(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Like Aldous Huxley’s psychedelic literature, Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan attempts to examine rationally what escapes the limits of logic. Unlike other works of the genre, however, which generally describe and discuss drug-altered experiences, this book identifies a structure to which hallucinatory experiences conform and teaches a coherent way of experiencing the world that is utterly foreign to Western consciousness. For this reason, the work intrigued an entire generation interested in both hallucinogens and altered states of consciousness and is considered a classic addition to the literature which chronicles the psychology of drug-altered perception.

Used separately and on different occasions, the hallucinogenic substances mescalito, yerba del diablo, and humito—peyote, Jimson weed, and mushrooms— play a significant role in Castaneda’s introduction to the system don Juan attempts to elucidate. The bulk of his teachings, in fact, involve the preparation and use of these hallucinogenic plants. Each plant possesses different perceptual properties. In explaining the use of the “allies,” as don Juan calls the entities present in these plants, the brujo warns Castaneda that they are powerful but dangerous teachers which can accept or reject the recipient. The capacity of these plants to produce a peculiar state of perception is an essential element in the learning process, guiding the initiate to a level of conceptualization that allows him to comprehend nonordinary phenomena. Castaneda learns further that the realm of nonordinary reality is not illusory but real, with its own inherent properties and, moreover, that it can be utilized in such a way as to draw points of reference which have value in ordinary reality. That this nonordinary reality has a form, structure, and logic of its own and that one can actually move around in it is undoubtedly one of the author’s most startling and controversial revelations.

The interrelation of mind and matter, the processes of perception and knowing— these are some of the themes of don Juan’s lessons. Again and again he forces his student to question the validity of his assumptions; nothing can be taken for granted. Don Juan’s epistemology is as exacting and subtle as that of any contemporary theory, requiring the precise performance of sophisticated and complex techniques. Because these procedures collapse the facade of illusions on which most people depend, learning them demands the courage and discipline of a warrior. “A man goes to knowledge,” don Juan tells his student, “as he goes to war, wide-awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to knowledge or going to war in any other manner is a...

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