Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties

Feb 15th, 1994 | By | Category: 5-4: Education, Media Reviews

CARLOS CASTANEDA COVERBy Jay Courtney Fikes
Millenia Press, Victoria, B.C. 1993. $19.95.

Review by Paul Boyer

Fantasy Land

I first read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan as a young teenager, captivated by the story of a Yaqui Indian “sorcerer” living in the desert of Mexico. Most espe­cially, I was intrigued by his use of a mysterious substance called peyote.

My copy of Castaneda’s book was lost years ago, but I am left with strong images. Castaneda, who pre­sented himself as don Juan’s appren­tice, described magical transforma­tions while under the influence of peyote in titillating detail. He became a bird, he frolicked naked, he wept and laughed uncontrollably. Always, Don Juan was there to guide him and provide meaning to his experiences.

Castaneda wrote of the unimag­inable, yet appeared credible as a scholar. He was, I understood, a graduate student at UCLA, and his book was the result of field work. Conversations and actions were pre­sented with the dispassionate style of a scientist’s field report.

Certainly, some facts were altered. I accepted that don Juan was a pseu­donym, used to protect the sorcerer’s identity. Castaneda’s methodology was clearly unorthodox, as well. He placed himself as a central figure in the book, wrote in the first person, and gave few details about don Juan or Yaqui culture. But I willingly believed Castaneda’s claim that he had studied under a real spiritual leader and was documenting an important part of Yaqui society.

Most readers, including his col­leagues in anthro­pology, did too. The book became a best-seller and influenced both his profession and the era.

However, scholars who came after Castaneda had trouble follow­ing his trail. The culture he described did not match what they saw and don Juan, by any name, could not be found. Most anthro­pologists finally declared The Teachings of Don Juan—along with his subsequent books—to be, at best, bad research and some labeled it a cynical fraud.

But this discovery raises a tantaliz­ing question: How could Castaneda produce an error-ridden—possibly fraudulent—study and have it be not only accepted, but widely praised? According to Jay Courtney Fikes, author of Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties, both the scholarly community and the era deserve some blame.

Castaneda’s book arrived at a time when social and academic conven­tions were being rejected. Eager for new answers and tolerant of new methodology, many were willing to accept Castaneda as the bearer of spiritual insight from an Indian shaman. “In 1968, when Castaneda put Don Juan the sorcerer on the stage, the audience was so starved for metaphysical meaning they ate up his bullshit as if it were caviar,” he asserts with typical excess.

Castaneda, meanwhile, was insulated from criticism within the academic commu­nity. Because he completed his work under the auspices of a respected institution and won early support from anthropologists, the book’s legitimacy was not questioned. “Almost all anthropologists initially endorsed Castaneda’s work as authen­tic,” Fikes writes. “This in turn enhanced enormously public acclaim for Castaneda’s writing…” Even when evidence was mounting against Castaneda, criticism was at first muted; few were willing to risk their own credibility by attacking Castaneda’s.

Twenty five years later, The Teachings of Don Juan remains in print but has lost most of its influ­ence. However, Castaneda had ample time to cause mischief. More than embarrassing his profession, he did real and lasting damage to the indigenous people of Mexico, Fikes asserts. He also contributed to America’s overly-romantic image of Indians and may even be responsi­ble, in part, for the nation’s current drug paranoia.

After Castaneda and other writ­ers popularized peyote, Mexican communities became often reluctant hosts to spiritual tourists eager to experience what they believed don Juan shared with Castaneda. This increased visibility has made it harder for Indians to use peyote in a traditional manner. He cites inci­dents where traditional groups in Mexico “have been harassed, jailed, shot at, and almost murdered by guru-seekers and Mexicans acting on the misinformation and propa­ganda now in circulation.”

In the United States, meanwhile, The Teachings of Don Juan both fueled an interest in drug use and contributed to the resulting back­lash. While he does not offer sup­porting evidence, Fikes even believes the Supreme Court was indirectly influenced by Castaneda. A famous 1990 ruling declared that the religious use of peyote is not protected by the Constitution. This decision, Fikes asserts, reflects a national tendency to blur the dis­tinction between the “dignified and sacramental use of peyote” with its recreational use. He blames Castaneda, along with fellow fallen academic Tim Leary, for a confusion of the two.

Equally significant is the impact of Castaneda’s writing on the nation’s perception of native peoples. By painting them in the soft light of mysticism and spiritual­ity, Indians were once again depict­ed as simple caricatures, not as human beings with foibles, strengths and needs. Rather than encouraging understanding, it generated greater awe, or fear—depending on the reader’s inclinations.

Fikes remains an advocate of his profession. He believes Castaneda gained acceptance because the dis­cipline of anthropology strayed from its traditional emphasis on accurate data collection and accountability, not because it is fundamentally flawed. However, he also proposes that non-Indian anthropologists should obtain “the informed con­sent of Indian authorities in the community where they intend to do research.” This, in fact, is required by growing number of reservations across the United States.

Fikes earned a doctorate in 1985 and now co-sponsors something called the Institute for Investigation of Inter-Cultural Issues in Carlsbad, California. He spent time living among, and studying, the Huichol Indians of west-central Mexico. In contrast to Castaneda, Fikes fills his book with pages of notes and tran­scriptions of conversations.

Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties has its own oddities, however. It is, in fact, more about three of Castaneda’s colleagues at UCLA: students Diego Delgado, Peter Furst and Barbara Myerhoff. Several Huichol Indians, who were inaccurately presented by the three as legitimate spiritual lead­ers, are also prominent figures. Castaneda enters this confusing story only indirectly; the UCLA students conducted similarly suspicious research and at least one of the Huichols may have inspired Castaneda’s creation of don Juan.

Fikes takes the reader on several other side trips. He spends an inor­dinate amount of time talking about the government’s once secret LSD experiments on unconsenting indi­viduals. In contrast to his compul­sive documentation, he also shows a penchant for conspiracy theory; towards the end of the book he ten­tatively proposes that Castaneda’s writing was “part of a pseudo-reli­gion deliberately devised and widely broadcast in order to defuse 1960’s political movements considered sub­versive of the status quo”—whatev­er that means.

But for all of its flaws, the book does serve as a warning for a new generation of scholars. Once again—and for all the right reasons—there is a growing willingness to make use of new forms of scholarly investigation. But when unorthodox research methods are used, there is an oppor­tunity for deception and abuse. Accountability is essential in any form of scholarship.

Fikes’ book should also offer sobering lessons for non-Indians interested in Native spirituality. While they may be motivated by genuine respect for the spiritual val­ues of Indians, they are also easy prey for “plastic shaman” who make a mockery of sacred ceremonies and perpetuate simplistic images of the mystical native. Those seeking new insight must understand that many Indian people are insulted, and pos­sibly harmed, by such spiritual entrepreneurs.

It also reinforces the urgent need for native Americans to play a stronger role in the research process. The vast majority of scholarship about Indian people continues to be produced by non-Indians. Most is done with care. But research by non-Indians inevitably reflects the needs and biases of the Western culture. Indian groups, including many tribal college faculty and administrators, believe many important research questions are not being addressed.

Indians are windows into the soul of America. Not long ago they were portrayed as blood-thirsty savages. Castaneda helped remold them into all-knowing gurus. The first image was grossly untrue; the second is an impossible ideal. But in both cases they tell a lot about America’s own needs and desires and very little about native Americans.

Paul Boyer is editor of Tribal College.

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