The great American hollow.
KEN KESEY: What I explore in all my work: wilderness. Settlers on this continent from the beginning have been seeking wilderness and its wildness. The explorers and pioneers sought that wildness because they could sense that in Europe everything had become locked tight. Things were all owned by the same people, and all of the roads went in the same direction forever. When we got here there was a sense of possibility and new direction, and it had to do with wildness. Throughout the work of James Fenimore Cooper there is what I call the American terror. It's very important to our literature, and it's important to who we are: the terror of the Hurons out there, the terror of the bear, the avalanche, the tornado--whatever may be over the next horizon.
As we came to the end of the continent, we manufactured our terror. We put together the bomb. Now we don't even have the bomb hanging over our heads to terrify us and give us reason to dress up in manly deerskin and go forth to battle it. There's something we're afraid of, but it doesn't have the clarity of the terror of the Hurons or the hydrogen bomb during the Cold War. Now it's fuzzy, and it's fuzzy because the people who are in control don't want you to draw a bead on the real danger, the real terror in this country.
FAGGEN: What is the "real terror" in America?
KESEY: When people ask me about LSD, I always make a point of telling them you can have the shit scared out of you with LSD because it exposes something, something hollow. Let's say you have been getting on your knees and bowing and worshiping; suddenly you take LSD, and you look, and there's just a hole, there's nothing there. The Catholic Church fills this hole with candles and flowers and litanies and opulence. The Protestant Church fills it with hand-wringing and pumped-up squeezing emotions because they can't afford the flowers and the candles. The Jews fill this hole with weeping and browbeating and beseeching of the sky: "How long, how long are you gonna treat us like this?" The Muslims fill it with rigidity and guns and a militant ethos. But all of us know that that's not what is supposed to be in that hole.
After I had been at Stanford for two years, I got into LSD. I began to see that the books I thought were the true accounting books--my grades, how I'd done in other schools, how I'd performed at jobs, whether I had paid off my car or not--were not at all the true books. There were other books that were being kept, real books. In those books is the real accounting of your life. And the mind says, "Oh, this is titillating." So you want to take some more LSD and see what else is there. And soon I had the experience that everyone who's ever dabbled in psychedelics has. A big hand grabs you by the back of the neck, and you hear a voice saying, "You want to see the books? Okay, here are the books." And it pushes your face right down into all of your cruelties and all of your meanness, all the times that you have been insensitive, intolerant, racist, sexist. It's all there, and you read it. You can't take your nose up off the books. You hate them. You hate who you are. You hate the fact that somebody has been keeping track, just as you feared. You hate it, but you can't move your arms for eight hours. Before you take any acid again you start trying to juggle the books. You start trying to be a little better person. Then you get the surprise. The next thing that happens is that you're leaning over looking at the books, and you feel the lack of the hand at the back of your neck. The thing that was forcing you to look at the books is no longer there. There's only a big hollow, the great American wild hollow, which is scarier than hell, scarier than purgatory or Satan. It's the fact that there isn't any hell and there isn't any purgatory, there isn't any Satan. And all you've got is Sartre sitting there with his momma--harsh, bleak, worse than guilt. And if you've got courage, you go ahead and examine that hollow.
FAGGEN: And that hollow is, for you, the new wilderness?
KESEY: That's the new wilderness. It's the same old wilderness, just no longer up on that hill or around that bend, or in that gully. It's because there are no more hills and gullies that the hollow is there, and you've got to explore the hollow with faith. If you don't have faith that there is something down there, pretty soon when you're in the hollow, you begin to get scared and start shaking. That's when you stop taking acid and start taking coke and drinking booze and start trying to fill the hollow with depressants and Valium. Real warriors like William Burroughs or Leonard Cohen or Wallace Stevens examine the hollow as well as anybody; they get in there, look far into the dark, and yet come out with poetry.
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|Title Annotation:||reprinted from The Paris Review, Spring 1994; author Ken Kesey; psychedelic drugs|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1994|
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