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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 to don Juan because the latter had the reputation of being a brujo (witch, medicine man, sorcerer). 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. Cut down to the barest skeleton, what actually happens in the story is that the apprentice Castaneda is trained to experience three different kinds of hallucination consequent upon partaking of concoctions made of (1) the Datura plant (“Jimson’s Weed”), (2) a variety of the mushroom species Pscilocybe, and (3) the cactus peyote (Lophophora williamsii). Don Juan interprets these states as resulting from the influence of supernatural personal powers (familiars). The Datura is woman-like, violent, unpredictable; the mushroom is male-like, gentle, predictable; the peyote cactus, which don Juan knows as Mescalito, is a higher order of being, more independent and more subtle in the way it leads the addict into an understanding of philosophic mysteries. The novice apprentice starts off by interpreting his visions as glimpses of another world of “non-ordinary reality,” but as the book progress he comes to accept more and more completely the non-rational logic which underlies don Juan’s magical premises. At this critical point, when he is approaching a position in which the hallucinatory state seems real and normal experience an illusion, Castaneda, perhaps wisely, but without explanation, suddenly decides that he has had enough and breaks off the analysis.

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—

The particular thing to learn is how to get to the crack between the worlds and how to enter the other world. There is a crack between the two worlds, the world of the diableros and the world of living men.

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 dustjacket draws our attention to the parallels between don Juan’s teachings and “Taoism, Yoga, Vedanta, and Zen”—the ancient “ways of liberation.” But that is just the trouble: it is too much alike to be true. Some years ago T. Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye (1956) created quite a sensation. The book purported to be an autobiographical account by an emigré Tibetan Lama of metaphysical goings on in pre-communist Lhasa. It seemed convincing because it fitted with the reader’s expectations. “Rampa” is actually an Englishman, and I doubt if he has ever been within a 1000 miles of the Himalayas. Castaneda’s book is certainly not a complete spoof in this sense, but if it had been spoof, it might not have been very different. 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. Or perhaps the sadistic reader feels frustrated because, when it comes to the point, Castaneda does not commit himself to final destruction. We know from Melville what to expect:—

Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”

So we feel let down by Castaneda’s modesty and descretion:

I remained in a state of profound distress for several hours. Afterwards don Juan explained my disproportionate reaction as a common occurrence. I said I could not figure out logically what had caused my panic, and he replied that it was not fear of dying, but rather the fear of losing my soul, a fear common among men who do not have unbending intent. That experience was the last of don Juan’s teachings. Ever since that time I have refrained from seeking his lessons.

In this area of literary aesthetics the competition is pretty tough.

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