It was the amazing last year of an amazing decade: 1969. Although the Death Forces were firmly in control, an instinctive outpouring of raw young libido was recklessly trying to evoke some affirmative balance within the national psyche. 1969 was the year that the My Lai massacre outraged the American conscience and a quarter of a million demonstrators marched on Washington to protest the Vietnam War; it was the year of the Woodstock Rock Festival and our first trip to the moon. It was a time when public interest in psychedelic drugs was probably at its peak, and it was the year that the Ballantine paperback edition of The Teachings of Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge, emerged to ensnare the imaginations of thousands of disciples seeking a structure within which to understand their drug-induced voyages into hyperspace.
The unknown author, Carlos Castaneda, a UCLA graduate student in anthropology, presented the book as a scientific treatise and claimed to be an apprentice to the sorcerer don Juan Matus: a mysterious Yaqui “Man of Knowledge” living incognito in Mexico. Castaneda described how don Juan taught him the secret uses of peyote, datura and psilocybin mushrooms – data avidly devoured by wannabe shamans looking for experiences more substantive than mere recreational tripping. Through exposition worthy of a good philosophical novel, the reader followed the relentlessly obtuse Castaneda (a myopic modern Everyman) as don Juan patiently introduced him to the surreal realms of the psychedelic cosmos. With the exception of Part Two (a masterpiece of pedantry now seen as a satire on social science writing in general). The Teachings of Don Juan was a fascinating read and run-away commercial success – selling upwards of sixteen thousand copies a week at the peak of its popularity. Not bad for an “academic” text.
In 1971, A Separate Reality, Further Conversations with Don Juan was released, to be followed soon thereafter by Journey to Ixtlan, the book that Castaneda modified only slightly for his PhD thesis at UCLA. By then the public couldn’t get enough of the “don Juan books,” and one volume after another regularly emerged to reveal the latest installment of Castaneda’s sorcerer’s apprenticeship. At the present time (1995), eight million of Castaneda’s books have been printed and sold; at bare-minimum royalties of fifty cents a copy and allowing for high-bracket income taxes, this author still has to be the world’s first shamanic multi-millionaire.
Much of the contemporary New Age fascination with shamanism can be directly traced to Castaneda’s books. A relatively obscure anthropological specialty just twenty-five years ago, “shamanism” is now a Yuppie growth industry. New Age magazines advertise a wide selection of shamanic goods and services – from drums and rattles to exclusive tours of “Sacred Power Spots.” Self-proclaimed counselors bill themselves as specialists in soul retrieval, and a whole new business venture, ethno-tourism, now hauls continuous planeloads of seekers to the Amazon to participate in ayahuasca rituals. For those who can’t afford the trip, there are South American shamans (under the tutelage of North American entrepreneurs) presenting “ayahuasca seminars” in the United States. There’s no doubt about it – “shamanism” is currently a very hip subject, and the books of Carlos Castaneda have had a lot to do with its popularity.
Although The Teachings of Don Juan received the initial endorsement of many respected anthropologists and fooled a lot of readers (myself included), subsequent Castaneda books began to stretch the limits of credibility. Analogous to the homicidal maniac who scrawls graffiti messages: “Please stop me before I kill again,” on washroom walls, Castaneda’s ensuing literary output seemed to be begging us to please stop taking him so seriously. In 1976, Richard de Mille published ‘Castaneda’s Journey’, a surprisingly humane, even gentle, expose of the don Juan books. De Mille’s painstaking research revealed a scholarly swindle of world-class importance, yet he refused to take the easy path of self-righteous condemnation, choosing instead to portray Castaneda as a consummate trickster with some subtle truths to tell. Indeed, de Mille’s intricate unmasking of the facts behind the hoax reveals an accomplishment far more exacting than any demanded by an ordinary PhD thesis: whatever motivation inspired Castaneda’s bogus opus, it obviously wasn’t a lazy man’s scheme for easy promotion into the ranks of academia.
For years I was properly offended by the deception and more than condescending toward those poor dupes who still believed in Castaneda. Then I read Jay Fikes’ 1993 book: Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties. In this volume the author takes the scandal one level deeper – not only did Castaneda invent a spurious “Yaqui” shamanism, but three of his colleagues at UCLA (classmates and fellow doctors of philosophy) were apparently also involved in various degrees of academic fraud.
Fikes makes a good case that at the very least, some sloppy scholarship was being practiced in the UCLA anthropology department in the late sixties. I am being far more conservative than his evidence actually warrants – if it is all true, then Carlos Castaneda comes off as only the most egregious of four academic bullshit artists: Diego Delgado, Peter Furst and Barbara Meyerhoff, at that time all graduate student observers of Mexico’s peyote-eating Huichol Indians.
It appears that much of don Juan’s (supposedly Yaqui) shamanism was loosely modeled upon Castaneda’s friends’ supposedly imaginative observation of the Huichols; Fikes claims that these budding young anthropologists fictionalized their field notes to accommodate the sixties’ ravenous appetite for psychedelic drug lore. More conventional researchers have been unable to recognize anything but a gross parody of Huichol culture in their published work. Castaneda then, seems to have been just one or two levels more creative with his “facts” than his sources were.
The squalid trail of bullshit leads in both directions however: there is evidence to suggest that some of the Huichols may have been as outrageous in their fabrications as the anthropologists were. A hearsay reference to “peyote enemas” in Furst’s ‘Hallucinogens and Culture’ is regarded as so anomalous by most Huichol ethnographers that deliberate leg-pulling is suspected on the part of informants: “These gringos will believe anything!”
We’ve wised up a lot in the last 25 years, and scholastic deception seems pretty tame when compared with the infinitely more deadly socio-political variety. To put the best face on it, if we’ve learned anything, we’ve learned to be skeptical of all experts and authorities, to be more self-reliant and less dependent on gurus. In addition, some of us are beginning to see that the concept of “truth” is not synonymous with “reality,” being often only a kind of working hypothesis based on pooled opinion. There are many degrees and kinds of bullshit – not all of it anathema and not all of it even “untrue.”
To understand this, it is useful to view Castaneda’s put-on in the perspective of its own era: the late sixties. It was a time of excesses on all fronts: an evil war, blatant racism, corporate greed and sleazy politics were offset by campus and racial riots, the excesses of the New Left and an adolescent rebellion careening toward a very belligerent brand of anarchy. Every new outrage upped the ante by evoking an equal or greater response from its opposition.
It was the era of the put-on, and the Trickster archetype thrived in our culture like never before: satire and farce erupting from the collective psyche to compensate for all that lethal seriousness. Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffmann, Jerry Rubin, the Yippies, Wavy Gravy, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters all emerged larger than life during the sixties to save us from the terminal insanity of “Reason” running amok. I am reminded of the Koshare, the divine clowns who make a deliberate mockery of Pueblo Indian ceremonials to ensure that no one takes their “spirituality” too seriously. There is profound wisdom in this – can you imagine the excesses of the Inquisition ever occurring if the Pope had been secure enough in his humility to tolerate a court jester constantly mooning him during Mass?
Castaneda’s satire was much more subtle – the joke depended upon us working our way around to seeing the final impoverishment of the scientific-academic view of reality: the illusion that one can be “objective” about any state of consciousness, altered or normal. In the guise of a serious scientific treatise Castaneda brilliantly imagined a trans-subjective, non-verbal reality lurking outside of, and impervious to, our equally imagined rules of discourse.
Truth communicates in the forms most recognizable to those who think they seek it. Our culture won’t accept anything less than real “facts,” so Castaneda’s message had to be presented in a scientific guise. (Acknowledged as fiction, The Teachings of Don Juan wouldn’t have sold a thousand copies.) Don Juan’s concepts of the shamanic warrior, the man of knowledge, “seeing,” impeccability, etc. are all profound ideas offered for our consideration. Now that we know they’re “fiction,” does that truth invalidate any other truth they may contain?
Because they were believed to be true by a critical mass of readers, the don Juan books have produced an effect in the world that transcends the original material. In short, Castaneda has accomplished something that writers with greater skill and verisimilitude have failed to do: he has created a bonafide mythology. Another (probably more accurate) way of looking at it is that a bonafide mythology has created itself through him. (These things happen.)
“People mistakenly believe…that a myth is an untruth. But myth is not that. A myth is that which is truer than truth.” (1)
It’s much too facile to beat-up on Castaneda because he turned out to be a trickster, and even more absurd to take him literally. (His datura and ‘little smoke’ data are anomalous, and the latter books don’t have the verisimilitude of the earlier ones.) Whether scholars approve or not is beside the point: don Juan still lives, and, for level heads, his teachings are not entirely without merit.
To get it, just let go of it.
(1) Vallee, J. (1975) The Invisible College, Dutton, NY, pg 207