The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Summary and Analysis
by Tom Wolfe
"The Hell's Angels" & "A Miracle in Seven Days"
In the summer of 1965, the Pranksters decide to invite the Hell's Angels, a notorious gang, to join them for a party in La Honda. Wolfe explains how Kesey met one of the leaders of the Angels through Hunter Thompson, a writer and journalist who was doing a story on the Pranksters for a national magazine. Kesey immediately hits it off with the Angels, and they all plan for a big party at Kesey's place. The Angles come roaring into La Honda on their motorcycles and are greeted by a huge sign welcoming them. According to Wolfe, the Pranksters and the Angels have a lot in common because they are all outlaws, and "the Angels had done it like the Pranksters, by choice. They had become outlaws first - to explore...and then got busted for it."
The Pranksters have their entire setup going: speakers and stereos are blasting from the trees, everything is painted in Day-Glo, and all of the Pranksters are decked out in costumes. When the Angels arrive, they have no idea what to expect, and are prepared for a fight. But when the Pranksters give the Angels LSD, they begin to have "the most wondrous experience." Sandy begins making up songs for the Angels and singing them loudly through the giant stereo that is set up, songs that go "Oh, but it's great to be an Angel, / And be dirty all the time!" It's a song that normally would offend the Angels to the point of fighting, but the craziness of it all - including Allen Ginsburg dancing and chanting the Hare Krishna - stupefies the Angels, and they simply take it all in and go with the flow. The cops stand at a distance and watch the party unfold, but except for public nudity, the Pranksters aren't breaking any laws they can see, so they can't arrest anyone. The figure the best policy is simply containment.
The Pranksters aren't afraid of or intimidated by the Angels - a fact that the Angels don't know what to make of. The Pranksters aren't condescending or angry with the Angels, and simply treat them like they would any other Prankster. Most of the Angels find this disarming, and it gets to the point where the Angels are more like Pranksters and the Pranksters are more like Angels.
Inside the party, things are becoming more debauched. Everyone has taken massive amounts of drugs and consumed massive amounts of alcohol, and a gang rape ensues on a woman from out of town. However, even she has consumed so many narcotic substances that she invites and encourages the behavior. The party lasts for two days, and the cops never break it up. Even after the party ends, the Angels continue to hang around La Honda and take part in Kesey's experiments with LSD. Kesey and the Angels establish a deep mutual respect. The rest of the "intellectual-hip circles in the San Francisco-Berkeley area" begin to treat the Pranksters with more respect, as well. As Wolfe explains it, one of the main "hang ups" with these intellectuals is finding "real life" and emulating the people who have "real life" - people like migrant farm workers and the impoverished. For these intellectuals, the Angels represent the realest of "real life," a gang of outlaws who live on the fringes of society. Now that the Angels have arrived, La Honda becomes something like "an intellectual tourist attraction."
As unlikely as it seems, a group of young Unitarian ministers become very interested in Kesey and what the Pranksters are doing, and they invite the Pranksters to come and take part in the annual California Unitarian Church conference. Even the Unitarians, members of a religious denomination known for its liberalism, are divided by the Pranksters' presence. Kesey realizes that the Pranksters are "rubbing their faces" in the right to dissent and non-conformity, but they keep doing their thing nevertheless.
The Unitarian youths catch on to the Pranksters' ways immediately, even though the adults at the conference do not. Though the conference has a schedule to stick to, Kesey and the Pranksters decide to simply live in the "Now" and to try and lead people into that reality. The young people are completely into this idea, participating in a foot-washing ceremony and games on the beach. The adults, however, are put off by Kesey's style and suspect that they are all taking drugs. Kesey gives a somewhat offensive speech during which he steps on the American flag, but one of the ministers that invited him, Paul Sawyer, realizes what Kesey is trying to do. He is not just trying to describe emotions, but rather to "arouse it, make them experience it, by manipulating the symbol of the emotion, and sometimes we have to come into awareness through the back door." Sawyer sees that Kesey has put them into the middle of an experience, and he feels that a religious movement could be built on this concept.
The conference officials, however, become fed up with Kesey's takeover and want Sawyer to ask the Pranksters to leave. The rudeness of the Pranksters is infuriating and is causing a schism in the conference, they say. Sawyer holds his ground, however, and says that if Kesey leaves, then the young people will leave. The conference leaders eventually relent and allow Kesey to stay, but warn that they think he's trying to "manipulate this conference."
And, according to Wolfe, that is exactly what Kesey was trying to do. He had become fascinated with the concept of control, and how he could manipulate people and situations to the advantage of himself and the Pranksters. He was consciously turning the young members of the church against the adult leaders of the conference, and now he realizes that he is extending his control beyond La Honda and into the outside world. On the last day of the conference, the youths put on a skit for the whole group, and they choose to imitate all the Pranksters. Paul Sawyer, when he sees Kesey, believes that he is seeing a prophet. According to Sawyer, Kesey "had not taught or preached. Rather, he had created...an experience, an awareness that flashed deeper than cerebration. Somehow he was in the tradition of the great prophets." Kesey, however, is reluctant to take on the mantle of a prophet. He tells the Pranksters that they aren't on "a Christ trip" and that the whole religion thing has been done for two thousand years and has only ended in war. Instead, the Pranksters must move beyond La Honda, into the wider world. The conference demonstrates this to Kesey. Kesey begins to feel overwhelmed with his newfound power, and one night, while on a bad trip, he wanders into the woods, and then onto a highway, believing that he can manipulate time, space, and objects - even the cars hurtling at him.
The Hell's Angels were one of the most notorious gangs of the 1960s and '70s, responsible for several infamous murders and countless incidents of violence. Their arrival in La Honda signals that the Pranksters are not just another intellectual hipster group experimenting in the woods of California, but are perhaps the beginning of a new outlaw cultural force.
The Pranksters themselves refuse to be categorized into any group. Instead, their "trip" is all about existing entirely in the "now" and being completely themselves in each moment. In this way, they have become individuals with no past and no future. Little is known about who each Prankster was prior to his or her arrival in La Honda. Increasingly, what is important is not who someone was or who they are going to be, but rather what their identity is within the Prankster group. The Pranksters invite everyone into their group - intellectuals and Hell's Angels alike - and mandate that they all become like them, living completely in the now.
This also increasingly means a lapsed state of morals. Wolfe treats the gang rape of a partygoer with shocking indifference. In fact, he says that the woman who was raped invited the Angels to assault her. Notions of right and wrong are tied up in the past, in history. The Pranksters' project is to disassociate themselves from any history, and especially a moral history. Under the influence of LSD, anything goes. As a detached observer, Wolfe withholds judgment on whether he sees the Pranksters' or the Angels' behavior as right or wrong, and instead stays in "reporter mode," yet even through his prose, the reader can get a sense of a casual attitude towards actions that would ordinarily be seen as morally reprehensible.
The Pranksters' experience at the Unitarian Church conference reveals that Kesey and the Pranksters are also being courted by the religious side of culture. The group of youth ministers see in Kesey a new prophetic voice, a person whose work has all the feel of a religious movement but who refuses to abide by the constraints of religion. For these youth ministers, this is the kind of religion they hope to see in the Unitarian Church, and Kesey becomes a model for them as well as a prophet. Kesey, however, is only manipulating religion to take his experiment to a wider audience. The Unitarian conference helps him to finally become conscious of the power that he can have over people and situations - something that Wolfe recognized immediately in Kesey but that Kesey himself was either unaware of or reluctant to take hold of. His takeover of the conference shows him that not only can he take control of these kinds of situations, but also that people are eager to hand over control to him. As the chapter closes, Kesey begins to envision what the use of that kind of power in the wider world could mean.
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