THE DON JUAN AFFAIR by Colin Wilson
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In I968, the University of California Press published a book called ‘The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge’ by Carlos Castaneda. Castaneda had entered the University of California – UCLA – as an undergraduate in 1959, and had received a BA in anthropology in 1962. The University of California Press accepted ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’ as an authentic account of Castaneda’s `field work’ in Mexico.
The book told how, when he was an anthropology student, in 1960, Castaneda made several trips to the southwest to collect information on medicinal plants used by the Indians. At a Greyhound bus station, he was introduced to a white-haired old Indian who apparently knew all about peyote, the hallucinogenic plant. Although this first meeting was abortive – Castaneda tells with touching honesty how he `talked nonsense’ to Don Juan – Castaneda made a point of finding where Don Juan lived and was finally accepted by the old brujo (medicine man or magician) as a pupil, a sorcerer’s apprentice.
The teaching begins with an episode in which Don Juan tells Castaneda to look for his `spot’, a place where he will feel more comfortable and at ease than anywhere else; he told Castaneda that there was such a spot within the confines of the porch. Castaneda describes how he spent all night trying different spots, lying in them, but felt no difference. Don Juan told him he ought to use his eyes. After this, he began to distinguish various colours in the darkness; purple, green and verdigris. When he finally chose one of these, he felt sick and had a sensation of panic. Exhausted, he lay by the wall and fell asleep. When he woke up, Don Juan told him that he had found his `spot’ – where he had fallen asleep. The other spot was bad for him, the `enemy’.
This episode helps to explain the subsequent popularity of the book which was published in paperback by Ballantine Books and sold 300,000 copies. Don Juan is a teacher, a man of knowledge – the kind of person that every undergraduate dreams of finding- and he introduces Castaneda to the most astonishing experiences. When Castaneda first eats a peyote button, he experiences amazing sensations and plays with a mescalito dog whose mind he can read. On a later occasion he sees the mescalito god himself as a green man with a pointed head. When Don Juan teaches him how to make a paste from the datura plant – Jimson weed – he anoints himself with it and has a sensation of flying through the air at a great speed. (In their book The Search for Abraxas, Stephen Skinner and Neville Drury speculate that witches of the Middle Ages used a similar concoction and that this explains how they `flew’ to Witches’s Sabbaths). He wakes up to find himself half a mile from Don Juan’s house.
During this period when the book was published many young Americans were smoking pot and experimenting with `psychedelic drugs’ like mescalin and LSD, and Timothy Leary was advising American youth to `Turn on, tune in, drop out.’ This apparently factual account of semi-magical experiences became as popular as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and for much the same reason: it was escapist literature, but, more important, it claimed to be true. Reviews were excellent. Anthropologists and scientists took the book seriously – the psychologist Carl Rogers called it `one of the most vividly convincing documents I have read.’ The philosopher Joseph Margolis said that either Castaneda was recording an encounter with a master or he was himself a master.
This was clearly a success that had to be followed up. A Separate Reality described how Castaneda had returned to Don Juan in 1968. A giant gnat, 100 feet high, circles around him; he rides on a bubble; he has a semi-mystical experience in which he hears extraordinary sounds and sees the sorcerer’s `ally’, who shows him a `spirit catcher.’ The demand for more about Don Juan remained strong but Castaneda had a problem. A Separate Reality came to an end in 1970 and was published in 1971; for the time being he had used up his Don Juan material.
But not quite. He explained in his next book, Journey to Ixtlan (1973) that he had made the erroneous assumption that the glimpses of reality that Don Juan had given him could only be obtained through drugs. Now he realized he was mistaken. In fact, Don Juan had told him many other things during his years as a sorcerer’s apprentice, but although he had written these non-drug revelations in his `field notes’, he had failed to see their significance. Now, looking back over his notes, he had failed to see their significance. Now, looking back over his notes, he realized that he had a vast amount of material that showed that drugs were not necessary for achieving unusual states of consciousness. So Journey to Ixtlan goes back to 1960 and recounts still more astonishing adventures: he has strange visions, mountains move, and Castaneda describes his encounter with a sinister but beautiful sorceress named Catalina. In retrospect, it seems that Castaneda made his first major error in writing Ixtlan (although it was one that, according to his agent, made him $1 million). The `lost’ field notes sound just a little too convenient.
Yet, oddly enough, scholars continued to take him seriously. Mary Douglas, a professor of social anthropology, wrote an article about the first three books called `The Authenticity of Castaneda’, which concluded: `From these ideas we are likely to get advances in anthropology.’ Moreover, UCLA granted Castaneda his Ph.D. for Ixtlan and he lectured on anthropology on the Irvine campus. If reviewers would swallow Ixtlan, they would clearly swallow anything.
Now that enough time had elapsed since his last visit to Sonora, Castaneda could renew his acquaintance with Don Juan and bring his revelations up to date. But Tales of Power (1974) seems to indicate that either Castaneda or his publisher felt that the game would soon be up. The dust jacket declares that this is the `culmination of Castaneda’s extraordinary initiation into the mysteries of sorcery.’ At last, it declares, Castaneda completes his long journey into the world of magic and the books ends with a `deeply moving farewell’.
In may ways Tales of Power – covering a period of a few days in 1971 – is more rewarding than the earlier Don Juan books because it attempts to present a philosophical theory about reality, in terms of two concepts which Don Juan calls the tonal and nagual. The tonal is `everything we are’, while the nagual is pure potentiality. The tonal is the pair of Kantian spectacles through which we see the world and impose meaning on it; it consists mainly of linguistic concepts and preconceptions. These conceptions are illustrated with the usual tales of magical experiences: Don Juan shows him a squirrel wearing spectacles which swells and finds he has travelled one and a half miles. It was at this point, after publication of Tales of Power, that a teacher of psychology named Richard de Mille was persuaded by his niece to read all four Don Juan books one after the other. (`You have to take the whole trip.’) The Teachings struck him as authentic and factual. A Separate Reality raised doubts; it was better written but somehow not so `factual’. And the character of Don Juan had changed; he seemed more `joky’, while in the first book he had been grimly serious. Of course, Castaneda himself had already mentioned this. `He clowned during the truly crucial moments of the second cycle.’ But when he came to Ixtlan, De Mille was puzzled to find that the Don Juan of the notes made as early as 1960 was as much of a humorist and a clown as the later Don Juan.
Made suspicious by this inconsistency, he began to study the books more closely and soon found contradictions that confirmed his feeling that he was dealing with fiction rather than fact. A friend pointed out one obvious inconsistency: in October 1968, Castaneda leaves his car and walks for two days to the shack of Don Juan’s fellow sorcerer Don Genaro but when they walk out of shack they climb straight into the car. De Mille discovered a single contradiction. In Ixtlan, Castaneda goes looking for a casertain bush on Don Juan’s instructions and finds it has vanished; then Don Juan sees him to the far side of the hill, where he finds the bush he thought he had seen earlier on the other side. Later Don Juan tells him, `This moment you saw’, giving the word special emphasis. Yet six years later, in which Castaneda is represented (in A Separate Reality) as asking Don Juan what is seeing and Don Juan tells him that in order to find the bush Castaneda must see for himself. He seems to have forgotten that Castaneda had an experience of seeing six years earlier. And while it is understandable that Don Juan should forget, it is quite incomprehensible that Castaneda should.
These and may similar inconsistencies convinced De Mille that one of the two books had to be fiction, or that, more probably, the both were. He published his results in a book called Castaneda’s Journey in 1976 and it led many anthropologists who had taken Don Juan seriously to change their views. Joseph K. Long felt `betrayed by Castaneda.; Marcello Truzzi, on the other hand, admitted that he felt aghast at the initial reactions of the scientific community on Castaneda’s books and that he was equally outraged by the serious reaction now De Mille had exposed them as frauds.
Castaneda’s admirers were mostly infuriated. Their feeling was that even if Castaneda had invented Don Juan, the books were of genuine knowledge and wisdom, and should be gratefully accepted as works of genius. One lady wrote to De Mille saying she was convinced he didn’t exist and asking him to prove it. De Mille had, in fact, accepted that the Don Juan books had a certain merit, both as literature and `occult teaching’. But, when, in 1980 he edited a large volume of papers on the `Castaneda hoax’ called The Don Juan Papers his admiration had visibly dwindled.
Some of the essays present an even more devastating exposure of Castaneda than De Mille’s original volume. For example, Hans Sebald, an anthropologist who had spent a great deal of time in the southwestern desert, pointed out that it was so hot from May to September that no one with any sense ventures into it; dehydration and exhaustion follow within hours. Yet according to Castaneda, he and Don Juan wandered around the desert for days, engaging in conversation and ignoring the heat. Sebald goes on to describe Castaneda’s animal lore: `Where . . . are the nine-inch centipedes and tarantulas big as saucers? Where are the king snakes, scarlet chuckawallas, horned toads, gila monsters. . .’
A lengthy appendage on The Don Juan papers cites hundreds of parallel passages from the Castaneda books and from other works on anthropology and mysticism that bear a close resemblance. The book establishes, beyond all possible doubt, that the Castaneda books are a fraud. Richard De Mille’s own research revealed that Carlos Arana was born in 1925 (not 1935, as he has told an interviewer) in Cajamarca, Peru, and came to San Francisco in 1951, leaving behind a Chinese-Peruvian wife who was pregnant. In 1955 he met Damon Runyan’s distant cousin Margaret and married her in 1960; they separated after six months [their marriage lasted 13 years]. In 1959 he became an undergraduate at UCLA and the Don Juan story begins. . . Castaneda himself has proven to be an extremely elusive individual, as Time discovered when it sent a reporter to interview him in 1973.
In the light of De Mille’s discoveries, this is easy to understand. Castaneda’s career can be compared to that of the Shakespeare forger, William Ireland (see page 189), who began by forging a few Shakespeare signatures to gain his father’s attention and found himself forced to continue until he had concocted a whole Shakespeare play, which brought about his discover and downfall. Castaneda presumably produced the original ‘Teachings of Don Juan’ as a mild form of hoax. The publication by Ballantine lauched him, whether he liked it or not, on the career of a trickster and confidence man. It would, perhaps, have been wiser to stop after Ixtlan, or possibly after Tales of Power.
But the demand for more Don Juan books has presumably overcome his caution. In fact, the fifth, The Second Ring of Power, reads so obviously as fiction that it raises the suspicion that Castaneda wanted to explode his own legend. But he shows caution in offering no dates, no doubt to escape De Mille’s vigilant eye. Castaneda tells how he went back to Mexico looking for Don Juan and instead encountered one of his disciples, a sorceress named Madame Solitude. Last time he saw her she was fat and ugly and in her fifties; now she is young, slim and vital, and within a few pages, she has torn off her skirt and invited him to make love to her – an invitation he wisely resists. Then Castaneda somehow invokes his own double out of his head – not a mild-mannered scholar but a super-male authority figure who hits Madame Solitude on the head and almost kills her. Then four lady disciples arrive and make more assaults on Castaneda, which he overcomes, and after which they all encounter other-worldly beings. . .
In his sixth book, The Eagle’s Gift, Castaneda returns to Mexico as ‘a sorcerous leader and figure in his own right’ (As the blurb says) and enters into a closer relationship with one of the female sorcerers of the previous books, La Gorda. The two of them develop the ability to dream in unison. It is clear that, since writing the earlier book, Castaneda has come across split-brain physiology and now we hear a great deal about the right and left sides of a human being, the left being the nagual and the right, the tonal. De Mille had pointed out that the Don Juan books seem to chart Castaneda’s literary and philosophical discoveries over the years and this book confirms it. For those who read it with the certainty that the previous books were a hoax, it seems an insult to the intelligence. But it seems to demonstrate that Castaneda can continue indefinitely spinning fantasies for those who regard him as the greatest of modern gurus.