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Ethnography Series!

February 3, 2011

In Addition to all the other books I read..

I’m also in the process of reading a few ethnographies. I finished The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda, and so that’s the first book I’m going to be talking about. My mom happened to have three of the books in a set, presumably first editions, and so I decided to give it a shot.

It’s brilliant.

But not for the reasons you might guess. But before all the controversy, I’ll give a summary of the book, and look at a couple of the themes presented.

it's a crow on the front, and a couple of dudes in the distance

The Author, Carlos Castaneda

This is the published version of Carlos Castaneda’s masters’ thesis from UCLA. The book consists of two main parts, including a holistic description of Castaneda’s ethnographic experience, and a ‘structural analysis’ that describes the coherence in Don Juan Matus’ worldview.

Castaneda’s ethnographic experience is formatted almost as a journal, each section labeled with the day of the week and the date. It starts when Castaneda is in southern Arizona, travelling with his Yaqui cultural advisor. In a greyhound station the consultant mentions to Castaneda, who had been in the area researching medicinal plants, that this old Yaqui man, Don Juan, knows a lot about the subject, especially peyote.

Upon their first meeting, and through the rest of the book, the relationship roles between Don Juan and Castaneda are clearly, sometimes painfully defined. Every interaction is strongly divided between teacher and student. In their first interaction, Castaneda describes having a conversation in which he tried to impress don Juan with a knowledge of peyote. Don Juan is nonplussed. He says goodbye and then leaves.

After this first encounter, Castaneda made the successful attempt to get to know don Juan, and in pursuing other research in the area, they become good friends. Eventually don Juan agrees to show Castaneda the ropes in learning to become a Man of Knowledge, a term that more closely corresponds to a process, rather than an end-result.

All of the dialogue is supposedly translated from Spanish, which necessarily gives it a slightly disjointed feel. At first reluctant to teach Castaneda, don Juan eventually commits, and his first lesson is to find his “spot”, kinda like a location where one is most comfortable, and don Juan explains that while in that spot, one cannot be hurt.

This problem was posed in a way that is almost like the one-hand-clapping exercise, where neither the answer, nor the process is described. Castaneda describes rolling around on the floor of don Juan’s house looking for such a spot. Eventually he feels as though he found it, and they move on to another lesson.

The book sometime reads like a memoir, other times a fantasy story. It describes Castaneda’s experience sitting with other brujos (sorcerers) in a sweat-lodge chewing peyote buttons. In the sweltering darkness, the author describes losing the ability to speak, but the perception that the languages used by all the people in the lodge were changing, at one point discussing the stupidity of sharks in Italian.

In another instance, don Juan instructs Castaneda on the preparation and consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms, (it is unknown precisely what type of mushrooms they are, potentially psilocybe  mexicana). This preparation takes more than a year of seasonal collection of ingredients, as well as aging of materials. The final act of smoking the mixture is referred to by don Juan as “the little smoke”, where the object of consumption is the smoke from the mixture. The idea is that the smoke allows a brujo to jump through time and space and perspective to answer any questions one might have. The way don Juan describes it is as though this compound is the most powerful substance he knows. With the help of the smoke and don Juan’s direction, Castaneda describes actually transforming into a crow and flying through the sky. He recalls waking up, completely naked in the middle of the desert, with don Juan searching for him with a set of clothes.

The third psychedelic he uses is jimson weed. The story develops the relationship between Castaneda and the devil’s weed, as don Juan refers to the plant. The author spends much time in the book taking care of his own plant, following the procedure given him by his benefactor. His experiences with the datura plant are some of the most fascinating in the book.

Similarly to the smoke, by following the process any questions can be answered. In this case, he catches two lizards and sews one of their mouths shut. The other lizard’s eyes are sewn and tied to his shoulder. Smearing a paste made of the weed onto his temples, he asks the lizards anything he wants. In the book, he inquires after a few books that had been stolen from his university’s reading room. After asking the lizard this question, he sets the one with its mouth sewn shut on the ground, and lets it run off. The hallucinogenic experience was much like a dream, and there were a fair amount of dissociative thoughts, which were later interpreted as the lizard on his shoulder speaking into his ear. The theory behind this part is that lizards are fast and talk a lot, so to prevent rumor, the mobile lizard’s mouth is sewn shut, and it can only talk to the one that can’t see. That one talks into the brujo’s ear and answers questions. As if in answer to Castaneda’s question, he sees visions of a man defacing books and moving them around, though he never elaborates on the accuracy of these visions.

The last part of the ethnographic description is a climactic conclusion to the experience. After smoking the mushrooms the last time, Castaneda had been experiencing isolated moments of what he terms in the book “nonordinary reality” (I will discuss this in the next part). He had become particularly aware of the sound of airplanes. He became so preoccupied with their sounds that it always felt as though he was flying with them and being dragged away.

Don Juan asks him lots of questions about his actions leading up to these sensations, and determines that he’s been witched, and that his soul has been stolen. Apparently someone intends him harm, either to kill or make very sick. To combat this, don Juan instructs Castaneda to sit in his power spot through the night, and don Juan intends to determine who is perpetrating the theft of his soul. Before he leaves, Castaneda learns a simple defensive dance and how to release a powerful yell, or shout and to throw a specific power object at an attacker.

Into the night, Castaneda is sitting in his power spot and he hears don Juan get up from his room, and come outside. The old brujo walks around the house and at some point calls for Castaneda to come help him. Castaneda almost submits, but then gets an uneasy feeling and stays put. As don Juan comes around the house, the uneasy feeling persists, and as he walks around, Castaneda is filled with the sense that it is not don Juan. It appears to be him physically, but the movements are all wrong. In some unconscious capacity, Castaneda cannot shake the feeling that it is actually a woman attempting to imitate the movements of an old man. The entity approaching from all sides, in different forms, the author performs his defensive dance, and even is so threatened that as a last resort throws the power object. Finally, the personality goes back inside, and in the morning, don Juan comes back outside, once again himself, and they determine that Castaneda has won his soul back. However, so frightened by this experience, Castaneda voluntarily ends the apprenticeship.

The second part of the book contains a structural analysis, which I will get into in the second part of this series!

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