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The Straight Dope



What's the deal with Carlos Castaneda and The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge? I always thought he was just a nut job who ate too many mushrooms. But now I hear that the whole thing is fiction. Did Castaneda ever go to Mexico and eat peyote with an old Indian? Are any of his books true? Or is the whole thing completely made up?

--Brian P.

Carlos Castaneda. I've been waiting for this one for a long time.

At least you frame the question properly. Except for a few lost souls, nobody really thinks that Castaneda turned into a crow, flew, fought with a diablera (witch) for his soul, etc. The issue is whether he hallucinated these events or simply invented them. There will always be disagreement, but the smart money is on the latter.

Teachings, published in 1968 by the University of California Press, purports to be the first-person account of a UCLA anthropology student who meets an old man named Juan Matus at a bus station on the Mexican border while on a field trip looking for medicinal plants. The student, Carlos Castaneda, strikes up a friendship with the old man, who eventually reveals himself to be a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. Don Juan decides to make Castaneda his apprentice and teach him the ways of a "man of knowledge." This consists mainly of giving cryptic answers to Castaneda's naive questions and instructing him in the use of hallucinogenic plants--peyote, jimsonweed, and a mushroom possibly containing psilocybin. One of these plants will become Castaneda's "ally," Don Juan says, and help him see the world as it is. (This theme, only hinted at in Teachings, is developed in later books.) Under Don Juan's tutelage, Castaneda takes several drug trips, which are alternately exhilarating and terrifying. Although he makes progress, he eventually becomes too frightened to continue his training. The story breaks off in 1965.

Despite its bizarre subject matter, the book is written in a lucid, matter-of-fact style that makes it believable. Each of Castaneda's encounters with Don Juan is precisely dated, and Don Juan's words are recounted in detail. The accounts of drug trips ring true. There's even a turgid "structural analysis" at the end, supporting the idea that this is a legit work of scholarship.

Appearing at the height of the psychedelic 60s, the book struck a chord and became a best-seller. It was followed by A Separate Reality (1971), Journey to Ixtlan (1972), and many others. These books were taken with surprising seriousness by the academic community: Walter Goldschmidt, a senior professor of anthropology at UCLA, wrote an enthusiastic foreword to Teachings, and when Castaneda submitted Journey to Ixtlan under a different title as his doctoral dissertation, UCLA awarded him a PhD.

But doubts soon surfaced. Experts pointed out that Don Juan's "teachings" bore little resemblance to actual Yaqui Indian religious beliefs. Hallucinogenic mushrooms did not grow in the Sonoran Desert, where Don Juan supposedly lived. Anyone who'd gone walking for hours in the desert at the hottest time of the day, as Castaneda claimed he and Don Juan had done, would surely have died of sunstroke.

The precisely rendered dialogue, which lends credibility at first, has the opposite effect when the books are read in succession--no one could have accurately recorded so much talk without a tape recorder, which Castaneda says he was forbidden to use. Don Juan's manner changes from book to book. In Teachings he is stern, but in later books that cover much of the same time period he makes jokes and uses English colloquialisms, even though Castaneda says he spoke only Spanish. At one point Don Juan makes a pun on "pulling your leg" that would make sense only if he were speaking English. Richard de Mille, who wrote two books debunking Castaneda's work, prepared time lines of the first three books showing that their events couldn't plausibly have occurred in the order stated.

Skeptics demanded proof that Don Juan existed. Apart from 12 pages of "field notes," which apparently were from an early draft of the books, no such proof was forthcoming. Journalists discovered that Castaneda was a habitual teller of tall tales who, among other things, falsified his family background and his place and date of birth. Many early admirers were offended when he turned to the occult in his later work. Before his death from cancer in 1998 he gave $600-a-head seminars on "Tensegrity," full of New Age nonsense about "600 locations in the luminous egg of man."

Castaneda's apologists say it doesn't matter, the books contain deep truths. Fine, they contain deep truths. Nonetheless, after you review the evidence, the only reasonable conclusion is that Castaneda was a con man and his books are a hoax.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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