The Teachings of Don Juan

In Chapter X. DanJillian Jay is still dissociating from his centipede trip and manages to glimpse the dual nature of his own soul: Jay is what remains after the collision of Dan and Jillian. With this understanding, Jay demands Jango Skyy send him to the afterlife. Next chapter he’ll be face-to-face with Anihilato, completing the narrative arc started all the way back in chapter A.

I want to talk about another book I read; it feels like more retroactive inspiration. Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge markets itself as an anthropological account of the author’s training in the 1960s under don Juan, a native Yaqui spiritualist, although critics claim the story is fictional. Personally my guess is it’s a heavily fictionalized narrative based on a few real events. (I’ve got no doubt that Castaneda has taken some interesting drugs, for instance, but no real don Juan has been found.)

If that’s the case, Castaneda cleverly presents his work as genuine anthropology to rope the reader into an intriguing exploration of mysticism, then pulls the rug from under the audience with fantastical elements just barely in the realm of plausibility. Maybe this approach betrays the culture it claims to present, but it’s a hell of a ride; it forces the reader to share the protagonist’s increasing paranoia regarding reality.

Throughout the book and its sequels, Castaneda (allegedly) takes powerful psychoactive drugs under the direction of don Juan, a brujo or sorcerer. These drugs include peyote (called Mescalito), datura (Jimson weed or yerba del diablo, devil’s weed), and psychedelic mushrooms smoked from a pipe (humito, the little smoke). The drugs are often personified: Mescalito appears to Castaneda as a humanoid, while the other drugs are called a sorcerer’s allies. These aren’t drugs to mess around with. Datura in particular causes hallucinations the user can’t even differentiate from reality. Check out this reddit thread from r/drugs where someone takes datura, then posts “ how normal again stop now” as if struggling to end their existential cognitive agony. I’m glad I can read other people’s accounts of drug use, because I’d never want to put myself through anything like that.

While the altered states of consciousness Castaneda experiences obviously relate to Akayama DanJay, in which characters smoke crickets and eat centipedes to visit the afterlife, The Teaching‘s real strength is in the relationship between Castaneda and don Juan. I want to take inspiration from this relationship for the banter between Jay and Jango.

Don Juan is a man of mystery. Throughout the narrative it’s impossible to tell if his lessons actually relate to ‘reality’ as we know it. Castaneda seems impatient with don Juan’s inability to explain these lessons with words, while don Juan seems impatient with Castaneda’s insistence on using words at all. This clash and Castaneda’s slow understanding of don Juan’s lessons produce the narrative tension.

Don Juan wants to teach Castaneda the same way don Juan was taught by his ‘benefactor,’ of whom we hear very little. This teacher-to-student transmission of knowledge—knowledge which cannot be contained in words—seems to originate from the time of unrecorded history.

In Akayama DanJay Virgil Jango Skyy leads a monastery on the main island of Sheridan. Although in principle he’s subordinate to Virgil Blue, Virgil Blue turns out to be a pile of centipedes, so Jango is obviously in control. I like how this combines don Juan’s mysterious benefactor with personified visions of drugs like peyote: Jango passes his teachings and his centipedes to Jay simultaneously. The transmission of knowledge is transformed into a more direct emblem.

When Jango isn’t teaching with centipedes, he’s teaching with words which only seem to complicate things. Jango tells the story of meeting Faith as a time-traveling white fox, which denies the easily-understood-but-incorrect notion of linear time in favor of the impossible-to-understand-reality of toroidal time. This story profoundly affects Jay. Jay is a photographer, perhaps to cope with confusion regarding his identity; he remembers being Dan in the afterlife, and tries to make sense of reality by putting it in pictures. When he hears Jango’s story, Jay’s belief in a concrete reality begins to falter. By the time Jay meets Virgil Blue, he’s not even looking for the truth. He just wants to hear what’s there to be heard. Reality can’t fit in a photograph any more than it can be understood in words. Jango’s impossible story convinces Jay to accept reality as an illusion formed by subjective sensory experience.

Although I haven’t read any hint of this in Castaneda’s work, I suspect finding a pupil is a natural step in the life-cycle of the brujo. Don Juan was student to his benefactor, then takes Castaneda as a student to become a benefactor himself and complete the cycle. When Jay promotes Jango to Virgil Blue, he’s ending the succession of Virgils by completing their cycle with a closed loop. As Virgil Blue, Jango will send Dan to become Jay. The relationship between teacher and student, here, has no loose thread, signaling the beginning of the end.

In Castaneda’s second book with don Juan, A Separate Reality, don Juan discusses the art of seeing. Beyond merely perceiving objects subjectively, a sorcerer can see the world as it really is. I notice parallels between this notion of seeing and trivialism, the tongue-in-cheek philosophy that ‘everything is true’ because truth and falsehood are fundamentally undefined. “It doesn’t matter to me that nothing matters,” says don Juan. Asks Castaneda,

“Do you mean that once a man learns to see, everything in the whole world is worthless?”

“I didn’t say worthless. I said unimportant. Everything is equal and therefore unimportant… All things are equal and by being equal they are unimportant… [A man of knowledge] knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows, because he sees, that nothing is more important than anything else. In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country, but only life to be lived, and under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly… But there’s no emptiness in the life of a man of knowledge, I tell you… Everything is filled to the brim, and everything is equal… Upon learning to see a man becomes everything by becoming nothing. He, so to speak, vanishes and yet he’s there… Nothing is any longer familiar. Everything you gaze at becomes nothing!”

This notion of “controlled folly” nestles perfectly into Akayama DanJay. The way I understand it, controlled folly is how someone who realizes that nothing means anything continues living life in the face of nihilism; you know you’re meaningless in a cosmic sense, but you’ve still gotta get groceries and stuff.

Anihilato, the monster which calls itself Master of Nihilism, wields nihilism like a sword when it claims to obliterate people’s souls. The tactical response to this is controlled folly: “You’ve obliterated me, but here I am. Before you thought to vanish me, I was already vanished. I’m vanished right now, and yet I’m here. Obliterate me and I remain as I was before.” Suddenly you can’t be obliterated because you never existed in the first place. Jay becomes Master of Nihilism precisely because he’d never call himself that, because he knows there’s no reason to do so. Of course, Anihilato can’t obliterate souls at all. It puts them in eggs, or eats them and adds them to its bulk.

Coincidentally, don Juan describes seeing a person as like looking at an egg. Not just an egg, but an egg with strings coming in and out of it. Akayama DanJay‘s eggs and worms suddenly seem more relevant than ever.

Now that I’ve read Castaneda’s work, I’d describe Akayama DanJay as The Teachings of Don Juan crossed with Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann by way of Christian epic poetry. That’s a weird tagline, but a fitting one which hits all the major notes of my peculiar niche. A tagline like that helps me remember the tones and themes I want to express.

I think this is the first commentary which is longer than the section it’s commentating on. I hope it was worth the length! See you next week.

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