town. I was an anti-war activist starting at age 12, and supported the counterculture, but I obviously misunderstood these events.
I had and have no interest in reading TEKAAT. All these years, I assumed it was Tom Wolfe’s longform sneer at hippies.
But the excerpt you quoted implies Wolfe was right there, “on the bus”. It’s hard to imagine getting that kind of detail from interviews with participants. And it’s equally hard to imagine Wolfe sitting there as a respectable establishment journalist, a nonparticipant taking notes on everything that happened.
Wolfe wasn’t a respectable establishment journalist. He wrote for the respectable establishment, but he was a New Journalist. He wrote a lot of sneers, but I’m not sure when, maybe later. And what did he sneer at? Was it hippies, or hypocrites?
All these years, I assumed it was Tom Wolfe’s longform sneer at hippies.
Oh, it’s not a sneer. He describes events as he witnessed them and as recounted to him, but he’s a good enough journalist that he writes the story with all the bits in that let you see why the movement took off, and why it eventually had to dissipate because it simply couldn’t hold together after going mainstream.
“It’s hard to imagine getting that kind of detail from interviews with participants.”
Wolfe pointed out that his Kesey book was pretty easy for him to research and write because so many of the participants in the Acid Tests were outstanding writers themselves. For example, on the cross-country bus trip, the cult stay in Texas with Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment.
A few years ago after Kesey’s death, McMurtry married Kesey’s widow.
So it wasn’t hard for Wolfe to get a lot of literary details out of a highly literary cast of real life characters.
TEKAAT *was* Tom Wolfe’s longform sneer at hippies. Reading Scott’s review is a very disorienting experience–sort of like reading a review of “Animal Farm” that earnestly analyzes the novel’s implications for the future of animal rights. Wolfe’s novel fairly drips with contempt for the shallow, self-absorbed, decadent layabouts in Kesey’s circle, and with even more contempt for the similarly addled outsiders who celebrated it as something magnificent rather than ridiculous. TEKAAT was the precursor to most of Wolfe’s later writing, and bore a similar message: if you embrace the fashionable ideas and activities of the moment then you are a fool, and if you go one step further and actually celebrate them as wise, wonderful and enduring, then you richly deserve to be ridiculed–at eloquent, novelistic length–for your folly. Scott’s elaborate meditation on the deeper meaning of Kesey’s story, as told by Wolfe, without so much as a passing allusion to the ruthlessness of Wolfe’s scathing evisceration of it, leaves me simply flabbergasted.
It’s been a long time since I read it, but I think you’re veering way too far in the other direction. Wolfe is clearly not fully on board with Kesey et al, and there are many criticisms in the book, mostly somewhat implicit. But to claim that it’s nothing but contempt is missing the point just as much as you’re claiming Scott is.
Wow, kudos on wading through a whole book written in that style. I couldn’t make it through the exerpt because it was so unpleasant.
Anyway, as for the ‘Mandate of Heaven,’ it seems pretty clear to me: he fought the law and the law won. “When people see a weak horse and a strong horse, they will naturally want to side with the strong horse.” Kesey had evidently stood up to a lot of people who, by all rights, he should have had to back down from and yet they were the ones who backed down. But when the state of California eventually decided not to back down and successfully strong-armed him into publicly renouncing his prior ways, that appearance of strength melted away and so did the vast majority of his followers.
From what I understand the Ottomans used to be experts in this. Rather than killing the parade of self-proclaimed prophets and messiahs who would show up in Jerusalem with their followers, they would arrest them and then trot them out to humiliatingly renounce their claims. Then, once their followers had dispersed, they would spend the rest of their lives under house arrest somewhere quiet.
Edited to add:
Also, are we sure that he ever stopped working with the CIA? All of the stuff he did or is claimed to have done makes a lot more sense if he was a CIA asset. Given his origin story with MKULTRA and how involved they were with the spread of modern art it wouldn’t be that surprising if he turned out to be a plant.
To be fair, most of the book isn’t quite that rambling. Scott just excerpted it at its stream-of-consciousness peak.
I think there’s some of that. But I also think you’re underestimating how sincere the guy was, and that he very likely didn’t want to keep leading people down a path he no longer believed in.
This, although it is unlikely he was a plant as such – after all Pollock didn’t have his work commissioned by the CIA nor was he trained to drip-paint at Langley, they just used him and others as an opportunity to promote art that could have been presented as a genuine product of a free culture that was also not politically threatening.
Maybe this was the society-scale observation stage of MKULTRA, maybe they felt it was getting out of hand and wanted to stay on top of it long enough to be in a position to contain it.
Maybe they saw an opportunity in exporting the hippie culture and its associated antimilitarist values to inspire a counterculture in a certain adversary superpower, eventually that’s what happened albeit with the mass-productized version rather than the grassroots one.
Considering that the fellow supplying hippies with LSD after Owsley Stanley was arrested, Ronald Stark, was a suspected CIA agent I don’t think it’s that far-fetched.
Stark apparently showed up to a meeting with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a hippie drug gang, with a kilo of LSD(something like 5 million doses) as proof he could deliver more. This was almost as much LSD as had been synthesized by illegal drug labs up until this point and suggests that Stark had access to commercial grade laboratories.
Stark was later arrested in Italy (while always managing to escape arrest in both the US & UK despite his co-conspirators always getting busted) and the judge presiding over the case concluded he was a CIA asset and had him deported but not before he allegedly helped organize the Red Brigade terrorist group.
Your link says that it was suspicious that Stark had so much LSD, as if he, and especially the lab, had no fear of prosecution. But it was only a few months since LSD had been banned beyond California. In particular, Owsley had had a CO lab for legal production for smuggling into CA. Maybe Stark got it from a lab that had been legal. He soon switched to a European supplier, which suggests that he was paying attention to the legal environment.
I was surprised by the source of that weak horse/strong horse quote and then I was even more surprised by the full quote
I mean it’s not surprising that Osama bin Laden was a quotable guy. Putting together and leading a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda (did the spelling change again? I remember there being a ‘u’ in there…) takes rhetorical chops.
Unfortunately, while he was an evil man I don’t think that he was wrong there. The phenomenon of seemingly-irreligious second and third generation Muslim immigrants to western nations and even some westerners flocking to join ISIS is difficult to explain without taking that perception of civilizational strength into account. Islamist militias armed with small arms and a few stolen artillery pieces radiated more strength than literal nuclear powers.
¿Alguno de ustedes vio un autobús pintado de brillantes colores del arco iris lleno de gritos semidesnudos que pasaron por aquí recientemente?
It’s worth googling images of Ken Kesey to see pictures of the bus.
Not to be confused with Kenny Chesney’s equally colorful bus, mind you.
Wait, really? The two people with buses like that are named Ken Kesey and Ken Chesney?
I wish I knew Hebrew well enough to figure out what kind of kabbalistic phenomenon is going on here.
It’s possible the modern day country singer was inspired by the ’60s party guru.
I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised when I searched ‘Kenny Chesney bus’ and found it such a suitable gag.
Can we play six degrees of separation with the two of them?
And is there any chance that Willie Nelson doesn’t appear somewhere in the middle of that chain?
I tried the Oracle of Bacon in hope of finding a link the easy way, but alas, Kenny Chesney does not seem to have any film appearances at all.
Ken Kesey, however, does. He was in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, giving him a Bacon Number of two, by way of John Hurt.
Good thought about Willie Nelson. Via movie appearances, he’s also two degrees away from Ken Kesey (via Carol Kane, who was in Gone Fishin’ with Nelson, and ECGtB with Kesey). And via song collaborations, Nelson is linked directly to Chesney: Nelson is featured in Chesney’s cover of That Lucky Old Sun.
So that’s three degrees (Kesey -> Kane -> Nelson -> Chesney). Anyone got a more direct link?
If Willie Nelson ever did a song with Jerry Garcia (which I don’t know that they did but given the longevity, total output, and uh, “cultural practices” of both of them, it’s hard to imagine they didn’t ever cross paths) it’s a much more direct link!
Quick google doesn’t show any collaborations between Garcia and Nelson, but there are plenty between Nelson and Bob Weir/Phil Lesh, also founding members of the Dead
Replying to Kenny Chesney comment):
Country music originated from bands traveling with patent medicine shows. I.e., country music was ice-cream truck music for snake-oil peddlers.
There might be an allegory in here somewhere. 🙂
There’s an obvious English correspondence – they see things beyond our ken.
Almost right, just needs a tweak:
¿Alguno de ustedes vio un autobús pintado de colores brillantes del arco iris lleno de personas semidesnudas gritando pasar por aquí recientemente?
Well, I’m certainly never paying for google translate again.
I don’t think you need to go that elaborate, just ask “Did you see some crazy North Americans pass through?” That should do it 🙂
but his takeaway was that he would have felt that anything was just as profound
But that would have been right! For example, if I just look at the stuff on my desk right now, I’m surrounded by miracles of human invention — and I don’t even mean the smartphone, I mean the pen, sunglasses nail-clippers, and car keys. Astonished gratitude is arguably the appropriate attitude toward such riches produced through the sweat and genius of generations of strangers. But you can’t go through life slack-jawed in amazement (even if, in some sense, you really should).
Sun glass nail-clippers seem like a weird combination. Probably not if you use LSD, though.
Compare to Mr Money Mustache, who writes this way all the time but AFAIK does not use acid regularly and may have a bit of a cult following. Common thread of breaking people out of their movies?
I second this. Everything, when thought about, contemplated, or perceived in the right way, is in some way profpt without limit. To see a World in a Grain of Sand and all that.
Someone here described it as LSD turning one into a toddler for a day, and in a way, that seems about right. If you watch toddlers, with their wide eyed fascination with the simplest things, everything clearly seems incredible and amazing to them.
The difference being that an adult on psychedelics still has their adult knowledge and skills, and that’s where you get Huxley tripping balls and then writing The Doors of Perception…
I am quite partial to that decreasing-weight-of-top-down-priors idea of what psychedelics do. I’ve a degree in neuroscience (though I wouldn’t currently call me a neuroscientist) and some personal experience, and it just sounds like exactly the kind of thing that would produce the experiences. I hope someone devises some clever experiments to test it at some point…
“It’s weird to think that a prophet’s biographer knows more about religion than the prophet themselves, but that’s the impression I walked away with. If Tom Wolfe had started a cult, it would have gone somewhere.”
My guess it doesn’t work that way. In order to be a prophet, you have to really be a true believer, 100% high on your own supply. Otherwise, no matter how good of an actor you are, there’d be something a little “off” that makes people not-quite believe you, at least not enough to join a religion for you. Anyone smart enough to see through the game would unable to play it properly.
Yeah, I was thinking that. Granted I don’t think he meant that too seriously, but also, I doubt that knowing much about religion really helps you start one, just like you studying human sexuality isn’t going to help you meet women. People with charisma do well at these things, and all the studying in the world isn’t going to make much of a difference.
Of course, what makes this one particularly interesting is that there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Kesey had superhuman, Christ-level “charisma” (or whatever term you want to call it) prior to LSD, or that LSD itself was able to “unlock” Christ-level “charisma” in non-Kesey individuals. The two pieces seemed to both require each other.
I would contend that, yes, studying by itself isn’t going to make much of a difference, but knowing about human sexuality and related psychology can greatly increase the success of someone who is sociable, charismatic, and/or attractive, but just has really skewed ideas of how sexuality, dating and romance work. For whatever reason.
I also believe those other factors are very much learnable skills (or can be otherwise improved, like physical attractiveness) to some extent. I think that’s mainly going to be through practice and experience, with very little “studying” involved. “Charisma” isn’t some magical superpower that is impossible to do anything about short of getting bitten by a radioactive Bill Clinton.
I’d doubt that more than a very small minority of people have the potential to attain cult- or even religion-forming levels though.
That only feels partially correct to me. Understanding how religion works doesn’t necessarily mean understanding it through a scientific-rationalist paradigm, and a fair number of religious leaders seem to be very well read on the subject (hence claiming to be the fulfillment of several world religions at once and such).
I’m not sure the causation flows the right way there. I’d figure that a strong interest in religion makes you more likely to become a prophet (still not a big likelihood, but bigger than if you weren’t interested), and also a strong interest in religion is likely to result in you reading about it.
Eh.. Mormonism. Scientology. Both look to have been founded by people who were aware they were con artists,
Yes, L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology after a bet with another science fiction writer about whether he could pull off starting a religion
An urban legend afaik
It is alleged, plausibly but unprovably, that pre-Scientology Hubbard once suggested to another SF writer in idle conversation that starting a fake religion could be a highly effective scam. I do not believe that any version of the story had a literal bet involved, or that the creation of Scientology was a result of that bit of idle chatter.
Is this allegation on the record anywhere ? Is the identity of the other SF writer agreed upon ? The setting in which it occurred ? (I heard it as Roger Zelazny at a bar or Isaac Asimov at a party) because otherwise that is exactly what urban legends are. “Man, religion is one hell of a racket to get on the ground floor of !” probably occurred to more than one person throughout history in spite of all evidence pointing in fact to rather poor outcomes for the founders themselves.
Sam Moskowitz testified to the FBI in 1970, that he had personally heard L. Ron Hubbard make that claim in the Q&A session following Hubbard’s talk at an Eastern Science Fiction Society meeting in 1948. The FBI confirmed that Hubbard had given a talk at that meeting, but the details of what was said were unprovable after two decades. Fans, alas, are not Slans and had not secretly invented smartphones fifty years before everyone else.
It is possible but IMO not really plausible that Moskowitz was flat-out lying. It is definitely plausible that someone else made it up and the story circulated to the point where Moskowitz formed a false memory of the non-event. But it is also plausible that he was neither lying nor misremembering.
Asimov, FWIW, testified to the FBI that he had not heard Hubbard say any such thing on account of having had very little contact with Hubbard (and was not at the 1948 meeting). But, insofar as the story clearly did spread and from an undocumented source, its spread almost certainly included friend-of-a-friend mutations that did not accurately preserve the authorship. And it is of course possible that Hubbard said approximately the same thing more than once.
Interesting, what is the source for the Sam Moskowitz testimony ?
I don’t know about the FBI, but this lists several people who claim to have heard him say it in different venues. The earliest in print was Sam Moskowitz quoted in “Parents’ Magazine” in 1969, reproduced here. It also suggests that Eshbach’s 1983 memoir was generally based on diary entries, but I doubt anyone has checked the particular entry.
But it’s odd that he was saying this and then didn’t go straight to religion, but passed through Dianetics.
The version I always heard was Hubbard betting Robert Heinlein that he could start his own religion and Heinlein betting Hubbard the same thing, leading to the creation of Dianetics and Stranger in a Strange Land respectively.
Copies of FBI agent Charles Everline’s interview report here here and here.
Right then, upgrading epistemic status from Urban legend to specific allegation.
Is that so? Are you talking new full-on religions (whatever that would mean), cults, new movements within others?
Because I’m not sure the evidence does point that way, though I admit I’m not particularly knowledgeable there. Are you sure you’re not generalising from salient examples? For me as a westerner, the first salient example would obviously be Jesus (clearly did not go well for the founder), and at some point my thoughts might go to medieval Christianity where you could find a bunch of very bad outcomes for religious leaders who went against the Church (I have to think of Jan van Leiden, but he was clearly crazy to boot).
But otherwise? The lives of Mohammed and Buddha went pretty fine after they started their thing, from what I know. I’m sure there’s loads of small cults that never blew up in the stereotypical way that could be called a “poor outcome” for the founder. It’s just that nobody cares about them.
Is the evidence really pointing to “founding a religion/cult is a bad idea”, from a perspective of personal gain, in a country with reasonably strong freedom of religion?
The opposite really, Christianity is actually unique among major world religions to have things end really bad for its founders and having used this fact as a doctrinal foundation – Judaism, Buddhism and Islam all make the point of how their founders and early adopters were rewarded for getting things right.
But it is in fact looking at examples of successful religions that is a fundamentally biased approach, much like trying to estimate the viability of acting careers from looking at Oscar Winners.
True, L Ron Hubbard does seem to be just a straight-up con artist. Not sure how he pulled it off. I don’t know much about Joseph Smith, but I had the impression that he was a true believer?
Smith began converting people to Mormonism shortly after having gotten out of jail for fraud. (If I remember correctly, which is doubtful, it was for more than one case.) I’d be inclined to think of him as a straightforward con artist.
Perhaps more charitably something like Trump, who just doesn’t seem to grasp the whole concept of objective truth, and therefore maybe isn’t really “lying” in the same way that normal humans do, but is definitely making deliberate choices about what to say in a manipulative manner.
But I’m not an expert here by any means.
He said things that made him sound like a true believer and never admitted he did not believe. The skeptics tend to paint him as being in it for the money, prestige, and sex, which is what I believe. But it’s very difficult to assess someone’s true motivations when he is long-dead and would have had every incentive to lie about his motivations.
Hubbard had serious psychological problems. I wouldn’t be so confident in judging of how much of his own doctrine he believed.
I get that you’re taking the opportunity to continue the joke of contrasting Kesey’s spiritual/psychedelic/galaxy-brained inside view with the boring mundane outside view any of us sober square would see if we had been watching him, but I think Kesey’s “movies” insight is really cool. I bet that if you tried you could probably write a neat paragraph explaining it in terms of predictive processing.
Was that the inspiration for defining everything in terms of narrative all the time?
There’s some prior art on that insight.
Yeah, but from the sound of it, Kesey took it a step further.
Step One is “Everyone’s playing a part on some imagined stage/movie, with clearly recognizable patterns and recurring ‘characters.’ Shakespeare.
Step Two is “We all have ‘received wisdom’ about how people are supposed to behave in known situations, which defines the parts we [i]expect[/i] to see played.” This is where we’ve seen, say, Scott take the idea, and/or other people Scott was referencing.
Step Three is “You can somehow hack people’s brains by deviating from their expectations enough to force them out of their ‘movie,’ especially in a relatively staid and square society like mainstream early 1960s America.” And that’s where Kesey starts playing around and doing things you’d normally expect to be impossible.
Step four is realizing that only some narratives are coherent and arbitrarily changing elements of a character or a play without also changing everything else triggers the narrative coherence protection systems, designing coherent narratives from scratch that are also not similar to existing ones turns out to be pretty hard.
I think I somewhat understand what you’re getting at, and I think I at least partially agree, but could you elaborate?
Particularly about what you mean by “coherent narrative” (maybe an example and counterexample), and the “coherent narrative protection systems”.
Also, to me, Simon’s “step three” sounds less like changing or constructing new narratives (in the sense of e.g. whole new blueprints for how to live life), but just like the technique Kesey and some followers used to do some of the very unlikely-sounding things. A situational thing, like putting flowers into the barrel of military police who expect aggressive or even violent protest, and thereby maybe getting them to take a look at the situation from a new perspective that would have never occurred to them otherwise.
” so that it isn’t in the way of me learning actually interesting stuff.”
This makes me question what is the difference between reading information and reading literature. Im thinking of Marcel Schwob who wrote biographies in a somewhat wild manner, but who argued that to write a biography you’d have to make an art work, so that the reader would somehow get a sense of that person in a way which the wiki entry wouldn’t give access to. That interesting stuff needs to be more than info. I think this is true to documentaries, and books and paintings, or poetry, or songs. This thing where emotion comes somehow together with the wiki. I’d like some thoughts on this… Yes experimental fiction gets things lost on the side of emotion too, often purposefully, but if well done, it makes you take time with it. I’ve spent more time with Marianne Moore’s animals than with wikipedia entries on them. Hopefully this doesn’t come across as too snarky somehow. I’ve never commented before, and I’ve had a few drinks tonight.
Sounds like Kesey had a spontaneous theophany.
If I’m understanding Eric correctly, the numinous (which Kesey might have considered more important than the psychedelia) can be invoked by plenty of other means.
Though it’s possible that Kesey “[mistook] the incidentals of the experience for its cause”, his new LSD-free invocation methods didn’t work, and thus he wasn’t able to channel at the Graduation, so he didn’t have his customary charisma.
Well, it’s a theory.
Surprised your list of famous people in Kesey’s circle didn’t include Stewart Brand, who probably has the most ongoing cultural cachet of any of them, especially in Bay Area tech circles.
Also: I think focusing on Kesey as a cult leader is a mistake. Naturally his (and Cassady’s) charisma helped this group/movement/whatever nucleate, but:
I wasn’t there, but my impression is that The Pranksters didn’t have the structure of a cult — compare it to actual hippie cults of similar vintage like The Farm. It was a movement, sure, a cultural insurgency of sorts, but I don’t think it was ever going to be something that provided an alternative way to live, like cults claim to do. Kesey was a reluctant guru, and really didn’t have much interest in attracting large numbers of followers.
But whatever, it’s not like there aren’t things to criticize about Kesey, drugs, hippies, and counterculture. Still I don’t see the point of an unsympathetic ahistorical reading of a book like Wolfe’s. Wolfe’s talent is to put the reader in the midst of the action, and the action (whatever else it might have been) was clearly exploratory — psychedelics were a new thing and nobody knew what to do with them, and Kesey and his crowd were experimenting. When people experiment, there will be failures and disasters, but in this case there was also a hell of a lot of cultural impact that is more interesting than Kesey’s charisma.
Strongly suggest reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture for a more sympathetic view and an exploration of the connections to the tech culture we inhabit today.
Been decades since I read this book, but my take also is that Kesey was no cult leader. A proselytizer, sure. More like a rogue camp counselor than a prophet. When I read this 30 years ago I thought of Timothy Leary as the LSD guru and had never heard of Kesey.
The big coincidence is not Key Kesey /Ken Chesney it is that Neil Cassidy is the driver in both On the Road and this classic book, which came out 20 years later. Who else is famous for being a main character in two unrelated books but known for nothing else?
I see Kesey’s relative fall in status upon his return to the US as a function of a fact the hippie movement having grown so much bigger. He was a victim of his own success, you could say. A mere novelist wasn’t able to compete with the Woodstock era in which the guitar players took over.
Edit: For Normals, TEKAAT is THE Tom Wolfe book, because it captures LSD culture better than any other book. What has surprised me is what a big deal acid was in the 60’s compared to now even though it’s probably as popular now.
How about Rielle Hunter as someone who shows up in multiple places?
> But it’s interesting how often malevolent cult leaders have turned to drugs since then – so often that I see it listed in some lists of cult warning flags.
I think that was already a thing about cults even before LSD. Agatha Christie’s short story collection “The Labours of Hercules” features a malevolent cult leader who uses drugs on the followers to complement his charismatic personality. That book was first published in 1947, before Ken Kesey did all that you explain here.
I don’t think it’s necessarily surprising – part of the appeal of cults is that they offer some variety of enlightenment, some truth that ordinary mundane life isn’t giving you.
Drugs are a fast, easy, reliable way to provide your
suckersfollowers with those kind of enlightenment moments to prove that the cult and the Glorious Leader are what they claim. Make a ritual, a mock-sacrament, out of the consumption of those drugs in a communal setting under particular limitations and guidance, and away you go.
Interesting that you say “a mock-sacrament”, when the Sacrament also involves a drug (alcohol, modulo arguments about transubstantiation into which I would rather not get). In fact your whole description seems to apply just as well to Christianity (what is a church service if not a “communal setting under particular limitations and guidance”?).
Human wetware is much the same as it was two millennia ago, no surprise that cults at either end of that timespan run on the same mechanisms.
I’m pretty sure that traditional Christian communion involves such low doses of alcohol that they’d be indistinguishable from background radiation in an ancient/medieval society where alcoholic beverages were often the only thing safe to drink.
AskHistorians says this is a myth.
OK, accepting that this is a myth. Still, the typical communion service doesn’t involve consuming more than, say, one mouthful of wine. Not enough to get a typical person noticeably intoxicated to a point where it would be significantly mind-altering.
Yeah, that’s fair. I wonder how long Communion’s been limited to a mouthful of wine and a little wafer or hunk of bread, though? The Last Supper presumably wasn’t.
The Last Supper was a Jewish Passover meal, so we presumably have some info on what it was like. This source says there are 4 ritual cups of wine that are required, but more is allowed.
Sounds to me like Kesey realized he was in the Prophet movie, and decided to break out of that story. Did he lose the Mandate of Heaven, or did he sacrifice it to move beyond the role he realized he had been playing?
I have not read the book, but I had the same thought upon reading Scott’s review.
I’d quibble that heroin, at least at first, doesn’t fake happiness. It actually genuinely provides real happiness (or at least insulation from many bad aspects of reality which undermine happiness). At least for some of us, different people react differently.
Unfortunately, you inevitably hit the harmful aspects of tolerance. The true happiness and (for many people) positive energy that opiates provided is overtaken as the differential rates of tolerance start favoring nodding out (which is still very pleasant itself) and the costs (and illegality) of the drug start creating problems with your life and eventually you are much worse off than when you started and the drug provides only escape since the magic truly intense happiness it created seems to have been overtaken by the foggy haze of numbly nodding out.
But I can think of nothing else that would increase utility more than a solution to the opiate tolerance problem. If you could keep the intense joy and warm glaze that followed for the next day or so powering you to get more done and be a better version of yourself without the harms of withdrawal effects it would bring about heaven on earth (at least for those of us with this reaction to opiates).
I seriously considered becoming a biologist just to work on this problem (or some related way to bring about this kind of brain effect) but I just hated biology too much to be good at it so did math instead.
I’ve never used heroin but for some people, myself included, cannabis has most of the same effects you’ve described without the huge tolerance build-up or withdrawal effects.
The downsides of being high are I tend to get clumsier and less good at doing lots of ADLs and also at learning new things. But I’ve found my mind has compensated for this after using it a whole lot.
(Don’t currently use it for a few different reasons, mainly the legality issues.)
If you could keep the intense joy and warm glaze that followed for the next day or so powering you to get more done and be a better version of yourself without the harms of withdrawal effects it would bring about heaven on earth (at least for those of us with this reaction to opiates).
I am very, very dubious of this, because consider: right now, I’m going to assume you are not in dreadful pain. You don’t even have a toothache. Compared to chronic or acute pain, you in your normal state of good health are in a state of “intense joy and warm glaze”.
Do you feel like that, or do you just feel average? What I’m getting at is, if you suffer really excruciatingly bad pain, to go back to “just feeling normal” does feel amazing at first, but then we get used to feeling like that, and we go back to the same old grind. I have no reason to think that feeling constant bliss would not go the same way, even without the affects of tolerance; we would adjust to feeling ‘intense joy’ the way we adjust to feeling ‘no more excruciating pain’ and that would become our new ‘normal’ and then forget about heaven on earth or even ‘wow I am so motivated to be productive and creative’.
Think about that person with excruciating back pain. Does it become the new normal and they go back to the same old grind? No.
To some extent yes actually- people do learn to put up with a certain amount of chronic pain. But to a large extent no.
On the other hand, it may well be that the way the brain processes pain and pleasure aren’t on strict single-axis continuum.
Just because constant pain doesn’t create a new set point in which all of that pain can be totally ignored, doesn’t mean that constant pleasure doesn’t regress to a median level of happiness.
Yesterday I was reading an old AskReddit thread about why heroin users started using heroin , and one of the commenters offered an account of what habitual opiate use is like for them: link text
That’s just a matter of semantics. I’d call the way it goes away a form of tolerance. Yes, you are very much correct that there are multiple mechanisms of tolerance and that one would need to deal with both the direct down-regulation of receptors and the more indirect changes but that’s literally a problem with a good life as well as drugs (one gains a form of tolerance to life being good as well).
That is a perfect lead in to “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”
It’s impossible to star in that story and care about the thing that you are calling the ending.
Did Tom Wolfe or anyone else consider the possibility that the mandate of heaven was handed out, supported for a while and then revoked by a certain organization he came in contact with during the MKULTRA experiments ? After all we sort of know that culture shaping and social experimentation was not outside their concerns in those days (but definitely definitely is in ours).
As comforting as it is to think that world events are guided by shadowy organizations, rather than chance and irrationality, extrapolating from the competence of public government entities, plus conversations with people in the intelligence community, suggests it just ain’t so.
There are a lot of people and organizations out there trying to shape ideas, attitudes, and events. As far as I can tell, they’re mostly pretty bad at it; and when they do succeed they rarely get the outcomes they want or expect.
Definitely not guided, just opportunistically seized – see my comment to Nabil ad Dajjal above, in a scenario where they are involved it’s probably not that they had Kessey trained as an operative to invent a new social movement, rather they just allowed (helped ?) him to do his thing long enough to see where it was going and maybe use it to influence policy, provide cover for LSD-related research etc.
The main tells here are his ability to stay a step ahead of conventional law, the faked suicide and Mexico in-and-out, maybe the quiet retirement too.
Yeah, quite specifically, when Scott says “the Pharisees had seen enough”, the question emerges – who do we think the Pharisees are? The local SFPD? Why would they have casually allowed this to go on for a bit and then randomly had a change of heart?
The notion that they had been looking the other way due to the request of some higher authority seems just as reasonable as that. And the CIA probably has more capability and more organization to manage a conspiracy like this than various local police agencies do…
The Pharisees here are probably just the established pearl-clutching classes, back in those days the various police departments were rumored to still take their orders from the civil administration.
More likely the local police took official notice because of some such request, or because of a media embarrassment to them.
Btw why the Pharisees and not the Sadducees ? It is the later who were most identified with the temple establishment that Jesus denounced as corrupt – the Pharisees only waged doctrinal war with the early christians after “early christians” became an actual thing many years after Jesus.
And there are plenty examples of competence from public government entities shadowy and otherwise to extrapolate from in that era – and probably in ours too if we ever get to a point where we can have a recent-historical perspective on it.
yeah but this is the generation that won WWII
which I don’t say to say, “the greatest generation was just better that us and could do anything” but rather to point out that it was people whose formative years were spent organizing and prosecuting a total war
Reading about Ken Kesey makes me think about The Mule from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. A genetic outlier who is somehow able to tweak peoples’ perceptions and create a mass movement. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out too well for either of them…
There, I saved you from having to read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Too late! I read it twenty or more years ago 🙂
I am not against experimental fiction. But I wish people would restrict the experimental fiction to bad books, so that it isn’t in the way of me learning actually interesting stuff.
But this is the New Journalism! This is the cool, hip, hep new style that has infested the modern American media and now you all understand why I continually complain about news stories written like novels, instead of “just the facts” style. Wolfe is (was) a good enough writer to get away with it, and he actually wrote actual novels, but the successors and wannabes now all write what are supposed to be factual news reports (and not just opinion or colour pieces) starting off with “Perky blonde Susan Citizen sipped her fairtrade organic brunette roast coffee as she stood gazing out her kitchen window that misty Fall morning before life, as this suburban mother of two knew it, was turned upside-down”. This is why.
But then what made Kesey special? Did he have a unique Book Four style experience? When? How come I just read his entire biography and don’t see anything of the sort?
Charisma. Some people just have it like turning a tap on and getting Niagara Falls pouring out the spout, and of course it’s almost impossible to describe what it is like and the effect it has on people; you can talk about charm and intelligence and ability to read others and so on until the cows come home, but unless you experience John Smith’s charisma at first hand, you will be left wondering “But how come people just met this guy, shook his hand, and then did whatever he wanted with no questions asked?”
This book is also why my natural scepticism about the amazing potential of drugs to liberate us all was confirmed and amplified (as you say, the description of the girl on the bus having meltdowns), and why people who turn up in the comments here boosting LSD and/or psychedelics as these wonderful life-changing ‘will rewire your brain for the better’ gifts of the cosmos have me rolling my eyes and muttering that they’ll rewire your brain, right enough, but not for the better.
I don’t always agree with you, Deiseach (to put it mildly), but journalists who always want to tell a story when I’m looking for the facts also piss me off. Though I’m even more irritated when professional historians insist on doing the same, which also seems to be increasingly common.
Though I’m even more irritated when professional historians insist on doing the same, which also seems to be increasingly common.
Yeah, that’s the fault of the pop-science/pop-psychology/pop-[subject] books which are the popular best-sellers. Publishers and TV series makers love a photogenic academic who can write/present something in an interesting, easily consumed by the public style which also flatters we the audience that we’re intellectuals. So you get the pressure to turn your expertise in the field into such a best-seller.
The problem is, being at least one part (if not more) entertainment, subsequent ventures need to up the entertainment quotient to attract audiences, and so you get the modern versions where it’s all fun, quirky, semi-fictional, “ten amazing facts that will astound you” listicle type writing. You start off with Sir Kenneth Clark descending from Olympus to present Civilisation on the BBC for the uplifting and improvement of the masses, you end up with writing history as soap opera to hook wayward attention spans.
To be fair to Wolfe and the New Journalists, though, there was always the perception of American journalism as being highly-coloured and exaggerated (probably under the influence of the Yellow Journalism/Yellow Press of the 1890s); Chesterton in his 1922 “What I Saw In America” poked some mild fun at it:
Just to play devil’s advocate, here’s a hypothetical theory. Imagine some hyper-intelligent species evolved out in the galaxy somewhere, billions of years ago. We can call them the Grey Eminences, for lack of any better hypothetical name. These people are so smart, that they can literally predict the future. They analyze the way the universe works using bayesian probability, see that life is inevitably going to pop up in different places, and they decide that when it does, they want said life to to be on their side, because immortal super-intelligences don’t take chances about their future success. They decide to gently guide the evolution of different species to become more cooperative so that as these other species evolve on different planets far far away, they evolve into friends rather than enemies. What happens to species that are determined not to be cooperative team-players; that decide to spit in the Grey’s faces rather than work to get along? Probably best not to think about it.
Only one problem – space is BIG. Like really, REALLY big. But that’s not a problem for our superintelligent Grey Eminences. They decide to just seed the whole vastness of space with lots of tiny radios. And the best part is, these radios self-replicate, so that when they hit atmo on a planet where they can grow, they continue to do so, gradually spreading with the species that they help to evolve.
So basically your typical psychedelic trip might be a communication with otherworldly creatures. But the problem is that the communication is so unique, and the otherworldly creatures are so totally alien, that most people’s minds can’t handle it. They crack under the stress. You need to have a super-strong mind to be able to handle that kind of thing and establish a link that gives you USEFUL information that enables you to change the world rather than just random gibberish. People like that are very rare, although they tend to make significant… ripples… in history when they do pop up. We call them prophets.
I don’t think most of the people who claim to be prophets genuinely are people like this. I think most of these cults are manipulative scams. But doesn’t it seem a bit strange that we see similar patterns recurring throughout history again and again? And that mushrooms are always involved in some way?
Anyway, I’ll take my conspiracy hat off now and let you get back to your normal reality which is not full of hypothetical alien gods. Just thought I’d offer some alternative hypotheses to get your creative juices flowing. (I suppose that the hypothesis will eventually be testable once we get to other solar systems because if it’s true, we’ll find mushrooms growing there – but for now, there’s unfortunately no way to make the theory falsifiable.) I just think it’s nice to see rationalists think outside of the box every once in a while. Great article, loved your summary! Keep up the great work Scott! 🙂
That link is a perfect example of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.
“Are mushrooms from space?”
No, and anyone who tells you otherwise has utterly disqualified themselves from ever speaking with any authority on biology.
As odd as they are, fungi are eukaryotes and share a common ancestor with all other forms of terrestrial life. As one example, 23% of the genes in the S. cerevisiae genome are homologous to human genes, which is what makes it a useful model organism. Does it seem even remotely plausible that an organism whose ancestors evolved on a completely different planet would somehow have exactly the features that we would expect to see from an organism which we shared a common ancestor with one billion years ago?
If you could get a fungal spore into space, it might be able to survive there for a time. But the same is true of dehydrated water bears, certain bacterial species, lichen, and even plankton if you trust the Russians. That just means that certain adaptations to extreme terrestrial environments could also prove useful in extraterrestrial environments, not that all of those species are aliens.
Rationalist/smart people/nerd culture has a weird fascination with drugs, and LSD in particular, that deeply unsettles me. I’m deeply suspicious of any kind of “transcendence” including the various flavors of mindfulness, meditation, etc. I get that there can be mental health reasons to do these things (as well as certain drugs) but I concerned when people start evangelizing. It just seems patently ridiculous to me: obviously this doesn’t work, obviously there is no transcendence, this guy is either playing you or so high on his own supply that even he can’t tell the difference.
This review helped me square a little bit of that incredulity – I’m too young to have lived through this (I’m currently in college) and so have only ever known the Internet-age cynicism. It really is alien to me the degree to which people believed.
I don’t really have a point, but it is interesting to see what’s going on in a other time/reference frame/world system. Makes me wonder if e.g. microdosing is something new, or just the same thing echoing through silicon valley tech culture.
Hi, a rationalist/smart/nerd person with a fascination for psychedelics here. What would you like to know? Personally I don’t care for feelings of transcendence and have never gained any pseudo-scientific new-agey beliefs from psychedelics (the ‘psychonaut’ types, especially the DMT-fanboys, are fitting that stereotype the best). Me and my friends use LSD and mushrooms as creativity and curiosity boosts.
Similarly the reason to take ecstasy is not primarily because of its ability to tear down social defenses, although that is very real; the reason to take ecstasy is because it produces the purest feeling of physical pleasure I’ve ever felt, and I’ve done a ton of drugs.
It feels good to get high. That is the long and short of it.
Small studies point to psychedelics having a range of positive mental health effects.
Epistemic status: speculation based on a researcher’s speculation.
One note about the insights of LSD (which I’ve never used). Psychologist Allison Gopnik speculated on a recent episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast that the experience of infants is like tripping: everything is interesting, lots of colors, confused about where to look, some overwhelm, everything seems new. (James’s “buzzing, blooming confusion”, basically.) Which suggests that perhaps the reverse holds: perhaps LSD returns one to an infant-like state.
This would suggest further that it is neither the Secret Door to Unlock the Mysteries, nor useless and without any real learning. After all, as Gopnik emphasizes in her work, kids’ brains work as they do for a reason. They’re exploring the world they’re in, learning what they can. (She spends most of her work on young kids, but older than infants, and the way in which their play and curiosity is an important stage.) In her analysis, adults are optimized for exploiting the knowledge they have; kids are optimized for gaining the knowledge in the first place. Infancy is the first step in this process.
So maybe LSD (and similar drugs) gets people to see things anew — a process that can produce real insights — but not because it’s a religious experience or mystical or anything. It’s just returning the mind to a time when it took in everything as new, and maybe this time you’ll come up with something different. At the same time, the insights are likely to be pretty basic, and not to seem so important when rephrased as learning for adults: sure, infants notice things that adults don’t — they can hear phonemes we can’t, as we eventually learn only to hear the ones our language distinguishes — but they’re not, on the whole, things which mean much taken back into the adult world.
Through my own anecdotal experience with LSD I have come to the same conclusion, it seems to change my cognition in the ways described, and I also do feel more childlike when reflecting on myself during the trips.
At the same time, I wouldn’t dismiss these insights as “pretty basic”. Apart from simply looking at things anew, there is a particular type of experience that I find very useful. It’s a bit hard to describe, but roughly you are able to feel different sub-roles/sub-selves/sub-agents that constitute your self. You are also able to let them exchange feelings about each other and the world and to make sure that all of those feelings are heard. As a result, I can resolve the hidden conflicts and hear the feelings that I might be normally suppressing, and realise myself as a symphony of those different parts of me.
Re LSD or other psychedelics as (fake?) insight generators: I don’t think they produce new insights. What they do is allow you to feel in your gut a thought or perspective that is already in your head, that you already know or are considering intellectually. It’s the difference between reading a study showing that strong social connections can lead to better outcomes in both mental and physical health, and feeling at a deep level just how much your friends and family enrich your life.
Nice summation. I read this book last summer or the summer before, I think, and had a lot of the same thoughts. Re: the prose style, Wolfe is clearly trying to convey the sense of being whacked out on drugs. He wants to make the reader feel like he/she is tripping while reading the book. I think this actually worked okay for a while, but it got to be a bit much, and like you I was by the end yearning for some real grammatically structured sentences again written by a sober, sane individual.
One thing in the book you did not mention: I was really struck by the industriousness of the Merry Pranksters and their various hangers-on, building this whole compound in the woods, painting stuff and making sculptures and setting up all the cool sound systems you mentioned, putting on these big acid tests with costumes and decorations, etc. The people I knew who were really into taking psychedelic drugs in college and after…they mostly just sat around listening to Phish, occasionally kicking a hackey-sack back and forth and arguing about who’s turn it was to pack the next bowl. Painting a bus and going on a cross country road trip to meet up with Tim Leary and whoever else…this was entirely beyond them. Perhaps some kind of generational gap, or maybe they simply lacked a Kesey-like figure to motivate them.
Burning man culture is still all about that, no cult leader – Larry Harvey is credited but was never really a prophet figure.
Yo Scott you speculate about psychedelics quite often without having experience.. No offense but it would probably help with understanding to just experience it once, it won’t hurt you. Psychedelics do not, like meth triggers motivation, trigger belief. This is a bit anecdotal but me and everyone I know who have taken psychedelics (university students mainly) didn’t suddenly belief vague pseudo-scientific new-age stuff. I think the main reason for the existence of that stereotype is people who do not have a solid understanding of the world (and their brain) and basic epistemology seek something higher behind the experience.
What would you think if Scott told you that he has already used psychedelics, even if just once?
In fact, he’s on record as having done LSD exactly once.
Wolfe took LSD once in researching this book. He regretted it.
It seems like the greatest unsolved problem for humanity right now is insight porn. For example, talk therapy is a business, and it can only stay in business if it regularly delivers insight. However, it’s really hard to verify which insights are true and which are false. It may be inherently impossible. The same with meditation. And the same with psychedelics. The stakes high: epidemic levels of depression and anxiety.
So we join cults, and we verify they’re working by looking at the people around us who are responding in similar ways. And we look at proxy variables, like sense-of-community, belonging, sex possibly, and fun. And who knows, doing so may put you on the ground-floor of the next Christianity, since every major religion started as a cult. And maybe it’s not “religion” that you think you’re joining but actually the true gateway to Heaven. Nobody has proof that Heaven doesn’t exist, right?
There is no outside view that Heaven doesn’t exist. And in the 60s, there was no outside view that psychedelics weren’t unlocking some spirit molecule. Now, 50-some-odd years later, it’s clear the acid heads weren’t right. Or were they? Bill Gates famously did acid, as did many of the Silicon Valley pioneers. Silicon Valley is ascending to world domination, much like Christianity. Maybe that’s all that we were after in the first place, to be effective players in ancient chimp-dominance games.
I think Kesey probably believed in those individuals and saw their journey as both sacred, valuable, and able to result in something better than what others were telling them at the time.
I also know there’s a lot to say about what does on behind the scenes in circumstances like his – purposefully put: there are real powerful values in having the good intent behind all kinds of otherwise outrageous and seemingly poorly performed plans and choices.
Kesey, like many who find purpose – in others journey – also build confidence that the awakenings that happen in those times, however created, also bring value to those who observe only. Eventually, with out having to make it about the individual, guys like Kesey only end up reminding people that their struggles are meaningful, beautiful, and not what the common narratives alone make them out to be.
Plus, he clearly was like many folks a part of a greater circumstance. No doubt. So there’s what’s known, and what’s valuable to those who know it.
So what you’re saying is that Kesey’s appearance in Unsong was only slightly fictionalized from what actually happened.
In a world where real supernatural beings with messages of universal love and transcendent joy actually existed circa 1965-70, and were trying to contact susceptible people to build up huge sweeping movements of mind-and-world-altering surreal transcendental oneness…
Well, if they didn’t take over Ken Kesey they’d really be missing a trick.
It’s one of the most plausible alternate-history decisions in the novel, right up there with Kissinger talking Nixon into making a pact with Hell to screw over the Soviets. Because visiting Ken Kesey and getting him to dump a prodigious amount of LSD into the water supplies of his city is exactly what to do if you are the Right Hand of God and trying to establish a heavenly city on Earth by injecting a temporary surge of synthetic faith into an existing earthly community.
One of the things cults do is to convince people that their complaints are the result of insufficient understanding. Sure, it might seem like people the leader likes get some unfair privileges, or you miss being able to talk to your friends, or the child-beating seems a little cruel. But just wait till you get to the next level! It’s so great! You’ll understand everything then! Just trust the people who have already been through it–they know more than you do and they’re still around.
So yeah, Scott is on to something here. Having an experience that feels true, even if chemically induced or induced by sleep deprivation or emotional manipulation, builds your loyalty to the group and your willingness to overlook things that seem wrong.
One day, people will write books about this decade. I wonder what will they say, and which people they will focus on.
I read and enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s book about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters several years before trying LSD. Also read Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” before trying LSD. Both books made me more interested in trying LSD. Sounded like it might enlighten me on some level, or at least be fun. I did try it. Even though my first experience was a mixed bag — not wholly positive — I persevered and tried it several more times; generally came out feeling like I’d been through the laundry and hung out to dry but, for the most part, in a good way. Don’t regret it at all. Feels life-changing while you’re tripping. Less so after you sober up — and yet…. There’s something to be learned from that drug (and similar drugs; magic mushrooms have pretty much the same effects.) In retrospect: I liked it. Learned something. It’s a really strong drug, though. Caveat emptor!
This is sound review. I’m curious: was this your first time reading it? I first read it when I was very young, and my main take-away was that I loved Tom Wolfe for ability to assume the voice and perspective of whover he’s writing about while still providing his own subtle and cynical slant on things. (He abandoned this style midway thtough ‘The Right Stuff’, and it’s noticeable. His fiction is hit-or-miss, too–either pitch-perfect or pure cringe.)
I actually ate astonishing quantities of acid as a teenager in the late 90s (I lived in a really small rural town; trends in drug consumption were about 15 years behind the times, as it is with fashion). I wouldn’t want my kids to do the same–wait until your brain’s done developing, jeez!–but I have no regrets about my own experiences.
(I’m almost certain that it actually has altered my personality, though; I can’t really speculate about what I’d have been like without any chemical interference, but my “agreeableness” and “openness to experience” metrics are off the charts. Like, no one is born this Taoist. 🙂 I’m pretty sure I acquired my mindset dishonestly.)
Another thing: growing up, Tom Wolfe always struck me as kind of wild and somewhat progressive, probably because he made such exquisite sport of the dominant culture of his time. (In ‘Teenage London Society Girl’ and even ‘Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers’, he really seemed to be rooting for the underdogs). Rereading him as an adult, though, he’s obviously reactionary–he’s not criticizing the people who are *generating* cultural changes, but he’s mocking the hell out of those who are trying to passively roll with the zeitgeist.
I also took quite of number of psychedelic trips in my youth back in the 70s and 80s. Some were good, some were bad, but even something as powerful as acid becomes boring eventually.
For a long time I blamed my psychological and emotional issues on those many trips. It wasn’t until much later that I figured out what my real issues were about: I’m on the ASD spectrum! They didn’t diagnose kids as high-functioning autists back in the 60’s when I was young. So I feel much better now 🙂
“One thing I did appreciate about Wolfe was that he really knew his anthropology of religion.”
You might like Wolfe’s magazine non-fiction from the 1960s and 1970s, much of which is interested in applying arcane academic religious anthropology thinkers like Max Weber and Emile Durkheim to contemporary American events: e.g., here is his once famous 1976 NY Mag article “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening.”
Wolfe didn’t spend all those years getting a Yale Ph.D. for nothing.
Ironically, of the two great Toms, the very academic sounding Stoppard never even went to college, while the scoffing at academic pretentiousness Wolfe had a Yale Ph.D.
Kool-Aid Acid Test was an easy book to write because so many friends of Kesey were excellent writers. For example, the Furthur bus trip stops in Texas at the house of Larry “Lonesome Dove” McMurtry.
And in fact, I’m happy to say that after Ken Kesey’s death of old age, his widow recently married Larry McMurtry
I definitely remember reading a late life interview with Kesey where he discussed still doing acid once or twice a year, which kind of mitigates against that whole beyond acid thing being genuine. Can’t easily Google it because you just get swamped by 1960s references.
I think there’s a difference between doing something as a private citizen and making that same thing a central plank of a social movement. The latter is what I felt Kesey had a problem with, really.
Having done some cursory reading about Tom Wolfe it appears he is somewhat rebooting the Mark Twain movie, from straddling the journalism-fiction-satire-social-criticism lines to trademarking off-season white suits.
Tom Wolfe particularly admired how Mark Twain was often almost broke from spending enormous amounts of money on his house (Wolfe loved to spend too):
I can recall William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” leaving the studio to go to Tom Wolfe’s remodeled apartment after “Bonfire” was a huge smash. It looked like King Louis XIV at his most extravagant.
Some years ago I started reading the EKAAT. At some point I felt the characters were so drug-addled that they’d lost the attribute commonly known as “free will.” After that the book became very boring and uninteresting and I stopped reading.
Your review was much more informative than the book. So thank you for not requiring me to try reading it again.
I will say that comparing Ken Kesey with Jesus is a bit … blasphemous? Disguising the idea as the “anthropology of religion” isn’t much of an excuse. It may not be a good idea to so casually dismiss a world religion.
Perhaps Christianity started as a cult based on the charisma of one individual? But Jesus left a follower who had never met him in the flesh, namely the apostle Paul, who turned the cult into a true religion. Kesey, meanwhile, left his spiritual legacy to Ken Babbs. That’s probably the fair comparison–not Kesey to Jesus, but rather St. Paul to Ken Babbs.
It’s stuff like that perhaps should have made Christianity casually dismissible but I don’t think Scott or Tom Wolfe are doing anything of the sort. Also imitating the lifestyle and path of Jesus was pretty much of the standard MO for every canonized early martyr and saint.
Except Ken Babbs actually did meet and hanged with Kesey, so maybe St. Peter after all ?
I’m not going to claim it was intentional, but one way to differentiate yourself from Christ is to strike a deal with the local authorities, discredit yourself and then slowly fade away. Everyone still has your words/teachings but no one can invoke your name or claim to be your direct successor, and everyone has to find a way to go forward without that authority.
You’re either on the cross or off the cross.
What if “constantly convinced you’re on the verge of some great revelation that will change everything” combines with the usual base rate of smart people discovering somewhat cool things, to convince the smart people that the things they were discovering anyway are great revelations from LSD?
Scott, I love your work but I have seen little evidence that you can judge whether somebody knows their ‘anthropology of religion’. Please, read some of the more foundational stuff in anthropology. It will change your life. And, no Scott’s ‘Seeing like a state’ does not count. There’s about 10 books out there that would make a difference. Start with Graeber’s ‘Debt’, Scott’s ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ is not bad, etc. On anthropology of religion, I’d start with Russell McCutcheon.
Neat trick, for books published in 2011 and 2009 to be foundational to a field that’s been around for a hundred-some years.
Monty Pythons Life of Brian is as foundational as it gets.
So he’s a charismatic Bay Area cult leader who is a good writer. Spends a lot of time giving people psychoactive drugs and counseling them.
Wait, are we still talking about Kesey here?
In my experience, LSD just makes you suggestable. For days or weeks after a dose, I’ve found myself buying into weird shit. Only to think about it later and not be able to say why I thought this was sensible. My hypothesis is that this is connected to its tendency to cause susceptible people to experience psychotic breaks as well as to its main psychoactive effects.
It seems to take the neurological foot off the pedal of some kind of inhibitory process for pattern recognition. You see this as the walls melting or the wood chips on the playground rearranging into marching toys soldiers. But this feature seems to last longer, subtly, in higher processes. That’s the thing that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of transcendence and also makes you susceptible to joining a murder cult and killing Patty Hearst.
The transcendence is just a pattern you see, which you can’t explain because it doesn’t make sense because it isn’t there, hanging on the tip of your tongue. The murder cult is a skilled manipulator feeding you a line of bullshit that your mind would ordinarily see as the ravings of a lunatic turned into something that feels coherent and meaningful. Your brain is just filling in gaps to produce a pattern because its brakes aren’t working.
The same way your normal jumpy pattern matching system can lead you to actually see a lion sometimes, this even less inhibited pattern-matcher can sometimes generate amazing insights. But usually it’s a bunch of meaningless horseshit that only fees meaningful.
A quick attempt at highlighting some of LSD’s most important attributes:
1) It increases the amount of qualia experienced per “moment of consciousness” (this manifests as intensity, brightness, complexity, layering, etc. cf. tracers).
2) It increases the number of symmetries you can use to organize said qualia (this gives rise to unusual geometry on high doses, as well as exotic phenomenal time).
3) Increases the range of possible valence (valence on psychedelics follows a long-tail distribution, where some of the most intense bliss is literally orders of magnitude larger than the median amount of bliss – I am convinced that this is real, and it will be shown with science in the future, which will require us to be able to generalize valence measurements to exotic brain states).
4) Increases the range of qualia values and varieties which form the building blocks of one’s world-simulation (for instance, some qualia that has some resemblance to smell and some resemblance to a certain kind of touch, but which is not just a synesthetic mix of the two, but a genuinely new category of qualia that simply has never been recruited for information-processing purposes by natural selection).
Of the above, the most ethically relevant is (3) – and also the most profound. I think most people who experience a, let’s say, sense of bliss and wholeness that would score a 113 out of 10 (given a scale where 10 marks the maximum bliss a human can have without strong changes to brain chemistry) and which crams at least 4 or 5 times “more qualia” within each moment of experience, is convinced that “there is more, much more, to reality than we usually believe”. What exact intentional content gets annealed is a matter of that person’s ability to make sense of the experience. But the key to never forget, I think, is the important fact that valence went way out of the range that was thought to be possible.
Indeed, this realization of the long-tail distribution of suffering and wellbeing, what I call “long-tail ethics” will, I think, revolutionize how we make utilitarian calculations in the future. Without this understanding, I think, we could say that one is “missing the key to the plot”.
You should check out Jay Forrester of MIT and his “Systems Dynamics” approach.
He uses modern computer systems and economics to develop a long wave model that depends heavily on feed back loops.
Here is something I did recently that might be of interest.