Castaneda, Carlos César Salvador Arana

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CASTANEDA, Carlos César Salvador Arana

(b. 25 December 1925? in either Cajamarca, Peru, or São Paulo, Brazil; d. 27 April 1998 in Los Angeles, California), author of autobiographical anthropology, later considered metaphor, allegory, or literary hoax, who was called by Time magazine the "Godfather of the New Age."

Great uncertainty overshadows facts about the origins, identity, and exact name of Carlos Castaneda and the existence of his mentor, Don Juan Matus. Castaneda's U.S. immigration records cite his birthdate as 25 December 1925, in Cajamarca, Peru, but other sources say that he was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in either 1931 or 1935. Controversy also exists about whether Castaneda signed his will three days before his death and cremation. In one of the rare interviews he permitted, Castaneda told Time that to use statistics to authenticate biographical facts was similar to using science to substantiate sorcery. He never permitted anyone to make audiotapes or video recordings of him, and photographs always show his hands or hat in front of his face.

In 1955 Castaneda enrolled in Los Angeles Community College, taking courses in psychology and creative writing; he received an A.A. in psychology in 1959 and applied for U.S. citizenship that year. In 1960 he married Margaret Runyon. He enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and received a B.A. in anthropology in 1962 and then entered UCLA's graduate program. In the introduction to The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968), Castaneda said that he had met Don (a title of respect) Juan in 1960 in a bus station in Nogales, Arizona, while Castaneda was seeking information about peyote cactus. He visited Don Juan in Arizona and Mexico periodically from June 1961 to September 1965 and reorganized his notes and conversations into this first book.

The book has two sections: Castaneda's field notes on "the subjective version of what [he] perceived while undergoing the experience" of using peyote and a "structural analysis" of these data. The paperback edition of Teachings of Don Juan sold 300,000 copies. J. R. Moehringer wrote that this book struck "just the right note at the peak of the psychedelic 1960s." As a "strange alchemy of anthropology, allegory, parapsychology, ethnography, Buddhism and perhaps great fiction," it "made … Castaneda a cultural icon." Don Juan led his apprentice, Castaneda, into paranormal experiences through various hallucinogenic drugs—peyote, jimson weed, and psilocybin mushrooms. The widespread acceptance of this book coincided with the hallmarks of the 1960s: alienation and frustration; respect for eccentric, unusual persons, especially those with a non-white worldview; drug cults; definitions of differing realities in a backlash against science; and love of nature, especially the earth.

In the 1971 sequel, A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan, Castaneda implied that the use of peripheral vision, the finding of a "seat of power," and the chewing or smoking of a mixture containing psilocybin mushrooms would show readers the path to knowledge. Castaneda stated that Don Juan "succeeded in pointing out to me that my view of the world cannot be final because it is only an interpretation." Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (1972), the third volume in the series, includes a variety of drugless techniques through which the apprentice can gain "new-age" consciousness. This third volume, with a brief introduction and new title, served as a doctoral thesis and completed the work for Castaneda's Ph.D. from UCLA in 1973. The fourth volume, Tales of Power, focuses more on Castaneda's dealings with the unknown than with lessons taught by Don Juan.

Many of the millions of readers of the four volumes believed them to be literally true. On 5 March 1973, Time noted that the strength of the books lay in the fact that Castaneda kept "voluminous and extraordinarily vivid notes" of his efforts at Socratic dialogue with Don Juan; the article questioned, however, whether the books could be considered scientific anthropology. William Kennedy wrote in the New Republic, "The whole work is … an elaborate and admirably detailed metaphor with the aim of guiding the reader out of the humdrum and into self-awareness." He went on to call Castaneda a "cult figure … especially with the young."

In subsequent years, however, readers and scholars began to doubt that Castaneda's experiences were real and, eventually, to question Don Juan's existence. The botanist Weston LaBarre stated that Teachings of Don Juan is "pseudo-profound, sophomoric, and deeply vulgar," further labeling it "frustratingly and tiresomely dull, posturing pseudoethnography and, intellectually, kitsch." Richard de Mille suggested that Castaneda used "the anthropology hoax" as a means of getting published, consistent with his lifelong pattern of playing tricks. De Mille documented contradictions in Castaneda's "field reports," noting their lack of convincing detail (for example, lack of Yaqui or other Indian names for plants), and he cited plagiarism of English-language sources for what were presented as Don Juan's words.

Although Castaneda, through Don Juan, described drug and nondrug paths to knowledge, the drug cults of the 1960s sometimes took these books as a measure of societal and even academic approval. The psychological and spiritual search for different realities, as in science fiction and comparative mythology, had great appeal to readers' imaginations. Above all, the ability of drugs to open the mind to increased perceptions was widely accepted at the time.

In 1993 Castaneda started the Tensegrity movement, a cult based on meditation and movement exercises, somewhat like kung fu. The corporation Cleargreen surrounded and cared for Castaneda in his final years, selling books and mementos and giving Tensegrity seminars at which Castaneda occasionally appeared. Castaneda died from complications of liver cancer in Westwood, a well-to-do suburb of Los Angeles, and was cremated within a few hours of death. His death was not reported for two months.

Was Castaneda's work science or fiction? In contrast to the Western tradition of rationalism and scientific method, the Don Juan books describe an alternate reality with its equally valid way of thinking and acting. As to the physical reality of Don Juan himself, we might equally ask whether Virgil really appeared in the flesh to guide Dante through the Inferno to Paradise. Sam Keen wrote in Psychology Today that the more important question is: "What does Don Juan tell us about ourselves, about the millions in this country and abroad, who have read his words?"

With eight million books sold in seventeen languages, Castaneda perpetually created "a separate reality" and perhaps could not draw clear lines between fact and fiction, metaphor and hallucinogenic experience. The eminent comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell was not attacked for his frequently repeated advice to "follow your bliss." Castaneda's definitions of reality and bliss, which were different from those of Western-trained intellectuals like Campbell, were eagerly read by young people in the 1960s as another avenue to "truth." The "New Age" owes much to Castaneda's perceptions and the Cleargreen movement, with its crystals, chimes, and feathers. Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley perhaps stated it most accurately: "Using literary devices, Castaneda played shaman-style tricks on his readers, astounding people by sleight-of-hand to free their minds from their preconceptions of reality."

Kenneth E. St. Andre's article on Castaneda in the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, vol. 5, 1997–1999, gives acceptable data concerning Castaneda's birth, death, and other statistics; it also cites the best sources for Castaneda's evaluation. More recent studies include Weston LaBarre's botanical analysis in The Peyote Cult and "Stinging Criticism from the Author of 'The Peyote Cult'" (1972), in Daniel C. Noel, ed., Seeing Castaneda: Reactions to the "Don Juan" Writings of Carlos Castaneda (1976); and Jeremy Narby and Francis Huxley, eds., Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge (2001). See also Ronald Sukenick, "Don Juan and the Sorcerer's Apprentice," Time (5 Mar. 1973); William Kennedy, "Fact or Fiction," New Republic (16 Nov. 1974): 28–30; Michael Mason, New Statesman (27 June 1975); J. R. Moehringer, "A Hushed Death for Mystic Author Carlos Castaneda," Los Angeles Times (19 June 1998); and Martin Goodman continues the discussion with I Was Carlos Castaneda: The AfterlifeDialogues (2001). Obituaries are in the New York Times (19 and 20 June 1998).

Dessa Crawford