When I was in college, way back in Ronald Reagan’s first term as President, I took a class called “Drugs & Society." It was considered an easy class because most students had some experience with the subject matter. One of the books we read was The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, by Carlos Castaneda. The book, which my friends and I found both entertaining and inspiring, served as the author’s master’s thesis in anthropology at UCLA. In it, he describes his shamanic apprenticeship with don Juan Matus, a Yaqui sorcerer from Sonora, Mexico. The CliffsNotes version is that Castaneda takes a bunch of peyote and mushrooms, sees people turn into animals and fly, and tries to understand “non-ordinary reality” while having his many naïve questions dismissed by Matus.
Upon publication in 1968 (bookended as it was by the Summer of Love and Woodstock), Don Juan became somewhat of a hippie Bible; Castaneda’s work, however, also had many critics who doubted its veracity. To this day, there are those who line up on both sides. On Amazon, the book is listed in the “Literature and Fiction” category, and the book description notes, “Castaneda’s now classic book remains controversial for the alternative way of seeing that it presents and the revolution in cognition it demands. Whether read as ethnographic fact or creative fiction, it is the story of a remarkable journey that has left an indelible impression on the life of more than a million readers around the world.”
Fact-checking the book was not a priority for my professor. The reason we were reading it in our college class in 1980-something was to contrast the spiritual and ritualistic consumption of drugs as practiced by the Yaqui Indians with the purely recreational use by college students in their comfortable dorm rooms and the desperate fixes of addicts in a back alley. In our class, there was no blanket judgment about narcotic drugs and no pat equating of drug use with drug abuse. Rather, context and intent were considered important aspects of the experience. It was very college, even in the Reagan era.
That was 30-plus years ago. This fall, my older daughter entered college herself. Currently in her first semester as a freshman at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, she is taking an anthropology course and one of her texts is The Teachings of Don Juan. I was very excited when I learned this; after all, I still own the paperback I read in college. Naturally, I’ve been very curious about what she thinks of the book.
She hasn’t finished it yet, but she reports that she finds it weird and confusing. Of course it is, I told her; the protagonist doesn’t even understand what he’s reporting. The narrative is about his struggle to come to a conclusion about what he’s learning and experiencing. I got that when I was reading it, but that’s not because I’m smarter than my daughter; it’s because I was – well, let’s just say more experimental when I was her age. I jokingly suggested she use peyote while reading it. I assume she took it as a joke.
But again, maybe context is king in this case. I was looking for cross-cultural validation for my own lifestyle, whereas my daughter is trying to answer anthropological questions from a text that seems to defy science. I was interested in what was possible for a thrill-seeking head; she is concerned with what is plausible for a truth-seeking student. Like generations of reviewers who have argued whether the book is fiction or fact, we are unlikely to meet in the middle. This strikes me as a shame, as I would like to share the experience with my daughter. The intellectual experience, that is.
We don’t agree about music, either, but that didn’t stop me from sharing with her that the third verse of Fleetwood Mac’s 1973 song “Hypnotized” clearly makes reference to The Teachings of Don Juan:
They say there’s a place down in Mexico
Where a man can fly over mountains and hills
And he don't need an airplane or some kind of engine
And he never will
Now you know it’s a meaningless question
To ask if those stories are right
’Cause what matters most is the feeling you get
When you’re hypnotized
I think about other books I read during and after college that also were journeys to understanding – books like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (1974), and Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon (1982) – and I’m struck by how little they seem connected with the current day. In 2015 are there still unexplored areas of this country, of the human mind, of the human condition in general? Or is the challenge now simply (or not so simply perhaps) to cope with what all our previous explorations have unearthed? How can one live with integrity in a world gone mad? Why is the richest, most powerful nation on earth drunk on violence and high on bigotry? When Presidential candidates preach religion and the Pope preaches politics, where is our place and what are our priorities?
Turns out these are not meaningless questions. And ultimately, I guess that’s what I most want to tell my daughter: college is as much about finding the right questions as it is about learning the right answers. And the journey to truth can take many unexpected twists and turns.