“We’re all nothing but bags of stories”: Carlos Castaneda as a Countercultural Icon and Budding Post-Modernist

Exploring the countercultural 1960s and the origin of Western New Age, one cannot bypass Carlos Castaneda. He became a celebrity writer because of his bestselling book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that was published by the University of California Press in 1968. The book was written in a genre of free-style dialogues between a Native American shaman named Don Juan Matus and Castaneda himself, who claimed that he worked with Don Juan for many years. The Teachings describes how Castaneda learned to use three hallucinogenic plants: peyote, jimson weed, and psychedelic mushrooms. After ingesting these substances, Castaneda went through mind transformations and learned that there were other realities besides the ordinary one. Later, it was revealed that he made up the whole experience, but this never affected his popularity.


Of course, a book like this was well-tuned to the then-popular hallucinogenic subculture, and the link between Castaneda’s text and the psychedelic ‘60s is the most common explanation of his popularity. Yet I want to argue that this is a very narrow view, which does not explain why Castaneda’s follow up books, which had nothing to do with psychedelics, continued to enjoy popularity well into the 1990s. In fact, by the early 1980s, Castaneda became so paranoid about hallucinogens that he forced his girlfriend to undergo drug tests before allowing her to sleep with him. I also argue that viewing Castaneda exclusively as one of the spearheads of the New Age does not explain much either. The appeal of his texts went far beyond the New Age. In the 1970s and the 1980s, for example, his books were frequently assigned as conventional course readings in anthropology, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and humanities classes.

Let me start with some biographical details. Castaneda was born Carlos Arana in Peru to a middle class family and moved to the United States in 1951. He tried to enter the world of art but failed. Then, for a while, he worked as a salesman while simultaneously taking classes in creative writing before eventually enrolling in the anthropology graduate program at UCLA.

Originally Castaneda did not care about hallucinogens and the emerging hippie culture, but eventually UCLA (and the broader California environment), which was saturated at that time with various counterculture and unchurched spirituality projects, made him choose a sexy topic: the use of psychedelics in a tribal setting. The book which made him famous, The Teachings of Don Juan, originated from a course paper on “power plants” and from his follow-up Master’s thesis. I want to stress that both papers were essentially attempts to find a short-cut to satisfy the requirements of his professors. His first professor, an anthropologist, invited those students who wanted to get an automatic “A” to find and interview an authentic Indian. Despite a few random contacts, Castaneda could not produce any consistent narrative, and had to invent his interview. This was the origin of his Don Juan character. Then he followed requirements of his advisor, Harold Garfinkel, a big name in sociology at that time and one of the forerunners of postmodernism. Garfinkel made it explicitly clear to Castaneda that he did not want him to classify and analyze his experiences with Don Juan scientifically.

What Garfinkel wanted was a free-style and detailed description of his work with the indigenous shaman as it was and without any interpretation. Thus it was through collective efforts that Castaneda produced a text that by chance caught the attention of the university press as a potential bestseller. Essentially, Castaneda took to the extreme incentives provided to him by his professors and by the surrounding subculture. He internalized these incentives by composing a fictional text, which he peddled as authentic anthropological research. It is interesting to note that in 1998, just before he died, Castaneda made the following mischievous remark in his introduction to the last anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan: “I dove into my field work so deeply that I am sure that in the end, I disappointed the very people who were sponsoring me.”

The popularity of the first book gave rise to the whole Don Juan sequel, which made Castaneda an anthropology and counterculture star. The combined print run of his books translated in 17 languages reached 28 million copies. And, as I mentioned above, despite the revelations that his Don Juan was a completely fabricated character, the popularity of his books was increasing throughout the 1970s. In fact, to this present day, libraries frequently catalogue his books as non-fiction.

It seems that Castaneda’s appeal had something to do with overall trends in Western culture, which made his text resonate so well with millions of his readers. For this reason, I want to highlight the general ideological relevance of Castaneda’s books for the Western zeitgeist (spirit of the time) at its critical juncture in the 1960s and the 1970s. Various authors who wrote about Castaneda never mentioned this obvious fact, including his most complete biography by French writer Christophe Bourseiller, Carlos Castaneda: La vérité du mensonge (2005). So exploring the ideological relevance of the Don Juan books will be my small contribution to Castanediana.

To be specific, I want to point to two themes that go through all his books. First, he hammered in the minds of his readers the message of radical subjectivism, which in our day it is considered by some a conventional wisdom: What we call truth is always socially constructed. Don Juan, who in later books began speaking as a philosophy professor, repeatedly instructed Carlos that so-called reality was a fiction and a projection of our own cultural and individual experiences, and instead of so-called objective reality, we need to talk about multiple realities. In an interview for Time magazine, Castaneda stressed that the key lesson Don Juan taught him was “to understand that the world of common-sense reality is a product of social consensus.” Castaneda also stressed the role of an observer in shaping his or her reality and the significance of text in Western culture. In other words, he was promoting what later became the hallmark of so-called postmodern mindset.

Second, fictional dialogues between the “indigenous man” Don Juan, whom Castaneda portrayed as the vessel of wisdom, and Castaneda, a “stupid Western man,” contained another message: remove your Western blinders and learn from the non-Western ones. Such privileging of non-Western “wisdom” resonated very well with Western intellectuals who felt justified frustration about the hegemony of positivism and Western knowledge in general and who looked for an intellectual antidote to that dominance. By the 1990s, this attitude mutated into what Slavoj Zizek neatly labelled the “multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation,” which now represents one of the ideological pillars of Western welfare-warfare capitalism.

At the end of the 1970s, several critics tried to debunk Castaneda. They were able to prove that his books were the product of creative imagination and intensive readings of anthropological and travel literature. These critics correctly pointed out that Castaneda misrepresented particular indigenous cultures and landscapes. Besides, they stressed that his books were not written in a scientific manner. Ironically, this latter criticism did not find any responsive audiences precisely because social scholarship was moving away from positivism. Moreover, one of these critics, anthropologist Jay Fikes, who wrote a special book exposing Castaneda’s hoax, became a persona non grata in the anthropology field within the United States. Nobody wanted to write a reference for him, and he had to move to Turkey to find an academic position.

What critics like Fikes could not grasp was the fact that the Castaneda texts perfectly fit the emerging post-modernist thinking that was winning over the minds of many Western intellectuals who sought to break away from dominant positivism, rationalism, and grand all-explaining paradigms. To them, an antidote to this was a shift toward the subjective, individual, and spontaneous. The idealization and celebration of non-Western knowledge and non-Western cultures in general, which currently represents a powerful ideological trend in Western Europe and North America, became an important part of this intellectual revolt against the modern world. I am sure all of you know that anthropology authorities such as Clifford Geertz (until recently one of the major gurus of Western humanities), Victor Turner, and Claude Lévi-Strauss were inviting others to view any cultural knowledge as valid and eventually erased the border between literature and science. They also showed that scholarship can be constructed as art. Castaneda critics could not see that his texts only reflected what was already in the air.

Castaneda_Time magazine

The person who heavily affected the “production” of the first Don Juan book, which was Castaneda’s revised Master’s thesis, was the above-mentioned sociologist Garfinkel. As early as the 1950s, Garfinkel came up with ideas that contributed to the formation of the post-modern mind. I am talking here about his ethnomethodology. This school of thought did not see the social world as an objective reality but as something that individuals build and rebuild in their thoughts and actions. Garfinkel argued that what we call truth was individually constructed. Sometimes, he also called this approach “people’s sociology.” He stressed that a scholar should set aside traditional scientific tools and should simply narrate human experiences as they were in all details and spontaneity. Again, today, for many, this line of thinking is conventional wisdom, but in the 1950s and the 1960s it was revolutionary. Incidentally, for Castaneda it took time to figure out what Garfinkel needed from him before he rid his text of the vestiges of “positive science.” To be exact, Castaneda could not completely get rid of this “science” in his first bestselling book. In addition to the free-flowing and easy-to-read spontaneous dialogues with Don Juan, Castaneda attached to the text an appendix; a boring meaningless read that he titled “Structural Analysis.” In his later books, such rudiments of positivism totally disappeared.

When Castaneda was writing his Master’s thesis, Garfinkel made him revise the text three times. The advisor wanted to make sure that Castaneda would relate his spiritual experiences instead of explaining them. Originally, when Castaneda presented to Garfinkel his paper about a peyote session with Don Juan, the text was formatted as a scientific analysis of his own visions. The professor, as Castaneda remembered, rebuked him, “Don’t explain to me. You are nobody. Just give it to me straight and in detail, the way it happened. The richness of detail is the whole story of membership.” Castaneda spent several years revising his thesis and then had to revise it again because Garfinkel did not like that the student slipped into explaining Don Juan psychologically. Trying to be a good student, Castaneda embraced the advice of his senior colleague. So the final product was a beautiful text that was full of dialogues, rich in detail, and, most importantly, came straight from the “field.”

I interviewed some of Castaneda’s classmates and other scholars who became fascinated with his books at the turn of the 1970s. Many of them had no illusions about the authenticity of Don Juan. Still, they argued that the whole message was very much needed at that time. A quote from Douglas Sharon, one of Castaneda’s acquaintance, is illustrative in this regard. In his conversation with me, Sharon stressed:

“In spite of the fact that his work might be a fiction, the approach he was taking—validating the native point of view—was badly needed in anthropology, and, as a matter of fact, I felt it was a helping corrective for the so-called scientific objectivity that we were taking into the field with us.”

I want to mention in conclusion that Castaneda not only promoted the postmodern approach in his novels but also tried to live it. Before the age of Facebook and online forums, Castaneda, with a group of his followers, became involved in an exciting game of identity change. They came to enjoy confusing those around them by blurring and constantly changing their names and life stories. For example, people in his circle shredded their birth certificates and made new ones. They also performed mock wedding ceremonies to make fun of conventional reality. To those who might have had questions about this “post-modernist” game, Castaneda reminded: “We’re all nothing but bags of stories.”

9 thoughts on ““We’re all nothing but bags of stories”: Carlos Castaneda as a Countercultural Icon and Budding Post-Modernist

  1. when its all said and done, post-modernism and the other counter culturals identified by Berlin were soundly debunked before they occurred by Popper, who called them irrationalists. He correctly pointed out rationality may be irrational, but if so, there’s nothing to prevent one irrationally choosing rational irrationality. Stripped of the rarefied philosophizing, societies from time to time reach a position where they come to understand a medium like rationality to replace overt power plays and violence s preferable (see pretty much any literature on ‘democratization’.) I do have some sympathy for the postmodern desire (viewed as an isolated critique) to tear down Hegel’s Tower of Knowledge, but there’s is a classic overreaction that banishes the baby with the bathwater.

    In the West, our Postmodernism is really the coda of modernism doubling as the entree for an orgy of intramural sectarianism, now that we have abolished the meta-narratives necessary for large, coherent civilizations (yes, I’m touching on Spengler). As Churchill said, ‘the fascists of the future will be called anti-fascists’. Just look at any identity politics to see the prescience of that observation. The gay lobby doesn’t just want structural parity in law with hetros; no rather than want to expose the ‘false consciousness’ of a ‘heteronormative’ society. It’s all about identity defined against a ‘big other’, this time patriarchy, heteronormativity, or ableism rather than ‘international jewry’. So we have a conflict-attracting paradigm, in which the only arbiter of groups relations and ‘truth’ is the politic rather than the rational. This is why that buzz feed journalist could claim she had been revictimized by her male colleagues talking about implementing more rigorous investigative standards in the wake of the Rolling Stones rape fabrication. Since rationality and objectivity don’t exist, it was merely a rhetorical power play on their part to transgress on her sovereign subjective truth of being a woman…sorry, ‘womyn.’

    for those of you who read theology, David Bentley Hart delivers quite the revelation in his book ‘The Beauty of the Infinite’ showing the assumptions underpinning the the meta-narratives of no meta-narratives, and how the discourse is entirely constrained by the ‘metaphysics’ it so virulently rails against.

  2. I was one in the legion of credulous individuals fooled by Carlos Castaneda; this is, until I read “The Don Juan papers,” edited by Richard de Mille. Yet reality is stranger than fiction: from Castaneda I learned concepts that effectively helped me survive a most sinister totalitarian regime; had I not read Castaneda’s books, I would never had made it alive to the United States, where I live now. So reality in my native country, which is not worth naming, conceptually matched Castaneda’s concept of a sinister, separate reality, the reality of irrational terror. The regime used most sophisticated and evil covert operations so that to terrorize dissidents without the latter knowing the facts about it; they, and myself, were surreptitiously sprayed with an atomized, odorless anesthetic substance, this is before one being beat up or abducted. The outcome was akin to sorcery because, upon recovering consciousness, one at best had fragmentary memories of the incident; at worst, most times none, but a vague sensation of terror and helplessness. So that one ended up terrorized yet not knowing why, which in turn blurred the boundary between reality and fiction (“I must be imagining things”). It was not a Communist nation, in which dissidents learn to handle terror because it is rational: it was the irrational terror of a weird Third World nation, not unlike in Castaneda’s model. So through Castaneda I learned a method to deconstruct something that did not seem real at all; not a complete deconstruction, to make sure, but a most relevant suspicion that a separate reality did exist. I learned to distrust the seemingly benign, outwardly democratic totalitarian regime, at mere façade for a true Inner Party, the same manner Don Juan distrusted Mexicans; thanks to Castaneda, the regime did not truly fooled me about the nation being democratic and happy. Once I made it to the United States, the rationality to my case came in the manner of a bright FBI counterintelligence debriefing, which currently is routinely done with refugees and immigrants from a number of corrupt or violent nations: then I was able to put together the missing pieces of my traumatic background. Counterintelligence, and here I thank the agency so much, because the hidden and most sinister reality I had not really understood, a separate reality, was the reality of covert government intelligence, which even in true democracies like the United States is opaque to the public. So it all worked out like in Castaneda’s fiction; without Castaneda, I would had collapsed before being able to flee my native country: they would have found a covert manner to kill me, classically making it look like an accident, as it is done in so many dictatorial Third World nations. The Way of the Warrior served me much; this is to confront danger with a sense of inner serenity. Most important for me, indeed, was to read the allegory, about fate, of Castaneda walking with Don Juan through a narrow mountain path, by an abyss. It helped me go through danger with the inner faith that I could make it, no matter how unknown were the danger for me, as it was: I “stalked” the unknown and threatening, and survived. Plus the idea that the Divinity may decide whether or not one may succeed when facing danger, in the same passage, has a lot of truth to it. From my viewpoint, therefore, Castaneda was a most valuable trickster.

    • Oscar,

      Great story, thanks.

      Don’t tease us, though. Where did you come from?!

  3. I don’t want to sound like I am bragging though I am. I read Castaneda fresh off the press. I became suspicious early in the reading. I was a rationalist. I am a rationalist (echoing John Smith above). I did not use psychedelics. Yet, I never stopped reading till I got to the end. Perhaps, Castaneda was a sort of native informant for me. For all his falseness, he must have spoken from some experience, without Don Juan’s help.

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