FOR CASTANEDA LOVERS
I was asked to translate this piece, and found parts of
it enlightening. I hope you will too.
Preface to Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan
Translated from Octavio Paz's original Spanish by Carolyn Conger
A few years ago Michaux told me: "I started publishing small booklets of poetry. The run was about 200 copies. Then I climbed to 2 thousand and now I have reached 20 thousand. Last week an editor proposed to publish my books in a collection that prints 100 thousand copies. I refused: what I want is to return to the prior 200." It is difficult not to sympathize with Michaux: it is better to be unknown than badly known. A lot of light is like a lot of shadow: it does not let you see. In addition, the work must preserve its mystery. True, advertising does not dispel mysteries and Homer continues being Homer after thousands of years and thousands of editions. It does not dispel them but degrades them: it makes of Prometheus a circus spectacle, of Jesus Christ a star of the Music-hall, of Las Meninas an icon of obtuse devotions, and the books of Marx objects that are simultaneously sacred and illegible (in Communist countries nobody reads them and all swear in vain upon them). The degradation of advertising is one of the phases of the operation we call consumption. Transformed into candy, the works are literally swallowed, not liked, by hurried and distracted readers.
Some lacking in talent say it is an impenetrable text. Suicidal recourse. The true defense of the work is that it is meant to irritate and seduce the attention of the reader with a text that can be read in many ways. The greatest example is Finnegans Wake; the difficulty of that book does not depend on the fact that its meaning is inaccessible but that it is multiple: each phrase and each word is a beam of senses, a handful of semantic seeds that Joyce sows in our ears with the hope that they germinate in our head. Ixion turned into a book, Ixion and his reflections, inflections and fluxions. A work that lasts - what we call: a classic- is a work that never ceases to produce new meanings. The great works reproduce themselves in their different readers and so on. From the capacity of self-production follows the plurality of meanings and of this the multiplicity of readings. There is only one way to read the latest news from the newspaper but there are many ways to read Cervantes. The newspaper is a son of advertising and she devours it: it is a language which is used and which, when used, is spent, ending up in the wastebasket; Quixote is a language that when used reproduces and becomes another. It's an ambiguous transparency: meaning allows other possible meanings to be seen.
What would Carlos Castaneda think of the immense popularity of his works? Probably shrug it off: more of a misunderstanding of the work that since its appearance has caused confusion and uncertainty. A few months ago Time Magazine published an extensive interview with Castaneda. I confess that the "mystery of Castaneda" interests me less than his work.
The secret of his origin - is he Peruvian, Brazilian or Chicano? – it seems to me a mediocre enigma, especially if one thinks of the enigmas that he propose in his books to us. The First of these enigmas refers to their nature: anthropology or literary fiction? It will be said that my question is idle: anthropological document or fiction, the meaning of the work is the same. Literary fiction is already an ethnographic document and the document, as its most bitter critics recognize, has undoubted literary value. The example of Tristes Tropiques -autobiography of an anthropologist and an ethnographic account-- answers the question. Does it actually answer it? If the books of Castaneda are a work of literary fiction, they are in a very strange way: their theme is the defeat of anthropology and the victory of magic; if they are works of anthropology, their theme is at the least: the revenge of the anthropological "object" (a sorcerer) on the anthropologist until he becomes a sorcerer. Anti-anthropology.
The distrust of many anthropologists of Castaneda’s books is not due only to the professional jealousy or myopia of the specialist. The reserve is natural for a work that begins as a work of ethnography (the hallucinogenic plants-spike, mushrooms and datura- in the practices and rituals of Yaqui sorcery) and that within a few pages is transformed into the history of a conversion. A change of position: the "object" of the study -don Juan, Yaqui shaman- becomes the subject that studies and the subject - Carlos Castaneda, anthropologist- becomes the object of study and experimentation. It not only changes the position of the elements of the relationship but the relationship also changes. The subject / object duality - the subject that knows and the object to be known-vanishes and in its place appear the master / neophyte. The relationship of scientific order is transformed into one of magical-religious order. In the initial relationship, the anthropologist wants to know the other; in the second, the neophyte wants to become the other.
The conversion is twofold: that of the anthropologist into sorcerer and that of anthropology into another field of knowledge. As an account of their conversion, Castaneda's books border on the extreme with ethnography and in another extreme with phenomenology, rather than religion, experience that I have called the otherness. This experience is expressed in magic, religion and poetry but not only in them: from Paleolithic times to our days it is a central part of the life of men and women. It is a constitutive experience of Man, such as work and language. It extends from children's games to the erotic encounter and from knowing you are alone in the world to feeling you are a part of the world. It is a detachment from the self who we are (or we believe to be) towards the other that we are also and who always is different from us. Detachment: appearance: experience of the strangeness that it is to be Man. As a critical destruction of anthropology, the work of Castaneda slashes the opposing frontiers of philosophy and religion. Those of philosophy because he proposes, after a radical critique of reality, another knowledge, non-scientific and illogical; those of religion because that knowledge demands a change of nature in the initiate: a conversion. The other knowledge opens the doors of the other reality to a condition for the neophyte to become another. The ambiguity of meanings unfolds in the center of the Castaneda experience. His books are chronicles of a conversion, the report of a spiritual awakening and, at the same time, they are a rediscovery and defense of knowledge despised by the West and contemporary science. The theme of this knowledge is linked both to power and to metamorphosis: the man who knows (the wizard) is the man of power (the warrior) and both knowledge and power are the keys to change. The wizard can see the other reality because he sees it with other eyes - with the eyes of the other.
Certain drugs used by the American Indians are the means to change nature. The variety of hallucinogenic plants known to societies in Pre-Columbian cultures is astonishing, from the yagé or ayahuasca of South America to the peyote of the Mexican plateau, and of the mushrooms of the mountains of Oaxaca and Puebla to the datura which don Juan gives Castaneda in the first book of the trilogy. Although the Spanish missionaries knew (and condemned) the use of hallucinogenic substances by Indians, modern anthropologists were not interested in the subject until very recently. In fact, notes Michael J. Harner, "the most important studies of the material, more than to anthropologists, are due to pharmacologists such as Lewin and botanists like Schultz and Watson." One of Castaneda's merits is to have gone from botany and physiology to anthropology. Castaneda has penetrated a closed society, an underground society that coexists, although it does not live, in modern Mexican society. It is tradition in the process of extinction: that of sorcerers, heirs of pre-Columbian priests and shamans.
The society of the sorcerers of Mexico is a clandestine society that extends in time and space. In time: it is our contemporary, but for its beliefs, practices and rituals it sinks its roots in the pre-Hispanic world; in space: it is a brotherhood that by its ramifications cover the whole republic and penetrates to the south of the United States. A syncretistic tradition, more for its practices than by its vision of the world. For example, don Juan indiscriminately uses Peyote, fungi and datura, while the shamans of Huatla, according to Munn, serve only the fungi. In Don Juan's ideas about the nature of reality and Man the theme of the double animal, the nahual continually appears, cardinal in the pre-Columbian beliefs, next to concepts of Christian origin. Nevertheless, I do not think it risky to say that it is a syncretism in which both the background and the practices are essentially pre-Columbian. The vision of Don Juan is that of a civilization defeated and oppressed by vice royal Christianity and by the successive ideologies of the Mexican Republic, of the liberals of the XIX century to the revolutionaries of the XX. An indomitable loser. The ideologies for which we kill, and which have killed us since independence, have lasted a little; the beliefs of Don Juan have fed and enriched the sensibility and imagination of the Indians for several thousand years.
It is remarkable, or rather, revealing, the absence of Mexican names among the researchers of the secret, nocturnal face of Mexico. This indifference could be attributed to a professional deformation of our anthropologists, victims of scientific prejudices who, otherwise, do not share at all with their colleagues in other places. In my view, it is rather an inhibition due to certain historical and social circumstances. Our anthropologists are the direct heirs of missionaries, just as sorcerers are of pre-Hispanic priests. Like the missionaries of the XVI century, Mexican anthropologists in indigenous communities do not want so much to know them as to change them. Their attitude is opposite to that of Castaneda. The missionaries wanted to extend the Christian community to Indians; our anthropologists want to integrate them into Mexican society. The ethnocentrism of the former was religious, the latter is progressive and nationalist. The latter severely limits our understanding of certain life forms. Sahagun deeply understood the Indian religion, even if he conceived it as a monstrous trick of the devil, because he looked at it from the perspective of Christianity. For the missionaries the religious beliefs and practices of the Indians were something perfectly serious, demonically serious;
anthropologists are aberrations, errors, cultural products that must be classified and cataloged in that museum of curiosities and monstrosities called ethnography.
Another obstacle to the correct understanding of the indigenous world, both with the ancient and the contemporary, is the strange mixture of American behaviorism and vulgar Marxism that prevails in Mexican social studies. The first is less harmful; it limits the vision but does not deform it. As a scientific method it is valuable, not as a philosophy of science. This is evident in the field of linguistics, the only of the so-called social sciences that has been truly constituted as such.
There is no need to dwell on the subject: Chomsky has already stated the essentials. The limitation of Marxism is otherwise. The reduction of magic to a mere ideological superstructure can be, from a certain point of view, accurate. Only it is too general a point of view and does not allow us to see the phenomenon in its particularity. There is an opposition between anthropology and Marxism. First, it is a science or, rather, aspires to become one; that is why he is interested in the description of each particular phenomenon and dares only issue general conclusions with the greatest reserve. There are still no anthropological laws in the sense that there are physical laws. Marxism is not a science, but a theory of science and history (more precisely: a historical theory of science); that's why it encompasses all social phenomena in universal historical categories: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism. The historical model of Marxism is successive, progressive and unique; I mean, all societies have passed, will pass or must pass through each of the stages of historical development, from original Communism to the Communism of the industrial era. For Marxism there is but one history, the same for all. It is a universalism that does not admit the plurality of civilizations and that reduces the extraordinary diversity of societies to a few forms of economic organization. The historical model of Marx was Western society; Marxism is an ethnocentrism that is ignored.
In other pages I have referred to the role of hallucinogenic drugs in visionary experience (Corriente Alterna, Mexico, 1967). It would be an impertinence if I repeat here what I said at the time, so I will just remind you that the use of the hallucinogens can be equated with ascetic practices: they are predominantly physical and physiological means to bring about spiritual enlightenment. In the sphere of the imagination are the equivalent of what is asceticism for the senses and meditation exercises for understanding. I hardly need to add whereas, in order to be effective, included with the use of hallucinogenic substances must be a vision of the world and the afterworld, an eschatology, a theology and a ritual. The drugs are part of a physical and spiritual discipline, such as ascetic practices. The macerations of the Christian hermit correspond to the sufferings of Christ and of his martyrs; the yogi's vegetarianism to the fraternity of all living beings to the mysteries of karma; the spinning of the dervish to the cosmic spiral and the dissolution of forms in their movement. Two opposing but coincident transgressions of normal sexuality: the chastity of the Christian cleric and the erotic rites of the Tantric adept. Both are religious denials of the genera animal. The Huichol communion with peyote involves sexual and nutritional bans more rigorous than Catholic Lent and Islamic Ramadan. Each of these practices is part of a symbolism that encompasses the macrocosm and the microcosm; each of them, also has a rhythmic periodicity, that is to say, it is included in a sacred calendar. The practice is vision and sacrament, unique moment and ritual repetition.
Drugs, ascetic practices and meditation exercises are not ends but means. If the means becomes an end, it becomes a destructive agent. The result is not inner liberation but slavery, madness and not wisdom, degradation and not vision. This is what has happened in recent years. Hallucinogenic drugs have become destructive powers because they have been wrenched from their theological and ritual context. The first gave them meaning, transcendence; the second, when introduced with periods of abstinence and use, minor psychic and physiological disorders. The modern use of hallucinogens is the desecration of an ancient sacrament, as contemporary promiscuity is the desecration of the body. Hallucinogens, therefore, are only used in the first phase of initiation. Castaneda is explicit and strict about this point: once the daily perception of reality breaks down - once the vision of the other reality ceases to offend our senses and our reason - the drugs are left out. Its function is similar to that of the mandala of Tibetan Buddhism: it is a support of meditation, necessary for the beginner, not for the initiated.
The action of the hallucinogens is twofold: they are a critique of reality and they propose another reality. The world we see, feel and think of appears disfigured and distorted; on its ruins rises another world, horrible or beautiful, according to the case, but always wonderful. (The drug grants havens and hells according to a justice that is not of this world, but which undoubtedly resembles that of the other (as the mystics of all religions have described.) The vision of the other reality rests on the ruins of this reality. The destruction of everyday reality is a result of what might be called the sensate criticism of the world. It is the equivalent, in the sphere of the senses, to the rational critique of reality. The vision is based on a radical skepticism that makes us doubt coherence, consistency and even existence of this world that we see, hear, smell and touch. To see the other reality we must doubt the reality we see with our eyes. Pirrón is the patron of all mystics and shamans.
In the past two centuries no one else has better critiqued the reality of this world and of the self than David Hume: there is nothing sure we can affirm about the objective world and the subject that looks at it, only that one and the other are bundles of instantaneous and disjointed perceptions linked by memory and imagination. The world is imaginary, even if it is not based upon the perceptions by which, alternatively, it manifests itself and dissipates. It may seem arbitrary to go to the great critic of religion. It is not: "When I see this table and that chimney, nothing is present to me but particular perceptions, which are of like nature with all the other perceptions ... when I turn my reflection on myself, I never can perceive this self without some more perceptions: nor can I ever perceive anything but the perceptions. It is the compositions of these, therefore, which form the self." Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman, does not say anything very different: what we call reality are but "descriptions of the world" (Castaneda calls them paintings, in this Castaneda follows Russell and Wittgenstein more than his Yaqui master). These descriptions are not more but less consistent and intense than the peyote visions in certain privileged memories. The World and I: A Beam of Perceived Perceptions (emitted?) by another bundle of perceptions. On this skepticism, no longer sensed but rational, is constructed what Hume calls belief-our idea of the world and of personal identity - and Don Juan calls the vision of the warrior.
Skepticism, if it is congruent within itself, is condemned to refuse. First, its criticism destroys the supposedly rational foundations on which rests our faith in the existence of the world and the existance of Man: one and the other are opinions, beliefs devoid of rational certainty. The skeptic is served by reason to show the mouse’s inadequacies, its secret unreason. Immediately afterwards, in a circular motion, it turns on itself and examines its reasoning: if its criticism has been effectively rational, it must be marked by the same inconsistency. The unreason of reason, incoherence, also appears in the criticism of the mouse. The skeptic has to fold his arms and, so as not to contradict himself once more, resigns himself to silence and immobility. If he wants to continue living and speaking he must affirm, with a desperate smile, non-rational beliefs.
Hume's reasoning, including his critique of the self, appears in a Buddhist philosopher of the 2nd century, Nagarjuna. But the circular nihilism of Nagarjuna does not end in a smile of resignation but in a religious affirmation. The Indian applies the criticism of Buddhism to
the reality of the world and to the self –they are empty, unreal-to Buddhism itself; doctrine also is empty, unreal. In turn, the criticism that shows the emptiness and unreality of that doctrine is empty, unreal. If everything is empty also "all-is-empty-even-the- doctrine-all-is-empty" is empty. Nagarjuna's nihilism dissolves itself and successively reintroduces the (relative) reality of the world and the self, then the reality (also relative) of the doctrine that preaches the unreality of the world and the self and, in the end, the (equally relative) reality of the critique of the doctrine that preaches the unreality of world and self. The foundation of Buddhism with its millions of worlds and in each of them their millions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is Castaneda’s precipice to which we never say goodbye. The precipice is a reflection that reflects us.
I do not know what Don Juan and Don Genaro think of Hume's and Nagarjuna’s speculations. On the other hand, I am (almost) sure that Carlos Castaneda approves of them - though with some impatience. What interests him is not to show the inconsistency of our descriptions of reality-whether those of everyday life or those of philosophy-but the consistency of the world's magical vision. Vision and practice: magic is first and foremost a practice. The books of Castaneda, although they have a theoretical foundation: radical skepticism, are the report of an initiation to a doctrine in which practice occupies the central place. What counts is not what Don Juan and Don Genaro say, but what they do. And what do they do? Wonders. And are those wonders real or illusory? Everything depends, says Don Juan upon what is understood by real and by illusory. Maybe they are not opposite terms and what we call reality is also delusion. The wonders are neither real nor illusory: they are means to destroy reality. They are what we see. Time and again humor slips insidiously into wonders as if the initiation were a long tease. Castaneda must doubt the reality of everyday reality, denied by wonders, as the reality of the wonders is denied by humor. The dialectic of Don Juan is not made of reason but of acts but that does not make it less powerful than the paradoxes of Nagarjuna, Diogenes or Chuang-Tseu.
The role of humor is no different from that of drugs, rational skepticism and wonders: the sorcerer proposes with all these manipulations to break the view of everyday reality, upset our perceptions and feelings, annihilate our weak reasoning, to destroy our certainties - so that the other reality appears. In the last chapter of Journey to Ixtlan, Castaneda sees Don Genaro swimming on the floor of Don Juan's room as if swimming in an Olympic pool. Castaneda does not believe his eyes does not know if he is a victim of a farce or if he is about to see. Of course, there is nothing to see. That's what Don Juan calls: stop the world, suspend our judgments and opinions about reality. End the "this" and "that", the yes and the no, achieve that blissful state of contemplative impartiality to which all the wise have aspired.
The other reality is not wondrous: it is. The world of everyday is the world of everyday: what a wonder! The initiation of Castaneda can be seen as a return, guided by don Juan and don Genaro-this Don Quixote and this Sancho Panza of wandering sorcery, two figures who possess the plasticity of the heroes of the stories and legends - the anthropologist turns off the path. Back to himself, not to who he was nor to the past: to now. Reclaiming the direct vision of the world, that instant of immobility in which everything seems to stop, suspended in a pause of time. Immobility that nevertheless elapses - logical impossibility but irrefutable reality for the senses. Invisible maturation of the instant that germinates, blossoms, becomes, fades, and sprouts again. The now: before separation, before false-or-real-or-illusory, pretty-or-ugly, good-or-bad. Once we all saw the world with this latter view but we have lost the secret.
We lost the power that unites the one who looks with that at which one looks. Anthropology led Castaneda to sorcery and this to the unitary vision of the world: to the contemplation of the otherness in the world of everyday. The sorcerers did not teach him the secret of immortality, nor did they give him the recipe of eternal bliss; they opened the doors to the other life. But the other life is here. Yes, here it is, the other reality is the world of everyday. In the center of this world of everyday flashes, like broken glass between the dust and trash of the backyard of the house, is the revelation of the world of there. What a revelation! There is nothing to see, nothing to say: all is allusion, secret signs, we are in one of the corners of the room of echoes, everything shows us signs and everything is silent and hidden. No, there's nothing to say. Bertrand Russell once said "the criminal class is included in the class of Man." One might say," the anthropologist class is not included in the poet class, except in some cases." One such case is named Carlos Castaneda.
September 15, 1973