The below article, by TASA member Ramón Menéndez, was originally published on the Cultural Sociology Thematic Group website.
Carlos Castaneda was a best-selling writer born in Cajamarca, Peru in 1925. He migrated to the US in 1951, becoming a millionaire after the publication of his first book, The teachings of Don Juan (1970 ), which resonated among the countercultural audiences of the 1960s and 1970s. The book has steadily sold 7,500 copies per year since then (Marshall 2007). Castaneda remained a New Age guru and icon until his death in 1998 (Fikes 2008).
Castaneda published twelve books throughout his life. The first nine are articulated through a series of Socratic dialogues between the narrator, Carlos (Castaneda’s alter ego), and his mentor, Don Juan Matus, a 70-year old Yaqui Indian and shaman who lives in exile at the Sonoran desert. The books are about Don Juan’s instruction of Carlos in the “Yaqui way of knowledge” to become a “man of knowledge” like him. They are presented as anthropological, non-fictional works. The third book (Castaneda 2012 ), Journey to Ixtlan, was submitted by Castaneda as his thesis, with slight changes from the published title, for his attainment of a PhD in Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1970 (Löchle 2014).
After an initial surge of enthusiasm within the anthropological community for Castaneda, research (De Mille 1976, 1980; Fikes 1993) soon debunked the myth that his books are anthropological, although they remain classified as non-fiction by Castaneda’s publisher (Marshall 2007). In what follows, I present two very different types of authenticity in Castaneda’s work—one more factual, the other more discursive—which can be used to reflect on the value of authenticity in contemporary times.
For one of his main critics, investigative journalist Richard De Mille, Castaneda’s books were not the product of genuine anthropological research among the Yaquis. De Mille (1980, quoted in Shelbourne 1987, p. 222) argues that they are works of pure fiction that make philosophical points through stories. Castaneda’s philosophy constitutes for De Mille a mixture of many philosophical and religious traditions, between non-Western mysticism (Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism), European philosophy and American Indian folklore (De Mille 1980, quoted in Koote 1984, p. 105; Löchle 2014, p. 84). To demonstrate this, De Mille (1976, 1980) highlights many passages in Castaneda’s writing that are similar to passages in various academic journal articles and books published either at the time or before.
However, according to anthropologist Jay Fikes, the other main expert on Castaneda’s work and shamanic traditions, Castaneda did spend some time with a Mexican shaman (Ramón Medina Silva), although he apparently did not learn anything significant from him (BBC 2007). For example, Carlos’ training in the first book requires the consumption of three hallucinogenic plants for the purposes of achieving a higher state of consciousness and awareness: jimsonweed (datura stramonium), peyote (lophophora williamsii) and sacred mushrooms (psilocybe mexicana). However, the Yaquis have never used peyote (BBC 2007) and the way Castaneda describes the use of sacred mushrooms in the first book as being smoked is supposed to negate the effects of this drug (Siegel 1981, quoted in Shelburne 1987, p. 220). This inconsistency in relation to the consumption of hallucinogenic plants is believed to have triggered Castaneda’s sudden decision to remove the use of drugs from Carlos’ training in the second book of Don Juan’s series, A separate reality (Castaneda 2013 .
Authenticity without a “real self”
Despite justifiable claims of factual inauthenticity by researchers like De Mille or Fikes, Castaneda paradoxically proposes a discursive form of authenticity through his work. According to sociologist Alessandro Ferrara (2009, p. 22), “authenticity is a protean concept… ironically always at risk of luring us into the opposite path, into a somewhat ‘inauthentic’ use of authenticity.” Depending on the different historical traditions that interpret this concept, authenticity can mean various things (Ferrara 2009). Castaneda advances in his work a transpersonal sense of authenticity (Shelburne 1987) that may seem inauthentic from its substantialist conception (Ferrara 2009, pp. 23-24). This can be observed in his concept of “erasing one’s personal history” (Castaneda 1972, pp. 15-19), as evidenced in the following quote: “A man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country, but one life to be lived (Castaneda 2013 , p. 85).”
Castaneda presents a concept of authenticity that is not bounded by the concept of “self” as it relates to one’s personal history. His notion of “erasing personal history” sees the self in an intersubjective manner, the self as “emerging of significant relations of recognition” (Ferrara 2009, p. 24). Castaneda thought of personal history as a way in which others could impose their definitions over oneself, which has especially negative consequences for one’s own authenticity when meeting others’ expectations. Therefore, Don Juan’s “man of knowledge” needs to remove himself from previous categorisations. Aligned with the myth of the “self-made man,” by “erasing personal history,” Castaneda sought to open up possibilities for new forms of identification that are more in accord with one’s own self-values. This is represented by Don Juan’s teachings and metaphorically deployed in Carlos’ transformation into a bird in the first book. Castaneda’s intersubjective conception of the self proposes an alternative form of authenticity: by being aware of the self’s inter-subjective nature, this conception seeks to transform it by removing all previous categorisations and forming new ones.
The two dimensions of authenticity that I present here, the factual and the discursive, reveal the complexity of authenticity as an important social value in contemporary Western societies. The revelations about Castaneda’s factual inauthenticity have not stopped readers from enjoying his books (Robert Marshall 2007). Indeed, they continue to be published and translated into many languages, inviting a reflection on the questionable significance of factual authenticity for literary audiences. Castaneda’s fraud can be equated to other, more recent examples in Western societies, for instance, the high profile media cases of Lance Armstrong, Rachel Dolezal and Belle Gibson and their fraudulent self-portraits as a world-class athlete, African-American and cancer survivor, respectively. The dissolution of traditional forms of authority and the value attached to individual forms of identity and self-presentation (Giddens 2008 ), still speak to the importance of factual authenticity for contemporary Western societies. However, the discursive authenticity that Castaneda proposes speaks to a broader understanding of authenticity in contemporary Western societies, especially considering that many of his readers seem unconcerned by the factual authenticity of his books, and instead value their discursive authenticity. Drawing on different philosophical and religious traditions, Castaneda’s books suggest a complex discourse of authenticity that is accessible to a wide audience, and one that continues to resonate with many readers.
BBC 2007, Tales from the jungle: Carlos Castaneda, online video, 22 February, YouTube, viewed 30 December 2017, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlI2gvSjJ4Q&list=PLuM-4_xKOOWYvkj1YpK_dYAFOXMYJl5c8>.
Castaneda, C 1970 , The teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui way of knowledge, California Press, Los Angeles.
—. 2013 , A separate reality: further conversations with Don Juan, Kindle edn, Atria Books, New York.
—. 2012 , Journey to Ixtlan: the lessons of Don Juan, Kindle edn, Washington Square Press, New York.
De Mille, R 1976, Castaneda’s journey: the power and the allegory, Capra Press, Santa Barbara.
—. 1980, The Don Juan papers: further Castaneda controversies, Ross-Erikson, Santa Barbara.
Fikes, J 1993, Carlos Castaneda, academic opportunism, and the psychedelic Sixties, Milenia, Victoria, BC.
—. 2008, ‘Castaneda, Carlos’, in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, William A. Darity (ed.), 2nd edn, vol. 1, Macmillan Reference, USA, pp. 456-457. Gale Virtual Reference Library, viewed 29 December 2017, < <http://go.galegroup.com.ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&u=latrobe&id=GALE|CX3045300288&v=2.1&it=r&sid=exlibris&authCount=1>.
Ferrara, A 2009, ‘authenticity without a true self’, in Authenticity in culture, self, and society, Phillip Vannini and J. Patrick Williams (eds.), Ashgate, Farnham.
Giddens, A 2008 , Modernity and self-identity: self and society in the late modern age, Kindle edn, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Koote, A 1984, ‘A critical look at Castaneda’s critics’, Journal of Mind and Behavior, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 99-108.
Löchle, S 2014, ‘The imposter as trickster as innovator: a re-reading of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan cycle’, in Fake identity? The impostor narrative in North American culture, Caroline Rosenthal and Stefanie Schäfer (eds.), Campus, New York, pp. 81-96.
Marshall, R 2007, The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda, Salon, viewed 31 December 2017, < https://www.salon.com/2007/04/12/castaneda/>.
Shelburne, W 1987, ‘Carlos Castaneda: if it didn’t happen, what does it matter?’, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 217-227.
Siegel, R 1981, ‘Inside Castaneda’s pharmacy’, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 325-332.
About the Author
Dr Ramón Menéndez obtained his PhD in Sociology at La Trobe University in 2016. His research explored authenticity as a cultural phenomenon from a social constructionist perspective; in particular, the meanings associated with self-authenticity among the university student population. He has recently been working as a research assistant (casual academic) in various research projects including but not limited to self-authenticity and university students at La Trobe University. Ramon tweets at: @ramondelatrobe.