Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Carlos Mysterioso

Recently I have begun rereading the first four books by the enigmatic author Carlos Castañeda.  It is a bit of a mystery even to myself why I have read these books more than once (I believe this is my fourth time reading them), as they describe the kind of pseudoscientific worldview that I might be expected to dismiss out of hand, and not waste my time on.

I was first introduced to Castañeda's books in 1977, when I was a senior in high school.  The first of Castañeda's books was required reading in the rather unorthodox psychology class I took from a fellow named Dr. Farmer.  (I'm not certain if the honorific in front of his name was because he had a legitimate Ph.D., or if he'd been given the title by students because of the air of erudition he always projected.)  Dr. Farmer's teaching methods weren't exactly the by-the-book approach, especially given that this was the Deep South in the 1970s; he allowed us to sit wherever we liked, including on the floor (my preferred perch was on top of a low bookcase by the window) and he talked about things that would be considered on the fringe even today.  (I recall that on his final exam, we were allowed to select which questions we wanted to answer, from a list he provided -- and one of them was, "Draw and interpret three mandalas.")  Dr. Farmer, I heard, only taught in the high school that one year.  I never found out if it was because parents complained about him, or because the administration found him to be too peculiar, or whether he himself decided that public education was not the right place for a man of his quirky views.

Be that as it may, Dr. Farmer instructed us to go out and purchase a copy of the first of the books by Castañeda, called The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.  I did so, having no idea what it was about, and began reading it that evening, with that combination of curiosity and apprehension that most students bring to assigned reading.

I found the contents unlike anything I'd ever been exposed to.  It, and his other books, remain unique in my experience, describing a view of reality so contrary to everything I knew that I hardly know what to make of them.

The first four books describe Castañeda's apprenticeship with an elderly Yaqui native from Mexico, named Don Juan Matus.  The basic gist of Don Juan's teachings is that the world we see around us is not the only, nor the most fundamental, reality.  There is another way of seeing the world -- Castañeda calls it nonordinary reality -- that can only be reached by unlearning all the ways you see and interpret what is around you.

Castañeda's journey along this road, as detailed in this and the following three books (A Separate Reality, Journey to Ixtlan, and Tales of Power), involved the ritual consumption of hallucinogenic plants including datura, psilocybe mushrooms, and peyote (this may well have been the reason for Dr. Farmer's not being invited back the following school year).  He describes meeting spirits, having shifts in his perception that altered his way of seeing the world permanently, and ultimately (at the end of Tales of Power) he leaps off a cliff into the "spirit world," an event which represented the end of his apprenticeship.

Castañeda's writing doesn't end there, however; he wrote eight more books, and then suddenly and completely vanished from view, becoming a recluse who never granted interviews, even shunning photographs.  Castañeda died of liver cancer in 1998, mysterious to the end.

The controversy is still alive, twelve years later.

The main question is, is what Castañeda wrote the truth?  Perhaps that's putting it a bit strongly; better to ask, did the events he described actually happen?  I'm not asking anyone to entertain the idea that his worldview was true; most people, especially skeptics, highly doubt that the spirits and other features of nonordinary reality he writes about actually exist.  But even if you exclude those who think that what he wrote was neither more nor less than a factual description of the universe, there still remains a puzzling set of questions to be answered.

The two chief theories about Castañeda seem to be:  (1) He was a charlatan, and the whole thing was a hoax from beginning to end.  Castañeda's books are a work of fiction, written purely as a money-making gambit (and as such, they worked brilliantly).  (2) He started out being a genuine student of anthropology, and his earlier works are fairly close to the truth; but probably because of consumption of large amounts of hallucinogens, he went off the deep end at some point, and his later works are the outpourings of a damaged mind. 

Me, I tend to find the second theory more in line with the facts.  The first three books, especially, have the ring of truth (again, I mean "truth" in the sense of "he was recording events he actually witnessed, as opposed to just making stuff up").  His later works seem like the sort of weird New Age philosophy that anyone could write, or at least anyone who had repeatedly hammered on his poor neurotransmitters with controlled substances.  In fact, I don't think I've read any further than The Eagle's Gift, his sixth book -- after that, I sort of gave it up as a bad job.

Whichever of the two theories is correct, he certainly was an odd, odd man.  Near the end of his life, he partially came out of seclusion to found Cleargreen, an institute for the study of his ideas.  Cleargreen was run by five women who called themselves brujas (sorceresses), and said that Castañeda had taught them using Don Juan's methods.  A weird postscript on that is that immediately following Castañeda's death in 1998, Cleargreen was closed, and all five women vanished completely, and have not been seen nor heard of -- at least under the identities they had prior to his death -- since.

In any case, I find the whole thing strangely fascinating.  Despite the internal inconsistencies that debunkers point out in his first four books, I think they make a curious read -- not least as an interesting case study of the ritual use of hallucinogens by Native cultures (although in the interest of honesty, I must point out that Yaqui leaders have disavowed any connection with Castañeda's ideas, and there has been more than one serious researcher in Native beliefs who has stated unequivocally that Castañeda made the whole thing up).  I have no interest in trying to shift my own perceptions using psychotropic drugs, but an account of someone else doing so, against the backdrop of the Mexican desert, makes for compelling reading -- even if it almost certain is fiction.

1 comment:

  1. I remember being stunned by the fairly straightforward documentation at the end of the book, as if someone who'd learned to fly around as a giant snake had carefully recorded altitude, length of creature to three significants, and elapsed time of flight.
    Someone just gave me the rest of his paperbacks, and while I expected to have an interesting few evenings re-trying to form an opinion, I instead fell asleep. I feel so lucky, having taken perhaps even more psychedelics then Don Carlos but emerging with my helmet still firmly on the skull.