High School

The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge

by Carlos Castaneda
Ballantine, 276 pp., $.95 (paper)

Mysticism is in fashion. Just at the moment nothing brings in the bread more easily than a careful description of the horrors and delights of hippydom, pot, LSD, St. Teresa, or what have you. So any book of this sort invites caution. The general tone is Coleridge-de Quincey by Rousseau out of eighteenth-century Gothik:

I saw his eyes looking through half-closed eyelids. I jumped up; I knew then that whoever or whatever was in front of me was not don Juan…. I felt a strange vigor filling me, in a matter of seconds. Then I yelled and hurled the rock at him. I thought it was a magnificent outcry. At that moment I did not care whether I lived or died. I felt the cry was awesome in its potency. It was piercing and prolonged and it actually directed my aim. The figure in front wobbled and shrieked….

Clearly the atmosphere is that of The Ancient Mariner

I closed my lids, and kept them close and the balls like pulses beat….
The body of my bother’s son stood by me, knee to knee;
The body and I pulled at one rope, but he said nought to me

But even if the images are familiar it needs a guru to get you through “the caverns measureless to man down to the sunless sea” and if Maharishis from the Himalayas are in short supply, an Indian from Arizona may do just as well. The outcome need not be contemptible, but it is more likely to emerge as poetry rather than science. In other words, the reader of this often entrancing slice of autobiography 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.

The start of the matter was that Castaneda, in his role as anthropologist, was interested in collecting information about the Indian use of hallucinogenic plants such as peyote. He was introduced …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.