The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda
Every so often a book comes along that has the power to divide people, not because it has gone out of its way to be contentious, but because the prose itself has such a powerful effect on those who read it. Carlos Castaneda’s first book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge was originally published in 1968 by the University of California Press, and is one such example.
Before I explore the book in regard to its place within the vaults of psychedelic literature I will outline some history, and some of the controversy, surrounding it. The reason for this is not to re-open old debates (of which there are many that are voluminously written about elsewhere) but to lay the foundations to a new examination of the text.
Written as part of his university education the book proposes that it is a work of anthropology; indeed this is indicated in the title – the Yaqui are a Native American tribe originally from the Sonoran Desert in what is now Arizona. The premise of the book is a series of conversations between Carlos and a Yaqui called Don Juan Matus; where, on the one hand, Carlos is trying to learn about the customs of the Yaqui and, on the other, Don Juan is teaching Carlos to become a ‘man of knowledge’.
Although originally it was taken by the academic community to be an important work, a series of rebuffs by academics, including Richard De Mille, ended six years of popular acceptance and the question of its authenticity thrust it, seemingly, from the academic to the esoteric. Defenders of the book now regard it as an important spiritual work and it has been cited as one of the key texts for the New Age movement.
Heated argument over the book continues today but I believe any serious examination has been over-shadowed by the anthropological question mark; which Carlos Castaneda caused himself. So, leaving aside the academic question mark and the spiritual development of Nagualism (developed in later books in the series) I’d like to look at the book as a piece of psychedelic philosophy. This means ignoring the second half of the book, which is Castaneda’s attempt at academic appraisal and examining the first section; the first person narrative of his learning. What makes this text psychedelic literature?
The first person narrative gives us the psychonaut, the sailor of the mind, whose position in psychedelic literature is tantamount to a changing and developing perspective. This is often attributed to a ‘realization’ but it isn’t necessarily always the case; a shift in perspective can be gradual and it always shows great merit by the author if they can manage to portray this subtly in their text. Carlos’ development in his first book is from objective, questioning academic into becoming more ‘subjectively questioning’; of himself and the world he finds himself in.
Don Juan uses the very familiar psychedelic technique of psychotropic drug use; in this case peyote and mushrooms. Initially (it subsequently changes in later books that I shall review later) their use is in order to ‘re-open’ Carlos’ eyes. Although he begins by merely ‘investigating’ the use of peyote by Yaqui Native Americans, by using the substances himself he has the academic objective suddenly thrust into the background as he tries to make sense of his own personal understandings of them. His attempts, while fictionalised, have greatly influenced anthropological techniques.
The book flip-flops from objective to subjective and back again the whole way through and is the central driving force behind the narrative. You cannot have psychedelic literature without the psychonaut character and it is this, not the factual experience, which makes it psy-lit. I’m going to refrain from expanding the intricacies of the psy-philosophy because they become illuminated more clearly in later books from Castaneda.
Ideally then, do not read The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge as anthropology and do not let the clever use of language fool you into a false belief about the workings in the process of becoming ‘a man of knowledge’. Instead, look to the psychedelic theme, which in its simplest form expounds the virtue of leaving your safe, known perspective and entering into a dialogue about life from a new point-of-view. This is what Carlos Castaneda does that is so brilliant and with the benefit of hindsight one can see that the deeper philosophy is more attuned to being a statement on the human condition than a belief system.