Carlos Castaneda: Countercultural Icon and Budding Postmodernist

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 11:50 AM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta)
Andrei Znamenski, University of Memphis
My paper explores the spiritual dimension of the 1960s counterculture with an emphasis on Carlos Castaneda. This bestselling author of The Teachings of Don Juan(1968) and other works is considered one of the spearheads of the New Age spiritual movement. Using his fictional character, Native American shaman Don Juan, whom he misrepresented as a real-life indigenous healer, Castaneda successfully plugged into the psychedelic culture of the 1960s, serving as a role model for millions of American and European spiritual seekers who had become frustrated with Judeo-Christian civilization and wished to go tribal.

My research also draws attention to another important and neglected source of Castaneda books’ skyrocketing popularity: an emerging post-modernist mindset on American campuses.  Using the texts of his Don Juan experiential novels, memoirs of his associates, and oral interviews I conducted with his colleagues, I argue that the core message of all of Castaneda’s books was an intellectual revolt against positivism and determinism.  Through his flamboyant lifestyle and workshops and through the Don Juan character himself, Castaneda repeatedly emphasized that there was no reality proper and that it was individual people, gender, and cultural groups who constructed their own “realities” and discourses. Although hardly controversial today, in the 1960s, this message had yet to become a common intellectual assumption. I further argue that the ability of Castaneda to tune his “field experiences” with the Native American shaman to the budding post-modern intellectual culture explains the incredible durability of his “Don Juan” books that survived not only the 1960s counterculture and psychedelic revolution, but also fraud accusations and the culture wars of the 1990s.