I don’t normally take time to explain why I read the books I do, but this is a special case. This book, and this author, have serious credibility problems. You can Google all the gory details, but suffice it to say that on original publication (1968), this book was passed off as the nonfictional notes of UCLA Anthropology graduate student Carlos Castaneda. It supposedly details his studies under a Yaqui Indian shaman named Don Juan (seriously?) from 1960 to 1966. Since then, Castaneda has admitted that no Don Juan really exists; he is a literary amalgam of assorted people Castaneda supposedly did meet. Some other elements in the book have also been discredited. Peyote doesn't grow where Castaneda says it does, and certain beliefs and practices he attributes to the Yaqui Indians of Mexico are not authentic.
So why read this book? Well, in the early 1970's this book had a minor cult following, and one of its enthusiasts was a friend of my parents, who told me on several occasions when I was a teenager how great it is, and how I should read it. I spotted this copy in a bookstore about ten years ago, and thought I might see what all the fuss was. Knowing now of its dubious veracity, I still wanted to read it, out of curiosity.
So if we're going to do this thing, let’s try to get something out of it! ...
The easy route would be to make fun of the book for all its New Agey hoopla. I could rip on it in a humorous way that would get a bunch of "Likes", but that's pointless. Instead, I wanted to examine it to see what had captivated so many readers.
The most profound thing I found here was Don Juan explaining that there were four challenges a mind must overcome to become "learned":
1- overcome fear
2- overcome certainty
3- avoid the seduction of power
4- maintain intellectual curiosity
I like that second one "overcome certainty"; that's not half bad. (George W. Bush could have used a bit of that, when he was so certain about those weapons of mass destruction, amiright?) But are these the only four things? Could there be a better item on the list? Maybe, but these are good ideas in principle. All the profound-sounding hoodoo in the delivery was a bit overdone, but every successful religion has an element of showmanship, doesn't it?
So what else did this book have?
Not much. Most of it is accounts of Castaneda and Don Juan picking around in the Sonoran desert for hallucinogenic plants (some of the botanical information herein is inaccurate, I’m told) …cutting them up, drying them, preparing them for ingestion, and recording the ensuing hallucinations. A lot of this could have been edited out, unless of course the book is intended as a guide to help readers go out and do the same. Of course it is... I'm embarrassed that I only just now put that together.
Three hallucinogenics are experimented with: Peyote, Jimson Weed, and "The Smoke" (not sure what drug is being referred to here, but it is a hallucinogenic indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, if that helps)
Mescalito (Peyote) Jon Juan anthropomorphizes Peyote, describing him as a semi-transparent dog (that's “canino-morphizing”, isn’t it?) named Mescalito, who is also a teacher. Mescalito teaches by showing you things... I can follow that, to a certain extent. Castaneda dreams the dog drinks water, and he can see the water being absorbed into the dog's blood and coursing through its body. Later, Castaneda and the dog telepathically manipulate each other's limbs to put on a sort of interactive puppet show. When Castaneda wakes up, Don Juan tells him that when he was high, he pissed on the neighbor's dog. It’s an odd mix of mysticism and frat boy antics.
"The Devil's Weed" (Jimson Weed) is anthropomorphized to a woman, who makes the user feel powerful and ambitious, and who also makes Castaneda literally see red... as in his vision is tinted red. I don't know about all that. There were no freaky hallucinations here, so I lost interest.
Note: I looked up Jimson Weed in a book I have about medicinal plants, and it turns out it has high concentration of scopolamine and atropine- natural stimulants which act on the bronchial muscles, and can be useful in treating asthma, if taken at the right dose, but which can be highly toxic and even fatal if that dose is exceeded. I would strongly recommend AGAINST anybody messing around and trying to get high on it. This is not a drug to be fucked around with.
"The Smoke" Whatever drug that was, Castaneda had a bad trip on it. He describes feeling "outside of [his] body", and later Don Juan tells him the "The Smoke" can be used to turn oneself into a crow.
Given the credibility problems above, I wonder whether the hallucinations in this book were real hallucinations or made-up hallucinations. That’s a weird distinction to be thinking about isn’t it? …Because hallucinations come from one's mind, and making things up comes from one's mind too, so it seems anything you could make up, you could hallucinate... so is it really possible to create a "counterfeit" hallucination? The only difference is that the “real” hallucination requires mind-altering drugs, and the “fake” hallucination is the volitional product of a sober mind… which is weird, because those tend to be the exact opposite definitions we would apply to anything else (i.e. hallucinated things are fake, and things you have to work for are real). Way out, man.
What’s it all mean?
Getting back to my original mission with this book, it came out in 1968 when a lot of young people in the Western industrialized world were just starting to experiment with psychadelic drugs. For as fun and novel as this might have been, I can imagine there would also be some apprehension attached to it as well… you’re messing with your body, you may be doing something illegal, the drugs aren’t regulated or certified for safety, and they don’t come with any instructions except the word-of-mouth direction of one’s peers. This book seems to provide an authoritative-sounding wise old mentor in Don Juan, who guides Castaneda, and by extension the reader, through the experimentation, all the way providing assurances that these drugs have been time-tested in the native culture of the Yaqui. I think that must have been comforting to some... however ill-founded that comfort actually was.
I don’t know how much of the writing reflects true, actual Yaqui Indian culture. To the extent that it does, that is interesting too. It doesn’t seem like Castaneda is really trying to teach the reader anything along those lines, but something may be learned by indirect exposure. Like a lot of unfamiliar religions, it seems sort of mystical to me. That is to say that even though it might hide a complex belief system with internal logic and coherence, I am too unversed in it to appreciate those things. All I see are questions answered with questions, seemingly-contradictory statements, and vague parables with no obvious point. For people well-versed in that belief system, it may provide comfort and a cosmology which helps them make sense of life, but I’m too outside of it to know.
Unfortunately, it seems like a certain segment of modern Western industrialized society grooves on superficially-grasped foreign philosophies, which it makes its own in the form of mysticism and “New Age” beliefs. That’s a little embarrassing to me, because it seems to reject traditional Western religions in favor of something just as eager to take your money and keep you ignorant, but with none of the pageantry, tradition, and sense of cultural belonging that the Old School religions offer. If “New Age” stuff floats your boat, I apologize, but to me it seems like a worse deal than the traditional religions.
By far my favorite part of this book:
After being away for two months, Carlos returns to Don Juan’s home, to find him in a cast with a broken foot. “How did you break your foot?”, he asks, and Don Juan explains that he had used ancient secret medicines to turn himself into a crow. While sitting on a branch, he had suddenly been attacked by a blackbird… but it wasn’t just any blackbird; a woman who lived in the area was a witch, and she had turned herself into the blackbird. With his foot broken as a crow, he found his regular foot broken, when he turned back into a man. By attacking him when they were both in animal form, Don Juan explained, this witch had started a mortal feud which had to end in one of their deaths; he had to kill her now. That was what he had been contemplating when Carlos showed up.
“How will you kill her?”, Carlos asked, “with witchcraft?”
“Don’t be an idiot”, Don Juan replied.