Daniel C. Noel
An Interview with
Daniel C. Noel
By Sandy McIntosh
Daniel C. Noel, author of Seeing Castaneda:Reactions to the "Don Juan" Writings of Carlos Castaneda (1976), has taught for twenty-five years in nontraditional B.A. programs for adults, first at Goddard College and, since 1981, at Vermont College of Norwich University in Montpelier. He is also adjunct faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California. He has published five other books, most recently Paths to the Power of Myth. He lectures widely and leads travel seminars to the British Isles and the American Southwest.
In attempting to make sense of the critical and ideological maelstrom that has followed Carlos Castaneda's death, some of us have turned to the published critiques of his works. Two of the earliest of these appeared in 1976: Richard de Mille's Castaneda's Journey: The Power and the Allegory and Daniel C. Noel's Seeing Castaneda: Reactions to the "Don Juan" Writings of Carlos Castaneda. Although each author was unaware of the other's project, both focused on what might be described as the "hinge" of Castaneda's sorcery at the time: the suspicion that Castaneda's books might be fiction. However, while de Mille set out to run down clues proving Castaneda's literary and anthropological hoax, Noel concentrated on a different matter. He saw Castaneda doing something significant, that is, he saw Castaneda conveying a form of shamanism to the West, and doing so through what might be a hoax. "Castaneda," he later wrote, "had seemingly brought back the living experience of indigenous shamanism to a Western culture that had suppressed such a spiritual form in its own history, silencing its practitioners and consigning it to the irrelevant exotica of museums and musty scholarship."
In 1997, more than twenty years after the appearance of Seeing Castaneda, Daniel Noel published The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities. In this book he explores the world of what he calls neoshamanism, giving an overview of how the West has imagined the shaman through the works of writers, such as Castaneda. Most importantly, he evaluates how it might be possible for us to understand these works by radically honoring imagination in our own dreaming and waking lives.
Q: If you would, reflect on your interest in Carlos Castaneda over three decades. What drew you to his writings in the first place, and how has your appreciation of him changed over time?
A: I first heard about The Teachings of Don Juan from a student at Lafayette College in, I think, 1970. I'd been teaching there for several years in the Religion Department, occupying the philosophy of religion "slot," though I was really more interested then in religion-literature and religion-psychology correlations. Anyway, I'd published some things on the "God is dead" radical theology of the sixties, been in some modest political protests, experimented with the milder hallucinogens--well, I guess only marijuana, though I was at gatherings where other substances were evident, etc. I had a young family and wasn't very venturesome, though, so most of my "readiness" for Castaneda at that time was intellectual. When I read the first Castaneda book it seemed a wonderful dramatization of themes that had fascinated me in my more abstract reading of Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Wallace Stevens, Owen Barfield, et al: relativism, nihilism, the death of "God" but the return of the sacred, the power of metaphor in religious language. The Teachings thus became a pedagogical tool, something with which to engage my students in a particularly abstruse course called "Modern Interpretations of Religion." It was very well received, and during the teaching of it a pre-publication excerpt of the second book, A Separate Reality, came out in Esquire. I was hooked.
A couple of years later I was in State College, PA, visiting Penn State U., when I saw in a bookstore a book in a series called "Writers for the Seventies" put out by Warner Paperback Library. The series had commentaries on the hot writers of the day: Hesse, Tolkien, Brautigan, Pynchon. I decided to propose a commentary on Castaneda; they accepted. So now I really had to dig into the Castaneda books--there were three by then--as well as any secondary sources, and try to say what they amounted to. I got very immersed--I can say almost hallucinogenically immersed--in those works. I came to see that what was going on (or part of it) was that the reader was being drawn into an apprenticeship to Castaneda's writing in a way that paralleled the apprenticeship of the Carlos of the books to don Juan. That's what I came to stress, to try to demonstrate, in my manuscript for Warner, which I finished around 1974.
At this point I didn't see the trickster-fiction status of the books. I knew they were weird, but I was happy just to work with them as wonderful embodiments of deep issues in the late-modernist maelstrom of Western culture. I loved it that an indigenous shaman was constantly getting the drop on a smart graduate-student representative of Western rationality--although I did start to wonder whether that wasn't a bit suspicious, a put-up job, with Carlos the straw man to whom the reader can feel pleasantly superior.
When the book, Carlos Castaneda: Writer For The Seventies, was ready to go into production around 1975 I ran into a roadblock which thickened the plot. Simon and Schuster, Castaneda's publisher, refused permission for my publisher to use quoted words from the don Juan books in my book. I've recounted this bizarre bit of publishing sorcery in The Soul of Shamanism so I won't repeat that here. Suffice it to say I was very disheartened: my book relied on direct quotes and I couldn't afford a law suit, so the book was effectively squashed like a bug by Simon and Schuster's very unusual refusal.
But this added to my fascination with Castaneda by further mystifying who he was and what he was up to. I tracked him down by letter and he phoned me four times (which my 1997 book describes). I remember thinking that the origin of the word "phony" was the sound of voices on the telephone, but the person who called me in snowy Vermont seemed to be Carlos--and he said some charming and also misleading things. As was his wont, as it turned out.
By now it was 1976: I edited a collection of articles for Putnam's (Seeing Castaneda) in order to recoup a bit of my lost effort on the Warner book. Even here I had to take Castaneda quotes from reprinted articles by various people in Seeing Castaneda and paraphrase them for fear Simon and Schuster would come after me. In any case, by then I'd read--and reprinted in my collection--some words by the novelist Joyce Carol Oates that doubted Castaneda's veracity. As I was mulling this over--Oates never gave much evidence for her suspicions--Richard De Mille's book, Castaneda's Journey, came out. At the time I didn't feel that proving Castaneda was hoaxing us was quite possible, but just not being sure about the fact/fiction status of the books was enough to raise some questions--and some possibilities.
De Mille and I exchanged letters for a few years, never quite agreeing on what the value of books that were ambiguously either fact or fiction could have, the teaching that ambiguity might impart. In the late seventies we each reviewed a Castaneda book in the same issue of the magazine Parabola and commented on one another's reviews. By the time he published his second book, The Don Juan Papers, in 1980, I'd conceded that he was probably right about Castaneda: his books were fiction. Though De Mille did his debunking with great good humor--no disillusionment and anger at betrayal were evident--he still didn't see to my satisfaction the teaching potential (e.g., the "postmodernizing" effect of having no factual don Juan but of having reintroduced a form of indigenous wisdom into a secular Western context) of the books being recognized and pondered as fictions. What did the success of the hoax say about the readers? And about the power of imagination in the absence of actual factual objects?
I knew I wanted to talk about all this someday in another book, but it took another seventeen years for that to happen. I never talked to Castaneda again, face-to-face or on the phone, and I found his later books harder and harder to read. But I never lost my admiration for what he did--or rather, for what his hoax made possible, as I saw it and eventually presented it in The Soul Of Shamanism. The return of shamanism to the West as a new religious movement--as "neoshamanism"--was accomplished by fictive power, my term, adapted from the novelist Ronald Sukenick, for the power and process of imagining that occurred as Castaneda wrote and we read works that we took to be real, true, wise, even transformative. But it seems pretty certain that there was no don Juan, no desert, no don Genaro, no Mescalito, no la Gorda, no nothing, factually. Just magic words in magic stories--a characterization that may suggest the true shamanism I find in Castaneda's work and that of the other Westerners who followed him.
Q: For many people who went beyond reading Castaneda to attending his Tensegrity workshops and private classes, the recent documentary evidence revealing contradictions and dishonesty in his and his cohorts behavior has been a saddening and anger-provoking affair. Yet, you suggest that there is something genuine that we should consider: a "true shamanism" in Castaneda's work. In The Soul of Shamanism you write that "the fictive power of the literary imagination that has secretly fostered neoshamanism is also the imaginal power of the psyche, the lost 'soul' of the West and of its modern seekers, to be rediscovered and recovered in acts and arts of shamanic imagining." How should we understand this?
A: I think you should understand that statement in The Soul of Shamanism
as a provocation to reconsider something our culture has tended to dismiss as
much as it has dismissed the value of indigenous shamanism: the power and
process of imagining as a reality with shamanic implications. This
reconsideration will be difficult--I had to write a whole book to recommend
it!--because we don't currently honor the reality of the imagination.
Imagination is conventionally contrasted with reality rather than seen as
an independent non-literal, non-factual reality in its own right. This means
that it's more than a matter of something we "make up" (though we can
do that, too) as a matter of ego-willfulness, like a playtoy. Or even like a powerful tool, such as in
"creative visualization" to lose weight, aid athletic performance, or
marshal killer T-cells against leukemia. These are all valuable uses of
imagining, as though it were a domestic animal you have helping you, a mule or
seeing eye dog. But the deeper imagining I have in mind is spontaneous--it comes
to you, like a wild animal, or animal power, as I say in the book.
This would be akin to the "spirits" encountered in indigenous
shamanism: a formidable force you have to dance and dialogue with. The value of
the Jungian/post-Jungian tradition in psychology is that it is not only a
psychology of imagination but also an "imaginal" psychology. It honors
and participates in this "wild imagining" as well as helping to
explain it. It was working with James Hillman's ideas in particular--as I
pondered the lessons of Castaneda's investment in imagining--that led me to see
a certain relationship to the imagination as a shamanic or neoshamanic resource.
That is, I could take Castaneda's trickery as an instance of his literary
imagination at work evoking our imagination as readers. So powerful was the
reality of this non-literal factor that an entire movement was launched by it. And I'm not even sure that participating in
workshops--or ingesting hallucinogens, for that matter--really "goes
beyond" the core experience of reading those hallucinogenic words on
Carlos's pages. It might be a step back, in a sense. Or maybe just a step to the
side, not beyond. But now that the workshops and the social mechanisms around
them are being questioned a learning opportunity--a shamanic learning opportunity, if you will--may
be at hand.
Q. Some of us, in attempting to deconstruct the elements of Castaneda's teachings, have been concerned about whether the culture from which Castaneda said he drew his revelations ("the shamans of ancient Mexico') can be accessible to Westerners. Our concern perhaps reflects Robert Bly's earlier dismissive comment about Castaneda that "No one can ground on someone else's land." In order to take advantage of the shamanic learning opportunity you suggest, how important is this consideration to us?
A. I feel that considerations of "cultural appropriation"--or misappropriation, and inappropriateness--are very important in all this. Among the many things I like about the Castaneda books, distortions of indigenous cultures, starting with the Yaquis', are not among them. We have oppressed these peoples for too long for us--speaking as "Westerners"--to think there's a level playing field and our good intentions are adequate to get us across the border into such cultures' shamanic wisdom. I wouldn't absolutely rule out the possibility of a Western "seeker" being able to undergo authentic training under an indigenous teacher. But the odds are very high against this happening; instead, what we have had are delusion, presumption, and exploitation. When Castaneda started speaking about the "Toltecs" and their ideas about the "energy body" I wondered how New Age lingo had gotten to ancient Mexico! No, for me the better option is to try to develop something from out of the West's own legacy that might have fruitful parallels with indigenous shamanisms. Almost inevitably such an effort will have to involve psychology, and my proposal, as I've said, employs post-Jungian psychology because it seems to me best equipped to honor as well as explain the power and process of imagining which the Castaneda hoax gives us as a valid resource. Should we be able to develop an authentic Western neoshamanism, then we might have something to give back to indigenous peoples when they freely offer us some of their spiritual wisdom--instead of just grabbing their gift with nothing to exchange for it but our good intentions wrapped in gringo dollars.
Q. As a likely archetype on which to base a Western neoshamanism you conjure Merlin, of King Arthur fame. You connect him with Jung by relating that during the process of constructing his retreat tower at Bollingen on Lake Zurich, Jung chiseled images and sayings on a large granite cube because it reminded him of Merlin's life in the forest, after that sage vanished from the world. Why Merlin, in particular, and what connects him to Jung and to us?
A. As I mentioned above, I don't think we can conceive of these matters--how
to relate, as Westerners, to a shamanic spirituality--without psychology. So
that relates us to Jung, among other shapers of modern Western psychology.
Moreover, Jung was involved in the areas that are, to me, most relevant: imagination, the reality of the
psyche, dreams, the need for spirituality and "the symbolic life,"
etc. The connection from Jung back to Merlin is not ironclad, by any means, but
his own personal fascination with the Merlin figure and legend, as attested in
part by the anecdote you recounted about his Bollingen stone, seems at least a
suggestive connection, an opportunity to imagine possible parallels. I also
suggest in my book that as Merlin disappears from the outer affairs of Arthur's
court and military concerns and is enchanted into invisibility by Niniane/Viviane/Nimue,
he becomes a figure of story, an inner figure, a part of the Western psyche.
Thus he inhabits a realm where psychology and aesthetics overlap--he takes his
"Celtic shamanism" there, if you will--and that is a realm where Jung
set up shop in our century. Merlin is a possible Western shamanic role
model--one whom I connect, somewhat loosely, to Jung. But there are other
figures that have been thought of as Western arch-shamans: Orpheus, for
instance, or Faust. I needed a model, with a story, to lend flesh and bones to
my abstract points about Western (neo)shamanism as a possible, a viable, enterprise. But there's no Merlinian orthodoxy here. I
could've gone with Orpheus or Faust--and could even have drawn connections to
Jung. But Merlin, and the Merlin-Jung connection, such as it is, spoke to me
most evocatively, elicited my imagining--which is halfway to shamanic practice,
for the likes of me.
Q. Even so, you did pursue Merlin in a concrete way, traveling to Carmarthen in Wales, "Merlin's Town." There, forgetting to take your heart medicine, you struggled up a steep path to a castle supposedly in the vicinity of the cave where Merlin, spellbound, sleeps. You wrote, "I decide to keep climbing, telling myself that the pains will go away when I get to the top and can rest. Still, I fear that this is a foolish daredevil maneuver that may even cost me my life." You described your ascent as "ego-controlled" and "heroic," although you acknowledge the nagging suspicion that beneath those qualities there is something--some knowledge--that wants to get out. Later, you discuss the Brothers Grimm's story, "The Spirit in the Bottle," in which a young boy roaming the woods hears a voice calling, "Let me out! Let me out!" These things bring me back to the current situation of those of us who have followed Castaneda. In our present dialogue some of us repeat slogans such as "I am following the Warrior's Way" or "The facts of everyday life are irrelevant; the only thing that matters is our encounter with infinity," while others of us debunk and ridicule those slogans, at times with counter-slogans. And some of us even assert that the true solution lies in finding a better teacher. I wonder if, under all of this, there is something trying to emerge in us that wants to throw off slogans, counter-slogans, and even teachers so it can jump out and be heard. How do you react to this?
A. Yes, I pursued Merlin "in a concrete way," but concrete does not have to mean literal, literalistic. Poems are concrete; stories are concrete; images and the imagination are concrete--without needing to be literalized. My experience in Wales was heartfelt in the sense that I had chest pains that seemed to be angina. But what they had to do with Merlin related more to the emotionally heartfelt nature of my climb up that Welsh hill. I meant to be tentative about the final significance of my experience, tentative and metaphorical. I knew Merlin lies sleeping at many sites in the British Isles and Brittany--I have visited several of them without physical heart trouble. They struck me as invitations to imagine, openings to the "otherworld" of imagining. And with imagining comes feeling; for me at that time in my life--at least as regarded in retrospect while writing the book--the Wales experience was wrapped up with the devastating end of a relationship as well as fears for my health. Any knowledge I carried away--and there was some, I think--was not metaphysical. It was knowledge of the place of imagining in the landscape and in my life as I encounter and seek to learn from that landscape. Hillman calls it "the thought of the heart," seeing the heart as the "organ" of the imagination. Likewise I referred to Thomas Moore's words about "heart trouble" after recounting my encounter on the hill in Wales. Finally, you might ask what, after all, did I encounter. I'd reiterate: the power and process, in many ways shamanic, of imagining. Not a willful process of making things up but a spontaneous emergence of images, fueled by the legend--not any facts--of Merlin and that hill, by physical discomfort (Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain writes about how pain provokes imagining), by emotional associations. Was this "my" imagining? Jung said the unconscious reaches God knows where--we don't know where it ends. The same applies to the imagination: we may participate with it close up, but its nether reaches are beyond ego, beyond even self, it may be, stretching into mystery. For me, with my particular background and experiences, Merlin, shamanic Merlin, is one of the names of that mystery.
Copyright Ó 1999, Sandy McIntosh and Daniel C. Noel