CASTANEDA'S JOURNEY: THE POWER AND THE ALLEGORY, by Richard DeMille, Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1976, 205 pp., $4.95.
Argument has raged since the appearance in the late 1960's of Carlos Castaneda's books about don Juan, a Yaqui Indian brujo. Are these books the result of anthropological fieldwork, or is don Juan a figment of Castaneda's imagination?
Castaneda was awarded a Ph.D. in anthropology by UCLA for his supposed fieldwork, and his books are listed by the Library of Congress as nonfiction. Moreover, thousands of readers accepted them as factual accounts, and a small army from the various ologies have fanned out across the planet in search of don Juanian subjects for scientific studies.
Now comes Richard DeMille's expose, assuring us the whole don Juanian phenomenon was a huge literary hoax. "All the evidence needed to prove a case of big-time fictioneering can be found in Castaneda's first three books," DeMille asserts. "The secret is to make a chronological list of events. After that, the case proves itself."
DeMille supplies that list and more, and one is left with no doubt—if indeed one had doubt to begin with—that Castaneda tricked us. Poking around in such sordid evidence as the fact that don Juan sometimes utters Indian words (tonal and nagual, for instance), DeMille discovers that Aztec is being spoken, not don Juan's native tongue, Yaqui, an entirely different language. He further points out that Castaneda tells us he scribbled his fieldnotes in Spanish, whereas a lot of American slang with no Spanish equivalents comes out of Castaneda's character's mouth.
Such literary detective work is commendable in itself, yet there is another dimension of the don Juan phenomenon that demands attention. DeMille approaches it this way: "A friend of mine asked, 'Why are you writing a book about somebody you think is a liar?' That stopped me. Why was I? Shouldn't I simply dismiss Castaneda as Weston LaBarre had dismissed him? My friend supplied the answer. Castaneda wasn't a common con man, he lied to bring us the truth."
It is DeMille's handling of this dimension that makes his book more than a simple expose and sends tentacles of implication sneaking into practically every area of information exchange. How much fiction is there in factual data? How much art in science? Science in the conjuring of art?
For those who believe the truth can be told only as scientific fact, the idea of doing make-believe fieldwork and pawning it off as anthropology is appalling. From the other end of the spectrum, for those who believe the truth is best revealed through literature and art, it's equally appalling. For what Castaneda did was give us fiction pretending to be science. As DeMille points out, read as novels, Castaneda's books have practically no power. But when read as scientific tales, they generate terrific excitement.
It's obvious, however, that Castaneda's desire was to write something other than either anthropology or a modern Robinson Crusoe. And the genre he developed—let's call it the ethnographic-mystical thriller—proved just right. It's also clear that he accomplished far more by doing fiction as science than tons of actual fieldnotes have accomplished. Instead of giving us a lot of external details about a real-live shaman done in the ethnocentric language of modern science, Castaneda leaped the great divide and took us into the shamanic mind.
Instead of exploring this aspect, Castaneda's real accomplishment, DeMille takes it upon himself to "psychologize" the mind of don Juan's author, and he promptly runs into trouble. To begin with, he tells us he twice tried to personally interview Castaneda and twice was rebuffed. With such lazy legwork he would have been laughed all the way to the unemployment office had he been doing his book as a wage-earning journalist. Striking a scholarly stance, however, DeMille relies on the legwork and interviews of others, plus memories, comments, and rumors culled from Castaneda's ex-wife and acquaintances.
Out of these scraps he puts together a version of Castaneda's personal history and psyche, rendering a portrait of a kid from the hinterlands of Peru who went to the big city and made good by becoming a diligent library researcher with a small flair for fiction and a mighty talent for lying. To give his portrait style and color, DeMille comes up with such gross Freudianisms that the net result tells far more about DeMille than about Castaneda.
What DeMille's ethnocentricity blinds him to is that Castaneda came to the scientific reality from the pagan reality of his Peruvian homeland. It is these two very different belief systems that Castaneda unites in his don Juan books. The African/native American pagan belief system is such that it can accommodate, embrace, and include the belief system of Western science. Any modern witchdoctor with knowledge of modern science can tell you that the theory of relativity is one god "speaking" through science while the quantum theory is another god "speaking," and he can also tell you the relationship between these two gods. On the other hand, the basic beliefs of modern science must exclude those of ancient paganism. Castaneda understands this; DeMille does not.
Having interviewed over a hundred witchdoctors—Haitian Houngons, Trinidadian Shango priests, Brazilian Macumberos, Mexican brujos, American Voodooists, etc—it is my opinion that both scientists and witchdoctors hold one basic belief in common: theory precedes discovery of evidence. Science postulates a theory of the atom, evolves a graphic image of the atom, and accumulates evidence. It's not unusual these days to read in scientific journals about the atom being "observed," but no one has ever seen an atom in ordinary reality. The atom exists in the nonordinary reality of nonthings. What is really being observed are blips on screens that relate to electronic equipment that supposedly reveals atom behavior. Afro-American paganism postulates a theory of gods/spirits/archetypes as the programmers of all things. The witchdoctor "observes" his gods acting and speaking through Catholic saints, Hindu gurus, even through you and me. Neither gods nor atoms can be seen in anyone's ordinary reality of physical things, yet both theories demonstrate evidence of themselves as valid truths.
In a chapter titled "Trickster Teacher," DeMille collects tidbits of mythology about one god, but he does so to belittle Castaneda's accomplishment. But it was necessary for Castaneda to transcend the limitations of modern scientific methodology in order to bring us insight into ancient paganism, which continues to be the reality of millions in Latin America and Africa. Neither fiction nor fieldwork could have spanned the wide divide between these two realities. It was Castaneda's genius to find the right way to connect them: fiction disguised as anthropology.
That, I submit, is an important accomplishment, for in the years ahead, East, West, and Third World will be brought closer and closer by swifter travel and instantaneous communications. It will be important for Westerners to appreciate the working theories of those they have until recently called primitive, superstitious, and ignorant.
I, however, do not wish to belittle the work of either author. DeMille's systematic proof of fictioneering is a necessary addition to Castaneda's work and heightens one's appreciation of where whose truth lies.
Bob Gover is the author of seven novels, the most famous: One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. He is presently at work on a personal adventure into the Third World pagan reality.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Castaneda's Journey".