Carlos Castaneda 1931(?)–1998
American anthropologist and fiction/nonfiction writer.
For further information on Castaneda's life and career, see CLC, Volume 12.
Castaneda emerged as a cult figure in the 1960s as a result of his accounts of an apprenticeship with a Yaqui-native sorcerer in the Arizona-Mexican Desert. Called the godfather of the New Age, Castaneda's writings encouraged a generation of readers to explore mysticism and the use of hallucinogens. The facts of Castaneda's life are steeped in the same illusiveness which characterizes his writing. The exact date and place of his birth are not known. The author claims he was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil on December 25, 1931, however, United States immigration records list December 25, 1925, in Cajmarcs, Peru. Immigrating to America in the 1950s, Castaneda studied anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. While on a research trip to Arizona to study the medicinal use of herbs by Native Americans, Castaneda allegedly befriended Don Juan Matus, who agreed to apprentice the graduate student in the ancient rites of sorcery. In The Teachings of Don Juan (1968), Castaneda chronicles the lessons he learned in achieving a "non-ordinary reality," often with the help of psychotropical drugs such as peyote. Published after his return to Los Angeles following his five years in the desert, the book won Castaneda instant acclaim, as well as his Ph.D. His search for an alternate reality, his rejection of the primacy of Western logic, and his affinity for drug use appealed to youthful followers. Scholars praised his unusual approach, which consisted of his participation in Yaqui practices, contrasting sharply with traditional observational techniques, and his questioning of his own cultural biases. Throughout the next thirty years Castaneda continued to write about his experiences with Don Juan. However, critical and popular support waned; increasingly, his work has been viewed as fiction in light of the supernatural nature of his writings, the incongruities of his life, and the lack of any evidence of the existence of Don Juan Matus. While some critics felt duped, others argued that, whether fiction or nonfiction, Castaneda's writings are beautiful, thought-provoking, and influential.
The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (fictional autobiography) 1968
A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan (fictional autobiography) 1971
Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (fictional autobiography) 1972
Tales of Power (fictional autobiography) 1974
The Second Ring of Power (fictional autobiography) 1977
The Eagle's Gift (fictional autobiography) 1981
The Fire Within (fictional autobiography) 1984
The Power of Silence (fictional autobiography) 1987
El Arte de Ensonar [The Art of Dreaming] (fictional autobiography) 1995
Silent Knowledge (nonfiction) 1996
Benjamin Epstein (essay date March-April 1996)
SOURCE: "My Lunch with Carlos Castaneda," in Psychology Today, Vol. 29, No. 2, March-April, 1996, pp. 30-4.
[In the following essay based on an interview with Castaneda, Epstein discusses Castaneda's teachings and views on religion.]
One of the most elusive figures of modern times, Castaneda recently materialized, to great surprise, at a small conference in Anaheim, California.
He is the 20th century's own sorcerer's apprentice. He is the invisible man, ephemeral, evanescent: now you see him, now you don't. He is a navigator making his way through a living universe in exquisite flux. Or as Carlos Castaneda himself might say, he is a moron, an idiot, a fart. It's been said that Jesus Christ was either the Son of God or the greatest liar who ever lived. Carlos Castaneda, who may have a cult following but says deities are the last thing people need, presents a similar conundrum. Critics grapple for middle ground: One called him a "sham-man bearing gifts…. He lied to bring us the truth."
The jury has been out...
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ever since books such asThe Teachings of Don Juan took the public and academia by storm in the 1960s and 70s, and it's still out. Castaneda has now produced nine books he claims are based on his supernatural experiences with Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui seer. To remain invisible, he says, is the sorcerer's way. He never allows photographs or a tape recording of his voice. He only rarely grants interviews. In the 80s, he effectively vanished altogether. But the books continue to sell (8 million in 17 countries) and have never been out of print. In 1993, he began to give occasional seminars, and the following year The Art of Dreaming appeared.
Despite ads promoting "Carlos Castaneda's Tensegrity," even event organizers didn't know whether Castaneda would actually show up at a recent weekend seminar near Disneyland in Anaheim. Yet 400 devotees from around the world—about a third from California—paid $250 each to attend, whether Castaneda showed or not. They came to learn a series of magical passes," movements intended to heighten perception.
"It is a thinking universe, a living universe, an exquisite universe!" Castaneda said, exuberantly kicking off the seminar. We have to balance the lineality of the known universe with the nonlineality of the unknown universe." The charismatic Castaneda proved amazingly convincing when describing life among inorganic beings, with whom he apparently spends a great deal of time; the assemblage point, a place about an arm's length behind our shoulder blades that can be shifted to visit other realms; and a predatory universe in which "flyers" incessantly feed on mankind's awareness, taking the sheen off our luminous eggs and leaving only a rubble of self-absorption and egomania.
He invents none of this, he insists. "I'm not insane, you know. Well, maybe a little insane. But not ridiculously insane!"
He is also charming, energetic, fit, and funny. And at the conclusion of his opening talk, Castaneda responded to a request for an interview by unexpectedly inviting the writer to lunch.
Sitting in a coffee shop in Anaheim opposite Castaneda was enough to realign anybody's assemblage point: The writer later took his nonlineality to heart, slipping easily between lunch and workshop talks, and indulging in the conversational formal that Castaneda often used to elucidate his master's ideas. After all, Castaneda had replaced Don Juan as nagual, the head sorcerer, a being with double luminous spheres, and if it was good enough for one nagual, it's good enough for another.
At the table were several Tensegrity staffers and the three women chacmools who helped Castaneda compile the movements and who taught them step-by-step at the seminar.
"Is this what you've been doing all this time, magical passes?" I asked Castaneda.
"Noooo … I was very chubby," he said. "Don Juan recommended an obsessive use of magical passes to keep my body at an optimum. So in terms of physical activity, yes, this is what we do. The movements also force our awareness to focus on the idea that we are spheres of luminosity, a conglomerate of energy fields held together by special glue."
"Is Tensegrity the Toltec t'ai chi? Yaqui yoga?" I asked.
"To compare Tensegrity with yoga or t'ai chi is not possible. It has a different origin and a different purpose. The origin is shamanic, the purpose is shamanic. It has to do with our reason for being. Our reason for being is to face infinity.
"We're all going to face infinity, at the moment of dying," he said. Why face it when we are weakest, when we are broken? Why not when we are strong. Why not now? You have to face it pragmatically. No idealities allowed."
"Where would Jesus fit into all this? Where would Buddha fit in?"
"They are idealities," Castaneda replied. "They are too big, too gigantic to be real. They are deities. One is the Prince of Buddhism, the other is the Son of God … idealities cannot be used in a pragmatic movement.
"Allowing your perception to break the interpretation system—a tree ceases to be a tree and becomes sheer energy—that is a pragmatic maneuver. The things shamans deal with are extremely practical. They break down parameters of normal historical reality. Magical passes are just one aspect of that."
Castaneda is very negative about religion. But these aren't your usual diatribes: 'Leave Jesus on the cross. He's very happy there!' Don Juan said, 'Don't bother him, leave him alone. Don't ask him "why are you there crucified." He'd go bananas trying to explain to you why.' So I did that. He said hello to me, and goodbye.
The waiter arrived to take our lunch orders. The only choices under discussion seemed to be top sirloin, prime rib, and filet, hardly the snuggest fit with most New Age disciplines.
"The sorcerers say that whether you're eating lettuce or a steak, it's a sentient being," chacmool Kylie Lundahl explained. As it turned out, the chacmools, named for the gigantic, reclining guardian figures of the Mexican pyramids, were quite literally here today, gone tomorrow. Castaneda relieved them of their duties at the end of the seminar, during his closing remarks. Nobody ever said the warrior's way would be easy.
Castaneda ordered a melted cheese on rye with a side of bacon and fries.
Don Juan was once described as "an enigma wrapped in mystery wrapped in a tortilla," and Castaneda followed suit. His agent, Tracy Kramer, and Cleargrecn, Inc., which organizes the seminars, are based in Santa Monica. Where Castaneda spends his time is unclear. If a passing remark at the seminar was to be taken literally, he pays property taxes somewhere.
"I don't live here," Castaneda said. "I'm not here at all. I always use the euphemism 'I've been in Mexico.' All of us divide our time between being here and being pulled by something that is not describable but that makes us visitors into another realm. But you start talking about that and you start sounding like total nincompoops.
"I had once an interview. First thing the interviewer said was, 'They tell me you turned into a crow, is that true? Hahahaha.' I tried to explain to him about intersubjectivity. 'Pfhhhh,' he said, 'tell me yes or no.' I said no."
"Why don't you allow yourself to be photographed or tape-recorded?" I asked.
"Recording is a way of fixing you in time," Castaneda answered. "The stagnant word, the stagnant picture, those are the antithesis of the sorcerer…. Maybe you've seen a drawing of Carlos Castaneda [by Richard Oden for Psychology Today in December 1977.] There was no photograph, so he drew it. This was 30 years ago. No good. He decided to draw it again. It was a flop."
Photographs are not all that stand still. "The word of God is unchanging," he said. "It is a living universe. What is in flux is what is alive. An unchanging word must by definition pertain to a dead world. In a universe that is forced to change there is a written word not forced to change? That is the world of a taxidermist."
When Castaneda's melted-cheese sandwich arrived, the rye was marbled with pumpernickel. "What is this, chocolate bread?" he asked before sending it back. My own mind was worlds away, perhaps on a bench in Oaxaca.
"According to your book The Eagle's Gift, Don Juan Matus didn't [die], he left, he 'burned from within.' Will you leave or will you die?"
Since I'm a moron, I'm sure I'll die," Castaneda replied. "I wish I would have the integrity to leave the way he did…. I have this terrible fear that I won't. But I wish. I work my head off—both heads—toward that."
I recalled an article from at least a decade ago calling Castaneda the "godfather of the New Age."
"It was 'grandfather'!" he protested. "And I thought, please call me the uncle, or cousin, not grandfather! Uncle Charlie will do. I feel like hell, being the grandfather of anything. I'm fighting age, senility and old age, like you couldn't believe. I was senile when I met Don Juan, I've fought for 35 years….
"To be young and youthful is nothing," said Castaneda. "To be old and youthful, that is sorcery!"
Castaneda, for whom ambiguity is a way of life to be ruthlessly pursued, is both. And his age is as good a place as any to get a sense of the man.
According to Contemporary Authors, Castaneda lists his birth date and place as December 25, 1931, Sao Paulo, Brazil; immigration records say December 25, but 1925, and Cajamarca, Peru; other sources cite the late 1930s. One New York Times article put him at 66 years old in 1981.
So he's somewhere between 60 and 80, most likely 64. Or 70. Similarly, otherwise reliable sources variously list the year he earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA as 1970 and 1973. In other words, this is one slippery organic being.
I asked about inorganic beings.
"They are possessors of consciousness but not possessors of an organism," Castaneda responded. "Why should awareness be the exclusive possession of organisms?"
The Art of Dreaming ends with Castaneda recounting an episode in the mid-70s when he and Carol Tiggs were "dreaming" in a hotel room in Mexico City, and Tiggs disappeared into those dreams. (She was on a journey in the "second attention," a state of consciousness not devoured by the "flyers.") According to Castaneda, she reappeared 10 years later in a bookstore in Santa Monica, where he was giving a talk.
It was the reconstituted Tiggs who provided the impetus to compile the "magical passes" of Tensegrity. According to Castaneda, Don Juan taught four disciples separate lines of ever-changing magical passes. The other two, Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar, have each published accounts of their apprenticeships, both markedly different from Castaneda's but endorsed by him. Over the past 10 years, the group "fixed the passes," arriving at a consensus generic enough to be used by mankind. If the movements of Tensegrity (the name derives from an architectural term related to skeletal efficiency, happily combining "tension" and "integrity") often seem angular and fierce in character, they are intended to produce a jolt.
"I saw once a beautiful science fiction movie in which creatures from another planet appeared," Castaneda said, "veeeery slowly. A change in perception is never like that. It is like this. Yank it out! You cancel the parameters of normal perception. You move into it like a robber bandit. Almost immediately, the robber bandit comes back. It's just a moment. But the moments get longer and longer."
The chacmools may have been erased, but not Tensegrity. A new formation of warrior guardians were set to lead future seminars with lectures to be given by all four Don Juan disciples—and an inorganic being called the blue scout.
Don Juan's premise was that the world as we know it is only one version of reality, a set of culturally embedded "agreements" and "descriptions." Castaneda addressed the futility of the usual avenues of inquiry:
"If you seek with the mind, it will not take you anywhere, except to a tautological situation where you repeat the obvious. In science, the tautological questions prove themselves. That's the art of our science …' All these variables and nothing else.' We are champions of pseudo control—we reduce the problem to manageable science. What a fantasy!
"One day on my way to the cafeteria at UCLA, I didn't see people anymore, I saw energies, blobs, luminous spheres. It was dazzling. Before that, nothing existed except me, me, me. I went to talk to a psychiatrist I worked with. He very kindly prescribed a tranquilizer and said, 'Carlos, you're working too hard. Take two days off.' It was impossible to establish a dialogue with him."
Castaneda's own inquiries have led him from academic anthropology to practical hermeneutics, the science of interpretation; he launched a newsletter, The Warriors' Way: A Journal of Applied Hermeneutics, in January titles under consideration for a gigantic work in progress have included "Ethnohermeneutics" and "Phenomenological Anthropology."
"When sorcerers see, hermeneutics is the ultimate affair for us," Castaneda said. Seeing for the rest of us apparently involves only the visual sense, and then only minimally.
"When you look at me now, what do you see?" I asked.
"I have to be in a special mood to see," he said. "It is very difficult for me to see. I've got to get very somber, very heavy. If I'm lighthearted and I look at you, I see nothing. Then I turn around and I see her, and what do I see? 'I joined the navy to see the world, and what do I see? I see the sea!'
"I know more than I want to know. It's hell, true hell. If you see too much, you become unbearable."
Castaneda ordered a cappuccino, then meticulously removed the foamed milk teaspoon by teaspoon.
According to Castaneda, most sorcerers must remain celibate in order to conserve energy. It all depends on the circumstances under which they were conceived.
"Most of us are what we call BFs, the product of bored fucks," he explained. "How was I conceived? Was it in the middle of great sexual excitation, or was it nonsense, idiotic, pointless? Mine was stupid. The two people involved didn't know what they were doing. I was conceived behind a door, so I came out very nervous, watching. And this is the way I am, basically. For me to make use of energy I don't have is lethal."
"What about married people?"
"That question has come up a lot. It's a question of energy," he said. "If you know you were not conceived in a state of real excitation, then no. On one level, it hasn't mattered if people are married. With the launching of Tensegrity, we don't really know what will happen."
"You don't know what is going to happen? Sounds irresponsible."
"How can you know?" he asked. "This is an implication of our syntactical system. Our syntax requires a beginning, development, and end. I was, I am, I will be. We are caught in that. How can we know what you will be capable of if you have sufficient energy?
"I am giving you a series of ideas, if you have the balls to take them seriously. Maybe you say this is idiotical, what kind of shit is this? Like the little boy victims [whinning], 'But what is going to happen to me?' They'll never find out.
"The other three disciples—those farts—have balls; these are huge women with the biggest balls you've ever seen. Try to stop Taisha Abelar and see what happens. Try to stop Florinda."
The fourth disciple is no squeaker himself.
"Don Juan categorized people into three types," he said. "One was farts, like me, a smelly fart—very assertive, ready to tell you, 'Fuck you, are sure that's the way to do it?' and Don Juan would very patiently assure me that, yes, he was sure. I don't have that patience myself. If somebody asks me am I sure, I go bananas because I'm not sure!
"The other, golden piss—the sweetest, wonderful beings. They could die for you, or so they say. They won't, but they say it, which is very nice—nicer than the fart—but then you die for him.
"The third type, puke. Not fart, not piss, just puke—the kind that doesn't have anything to give, but promises the world, and has you begging….
"Fortunately I was fart. And Don Juan had a ball with this fart."
J. R. Moehringer (obituary date 19 June 1998)
SOURCE: "A Hushed Death for Mystic Author Carlos Castaneda," in Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1998, p. A1.
[In the following obituary, Moehringer emphasizes the deceptive and enigmatic aspects of Castaneda's life.]
Carlos Castaneda, the self-proclaimed "sorcerer" and best-selling author whose tales of drug-induced mental adventures with a Yaqui Indian shaman named Don Juan once fascinated the world, apparently died two months ago in the same way that he lived: quietly, secretly, mysteriously.
He was believed to be 72.
Castaneda died April 27 at his home in Westwood, according to entertainment lawyer Deborah Drooz, a friend of Castaneda and the executor of his estate. The cause of death was liver cancer.
Though he had millions of followers around the world, and though his 10 books continue to sell in 17 different languages, and though he once appeared on the cover of Time magazine as a leader of America's spiritual renaissance, he died without public notice, without the briefest mention in a newspaper or on TV.
As befitting his mystical image, he seemingly vanished into thin air.
"He didn't like attention," Drooz said. "He always made sure people did not take his picture or record his voice. He didn't like the spotlight. Knowing that, I didn't take it upon myself to issue a press release."
No funeral was held; no public service of any kind took place. The author was cremated at once and his ashes were spirited away to Mexico, according to the Culver City mortuary that handled his remains.
He leaves behind a will, due to be probated in Los Angeles next month, and a death certificate fraught with dubious information. The few people who may benefit from his rich copyrights were told of the death, Drooz said, but none chose to alert the media. The doctor who attended him in his final days, Angelica Duenas, would not discuss her secretive patient.
Even those who counted Castaneda a good friend were unaware of his death and wouldn't comment when told, choosing to honor his disdain for publicity, no matter what realm of reality he now inhabits.
"I've made it a lifetime practice never to discuss Carlos Castaneda with anyone in the newspaper business," said author Michael Korda, who was once Castaneda's editor at Simon & Schuster Inc.
Castaneda's literary agent in Los Angeles, Tracy Kramer, would not return phone calls about the Thomas Pynchonesque author's death but issued this statement: "In the tradition of the shamans of his lineage, Carlos Castaneda left this world in full awareness."
Carlos Ce'sar Arana Castaneda immigrated to the U.S. in 1951. He was born Christmas Day 1925 in Sao Paolo, Brazil, or Cajamarca, Peru, depending on which version of his autobiographical accounts can be believed. He was an inveterate and unrepentant liar about the statistical details of his life, from his birthplace to his birth date, and even his given name remains in some doubt.
"Much of the Castaneda mystique is based on the fact that even his closest friends aren't sure who he is," wrote his ex-wife, Margaret Runyan Castaneda, in a 1997 memoir that Castaneda tried to keep from being published.
Whoever he was, whatever his background. Castaneda galvanized the world 30 years ago. As an anthropology graduate student at UCLA, he wrote his master's thesis about a remarkable journey he made to the Arizona-Mexico desert. Hoping to study the effects of certain medicinal plants, Castaneda said he stopped in an Arizona border town and there, in a Greyhound bus depot, met an old Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico, named Juan Matus, a brujo, or sorcerer, or shaman, who used powerful hallucinogens to initiate the student into an occult world with origins dating back more than 2,000 years.
Under Don Juan's strenuous tutelage, which lasted several years, Castaneda experimented with peyote, jimson weed and dried mushrooms, undergoing moments of supreme ecstasy and stark panic, all in an effort to achieve varying "states of nonordinary reality." Wandering through the desert, with Don Juan as his psychological and pharmacological guide, Castaneda said he saw giant insects, learned to fly, grew a beak, became a crow and ultimately reached a plateau of higher consciousness, a hard-won wisdom that made him a "man of knowledge" like Don Juan.
The thesis, published in 1968 by the University of California Press, became an international bestseller, striking just the right note at the peak of the psychedelic 1960s. A strange alchemy of anthropology, allegory, parapsychology, ethnography, Buddhism and perhaps great fiction, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge made Don Juan a household name and Castaneda a cultural icon.
Many still consider him the godfather of America's New Age movement. In one of the few profiles with which Castaneda cooperated, Time magazine wrote: "To tens of thousands of readers, young and old, the first meeting of Castaneda with Juan Matus is a better-known literary event than the encounter of Dante and Beatrice beside the Arno."
After his stunning debut, Castaneda followed with a string of bestsellers, including A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtian. Soon, readers were flocking to Mexico, hoping to become apprentices at Don Juan's feet.
But the old Indian could not be found, which set off widespread speculation that Castaneda was the author of an elaborate, if ingenious, hoax.
"Is it possible that these books are nonfiction?" author Joyce Carol Oates asked in 1972. "I realize that everyone accepts them as anthropological studies, but they seem to me remarkable works of art, on the Hesse-like theme of a young man's initiation into 'another way' of reality. They are beautifully constructed. The dialogue is faultless. The character of Don Juan is unforgettable. There is a novelistic momentum."
Such concerns have all but discredited Castaneda in academia.
"At the moment, [his books] have no presence in anthropology," said Clifford Geertz, an influential anthropologist.
But Castaneda's penchant for lying and the disputed existence of Don Juan never dampened the enthusiasm of his admirers.
"It isn't necessary to believe to get swept up in Castaneda's otherworldly narrative," wrote Joshua Gilder in the Saturday Review.
"Like myth, it works a strange and beautiful magic beyond the realm of belief. Sometimes, admittedly, one gets the impression of a con artist simply glorifying in the game. Even so, it is a con touched by genius."
Drooz agreed, saying it was an honor to represent a man with Castaneda's high moral purpose and impish charm. "I'm a very cynical, skeptical, atheistic lawyer, and I was deeply, deeply touched by Castaneda," she said.
To the end, Castaneda stubbornly insisted that the events he described in his books were not only real but meticulously documented.
"I invented nothing," he told 400 people attending a 1995 seminar that he conducted in Anaheim. "I'm not insane, you know. Well, maybe a little insane."
Even his death certificate, apparently, is not free of misinformation. His occupation is listed as teacher, his employer the Beverly Hills School District. But school district records don't show Castaneda teaching there.
Also, though he was said to have no family, the death certificate lists a niece, Talia Bey, who is president of Cleargreen Inc., a company that organizes Castaneda seminars on "Tensegrity," a modern version of ancient shaman practices, part yoga, part ergonomic exercises. Bey was unavailable for comment.
Further, the death certificate lists Castaneda as "Nev. Married," though he was married from 1960 to 1973 to Margaret Runyan Castaneda, of Charleston, W.Va., who said Castaneda once lied in court, swearing he was the father of her infant son by another man, then helped her raise the boy.
The son, now 36 and living in suburban Atlanta, also claims to have a birth certificate listing Castaneda as his father.
"I haven't been notified" of Castaneda's death, said Margaret Runyan Castaneda, 76, audibly upset. "I had no idea."
When he wasn't writing about how to better experience this life, Castaneda was preoccupied by death. In 1995, he told the Anaheim seminar:
"We are all going to face infinity, whether we like it or not. Why do we do it when we are weakest, when we are broken, at the moment of dying? Why not when we are strong? Why not now?"
But when interviewed by Time in 1973, he was more succinct about the end, directing the reporter to a favorite piece of graffiti in Los Angeles that summed up his view:
"Death is the greatest kick of all. That's why they save it for last."
Keith Thompson (obituary date 27 June 1998)
SOURCE: "To Carlos Castaneda, Wherever You Are," in New York Times, June 27, 1998, p. A15.
[In the following obituary, Thompson, an author, discusses the trickster role Castaneda played.]
When I heard that the coroner's certificate listed his occupation as Beverly Hills schoolteacher. I was amused. But I wasn't surprised. Why shouldn't rumors about Carlos Castaneda's death be as exaggerated as his life?
Castaneda's death was reported a week ago, two months after it occurred. He is likely to be credited, in his footnote in history, as one of the most notorious, charming and unapologetic tricksters of the century. Which is why I'll never know for sure whether the Carlos I met that day five years ago was him, or rather some Carlos-not.
Castaneda had agreed to sit for an interview, for Paris Review. The editor, George Plimpton, said that as far as he knew it would be the legendary anthropologist-sorcerer-author's first on-the-record conversation, in two decades.
Mr. Plimpton wanted to know if I was up for a chat with a cultural icon whose obsession with secrecy made Salinger and Pynchon raging extroverts by comparison.
I was 14 when Castaneda stepped from the anonymity of graduate school in 1948 with a book called The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, the first of a series chronicling his "apprenticeship" to a Yaqui Indian sorcerer named Don Juan Matus. The books described sensational encounters with hundred-foot goats, human heads that turned into crows, cars disappearing in broad daylight, the same leaf falling four times.
On their face, Castaneda's claims were ludicrous. Precisely for that reason, they were epistemological lighter fluid for a generation burning to discover new realities, new consciousness—a generation burning for experience, so long as it was intense.
When the Establishment slammed Castaneda, it only proved he was cool. Attempts to explain away his adventures as peyote-induced only made the prospect of peyote more tantalizing. The Teachings of Don Juan gave my generation glimmers of what Sunday-morning-only religion seemed determined to vaccinate against—the sacred, up close and personal.
A quarter century later, Castaneda's literary agent insisted on Howard Hughes-style ground rules: no photos or tape recorder. (Easy enough; hire a stenographer.) The interview took place in the conference room of a modest office in Los Angeles.
The person who introduced himself to me as Carlos Castaneda was contagiously mirthful. His eyes were large and clear. They might have been gray.
Since I was on assignment for a literary magazine, I was eager for Castaneda to talk about his creative process. When, how, where do you write, and why? He politely demurred, saying Don Juan had taught him the importance of "erasing personal history."
"The more you are identified with people's ideas of who you are and how you will act," he said, "the greater the constraint upon your freedom."
(Advice to Bill Clinton: If things get any tougher, try "sorcerer's privilege.")
Castaneda spent the remainder of the interview recounting the tales that had made him (in)famous. How he had met the evasive Don Juan in an Arizona bus station. How the old Indian had badgered him to grasp that there is more than one reality, and such a thing as magic that isn't illusion. Nothing new; it was all in his books. Nor was I surprised when a poker-faced Castaneda insisted, as he had for three decades, that Don Juan was no figment of his imagination.
I am an anthropologist, he declared.
I wasn't sure whether to laugh or yawn—or cheer. Try as I might, I couldn't make my response to Castaneda fit any single box.
On the one hand, the spiritual force of his books doesn't require Don Juan to be other than an allegory. Still, my pre-interview research turned up convincing evidence that Castaneda the graduate student had talked openly and in great detail about his adventures with Don Juan six years before The Teachings was even published. If he made up Don Juan entirely out of tie-dyed whole cloth, he did so well in advance, when he didn't have an obvious need to. So in terms of credibility, I was willing to cut him some slack.
Then, near the end of the interview, Castaneda let slip that his grizzled mentor was no more. Pressed, he confirmed that Don Juan had chosen to "displace his assemblage point from its fixation in the conventional human world." The master had "combusted from within."
I took this to mean the old coot had retired from an exhausted plot line.
Maybe Castaneda's account of Don Juan's demise would meet Kenneth Starr's standard for a leak to Newsweek. But I couldn't blame Mr. Plimpton for declining to publish an interview that shed so little light on Castaneda as a writer.
New Age Journal eventually bought the piece. I got paid enough to recover my costs—flight, rental car, hotel and the hefty stenographer's fee.
There ends my story. But not quite.
Castaneda promised that day to send me an autographed copy of his book The Art of Dreaming. It never came. When I read his obituary, I had to accept that it never would. But what if I was wrong about that?
After all, Castaneda insisted he was never married, yet court records showed he had been. He claimed at least two different birth dates and locations. He wrote that he had grown a beak, changed into a crow and learned to fly. His death certificate preposterously called him a public school teacher.
Could this most practiced of pretenders have faked his own demise? To even consider the possibility was to imagine a degree of duplicity beyond my comprehension.
Well, almost. Carlos, do you think you could send me that book?
Peter Applebome (obituary date 19 August 1998)
SOURCE: "Mystery Man's Death Can't End the Mystery," in New York Times, August 19, 1998, pp. El, E3.
[In the following obituary, Applebome discusses the legal conflicts resulting from Castaneda's unpublicized death.]
Once he began publishing his best-selling accounts of his purported adventures with a Mexican shaman 30 years ago, Carlos Castaneda's life and work played out in a wispy blur of sly illusion and artful deceit.
Now, four months after he died and two months after the death was made public, a probate court in Los Angeles is sifting through competing claims on the estate of the author whose works helped define the 1960's and usher in the New Age movement.
His followers say he left the earth with the same elegant, willful mystery that characterized his life. The man he used to call his son says Castaneda died while a virtual prisoner of cultlike followers who controlled his last days and his estate.
Given that Castaneda's literary credibility, marital history, place of birth, circumstances of death and almost everything else are in dispute, the competing claims—including questions about the authenticity of his will and his competence to sign it—are not surprising. But they are providing a nasty coda to the life of a man whose books, which sold 8 million copies in 17 languages, are alternately viewed as fact, metaphor or hoax.
Admirers say the areas of dispute, most famously whether the purported shaman and brujo (witch) Don Juan Matus ever existed, are peripheral to the real issues Castaneda explored in his books.
"Carlos knew exactly what was true and what was not true," said Angela Panaro, of Cleargreen Inc., the group that marketed Castaneda's teachings and seminars near the end of his life. "But the thing that's missing when people talk about Carlos is not whether Don Juan lived or not, or who lived in what house. It's about becoming a voyager of awareness, about the 600 locations in the luminous egg of man where the assemblage point can shift, about the process of depersonalization he taught."
The luminous egg, assemblage point and processes of depersonalization are all part of the practice of Tensegrity, a blend of meditation and movement exercises that Castaneda taught in his final years as a way for people to break through the limitations of ordinary consciousness. Skeptics say they sum up a career characterized, in the end, by literate New Age mumbo jumbo and artful deception.
Even Margaret Runyan Castaneda, who had been married to him, while admiring Castaneda and his work, says she doubts Don Juan ever existed and believes his name came from Mateus, the bubbly Portuguese wine the couple used to drink.
Carlos Castaneda rocketed from obscure anthropology graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles to instant, if elusive, celebrity in 1968 with the publication of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, a vivid account of the spiritual and pharmacological adventures he had with a while-haired Yaqui Indian nagual or shaman, Don Juan Matus. He said he met Don Juan at a Greyhound bus station in Nogales, Ariz., in the summer of 1960 when Castaneda was doing research on medicinal plants used by Indians of the Southwest.
In that book, its sequel, A Separate Reality, and eight, others, he described his apprenticeship to Don Juan and a spiritual journey in which he saw giant insects, learned to fly and grew a beak as a part of a process of breaking the hold of ordinary perception. Admirers saw his work as a gripping spiritual quest in the tradition of Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception. Skeptics wondered how much was true.
But despite Castaneda's obsessive pursuit of total anonymity—he refused to be photographed or tape recorded and almost never gave interviews—he became a figure of international notoriety, and the books continued to sell well after his vogue passed.
In recent years he surfaced with a new vision, the teaching of Tensegrity, which is described on the Cleargreen Web site as "the modernized version of some movements called magical passes developed by Indian shamans who lived in Mexico in times prior to the Spanish conquest." He even made public appearances and spoke at seminars promoting the work.
Tensegrity, its organizers say, allows followers to perceive pure energy, "zillions of energy fields in the form of luminous filaments" and break the chains of normal cognition.
Unknown to customers who turned out for the seminars—which cost $600 and more, where they could buy Mr. Castaneda's books. $29.95 videos and Tensegrity T-shirts reading "The magic is in the movement"—Castaneda was dying of cancer while describing his route to vibrant good health.
Indeed, although only his inner circle knew about it for two months, he died on April 27 at his home, surrounded by high hedges in Westwood, a well-to-do section of Los Angeles, where he lived for many years with some of the self-described witches, stalkers, dreamers and spiritual seekers who shared his work.
At a brief hearing in probate court in Los Angeles last week, the man whom Castaneda for many years called his son challenged the will Castaneda apparently signed four days before his death. The judge, John B. McIlory, set a hearing date of Oct. 15 for the case.
C. J. Castaneda, also known as Adrian Vashon—whose birth certificate cites Carlos Castaneda as his father, although another man was actually his father—says Cleargreen became a cultlike group that came to control Castaneda's life.
"Those people latched onto him, stuck their claws in him and rode him for all he was worth," said C. J. Castaneda, 37, who operates two small coffee shops in suburban Atlanta and calls himself a powerful brujo: "I don't believe the will has my father's signature, and I don't believe he was competent to sign it three days before he died."
Deborah Drooz, Carlos Castaneda's lawyer, who was named executor of his estate, said she witnessed the signing along with another lawyer and a notary public. She said that Carlos Castaneda was completely lucid when he signed the will, and that C. J. Castaneda had no claims to the estate. She denied that Carlos Castaneda's followers were anything akin to a cult and said C. J. Castaneda's claim did not constitute a serious legal challenge.
"No one, none, of Dr. Castaneda's followers participated in the writing of the will," she said. "And one thing that was very clear for years was that Dr. Castaneda had not had a relationship with C. J. Castaneda or Adrian Vashon for years, and he was very clear he should not benefit from Dr. Castaneda's death."
By conventional standards, Mr. Castaneda's death was highly unusual.
Invariably described as an impeccable person who kept his affairs in perfect order, Castaneda apparently signed the will on April 23, and then died at 3 A.M. on April 27 of what his death certificate said was metabolic encephalopathy, a neurological breakdown that followed 2 weeks of liver failure and 10 months of cancer. The signature is partly obscured, and C. J. Castaneda and his mother, Mrs. Castaneda, say it does not look like his signature.
The death certificate is as much fiction as fact. It said he was never married, when he was married at least once and perhaps twice; that he was born in Brazil, when he was apparently born in Peru, and that he was employed as a teacher by the Beverly Hills School District, which has no record of his employment.
He was cremated within hours of his death. His death was kept secret for more than two months until word leaked out and was confirmed by his representatives, who said the death was kept quiet in keeping with Castaneda's lifelong pursuit of privacy.
His will cited assets worth just over $1 million, a modest figure for an author who sold so well and apparently lived simply. All his assets were given to a trust, called the Eagle's Trust, set up at the same time as the will. It is not clear how much in additional assets had already been placed in the trust, but a London newspaper recently estimated his estate at $20 million.
To C. J. Castaneda and his mother, the circumstances of Mr. Castaneda's death are so suspicious as to suggest that his life was being controlled by others.
But given that the unusual was the routine for Carlos Castaneda, extending to his own familial relationships, it is difficult to know how to evaluate the discrepancies.
C. J. Castaneda's parents were Mrs. Castaneda, who wrote about her life in a book, A Magical Journey with Carlos Castaneda, and a businessman named Adrian Gerritsen, a friend of Carlos Castaneda.
Mrs. Castaneda said she and Mr. Gerritsen conceived the child after she and Carlos Castaneda received a Mexican divorce she took to be official but turned out not to be valid. Carlos Castaneda put his own name on the boy's birth certificate, helped raise him for several years, paid for his schooling and continued to express affection in letters for many years, although the two seldom saw each other in recent years.
C. J. Castaneda said Carlos Castaneda's followers kept his father away from him. Ms. Drooz said the author made it clear he did not want to see him.
Richard de Mille, who published two books questioning Carlos Castaneda's veracity, said Castaneda filed legal papers marrying a Peruvian girl with whom he conceived a child in the 1950's, making her his only legal wife. The two never divorced, he said.
Carlos Castaneda originally said he was born on Dec. 25, 1935, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the son of a university professor and a woman who died when he was 7. American immigration records indicated he was born in 1923 in Cajmarca, Peru, the son of a goldsmith, and that his mother died when he was 24.
Aside from his dubious biography and shamanlike tales of having doubles, pulverizing glass or powering cars with his spirit is the question of what to make of his books.
Few academics regard them as serious scholarship. Dr. Louis J. West, a psychology professor at the U.C.L.A., who knew Castaneda when he was completing his doctorate there, said the works were at least in part "science fiction." But that does not take away from their virtues of conveying mysterious places and alternative realities, he said.
"Carlos wrote beguilingly and well, and told very colorful tales that hold the interest and give descriptions of people and places and activities that are illuminating," he said.
Mr. de Mille is less forgiving.
"I wouldn't call him a fraud, because any sensible person would see through it," he said. "He could be charming and playful, but that doesn't make him honest or defensible or anything like that."
Even admirers tend to be skeptical of the Tensegrity seminars. Many find it hard to believe that Castaneda would spend almost three decades conveying and refining Don Juan's teachings only to start marketing a whole new version of it at the end.
"It really seemed to me that the Carlos Castaneda that I met and who was giving these workshops was not even the same person who had written the truly fine books on the teachings of Don Juan," said Barry Klein, a Castaneda admirer who tried the Tensegrity seminars briefly.
As to Don Juan's authenticity, many people believe Don Juan was at best a composite of things Mr. Castaneda read and experienced.
"I really think there was no Don Juan," Mrs. Castaneda said. "I think Don Juan was anyone with whom he had a conversation; like the Dialogues of Plato. I told him Plato probably never had anyone to talk with, but the Dialogues were his way of conveying both sides of things. I think that's what Carlos did."
Still, she's pretty sure that Castaneda is doing fine wherever he is.
"I did the numerology of the day he died," she said. "He ascended to a 22, and that's the highest you can get. He was very highly evolved, and I'm sure he won't come back to this world. I like the pseudo-sciences. They help me find my way and understand."
Paul Riesman (essay date 22 October 1972)
SOURCE: "The Collaboration of Two Men and a Plant," in New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1972, pp. 7, 10, 12, 14.
[In the following essay, Riesman, an anthropology professor at Carleton College, discusses what Casianeda's books reveal about the short-comings of anthropology.]
Anthropology is, for many of its American practitioners and amateurs, a way of trying to get out of our particular culture, or at least a way of finding out whether "other ways of life" are possible and, if so, perhaps better than our own. Yet despite the impetus of such curiosity, the bulk of the writing actually published in this field only tends to confirm what we think we already know about the nature of man, society, the human condition. For when we study "other cultures" this way, we assume in advance that "understanding" means "explanation" in terms with which we are already familiar from our own experience and knowledge of what the world is like. To put it another way, anthropological understanding is a way of making the world feel safer, a way of extending the edge of order so that we can comfortably say that people are fundamentally the same everywhere and that "cultural differences" are merely something like different mental images of the same basic reality.
I used to think, in fact, that one of anthropology's great humanistic contributions to our civilization was the notion of a basic humanity common to all mankind—a humanity that was only differently emphasized or differently expressed in different cultures. This idea has been repeatedly used to argue that no race is superior or inferior to any other, and that different cultural accomplishments are not the result of different genetic endowments. Although I have used this argument myself, I believe now that it has been an ineffective and perhaps even irrelevant one for the fight against racism, and that it has actually held back the progress of anthropology because it has almost invariably led us, as Dorothy Lee has shown, in her book Freedom and Culture, to confuse equality with sameness and inequality with difference.
Paradoxically, then, the belief that all people are human leads to a disrespect for other people as they are, for in the back of our minds we are saying: They could be just as good as we if they tried, or if they adopted different cultural patterns, or if they learned how to read, etc. The belief that all people are human has not saved Western anthropologists from feeling superior to the people they study and write about, and it has not prevented serious distortions in our picture of non-Western peoples (and of ourselves) from arising and influencing our actions.
In light of this we are incredibly fortunate to have Carlos Castaneda's books. Taken together—and they should be read in the order they were written—they form a work which is among the best that the science of anthropology has produced. Three aspects of the work have profoundly influenced my response to it: first, the interest and value of the teachings of Don Juan are extraordinary in themselves; second, Carlos Castaneda has conveyed these teachings with great artistry so that they affect us at many levels; third, he shows us the conditions under which the teachings were transmitted to him, and not only makes us feel the relation he had with his teacher, but also reveals something of his personal struggle with standard Western reality whose thrall kept preventing him from accepting Don Juan's lessons on their own terms.
Though these three aspects are obviously interconnected, I will try to deal with them separately here. I needn't dwell on the artistic value of these books. The story they tell is so good, and the descriptions so vivid, that I was utterly fascinated as I read. What makes these books great is that Castaneda has not been afraid to commit things to paper that he himself does not understand. This is true of all the volumes, but it is most obvious in the first, The Teachings of Don Juan, where Castaneda largely separates his description of what happened from his attempt to make sense of it. The "structural analysis," the second part of that book, is awful but useful all the same because of what it reveals about our approach to the world: rather than deal with what the teachings of Don Juan are, the structural analysis pays attention to the fact that they seem to be systematic and consistent with themselves. The structural analysis, then, is a pathetic denial of the reality of the experiences presented in the first part of the book and thus exemplifies the arrogance and fright of most of us Western anthropologists, who carry on as if we know reality while "other cultures" merely have approximate "versions" of that reality. Luckily, something in Castaneda's guts told him that there was more to his experiences than what he could understand, so rather than give us the pabulum of analyzed data, he has done a wonderful job of conveying his experiences while under the tutelage of Don Juan.
Carlos Castaneda was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles when he began to work with Don Juan. He had undertaken a study of the medicinal plants used by the Indians of the Southwest; presumably this study, if it had ever been done, would have added something to the body of our knowledge. Somebody, if not Castaneda himself, might have written a paper on it, called "Cross-Cultural Transformations in the Lexical Structure of the Plant Lore of the Indians of the Southwestern United States." This did not happen, however, because Castaneda met Don Juan, a Yaqui "sorcerer," and Don Juan, after feeling Castaneda out, decided to try to teach him what he knew.
Actually, that is not what happened; writing that sentence was an easy out for me; writer and reader could both go on to the next sentence feeling they had understood: what really happened is that Mescalito, the "spirit" of the Peyote plant, indicated to Don Juan that Carlos was the "chosen" one, the person to whom Don Juan should pass on his knowledge.
The result of this has been, for us, a very happy collaboration, and it is because of the collaborative nature of the work that it is appropriate, I think, to call it science. Castaneda modestly says that he is letting Don Juan's words speak for themselves, but this is true only in that Castaneda does not burden them with qualifications or alter them while trying to explain them. The fact is that the words would not be there at all if Castaneda had not been there "with unbending intent," and if he had not put his very being on the line so that Don Juan would also give him his utmost. It is not the object we are trying to know that makes knowledge scientific, nor is it the kind of knowledge we have about it (e.g. intuitive, quantifiable, dream, etc.) but rather the fact that the person knowing has done the best he could to show others exactly how he came by that knowledge.
Although I feel he should do even more of this, Castaneda does reveal enough of himself for us to see some of the ways in which we are like him (or unlike him, as the case may be). In fact, his courage lies not only in the fact that he persists in his effort to become a "man of knowledge"—a path that involves continuing openness to the unknown—but also in the fact that he is willing to speak of things concerning himself that most people would prefer to hide from themselves as well as others. Yet it is these things, the truths that hit you in the pit of the stomach, that enable us to see that our image of man is just that—an image—and that suggest entirely other ways of perceiving man and the world. I am not thinking here of Castaneda's strange, beautiful and disconcerting experiences in what he calls "non-ordinary reality," but rather of some simpler, more every-day ones which I am sure nearly every reader of these books can recognize as his own. Let me illustrate with two examples.
Near the beginning of A Separate Reality, Carlos tells Don Juan of his experience watching a group of street urchins who lived by shining shoes around a hotel in a Mexican city and eating the scraps left on the plates in the hotel's restaurant. He told Don Juan that:
After three days of watching them go like vultures after the most meager of leftovers I became truly despondent, and I left the city feeling that there was no hope for those children whose world was already molded by their day-after-day struggle for crumbs.
"Do you feel sorry for them?" Don Juan exclaimed in a questioning tone.
"I certainly do," I said.
"Because I'm concerned with the well-being of my fellow men. Those are children and their world is ugly and cheap."
"Wait! Wait! How can you say their world is ugly and cheap?" Don Juan said, mocking my statement. "You think that you're better off, don't you?"
I said I did; and he asked me why; and I told him that in comparison to those children's world mine was infinitely more varied and rich in experiences and in opportunities for personal satisfaction and development. Don Juan's laughter was friendly and genuine. He said that I was not careful with what I was saying, that I had no way of knowing about the richness and the opportunities in the world of those children.
I thought Don Juan was being stubborn. I really thought he was taking the opposite view just to annoy me. I sincerely believed that those children did not have the slightest chance for any intellectual growth….
"Do you think that your very rich world would ever help you to become a man of knowledge?" Don Juan asked with slight sarcasm.
I did not answer and he then worded the same question in a different manner, a thing I always do to him when I think he does not understand.
"In other words," he said, smiling broadly, obviously aware that I was cognizant of his ploy, "can your freedom and opportunities help you to become a man of knowledge?"
"No!" I said emphatically.
"Then how could you feel sorry for those children?" he said seriously. "Any of them could become a man of knowledge. All the men of knowledge I know were kids like those you saw eating leftovers and licking the tables."
Don Juan's argument gave me an uncomfortable sensation. I had not felt sorry for those underprivileged children because they did not have enough to eat, but because in my terms their world had already condemned them to be intellectually inadequate. And yet in Don Juan's terms any of them could achieve what I believed to be the epitome of man's intellectual accomplishment, the goal of becoming a man of knowledge. My reason for pitying them was incongruous. Don Juan had nailed me neatly.
While A Separate Reality is a sequel to The Teachings of Don Juan, Journey to Ixtlan is not a sequel except for the last three of its 20 chapters. Rather, because of a new sense of his relationship to the world which arose in him through experiences described in those chapters, Carlos saw the significance of a whole series of other "lessons" which Don Juan had given him during the period described in The Teachings of Don Juan and he recounts those "lessons" in Journey to Ixtlan. Carlos had omitted them from his first book because, at the time, he hadn't been able to see how they fitted in with his psychedelic experiences: in fact, none of the experiences described in Journey to Ixtlan takes place under the influence of psychotropic plants, but simply in relation to hills, valleys, animals and plants and, of course, Don Juan himself. The following passage describes a portion of one of Don Juan's lessons. After Don Juan had told Castaneda about the time when he changed his way of living, Castaneda replied:
"But I am happy with my life, Don Juan. Why should I have to change it?"
He began to sing a Mexican song, very softly, and then hummed the tune. His head bobbed up and down as he followed the beat of the song.
"Do you think that you and I are equals?" he asked in a sharp voice.
His question caught me off guard. I experienced a peculiar buzzing in my ears as though he had actually shouted his words, which he had not done; however, there had been a metallic sound in his voice that was reverberating in my ears.
I scratched the inside of my left ear with the small finger of my left hand. My ears itched all the time and I had developed a rhythmical nervous way of rubbing the inside of them with the small finger of either hand. The movement was more properly a shake of my whole arm.
Don Juan watched my movements with apparent fascination.
"Well … are we equals?" he asked.
"Of course we're equals," I said.
I was, naturally, being condescending. I felt very warm towards him even though at times I did not know what to do with him; yet I still held in the back of my mind, although I would never voice it, the belief that I being a university student, a man of the sophisticated Western world, was superior to an Indian.
"No," he said calmly, "we are not."
"Why, certainly we are," I protested.
"No," he said in a soft voice. "We are not equal. I am a hunter and a warrior, and you are a pimp."
My mouth fell open. I could not believe that Don Juan had actually said that. I dropped my notebook and stared at him dumbfoundedly and then, of course, I became furious.
He looked at me with calm and collected eyes. I avoided his gaze. And then he began to talk. He enunciated his words clearly. They poured out smooth and deadly. He said that I was pimping for someone else. That I was not fighting my own battles but the battles of some unknown people. That I did not want to learn about plants or about hunting or about anything. And that his world of precise acts and feelings and decisions was infinitely more effective than the blundering idiocy I called "my life."
This lesson took place very near the beginning of Castaneda's apprenticeship as described in The Teachings of Don Juan; in fact, it was the day after he had found his "spot." The lesson given here exemplifies in a highly dramatic way some of the points I was making at the beginning of this article. Castaneda, like nearly every member of Western civilization, feels himself to be superior to members of other cultures and in fact to all other entities in the world. But since such feelings conflict with our democratic ideology, he claims that Don Juan is his equal. Don Juan not only sees through this, but also sees that Castaneda is pimping in the sense that Castaneda's reason for being there in the first place is not to learn something but to collect information for someone else: to add to the corpus of anthropological knowledge, for instance, by writing a Ph.D. thesis that will add to what is already known so that others can then add even more and it will appear that our knowledge is actually increasing.
But knowledge of what? This is the crux of the matter. Our social sciences generally treat the culture and knowledge of other peoples as forms and structures necessary for human life that those people have developed and imposed upon a reality which we know—or at least our scientists know—better than they do. We can therefore study those forms in relation to "reality" and measure how well or ill they are adapted to it. In their studies of the cultures of other people, even those anthropologists who sincerely love the people they study almost never think that they are learning something about the way the world really is. Rather, they conceive of themselves as finding out what other people's conceptions of the world are. For the longest time Castaneda, too, thought this way about what Don Juan was telling him.
It is stupid and wasteful, however, to think of Don Juan's knowledge—and that of other non-Western peoples—as no more than conceptions of some fixed reality. Castaneda makes it clear that the teachings of Don Juan do tell us something of how the world really is, and I feel that this is knowledge of great value. I don't have the space to put down my own reading of what Don Juan is saying, and I can't even begin to point out all the delights to be found in these books. In any case, the excellence of Castaneda's writing ensures, I believe, that readers will discover these things for themselves. In closing, let me give Don Juan the last word by quoting an apparently simple, but really unsettling remark. Earlier in the conversation from which this is taken, Don Juan described how his parents were murdered by the Mexicans. Then, after an interchange concerning Castaneda's childhood, Don Juan said:
I promised my father that I would live to destroy his assassins. I carried that promise with me for years. Now the promise is changed. I'm no longer interested in destroying anybody. I don't hate the Mexicans. I don't hate anyone. I have learned that the countless paths one traverses in one's life are all equal. Oppressors and oppressed meet at the end, and the only thing that prevails is that life was altogether too short for both. Today I feel sad not because my mother and father died the way they did; I feel sad because they were Indians. They lived like Indians and never knew that they were, before anything else, men.
David Murray (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Anthropology, Fiction, and the Occult: The Case of Carlos Castaneda," in Literature of the Occult: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter B. Messent, Prenlice-Hall, 1981, pp. 171-82.
[In the following essay, Murray, an American Studies Lecturer at Nottingham University in England, argues that through the structuring of his accounts, which blend realism and the supernatural, Castaneda creates occult fiction rather than anthropological nonfiction.]
Carlos Castaneda's work has already gained attention from many different quarters as a form of anthropology, but I want here, by looking at some of Castaneda's stylistic devices, and by relating his books to some other best-sellers of the same period, to suggest another way of approaching his work—namely, as a slowly unfolding occult fiction.
Castaneda's books were first treated—and often still are—as a contribution to the growing anthropological literature on the use of hallucinogens. His approach was seen as innovatory in its stress on the anthropologist's participation in the drug experiences, and, even more crucially, in the way that the books attempt, by throwing the anthropologist's own attitudes into question, to communicate to the reader the full force of Don Juan's belief in a "separate reality." Anthropologists have either liked it and praised it for these qualities, or suspected its authenticity and rejected it. Edward Spicer, for instance, an authority on the Yacqui Indians, and Mary Douglas broadly approved of it, and found the approach one to be encouraged, whereas Weston La Barre and Edmund Leach smelled a rat from the beginning. What everyone was clear about, though, was that it was not Yacqui ethnography. There is hardly any detail given of Don Juan's background or culture, and in each successive book the encounter between the acolyte and the master becomes increasingly isolated and archetypal. It was pointed out, for instance, that in spite of all Castaneda's apprenticeship, and the time apparently spent collecting and identifying herbs and fungi, only the three best-known psychotropic substances are ever named. Because, too, of the special position of Castaneda as sorcerer's apprentice, rather than detached observer, we do not have any overall view, whether functional or structural, of the role of the experience of a "separate reality" in a community. Where, for instance, Evans-Pritchard treats magic as inseparable from a set of practices and beliefs in a community, gaining its validity from its relation to them, we are forced here into a subjective experience which is increasingly ambiguous. The isolated and noncultural aspects are accentuated and the social function and role of the shaman—Don Juan's curing role, for instance—are mostly ignored. Power, then, of a kind which is both personal and supernatural but without any social dimension, is the issue here, and Edmund Leach accurately pinpoints the romantic connections and origins: "The general tone is Coleridge—de Quincy by Rousseau out of eighteenth-century Gothik." It is this aspect of the books which I would suggest accounts for their vast popularity, and it is interesting to compare them with some other campus best-sellers in order to explore the implications of this power and the master-disciple relationship in which it operates.
The supposed liberation from rationality and its imposed categories took many forms in the 1960s, and the interest in the fantastic and occult has continued to grow, but it is important to distinguish between the real possibilities for creative and Utopian speculation which fantasy, in the form of the invention of imaginary worlds, can represent, and the instrumentalization of fantasy—the use of the irrational only to confirm the categories of society, thereby providing only the illusion of an alternative. The distinction between the two uses of the fantastic may be difficult to define, but it is notable how many of the most popular cult books of the 1960s counterculture involve a very clear master-pupil relationship and how many are concerned with the acquisition of a significantly amorphous or undefined power. Clearly this relates closely to the increase in actual religious practices and cults embodying this power relationship, and Weston La Barre asks the relevant question: "Is not the endless quest for a guru in fact diagnostic of the authoritarian personality, a sign of eternal adolescence in the seeker? That is, such persons dependently seek in the mere authority of other persons what can only be found in fresh inquiries of That Which Is, reality." I am pointing not to the increase in concern for the spiritual teachings of individuals here, but the way the quest is centered around ideas of personal power. The phenomenal popularity of Herman Hesse among American students and the success of Fowles's novel The Magus, for instance, are as relevant to Castaneda's reception as is the spate of interest in traditional American Indian religion—although note that even here it is often centered around individuals: Black Elk Speaks, Rolling Thunder, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. The idea that power and enlightenment are achieved outside one's community, in an isolation broken only by a confrontation with a primitive or alien individual, has a long pedigree in classic American literature, but it also relates closely to the fundamental situation of anthropology, which can also be seen to embody a quest structure, as Vincent Crapanzano has pointed out:
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the ethnographic experience is necessarily structured as a quest, and is subject to the forms of the quest, including the possibility, the necessity even, of temptation and revelation. It is this quest structure which may help to explain the anthropologist's—and his reader's—fascination with such phenomena as initiation rites, shamanistic voyages, the secret vision quests, and ritual revelations. It is also this quest structure that inevitably distorts the reality which is that of everyday life and which is in fact the subject matter of anthropology. Life is not, except perhaps for the most romantic, a quest. Social and cultural life are not necessarily structured around the possibility of inner, deep, profound, "heavy" meaning. Such is the concern of the anthropologist and again his reader, who are the offspring of a deeply disillusioned society "in quest" of more meaningful experience (provided, of course, that it is of easy access).
There are further connections to be made with the traditional concerns of American literature. As has often been pointed out, the basic confrontation and communication in that literature is between men, and women are negative forces. The power which can be gained is ruined by women, it seems. Like hunting magic (and so often in American literature it is hunting, whether whales, bears, or deer, around which the power centers), which traditionally excludes women, the power of the "warrior" as it is described in Castaneda must be protected from being dissipated in the social or commonplace: Personal power can be stored up and generated when one's mind ceases to revolve around the petty arguments and issues of one's life, and one can suspend this superficial dialogue with oneself. It is not only internal dialogue which must be suspended, though, but one's social being. What we have, then, is power entirely outside the concerns of the social world (and therefore without meaningful moral dimensions, in spite of the constant use of general but empty terms like good and evil in Castaneda and so much literature of the occult) which feeds the fantasy of power without sympathy or humanity. The greatest exploration of this theme is not to be found in Herman Hesse (though Magister Ludi could perhaps offer, if properly read, an antidote to some of the excesses of the cult of spiritual quest and power generated by his other work) but Moby Dick, where the claims of occult Faustian power are set against both the losses incurred—the personal becomes impersonal—and alternative forms of knowledge, like that gained from Queequeg rather than Fedallah. In fact, the idea of occult non-social power is an interesting dimension to a well-worn critical theme in American literature.
The countercultural concern for the supernatural, though, often takes a different direction. It is an attempt to encompass, within the natural, areas which have been prematurely excluded by science and labeled as superstition, and Doug Boyd's Rolling Thunder provides an interesting comparison with Castaneda in this respect. Boyd's factual account of his meetings with a celebrated medicine man is concerned to demonstrate the validity of his views, and shows a lamentably uncritical acceptance of claims made for Rolling Thunder's powers, but it acts as a good indicator of the way in which rationality was being rejected in the name of a greater whole in the counterculture at large. Boyd clumsily counterattacks the arguments against the supernatural, for instance, in these terms:
I had come to consider such a skill as Semu's [predictions based on observing bird behavior] truly scientific, an interpretation of complete and accurate observations in the light of countless years of accumulated data. Establishment whites would call it supernatural. How ironic that we who in a few short years have caused imbalance and turmoil among nearly all natural things should have conjured up a word like "supernatural" to label so much of the basic phenomena that we have chosen to ignore. Indians were the most natural of people, and the most supernatural people in the world might well be found among white establishment technologists who, as far as nature is concerned, know so little and still have manipulated so much.
"Natural" here is being used as an empty word of praise, and "supernatural" is equated with "unnatural." Clearly, in this view the shaman's powers, whether actual or illusory, form part of this world, just a part we have ignored. There is no other source of power, no occult science, only a larger conception of the natural. This approach accounts for a great deal of the modern concern for the paranormal, with its broad ecological and holistic assumptions about the natural world and its relation to a development of psychological insights from Jung rather than behaviorism, but it seems to me that all of this approach has the effect finally of denying the occult, in the sense of an intrusion of another and alien reality into our own. Boyd's book exists in a social world much more than Castaneda's, and when the two books are compared, the bareness of Castaneda's and also the much greater sophistication of his writing are clear. The quality of writing is crucial here, in that it leads one to a consideration of the work not as anthropology or social document but as occult fiction. This may seem cavalier, but from the first, many readers—Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Bly, and Ronald Sukenick, among others—have recognized either the incorporation of techniques of fiction or the marks of an entirely fictive enterprise.
Castaneda begins in The Teachings of Don Juan with the recounting of experience under hallucinogenic drugs administered and supervised by Don Juan. This supervision is important because, as Castaneda elaborates in his structural analysis in the appendix, Don Juan's rules and his belief that there is a general pattern and a meaning to these experiences validates (gives the basis of a consensus to) what is being experienced by Castaneda. It may be drug-induced hallucination, but it is not meaningless or solipsistic. It is a world with its own set of rules and categories—and power, which can carry over into the "normal" world. If Castaneda's work had remained like this, it would be psychological and/or spiritual exploration, rather than occult, but the distinctive feature that begins to emerge in Castaneda, and which separates him from anthropology, is his building up of a carefully constructed narrative which has within it gaps, as well as bits of information which do not fit (How did he get to a particular place? Did he really fly? etc.) so that the texture of the narrative is supple and evasive. As soon as we get a construction of narrative like this, with its combination of a claim for verisimilitude and a concern for shaping the materials, we are in an area congruent with if not identical to fiction, regardless how much of it Castaneda actually experienced (at any level of reality). We can see a development here, over the course of the books, as the reliance on drugs to create the separate reality is given up. As long as drugs are involved it is easier to categorize the experiences as induced and remaining at the level of the psychological, however important the spiritual insights which result may be, but by the time we reach Tales of Power we are nut allowed by the narrative to categorize the experiences as entirely psychological—we have a move toward the occult, in fact.
The occult necessarily distinguishes itself from fantasy by its insistence on the intrusion of the "other" into this world on this world's terms. That is, it has to be phenomenon-based. It is a curious contradiction, therefore, that the spiritual proves itself by the physical, or at least it is the physical phenomenon which provides the point of intersecting planes, crucial in an occult novel rather than a fantasy. The shift in Castaneda's work from psychological accounts (i.e., description of states of mind) to occult novel is shown in the different status accorded to the incursions of the nonordinary or separate reality into the ordinary. The crucial issue is whether it is corroborated by other external evidence. In the earlier works it is not, though it is understood and validated as a special and valuable sort of experience by Don Juan, but no claims beyond that are made, whereas in Tales of Power we have external corroboration to exclude the possibility of hallucination. An example will clarify this. Castaneda is pushed by Don Juan into a building, and when he goes out the door on the other side he is not where he should be, but in a market over a mile away. He can only assume, in his amazement, that he is hallucinating. He then finds Don Juan standing next to him, smiling. When Castaneda later decides to retrace his route, he goes to the market and finds that on the day when he thought he was there the book stalls were not displayed. He must, then, have "been" there on a Sunday, even though the experience took place on a weekday.
This sort of structure, in which we have conflicting and contradictory evidence which can only be accounted for by postulating an incursion of another level of reality, is a standard one in occult fiction, as one of Mircea Eliade's occult novels (his term for them) will demonstrate. (Note, though, that Eliade at least keeps his anthropology and his fiction separate.) In Nights at Serampore the narrator and two friends leave a country villa for town in a car, find themselves inexplicably lost, hear screams, sec people, yet when they all "come to" in the morning they are near the villa, and when they return the servants and chauffeur insist that none of them even left the house. They discover they have "been present" at a murder which took place many years before. The only explanation of the event is related to a rather mysterious religious figure who unexpectedly appears near the place, and the narrator decides that they have strayed across his sacred space. What we have, then, is a rupture of the time-space suppositions on which fiction traditionally operates.
George MacDonald's Lilith presents a very relevant image of this rupture. The narrator encounters a book in the library of his family house which appears to be stuck in the wall, as part of a false wall disguised as a bookcase. He can only read fragments:
Beginnings of lines were visible on the left-hand page, and ends of lines on the other; but I could not, of course, gel at the beginning and end of a single line, and was unable in what I could read, to make any guess at the sense. The mere words, however, woke in me feelings which to describe was, from their strangeness, impossible. Some dreams, some poems, some musical phrases, some pictures, woke feelings such as one never had before, new in colour and form—spiritual sensations, as it were, hitherto unproved: here some of the phrases, some of the senseless half-lines, some even of the individual words affected me in a similar fashion—as with the aroma of an idea, rousing in me a great longing to know what the poem or poems might, even yet in their mutilation, hold or suggest.
Coleridge comes to mind once again. Just as in "Kubla Khan" the enchantment is not in spite of but because of the fragmentary quality of the phrases, the interface between different realities, and this would surely be the place to begin any exploration of the relation between the romantic and the occult. The narrator of Lilith later discovers that the other half of the book sticks through into another world, (this idea of a transition or interface appears elsewhere in the novel in the more traditional image of the mirror, through which one enters another world). In other words, the sentence keeps disappearing into the "other side," leaving gaps in our syntax, discontinuities, breaks of meaning, and it is significant that syntax and the sentence should here be used as images of the controlled and "normal" world of cause and effect.
To create the fantastic or occult one must first have the normal and the logical syntax to disrupt, and to this extent the fantastic and the occult in literature are very often dependent precisely on this power of language to disrupt or subvert itself. As Todorov says:
If the fantastic constantly makes use of rhetorical figures, it is because it originates in them. The supernatural is born of language, it is both its consequence and its proof: not only do the devil and vampires exist only in words, but language alone enables us to conceive what is always absent: the supernatural.
Doubt, or what Todorov calls "hesitation," over the status of phenomena, generated by the rupture, the broken syntax of the narration, can be generated on a large scale in terms of plot, but also on a smaller scale in individual sentences, and it is important if we are to decide what is happening in Castaneda's work to look in detail at where and how "hesitation" is generated.
He describes in Tales of Power, for instance, an experience while lying out in the desert at night, which he says was neither a vision nor a dream. It was a clear physical sensation but not related to, or caused by, anything in the environment. All these negatives cut off ways of categorizing what happened, either as a subjective experience or as an objective event. It is situated uniquely between the two. Later in the same book Don Juan puts this a different way. All experience is subjective, he suggests, but some—what we call the real and the actual—is given support by consensus, by being validated and confirmed by others. The ambiguity of Castaneda's experiences is generated by the fact that while his background and training prompt him to categorize his experiences as subjective, Don Juan, in his oblique and playful way, is confirming the experiences and giving them a consensus which gives them a claim to be more than subjective. Throughout Castaneda the concern to distinguish between different states of mind and different planes of reality is one which deeply affects the method of presentation. Material is presented in such a way as to re-create the ambiguities of the supposed experience, and its language and situation are being used as a novelist would use them. If we compare them with Black Elk's account of a vision in another widely read book of the same period (though recorded much earlier), we can see the difference. The five-year-old Black Elk was alone and on horseback:
A thunderstorm was coming from where the sun goes down, and just as I was riding into the woods along a creek, there was a kingbird sitting on a limb. This was not a dream, it happened. And I was going to shoot at the kingbird with the bow my Grandfather made, when the bird spoke and said, "The clouds all over are one-sided." Perhaps it meant that all the clouds were looking at me. And then it said: "Listen! A voice is calling you!" Then I looked up at the clouds, and two men were coming there, head-first like arrows slanting down; and as they came they sang a sacred song and the thunder was like drumming…. I sat there gazing at them and they were coming from the place where the giant lives (north). But when they were very close to me, they wheeled about toward where the sun goes down, and suddenly they were geese. Then they were gone, and the rain came with a big wind and a roaring.
Here the lack of contextualizing or explanation is initially disconcerting if we are expecting a viewpoint like our own. In fact, Black Elk adds, as a concession to our expectations, "This was not a dream, it happened." We are not presented with ambiguity here, as in a literary work; but those literary experiments in non-realistic forms which present contradictory versions without the means of deciding between them, whether in the nineteenth-century romance or more recent postmodern fictions, do help us to see the ways in which sentences can fail to make sense, if by that we mean only one sense. Ronald Sukenick, himself a distinguished writer of such fictions, has suggested that Castaneda is presenting us with the equivalent of modern fiction (though he doesn't consider it actually fiction), in that Don Juan makes Castaneda realize that all accounts of experience are versions of reality, fictions, and that the common-sense or objective has no primacy, as it does in realism. The importance of the book for Sukenick is that
he breaks down, for the alert reader, that false separation of art from life, of imagination from reality, that in our culture lends to vitiate both. This connection, which is the essence of primitive cultures, is maintained in our empiricist civilization only in the arts … and in witchcraft, the mystical cults, the various incursions of Oriental disciplines.
This would then imply that Castaneda is not occult (i.e., depending on a rupture of the accepted reality, but on its own terms) but further developed than that—a series of fictions on different levels. This raises the problem of Castaneda's insistence on documentary truth (to say nothing of his UCLA Ph.D. in anthropology for his first book).
Perhaps the real debate should be not whether Castaneda is telling the truth (Is it anthropology or fiction?), but which sort of fiction Castaneda is writing: occult (depending on realism as a framework which is temporarily ruptured) or modern nonrealist fiction, which presents multiple realities and refuses primacy to any one level—Pynchon or Burroughs, for instance. My own feeling is that Castaneda is ultimately limited to the first category, and that his movement toward occult formulae limits the literary possibilities of his work, as well as any spiritual dimension. This is because by focusing attention on phenomena which break the normal frame of reality, but still have to be accounted for within it, he is in fact not asserting a separate reality but a reality which impinges on this one and threatens it by phenomenal means. The attention is directed, then, to events which are either tricks or miracles, if seen in terms of "ordinary" reality, rather than to ideas or spiritual experiences, and Castaneda begins to run the risk that spiritualism, for instance, encountered—that phenomena which, however astounding, are fundamentally trivial do not suggest or exemplify other than a trivial spiritual or intellectual framework. This may lead us toward some understanding of why occult literature is so often trivial and kitsch—that while it suggests a departure from realism, it is totally parasitic upon it and has nothing to offer except for the cheap thrill (cheap because nothing is really risked) of a temporary departure from it.
Victor Howes (review date 24 January 1973)
SOURCE: "Desert Meditation, or Back Home to L.A.," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 65, No. 50, January 24, 1973, p. 13.
[In the following review of Journey to Ixtlan, Howes, an English professor at Northeastern University, states that the least satisfying part of this account is Castaneda's description of psychedelic experiences.]
What happens when an inquisitive student of anthropology named Carlos Castaneda meets a wise old Yaqui Indian sorcerer? What happens when an ardent scholar, a compulsive taker of notes, bumps into a true sage, an elderly vigorous man of power named don Juan, who lives alone on the edge of a desert somewhere in southwestern U.S.A.?
Answer: the young man becomes the sorcerer's apprentice. Journey to Ixtlan is the story of that apprenticeship.
Billed as anthropology, and subtitled The Lessons of Don Juan, Journey reads nevertheless like a novel. Its classic form is the tale of initiation—Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi on a raft, and drifting deeper and deeper into ambiguities of experience through his relations with Jim, an escaping slave. Or Hemingway's Nick Adams in the North woods, learning Indian tore.
Don Juan is a perplexing guide. He leads Castaneda a merry chase through scorching deserts, up steep faces of rock, over fields of lava, putting him through a variety of tests requiring courage, manhood, skill. At times he seems needlessly to expose his pupil to danger. At times he mocks his pupil's dependence on routines. At times he rolls on the ground with laughter at some naive question Castaneda has put.
And yet don Juan comes across as one of the great unsung teachers of our day. When Castaneda offers to pay him, don Juan merely laughs, suggesting that the payment will be Castaneda's investment of time. Castaneda has come in quest of Indian learning about herbs, but swiftly don Juan "hooks" him onto a chain of subtler lore, and lures him toward a vast storehouse of knowledge. Sensing Castaneda's "election" or aptitude, don Juan leads him into an ancient wisdom that has many strands of kinship with Zen or the generalized wisdom of the East.
Opening the pathway to power, to becoming a warrior and a man of knowledge, don Juan teaches humility, loss of identity, loss of self-importance. Castaneda is made to talk to plants, to sit for hours "soaking up not-doing," soaking up power. Part of his training is practical: how to trap birds and animals, how to rub one's clothing with willow to conceal the man-scent from wild game; and part of his training is philosophical: how to see the world anew—awesome, mysterious, beautiful—how to think like a warrior, assuming control and abandon at once.
Repeating an apprenticeship that don Juan learned from his "benefactor," a training passed down only to "the chosen," Castaneda undergoes moods ranging from frustration to terror, from the depths of peace to the heights of euphoria. Some of his experiences, especially at night on the desert, seem hallucinatory. Others seem the result of optical illusion. Still others seem like "happenings" rigged by don Juan for instructional purposes.
It is when dealing with these psychedelic matters that Castaneda is least satisfactory. Like many who report "unexplainable" phenomena, even the sighting of flying saucers, he seems only too willing to suspend disbelief. Nor is don Juan particularly helpful here. His answers become evasive, allegorical, as artfully ambiguous as the words of Henry James or Kipling in a tale of the supernatural. Furthermore, don Juan refuses to be identified, photographed or tape-recorded, preferring to remain anonymous, inaccessible, free.
In two highly popular earlier books, A Separate Reality, and The Teachings of Don Juan, Castaneda has told how his Yaqui guru helped him to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs. These books have become classics of the "with-it" generation. This time Castaneda claims to be "clean," drug-free in his exploration of "non-ordinary reality," but admits that, unbeknownst to him don Juan could have been lacing his food with psychotropics. The essential point is that Castaneda did experience, however they were induced, the initiation-rites that lead a Yaqui to the portals of perception, the portals of power.
At the end of his initiatory period, Castaneda is faced with a choice. Either become a man of power, forsaking his attachments to this world, or return to Los Angeles and take up the routines of the world. Unlike Huck Finn, who lights out for the territory, and unlike many other initiates who find that they can't go home again, Castaneda chooses L.A.
He ends on a note of regret, a conclusion in which nothing is concluded except the sadness, the loneliness and the exaltation of the warrior's way, and the tremendous gulf between Castaneda and the guide, philosopher, and friend who has pointed out to him the high, demanding, never-ending road to Ixtlan.
Joshua Gilder (review date May 1981)
SOURCE: Review of The Eagle's Gift, in Saturday Review, Vol. 8, No. 5, May, 1981, p. 73.
[In the following review, Gilder praises Castaneda's attention to the irrational world of magic.]
The Eagle's Gift is phase six in Castaneda's continuing adventures in search of the mystical "Yaqui way of knowledge." His Mexican Indian mentor, Don Juan, has long since vanished into incorporeity and the "third awareness," leaving behind his motley group of sorcerer's apprentices to stumble along on their own. Juan isn't completely absent from this account, however: Carlos meets up with him again during his "controlled dream" wanderings and they continue their flipped-out Socratic dialogues.
Castaneda writes once more in the preface that this is not a work of fiction, neither is it strictly speaking anthropology. The second assertion is easier to accept. Still it isn't necessary to believe to get swept up in Castaneda's other-worldly narrative; like myth it works a strange and beautiful magic beyond the realm of belief. It is Castaneda's achievement to have made a world of ghosts, sorcerers, and demons live for the overly rational, hyper-educated modern mind (many respectable university types took this stuff quite seriously in the beginning, though they may be embarrassed about it now). It's refreshing to be reminded of our more primitive religious impulses; to experience once again a world of tangible wonders rather than lifeless principles. (It must be said, however, that this is perhaps the least involving of the Castaneda opus; he seems to be getting more dogmatic as he goes along.) Sometimes, admittedly, one gets the impression of a con artist simply glorying in the game—even so, it is a con touched by genius.
Robert Peters (review date 6 May 1984)
SOURCE: "A Whole World of Eagle Emanations," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 6, 1984, p. 1.
[In the following review of The Fire From Within, Peters, a poet and critic teaching at University of California at Irvine, finds Castaneda's writing and ideas dated.]
In the mid-'70s, Castaneda taught at UC Irvine. Students seeking new highs clamored for his classes. Graduate students reported Eternal Illumination when they stripped and lay all night under brush in the Santa Monica Mountains. "Far out!" I exclaimed, in the lingo of the day. Better to have listened to Bach or Vivaldi, to have read Milton or Yeats, or sat lotus-fashion, staring at your navel or at a rose.
The early Castaneda books seemed like warmed-over 19th-Century transcendentalism, easy hippie philosophies, a mindless floating off toward celestial peyote highs. There was also an alluring return to the primitive (the Marie Antoinette Dairy Syndrome), of special appeal to bored upper-middle-class youth.
Here are some of Castaneda's latest ideas from The Fire From Within: In order to achieve awareness, you must internalize truth. Objects don't really exist—objects are merely "a universe of the Eagle's emanations." The Eagle (viz. God?), an "indescribable force," the "source of all sentient beings," bestows "awareness." While the world is real, it is also unreal. We've tapped only "a very small portion of ourselves." The "force" attracting our "consciousness" is like a magnet attracting iron shavings. When we die, we disintegrate, dispersing our energies into the universe. He presents currently fashionable notions of right and left brains. Auras are filaments of light: We are "luminous beings … bubbles of whitish light." When the fire is within us, these luminous filaments swell into bubbles inside mystical cocoons.
It's all very hip treacle, and very dated. While a few monsters worthy of a Stephen King novel brighten up this tedious narrative, the mysticism seems more appropriate to the '60s, when dope-heads holding flowers sought instant karma and transcendental fixes. There's even a heavy admixture of once-fashionable primal screaming. Now, with the world gone utterly insane, Castaneda's highs seem juvenile, like warmed-over rice and beans taken from Thomas Carlyle's "organic filaments," from Thoreau's Eastern-inspired transcendentalisms and Swedenborg's angels and demons deep in conversation with him over dinner. There's even a Blakean lost echelon of senses.
Castaneda's fans may howl that I take his work too literally, that I should read it as a quasinovel. I've tried. But there are no well-developed characters, few settings of interest; boring setups with the nagual Don Juan and his unwashed acolytes, and an abysmal lack of style. This gracelessly written book seems interminable.
During a livid sunset during the '70s, I met a wiped-out mystic dressed in a flowing robe and sitting in the lotus position on the beach at Laguna. He wore a beaded headband and was strumming a guitar with three ill-tuned strings. I had known him earlier when he was a gardener for rich Lagunans. I asked him what he was playing. He proudly pointed to his strings: "They're G, F, G." he informed me: "Gift From God." I wasn't sure he'd ever float down to earth. The Fire From Within, I fear, is about as subtle as that aging hippie's guitar: GFC = Gift From Castaneda.
Wendy Lesser (review date 10 June 1984)
SOURCE: Review of The Fire from Within, in New York Times Book Review, June 10, 1984, p. 25.
[In the following review of The Fire From Within, Lesser objects to Castaneda's seemingly blind acceptance of Don Juan's authority and cruelty.]
Carlos Castaneda has doggedly gone on writing his guidebooks to the mystical wisdom of Don Juan—The Fire From Within is the seventh—but probably few people recall any titles after The Teachings of Don Juan and A Separate Reality. By now it has come to seem merely ludicrous that a middle-aged man should subject himself to the indignities Mr. Castaneda undergoes in his efforts to become a "nagual." Good books have been written about spiritual apprenticeship (Christopher Isherwood's My Guru and His Disciple, for instance), but this is not one of them. A certain amount of obtuseness is apparently central to Mr. Castaneda's search—"In heightened awareness one is minimally conscious of the surroundings"—and this becomes particularly evident in his portrayal of himself and his master. One can never be sure who is kidding whom, because Mr. Castaneda is so unremittingly deadpan and Don Juan so inscrutable. At best he's inscrutable; at his worst, Don Juan is an embodiment of sadistic cruelty, a cross between Synanon's "stew" leaders and Thomas Mann's Mussolini-like Cavaliere Cipolla. The Fire From Within unwittingly emphasizes the connection between mysticism and authoritarianism—both tend to require the same yours-is-not-to-reason-why allegiance from their adherents. Thus Don Juan has Mr. Castenada graduate into sorcery by jumping off a mountaintop into a rocky gorge. (He lives to tell the tale, as this narrative proves.) Even the more routine meetings between the seer and his disciple contain a sadistic element—"As was customary with him, he suddenly hit me on my back when I least expected it, and the blow shifted me into a state of heightened awareness." In the hands of a black humorist like Evelyn Waugh or Nathanael West, this could have been a hilarious book.
A. Lawrence Chickering (review date 17 January 1988)
SOURCE: "The Shaman of Ruthlessness," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 17, 1988, pp. 1, 8.
[In the following review of The Power of Silence, Chickering, executive editor for the Institute for Contemporary Studies in San Francisco, makes a connection between Castaneda's search for a new awareness and social problems of the 1980s.]
To someone who has never read Carlos Castaneda, the appearance of his new book, The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan, is likely to stir as much curiosity about the reasons for his popularity as about the contents of the book. His books about his spiritual apprenticeship with the Yaqui Indian shaman Don Juan have sold millions of copies all over the world. Castaneda has in the process become one of the godfathers of the New Age movement, which is influencing increasing numbers of people everywhere.
Castaneda's tales of the "warrior's" mystical search for mastery of spirit may appear to have nothing to do with contemporary life. But it seems no accident that he and other New Age thinkers have become popular at a time when traditional institutions are losing their authority to speak to the larger spiritual and moral issues that give meaning to life. In this sense, Castaneda's popularity is almost certainly connected to the reasons for the public's indifference to next year's presidential election.
It is not easy to say what The Power of Silence is about to people unfamiliar with Castaneda's books. The problem begins with language. Our normal language has developed to describe a world of objects, and we have no trouble agreeing on the meanings of words that describe objective things. Castaneda, however, wants to stretch the reader's perception of reality beyond objects to subjects; and since there is no such agreement about the subjective, our normal language has no words to accomplish his purpose. He explains this problem in the following terms:
I understood that knowledge could not be turned into words…. It was there to be felt, to be used, but not to be explained. One would come into it by changing levels of awareness, therefore heightened awareness was an entrance. But even the entrance could not be explained. One could only make use of it.
Writing about the world of the spirit, the author therefore struggles to find words to describe unfamiliar things.
Don Juan teaches that all human beings are born with a finite quantity of "energy," which, in its arrangement, regulates how we perceive reality. The arrangement of energy depends on "the modality of the time." Man's mode of perception has changed over time. In the beginning, energy was arranged so that intuition and spirit provided the dominant modes of perception; over the ages, energy has been rearranged so that intuition and spirit now play smaller and smaller roles, and the mind today governs more and more of what we perceive. "Man," Castaneda writes, "gave up silent knowledge for the world of reason"—a giving up which Castaneda understands to be the meaning of Original Sin in Judeo-Christian terms. "Sorcery"—his word for knowledge of spirit—provides an opportunity for "going back to the beginning, a return to paradise."
Sorcery requires using energy differently than we normally do. "(W)hat you're learning," don Juan sums up the purpose of his teaching, "is to save energy. And this energy will enable you to handle some of the energy fields that are inaccessible to you now. And that is sorcery: the ability to use energy fields that are not necessary for perceiving the ordinary world we know. Sorcery is a state of awareness. Sorcery is the ability to perceive something that ordinary perception cannot."
Learning requires working toward "three areas of expertise." These are "mastery of awareness," directed toward the mind; "the art of stalking," a riddle of the heart; and "mastery of intent," or spirit. In describing this system, Castaneda uses an unfamiliar and (to me) awkward language: Learning how to be a sorcerer or "nagual," prodded by "intent," requires moving the "point of brilliance" or "assemblage point," which controls the arrangement of energy and therefore perception. The purpose is to achieve mastery of intent or the "paradox of the abstract." Or "silent knowledge."
Since Castaneda cannot talk directly about Don Juan's teachings, the structure of the book is to relate six stories of past sorcerers, which illustrate the "abstract cores" of his spiritual lessons. A major purpose of these stories is to reveal how teachers try to break down their apprentices' traditional, "ordinary" ways of seeing in order to reveal a new reality—to show how many common emotions and feelings are not what they seem. Here is where the book is most difficult, if not impossible, reading for people who cannot accept what the author is trying to do. For instance, at one point, without warning, Don Juan feigns a minor stroke, brutally rejects Castaneda, and summons the police to arrest him. Moments later, he is well again and explains his purpose was to teach Castaneda "ruthlessness" ("the opposite of self-pity or self-importance"), which means only sobriety.
When Castaneda emphasizes the identity of sorcery and the pursuit of freedom, he goes to the heart of the modern dilemma. That dilemma results as the demand for individual freedom has weakened, if not destroyed, the traditional sources of authority and values, but without replacing those sources of purpose and identity that are essential to life. Put another way, the dilemma arises as our demands for self-expression push us at the same time to find connections outside and beyond the self. The difficulties in this task—joining the subjective need for self-expression with the objective world outside the self—explains the difficulties any author faces who wants to write about it. While Dostoevsky wrote more persuasively than any other modern writer about this problem of freedom and order, he did so with a detachment that only partially responds to the challenge of reaching us as subjects.
Castaneda, on the other hand, has succeeded in reaching enormous numbers of people by reaching out to the subjective. While some people may fear the subjective side of this effort, Don Juan's teaching appeals only to the sober, conscious side of the subjective. In this sense, he is strongly in tune with those New Age thinkers and humanistic psychologists who see the search for the self not as an end in itself, but as a modern form of the Greeks' search for self-knowledge, a search that can succeed only if it leads outside and beyond the self.
Many people dismiss Castaneda as a marginal thinker, little related to the major intellectual and spiritual issues of our age. But this is a mistake. Understanding what he is trying to do will explain why his following is so great—why he is addressing the central issues of our time.
Margot Adler (review date 7 February 1988)
SOURCE: Review of The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of don Juan, in New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1988, pp. 20-1.
[In the following review of The Power of Silence, Adler argues that Castaneda's language and his presentation of ideas is too complicated.]
[The Power of Silence,] (t)his eighth book in a series that spans nearly 20 years[,] continues the anthropologist Carlos Castaneda's travels and teachings with Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer or nagual. The formula is familiar: Mr. Castaneda continues to follow Don Juan's shamanic instructions while arguing with him rationally, listening to his stories and occasionally being "tricked" or jointed into altered states of consciousness. With each book, Mr. Castaneda makes a tiny bit of progress—although not much, considering how long he's been at it. Few people really care anymore whether Don Juan is real or fictional, a controversy that inspired articles and even books during the 1970's. Readers either like the mystical journeys or find them incomprehensible and obtuse. The Power of Silence concentrates on the "art of stalking." the "mastery of intent" and the movement of "one's assemblage point." These seem to be needlessly complex ways of talking about methods to use one's behavior consciously, discover one's true will and learn methods of shifting one's perceptions. The writing does not come close to Mr. Castaneda's best effort, Journey to Ixtlan. On the other hand, his relationship with his teacher seems more egalitarian than in previous books, and the character of Don Juan appears more modern and less macho. Carlos Castaneda's books are a continuing attempt to map out another reality; this one, like his others, follows an unnecessarily cloudy pathway to the world of dreams and altered states.
Publishers Weekly (review date 15 December 1997)
SOURCE: Review of Magical Passes: Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico, in Publishers Weekly, December 15, 1997, p. 41.
[In the following review of Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico, the reviewer explains Castaneda's "tensegrity," a combination of tension and integrity, to describe his physical movements to release body energy.]
It has been 30 years since Castaneda published The Teachings of Don Juan, the first volume of his continuing story of his extraordinary apprenticeship to a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. In the eight books that followed, Castaneda maintained secrecy about many of the practices he was taught. Here, however, he lifts the veil on aspects of a tradition that he claims reaches back 27 generations, revealing a set of physical movements, called "magical passes," allegedly discovered by shamans of ancient Mexico. The purpose of the movements is to "agitate" and "redeploy" stuck energy fields within the body, inducing "inner silence," a "heightened awareness" and "an optimal state of being." Castaneda has adapted these movements into his own modern version, which he calls "tensegrity," a combination of the words tension and integrity, "the two driving forces of the magical-passes." These postures and movements deal with issues including intent, "recapitulation" (remembering all one's life experiences), decision-making, dreaming, left-and right-body integration (similar to current views of left- and right-brain processes) and "masculine," or aggressive, energies. All of the movements are clearly illustrated through 486 halftones, but some if not most may be difficult to achieve without personal instruction. They do, however, seem to offer the possibility of offering a unique new path to opening the perceptions and releasing energy in the body.