Trial by fire– the phrase goes back to the medieval judicial system, whereby someone suspected of a crime would be branded with red-hot irons. Then, after a few weeks, a judge would walk by and appraise the wounds- if they had started to heal, then it was obvious God was on their side and they were innocent- but if the burn marks were infectious or oozing puss, then it was proof that the suspect was guilty and impure. Such was the judicial system at the time.
The words acid test and ordeal denote the same historical practice, and though no longer practiced, we still use all three words to refer to experiences that are difficult, painful, and trying. ‘Acid test’ took on a different meaning in the 1960s with the dissemination of acid, or LSD. Tom Wolfe’s 1968 work of non-fiction, The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, recounts the journey of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they take acid communally in an attempt to transform themselves and the society around them. While considered by some to be a wholesale advertisement for acid, there’s actually a point in the book where Kesey tells everyone to move beyond acid. That is to say: it’s a test. Take it, shatter your normal perceptions, and then return to life.
The first time I took acid was a magnificent experience. It made me believe in inter-subjectivity. It let me see how severely I treat my natural energies instead of allowing them to flow. It brought attention to the most basic things, like Time and my own body. A few years after that, I got hold of some acid again. This time was totally different. I took it for a whole week by myself, becoming absolutely miserable and partially psychotic. It was Finals Week, which for those who don’t know, is the worst time possible to binge on acid. Luckily, I passed all my classes and graduated anyway. These days, if someone asks me if they should take acid, I can’t tell them it’s a bad idea without denying my own ‘trial by fire’. At the same time, it’s my conviction that sober, unadulterated reality is absurd enough, vivid enough, and worthy of astonishment just as it is.