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The Teachings of Don Juan part Deux!

February 11, 2011

This has been a while coming:

The long-anticipated analysis of the Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda!

So first of all:

This is one of the best hoaxes ever

The reason I say that is because its legacy didn’t end like other exposed hoaxes. We think of Piltdown Man or anything produced by PT Barnum. However, while these hoaxes quickly either fade out of memory, or become widely discredited, the Teachings of Don Juan have transcended such trivial problems as being completely made up.

The academic history of the book is interesting. It was written as the master’s thesis by Castaneda, and checked out by his professors. In the beginning, just after publication, it was widely regarded as an excellant, if popularized account of an anthropologist’s ethnographic experience. However, after a while, after a few more books (Castaneda published 12) people started noticing inconsistencies in the writing.

A big one, of course, was the use of drugs. In some cases, the author’s descriptions were accurate, but in others wildly off.

The primary hallucinogens used in the book were psychedelic mushrooms, mescaline, and jimson weed. The most apparent inconsistency I noticed was that his ingestion of the mushrooms involved smoking them, as a powder. What is not widely known is that the psilocybin is easily broken down by heat, meaning that to smoke a form of mushroom would mitigate any potential hallucinatory effects.

Allow me to diverge for a moment from the analysis to tell an amusing anecdote on the subject of shrooms.

One night I decided to go camping with the anthropologists. This was during the spring, so there was a bunch of snowmelt up in Flagstaff. My car got stuck in the mud, which anyone from northern Arizona knows is a relatively serious issue. So, stuck in the mud, we all decided to unpack our camping gear, including a tarp, some chairs, and six bundles of firewood.

Oh, and a bunch of booze.

Needless to say, it was a crazy night. I occasionally wonder how we survived. But, a couple of friends, who will remain nameless (you know who you are!) decided to try psilocybin mushrooms. Apparently they taste terrible, so the means of consumption was by creating smores with a mushroom center. However, because the marshmallows were nice and cooked, the heat broke down some of that psilocybin, and resulted in only a mild trip for either of the people. Kinda disappointing, but it was fun to hear them talk about the twinkly lights, and roll around in the snow giggling.

But I digress!

An amusing point about this book is that the author claims to have attempted to construct a structural analysis so as to highlight the inner cohesion of the belief system of Don Juan. For a completely made up system, it’s fairly coherent, but it is funny that the inconsistencies are what discredit the book.

Certain other issues detract from the book’s credibility: Don Juan’s words are never shown in his native language, Castaneda’s field notes were never seen. Regional words for plants and terrain weren’t used in his analysis. All these take away from the truthiness of the book.

So what made the book such a clever hoax? Why did it successfully fool experts in the field?

Because Castaneda was exceptionally good at writing like an anthropologist. As interesting as the subject matter of his book was, I had that same creeping sleepiness that I get many of the times I try to read anthropological material. It might even be how you’re feeling right now!

The dialogue reads just like it was translated:

“That depends on the kind of object you want.”

“How many kinds are there?”

“As I have already said, there are scores of them. Anything can be a power object.”

“Well, which are the most powerful then?”

“The power of an object depends on its owner, on the kind of man he is. A power object fostered by a lesser brujo is almost a joke, on the other hand, a strong, powerful brujo gives his strength to his tools.”

This supposed dialogue is the only incarnation of such supposed interactions between Don Juan and Castaneda, as the original spanish transcripts were never seen. It’s stilted, simplistic. It uses words like “scores”, which in comparison to a very simplistic grammatical structure appears to be out of character. These are characteristics seen in rudimentary field-note-based translations. Word choice, which makes sense in the first language, but feels disjointed when translated into a second language.

Conversations like the one above are inserted into a text that is exceptionally rigorous when it comes to details. Rather than a fiction writer’s work, in which the goal is to “show, not tell”, Castaneda is scientific about describing the action and environment in the book.

So far, I’ve discussed why it’s thought to be a fake, as well as why it passed for truth for a few years. The reason this book ranks as one of the best hoaxes is because it’s reached a level of authenticity that moves beyond the purely “factual”.

The central concept to the work is that of “non-ordinary reality”. It is the lens through which Castaneda, and the readers, view the concept of cultural relativism, and subjectivism. Essentially much of the conflict between the characters of Don Juan and Castaneda comes from Castaneda trying to gain an objective understanding of these events of non-ordinary reality.

When Castaneda flies through the air, after he wakes up and is talking to Don Juan, the shaman tells him he was flying. Castaneda asks if he was flying like a bird, and the old man scoffs and says no, that he was flying like a man.

Another time, Castaneda asks how something would appear if one watched a transformation in a mirror. Don Juan just kindof brushes the idea off.

Non-ordinary reality is essentially the way we perceive reality to be when we experience an altered state of consciousness. The most interesting thing presented about this idea is that we don’t actually need psychoactive drugs to achieve this state of mind. When Don Juan put Castaneda into a position where he thought the was under spiritual attack, it was actually an episode of non-ordinary reality initiated by don Juan’s physical actions and behaviors.

Anyway, there you go! In the words or another friend “we’re anthropologists! we do drugs!”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tyler permalink
    October 27, 2011 11:26 am

    Inconsistencies in translating dialogue and the inability to rationally categorize drug induced realities is hardly a reason to discredit the author. Also he does say that the mushrooms quickly filter through the pipe into his lungs and the powder mixture is what is left to be heated and smoked. Castenada may have had to recollect things from memory in his text, but considering much of what he is recalling comes from mescaline trips and other drug experiences you have to assume its not all there or completely factual. Do you really think he turned into a crow? I think your attempt to call this memoir a hoax means that you missed the whole point of the book. Seperate realities exist, they can not be rationalized or easily related. Castenada admits this. Calling this a hoax for that reason or because of translation flaws as well as a lack of native flora classifications (scientific names are written in the critical analysis by the way) is a feeble argument .

  2. October 27, 2011 12:57 pm

    Thank you for your feedback. I think I was trying to get at the fact that separate realities are both real, and very important when it comes to ethnographic research, which to me is the lasting value of the book. As I said:

    “The central concept to the work is that of “non-ordinary reality”. It is the lens through which Castaneda, and the readers, view the concept of cultural relativism, and subjectivism. Essentially much of the conflict between the characters of Don Juan and Castaneda comes from Castaneda trying to gain an objective understanding of these events of non-ordinary reality.”

    As for the other points you make, I think there’s something to be said for the fact that his field notes were never actually produced. In addition, your comment that translation flaws shouldn’t be used to discredit an anthropologist’s work assumes that there was anything to translate from. Without field notes or original text transcriptions, we have no way of checking the accuracy of his “translations”. Also, in terms of a work of supposed authenticity, it’s his job to get accurate translations of things. If he didn’t, that would be worthy of academic criticism.

    As for the issue of the plant names, he doesn’t always refer to the plants by their scientific names. The times that he does, they aren’t using the terms used by the people living in the geographic area he’s studying. It seems strange that someone who was so immersed in the culture of a region would use terminology from a different region. That, in and of itself, could be viewed as a misrepresentation of the culture under observation, which fosters an inaccurate ethnography.

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