A Worthy Opponent

by Richard de Mille

from The Don Juan Papers (Ross-Erikson, 1980)

"Without the aid of a worthy opponent, who's not really an enemy but a thoroughly dedicated adversary, the apprentice has no possibility of continuing on the path of knowledge." In the story, as on the calendar, it was 1962. Carlos was setting traps for rabbits and quail but catching none; Castaneda was showing his manuscript to professors at UCLA but getting no sponsors. "Someone is interfering with your hunting," don Juan announced. "Who?" said Carlos, but he knew. It was La Catalina, his worthy opponent-or, as she was called in the first three books, "la Catalina," the quotation marks, oddly, forming part of the name. The episode illustrates two subtle features of Castaneda's way of work- ing. One is that calendar-time and narrative-time often coincide, Carlos's adventures being written or at least dated when their counterparts hap- pen to Castaneda. The other is that oddities of style or diction may signal metaphorical correspondences, providing dues whereby the allegory can be traced to its origins in ordinary events. What events prompted Cas- taneda to imagine "la Catalina," the handsome but fiightening witch who interfered with Carlos's hunt for power? The worthy opponent's genealogy goes back, I believe, to two articles in the Saturday Evening Post, the first by Aldous Huxley, one of Cas- taneda's favorite writers. "Stimulators of the mystical faculties" like peyote and LSD, wrote Huxley, "make possible a genuine religious ex- perience" by which "large numbers of men and women [can] achieve a radical self-transcendence and a deeper understanding of the nature of things," which will constitute a religious revolution. Huxley's article was published in October 1958, on the verge of the sixties. The following year Castaneda read The Sacred Mushroom, which led him to the Was- sons' epochal Mushrooms, Russia, and History, whose shamans Maria Sabina and Don Aurelio, I have argued, provided the first models for don Juan. Castaneda was not the only spiritual revolutionary to take inspiration from Huxley and the Wassons. Just as in the summer of narrative-1960 Carlos met don Juan for the first time, so in the summer of calendar- 1960 Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary was sitting beside a swim- ming pool in Cuernavaca consuming his first hallucinogens, nine sacred Mazatec mushrooms. (Don Juan's mushroom mixture would be smoked in a little house beside an irrigation ditch, where don Juan would bath Carlos to revive him.) During the ensuing five hours, Leary realized he had died. In what he later called the deepest religious experience of his life, he left his body on the bed, relived his life, and went back to being one-celled organism. Having thus discovered "the spiritual equivalent of the hydrogen bomb, he went back to Harvard to spread the word. On of the first recruits was psychologist Richard Alpert, later to be known a Baba Ram Dass. The two of them preached the new gospel to faculty and students until the University authorities got fed up, whereupon the evangelists founded a non-profit corporation they called "The Interna- tional Federation for Inner Freedom"-"If-If" for short. In the summer of 1962 If-If set up a training center in the Mexican fishing village of Zihuatanejo, up the coast from Acapulco. There psychedelic seekers found a sanctuary in the charming Hotel Catalina, shown in the illustra- tion clinging to the bluff under the palm trees, as one sees it looking up from the beach. Americans who stayed with Leary in the hotel called it "the Catalina." Translating that into Spanish, one gets "la Catalina," an unsurprising name for a hotel but a rather unusual name for a character in a story. Although five-thousand applicants signed up for training at the Catalina, only a few made the journey. In the spring of 1963 Harvard fired its errant professors and the Mexican government locked the 20 Catalina trippers then in residence back over the border. Undaunted, If-If leased a 45-room mansion near Millbrook, New York and got ready for the crucial campaign to turn on the youth of America, as the media gave full play to Leary in the Sky with Diamonds. Look featured "The Strange Case of the Harvard Drug Scandal," while Saturday Evening Post carried "The Dangerous Magic of LSD," in which writer John Ko- bler related the Mexican adventure. "I sat transfixed all evening before a tree, feeling in it the very treeness of trees," said one LSD visionary in Kobler's account. "I sensed it was a tree by its odor," a drugless Carlos would recall. "Something in me 'knew' that that peculiar odor was the 'essence' of tree." "Our favorite concepts are standing in the way of a floodtide, two billion years building up. The verbal dam is collapsing," Leary and Al- pert exulted. "I saw the loneliness of man as a gigantic wave which had been frozen in front of me, held back by the invisible wall of a metaphor," Castaneda would write. If-If proposed to liberate members from their "webs," so that they might soar through the infinite space of consciousness. Carlos's bemush- roomed head would fly among silvery crows; his undrugged eyes would see a range of mountains as a "web of light fibers." If-If adopted The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a drug-taker's manual. Don Juan would tell Carlos the book was a "bunch of crap. " "The experience is essentially nonverbal, so you can't follow your collaborator's responses, unless you're under the influence of the drug too," said Leary and Alpert. The components of nonor- dinary reality "were not subject to ordinary consensus," Castaneda would write; they required a "special consensus." Kobler asked a psychoanalyst about the risks of using such powerful drugs to keep up with the patient. "Oh yes," admitted the doctor, "the sorcerer may find he's only the sorcerer's apprentice. " "If anybody can show us a better road to happiness," the notorious Leary challenged, "we'll drop our research. But we don't think they will. " A better road was already running through the unknown mind of Castaneda, don Juan's path with heart, which would carry future readers away from what Castaneda saw as the haphazard drug-fiendery of the Catalina, toward a disciplined and eventually drugless mysticism. Ten years later, Castaneda would tell students at Irvine don Juan didn't need the psychotropic plants any more, though dedication to ritual still obliged him to "go out each day and collect the mushrooms with meticulous care"-a botanically incongruous statement, since the mushrooms can- not be collected "each day" even in Oaxaca, let alone in Sonora. Castane- da's fantasy of Leary's degenerate leavings was chronicled by John Wal- lace: Carlos told how he was horrified to find the remnants of a col- ony supposedly started by Timothy Leary in the 1960s. When the Mexican authorities ran the Leary group out of Mexico, some of the people remained behind, hiding in the hills until things had cooled. Carlos talked of going to a house where these people still lived. He said: "I walked in wearing my best smile and said, 'Hi friends! I'm Carlos Castaneda from Los Angeles.' They were all zonked out. There were 25 of them in a big room [-an impressive remnant from a group of 201. Stoned. One little girl who almost smiled at me almost encouraged me. But she wouldn't talk to me either. She lifted up her leg to scratch it. It was very hairy. I was shocked at what I saw there. Truly shocked. I got up and left. Don Juan came and we went into the mountains [-but why was don Juan hanging around Zihuatanejo, 500 miles from Oaxaca, 1000 miles from Son- ora?]. I told him about the Americans. Don Juan told me that he had seen them too. He thought them truly preposterous. He told me that he saw them in the fields eating the mushrooms directly. Don Juan was appalled-it is truly toxic to eat the mush- rooms like that without meticulous preparation [-which will be news to Maria Sabina, though, of course, the supposed toxic- ity is a metaphorical warning against spiritual or mental harm from using hallucinogens without a guiding ritual]. He could not understand how they could be so stupid. He saw a naked American standing in the field, eating the mushrooms right there on the spot. Don Juan was horrified. " Castaneda had to learn sorcery, he explained, because drugs alone can't stop the world; they just rearrange the old glosses. "That is my quarrel with people like Timothy Leary," he said-cominng as close as he dared to proclaiming a contest for the hearts and minds of Huxley's self-transcenders. While the Messiah of LSD was leaping from one foolish extreme to the next- "I'm very fond of Tim," said Huxley, "but why does he have to be such an ass?"-landing in prison, escaping to miserable exile, coming home to serve a long term, Castaneda was writ- ing three best-sellers. The impact of a worthy opponent would elicit a warrior's best efforts, don Juan said; the opponent he thought worthy of Carlos was "la Catalina. " In the fall of calendar-1962 If-If flourished in Zihuatanejo in the fall of narrative-1962 Carlos survived six hair-raising encounters with his worthy opponent in Sonora. A startling photograph in Kobler's 1963 article shows a formidable young woman in a leopard-skin bathing suit wading into the Mexican surf after taking LSD, her long left hand extended downward toward the water. Kobler's caption tells us she is "feeling the power of the ocean." That remarkable image, I believe, incubated four years in Castaneda's fabulizing brain, emerged in his manuscript of 1967 as the "fiendish witch" who was trying to finish don Juan off, a metaphor of Leary's booming psychedelic supermarket, which threatened to bury an unpublished author of a quasi-academic romance about the rigorous regime imposed by in inac- cessible magus mixing secret formulas. From 1968 to 1974 Leary's fortunes fell while Castaneda's rose. Con- currently, La Catalina grew less frightening in each successive book. In The Teachings she was too terrifying to be seen in her own form. In Separate Reality she was dangerous but handsome. In Ixtlan she re- ceived a promising new title: A worthy opponent. In Tales of Power don Juan admitted she had been a friend all along pretending to be an enemy. Thus did Castaneda grow metaphorically magnanimous in victory to his fellow Catholic apostate and charismatic adversary. He could afford to be magnanimous, for as early as 1969 the wide-eyed pundit Theodore Ros zak had proclaimed his work a uniquely important contribution to the psychedelic literature, which should perhaps replace the "comparative amateurish efforts of Huxley, Watts, Burroughs, and Leary." Interviewed by Time's Sandra Burton, Castaneda told of being invited to a party in New York's East Village, where he met Leary but found the chatter of the acid-heads absurd. "They were children," he said, "indulg- ing in incoherent revelations. A sorcerer takes hallucinogens for a differ ent reason than heads do' and after he has gotten where he wants to go he stops taking them." Translation: An allegorist writes about hallucino- gens until he gets a couple of books published; then he stops writing about them. The confrontation between Leary and Carlos is thematically indispensable, but there is something wrong with the report. Time gave the date as 1964, but why would an unpublished and utterly unknown Los Angeles writer be invited to meet Leary in New York, and how could a poverty-stricken graduate student afford to make the trip? A more colorful version of the meeting, published a year later in Fate, has Carlos journeying east to explain his adventures with don Juan, which Leary and Alpert have read about in The Teachings. This version eliminates the unknown guest and penniless traveler but introduces a more trouble- some difficulty: By the time Teachings was published, Leary had moved to California, so the trip would have been unnecessary. At any rate, Carlos is no more impressed by Leary in Fate's 1969 than he was in Time's 1964. The acid-culture conversation is still trivial. Leary jokes and giggles, calling Alpert "a Jewish queer," while Alpert-now returned from India as Baba Ram Dass-blesses the convocation by flashing a banana that was hidden in his robe. A dismayed Carlos flees the party, as a horrified Carlos fled the house of degenerate hippies. Since Leary and Castaneda were both living in California between 1968 and 1970, I'm quite ready to believe they found themselves at some time in the same room, but the alternative versions of the confrontation offer more than don Juan's bare disdain of Leary's fiendery. Castaneda was apparently trying out different imaginary scenes and occasions for engaging his then more popular adversary, thus gaining magical control over Leary by drawing him into the allegory. If Leary hadn't been quickly snatched away by the California Department of Corrections, he might well have turned up in a conversation like the following: Catalina: Hola, Doctor Liri! Good to see you. It's been a long time. Leary: Hi! Don't I know you from somewhere? Catalina: You bet your botes! I'm "the Catalina." Leary: That's a hotel- a charming little hotel. Catalina: Knock off the sexismo, don Timo. We're all parafeminists here. Leary: Well, who are you really? Catalina: "The Catalina!" I used to be a hotel, now I'm a witch. Leary: Far out! I used to be a one-celled organism. Catalina: I know. That's in Kobler's article-which was the link between you and Castaneda. Leary: Really? I couldn't get anything out of Castaneda. He came to a party in New York- or was it California? Anyway, he sat in a corner and didn't say a word. Catalina: He was stalking. Leary: No he wasn't. Catalina: Ess-talking. With an Ess. Leary: I see. Catalina: You don't see. You just look. You rearrange the old glosses. You and Ram D'Ass, with his effete beatitudes and his provocative banana. Leary: None of that matters now. I'm doing space colonies. Inner to outer in one lifetime! Catalina: Hah! You think we're not up on that? Did you read about our fifty-thousand-foot dome? Is that an artificial extraterrestrial environment, or is it? Leary: I see what you mean. Catalina: You don't see. You're wrapped up in your incoherent revela- tions and your superaphrodisiacs and your nightclub act. You were sup- posed to be a worthy opponent, to boost Carlos into orbit. I had to take over for you because you made such an ass of yourself. Even don Aldous says so. Leary: Huxley? He's alive? Catalina: Well, he's not dead. Leary: Where is he? Catalina: In the dome, of course. Leary: Can I go to the dome? Catalina: If you're scheduled to go there. It's up to the Nagual. Leary: How can I find out? Catalina: Keep reading the books. Leary: More books? The reviewers said Castaneda was burnt out. Catalina: That's a bunch of crap. They're burned up because he made monkeys out of them. This cult business can go on forever. It's a kind of immortality. Leary: That's reassuring. Catalina: Not for you, bobo. For him. Leary: I see. Catalina: No you don't. Don Juan and Carlos see. Don Q and Liri talk!