Noel, Daniel C. Seeing Castaneda. (Summary part 5)

Analysis and Application

8. Castaneda as Experimental Fictioneer

Jerome Klinkowitz, co-editor of Innovative Fiction and The Vonnegut Statement, "represents a literary-critical perspective and a special interest in the history of contemporary American fiction," Noel writes. He is "amply qualified to draw out the connections between the don Juan writings and the techniques of experimental novelists and short story writers." The writer he is concerned with in the following essay is Ronald Sukenick, whose work "stands in the forefront of fictional experimentation today."

Jerome Klinkowitz
The Persuasive Account: Working It Out with Ronald Sukenick and Carlos Castaneda

An exchange between the protagonist of Ronald Sukenick’s novel Out and a Sioux medicine man named Empty Fox opens this essay on the art of writing, and the writing of art. "I want to write a book like a cloud that changes as it goes," says the protagonist. "I want to erase all the books," says Empty Fox. "My ambition is to unlearn everything . . ." Empty Fox would return to a time "before the Wasichus came." Klinkowitz explains that Wasichus, or "fat-takers," are what the Sioux call white men. They are the "despoilers of the continent and disgusting examples of the wrong way to live." Seeing the land as commodity instead of community is a Wasichus flaw. "But Empty Fox does more than show a white man how to live," says Klinkowitz, "he points a way of life for something else that’s dying ?/font> fiction ?/font> and provides Sukenick with a model for sustaining his novel, which is what the book is all about."

With talk of literature being "exhausted" and the novel dead, Klinkowitz points to Sukenick’s work as "proving that there is a great deal of life to be rediscovered" in the novel. Up, Sukenick’s first book, avoided "disappearing up its own fundament" through indulgence in "aesthetic allegory" by pointing to the real world and asking: "Is the real world too ponderous and depressingly dull to capture in interesting fiction? Is it indeed a problem for art?" To which Sukenick’s "aesthetic-allegorist character, who’s involved with living the novel, writing it, and teaching literature at the same time" replies, "Sure, that’s what Wordsworth is talking about. He tells how as a kid he had to grab hold of a wall to make sure the world was really there, but when he grew up the dead weight of reality almost crushed the sense of his own existence. It’s when the world seems oppressive, dead, or to put it another way, unreal, that I get the feeling I’m walking around like a zombie."

"Sukenick," writes Klinkowitz, "applies to the novel what he sensed about art in general, and revitalized fiction by having it do what it should: to make reality seem less unreal." In the novel Out, the action moves from New York City through Empty Fox’s South Dakota to "the pure space of an empty California beach." But it’s in South Dakota that the protagonist undergoes a perceptual metamorphosis and the world becomes "less unreal." He feels "a tremendous, surging sensation of freedom, of liberation from space, even from sound, so that a resolution seems for once possible."

Lame Deer wrote, "We Sioux are not a simple people. We are very complicated. We are forever looking at things from different angles." Empty Fox, it turns out, "is a man in Lame Deer’s tradition, and so is Juan Matus, through whom Carlos Castaneda learned the ways of approaching the world Sukenick was at the same time finding appropriate for fiction." As don Juan might say, "For a sorcerer, reality, or the world we all know, is only a description." Castaneda’s "mistakes" in grasping the world as only a description, says Klinkowitz, "sound strikingly similar to the failures of modern fictionists to keep up with their world, too." In other words, fiction should ideally represent "the ability to transcend a mere describing of life (always a danger in this most mimetic of forms) to a revelation of the truth of experience, which may be at odds with the popular consensus."

Sukenick’s new style of fiction, and Castaneda’s popularity, according to Klinkowitz, are reflections of a trend towards calling "a halt to having one’s personal, provisional view of things" considered absolute. Stopping the world, if you will, or, as biologist Paul Shepard and philosopher of ethics John J. McMahon, commenting in The New Republic, say of Aldo Leopold, the popular environmentalist, "Leopold has learned that to absolutize our narrow wavelength of perception is sheer arrogance," and, Klinkowitz adds, "a sure way to extinction."

"The imagination, Sukenick has said, makes reality seem more real ?/font> and don Juan’s methods are a paradigm for liberating oneself from the obstructed, unimaginative view," Klinkowitz goes on. What Sukenick desires are the "fullest possibilities of vision" for his fiction, and don Juan represents "the master who can show how many realities there are" before our eyes. "As Walter Goldschmidt wrote in the forward to the first Castaneda volume," Klinkowitz notes, "anthropology can allow us to compare our culturally limited perspective with alien ones, thereby learning its relativity and glimpsing, perhaps, an absolute reality in between ours and the others."

"Although such wonderful revelations of the world are the goal of art, and certainly proper business for the novel," says Klinkowitz, "the vitality of Sukenick’s theories have made them controversial." Pearl K. Bell, writing in Dissent, puts Sukenick among "such celebrants of unreason, chaos, and inexorable decay as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., John Barth, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Donald Barthelme, and a horde of mini-Jeremiahs crying havoc in the Western world." But the real issue, according to Klinkowitz, is addressed by Nathan Scott in an essay on contemporary fiction in which he says that the "inward liberation" of the imagination "offers us an effective release from the bullying of all the vexations of history."

"Our particular moment and place is located in our heads and our bodies," Sukenick wrote for the Partisan Review symposium on The New Cultural Conservatism, "and at the risk of solipsism we must start there and push outward." Furthermore, in his Village Voice essay on Castaneda’s work he says, "All art deconditions us so that we may respond more fully to experience." This conviction has led to his defense of fiction "over history, journalism, or any other supposedly ‘factual? kind of writing" as a more expressive medium. "Television," Sukenick says, "can give us the news, fiction can best express our response to the news."

Klinkowitz concludes his essay by saying that "ultimately Sukenick’s genius rests with his discovery that the reality we know is only a description." Or, as Sukenick puts it, "The power of a sorcerer is the power of the feeling he can invest in his description so it is felt as a persuasive account of the world."

9. Sorcery as Opposition to Technocracy and Scientism

"In working their way out of what has come to seem the cul de sac of modern technocratic and scientistic consciousness," Noel writes, "many thinkers have begun to research neglected or undervalued corridors of Western intellectual history." Romanticism countering the hegemony of rationalistic, utilitarian attitudes has been the result, with Theodore Roszak emerging as one of its "most forceful champions." A chapter from his book, Where the Wasteland Ends, called Uncaging Skylarks: The Meaning of Transcendent Symbols is the first piece in this section.

Castaneda’s experience as a crow "is another of the issues which will no longer submit to the prevailing Cartesian and Newtonian distinctions," writes Noel. "Roszak’s chapter sets forth how those distinctions came to prevail over the romantic orientation (one in keeping with don Juan’s sorcery) and indirectly produced the attitude Carlos had to unlearn in his apprenticeship." As Roszak does so, he explores a larger issue concerning "the loss of root meanings," or the loss of connection between primal experience and its symbolic expression. "The skylark," writes Roszak, "is a symbol of the vision-flight, but in its own right as an object perceived, it is also an occasion for the experience which generates the symbol."

The second piece in this section is an address given by Carl Oglesby during a Technology and Culture Seminar conducted at MIT in October of 1971. For both Oglesby and Roszak, ‘a Juanist way of knowledge?can be "an antidote to the cultural poisons infecting post-industrial society: technocratic alienation, scientistic reductionism, the general separation of object from subject and fact from value," writes Noel. Oglesby’s address is preceded by an introduction from Merton J. Kahne, psychiatrist in chief at MIT, and followed by comments from Harvard historian Everett Mendelsohn and MIT political scientist Christopher Schaefer.

Replica Watches  Replica Watches

"The discussion between Carl Oglesby and his fellow seminar members," says Noel, "is often difficult to follow, but in its complexity it complements Theodore Roszak’s use of don Juan’s sorcery. Both Roszak and the technology and culture seminar welcome the don Juan writings as subversive of a Western scientific knowledge which, in technocracy and scientism, encourages a Faustian overextension we can no longer afford."

Theodore Roszak
Uncaging Skylarks: The Meaning of Transcendent Symbols

The Vision-Flight: Experience and Symbol

Roszak begins his essay by discussing Castaneda’s flying experience and don Juan’s answer to the question, "Did I really fly?" Don Juan does not use the context of Descartes, a purely subjective-objective context, but rather the context of "an old and formidable tradition" based on the "shamanic vision-flight," a symbol that Roszak asserts "has been elaborated into thousands of religions and artistic expressions." In explaining this symbolic context, don Juan "is at the same disadvantage as the sun-stunned philosopher" in Plato’s cave allegory. What is substance, what is shadow?

"Because we are used to dealing with mere symbols (ciphers)," Roszak writes, "we ask automatically: what is the vision-flight a symbol of? But there is no answer, except to say that this symbol belongs uniquely to an ubiquitous experience of enraptured awe which is to be lived ?/font> whether suffered or enjoyed ?/font> but not in any sense ‘explained.?quot; The experience that the symbol "lies next against" is "non-verbal bedrock" and the two, experience and symbol, "taken together are what we might call a root meaning: an irreducible sense of significance, a foundation the mind rests and builds upon." And further, "the diamond that cuts all else."

"In the case of flight," Roszak continues, "all language that associates height, levity, loftiness, climbing, or elevation with the qualities of superiority, dignity, privileged status, worthiness, etc., is an extrapolation from the original symbol of the shamanic vision-flight." Contrasting extrapolations are given ?/font> highness being superior, lowliness being inferior; moving upwards to God, falling, sliding, plummeting into hell; climbing to social heights, being dragged down into the gutter. "The symbolism is universal and hardly arbitrary; the same root meaning lies behind all these elaborations, mined out of a primordial experience." Castaneda’s difficulty in understanding don Juan’s explanation of whether he flew or not lies in the fact that he has "grown hopelessly away from the root meaning" of the vision-flight. This results in "a collection of perplexing abstractions" and "all sorts of absurdities."

"For example, the root meaning of the vision-flight associates divinity and the skies. But when the experience that underlies the root meaning is lost, we are left with an absurdly literal proposition which seems to locate God in physical space above the clouds. Then, when Russian cosmonauts fail to find the old gentleman there, village atheism holds itself vindicated." Roszak goes on to assert that few primitive peoples "grasping intuitively as they do the ontological status of myth and symbol, would ever be so foolish. Their reality is polyphonic: it has overtones and counterpoints and resonances ?/font> which is exactly what we, with our two-value, objective-subjective sensibility, are inclined to call ‘superstition.?quot; Scientific skeptics and religious fundamentalists, according to Roszak, "stand or fall together by the same Reality Principle."

The Law of Gravity

In this section, Roszak uses the law of gravity as an example of how root meanings are lost. "The vision-flight asserts levity as the prime orientation of the soul. The notion of gravity ?/font> ‘weighed downness??/font> comes into existence as a companion idea, almost by negative definition. Gravity is the shadow side of levity; in the shaman’s experience, it becomes symbolic of what one feels when the soul drifts from the sense of buoyancy that keeps it close to the sacred." This premise is then traced through various stages of disfiguration beginning with the Greeks, where at first the concept of gravity played no important role in philosophical speculation. Prior to the late Greek period, "There is simply no body of folklore or mythology dealing with the creation of a force or substance we would recognize as physical gravitation." So why was it discovered so late in history? Because, Roszak says, "Gravity becomes an important and isolated concept only after weightiness (fallenness) begins to seem like an irresistible fact of life needing to be accounted for. This happens as the sense of levity ceases to be a readily accessible, normal experience and becomes more and more exotically mystical ?/font> or perhaps evaporates from the mind altogether."

In the late Greek period, "the transcendent symbolism of lightness and weight gave way to a more strictly scientific discussion of two physical forces of nature called ‘gravity?and ‘levity.?In Greek and medieval European science these forces were still faintly imbued with the sort of animism that Galileo and Newton would later eliminate. There was still the sense that ascension moved an element or object closer to divine perfection, and that things strove or willed to rise and fall depending on their degree of worthiness." As this idea became more abstract and removed from experience, however, "gravity was upgraded to the point of becoming coequal to levity." When Newton came along, "gravity finally exiled levity entirely from the scientific mind." In fact, Roszak says, "the universal law of gravity holds a special place as the master concept that inaugurated the scientific revolution ?/font> as if the first thing modern science had to do was to destroy the symbol of the vision-flight."

"The understanding," Bacon writes in his Novum Organum, "must not be supplied with wings, but rather hung with weights to keep it from leaping and flying." And so, Roszak says, "A society that decides it must keep its thinking ‘down to earth?is a society that begins taking the phenomenon of gravity seriously." Religious thought in the 16th and 17th centuries is traced to this "obsession with human fallenness" and the resulting "degradation before God" with the soul taking on "an impossible weight of sin." This in turn led to a parting of ways between "spiritual and natural" discourses. Scientists took up the discussion of gravity as a physical force without spiritual connotations, "they cut the natural phenomenon away from its primordial religious connection," while Christianity wallowed in human fallenness and sloshed through a veil of tears. "In the new science, there was to be no trace of sacredness left in nature." And in Christianity, no trace of nature left in sacredness.

"With Newton’s speculation on gravity, we are at the beginning of a natural philosophy grounded in alienation," says Roszak, "the measure of alienation being the degree to which the symbols used by culture to achieve understanding have been emptied of their transcendent energy."

Occult Properties

The objectification by Newton of gravity, defining an unseen force acting at a distance, raised one question that even he could not answer. The cause of gravity Newton admitted, "I do not pretend to know." Critics who accepted his mathematics still accused him of inventing "occult properties." Roszak points out that "to objectify gravity was to separate it from the experience that had always provided its meaning." This symbolic disconnect "made scientific discussion of gravity strangely abstract."

Primitive peoples, on the other hand, who were "acquainted with mana" had no difficulty "grasping the idea of a force that acts magically at a distance; though of course they would translate the idea into a religious experience, an action of the divine. That would carry the idea of force back to its root meaning." Newton’s colleagues "being objective in their approach to nature, could no more find the root meaning of force than they could of gravity." After much dispute and charges of obscurantism by Newton’s critics, gravity was left as "a measurable behavior of things."

"In effect," Roszak says, "this was to leave the key concepts of ‘gravity?and ‘force?suspended in a vacuum of abstraction. The only experiences that could restore their original meaning to these words lay on a transcendent level which was no longer in the repertory of western consciousness. So the terms finish as mere words tenuously linked to mathematical formulations."

The Newtonian Phantasm

Roszak goes on to contend that objectivity required Newton to "strip his scientific vocabulary of its symbolic resonance." This meant discarding animistic or visionary terms that lent "transcendent meanings to natural phenomenon." The expected result, however, was not "to make nature more physically real." In fact, the materialism that followed such scientific stripping of root meanings was "remarkably abstract" and "more an idea than an experience." Newton never talks about the actual feeling of gravity, just the relationship between bodies and a force that’s out there, turned away "from human participation" and hence alienated from the human organism; "anti-organic" and "anti-symbolic." Not till three centuries after Newton "do we learn from our astronauts that gravity is as much in the body as oxygen is in the lungs and bloodstream."

"This astonishing neglect of the organic phenomenology of geotaxis," Roszak says, "happens not because there is nothing there of importance to learn. Modern dance (especially the work of Martha Graham) and Structural Integration therapy (the work of Ida Rolf) have made extensive explorations of gravitational dynamics within the body. Along these lines, we arrive at a deep physical knowledge of gravity that scientific empiricism has wholly ignored." And in ignoring such physical knowledge, science has reduced basic symbols such as the vision-flight, "which undergirds all thought about gravity and levity," to subjective unreality. It also reduces our ancestors, the inventors language, to people who "clearly did not know what they were talking about."

"Meanwhile," Roszak asserts, "as this self-congratulatory ethnocentrism makes a shambles of human culture, inevitably a philosophy and literature of despair grows up which has but one sad message to deliver. ‘Very well: if the Old Gnosis is meaningless, then life is meaningless.?quot; Which results in "ontological priorities" and the world itself being turned on its head as cultural repertories are secularized. "The shamanic vision-flight becomes an illusion; the airplane becomes the real thing." Symbol becomes separated from "transcendent experience" and hence dies, becoming no more than a "well-embalmed corpse," all the more "grotesque the more it is painted to imitate life." This, Roszak says, "is what it means, most basically, to charge science with being reductionistic." But he concedes, "This ghoulish project cannot be blamed on science. That would be to mistake symptom for cause." The practice of science "is what passes for natural philosophy in a culture that has collectively lost its sense of transcendent symbolism. It is our peculiar, crippled effort to understand nature as best we can by way of the lifeless symbols we inherit."

Seeing and "Seeing"

This final section of Roszak’s essay can almost (but not quite) be summarized by the quotations it contains.

"All spiritual facts," said Emerson, "are represented by natural symbols."

. . . then and there my mind had exercised
Upon the vulgar forms of present things,
The actual world of our familiar days,
Yet higher power . . .

?/font> Wordsworth

"There may be," Goethe said, "a difference between seeing and seeing; so that the eyes of the spirit have to work in perpetual connection with those of the body."

Also from Goethe: "Nature speaks to other senses ?/font> to known, misunderstood, and unknown senses. So speaks she with herself and to us in a thousand modes. To the attentive observer she is nowhere dead or silent."

Roszak returns to the skylark as "a symbol of the vision-flight" which is not only "an object perceived," but also "an occasion for the experience which generates the symbol." Symbolic transformations of objects in nature give them a transparency through which one may look, as through a window, for deeper meanings. "Where the visionary power is robust, such symbols can appear anywhere . . . all nature can become a script of root meaning wherein everything is simultaneously ordinary and sacred, at once itself and yet invitingly transparent."

Don Juan tells Carlos that learning to see reveals a new world, one which has always been there, one in which things can be perceived as either ordinary or non-ordinary, but one in which you "see them for what they really are." All things in nature, even the works of humanity, "are symbolic doorways that invite imagination through to high experience." But alas, "there has occurred in our culture ?/font> peculiarly ?/font> a strange and tragic process: a densification of the symbols, by which they lose their subtle nature."

"We are indeed like the prisoners in Plato’s cave," says Roszak, "transfixed by the shadows we see, sealed off from the sunlight. Even to mention the notion of transcendent correspondence would perhaps sound mystical in the most outlandish sense to the great majority of people in our society." As a plant is a real thing for a botanist, it is also a "choreography of symbolic gestures," a process of "growth, fertilization, flowering, and decay," all of which "are locked together hierarchically" beyond the dichotomy of ‘in here?and ‘out there.?Everything is subjective, in other words, but because our "orthodox consciousness has become objectified (alienated) to the point of freakishness, there is much misunderstanding of what it means to ‘overcome the subject/object dichotomy.?quot;

[Summary conclusion will appear in the next website update.]

?/font> Randy Stark

Other books by Daniel C. Noel:

  • The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities
  • Paths to the Power of Myth: Joseph Campbell and the Study of Religion
  • Approaching Earth: A Search for the Mythic Significance of the Space Age
  • Echoes of the Wordless 'Word': Colloquy in Honor of Stanley Romaine Hopper