My Mescalito Trip

Illustration by Peter Bennet

ONE OF THE TERMS THAT CAME INTO MODERN English from the Russian in the wake of "gulag" and "pogrom" was "samizdat." It is usually defined as a system of clandestine publication of anti-Soviet texts in the countries of the former Eastern bloc. This definition somewhat implies that "samizdat" meant Solzhenitsyn. In fact, "samizdat" meant Castaneda. The explanation is simple: When you live in a gulag from the day of your birth, reading a book about gulag in your free time feels a bit too patriotic. You want something different.

Castaneda wasn't officially forbidden in the pre-perestroika Soviet Union. Neither was he permitted. Getting caught with Castaneda's pirate translation might have led you into mild trouble, comparable to the consequences of drunk driving or urinating in a public place, but never landed you in jail. It was a problem of possessing samizdat, not Castaneda -- an issue of form rather than content. And this samizdat form transformed Castaneda into something quite unpredictable.

Castaneda's most beautiful trick was based on the popular belief in the existence of fiction and nonfiction. This belief takes it for granted that there is a qualitative difference between two books if the first one tells a success story that never happened to a fictitious character, and the second one tells a success story that will never happen to you. In a way, this difference does exist. But it is not a difference between two books, it is a difference between two settings of the reader's mind. Here lies the real magic that makes the four Gospels either a dull specimen of ancient postmodernism or the Truth that proves itself as it unfolds in front of your eyes. Never mind the text. What matters is the legend, or, to be precise, your willingness to kindle this legend with life.

Castaneda capitalized on this psychic phenomenon -- which, by the way, he described in his books -- with the ease and brilliance no other modern prophet was able to match, at least in business terms. His work was considered nonfiction, though later his publishers unobtrusively moved it to the arcane "Arkana" category. But if the mass-market production of Castaneda's books in the West firmly placed Don Juan among the phenomena of the '60s­'70s pop culture, in the Soviet Union he was a mystery known to the selected few even a decade later. If some of his Western readers perceived the term "nonfiction" as a maneuver to increase the sales, this kind of thinking was totally alien to us. At that time the notion of a best-seller didn't exist in our culture. The dust-covered volumes of Brezhnev's pensive prose that filled every bookstore were not best-sellers, they were best-printers. As far as we were concerned, there was only one indecent marketing trick that led to multimillion-print runs. It was to be a Politburo member. And Castaneda was not. So we didn't have any serious motive for suspicion.

The samizdat incarnation of a Castaneda book was a photocopy of the typewritten translation. That was the reason why your access to a Xerox machine could drastically improve your position in the esoteric hierarchy. The quality of your Castaneda sheets showed your proximity to the mysterious center of occult knowledge: There were copies of copies, copies of copies of copies, and thus to eternity. Sometimes the letters were so dim that when you were finally able to finish the page, you felt like an Egyptologist who had managed to understand the inscription on a badly damaged obelisk.

The translations were technically correct, but the style was more field notes than literary text -- which doubled the feeling of authenticity. Sometimes you were given a book "till tomorrow" and had to read it overnight. Sometimes you would hear, "If you get in trouble, I didn't give it to you, okay?" It wasn't a mere nonfiction anymore, it was a non-nonfiction where a combination of factors created a cumulative effect of such force that some Castaneda readers saw lucid dreams an hour after they had read about the art of dreaming. And some were able to put into practice Don Juan's motto that knowledge is power.

THERE WAS A PLACE IN MOSCOW CALLED BIRD Market -- a flea market where you could buy pets, plants and many other things. Once, when I was in my early 20s, I went there to look for something I needed. Passing by a long table with plants, I saw a strange bald cactus with a tag that read, Lophophora williamsii. That sounded familiar. I remembered where I had seen these words -- in the introduction to a Castaneda book. Then I remembered the meaning. It was the Latin name for a power plant that Don Juan used to call Mescalito. Mescalito was both a plant and a spirit.

The next few weeks were a confusing period of time for the cactus collectors of Moscow. It seemed that a big new player entered their tight little universe. He was operating on a scale unheard of in the past, and disappeared without a trace after exhausting the entire Moscow stock of a particular cactus known mostly for its beautiful flower and complete absence of thorns.

Speak, memory. Some peyote plants were big, mature and dark, some were light green and tiny. Some grew from the gray sand, some were implanted in another cactus, forming together with it a strange gibbous monster. I remember the floor of my room, transformed by the twilight and the power of my intent into a barren expanse of the Sonora desert where I had been so many times with Don Juan and Carlos during their promenades. Walking in the desert required your entire attention, as its surface was covered with plastic flowerpots of various forms and colors arranged in an orderly pattern, like an army prepared for a battle. And, as history shows, when there's an army prepared for a battle, it is only a matter of time when this battle starts.

Unfortunately, Mescalito just said no. This plant needs a lot of sun radiation and a special kind of soil to produce the amount of mescaline sufficient to summon his noble spirit. So, despite the fact that the number of buttons I ate would have made Don Juan whistle in respectful disbelief, the result was nil, or very close to it: a kind of perceptual distortion that you might not even notice if you don't expect it to happen, or something that you start to feel only because you wait for it to begin. I walked in the forest, looked at the sunset. There was nothing special apart from the squeaking of sand on my teeth. However, my Mescalito trip had one curious side effect. Two days after it, perestroika began.

WHICH TAKES ME BACK TO CASTANEDA. I KNOW about all the vitriol that his books attracted, and in many cases it was well-grounded. My own problem with Castaneda's metaphysical model is even deeper than all the criticism I heard. It is not only my problem. Talking about Castaneda's books with a Buddhist monk in a Korean monastery once, I said, "There's a concept I can't digest. A place where Castaneda says that awareness is a bluish glow that surrounds the Eagle's emanations." "Absolutely," said the monk. "If this is so, who's aware of this bluish glow then?"

Yet I love him even with the bluish glow. He is much like this gibbous monster cactus, which doesn't have a holographic certificate of being the genuine authentic Peyote™, and doesn't really take you high, and perhaps can't even be called a cactus at all. But it gives you a little side effect that suddenly makes the side center and the center side. With all his tricks and failures, he shines high above the blurred crowd of many a "distinctive voice of his/her own" on the steep road from obscurity to oblivion. No matter what faults his books might have, they possess a very rare quality, the most important in the universe, that is hard to define otherwise but in Castaneda's own terms: They have heart.

Victor Pelevin is the author of the novels Buddha's Little Finger and Homo Zapiens, both available from Viking. He lives in Moscow.


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