Carlos Castaneda

Carlos Castaneda's letter to R. Gordon Wasson, dated September 6, 1968
Veja a tradução da Carta de Castaneda a R. Gordon Wasson de 1968

Dear Mr. Wasson:

It was indeed a great pleasure to receive your letter. I am very familiar with your professional contributions in the field of hallucinogenic mushrooms, thus, I couldn't be more honored with the opportunity of discussing this topic with you. You must bear in mind, however, that I am not an authority, and that my knowledge is limited strictly to the ethnographic data I have collected. First of all I should tell you that my field work--and I have already stated this in the introduction of my book--was done under very constricting conditions. It was never an anthropological work proper; my work was rather an inquiry product of my own interest, and since my interest is "content" and "meaning" I became absorbed in the innuendoes that made don Juan's system of beliefs, disregarding to a large extent data which dealt with specific ethnographic details. Since I was dealing with a dramatic and serious system of beliefs I have purposefully blurred in my book more of such pertinent ethnographic details, thus compounding the vagueness in one letter without going back first to re-establish a better ethnographic context. However, I will try the best way I can answer your questions in the order in which you have written them.

Q: Am I right in concluding from your narrative that you never gathered the mushrooms, nor indeed ever saw a whole specimen?

I have gathered the mushrooms myself. I have held perhaps hundreds of specimens in my hands. Don Juan and I made yearly trips to collect them in the mountains Southwest and Northwest of Valle Nacional in the state of Oaxaca. I have deleted in my book all specific details about those trips and all the specific details about the collecting process. Don Juan expressed himself very strongly against my desire to include those descriptions as part of my book. He did not object to my revealing specific details about collecting peyote or Jimson weed on the grounds that the deity in peyote was a protector, therefore accessible to every man, and the power in Jimson weed was not his ally (alidado). The power in the mushrooms, however, was his ally and as such it was above everything else. And that entailed a total secrecy about specific processes.

Q: Did you satisfy yourself that you were dealing with Psilocybe mexicana?

No. My botanical identification was a tentative one, and terribly unsophisticated at that. In my book, it appears as though the mushrooms was Psilocybe mexicana, that is, I am afraid, an editorial error. I should have carried the assertion that it was a tentative classification all the way through, since I have never been completely convinced that it was. The particular species used by don Juan looked like the Psilocybe mexicana pictures I have seen. A member of the Pharmacology Dept. at UCLA also showed me some specimens that he had, and based on that I concluded I was dealing with that species. However, it never turned into powder upon being handled. Don Juan picked it always with his left hand, transferred it to his right hand and then put it inside a small, narrow-gourd. The mushroom would then disintegrate into fine shreds, but never into powder, as it was forced gently inside.

Q: Do you know where your mushrooms grew?

We found them growing on dead trunks of trees, but more often on decomposed remains of dead shrubs.

Q: What is don Juan's cultural provenience?

Don Juan is, in my judgement, a marginal man who has been forged by multiple forces outside the purely Yaqui culture. His name is really Juan. I tried to find a substitute name to use in my book, but I couldn't conceive him in any other way except as don Juan. He is not a pure Yaqui, that is, his mother was a Yuma Indian, and he was born in Arizona. His mixed origin seemed to have rendered him as a marginal man from the beginning.

He lived in Arizona the first years of his life and then moved to Sonora when he was perhaps six or seven years old. He lived there for a while, I am not sure whether with both parents or just with his father. That was the time of the great Yaqui upheavals and don Juan and his family were picked up by the Mexican armed forces and were deported to the state of Veracruz. Don Juan later moved to the area of "el Valle Nacional" where he lived for over thirty years. It is my belief that he moved there with his teacher, who must have been Mazateco. So far I have not been able to determine who his teacher was, nor where he did learn to be a brujo, yet the mere fact tht I have to take him every year to Oaxaca to collect mushrooms should be a serious clue as to where he learned, at least, about mushrooms.

As you can see, it is impossible for me at this point to determine with certainty his cultural provenience, except in a guessing manner. However, the subtitle of my book is "A Yaqui Way of Knowledge." This is another mistake in which I became involved due to my lack of experience in matters of publications. The Editorial Committee of the University of California Press suggested upon accepting my manuscript for publication, that the word Yaqui should be included in the title in order to place the book ethnographically. They had not read the manuscript but they concluded that I had said that don Juan was a Yaqui, which was true, but I had never meant that don Juan was a product of the Yaqui culture, as appears to be the case now judging from the title of the book. Don Juan considered himself to be a Yaqui and seemed to have deep ties with the Yaquis of Sonora. However, it has become obvious to me now that those ties were only a surface affiliation.

I am not familiar with whether or not the hallucinogenic mushrooms grow in the arid regions of Sonora and Chihuahua. Don Juan has never looked for them there to my knowledge. Yet he has asserted repeatedly that once a man learns to command the power in them the mushrooms can grow any place the man wants, that is, they grow by themselves without his direct intervention.

The first time in my life I saw the mushrooms was in Durango. I thought we were going to look for "hongitos" but we wound up collecting peyote in Chihuaha. At that time I saw quite a few, perhaps ten or twelve. Don Juan said they were only a token, and that there were not enough to make use of them. At that time he also told me that we had to make a trip to Oaxaca to find the right number of mushrooms. In 1964 I found one specimen myself in the Santa Monica mountains here in Los Angeles. I took it to the laboratory at UCLA but through carelessness they lost it before identifying it. It was strikingly obvious to me that it was one of the mushrooms used by don Juan; he naturally interpreted the event of finding it as an omen that I was on my way to learning, but my subsequent actions, such as picking it and leaving it with strangers, reassured him, he said, of my utterly fumbling nature.

Q: Have you brought back the powder, or the mixture, in which mushroom powder was an ingredient?

No. However, I am sure I could obtain a very small amount of it, perhaps a dab of it. If that would be enough to examine it under the microscope I can send it to you by the end of this year.

Q: Will there be a Spanish edition of the book?

I hope the University of California Press will consider that possibility. My notes are all in Spainish. In fact this book was almost an English version of a Spanish manuscript.

Q: Did don Juan say "un hombre de conocimiento" or simply "un hombre que sabe?"

You have given me here the most fascinating piece of information. To define the conditions of being, or the stage of learning "man of knowledge" don Juan used the terms "hombre de conocimiento" , "hombre que sabe", and "uno que sabe." I have preferred the term "man of knowledge" because it is more concrete than "one who knows."

I have taken some parts of my notes in Spanish dealing with "el hombre que sabe" and I have included them here. I hope they are legible. These sheets are a direct transcription of the even more illegible direct notes I took while don Juan talked to me. As a rule I always rewrote my notes immediately so I would not lose the freshness and the flare of don Juan's statements and thoughts.

Q: Was don Juan bilingual, or was he better in Spanish than in Yaqui?

Don Juan speaks Spanish so fluently that I am willing to believe that his command of Spanish is better than any other language he knows. But he speaks also Yaqui, Yuma, and Mazatec. I have reasons to believe that he also speaks English, or at least he understands it perfectly, although I have never heard him using it.

Q: Did you gather in your field notes the Yaqui equivalents of the terms he used?

I have some terms which are not Spanish, but too few to make a serious study. Our conversations were conducted strictly in Spanish and the few foreign terms are not all Yaqui words.

Q: Do you ever tell your readers whether he could read and write in Spanish?

He reads very well; I have never seen him writing though. For a long time I thought he was illiterate, this misjudgement on my part was the result of our differences in emphasis. I stress areas of behavior which are thoroughly irrelevant to him, and vice versa. This cognitive difference between us is the theme I am striving to develop in the biography of don Juan which I am writing now.

There is not much to tell about myself. My home was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but I went to school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, before I came to this country. My full name is Carlos Aranha. Following the Latin tradition one always adds to one's name the mother's last name, so when I came to the United States I became Carlos A. Castaneda. Then I dropped the A. The name belonged to my grandfather who was from Sicily. I don't know how it was originally, but he himself altered it to Castaneda to suit his fancy.

I hope I have answered clearly all your questions. Thank you for your letter.

Sincerely yours,
Carlos Castaneda

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