Have you ever read a book about a real life event and then watched a documentary about the same subject? The contrast of what we can learn from words and what we can learn from film is often jarring and sometimes shocking. One of my favorite books from youth is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe made literary fame by pioneering “new journalism” which is now called creative nonfiction. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was considered the book that defined the hippies and their philosophy. I read this book back in 1969, and now 42 years later I got to watch Magic Trip, a documentary that used actual film footage of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Wolfe interviewed all the principal people right after the events, and he also must have seen the original 30 hours of film, and I was blown away by the difference between the two ways of telling the same story.
Truth is the actual events. How close can we ever come to reconstructing the truth? What is the best evidence for the truth? When Farmer Ted bets his geeky friends he’ll hook up with Samantha in Sixteen Candles and his friends demand proof, he asks them what kind, and they say in unison, “Video!” As far as I can imagine, video comes closest to the truth as any evidence we can find – but even then it’s far from perfect. For centuries, before the advent of video, our knowledge of past events was based on writing.
How much can we know from reading? Before writing was invented our worldview was limited to the here and now. We had oral storytellers that conveyed news from distant lands and remembered events and people from the past, but it was very limited. Most of the time people’s consciousness was focused on the present and the immediate world around them. Then reading and writing was invented and information about endless places and countless past moments could be recorded so people could conjure up in their minds things that weren’t here and now. But how effective is reading at reproducing the past? How accurate can reading describe distant places and events?
All my life I’ve been a bookworm, spending hours a day with my head in a book. When young I most read fiction, and felt that time away from reality was just escapist entertainment, but over the decades I’ve shifted to reading more nonfiction, and felt I was learning stuff about other places, people and the past. But am I?
Lately I’ve been reading nonfiction books and then seeking out documentaries and photographs to supplement my reading, and in every case I’m shocked by how different my mental image from reading is from the photograph or film. Words are black marks on white paper, but they attempt to encode information that comes through our five senses. How well does any word for a color convey the actual color? Does the word blue suggest any particular shade of blue? Picture the wall of paint sample colors at your local Home Depot. Which of the thousands of blues are the one we call blue? Now think about the other four senses and words for sounds, textures, tastes and smells. How close do words come to the infinite varieties of sensual details?
Last night I watched a documentary Magic Trip about Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters taking a bus from the west coast to visit New York City for the 1964 Worlds Fair. In 1969 when I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe it blew me away by how exciting his non-fiction writing was at vividly conveying the story of these freaks on acid traveling across the country. Over the years I’ve read more books and articles about this event, and the people involved. To me this cross country trip was the legendary beginning of the hippies. Of course I was wrong. Kesey and his Merry Pranksters met the real hippies, like the Grateful Dead, when they got back from the trip and started promoting their acid test events. Hippies already existed in 1964.
The documentary Magic Trip was created around the actual film the Pranksters took while on the trip and it blew my mind again. It was absolutely nothing like I pictured from the Tom Wolfe book. First off, Kesey and the Pranksters didn’t look like hippies – only the women had long hair. And they all looked ordinary – I wouldn’t have named them the Merry Pranksters – that moniker seems way to grand for them. The people in the film looked like college kids from the late 1950s or early 1960s acting really silly. They looked more like early Beach Boys wearing stripe shirts. Their antics looked as sophisticated as old episodes of The Monkees.
In some of the film clips Kesey and the Pranksters are on heavy doses of acid but you couldn’t tell that from what you see. Now I know what they were feeling, I can remember that from those days. Acid is like having a hurricane in your head, but you don’t see that from the outside. What you see is kids being goofy and stupid. Now in the book, Tom Wolfe tries to convey the epic psychological discoveries they were making – things going on in their heads, and the Magic Trip film tries to suggest that too, but the physical evidence of visuals from the film and sound recordings from tape just don’t back it up. Wolfe wrote about what was going on in their heads and we can’t see that in the film.
As evidence of what actually happened I credit the film over Wolfe. But is that fair or even accurate? How much can we judge the truth of an event from what we can see and hear? As counter evidence, how much do people know you from seeing you and hearing you talk? See what I mean? Reality and truth is deceptive.
It’s impossible to convey a psychedelic trip in words – and the clips of the trip festivals at the end of the movie don’t even come close. What you see is kids dancing and acting weird and idiotic – no wonder the silent-majority Americans were freaked out by the freaks. Back then the claim was drugs took you to a state of higher consciousness, but I always felt like they took me to a state of animal consciousness – a lowering. Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite revealing, and you can learn a lot about how the mind functions, but all that talk about higher states was bullshit. But then I value the verbal mind over the nonverbal mind.
In one part of the film, the west coast Merry Pranksters, along with their legendary bus driver Neal Cassidy, famed beat character Dean Moriarty from On the Road, meet up with his fellow real life On the Road beat characters Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Hippies meet their beatnik idols. But things don’t go off well. Jack is morose and turned off by the silly pranksters. Then the west coast psychedelic legends go and meet the east coast prophets of LSD, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Leary is so turned off by them that he runs away and hides and leaves the future Ram Das to deal with them. Leary and Alpert were trying to make LSD a serious tool for studying consciousness and these proto-hippies were abusing acid like teenagers breaking into their parents liquor cabinet. In 1964 most people did not know what to make of these crazy kids.
Seeing Magic Trip was shocking to me. Imagine how disturbing it would be to discover films of Jesus and his merry band of disciples. Christianity has created thousands of different interpretations of the history of Jesus – so imagine if we got to see what Jesus really said and did? Video can be so shocking to see after studying words. We have no idea what Jesus was like or what he said. Everything he supposedly said was recreated decades after the fact. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe is deifying Kesey and his disciples just three years after the real event, and it’s impossible to know how much of the legend is Wolfe and how much is Kesey?
Tom Wolfe had used words to make this trip into an epic adventure, a transcendental experience of the first order. He totally mythologized the people involved – of course the Pranksters were trying to do that themselves even while they were on the trip. They gave each other funny names making themselves into characters on an epic adventure traveling in their legendary bus Further.
Now I don’t mean to suggest that these folks weren’t experiencing eye opening philosophical experiences. They were exploring a new consciousness, breaking out of the rigid 1950s stereotypes, and exploring new experiences that would come to be known as the psychedelic sixties – but it wasn’t new consciousness. Throughout history groups of people have rediscovered the Dionysian joys of intoxication and ecstasy – and wanting to escape from the rigid confines of society. Even in the film Kesey says they were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies.
I remember my psychedelic days from over forty years ago, and it pretty much followed the Pranksters. Me and my friends did a lot of silly and stupid things while exploring the doors of perception. I had been inspired by Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley and wanted my trips to be scientific experiments into the mind, but they weren’t. It was just me and my friends doing many of the same exact things the Pranksters did in Magic Trip – going group swimming, driving around in funny vehicles that got a lot of attention, trying to play musical instruments when we had no ability, getting zonked out by nature, admiring the beats, upsetting the older people. Oh, I learned a lot, but I can safely say to kids today, don’t bother, there are much better ways to explore the mind. Read Steven Pinker, Edge.org and learn how to achieve Zen mindfulness.
But does any of this answer the question about how much truth we can attain from words? In terms of acquiring knowledge, words can get you far higher than any amount of acid. Truth and experience are wordless – ineffable. I’ve experienced wordless states of consciousness through drugs and a mini-stroke, and that’s not a normal human state of consciousness. As humans, like it or not, our consciousness minds are based on words and language – and language and words do not mirror reality perfectly. Or even closely. I know there are non-verbal conscious states of mind but the past and future don’t exist in those states. The mere act of trying to recreate the past is a verbal state of consciousness.
The real question is: How close does the nonverbal reality match our verbal reality? I don’t think very much at all. My proof is the fact that we all live in different verbal realities, and even when several people experience the same event they seldom recreate the shared reality with the same words.
A good lesson in understanding this is to study writing creative nonfiction. I took two MFA writing courses with Kristen Iversen dealing with Creative Nonfiction and I learned quite a lot about “telling the truth” with words. It’s actually very hard, if not impossible. One of the first writing lessons she gave our class was to take a memory from when we were young and put it into words. Even here I’m being misleading. I can’t remember the exact assignment. I think she might have told us to pick a memory from when we were twelve, but I’m not sure. What immediately occurred to me to write about was a memory of me staying with my grandmother who maintained an old apartment building on Biscayne Bay in Miami, and the night she gave me an old fishing tackle box left in one of the apartments, and how I went out alone to fish off the concrete wall by the bay. The more I thought about the memory the more details I could dredge up, but eventually I realized I couldn’t be sure of any of the exact details. Memory is so faulty, but they’re also tricky. It’s easy to create false memories. But my final essay was praised in class for its vivid details.
Was the essay absolutely true? No, it wasn’t. But I didn’t feel I was lying either. I had recreated in words what were vague impressions and memories in my mind. Mining those memories took work. There’s a quality of effort in recreating memories that is very enlightening. But still this brings us no closer to explaining the difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.
I have read many nonfiction books on Wyatt Earp. I have seen many documentaries on Wyatt Earp. I have read many fictional stories about Wyatt Earp. I have seen many fictional movies about Wyatt Earp. I have heard many people discuss Wyatt Earp as a legendary mythic character of the old west. Which of these various modes of learning about Wyatt Earp are the best for knowing who the real Wyatt Earp was like? Is Tombstone the movie better than The Last Gunfight the nonfiction book, or Doc, a fictional novel where Wyatt is a prominent character? Or the PBS American Experience episode about Wyatt Earp?
Here’s what I can tell you. It’s only based on personal feelings. Wyatt Earp the man who lived in the nonverbal reality of the 19th century is long gone and unknowable. That kind of reality is unknowable. That’s why it’s called ineffable. I can say some fictional versions of Wyatt Earp vary far from the actual reality of the nonfictional evidence, but can we say the Wyatt we create with historical evidence is actually close the to real flesh and blood Wyatt? Yes, I think we can, even though there are many nonfictional Wyatt Earps to consider. Every account, whether fiction or nonfiction creates a new edition of Wyatt Earp. But I actually doubt we really get that close to the real man – some accounts are just more factual than others.
Scientists like to entertain the idea of multiple universes because there should be an infinity of these other universes allowing endless versions of our own world, many just slightly different. That’s how verbally reconstructed Wyatt Earps exists. There’s an infinity of them. Some of them are close to the real world that did exist, but it’s very hard to judge which are the closest. We can spot the absurd examples easy enough like all the Wyatt Earps in science fiction stories, but we can’t say which historical Wyatt is actually the best.
I think we’re getting closer to understand nonfiction, fiction, history and myth, but we’re not there yet. I am reminded of a book called The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. What Jaynes suggested was for early humanity they had a different state of mind than we do now, which he called the bicameral mind. I don’t want to go into the details of his theory other than to say that in the past we shifted from one kind of consciousness to another. I just want to suggest that as our verbal consciousness evolved, we’re now shifting into a third state of consciousness. This new consciousness is based on sharing facts and building a consensus model of reality based on science.
We’re not that good at it yet – the proof can be seen by how Democrats and Republicans model our political reality. And even conservatives and liberals seldom share the same ideas. But in theory we believe through science and other forms of knowledge, that we can model our complex social reality in political and economic laws, as well as nonfiction, history and even fiction.
In other words, many of us believe given enough facts we could prove to each other the validity of a model of reality. Science has gone the furthest by explaining the physical world. The consensus is very strong with that – there’s very little fiction or myth in science. All other areas of knowledge, like politics, ethics, law, economics are a long way from matching reality with any kind of common agreement. In other words, they are mostly built on fiction and myths.
What I’m saying finally is, we all like to believe that we can separate nonfiction and history from fiction and myths. Whether that’s true or even possible, is still open for scientific evaluation. In other words, if you hold any beliefs other than those covered by a narrow range of scientific study, you can’t be sure if there is any difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.
There is no way to know who Ken Kesey or Wyatt Earp was scientifically, but is there any emerging discipline that could use consensus like science, to measure the accuracy between nonfiction and fiction? Is the scholarship of History rigorous enough to make that claim? Or will all areas of knowledge outside of science always by undermined by subjectivity?
JWH – 12/30/11