The discussions on whether this book is fiction or non-fiction are rather futile, and prevent the reader from engaging with it more closely. I think aThe discussions on whether this book is fiction or non-fiction are rather futile, and prevent the reader from engaging with it more closely. I think a smarter move would be to suspend judgment on the matter, and look into what one can learn from this account.
The Teachings of Don Juan may be read as a bildungsroman where the narrator/anthropologist Carlos Castaneda engages with an alternative reality, under the strict guidance of Don Juan, on the path to becoming “a man of knowledge”. As a means to become a man of knowledge, he experiments with peyote, jimson weed and magic mushrooms. The book constitutes of Castaneda’s hallucinogen experiences and long discussions with his mentor, followed by a dull ‘structural analysis’. His vivid and lengthy descriptions of an alternate reality (which may remind one of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha) challenge the bubble of perception that the narrator has been enclosed in. At the same time, detailed dialogues between the master and his student (perhaps the most significant ethnographic tool in the book) reveal the incommensurable, yet fruitful, understandings/misunderstandings that are inherent to this learning experience (see page 101 for a good example). Unfortunately, the final structural analysis does not tell us anything new, but reveals how anthropological knowledge may be constrained by attempts at academic interpretation.
We meet Castaneda on a bus stop, and this bus stop is the first and the last secular space that we encounter in the book. After Castaneda begins developing a relationship with Don Juan, his sense of space and time is challenged by the alternative reality that he becomes inundated within. He is still attached to the calendar, and notes the date for each of his diary entries; yet, his sleep patterns transform, his capacity to judge durations is hindered, and the reader does not care for the dates of his entries anymore. His movements in space cannot be coherently traced either: even though he seems to be spending most of his time on Don Juan’s porch, he may as well be flying away. After the first few pages, his everyday accounts become disengaged from UCLA graduate student life, and except for a few moments (such as when he thinks about Georg Simmel), the reader does not glimpse any trace of his prior history. In this sense, Don Juan, like Carlos Castaneda, is constructed as an a-historical character, and the reader does not learn much about the mentor other than his experiences with his benefactor. Rather, the reader develops an understanding of both characters in relation to their mutual learning process.
In this learning process, the narrator portrays himself as a curious young man, and suspends any judgment on the Yaqui way of knowledge. Even though it is not difficult to notice his New Age admiration towards his master, the starkness of his descriptions eliminates any sense of exoticism, and rather evokes an attempt at cultural relativism. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that there are only two characters in the book: the narrator mentions the presence of others in various instances, but does not pay much attention to such conversations. The ethnographic account becomes, therefore, an account of explorations within a particular alternative learning session where the anthropologist is present with all his senses, rather than an exploration of Yaqui culture, and it is this particular focus that makes this book so strong. The absence of any conclusion, or judgment, regarding the Yaqui way of knowledge directs the reader to read this book as ‘a path with a heart’ rather than a conclusive argument on shamanism, and perhaps brings the author to a different understanding of anthropology. ...more
The main argument in the first part of the book is that intellectualism and abstract thought, having developed together with stress on the eye, have lThe main argument in the first part of the book is that intellectualism and abstract thought, having developed together with stress on the eye, have led to the disappearance of a physical, sensual and embodied essence. Thus, having concentrated on looking -and in relation to reading rather than listening to stories- we have lost our humanness, and have transformed into a form that is no longer capable of relating to the world without letters, signs, an alphabet, tools that are considered to be the seeds of abstract thought by the author. The book presents a literature review on senses without deeply and critically engaging with the material, and the first chapter transforms into a list of memorable quotes from different anthropologists, philosophers and architects, beginning with Sloterdijk and continuing with Le Corbusier, Bachelard, Walter Benjamin and Ashley Montagu.
The second chapter is about the 'other' senses, and is focused on explaining the absence of such experiences from the modern city: 'The programmed record music of shopping malls and public spaces eliminates the possibility of grasping the acoustic volume of space. Our ears have been blinded'. Here the idea of 'transformation' or replacement of sounds with others appears to be alien to the author - he does not recognize the sound of the contemporary city as being 'authentic' enough, or satisfactory in anyway, and thus falls back onto past examples of echoes and Helen Keller like figures. This is not to negate his argument for the prioritization of the visual in our everyday life, yet his approach is simplistic and perfunctory, especially given the richness of the subject matter. And his conclusion, with a quote from Wright, is also not convincing, and stands out as a paragraph that has not been thought over much: 'Stand up for integrity in your building and you stand for integrity not only in the life of those who did the building but socially a reciprocal relationship is inevitable'. So one should inject integrity to the building, and the building, being the powerful medium it is, will provide integrity to society? This assertion makes claims to a top-down modernity, an is less believable than explanations which provide more agency to society -such as The Soundscape of Modernity or Railway Journey.
However, I should add that his insights regarding bodily memory and the significance of peripheral sight are very interesting, and his bibliographical references have definitely been useful in taking me to the library. ...more
"anything that's uncompleted or that has been robbed of its completeness by time, both fascinates us and offers us the special vantage point from whic
"anything that's uncompleted or that has been robbed of its completeness by time, both fascinates us and offers us the special vantage point from which the salient characteristics of moments in history are divulged. or perhaps the fragment reveals one of our salient characteristics: the wish to enter historical moments via their breaks or discontinuities"