Dark Legacy or Not?

Carlos Castaneda: Real or Fake?

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.

A Yankee Way of Knowledge?

Carlos Castaneda’s First Don Juan Book

In the 1970s I was heavily influenced by the works of Carlos Castaneda based on the teachings of a Yaqui shaman named Don Juan Matus. The first book, whose cover is shown above, hit me between the eyes. And for years afterwards, I was kept in a high state of excitation by the books that followed. Although I was deeply influenced by the teachings described by Castaneda, one thing I was not affected by was the taking of mescaline, which played a major part in the teachings.

At the time, I considered myself lucky to be alive. In 1966 I had major brain surgery (a pituitary tumor, or chromophobe adenoma); and I knew I had to take steroids as long as I lived, as my body no longer produced any. So taking mescaline, LSD, cocaine, psilocybin, opium, and what not were strictly out of the question. (I did, however, take marijuana socially, especially in the form of brownies—smoking always made me go into asthmatic spasms.) But, other than that damnable mescaline, the concepts that Castaneda came up with were so damned brilliant that I was in thrall.

This evening, I had an interesting conversation with my friend Peter about those days. It has been years since I even thought about Castaneda. Now I want to re-read his books, which I still have on my back shelves, just to reacquaint myself with the young man that was me some forty plus years ago.

Carlos was actually born in Cajamarca, Peru, and came to this country in the early 1950s, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1957. As critics started looking at his books as works of fiction, it became evident that he had done some cross-cultural comparisons. In place of the Amazonian tribes that take ayahuasca to produce visions, he set his works among the Yaqui Indians of Northern Mexico. Unfortunately, he used Spanish terms that were not common among the Yaqui, arousing suspicions.

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.

I will return to the subject as I re-read his books.