Carlos Castaneda Time Magazine Interview
Don Juan and the Sorcerer's Apprentice
Glendower: "I can call spirits from the vasty deep"
THE Mexican border is a great divide. Below it, the accumulated structures of Western "rationality" waver and plunge. The familiar shapes of society - landlord and peasant, priest and politician - are laid over a stranger ground, the occult Mexico, with its brujos and carismaticos, its sorcerers and diviners. Some of their practices go back 2,000 and 3,000 years to the peyote and mushroom and morning glory cults of the ancient Aztecs and Toltecs. Four centuries of Catholic repression in the name of faith and reason have reduced the old ways to a subculture, ridiculed and persecuted. Yet in a country of 53 million, where many village marketplaces have their sellers of curative herbs, peyote buttons or dried hummingbirds, the sorcerer's world is still tenacious. Its cults have long been a matter of interest to anthropologists. But five years ago, it could hardly have been guessed that a master's thesis on this recondite subject, published under the conservative imprint of the University of California Press, would become one of the bestselling books of the early '70s.
OLD YAQUI. The book was The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968). With its sequels, A Separate Reality (1971) and the current Journey to Ixtlan (1972), it has made U.S. cult figures of its author and subject an anthropologist named Carlos Castaneda and a mysterious old Yaqui Indian from Sonora called Juan Matus. In essence, Castaneda's books are the story of how a European rationalist was initiated into the practice of Indian sorcery. They cover a span of ten years, during which, under the weird, taxing and sometimes comic tutelage of Don Juan, a young academic labored to penetrate and grasp what he calls the "separate reality" of the sorcerer's world. The learning of enlightenment is a common theme in the favorite reading of young Americans today (example: Herman Hesse's novel Siddhartha). The difference is that Castaneda does not present his Don Juan cycle as fiction but as unembellished documentary fact.
The wily, leather-bodied old brujo and his academic straight man first found an audience in the young of the counterculture, many of whom were intrigued by Castaneda's recorded experiences with hallucinogenic (or psychotropic) plants: Jimson weed, magic mushrooms, peyote. The Teachings has sold more than 300,000 copies in paperback and is currently selling at a rate of 16,000 copies a week. But Castaneda's books are not drug propaganda, and now the middleclass middlebrows have taken him up. Ixtlan is a hardback bestseller, and its paperback sales, according to Castaneda's agent Ned Brown, will make its author a millionaire.
To tens of thousands of readers, young and old, the first meeting of Castaneda with Juan Matus which took place in. 1960 in a dusty Arizona bus depot near the Mexican border is a better known literary event than the encounter of Dante and Beatrice beside the Arno. For Don Juan's teachings have reached print at precisely the moment when more Americans than ever before are disposed to consider "non-rational" approaches to reality. This new openness of mind displays itself on many levels, from ESP experiments funded indirectly by the U.S. Government to the weeping throngs of California 13 year olds getting blissed out by the latest child guru off a chartered jet from Bombay. The acupuncturist now shares the limelight with Marcus Welby, M.D., and his needles are seen to work - nobody knows why. However, with Castaneda's increasing fame have come increasing doubts. Don Juan has no other verifiable witness, and Juan Matus is nearly as common a name among the Yaqui Indians as John Smith farther north. Is Castaneda real? If so, did he invent Don Juan? Is Castaneda just putting on the straight world?
Among these possibilities, one thing is sure. There is no doubt that Castaneda, or a man by that name, exists: he is alive and well in Los Angeles, a loquacious, nut-brown anthropologist, surrounded by such concrete proofs of existence as a Volkswagen minibus, a Master Charge card, an apartment in Westwood and a beach house. His celebrity is concrete too. It now makes it difficult for him to teach and lecture, especially after an incident at the University of California's Irvine campus last year when a professor named John Wallace procured a Xerox copy of the manuscript of Ixtlan, pasted it together with some lecture notes from a seminar on shamanism Castaneda was giving, and peddled the result to Penthouse magazine. This so infuriated Castaneda that he is reluctant to accept any major lecture engagements in the future. At present he lives "as inaccessibly as possible" in Los Angeles, refreshing his batteries from time to time at what he and Don Juan refer to as a "power spot" atop a mountain north of nearby Malibu: a ring of boulders overlooking the Pacific. So far he has fended off the barrage of film offers. "I don't want to see Anthony Quinn as Don Juan," he says with asperity. Anyone who tries to probe into Castaneda's life finds himself in a maze of contradictions. But to Castaneda's admirers, that scarcely matters. "Look at it this way," says one. "Either Carlos is telling the documentary truth about himself and Don Juan, in which case he is a great anthropologist. Or else it is an imaginative truth, and he is a great novelist. Heads or tails, Carlos wins."
Indeed, though the man is an enigma wrapped in mystery wrapped in a tortilla, the work is beautifully lucid. Castaneda's story unfolds with a narrative power unmatched in other anthropological studies. Its terrain studded with organpipe cacti, from the glittering lava massifs of the Mexican desert to the ramshackle interior of Don Juan's shack becomes perfectly real. In detail, it is as thoroughly articulated a world as, say, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. In all the books, but especially in Journey to Ixtlan , Castaneda makes the reader experience the pressure or mysterious winds and the shivver of leaves at twilight, the hunter's peculiar alertness to sound and smell, the rock bottom scrubbiness of Indian life, the raw fragrance of tequila and the vile, fibrous taste of peyote, the dust in the car and the loft of a crow's flight. It is a superbly concrete setting, dense with animistic meaning. This is just as well, in view of the utter weirdness of the events that happen in it.
The education of a sorcerer, as Castaneda describes it, is arduous. It entailed the destruction, by Don Juan, of the young anthropologist's interpretation of the world; of what can, and cannot be called "real." The Teachings describes the first steps in this process. They involved natural drugs. One was Lophophora williamsii, the peyote cactus, which, Don Juan promised, revealed an entity named Mescalito, a powerful teacher who "shows you the proper way of life." Another was Jimson weed, which Don Juan spoke of as an implacable female presence. The third was humito, "the little smoke" a preparation of dust from Psilocybe mushrooms that had been dried and aged for a year, and then mixed with five other plants, including sage. This was smoked in a ritual pipe, and used for divination.
Such drugs, Don Juan insisted, gave access to the "powers" or impersonal forces at large in the world that a "man of knowledge" - his term for sorcerer - must learn to use. Prepared and administered by Don Juan, the drugs drew Castaneda into one frightful or ecstatic confrontation after another. After chewing peyote buttons Castaneda met Mescalito successively as a black dog, a column of singing light, and a cricket like being with a green warty head. He heard awesome and uninterpretable rumbles from the dead lava hills. After smoking humito and talking to a bilingual coyote, he saw the "guardian of the other world" rise before him as a hundred-foot high gnat with spiky tufted hair and drooling jaws. After rubbing his body with an unguent made from datura, the terrified anthropologist experienced all the sensations of flying.
Through it all, Castaneda often had little idea of what was happening. He could not be sure what it meant or whether any of it had "really" happened at all. That interpretation had to be supplied by Don Juan.
Why, then, in an age full of descriptions of good and bad trips, should Castaneda's sensations be of any more interest than anyone else's? First, because they were apparently conducted within a system - albeit one he did not understand at the time - imposed with priestly and rigorous discipline by his Indian guide. Secondly, because Castaneda kept voluminous and extraordinarily vivid notes. A sample description of the effects of peyote: "In a matter of instants a tunnel formed around me, very low and narrow, hard and strangely cold. It felt to the touch like a wall of solid tinfoil...l remember having to crawl towards a sort of round point where the tunnel ended; when I finally arrived, if I did, I had forgotten all about the dog, Don Juan, and myself." Perhaps most important, Castaneda remained throughout a rationalist Everyman. His one resource was questions: a persistent, often fumbling effort to keep a Socratic dialogue going with Don Juan:
"'Did I take off like a bird?' "'You always ask me questions I cannot answer...What you want to know makes no sense. Birds fly like birds and a man who has taken the devil's weed flies as such.' "'Then I didn't really fly, Don Juan. I flew in my imagination. Where was my body?' " And so on.
By his account, the first phase of Castaneda's apprenticeship lasted from 1961 to 1965, when, terrified that he was losing his sense of reality - and by now possessing thousands of pages of notes - he broke away from Don Juan. In 1968, when The Teachings appeared, he went down to Mexico again to give the old man a copy. A second cycle of instruction then began. Gradually Castaneda realized that Don Juan's use of psychotropic plants was not an end in itself, and that the sorcerer's way could be traversed without drugs.
But this entailed a perfect honing of the will. A man of knowledge, Don Juan insisted, could only develop by first becoming a "warrior" not literally a professional soldier, but a man wholly at one with his environment, agile, unencumbered by sentiment or "personal history". The warrior knows that each act may be his last. He is alone. Death is the root of his life, and in its constant presence he always performs "impeccably." This existential stoicism is a key idea in the books. The warrior's aim in becoming a "man of knowledge" and thus gaining membership as a sorcerer, is to "see." "Seeing," in Don Juan's system, means experiencing the world directly, grasping its essence, without interpreting it. Castaneda's second book, A Separate Reality, describes Don Juan's efforts to induce him to "see" with the aid of mushroom smoke. Journey to Ixtlan, though many of the desert experiences it recounts predate Castaneda's introduction to peyote, datura and mushrooms, deals with the second stage: "seeing" without drugs.
"The difficulty." says Castaneda, "is to learn to perceive with your whole body, not just with your eyes and reason. The world becomes a stream of tremendously rapid, unique events. So you must trim your body to make it a good receptor; the body is an awareness, and it must be treated impeccably." Easier said than done. Part of the training involved minutely, even piously attuning the senses to the desert, its animals and birds, its sounds and shadows, the shifts in its wind, and the places in which a shaman might confront its spirit entities: spots of power, holes of refuge. When Castaneda describes his education as a hunter and plant gatherer learning about the virtues of herbs, the trapping of rabbits, the narrative is absorbing. Don Juan and the desert enable him, sporadically and without drugs, to "see" or, as the Yaqui puts it "to stop the world." But such a state of interpretation free experience eludes description even for those who believe in Castaneda wholeheartedly.
SAGES. Not everybody can, does or will. But in some quarters Castaneda's works are extravagantly admired as a revival of a mode of cognition that has been largely neglected in the West, buried by materialism and Pascal's despair, since the Renaissance. Says Mike Murphy, a founder of the Esalen Institute: "The essential lessons Don Juan has to teach are the timeless ones that have been taught by the great sages of India and the spiritual masters of modern times." Author Alan Watts argues that Castaneda's books offer an alternative to both the guilt-ridden Judaeo-Christian and the blindly mechanistic views of man: "Don Juan's way regards man as something central and important. By not separating ourselves from nature we return to a position of dignity."
But such endorsements and parallels do not in any way validate the more worldly claim to importance of Castaneda's books: to wit, that they are anthropology, a specific and truthful account of an aspect of Mexican Indian culture as shown by the speech and actions of one person, a shaman named Juan Matus. That proof hinges on the credibility of Don Juan as a being and Carlos Castaneda as a witness. Yet there is no corroboration beyond Castaneda's writings that Don Juan did what he is said to have done, and very little that he exists at all.
Ever since The Teachings appeared, would be disciples and counterculture tourists have been combing Mexico for the old man. One awaits the first Don Juan Prospectors' Convention in the Brujo Bar BQ of the Mescalito Motel. Young Mexicans are excited to the point where the authorities may not even allow Castaneda's books to be released there in Spanish translation. Said one Mexican student who is himself pursuing Don Juan: "If the books do appear, the search for him could easily turn into a gold-rush stampede."
His teacher, Castaneda asserts, was born in 1891, and suffered in the diaspora of the Yaquis all over Mexico from the 1890s until the 1910 revolution. His parents were murdered by soldiers. He became a nomad. This helps explain why the elements of Don Juan's sorcery are a combination of shamanistic beliefs from several cultures. Some of them are not at all "representative" of the Yaquis. Many Indian tribes, such as the Huichols, use peyote ritually, both north and south of the border - some in a syncretic blend of Christianity and shamanism. But the Yaquis are not peyote users.
Don Juan, then, might be hard to find because he wisely shuns his pestering admirers. Or maybe he is a composite Indian, a collage of others. Or he could be a purely fictional shaman concocted by Castaneda.
Opinions differ widely and hotly, even among deep admirers of Castaneda's writing. "Is it possible that these books are nonfiction?" Novelist Joyce Carol Oates asks mildly. "They seem to me remarkable works of art on the Hesse-like theme of a young man's initiation into 'another way' of reality. They are beautifully constructed. The character of Don Juan is unforgettable. There is a novelistic momentum, rising, suspenseful action, a gradual revelation of character."
GULLIVER. True, Castaneda's books do read like a highly orchestrated Bildungsroman. But anthropologists worry less about literary excellence than about the shaman's elusiveness, as well as his apparent disconnection from the Yaquis. "I believe that basically the work has a very high percentage of imagination," says Jesus Ochoa, head of the department of ethnography at Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology. Snaps Dr. Francis Hsu of Northwestern University: "Castaneda is a new fad. I enjoyed the books in the same way that I enjoy Gulliver's Travels." But Castaneda's senior colleagues at U.C.L.A., who gave their former student a Ph.D. for Ixtlan, emphatically disagree: Castaneda, as one professor put it, is "a native genius," for whom the usual red tape and bureaucratic rigmarole were waived; his truth as a witness is not in question.
At the very least, though, it is clear that "Juan Matus" is a pseudonym used to protect his teacher's privacy. The need to be inaccessible and elusive is a central theme in the books. Time and again, Don Juan urges Castaneda to emulate him and free himself not only of daily routines, which dull perception, but of the imprisoning past itself. "Nobody knows my personal history," the old man explains in Ixtlan. "Nobody knows who I am or what I do. Not even I...we either take everything for sure and real, or we don't. If we follow the first path, we get bored to death with ourselves and the world. If we follow the second and erase personal history, we create a fog around us, a very exciting and mysterious state."
Unhappily for anyone hot for certainties about Carlos Castaneda's life, Don Juan's apprentice has taken the lesson very much to heart. After The Teachings became an underground bestseller, it was widely supposed that its author was El Freako the Acid Academic, all buckskin fringe and pinball eye, his brain a charred labyrinth lit by mysterious alkaloids, tripping through the desert with a crow on his hat. But Castaneda means chestnut grove, and the man looks a bit like a chestnut: a stocky, affable Latin American, 5 ft. 5 in., 150 lbs. and apparently bursting with vitamins. The dark curly hair is clipped short, and the eyes glisten with moist alertness. In dress, Castaneda is conservative to the point of anonymity, decking himself either in dark business suits or in Lee Trevino-type sports shirts. His plumage is words, which pour from him in a ceaseless, self-mocking and mesmeric flow. "Oh, I am a bullshitter!" he cackles, spreading his stubby, calloused hands. "Oh, how I love to throw the bull around!"
FOG. Castaneda says he does not smoke or drink hard liquor; he does not use
marijuana; even coffee jangles him. He says he does not use peyote any more, and
his only drug experiences took place with Don Juan. His own encounters with the
acid culture have been unproductive. Invited to a 1964 East Village party that
was attended by such luminaries as Timothy Leary, he merely found the talk
absurd: "They were children, indulging in incoherent revelations. A sorcerer
takes hallucinogens for a different reason than heads do, and after he has
gotten where he wants to go, he stops taking them."