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Castaneda the sorcerer

Hoaxer, fraud … prophet?

Fifty years ago today on 5 March 1973, Carlos Castaneda — literary sensation, countercultural icon and possible charlatan — manifested on the cover of Time Magazine.

The author was at the zenith of his influence. Five years earlier, his UCLA graduate thesis The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge had been published by the University of California Press. Presented as an ethnographic account of an eight year apprenticeship with a mysterious sorcerer, the book was an immediate bestseller. Resold to Simon & Schuster, repackaged in a psychedelic cover and advertised as nothing less than a revelation”, by 1973 it had sold 300,000 copies and was still selling at a rate of 16,000 copies per week. 

A religious critique of modernity was precisely what was at stake

Meanwhile Castaneda had acquired a literary agent. He published a superior sequel: A Separate Reality, detailing further instructions on “seeing”, as opposed to mere looking. His Journey to Ixtlan was a hardback bestseller, which revised the narrative of the first book to downplay the importance of the “power plants” in favour of a quasi-phenomenological project of “stopping the world”. 

Journey to Ixtlan made Castaneda a millionaire when a million dollars was worth seven million dollars. It earned him a special dispensation PhD under the title Sorcery: A Description of the World. In 1973, Castaneda was both a cultural phenomenon acclaimed by John Lennon and Joni Mitchell, and an academic superstar recognised by Mary Douglas. Time introduced him as “the godfather of the New Age” and an enigma wrapped in mystery wrapped in a tortilla” but still described him as an anthropologist. 

Doubts were mounting about the academic status of his work, however. In the five years since Castaneda had first introduced don Juan to the public, nobody had succeeded in tracking him down. Though apparently a Yaqui, don Juan did not participate in Yaqui ceremonies or exist in a Yaqui community. The psychotropic plants which Castaneda describes don Juan administering were not known to be used by the Yaqui, and Castaneda’s account of his method of smoking powderized mushrooms would have had no psychoactive effect, since the alkaloids would be destroyed by combustion.

Is it possible,” novelist Joyce Carol Oates wondered in a November 1972 letter to the New York Times Book Review, “that these books are non-fiction?” Time sowed further doubts. Whatever the truth of his field work in Mexico, Castaneda had been less than straightforward about the facts of his own biography. The author hadn’t been born in Brazil in 1935 as he claimed, but in Peru ten years earlier, and his father wasn’t a professor of literature, but a jeweller. “We all liked Carlos,” his Lima schoolmate Jose Bracamonte told Time. “He was witty, imaginative, cheerful — a big liar and a real friend.” 

Castaneda imperiously rejected this demystifying approach. To ask me to verify my life by giving you my statistics,” he told Time, “is like using science to validate sorcery.” Don Juan himself had instructed him to erase his personal history. Was don Juan a Mexican sorcerer version of Ossian, the ancient bard concocted by his ostensible translator? Castaneda denied it. “The idea that I concocted a person like don Juan is inconceivable,” he told writer Sam Keen in November 1972. “The truth is much stranger. I didnt create anything. I am only a reporter.” 

In some sense Castaneda was telling the truth. Seven years after the Time cover, psychologist Richard de Mille’s 1980 book The Don Juan Papers completed the destruction of his reputation, with a 47-page glossary identifying sources of don Juan’s quotations in dozens of authors including C.S. Lewis and Wittgenstein. Castaneda hadn’t created don Juan; he had composed him from the scattered wisdom of the dead. Although in breach of modern views of authorship, this form of syncretic activity is typical from the perspective of religious history: versions of this procedure have defined the composition of sacred books at least since Genesis.

A religious critique of modernity was precisely what was at stake. The first edition of The Teachings included a foreword by anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, which framed the book “as both ethnography and allegory”. Castaneda, Goldschmidt argued, had performed a virtuoso demonstration of “the essential skill of the good ethnographer — the capacity to enter into an alien world”. Except this world wasn’t the world of the Yaqui, but the world Castaneda called “non-ordinary reality”: the world of his non-ordinary protagonist.

There was somebody behind don Juan. In 1960 a native informant had supplied Castaneda with previously unknown information about the ceremonial use of datura, which he presented in an academic paper he wrote soon after starting at UCLA. It would have been almost impossible for him to have come up with it independently. In The Teachings this information appears in a speech a year later, however, after Castaneda has already encountered peyote. This was also his point: what was important wasn’t empirical facts, but a world in which empirical facts cease to matter. 

His permanent exile to the world of the non-ordinary meant the surrender to madness

The voice of don Juan has always been with us,” Joyce Carol Oates recognised. Castaneda didn’t invent him, but rather summoned him in order to focus his own disordered drives. At the time I met don Juan,” Castaneda told Sam Keen, “I had very little personal power … outwardly I was aggressive and cocky, but within I was indecisive and unsure of myself … don Juan turned my eyes outward and taught me how to see the magnificence of the world and how to accumulate personal power.” Appearing suddenly at a bus depot in Arizona, and then whenever Castaneda came to call, don Juan embodied an ideal of mastery more rigorous than any academician. 

Becoming a man of knowledge, Castaneda says, was the “operational goal” of his teachings. His own apprenticeship progressed initially through a series of encounters with hallucinogenic plants which don Juan called “allies”. They may have always been metaphors. He then eventually mastered a set of psychological gambits and tactics called “sorcery” — not anthropological or theoretical concepts, but operational tools for channelling personal power. “He told me how to trap things, set traps, very old, old ways of setting a trap,” Castaneda told sociologist Theodore Roszak in 1968. 

Don Juan, the hidden master accessible only to Castaneda himself, served as the spring of this trap, but the actual mechanism was the phenomenological method Castaneda first encountered as an anthropology student at UCLA. Don Juan’s sorcerer slogan of “stopping the world”, which Journey to Ixtlan underscores as the central point of his teaching, is a direct reformulation of what phenomenologist Edmund Husserl called “reduction” or bracketing. Ordinary assumptions about the shape of the world are suspended in order to encounter reality as a flux of perceptions. 

All this was “sorcery … a total system of perception and language”, with the power to transform reality by changing descriptive agreements. It was also itself a descriptive agreement, supplying a structure of fantasy for anyone seeking enthralment.

In the first place this seeker was Castaneda himself, a provincial Peruvian pretending to be an upper class urban Brazilian composing The Teachings whilst working menial jobs to make ends meet. In the second place it was the anthropology faculty at UCLA, which also was searching for a new self-understanding following a collapse in conviction in rationalist universalism. Castaneda’s work neatly slotted into this paradigm by presenting Castaneda as an avatar of the limitations of the modern Western mind overmatched by an indigenous critique.

Castaneda was accredited as an authority on the limitations of rational thought just as an increasingly hysterical counterculture was seeking authority of whatever kind. His timing had been, to take one of don Juan’s preferred terms, impeccable. Because don Juan’s “Yaqui Way of Knowledge” wasn’t a real body of doctrines, but a half-garbled fantasy, Castaneda now found himself in a complex position, however. He hadnt completed a rigorous spiritual training, only composed his desires into the rhetorical form of one. Don Juan proposes no ethical lessons at all. Castaneda had summoned an audience desperate for guidance but he had no idea what to tell them. In this respect Castaneda defined the New Age: a talented fantasist randomly elevated to a position of influence, then destroyed by the real forces he met there.

After his Time interview Castaneda moved further away from the semblance of ethnographical practice, and the quality of his writing declined. In her own book about her first husband, Margaret Runyon speculates that Castaneda at some point began to believe everything he had written, but in another sense he had ceased to believe it. His first book had shown real invention, and his second two had perfected the formula but Castaneda was now churning-outCastanedas” and his writing was being sold as hypnotic. 

Castaneda was never an especially powerful writer or thinker. His dialogue is repetitive, his landscapes are filled with generic, indistinguishable entities, and his insights are vague to the point of a blur. His genius consisted in a talent for seduction, which became a mania for manipulation and finally exploitation. His first books were brilliant because of the tension of his set-up as a tightrope between ordinary and non-ordinary reality. His permanent exile to the world of the non-ordinary meant the loss of suspension and the surrender to madness, however.

The last phase of his life saw Castaneda living in Los Angeles surrounded by Armani-clad “witches” who called Castaneda “the nagual”. He had literally bewitched himself. Marketing extortionate workshops for a shamanic cult called Tensegrity, which simultaneously operated as a personal sex ring, he had become a cliché of the guru-as-tyrant — alternately fucking and abusing his acolytes for their own spiritual progress. We think don Juan is lost in Infinity, in the second Attention,” he sometimes said. Following his 1998 death, four of his inner circle disappeared with him: believed to have killed themselves, their bodies have never been found.

Today Castaneda is dismissed as a hoaxer, a fraud, a sexual predator, a cult leader and maybe a psychopath. His books continue to sell, but his academic credibility is zero, and his style of mysticism has gone out of fashion. The questions he faced haven’t vanished, however, and the answers which he gave supply a warning.

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