William Ro.


What is a religion? The dictionary describes it as a “personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” When looking at the ways of the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe one could very easily say that they could be considered somewhat of a religious group. While they do not believe in a higher god, they do believe in the idea of enlightenment and being attuned. This is one of the shared mentality and beliefs by all the Pranksters that attribute to the idea that they are a religion. The concept of “being out front” and “doing their thing” not only acts as a practice of the group but is also an example of that shared mentality (73).
Like all religions, they have a charismatic leader, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, who gains a following based upon his of her ideas, this person being Ken Kesey. In the chapter “a miracle in seven days” the Pranksters even refer to him as “the Prophet Kesey” (193). They also have set practices that they all practice. When they take LSD, Acid, DMT, or any other drug it almost becomes ritualistic and religious. There are certain things that they are supposed to do when tripping and certain expectations. It is also these ritualistic takings of hallucinogens that, as the Merry Prankster see it, is their path to enlightenment. There is a very fine line between religion, cult, and just a group of friends. While I feel that part of the Merry Pranksters fall into all of these groups, I think that what they have could definitely be seen as, if not a religion, a religious-like group.

Throughout time many people have preached the idea of living in the now. Psychologist Fritz Perls believed that most people “live fantasy lives” where they “live totally in the past or in terms of what they expect in the future, which amounts to fear” (Wolfe 118). It seems as though all of us are constantly working for the next thing. We go to high school and do well to get good grades so we can then go to college, where we then work to get good grades so we can then go to grad school, and once there, make good grades so we can then get a good job and work towards retirement. It seems that rarely that people actually enjoy the moment and aren’t waiting for the next thing to come. While the Merry Pranksters may claim and seem like they live in the now by some of their antics, they are constantly waiting for the next thing to come. Ken Kesey holds briefings throughout the novel where he explains the situation and what will happen next, what to expect. For instance, when he holds a “final big briefing before taking off” in the bus he explains to them what he wants to happen, in the future (Wolfe 73). Besides holding briefings, it seems that Kesey is always planning the next big prank. First go to Timothy Leary driving cross country in a bus, then invite the Hells Angels over, then go to a Unitarian retreat, plan and have the acid tests, then graduate from the acid. It seems as though he is never content with what he is doing or has at that moment and is constantly striving for the next “thing.” People always say “youth is wasted on the young” because they don’t appreciate childhood. But it’s not that they don’t appreciate childhood, it’s that they aren’t living in the now, and that’s what needs to be taught, for the time is now.

At the end of the novel Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, after extensive experimentation with LSD and a path to enlightenment, Ken Kesey decides that acid is no longer the tool for reaching that state of awareness and that there needs to be a “Graduation.” But rather than holding one of their usual Acid Tests with loud music, lights, and punch bowls full of acid, it is held in their garage in Asbury-Haight and there is no high-tech equipment fueling it. Instead it is silent except for a few of the pranksters talking on a microphone system and Kesey, dressed like Captain America, performing a ritualistic passing of an ice block around with the other Merry Pranksters. But instead of being completely startled and shocked by this, as people used to be with the usual old antics, they are bored with it and it becomes “weird…Half the people looking on are non-plused, they’re embarrassed” and so the audience just leaves (398). This is a major part in the book for this is the change that occurs at the pinnacle of the Pranksters career that eventually causes their downfall. Their failure to impress and shock is not necessarily their fault though. It just happens. It’s been happening for centuries. At first it was a shock for women to wear pants. Then it was rock’n roll. Then it was men with long hair. Then Marijuana. Then the Pranksters. When the envelope is pushed enough it will stretch, and that is exactly what happened with the Pranksters shock value. What they were doing, making strange music, dressing up, doing drugs, was no longer strange. In fact, acid had proliferated into the culture so much by that point that the fact the Pranksters were trying to graduate from acid didn’t sit well with the new youth at all. One can even say the Woodstock in 1969 could be considered a by-product of what the Merry Pranksters were doing. While it was not about doing drugs and experimenting with acid, it was about getting kids together on the same page, peace and music. Many of the people there were dressed up, came on busses, and did plenty of drugs, and none of this was shocking anymore. The Merry Pranksters would have fit in perfectly. The “Graduation” was a failure and the Merry Pranksters soon began to fade away but they didn’t just push the envelope when they were doing “their thing,” they stretched it.

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