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Main | Impossible Contemplation and Our Existential Threat »

Goodbye don Juan Matus

I first read Carlos Castaneda in the early 1970s when I was just out of college. He wrote twelve books, the first being The Teachings of Don Juan published in 1968. I think I read the first three in the series, but I can’t be sure. What I do remember vividly was getting in an argument with the best friend I’ve ever had on this planet about the veracity of the books.

The books were about Castaneda’s training with a shaman by the name of don Juan Matus, or “Man of Knowledge,” a man Castaneda claimed was a Yaqui, and particularly a group of Yaqui that was descended from the Toltecs. The books were written in the first person and Castaneda claimed that they were factual, that what he was presenting was an anthropological ethnography. Based on these writings, the University of California, Los Angeles, awarded him bachelor’s and doctoral degrees.

It didn’t take long for critics to start questioning the truthfulness of his claims and descriptions. Some pointed out that he showed almost no knowledge of the Yaqui. Others that while his writing may be philosophical in nature, they were in fact a work of the imagination that did not warrant the bestowing of a Ph.D. in anthropology. Simply put, what he wrote could not be literally, scientifically, factual.

Be that as it may, the reason I bring this up is because of Castaneda’s assertion that don Juan Matus was a nagual, that is, a leader among seers in his ancestry, and that he, don Juan Matus, recognized Castaneda as a nagual. But here’s the rub, and the source of the argument with my friend those many years ago. The term nagual also signifies a type of shaman that claims they can change into an animal, or “shift” into another form with the aid of, for example, Mescalito. If I’m remembering correctly, Castaneda at least implied that he actually witnessed don Juan Matus go through such a transformation, and that this shift was not an illusion created by using psychoactive drugs, but that it was, indeed, a literal, biological, change.  

I can’t imagine I literally believed that a nagual shaman under the influence of Mescalito or Jimson Weed could actually shift in form from human to animal. Or at least I hope not. I was young, but still…However, I did argue with my friend, who never would have believed such a thing, that it might be theoretically possible, that we western, rational, scientific types might not know all there is to know about reality. I have to say, my friend found my proposition ludicrous. And while my suggestion that we western types didn’t know everything about reality there is to know was sound, my implication was not. So why did I do it?

I did it because I wanted to believe in the possibility of the unexpected, the mysterious. I wanted to believe that there were alternatives to the way I had been raised to see reality. I wanted something profoundly surprising to happen.

I confess that remembering the argument and my youthful enthusiasm of wanting to believe in the unbelievable is now embarrassing, there is also something a little sad about the remembering. The sadness, minor to be sure but nonetheless present, is that I would never today even give such a thing a moment’s thought. I know longer want to believe the unbelievable. I no longer expect the unexpected. I assume that most, if not all, mysteries are not supernatural, metaphysical, other worldly, parallel realities, but a lack of knowledge.

So, this is a kind of goodbye to that young man who read don Juan Matus and argued for alternative interpretations. And a goodbye to don Juan Matus himself. I now believe more in the fictional characters in novels then in fraudulent representations of reality.

Copyright © 2019 Dale Rominger

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