Megan Ow.


There was a point reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test at which I quite unexpectedly found myself thinking psychedelic drugs actually seemed enticing. When I realized what was happening and logic took over, the thought was quickly dispelled. However, it occurred to me that perhaps this book may actually be advocating drug use, or at least glamorizing it. Being on the bus was the hippest place to be—the way to get there was acid. Not only do drugs have the charm of being what all the “cool” kids are doing in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but the greatest enticement in the book is the promise of opening the mind and becoming inter-connected. The Merry Pranksters achieve an eerie level of synchronicity in the book and are bound together very tightly. LSD created much of their connectedness. It also altered their perceptions, giving them an outlook so different and more interesting than those who were “off the bus.” Granted, the Pranksters did fail at their goal in the end, the time they spent on acid was the closest they were to “opening doors.” Much of the beat literature and culture in general centers on the use of drugs and alcohol. It often seems they are advocating that lifestyle, or at least justifying it as a means to open creativity, escape the strict society of the squares, or simply have a good time. However, it is important to recognize it for what it was. It spurred some fantastic literature and a fascinating subculture, but as a lifestyle it failed.

After reading all the beat novels this semester, I could not help but feel somewhat unfulfilled at the end. While I enjoyed every book we read, I found that one element was severely lacking—the female perspective. When a woman was brought into one of the books, her role was secondary at best and she was never given much of a voice. What is worse is that she was often objectified and not portrayed in a strong, intelligent, or even positive manner. I am left having to piece together from the snippets of female characters I have encountered exactly what the role of women was in the beat generation, if they even had one.
In Burroughs’ Junky, there is hardly any mention of women whatsoever. Bill Lee’s own wife is not even mentioned until a quarter of the way through the book, and even then it is a nonchalant reference and no more. In Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, the female role is at least more prevalent. However, there is no strong sense of who Maggie is as a person. What the reader knows about her is from her interaction with Jack Duluoz, not from her thoughts. From Jack’s thoughts about and actions toward Maggie, however, a clearer picture of how women may have been viewed is given. In particular is the passage where Jack expresses his desire to be her “husband, lover raper, owner…”(Kerouac 77). So perhaps women at the time were no more than something to be owned and someone with whom to have sex. In The Dharma Bums, a similar picture is given. The only women given any significant role in the novel are Princess and Psyche, who appear only to indulge the men in sexual pleasure. It is a rather disturbing picture. The men in the book have intellectual discussions and climb mountains, while the women are there for sex and perhaps some cooking, like Sean Monahan’s wife. The strongest female character encountered in any of the books was Mountain Girl in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Yet her perspective was not depicted and she was always overshadowed by the male characters, especially Kesey. Perhaps the way women were portrayed is just a sad sign of the times at which the books were written. I had hoped, though, that this subculture of hip intellectuals would have a more open and educated outlook.

In The Dharma Bums, the character of Ray Smith is searching for religious enlightenment. He primarily relies on the practices of Zen Buddhism to achieve his enlightenment, but also integrates aspects of other religions into his beliefs and practices. Ray in a way picks and chooses which beliefs from each religion he chooses to accept. This is evidenced throughout the book from the very beginning in which Ray claims, “I didn’t give a goddamn about the mythology and all the names and national flavors of Buddhism, but was just interested in the first of Sakyamuni’s four noble truths, All life is suffering” (12). It is apparent that he is only interested in certain aspects of the religion and is unconcerned with fully adopting and embracing every belief that the religion holds. Ray also believes certain aspects of Christianity as indicated by his conversation with Japhy about Jesus’ teaching on love (202). While he does not fully believe everything that Christianity dictates, Ray certainly agrees with some major tenets. In class the term “religious dilettante” is used to describe this practice. However, a dilettante is a dabbler, someone who probably should not be taken seriously in his or her endeavors. Is it necessarily negative to select what you believe rather than embracing parts of a faith that you do not believe? It seems more reasonable to actually consider different beliefs from more than one religion and then reflect on them and decide which parts of the faith are logical and relevant to your life. At mass one week, the priest actually gave a homily during which he preached about people whom he termed “cafeteria Catholics”—those who go down the line and pick and choose which facets of Catholicism to practice. He essentially said that if a person does not believe and practice every part of the faith then he or she is not a Catholic. This seems a little asinine and mindless. Ray Smith’s method of assimilating different beliefs and then assimilating them into his own faith is not unreasonable and does not make him merely a religious dilettante.

Next Page »