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Carlos Castaneda 1935?–
American writer of autobiographical anthropology field studies. While attempting to write a thesis on medicinal plants, Castaneda met a Yaqui Indian brujo (a sorcerer or medicine man) named don Juan Matus. He has written of his experiences with don Juan in several books that relate his search...
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Carlos Castaneda 1935?–
American writer of autobiographical anthropology field studies. While attempting to write a thesis on medicinal plants, Castaneda met a Yaqui Indian brujo (a sorcerer or medicine man) named don Juan Matus. He has written of his experiences with don Juan in several books that relate his search for a nonrational reality and his attempts to become a Yaqui warrior, "to balance the terror of being a man with the wonder of being a man." Although Castaneda calls these books anthropological field studies, there are critics and scholars who consider them fiction. Castaneda's life is shrouded in mystery. His birth date has been given as ranging from 1925 to the late 1930s. Most sources agree that he was born in Brazil, but accounts of his childhood differ greatly. He moved to Los Angeles either with his family or on his own to study at UCLA. He claims to have served in the United States Army but his service record cannot be found by the Defense Department. The ambiguity of his past can be attributed to Castaneda's habit of either avoiding the subject or supplying conflicting information. He adheres to don Juan's belief that a warrior must divorce himself from his past and is not much more candid about his present, stating that "to weasel in and out of different worlds you have to remain inconspicuous." The Teachings of Don Juan was the first product of Castaneda's lengthy apprenticeship with don Juan. This chronicle of Castaneda's bizarre experiences, many of which are drug-related, enjoyed wide popular success. Castaneda contends, however, that his work is often misunderstood. He denies the charge that he is merely relating the experiences of drug trips, and claims that he was less convinced of the validity of his experiences when they resulted from drug use. In his later books, in fact, drugs and medicinal plants play a much smaller part in his learning processes. He wrote Journey to Ixtlan as his doctoral thesis, and in 1973 received his Ph.D. from UCLA's department of anthropology. Despite the controversy over his hallucinogenic experiences, Castaneda's books are praised as unique anthropological studies of the Yaqui culture and philosophical treatises on the existence of alternate ways of viewing reality. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
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The fundamental issue which ["The Teachings of Don Juan"] confronts is as old as civilization, and of the utmost importance. Throughout his history man has tried to rationalize his suffering by attributing it to the existence of demonic spirits, which he has then attempted to propitiate. Our highly technological society clearly does not encourage belief in demonic forces. Science is our answer to the primitive's propitiation rituals….
The contemporary argument against our scientific rationalism is, broadly, that by ignoring the nether world we are only half-alive, truncated individuals cut off from the rich sources of both good and evil…. [We] should still go out to meet the devil, not perhaps in search of power over others but in search of power over ourselves, and a fuller humanity.
Such then is the debate that this volume seeks to illuminate. Mr. Castaneda's descriptions of his experiences with peyote are both interesting and moving. It made him violently ill, and disclosed to him both terror and ecstasy. Towards the end of his fourth year he began to have what the layman might describe as a nervous breakdown, and after a particularly shattering evening with the Don, he abruptly broke off relations. It was only several months later that he decided to write about his experiences in book form.
Don Juan emerges as an enigmatic, ultimately sinister guru figure; ascetic and authoritarian, he confidently imposes complex interpretations on the hallucinated visions of his bewildered and highly suggestible student. The spirits of his underworld, contacted through drugs, can protect and ennoble those they fancy, but destroy those who lack discipline of reverence. The Don was convinced that his disciple was well-favored by the gods, but if this is so, one shudders to think what happens to the ill-favored ones.
Since we are given virtually no information about the Don's credentials as a sorcerer (or indeed about his family or friends) it is very difficult to decide whether his symbology has genuine ethnic roots in Yaqui culture, whether he is just a more or less harmless crank, or whether he was seeking a corrupting kind of power over his disciple (have we not all heard the threat latent in the phrase, "I want to turn you on"?). Certainly the author's final hallucination, during which he threw a rock at his master who seemed bent on destroying him, would support such a suggestion. But Mr. Castaneda nowhere considers this possibility.
The second half of the book is called "A Structural Analysis," in which the author attempts to analyze his experiences in the language of the social sciences. His ponderous discussion of suggestibility is vitiated by his failure to consider either the Don's motivation or the possibility that his demonology was arbitrarily composed on an ad hoc basis. His attempt to establish criteria for testing the coherence and objectivity of the Don's system are surprisingly simpleminded: a sophomoric essay on the phenomenology of perception, about which the author clearly knows very little.
This book is unsatisfying because it falls uneasily between ethnography, spiritual autobiography, and travel literature. As ethnography it is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough….
As confessional literature it is tantalizingly incomplete. One feels that the author's "scientific" scruples led him to withhold several chapters of the story. One would like to know for example, what kind of religious desire made him turn to peyote, how he found the courage to trust the Don, if and when that trust was lost, how his experiences with peyote affected his daily life, and whether it left him a stronger or a weaker man. One admires his daring but one regrets his reticence.
Dudley Young, "The Magic of Peyote," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 29, 1968, p. 30.
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[The Teachings of Don Juan] achieves three things: (1) it presents a description of personal experience with peyote, datura, and hallucinogenic mushrooms; (2) it describes the relationship between a student anthropologist and an elderly North Mexican Indian; and (3) it offers an analysis of a set of concepts and a pattern of thought concerning a realm of knowledge important in the Indian's world view. (pp. 30-1)
The description of the young anthropologist's hallucinogenic experiences, under the tutelage of the Indian, is remarkably vivid and compelling. Certainly what Castaneda has put on paper, recording the highlights of his several experiences with each of the three drugs, ranks with the best accounts by experimental psychologists, such as those by Havelock Ellis and Weir Mitchell with peyote and the Wassons with hallucinogenic mushrooms. They seem to me superior to the various literary accounts, such as those of Aldous Huxley. While the evocative descriptions are at least on a par with Huxley's, Castaneda's accounts seem based on more systematic use of notes and less after-the-experience reworking. Castaneda's literary skill led me to complete absorption in what seemed almost the direct experience itself. I think that this comes about in part through the skillful delineation of the immediate setting, namely, the personal relationship between the author and his teacher, which provided the motivation and the meaning of the activities.
It is in the presentation of this relationship that Castaneda is at his very best. With the skill of an accomplished novelist, utilizing suspense in character unfoldment and compelling suggestion rather than full exposition of place and situation, the intense relationship developed between the young and groping anthropologist and the richly experienced old teacher engrosses the reader. To me this is the chief value of the book and represents a remarkable achievement. It seems to me, further, that anthropologists concerned with preparing students for significant field relationships will find Castaneda's presentation of his experience immensely useful. The many facets of participant observation are available here for illuminating analysis and discussion of what this kind of fieldwork involves. (pp. 31-2)
It seems wholly gratuitous to emphasize, as the subtitle does, any connection between the subject matter of the book and the cultural traditions of the Yaquis. One suspects that the publisher went beyond Castaneda's intention, for the text itself provides no data for such a connection…. I am forced to the conclusion that Don Juan is one of those many persons to be encountered in Mexico and Arizona who, although Yaqui in family origin perhaps, have never participated in Yaqui group life or at best have done so only sporadically. (pp. 32-3)
Insofar as the reader is informed by this book, the teachings of Don Juan exist in a cultural limbo. Within the bounds of this serious limitation, it is nevertheless an excellent piece of work. One hopes that Castaneda will cultivate his exceptional gift for writing expressive prose and continue to employ it in his further contributions to anthropology. (p. 33)
Edward H. Spicer, in American Anthropologist (copyright 1969 by the American Anthropological Association; reproduced by permission of the American Anthropological Association), Vol. 71, No. 2, 1969 (and reprinted in Seeing Castaneda: Reactions to the "Don Juan" Writings of Carlos Castaneda, edited by Daniel C. Noel, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1976, pp. 30-3).
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[The reader of The Teachings of Don Juan] can ignore the fact that at all relevant times the author was a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Despite the last fifty pages of jargon-loaded "structural analysis," this is a work of art rather than of scholarship, and it is as a diary of unusual personal experience that the book deserves attention. Assessed on this basis the book is not of superlative quality perhaps, but very good indeed.
The don Juan of the title is an old man, a Yaqui Indian from Sonora in Mexico, who now lives at an unspecified locality in Arizona. This is all we are told about him. The book contains no bibliography and no further clues about the Yaqui and their way of life. Indeed if don Juan had been described as a man from Mars it would have made little difference. The text is narrowly confined to the personal interactions between don Juan and the author between the summer of 1960 and the autumn of 1965. It is a relationship which is at once intimate yet tense, as between Moby Dick and Ahab, God and Job, or any psychoanalyst and his patient. (p. 12)
The book is a step by step record of how, in seeking to learn about don Juan's secrets, Castaneda gradually became his apprentice. Don Juan taught his craft by initiation. The pupil was first induced to take a drug; then, while under its influence or subsequently, he was persuaded, by means of hypnotic commands or less direct modes of suggestion, to accept the teacher's interpretation of the drug-induced experience. From the teacher's point of view, this was a road to true knowledge. Just how far Castaneda himself came to believe in don Juan's fantasies is left carefully obscure. And the undoubted fascination of the book lies precisely in this: the uncertainty of the author's own attitude. It is don Juan, not Castaneda, who has the dominant voice.
So this is not just another account of the joys and terrors of mescalin-induced visions, for it has the novelty that we are led to apprehend the contours of the other world according to don Juan's categories rather than as figments of a bemused American's imagination. (pp. 12-13)
In between descriptions of the techniques of drug preparation and vivid accounts of Castaneda's personal hallucinations, don Juan is presented as a mystic spouting the universal jargon of the apocalypse…. But just how much of this "philosophy" is really that of don Juan and how much is Castaneda (or even don Juan himself) regurgitating the Book of Revelations is hard to say. The Yaqui Indians incidentally have been Catholic Christians of a sort for several hundred years. What I find worrying is that although the reader is likely to end up with a strong impression of what don Juan must be like, we are, in fact, told practically nothing about him. All that we know concerns his attitudes toward the sources of his magic, and although these seem coherent enough in the setting of this book, they have no obvious connection with Yaqui culture as it has been described for us by other authors….
The patients of psychoanalysts are unreliable witnesses of either the personality or the doctrine of their mentors, and Castaneda is no exception. It seems to me that he has just fitted don Juan into a mold that is ready-made.
Potentially his theme is very big. He is trying to describe a non-logical cosmos in terms which we can accept as constituting a "reality." But somehow, despite the author's sensitivity to the poetic symbolism which is implicit in his often terrifying experiences, the whole business gets reduced to triviality. Perhaps it is simply that the size of the canvas is too small for what it is meant to portray. (p. 13)
Edmund Leach, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1969 Nyrev, Inc.), June 5, 1969.
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The full significance of drugs as an alternative metaphysics of existence awaits something more than the pseudo-apocalyptic prose of Leary or its neo-Zen endorsement by Alan Watts. In [A Separate Reality, an] intensely personal account of his apprenticeship to a Yaqui Indian shaman, Carlos Castaneda draws a terrifying yet compelling portrait of the concrete demands and rewards of a life lived in and through the use of the hallucinogens. As a result, the outline of the significance of drugs for the Western mind is sketched and the full seriousness of such an alternative way of life made apparent….
There are thrills galore in this book, but a recounting of the bizarre and mysterious experiences undergone by Castaneda—he travels through water, is pursued by irreal objects, and witnesses a number of states of non-ordinary reality—would not do justice to the importance of this work. A Separate Reality is not a Disneyland outing; it is a remarkable probe of the consequences of seriously exploring worlds not recognized by Western Consciousness. As such, it contains an ontology, an epistemology and an ethics.
The theory of reality that undergirds Don Juan's cosmos is similar to that of contemporary process thought. There is a fleeting "really real" world behind the stolid facade of things; to catch it, one must rely on the speed provided by the hallucinogens. But the mere ingestion of these drugs is not sufficient, for one is required to follow a strict regimen of analysis in order to become "a man of knowledge" (Don Juan's term for the profession of shaman). The rigors of this epistemology are as exacting as that of any contemporary scientific methodology, requiring close attention to detail and the precise performance of sophisticated techniques for successful experimentation.
The major consequence of this exploration of an alien culture, however, lies in the tacit ethic practiced by Don Juan. As a mode of concrete existence, this way of life demands a supreme and unbending effort of the will. Drugs, in other words, are not spiritual vitamins gulped down to ward off the evils of capitalism. Rather only a magnanimous stoicism exhibiting severe indifference to pain and loss but tempered by a sense of the comic can allow one to live in this world of mystery and magic. The courage of the warrior who has put aside fear and exercises a constant and unbending intent to fathom the inexhaustible worlds of creative wonder is the required code of conduct….
In the Politics of Experience R. D. Laing suggests that a new breed of priest-psychiatrist is called for: men of knowledge capable of helping others to endure and understand the voyage through the depths of time to the sources of existence. Don Juan's tutelage of Castaneda bears a striking resemblance to such a feat. Kind but emphatic, serious yet at times hilarious in his humor, he is the model of the good teacher evoking self-understanding rather than dispensing barren factual explanations after the manner of present-day scientism.
In an age that upholds discursive analysis as the paradigm of intelligence, the significance of the irrational vanishes…. A Separate Reality restores the irrational to its proper place: the reality of the unexpected together with its accompanying terror are part of the birthright of man. (p. 482)
Post-industrial modes of awareness have shrunk to the level of predictability and efficient performance, and the element of creative surprise has all but withered. While not everyone can follow the paths of Don Juan, his message should stir our sleeping depths: "We are men and our lot is to learn and to be hurled into inconceivable worlds…. Seeing is for an impeccable man. Temper your spirit now, become a warrior, learn to see, and then you'll know that there is no end to the new worlds for our vision." Castaneda's courageous effort to do so warrants our thanks and his work our careful attention. (pp. 482-83)
Joseph Grange, in Commonweal (copyright © 1971 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 17, 1971.
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[The Teachings of Don Juan dealt with Castaneda's] own reaction to the experiences he submitted himself to, but it was also an attempt to see into a non-Western system of thought, to go further into the culture of the Yaqui Indians than anyone had penetrated before. The book has become something of a cult book in the United States where it is obviously grist to the mills of the expanding population of opters-out. For the first time, if I'm not mistaken, Castaneda's investigation of a Yaqui 'way of knowledge' has given some degree of cultural and historical authenticity to the use of what have become known as psychedelic drugs.
Whether in the spirit of true inquiry, or whether impelled by his bank manager …, Castaneda returned to Mexico in 1968 and took up the conversations with Don Juan that he had abandoned three years earlier.
A Separate Reality is an account of his latest 'experiences' with Don Juan, together with a few from the earlier period that had got buried in his voluminous notes. It is a more commercial book than the first one, written more for his cult addicts than for the academics. He is now concerned with the mechanics of story-telling, not with explanation or analysis.
Not surprisingly he was sent away with a flea in his ear when he told Don Juan how he had tried to explain in the first book just what social pressures were at work to make a mitote—a meeting where peyote is ingested—a success. The techniques of the contemporary social scientist are ill-adapted to cope with other 'realities', and Don Juan merely laughed. Learning his lesson, Castaneda in this book simply tries to tell what happened to him as he drove about Mexico with Don Juan, ate a variety of mushrooms, and met an extraordinary collection of people capable of doing things like crossing cataracts by using their tentacles. (pp. 51-2)
A belief in other realities is of course a dangerous creed, subversive of both capitalism and socialism. Where it seems to me extremely attractive is that it allows pre-industrial non-Europeans to have a commendable reality of their own. American opters-out, who turn to Zen or the ways of the Yaqui, are, I suspect, playing an important role in educating their own society to accept that it does not have a monopoly over reality. (p. 52)
Richard Gott, "Mushrooms," in New Statesman (© 1972 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 14, 1972, pp. 51-2.
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Taken together—and they should be read in the order they were written—[Carlos Castaneda's books] form a work which is among the best that the science of anthropology has produced. Three aspects of the work have profoundly influenced my response to it: first, the interest and value of the teachings of Don Juan are extraordinary in themselves; second, Carlos Castaneda has conveyed these teachings with great artistry so that they affect us at many levels; third, he shows us the conditions under which the teachings were transmitted to him, and not only makes us feel the relation he had with his teacher, but also reveals something of his personal struggle with standard Western reality whose thrall kept preventing him from accepting Don Juan's lessons on their own terms. (p. 7)
The story [these books] tell is so good, and the descriptions so vivid, that I was utterly fascinated as I read. What makes these books great is that Castaneda has not been afraid to commit things to paper that he himself does not understand…. Luckily, something in Castaneda's guts told him that there was more to his experiences than what he could understand, so rather than give us the pabulum of analyzed data, he has done a wonderful job of conveying his experiences while under the tutelage of Don Juan. (pp. 7, 10)
Mescalito, the "spirit" of the Peyote plant, indicated to Don Juan that Carlos was the "chosen" one, the person to whom Don Juan should pass on his knowledge.
The result of this has been, for us, a very happy collaboration, and it is because of the collaborative nature of the work that it is appropriate, I think, to call it science. Castaneda modestly says that he is letting Don Juan's words speak for themselves, but this is true only in that Castaneda does not burden them with qualifications or alter them while trying to explain them. The fact is that the words would not be there at all if Castaneda had not been there "with unbending intent," and if he had not put his very being on the line so that Don Juan would also give him his utmost….
Although I feel he should do even more of this, Castaneda does reveal enough of himself for us to see some of the ways in which we are like him (or unlike him, as the case may be). In fact, his courage lies not only in the fact that he persists in his effort to become a "man of knowledge"—a path that involves continuing openness to the unknown—but also in the fact that he is willing to speak of things concerning himself that most people would prefer to hide from themselves as well as others. Yet it is these things, the truths that hit you in the pit of the stomach, that enable us to see that our image of man is just that—an image—and that suggest entirely other ways of perceiving man and the world. I am not thinking here of Castaneda's strange, beautiful and disconcerting experiences in what he calls "nonordinary reality," but rather of some simpler, more everyday ones which I am sure nearly every reader of these books can recognize as his own. (p. 10)
Castaneda, like nearly every member of Western civilization, feels himself to be superior to members of other cultures and in fact to all other entities in the world. But since such feelings conflict with our democratic ideology, he claims that Don Juan is his equal [in a scene described in "Journey to Ixtlan"]. Don Juan not only sees through this, but also sees that Castaneda is pimping in the sense that Castaneda's reason for being there in the first place is not to learn something but to collect information for someone else: to add to the corpus of anthropological knowledge, for instance, by writing a Ph.D. thesis that will add to what is already known so that others can then add even more and it will appear that our knowledge is actually increasing.
But knowledge of what? This is the crux of the matter…. In their studies of the cultures of other people, even those anthropologists who sincerely love the people they study almost never think that they are learning something about the way the world really is. Rather, they conceive of themselves as finding out what other people's conceptions of the world are. For the longest time Castaneda, too, thought this way about what Don Juan was telling him.
It is stupid and wasteful, however, to think of Don Juan's knowledge—and that of other non-Western peoples—as no more than conceptions of some fixed reality. Castaneda makes it clear that the teachings of Don Juan do tell us something of how the world really is, and I feel that this is knowledge of great value. I don't have the space to put down my own reading of what Don Juan is saying, and I can't even begin to point out all the delights to be found in these books. In any case, the excellence of Castaneda's writing ensures, I believe, that readers will discover these things for themselves. (p. 14)
Paul Riesman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 22, 1972.
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Castaneda's third, and presumably final, account [A Separate Reality] does not deal at all with hallucinogenic drugs …, but it is no less interesting—if anything, it is more strangely beautiful and provocative for being less dramatic.
Don Juan's point all along has been that drugs were merely alternative, if not incidental, routes to becoming a "man of knowledge," but Castaneda had been almost exclusively concerned with their role in the process. Now, in what is more an amplification than a revision of the earlier books, Castaneda has sifted through ten years of notes to study Don Juan's nondrug techniques for "stopping the world" (i.e., shifting to the perception of another reality) and arranged this material into seventeen chapter "lessons," most of which are designed to splinter the ego and erase self-consciousness. The master/student relationship—Don Juan, arch and playfully enigmatic; Castaneda, earnest and desperately trying to "see" rather than "look"—has by now become so engaging a part of Castaneda's running saga that, as with Holmes and Watson, the interplay of the characters alone can buoy up even those chapters that don't prompt one to fill the margins with question marks of wonder. (p. 67)
The extraordinary thing about Castaneda's books has been their experiential authority, their ability to make us believe the unbelievable because it is presented as having really happened. His very academic skepticism so draws the reader to his side (a man of reason, after all) that, when he "sees," beyond doubt, we have no choice but to stay with him and follow the course. And if all this begs the question of solipsism, it does so in the most fascinating and basic way. "Why should the world be only as you think it is?" Don Juan asks. "Who gave you the authority to say so?"
It was evidently a point well taken; to his credit, Castaneda refuses to present this newly perceived reality as anything more than "one of many descriptions." Even his own spiritual experience, which provides the dramatic climax of the book, is not used as a pitch for recruitment. He does not proselytize; he merely gives information. And insofar as the Indian culture he describes is alien to most readers, this information alone makes fascinating reading. The nature whose "flow" the brujo must perceive is not the cozy green most Americans now say they want to get back to, but the primitive brutality of the Sonora Desert, a world where nature is an interlocking series of "powers," few of them benign, and where life itself under the shifting desert light shimmers with impenetrable mystery. This sense of landscape, and the awe it inspires, so fills the book that at times it takes on the magical air of legend telling over a campfire, when anything seems possible. It is truly another world, foreign enough to make us suspend judgment, and Castaneda's achievement is that he makes it tangible for us. (p. 68)
Joseph Kanon, in Saturday Review (© 1972 Saturday Review Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 11, 1972.
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Paul Riesman's review of Carlos Castaneda's three books ("The Teachings of Don Juan," "A Separate Reality," and "Journey to Ixtlan") [see excerpt above], while a respectful and illuminating commentary, left me more bewildered than ever.
Since I am by no means familiar with anthropology, and have not yet read Castaneda's most recent book, "Journey," I should make it clear that my reaction is certainly an amateur's and no doubt very private … but is it possible that these books are non-fiction?
I realize that everyone accepts them as anthropological studies, yet they seem to me remarkable works of art, on the Hesse-like theme of a young man's initiation into "another way" of reality. They are beautifully constructed. The dialogue is faultless. The character of Don Juan is unforgettable. There is a novelistic momentum—rising suspenseful action, a gradual revelation of character … the moment when Don Juan sees in the narrator a certain secret he clung to as a child, which must be overcome if he is to become a "man of knowledge."
It is quite possible that Don Juan represents a "non-ordinary reality" so strange to me that I cannot accept it, and must try to reason my way out of believing. But I don't think so. The voice of Don Juan has always been with us…. (p. 68)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Anthropology-or Fiction?" in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 26, 1972 (and reprinted in Seeing Castaneda: Reactions to the "Don Juan" Writings of Carlos Castaneda, edited by Daniel C. Noel, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1976, pp. 68-9).
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Having made out with a good thing in "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge," Carlos Castaneda now writes a kind of "Don Juan Revisited" [with "A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan"]. There is a certain poignancy in the picture of a raw young anthropologist in his encounter with a wise old man of another culture, and in both books Castaneda has played this for all it is worth, even to his own indignity. But no professional anthropologist who read the first book was ever able to suppose it made any contribution to Yaqui ethnography, and it is even unclear to what degree Don Juan was Yaqui in culture. The Appendix purporting to be "A Structural Analysis" shows an abrupt change of style and was evidently tacked on at the behest of a thesis committee, in order to retrieve otherwise woefully inadequate ethnography. But this tedious attempt to play dutiful Lévi-Straussian games can have satisfied neither committee nor the general reader.
The long disquisition of Don Juan and the detailing of each confused emotional reaction of the author, in the present volume, imply either total recall, novelistic talent, or a tape recorder. No banality goes unrecorded, nothing is summarized, nothing is spared us, and yet the nourishment of it all hardly matches that in Jello. The total effect is self-dramatizing and vague, and Castaneda curiously manages to be at once disingenuous and naïve. Even as belles letters the book is wanting, for the writing is pretentious (twice we read of "insidious hair," as though the writer were enamoured of his concoction). The smoking of the "psilocybe" (mushroom) raises some wonder too.
There seems to exist a sizeable public with a taste for the plastic flowers of science-writing in Ardrey, Heyerdahl, and Desmond Morris, and that public will no doubt be pleased with this new production. One longs for sheer information on datura and narcotic mushrooms beyond the oblique words of Don Juan and the empty feelings of the acolyte, and both books together advance our knowledge of peyotism not a whit. But perhaps it is unfair to expect this of an ego trip. Everything is smarmy with self-important and really quite trivial feelings and narcissistic self-preoccupation.
One's impatience is aroused by the most obvious questions being left unasked. For example, is "a separate reality" the same for every society, or even for two individuals? And is a toxic state of the brain any earnest for the existence of another "reality"? The book is pseudo-profound, sophomoric and deeply vulgar. To one reader at least, for decades interested in Amerindian hallucinogens, the book is frustratingly and tiresomely dull, posturing pseudoethnography and, intellectually, kitsch. (pp. 41-2)
Weston LaBarre, "Stinging Criticism from the Author of 'The Peyote Cult'". (1972) (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), in Seeing Castenada: Reactions to the "Don Juan" Writings of Carlos Castenada, edited by Daniel C. Noel, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1976, pp. 40-2.
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One of the first things I talked about with Castaneda when we met was the novelistic quality of his books. I told him frankly that as a novelist the first thing that occurred to me when I noticed the similarities between our books [Castaneda's "A Separate Reality" and Sukenick's "Out"] was that he too must be writing a novel. Since Joyce Carol Oates's letter to the Sunday Times Book Review raising the same possibility [see excerpt above], I understand this must be a natural speculation for novelists and perhaps for others.
Castaneda, when I first met him two years ago, was rather different from the way he is now, and the change in him reflects the course the books have taken. That evening he struck me as a kind of Candide parrying with a schizophrenic episode, and in fact a kind of cultural schizophrenia—parallel to what one might call the controlled pathology induced by Don Juan—has been the key to his books since the first one, with its experiential reportage in the body of the book, and its attempt at an abstract objective analysis added on at the end. (p. 111)
[Being] overly concerned with the factuality of Castaneda's account seems in itself literal-minded. Castaneda is a visionary and in what sense does one ask whether a vision is "true"? A vision is beyond the category of fact, other than the fact of its having happened at all. Like a story, it is neither true nor false, only persuasive or unreal, and I think there are few people who would argue that Castaneda's accounts of his experience are not persuasive, as persuasive in fact as the most accomplished novels. (p. 112)
Part of the enormous impact of Castaneda's books is due to the fact that they come at a time when [our commitment to statistics] is beginning to crumble in many quarters, when the empirical tradition has come to appear obviously inadequate, and the fact that Don Juan's teachings have so many similarities with Zen, with "The Book of the Dead," with witchlore, with Sufism, with various Eastern disciplines, with the Western mystical tradition, with Jungian speculations, and perhaps most interestingly with Wilhelm Reich and his followers, only indicates that it is part of an important subplot in the story of the culture, and in stories,… everything comes together. A major peripeteia is about to come off: what seemed true begins to lose credibility, and the incredible looks more and more likely.
Part of this cultural turnabout is the discovery that all accounts of our experience, all versions of "reality," are of the nature of fiction. There's your story and my story, there's the journalist's story and the historian's story, there's the philosopher's story and the scientist's story about what happens in the atomic microcosm and the cosmic macrocosm (scientists have a corner on the stories of creation and genesis these days)….
This is the key statement in all of Don Juan's teachings, and is also crucial, I believe, for our particular cultural moment. The secret of the sorcerer's power, it follows, is to know that reality is imagined and, as if it were a work of art, to apply the full force of the imagination to it. The alternating descriptions of reality that Don Juan works with are possible only by working through, and on, the imagination. (p. 113)
Don Juan is Prospero. The world of the sorcerer is a stage and in Castaneda's books Don Juan is the skillful stage manager. What is he trying to teach Castaneda is not the primacy of one description over another, but the possibility of different descriptions. He is teaching Castaneda the art of description. And in so doing he breaks down, for the alert reader, that false separation of art from life, of imagination from reality that in our culture tends to vitiate both. (p. 114)
The next time I saw Castaneda, to return to our story, was many months later when he came to lecture at the university where I was teaching at the time, and I went to talk to him for a while afterward. (p. 115)
On that occasion I tried to draw him out on the resemblances between what he was involved with and the processes of the imagination in art, but his conception of art seemed a rather crude one, amounting to something like an idea of decoration. But if Castaneda's works aren't novels they're still stories, Castaneda's story about Don Juan's story, and I keep thinking of them in connection with other stories that explore similar areas for our culture.
In "Journey to Ixtlan," for example, Castaneda, wandering through the Mexican mountains amid a landscape animated by spirits and powers, reminds me exactly of the early Wordsworth wandering in the English hills that are alive with immanent spirit. Or how about another Hispanic sorcerer, Cervantes, Castaneda's Sancho Panza to Don Juan's Quijote. Except that in this version of the story all the power is on the Don's side, which leads us to the thought that maybe Quijote was right all along, that maybe the culture, not to mention the novel itself, has conceded too much to the pragmatic Sancho.
Here it is Sancho Castaneda who undergoes the conversion, who finally has to admit that the windmills are giants, and that he has to struggle with them. Here it turns out that the Don is sane after all and the rest of us are mad, or if not mad at least gross dullards. These are works of art …, but works of art don't have to be novels. They are works of art compared, say, with Tom Wolfe's account of Kesey in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," not because one is factual and the other is not, but simply because Castaneda's books attain a high level of imaginative power and coherence, of precision in language, of inventive selection, and Wolfe's book does not, though it may be an exemplar of the new journalism.
Must we really wait on the testimony of anthropologists about the value of these books? If the anthropological establishment were to rise up and cry fraud—and since it hasn't by now one can be certain it's not going to—wouldn't that, in a way; be even more exciting in imaginative terms. (pp. 115-16)
Ronald Sukenick, "Upward and Juanward: The Possible Dream," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1973), January 25, 1973 (and reprinted in Seeing Castaneda: Reactions to the "Don Juan" Writings of Carlos Castaneda, edited by Daniel C. Noel, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1976, pp. 110-20).
Indeed, though [Don Juan] is an enigma wrapped in mystery wrapped in a tortilla, [Castaneda's books are] beautifully lucid. [His] story unfolds with a narrative power unmatched in other anthropological studies. Its terrain—studded with organ-pipe cacti, from the glittering lava massifs of the Mexican desert to the ramshackle interior of Don Juan's shack—becomes perfectly real. In detail, it is as thoroughly articulated a world as, say, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. In all the books, but especially in Journey to Ixtlan. Castaneda makes the reader experience the pressure of mysterious winds and the shiver of leaves at twilight, the hunter's peculiar alertness to sound and smell, the rock-bottom scrubbiness of Indian life, the raw fragrance of tequila and the vile, fibrous taste of peyote, the dust in the car and the loft of a crow's flight. It is a superbly concrete setting, dense with animistic meaning. This is just as well, in view of the utter weirdness of the events that happen in it….
Why,… in an age full of descriptions of good and bad trips, should Castaneda's sensations be of any more interest than anyone else's? First, because they were apparently conducted within a system—albeit one he did not understand at the time—imposed with priestly and rigorous discipline by his Indian guide. Secondly, because Castaneda kept voluminous and extraordinarily vivid notes…. Perhaps most important, Castaneda remained throughout a rationalist Everyman. His one resource was questions: a persistent, often fumbling effort to keep a Socratic dialogue going with Don Juan…. (p. 37)
[In] some quarters Castaneda's works are extravagantly admired as a revival of a mode of cognition that has been largely neglected in the West, buried by materialism and Pascal's despair, since the Renaissance….
But such endorsements and parallels do not in any way validate the more worldly claim to importance of Castaneda's books: to wit, that they are anthropology, a specific and truthful account of an aspect of Mexican Indian culture as shown by the speech and actions of one person, a shaman named Juan Matus. That proof hinges on the credibility of Don Juan as a being and Carlos Castaneda as a witness. Yet there is no corroboration—beyond Castaneda's writings—that Don Juan did what he is said to have done, and very little that he exists at all. (p. 38)
Like the various versions of Castaneda's life, the books are an invitation to consider contradictory kinds of truth. At the core of his books and Don Juan's method is, of course, the assumption that reality is not an absolute. It comes to each of us culturally determined, packaged in advance. "The world has been rendered coherent by our description of it." Castaneda argues, echoing Don Juan. "From the moment of birth, this world has been described for us. What we see is just a description." (p. 44)
It is not [the] years of study but the nature of the revelation he offers that has run Castaneda afoul of rationalists. To join another man's consensus of reality, one's own must go, and since nobody can easily abandon his own accustomed description it must be forcibly broken up. The historical precedents, even in the West, are abundant. Ever since the ecstatic mystery religions of Greece, our culture has been continually challenged by the wish to escape its own dominant properties: the linear, the categorical, the fixed.
Whether Carlos Castaneda is, as some leading scholars think, a major figure in an evolution of anthropology or only a brilliant novelist with unique knowledge of the desert and Indian lore, his work is to be reckoned with. (p. 45)
"Don Juan and the Sorcerer's Apprentice," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1973), March 5, 1973, pp. 36-45.
Of Carlos Castaneda it might be said that he is a social-anthropological drop-out in much the same way that many psychoanalysts might consider R. D. Laing to be a psychoanalytical one. From the point of view of their respective orthodoxies both have gone over to the enemy. They have rejected the objective and scientific approach to their subject-matter in favour of an extravagant empathy with the human object of their studies. In their view you cannot understand the "primitive" without becoming "primitive" any more than you can understand the mad without tasting madness yourself. Though such anti-scientific frivolity may have estranged both from their respective orthodoxies, it has catapulted them both from academic obscurity into the full glare of publicity….
In A Separate Reality [Castaneda] described how, in the interests of science, he had put himself into the hands of [a] strange backwoodsman, and how he emerged from his peyote-induced trance experiences an altered and badly shaken man. Like William James and Aldous Huxley before him, the drug had revealed to him a "separate reality" quite as real as that of everyday consciousness—more real indeed in that what he saw and experienced far exceeded anything he had ever imagined possible both in beauty and, even more, in sheer terror.
In Journey to Ixtlan the author resumes his story and seems to bring it to its conclusions. Much of the ground has already been covered in his earlier books—but from a different angle. The drug experiences here are put in their proper setting: they are no more than aids to help one understand that there is a "separate reality" of which they may provide a glimpse, though little more. This "reality" cannot be explained in words, and many of Mr Castaneda's readers will have been infuriated by Don Juan's refusal even to try to explain the properties of his magical world, and even more so by his habit of lapsing into giggles at the very moments when his investigator-apprentice is reduced to a state of terror.
Why is he so obstinately uninformative? Since he cannot express what the sometime anthropologist is so anxious to learn, he must, then, be either very simple or a mystic (since, as everyone knows, the mystics can never describe their transports but can only hint at what they have undergone). He is certainly not simple, but his terminology and general demeanor would indeed appear to rank him among the mystics, if by "mystic" we mean the Taoists and Zen Buddhists of every degree of enlightenment. He talks a great deal of "power" and "knowledge" and above all of "seeing" (always italicized to distinguish it from what we normally understand of "seeing"), but these verbalizations have hitherto not got us very much further….
In this book Don Juan is no less exasperating but he does become more explicit—on his own terms which are, however, not terms familiar to the average social anthropologist or the average anyone, come to that. But it is not the words that matter but a whole series of monstrous happenings which constitute the ordeal of the social anthropologist turned sorcerer's apprentice. That these horrors had to be endured is patiently explained because, if one is ever to learn to see, one must first become a "warrior" who has learnt to store his magic power. Only then will he be able to "stop the world". "Stopping the world" is perhaps the keyword of this book, and it is precisely what the Buddhists understand by Nirodha ("putting a stop to" the phenomenal world) which is a synonym for Nirvana….
Whether the reader takes this book seriously or whether he prefers to regard it as an "entertainment" à la Graham Greene, he is unlikely to be bored. Perhaps its greatest merit is that Carlos Castaneda emerges as a firm believer in his "separate reality" and yet manages to combine this with the healthy scepticism with which he started.
"Stopping the World," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 15, 1973, p. 663.
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Carlos Castaneda has [placed us inside the shaman's consciousness] and this is why his work is original and important….
In order to show us a world in which "non-ordinary" states of reality are given an equal valence with waking consciousness, Castaneda has devised a powerful literary strategy. He describes "non-ordinary" experiences as they occurred subjectively, often taking him overwhelmingly by surprise. Only afterwards does he give his attempts to understand them rationally—and always in the form of dialogues with his teacher, so that the terms of the discussion are those of Don Juan's world, not ours. Castaneda's narrative surface thus modulates from one state of consciousness to another without transition.
This has caused considerable bewilderment among the group of naive skeptics who say that such things don't occur. Castaneda deliberately leaves out the helpful signposts that might read "hallucinatory state" or "trance."…
There is a more knowledgeable form of skepticism which holds that Castaneda's experiences are almost too good to be true: Don Juan's teachings are strikingly similar to those of all of the world's great esoteric traditions (such as Sufism, the higher yogas or Tantric Buddhism) and the figure of Don Jaun himself has increasingly assumed the outline of paradigmatic spiritual teacher or guru. Why, for example, do Castaneda's shamans seem to possess a close analogue to the Hindu Chakra system when this has not been reported by others? At this point all we can say is that Castaneda's reported experiences closely resemble much cross cultural data—and this could well be explained by the fact that the "natural mind" everywhere perceives similarly. (p. 35)
"Tales of Power" starts out only a few months after "Journey to Ixtlan" left off (it is based on Castaneda's experiences in 1971 and '72) but we soon see that the pace is accelerated and the scale is grander….
This is a splendid book, for all that it may seem ungainly, at times ponderous, at others overwrought…. "Tales of Power" could well be read as a farcical picaresque epic of altered states of consciousness. Carlos adventures through many strange modes of perception and suffers many enchantments as well….
In all the great examples of the picaresque genre we meander through tales within tales until we feel we are in danger of getting lost. The central section of "Tales of Power" takes place largely in Mexico City where Don Juan shatters Carlos's romanticism and ours by appearing in a well-tailored suit, and there we do seem to get definitely lost: Suddenly, Carlos finds himself whirled away from an acquaintance who has been tailing him in the hopes of being led to the real Don Juan. Carlos lands a mile and a half away near some familiar market stalls which, as he discovers when he tries to confirm the event later, were not in fact open that day…. (p. 38)
Carlos has come a long way. Just as Casteneda's style has changed from the factual precision of the first book to the lunatic extravagance of this last, so too his persona Carlos's understanding of the states of "non-ordinary reality" has grown from book to book. His relationship with Don Juan has developed too, since that moment in "A Separate Reality" when Don Juan uncovered Carlos's forgotten childhood vow that he would fail—a striking example of how the shaman-guru may act as a psychotherapist as he deals with the interferences to his apprentice's "seeing." One of the finest things in "Tales of Power," however, stylized or fictional it may be, is the convincing portrait of a spiritual teacher working away at his student's tendency to "indulge" in self-dramatization and self-pity….
Over the last six years the figures of Carlos and Don Juan have assumed a peculiar status in the imagination of an entire generation. They loom as do the great characters of fiction, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, say, who marked Western civilization's fall into materialism as Carlos and Don Juan signify the attempt to emerge from it. But we also remain aware that somewhere there is a real Carlos who apparently has painstakingly learned how to "stop the internal dialogue" which continually reconstitutes the egobound world. (p. 40)
Elsa First, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1974.
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[Castaneda], who once thought he was a student and wrote his first book as a doctoral thesis, is unquestionably a teacher. His books are as didactic as Plato's and just as fat with instructional dialogue. His Don Juan, who constantly tells Carlitos to end his own internal dialogue, is as garrulous as Jonathan winters and just as fractured by his own jokes. And yet if Castaneda is not about to inseminate Western culture with a vision of how it really is, he is at least on the cusp of twisting its head a few millimeters. He is a cult figure now, especially with the young but not exclusively so, approaching Hesse, Vonnegut, Golding and Salinger. (p. 29)
[According to Castaneda, we achieve the totality of ourselves] by seeing in a special way what few others see, by dreaming, by will, by stopping our internal dialogue. We get there by learning to end our self-pity and by taking responsibility for what we have done. We get there by eliminating our past as a source of anxiety and by living in the present, by being in touch with all the fine detail of life that those who wallow in their own grief or exhausted past histories never can appreciate.
The message [in Tales of Power] is at times very like Thornton Wilder's in Our Town. It is also like Salinger invoking Zen to urge us not to seek rewards for our work. The direction is blessedly free from moral stricture (we are admittedly dealing in the black magic of the spirit), free also from sex (there are no significant women in this book), and free from any worldly temptation except that of slipping back into the muck and dreck of reason. Reason alone … is slow death. Of course death, if we only knew it, is the way to life. (pp. 29-30)
Being so full of such bromidic salvation, it would seem the book is useless. But Castaneda has the skills of a superb but flawed novelist. He has structured his philosophy novelistically and structured it with great care. For instance, before he fully advises us how to split ourselves, and how to dream ourselves into the nagual, he conjures up a "magical" event for Carlitos to experience—seeing himself sleeping in two different places, witnessing two separate sets of events. He is thus able to transcend space and time, which his teachers, Don Juan and especially Don Genaro, are so adept at doing. Don Genaro leaps up and down canyons, walks upside down on trees.
By book's end it is clear that Carlitos is not really talking about magic at all; that the whole work is, like that dual sleeping scene, an elaborate and admirably detailed metaphor with the aim of guiding the reader out of the humdrum and into self-awareness. The magical events are no further out of our reach than our next wilfully weird daydream.
It has been said that Castaneda has dressed out his Mexican spirit world as thoroughly as Faulkner detailed Yoknapatawpha County, a ridiculous thing to say. Castaneda's strength is in pictorializing his philosophy with surreal metaphors. But when he begins to detail a man, or a real cabin, or a city park, he is as ill at ease as a brick mason trying to point up gold leaf on the Taj Mahal. His dialogue is fluid but often gawky, acceptable finally because you don't believe he's even trying to simulate reality. The behavior of Don Juan and Carlitos is so thinly and repetitiously imagined when they are not involved in dialogue or dream, that it would earn the author a revoked passport to any decent creative writing class….
[However, his] plot, wherever it began in his personal life, whether on some mushroom orgy in a Los Angeles apartment or a spooky walk along some dusky chaparral in Mexico, has turned into something nifty for a great many people. Who can object to wising up the human race?…
The way to his secrets is not easy. You have to wade through a lot of silly prose. But when you get there you like Castaneda for all his effort. He is as welcome as any other novelist who gives his whole being to his books. He really doesn't know any more than any of the other would-be wise men among us, but he thinks he does. And that determines what winds up on our bookshelves. (p. 30)
William Kennedy, "Fact or Fiction," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 16, 1974, pp. 28-30.
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The fourth and final book of the don Juan series, Tales of Power, answers some of the questions the books have raised, leaves many other questions unanswered, and ends on a tentative note quite different from the open-ended, serial conclusion of the first books. Tales of Power is inconclusive, but as the book draws to its close the reader feels a strong sense of completion, a sense that Castaneda has said all he will say.
Like the previous books, Tales of Power repudiates much that has gone before. Drugs, we learned in Journey to Ixtlan, are not essential to the apprenticeship in sorcery. In the closing book, don Juan reveals that sorcery is not an end in itself, that it is not to be sought as the alternative to our commonplace sense of "reality." The sorcerer's way is not alternative but complementary to the average person's way. The normative sensibility which don Juan seems now to mean with his term, the tonal is, he asserts, necessary to our existence: we need the describing, assessing, ordering principle to exist as personalities, but if that principle is allowed total control of our experience, we lose our sense of the nagual (all that is not tonal), the creative principle. The sorcerer's way is an extension of the tonal, and a way of regaining the experience of the nagual. The experience of the nagual, the culminating moment of the book, is the peak and purpose of Carlos' training.
Don Juan seems, as usual, to be most interested in disorienting his pupil, forcing him to constantly question the validity of both old and new assumptions he makes about reality…. Clearly one of don Juan's primary purposes is to force Carlos to avoid complacency about any detail of experience; recognition of this purpose explains some of the confusing contradictions in the earlier books. Don Juan is not concerned about honesty or facts in the sense we might use those terms. As he tells Carlos in Journey to Ixtlan, everything he does is sincere and the behavior of an actor.
The question of these books' authenticity remains unanswered and, I believe, irrelevant. Don Juan, after all, is an outcast Yaqui, a "diablero" or witch, so he does not speak for Yaqui culture or religion. The way of the sorcerer is not a version of an established, organized religion, whether Castaneda made it up or not. It is, however, a cogent description of an "Indian" perspective, particularly in these last two books. The sense of one's relationship to the natural world, the evocation of a non-Europeanized perspective on reality, both are valuable to anyone who wishes to step out of his White education, however briefly, and walk in the shoes of any other culture. One of Castaneda's powers as a writer is his ability to describe such perspectives, to reify the "unreal": the descriptions of drug experience in the first two books, of disoriented sensory experience in the whole tetralogy, of the magical transformations which are at once fantastic, believable and even commonplace by the time we reach Tales of Power.
The magic in don Juan's teaching is intended to bring Carlos to his encounter with the nagual, an encounter which we can only share vicariously. Thus, it would be simplistic to assume that the series of books is intended to teach us to perform magic tricks. The philosophy of the Yaqui's teachings, however, summed up in a recapitulation or "disintoxication" at the center of Tales of Power, is accessible to the reader as well as to the apprentice. This philosophy has a precisely Indian center, the recognition that the life of a "warrior" is joyful "because it is based on his affection, his devotion, his dedication to his beloved, "the earth," "this lovely being, which is alive to its last recesses and understands every feeling." (pp. 75-6)
This consuming love for the natural is the ruling principle of the warriors' lives, and the expression of that Indian sensitivity is masterful here in Castaneda's final volume…. [However] the problem of authenticity makes it impossible to legitimately present these books … as unequivocal "Indian" books. If used with an acknowledgement of this problem …, Journey to Ixtlan and Tales of Power are valuable additions to the bibliography of literature of the Indian and the American West. (p. 76)
H. S. McAllister, in Western American Literature (copyright, 1975, by the Western Literature Association). Spring, 1975.
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In my college course in the philosophy of the occult it would be impossible to ignore Castaneda, and I would hardly want to. His books are dramatic presentations of an ideal of magical involvement that are among the most powerful and compelling to be found in any literature. To ignore them because don Juan may be solely a creature of Castaneda's imagination would be to sidestep a major challenge to conventional religious and social ideals. After all, if the image of the sorcerer as "the man of knowledge" is an attractive one, it may not really matter that it has been embodied in a curious type of fiction rather than in the records of a factual encounter.
Carlos Castaneda has definitely touched a nerve in modern consciousness. In an industrialized society, it is difficult to feel respected as a true individual: "the games people play" include the totality of life. The one who, like Nietzsche's Zarathustra or Kazantzakis' Zorba the Greek or Castaneda's don Juan, is completely his own master, unfettered by dogmas or by the expectations of others, appears to have won a victory the rest of us can only admire. The vindication of his power is not only supreme self-confidence, but a preternatural control of his environment. (pp. 162-63)
The Mexican sorcerers, as portrayed by Castaneda, were one up on their urban neighbors because they knew that if one's experiences depended on his definitions, totally revising these definitions could lead to the experience of a "separate reality" in which literally anything was possible.
Has Castaneda ever experienced this "anything is possible" world for himself? According to his books, he has, and I am inclined to think this the case regardless of whether the incidents he describes ever occurred. Castaneda has clearly wanted to see the world as a sorcerer; the intensity of his descriptions suggests that, in some manner at least, he has succeeded. The real question, however, would be whether he succeeded before or after he began writing the pages that he presents as the field notes of his tutelage under don Juan. If it was before, as a result of his own experiences in transforming consciousness (with or without drugs), that would explain certain odd biases he displays. (p. 163)
What finally remains of Castaneda's challenge if, on the one hand, he is entirely discounted by fellow anthropologists and, on the other, the ideal of the sorcerer proves less lasting than the ideal of the one awaiting the kingdom? My guess is that his books will pass into the body of occultist literature read only by a handful of true believers, and Castaneda, who ironically has made it difficult for himself to be read as anything but the disciple of don Juan, will either have to keep adding to his series or disappear into literary oblivion….
The don Juan series has been popular because its readers want to believe it possible to become a "man of knowledge"—in short, a Gnostic. That itself is saying something about the times we live in. We may now have moved to a next stage in which magic has surrendered to talk of the millennium, but this would be only a substitution of heresies. There is still the sense of alienation, the frustration with established values—and there is also the danger of self-destructive action. Understanding Castaneda is part of what it takes to understand the entire religious scene of the present. (p. 164)
Douglas McFerran, "The Castaneda Plot," in America (© America Press, 1977; all rights reserved), February 26, 1977, pp. 162-64.
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Does Don Juan exist? Yes or no? The skeptical mind insists on the facts. Strip the legendary hero of the adornment of miracle and find the core of historical truth. Placed under the microscope, Don Juan shrinks. My guess is that he is Carlos Castaneda's imaginary playmate….
The most important question we can ask is not: "Can Juan Matus be located in 1977 in Sonora, Mexico?" It is rather: "What does Don Juan tell us about ourselves, about the millions in this country and abroad, who have read his words in 11 languages?" As an archetypical hero, Don Juan may reveal to us something, about the contours of the collective unconscious and the longings of our time. (p. 40)
With Don Juan, the classical hero (with a thousand faces) returns to the scene. The wise old man has finally arrived to share the knowledge of the fathers. There is somebody over 30 we can trust. The fathers of the last generation were too busy making it to initiate the sons and daughters. And because they gave their hearts to IBM, they lacked the charisma and authority of elders. We have grown up with the image of a world governed by adolescent or, worse, infantile adults. It is good to have an image of an old man, lean and bursting with spirit, and with power enough to go fiercely into that good night.
There is also more than a sprinkling of folly in the appeal of Don Juan. He plays upon romantic hopes as well as profound needs (which is not to deny that we may have a profound need for romantic hopes). The old sorcerer rides in on the wave of the Indian mystique. We are experiencing a cultural return of the repressed. Indians can do no wrong. The nostalgia for feathers and turquoise among urban cliffdwellers reflects a fatigue with urban life. We want our salvation to come from the wilds beyond the suburbs, from a desert that is devoid of the marks of technology or bureaucracy. In fact, the innocent longing for a pure life in the heart of nature is traditionally American.
Don Juan finds a natural point of entrance into the modern American psyche because he addresses our deepest obsession—the quest for power. The sorcerer game, like that of the Pentagon, is the accumulation of power. Granted, Don Juan is concerned with personal power, and the military-industrial complex with military power. But the logic of power leads them to a similar view of the world. Power breeds paranoia. For generals and sorcerers, the world is very dangerous. Enemies are lurking everywhere. Don Juan and the CIA create a fantastic cast of enemies and an esoteric armamentarium to combat them.
Don Juan is so charming that it is easy to overlook the obvious—the organizing metaphors for his world are martial. The man of knowledge is a warrior who accumulates power. (pp. 42, 124)
We might see Don Juan as a walking parable of the world of the primal particle that is being opened up by the new physics. Mysticism and science are joining hands. Black holes in space suggest that matter may disappear into a void where there is no space and time. So why shouldn't Don Juan slip into the nagual and reappear at an unexpected place? Both the sorcerer and the blackhole physicist agree that there may be "worm holes in space" that might allow us to cut through the universe faster than the speed of light. Both suggest that any event in the universe has some effect on every other part of the universe (Bell's theorem). And everyone knows by now that we can no longer model the universe solely on evidence based on common sense or the five senses. (p. 124)
The technology of transcendence of Don Juan could be paralleled in most mystical traditions. Zen and Christian mysticism and Gestalt therapy emphasize stopping the inner dialogue and entering the silence. The notion of egodeath, going beyond the persona, or "shrinking the tonal," is standard in religion and psychotherapy. And there are few traditions that have not advocated the use of some drugs as an aid.
Unfortunately, both the symbolism and the spiritual disciplines of Christianity and Judaism are currently suffering from a bad case of the blahs. Our native Western religious forms have ossified into institutionalized dogma, ritual, and moralism. Religion has become solemn business. Don Juan has brought back some of the delight, humor, and playfulness into the quest for the underlying or overarching reality.
But often Don Juan slips over the line that divides mystery and mystification. He does a few too many cheap miracles. We don't need Don Juan to produce a squirrel out of midair. The black magic and esoteric rites of the sorcerers often seem a parody and substitute for rituals and manners that bind those who live and struggle together. It seems that when a people can no longer look to any real bonding, no mutual trust, no purpose beyond survival, to hold them together in one body politic, then the esoteric and the occult become important. Don Juan raises the question of how to quiet the inner dialogue that haunts the lonely and obsessed self, so that the silence of nature can be heard. He does not help us to discover how to be gentle again, to trust and nurture.
Whatever his excesses or deficiencies, whether he is actual or fictional, Don Juan has found a firm place in the contemporary spirit. He inhabits the nagual of our time. It is good to have him around, reminding us to stop the world and wonder. (p. 140)
Sam Keen, "Don Juan's Power Trip," in Psychology Today (copyright © 1977 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), December, 1977, pp. 40-2, 124, 140.
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Whether there is a don Juan or not, Castaneda's five books embody a myth. The myth, broken into statements, says: You can gain power by picking the brains of men in cultures more primitive than ours. To gain power Western people have to reject all the perceptions of reason. No work on your shadow, or dependent side, is necessary. The male does not have to develop his feminine side, and relations with women are not important. But, as Blake would say, the contraries of these four statements are true, namely: 1. Only by reaching to the work of a more highly articulated culture can your own interior energy come forth. 2. The rational structure of our culture is a form of energy. The student goes through it, not around it. 3. No dependent person can make progress. 4. Spiritual instruction without the presence of women is worthless.
Don Juan's teaching of a Californian (Castaneda) couldn't possibly work anyway because the whole experience of grounding is missing. No one can ground on someone else's land. Inside, the Westerner has to ground through Western culture, either present or past. By his second book, it was clear that Castaneda was making up the conversations. It's a hoax. Joyce Carol Oates noticed it in 1972, and Weston LaBarre, the most distinguished researcher in the peyote field, called Castaneda a charlatan without mincing around [see excerpts above]. Castaneda as a novelist has the right to try a long novel in parts with an imaginary Mexican shaman as a hero, why not? Anthropologists are the ones embarrassed….
There is something charming and good-natured about Castaneda's mass-paperback instruction. He doesn't insist on himself, as some Asian gurus do, but cancels himself, even going so far as to present himself as stupid. He has an interest in ideas, though he doesn't live them. In between books, he ransacks the work of genuine researchers … and dishes out a sample goulash with new vegetables, standing behind the counter of what Turngpa Rinpoche accurately calls the spiritual supermarket….
Castaneda good-naturedly gives the capitalist college students what they want—fantasies of gaining power without becoming more compassionate or more honest. (p. 7)
Castaneda's little essay in the first book on the four enemies of power was lovely and still is. Good little lectures are scattered around all his books. His not-doing is a harmless rephrasing of Taoist ideas. His "tonal-nagual" concept, which describes the gap between the ordinary world and a mysterious nonverbal world, owes a lot to the work of split-brain researchers in rational laboratories and to sophisticates like Robert Ornstein. He then attributed these ideas to an American slang-speaking Mexican native. But his finding of these ideas shows good taste. What I don't like so well is the air of regression that surrounds the language.
The attitude that surrounds all of Castaneda's teaching is the attitude of the pre-genital stage, the stage Freud identified as the anal. The absence of women in the first four books is striking. There is not a single thinking woman, and not one woman at all lovable in the way the frolicsome men are. Genital energy is not felt anywhere….
[What] is curious in Castaneda is that teaching created by men and women climbing a powerful spiritual stair, or by men and women living in a joyful genital stage, are presented in the language of the anal stage. Naturally this shows in content, where no one ever goes off behind the bushes without being noticed. But the regression shows most clearly in the poor vocabulary, the thin texture of language, the poverty of metaphor, the monotonous way people talk, the tawdriness of image. The use of clichés deadens all of Castaneda's teaching….
As his books go on, Castaneda learns more and more interesting ideas, but the regression deepens. I had the oddest sense in reading "The Second Ring of Power" that I was not in a house in Mexico at all, but in a kindergarten….
In "The Second Ring of Power," all the women are frightful, empty and power-mad: Doña Soledad wants to kill Castaneda and steal his "luminosity." All are greedy. Sexual scenes, usually involving a woman lying heavily on top of Carlos, or he on her, contain horror always. People who offer to present occult information cheaply, in fantasy form, probably have this anti-female material in their psyche also, and as you read Castaneda's books you are absorbing the anti-female stuff, even though St. Paul is not present. (p. 22)
Rober Bly, "Carlos Castaneda Meets Madame Solitude," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 22, 1978, pp. 7, 22.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 133
Reading [The Second Ring of Power] I felt like the man going to St. Ives. Don Juan has gone by, leaving a band of apprentice sorceresses and their magical cats and kits to multiply his teachings. The dusty magus, now only remembered, gave earlier Castaneda books a personality and an interest absent here. In The Second Ring of Power we have only the residue of myth, odds and ends of folklore that suggest Castaneda has finally run out of material….
As journalism, The Second Ring of Power is mind-mush. It is anecdotal anthropology and monochromatic drug vision. As religious teaching, it is repetitive and banal. As fiction—which is how I've come to read Castaneda—it is mute. (p. 38)
Thomas LeClair, in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), February 4, 1978.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
[Castaneda's first] three volumes of field reports sold millions of copies coast to coast and around the world. That's unusual.
Don Juan, the mystical old Mexican Indian, was an imaginary person. That's extraordinary.
"Is it possible that these books are nonfiction?" exclaimed Joyce Carol Oates [see excerpt above]. Novelists Oates and William Kennedy and science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon were quick to recognize Castaneda as a fellow story teller.
Carlos (as I call the young anthropologist in the story told by Castaneda) goes to Arizona to learn how the Indians use peyote but to his utter amazement is chosen by the imperious don Juan … to become "a man of knowledge," which means he will after long and arduous training enter "a separate reality" and see the essence of the world as mystics do. Published during the psychedelic years, The Teachings of Don Juan and A Separate Reality recount twenty-two wondrous drug trips through which don Juan guides Carlos, but as new-age consciousness gained favor in the media, Journey to Ixtlan suddenly discovered a wealth of neglected drugless techniques in some piles of old field notes Carlos had stupidly set aside. Tales of Power and The Second Ring of Power reflected later popular trends toward occultism and feminism.
If the trendy Castaneda could write at least five best sellers in a row, why did he bother with the anthropology hoax? An obvious economic reason is that the competition was too steep in the fiction market. Defective style, weak dramatic structure, poverty of detail, cardboard characters that do not develop (but are suitable for allegory), stereotyped emotions, and absence of ordinary human relationships make his books unsalable except as fact. Readers love a true adventure, even if badly told.
A more important, psychological reason is that anyone who would keep up such a difficult and complicated hoax for eight years before getting any reward is a person who habitually refuses to follow the rules of society and insists on winning the game of life by playing tricks. As with Castaneda, this lifelong pattern often includes personal charm, high intelligence, and some genuine accomplishments along with the con job….
First, the so-called field reports contradict each other. Carlos meets a certain witch named La Catalina for the first time in 1962 and again for the first time in 1965. Though he learns a lot about seeing in 1962, unaccountably he has never heard of it in 1968….
A second kind of proof arises from absence of convincing detail and presence of implausible detail. During nine years of collecting plants and hunting animals with don Juan, Carlos learns not one Indian name for any plant or animal and precious few Spanish or English names. No specimen of don Juan's hallucinogenic mushroom was brought back for verification, though Gordon Wasson had challenged its identification in 1968. Don Juan's desert is vaguely described, his habitations are all but featureless. Incessantly sauntering across the sands in seasons when … harsh conditions keep prudent people away, Carlos and don Juan go quite unmolested by pests that normally torment desert hikers. Carlos climbs unclimbable trees and stalks unstalkable animals. With prodigious speed and skill he writes down "everything" don Juan says to him under the most unlikely conditions. No one but Carlos has seen don Juan….
A third kind of proof is found in don Juan's teachings, which combine American Indian folklore, oriental mysticism, and European philosophy. Indignantly dismissing such a proof, don Juan's followers declare that enlightened minds think alike in all times and places, but there is more to the proof than similar ideas; there are similar words. When don Juan opens his mouth, the words of particular writers come out. An example will show what I mean. Though I have condensed lines and added italics, I have not changed any words:
The Human Aura is seen by the psychic observer as a luminous cloud, egg-shaped, streaked by fine lines like stiff bristles standing out in all directions.
A man looks like an egg out of circulating fibers. And his arms and legs are like luminous bristles bursting out in all directions.
Of these two passages, the first comes from a book published in 1903, the second from A Separate Reality, a direct quote from don Juan. What I find piquant about this seventy-year echo is the contention that don Juan spoke only Spanish to Carlos. Somehow, in the course of translating don Juan's Spanish, Castaneda managed to resurrect the English phrases of Yogi Ramacharaka, a pseudonymous American hack writer of fake mysticism whose works are still available in occult bookstores.
Could such correspondence be accidental? Despite the close matching of words and ideas, one would have to allow the possibility if this were the only example, but it is not….
Proofs like those I have just offered do not impress the loyal clients of Castaneda-Shaman. Contradictions, they say, don't matter, because Castaneda was not trying to write a factual account; he was trying to convey a subjective experience. If, then, his reports are nowhere tied to ordinary fact, how shall we distinguish them from ordinary fiction?….
Science requires facts; story-telling can take them or leave them. Scientific reports in which "specific details can often be justificably questioned" are likely to be discredited, because specific details are often crucial in science, the fabric of observation and reporting can display only so many holes before being tossed into the trashcan. As science, the don Juan books are a farce. As fiction, they form an ingenious allegory in which experts … can recognize much anthropological truth.
Richard de Mille, "The Shaman of Academe: Carlos Castaneda" (copyright © 1979 by Richard de Mille), in Horizon, April, 1979, pp. 64-8, 70 (the full text of this essay appears in The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies, edited by Richard de Mille, Ross-Erikson Publishers, 1980).