Erasing Personal History

(Journey to Ixtlan)

Thursday, 22 December 1960

Don Juan was sitting on the floor, by the door of his house, with his back against the wall. He turned over a wooden milk crate and asked me to sit down and make myself at home. I offered him some cigarettes. I had brought a carton of them. He said he did not smoke but he accepted the gift. We talked about the coldness of the desert nights and other ordinary topics of conversation.

I asked him if I was interfering with his normal routine. He looked at me with a sort of frown and said he had no routines, and that I could stay with him all afternoon if I wanted to.

I had prepared some genealogy and kinship charts that I wanted to fill out with his help. I had also compiled, from the ethnographic literature, a long list of culture traits that were purported to belong to the Indians of the area. I wanted to go through the list with him and mark all the items that were familiar to him.

I began with the kinship charts.

“What did you call your father?” I asked.

“I called him Dad,” he said with a very serious face.

I felt a little bit annoyed, but I proceeded on the assumption that he had not understood.

I showed him the chart and explained that one space was for the father and another space was for the mother. I gave as an example the different words used in English and in Spanish for father and mother. I thought that perhaps I should have taken mother first.

“What did you call your mother?” I asked.

“I called her Mom,” he replied in a naive tone.

“I mean what other words did you use to call your father and mother? How did you call them?” I said, trying to be patient and polite.

He scratched his head and looked at me with a stupid expression.

“Golly!” he said. “You got me there. Let me think.”

After a moment’s hesitation he seemed to remember something and I got ready to write.

“Well,” he said, as if he were involved in serious thought, “how else did I call them? I called them Hey, hey, Dad! Hey, hey, Mom!”

I laughed against my desire. His expression was truly comical and at that moment I did not know whether he was a preposterous old man pulling my leg or whether he was really a simpleton. Using all the patience I had, I explained to him that these were very serious questions and that it was very important for my work to fill out the forms. I tried to make him understand the idea of a genealogy and personal history.

“What were the names of your father and mother?” I asked.

He looked at me with clear kind eyes.

“Don’t waste your time with that crap,” he said softly but with unsuspected force.

I did not know what to say; it was as if someone else had uttered those words. A moment before, he had been a fumbling stupid Indian scratching his head, and then in an instant he had reversed the roles; I was the stupid one, and he was staring at me with an indescribable look that was not a look of arrogance, or defiance, or hatred, or contempt. His eyes were kind and clear and penetrating.

“I don’t have any personal history,” he said after a long pause. “One day I found out that personal history was no longer necessary for me and, like drinking, I dropped it.”

I did not quite understand what he meant by that. I suddenly felt ill at ease, threatened. I reminded him that he had assured me that it was all right to ask him questions. He reiterated that he did not mind at all.

“I don’t have personal history any more,” he said and looked at me probingly. “I dropped it one day when I felt it was no longer necessary.”

I stared at him, trying to detect the hidden meanings of his words.

“How can one drop one’s personal history?” I asked in an argumentative mood.

“One must first have the desire to drop it,” he said. “And then one must proceed harmoniously to chop it off, little by little.”

“Why should anyone have such a desire?” I exclaimed.

I had a terribly strong attachment to my personal history. My family roots were deep. I honestly felt that without them my life had no continuity or purpose.

“Perhaps you should tell me what you mean by dropping one’s personal history,” I said.

“To do away with it, that’s what I mean,” he replied cuttingly.

I insisted that I must not have understood the proposition.

“Take you for instance,” I said. “You are a Yaqui. You can’t change that.”

“Am I?” he asked, smiling. “How do you know that?”

“True!” I said. “I can’t know that with certainty, at this point, but you know it and that is what counts. That’s what makes it personal history.”

I felt I had driven a hard nail in.

“The fact that I know whether I am a Yaqui or not does not make it personal history,” he replied. “Only when someone else knows that does it become personal history. And I assure you that no one will ever know that for sure.”

I had written down what he had said in a clumsy way. I stopped writing and looked at him. I could not figure him out. I mentally ran through my impressions of him; the mysterious and unprecedented way he had looked at me during our first meeting, the charm with which he had claimed that he received agreement from everything around him, his annoying humour and his alertness, his look of bona fide stupidity when I asked about his father and mother, and then the unsuspected force of his statements which had snapped me apart.

“You don’t know what I am, do you?” he said as if he were reading my thoughts. “You will never know who or what I am, because I don’t have a personal history.”

He asked me if I had a father. I told him I did. He said that my father was an example of what he had in mind. He urged me to remember what my father thought of me.

“Your father knows everything about you,” he said. “So he has you all figured out. He knows who you are and what you do, and there is no power on earth that can make him change his mind about you.”

Don Juan said that everybody that knew me had an idea about me, and that I kept feeding that idea with everything I did.

“Don’t you see?” he asked dramatically. “You must renew your personal history by telling your parents, your relatives, and your friends everything you do. On the other hand, if you have no personal history, no explanations are needed; nobody is angry or disillusioned with your acts. And above all no one pins you down with their thoughts.”

Suddenly the idea became clear in my mind. I had almost known it myself, but I have never examined it. Not having personal history was indeed an appealing concept, at least on the intellectual level; it gave me, however, a sense of loneliness which I found threatening and distasteful. I wanted to discuss my feelings with him, but I kept myself in check; something was terribly incongruous in the situation at hand. I felt ridiculous trying to get into a philosophical argument with an old Indian who obviously did not have the “sophistication” of a university student. Somehow he had led me away from my original intention of asking him about his genealogy.

“I don’t know how we ended up talking about this when all I wanted was some names for my charts,” I said, trying to steer the conversation back to the topic I wanted.

“It’s terribly simple,” he said. “‘The way we ended up talking about it was because I said that to ask questions about one’s past is a bunch of crap.”

His tone was firm. I felt there was no way to make him budge, so I changed my tactics.

“Is this idea of not having personal history something that the Yaquis do?” I asked.

“It’s something that I do.”

“Where did you learn it?”

“I learned it during the course of my life.”

“Did your father teach you that?”

“No. Let’s say that I learned it by myself and now I am going to give you its secret, so you won’t go away empty-handed today.”

He lowered his voice to a dramatic whisper. I laughed at his histrionics. I had to admit that he was stupendous at that. The thought crossed my mind that I was in the presence of a born actor.

“Write it down,” he said patronizingly. “Why not? You seem to be more comfortable writing.”

I looked at him and my eyes must have betrayed my confusion. He slapped his thighs and laughed with great delight.

“It is best to erase all personal history,” he said slowly, as if giving me time to write it down in my clumsy way, “because that would make us free from the encumbering thoughts of other people.”

I could not believe that he was actually saying that. I had a very confusing moment. He must have read in my face my inner turmoil and used it immediately.

“Take yourself, for instance,” he went on saying. “Right now you don’t know whether you are coming or going. And that is so, because I have erased my personal history. I have, little by little, created a fog around me and my life. And now nobody knows for sure who I am or what I do.”

“But you yourself know who you are, don’t you?” I interjected.

“You bet I … don’t,” he exclaimed and rolled on the floor, laughing at my surprised look.

He had paused long enough to make me believe that he was going to say that he did know, as I was anticipating it. His subterfuge was very threatening to me. I actually became afraid.

“That is the little secret I am going to give you today,” he said in a low voice. “Nobody knows my personal history. Nobody knows who I am or what I do. Not even I.”

He squinted his eyes. He was not looking at me but beyond me over my right shoulder. He was sitting cross-legged, his back was straight and yet he seemed to be so relaxed. At that moment he was the very picture of fierceness. I fancied him to be an Indian chief, a “red-skinned warrior” in the romantic frontier sagas of my childhood. My romanticism carried me away and the most insidious feeling of ambivalence enveloped me. I could sincerely say that I liked him a great deal and in the same breath I could say that I was deadly afraid of him.

He maintained that strange stare for a long moment.

“How can I know who I am, when I am all this?” he said, sweeping the surroundings with a gesture of his head.

Then he glanced at me and smiled.

“Little by little you must create a fog around yourself; you must erase everything around you until nothing can be taken for granted, until nothing is any longer for sure, or real. Your problem now is that you’re too real. Your endeavours are too real; your moods are too real. Don’t take things so for granted. You must begin to erase yourself.”

“What for?” I asked belligerently.

It became clear to me then that he was prescribing behavior for me. All my life I had reached a breaking point when someone attempted to tell me what to do; the mere thought of being told what to do put me immediately on the defensive.

“You said that you wanted to learn about plants,” he said calmly. “Do you want to get something for nothing? What do you think this is? We agreed that you would ask me questions and I’d tell you what I know. If you don’t like it, there is nothing else we can say to each other.”

His terrible directness made me feel peeved, and begrudgingly I conceded that he was right.

“Let’s put it this way then,” he went on. “If you want to learn about plants, since there is really nothing to say about them, you must, among other things, erase your personal history.”

“How?” I asked.

“Begin with simple things, such as not revealing what you really do. Then you must leave everyone who knows you well. This way you’ll build up a fog around yourself.”

“But that’s absurd,” I protested. “Why shouldn’t people know me? What’s wrong with that?”

“What’s wrong is that once they know you, you are an affair taken for granted and from that moment on you won’t be able to break the tie of their thoughts. I personally like the ultimate freedom of being unknown. No one knows me with steadfast certainty, the way people know you, for instance.”

“But that would be lying.”

“I’m not concerned with lies or truths,” he said severely. “Lies are lies only if you have personal history.”

I argued that I did not like to deliberately mystify people or mislead them. His reply was that I misled everybody anyway.

The old man had touched a sore spot in my life. I did not pause to ask him what he meant by that or how he knew that I mystified people all the time. I simply reacted to his statement, defending myself by means of an explanation. I said that I was painfully aware that my family and my friends believed I was unreliable, when in reality I had never told a lie in my life.

“You always knew how to lie,” he said. “The only thing that was missing was that you didn’t know why to do it. Now you do.”

I protested.

“Don’t you see that I’m really sick and tired of people thinking that I’m unreliable?” I said.

“But you are unreliable,” he replied with conviction.

“Damn it to hell, man, I am not!” I exclaimed.

My mood, instead of forcing him into seriousness, made him laugh hysterically. I really despised the old man for all his cockiness. Unfortunately he was right about me.

After a while I calmed down and he continued talking.

“When one does not have personal history,” he explained, “nothing that one says can be taken for a lie. Your trouble is that you have to explain everything to everybody, compulsively, and at the same time you want to keep the freshness, the newness of what you do. Well, since you can’t be excited after explaining everything you’ve done, you lie in order to keep on going.”

I was truly bewildered by the scope of our conversation. I wrote down all the details of our exchange in the best way I could, concentrating on what he was saying rather than pausing to deliberate on my prejudices or on his meanings.

“From now on,” he said, “you must simply show people whatever you care to show them, but without ever telling exactly how you’ve done it.”

“I can’t keep secrets!” I exclaimed. “What you are saying is useless to me.”

“Then change!” he said cuttingly and with a fierce glint in his eyes.

He looked like a strange wild animal. And yet he was so coherent in his thoughts and so verbal. My annoyance gave way to a state of irritating confusion.

“You see,” he went on, “we only have two alternatives; we either take everything for sure and real, or we don’t. If we follow the first, we end up bored to death with ourselves and with the world. If we follow the second and erase personal history, we create a fog around us, a very exciting and mysterious state in which nobody knows where the rabbit will pop out, not even ourselves.”

I contended that erasing personal history would only increase our sensation of insecurity.

“When nothing is for sure we remain alert, perennially on our toes,” he said. “It is more exciting not to know which bush the rabbit is hiding behind than to behave as though we know everything.”

He did not say another word for a very long time; perhaps an hour went by in complete silence. I did not know what to ask. Finally he got up and asked me to drive him to the nearby town. I did not know why but our conversation had drained me. I felt like going to sleep. He asked me to stop on the way and told me that if I wanted to relax, I had to climb to the flat top of a small hill on the side of the road and lie down on my stomach with my head towards the east.

He seemed to have a feeling of urgency. I did not want to argue or perhaps I was too tired to even speak. I climbed the hill and did as he had prescribed. I slept only two or three minutes, but it was sufficient to have my energy renewed. We drove to the centre of town, where he told me to let him off.

“Come back,” he said as he stepped out of the car. “Be sure to come back.”

***

(Tales of Power)

He explained that in order to help erase personal history three other techniques were taught. They were: losing self-importance, assuming responsibility, and using death as an adviser. The idea was that, without the beneficial effect of those three techniques, erasing personal history would involve the apprentice in being shifty, evasive and unnecessarily dubious about himself and his actions.

Don Juan asked me to tell him what had been the most natural reaction I had had in moments of stress, frustration and disappointment before I became an apprentice. He said that his own reaction had been wrath. I told him that mine had been self-pity.

“Although you’re not aware of it, you had to work your head off to make that feeling a natural one,” he said. “By now there is no way for you to recollect the immense effort that you needed to establish self-pity as a feature of your island. Self-pity bore witness to everything you did. It was just at your fingertips, ready to advise you. Death is considered by a warrior to be a more amenable adviser, which can also be brought to bear witness on everything one does, just like self-pity, or wrath. Obviously, after an untold struggle you had learned to feel sorry for yourself. But you can also learn, in the same way, to feel your impending end, and thus you can learn to have the idea of your death at your fingertips. As an adviser, self-pity is nothing in comparison to death.”

Don Juan pointed out then that there was seemingly a contradiction in the idea of change; on the one hand, the sorcerers’ world called for a drastic transformation, and on the other, the sorcerers’ explanation said that the island of the tonal was complete and not a single element of it could be removed. Change, then, did not mean obliterating anything but rather altering the use assigned to those elements.

“Take self-pity for instance,” he said. “There is no way to get rid of it for good; it has a definite place and character in your island, a definite facade which is recognizable. Thus, every time the occasion arises, self-pity becomes active. It has history. If you then change the facade of self-pity, you would have shifted its place of prominence.”

I asked him to explain the meaning of his metaphors, especially the idea of changing facades. I understood it as perhaps the act of more than one role at the same time.

“One changes the facade by altering the use of the elements of the island,” he replied. “Take self-pity again. It was useful to you because you either felt important and deserving of better conditions, better treatment, or because you were unwilling to assume responsibility for the acts that brought you to the state that elicited self-pity, or because you were incapable of bringing the idea of your impending death to witness your acts and advise you.

“Erasing personal history and its three companion techniques are the sorcerers’ means for changing the facade of the elements of the island. For instance, by erasing your personal history, you have denied use to self-pity; in order for self-pity to work you had to feel important, irresponsible, and immortal. When those feelings were altered in some way, it was no longer possible for you to feel sorry for yourself.”

“The same was true with all the other elements which you’ve changed on your island. Without using those four techniques you never could’ve succeeded in changing them. But changing facades means only that one has assigned a secondary place to a formerly important element. Your self-pity is still a feature of your island; it will be there in the back in the same way that the idea of your impending death, or your humbleness, or your responsibility for your acts were there, without ever being used.”

Don Juan said that once all those techniques had been presented, the apprentice arrived at a crossroad. Depending on his sensibility, the apprentice did one of two things. He either took the recommendations and suggestions made by his teacher at their face value, acting without expecting rewards; or he took everything as a joke or an aberration.

***

 

(Encounters with the Nagual)

“One piece of advice Don Juan gave us was that, during our training as warriors, we should abstain from using what he called ‘tools for the perpetuation of the self’. This category included such objects as mirrors, the exhibition of academic titles, and albums of pictures with our personal history. The sorcerers of his group took this advice literally, but we, the apprentices, didn’t care. However, for some reason, I interpreted his command in an extreme way, and from then on I did not even allow anyone to take pictures of me.”

***