Back when I was a student at UCLA, there was a considerably more successful student across the campus from the film department’s Melnitz Hall. I am thinking of Carlos Castaneda, who electrified the publishing world in 1968 with The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge and its sequels.
Reading his work, I was hooked—believing every word he said. As time went on, I heard strange things about Carlos. He tried to start some sort of movement called Tensegrity and surrounded himself with several women who idolized him, and whom he claimed were brujas, or witches. When Carlos died in 1998, several of these women went missing and apparently committed suicide.
Negative articles started appearing, such as this one entitled “The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda.” Now, after some soul-searching and a bit of re-reading, I am in the position of the psychiatrist in the anecdote which I quoted five years ago in a post about Castaneda:
There is an anecdote about a patient describing his life to a psychiatrist, who keeps nodding his head and saying, “That’s very interesting!” Finally, the patient gets angry and says, “Well, that’s all a pack of lies which I just made up. What do you think of that?” The psychiatrist does not miss a beat: “That’s even MORE interesting!” That, in the end, is my reaction to Castaneda. I think there are some fascinating truths to be found in his books, along with some things that were just made up.
Among the things that were made up were Don Juan Matus, Carlos’s Yaqui teacher—and in fact all the Yaqui material, which demonstrates that he did not know the first thing about Yaqui culture, places, or language.
And yet, and yet, a lot of the material that forms the teachings of Don Juan has the ring of truth to it. You have to look at it obliquely, perhaps, but there is a lot of wisdom there, whatever its point of origin. Castaneda was actually a Peruvian, and it could be that he joined some Peruvian mystical teachings to a fictional Mexican source.
The one thing that did not influence me at all was Castaneda’s emphasis on peyote, jimson weed, psilocybin, and other psychedelic substances. I had just survived brain surgery in 1966 and was not in any mood to experiment on myself.
I am currently re-reading A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan. In the process, I keep bumping into my younger self. Very interesting.