Carlos Castaneda Castaneda, Carlos (Vol. 12) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Dudley Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Edward H. Spicer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Edmund Leach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Joseph Grange

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

Richard Gott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Paul Riesman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 883 words.)

Joseph Kanon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 264 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Ronald Sukenick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elsa First

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

William Kennedy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 761 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 730 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Sam Keen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 951 words.)

Robert Bly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 767 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 133 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 960 words.)