A Separate Reality

Some bookstores classify them as “Anthropology,” others as “Religion.” In still others, you may find them shelved as “Science Fiction” or “The Occult.” The objects of this classificatory confusion are four books by Carlos Castaneda, sales of which to date total more than three million copies.

Graduate student turned sorcerer’s apprentice, Castaneda published his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, in 1968. He watched it climb to the top of university best-seller charts, as did the three subsequent works, A Separate Reality, Journey to Ixtlan, and Tales of Power. His books record experiences in his apprenticeship to an old Indian sorcerer named Don Juan (a pseudonym), who patiently guides Carlos to “warrior-hood.” In order to divest Carlos of traditional Western ways of thinking, seeing, and doing, Don Juan gives him drugs and leads him into the desert for lonely hikes interspersed with Socratic dialogue. The four books are ostensibly the result of meticulous notes taken by Carlos, to the initial annoyance and later amusement of his mentor.

There is still some question as to whether Castaneda’s books are fact or fiction, although as one critic puts it: “Either Carlos is telling the documentary truth about himself and Don Juan, in which case he is a great anthropologist. Or else it is an imaginative truth, and he is a great novelist. Heads or tails, Carlos wins.”

The following example of Castaneda’s dialogue illustrates why there is a fact/fiction controversy and shows the “Western logic” that Don Juan is attempting to dispel. The incident occurs quite early in the apprenticeship, after Carlos has been on a drug-induced “trip” in which he flies like a bird. Describing his hallucinogenic experience to his ...

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