Counterculture

Carlos Castaneda: A Yaqui Way of Nonsense

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In this age of the literary hoax (J.T. Leroy, James Frey), and filmic celebrations of stylish lit hoaxes of decades gone by (The Hoax, about Clifford Irving's daring "Howard Hughes bio" scam, a hoot and a half with a best-of-career performance from Richard Gere as Irving), Salon reminds us of the saga of megabestselling "anthropologist" Carlos Castaneda.

Castaneda began a series of bestsellers in 1968 that helped make the sixties and seventies so simultaneously groovy and absurd, about how secret Indian knowledge allowed him to turn himself into crows and travel through alternate dimensions, thanks to Yaqui wise man "Don Juan." The Don himself conveniently transported himself to another dimension and out of the reach of any other anthropologists or journalists who wanted to check up on Carlos' tales.

Although Simon and Schuster to this day sells tens of thousands of his books a year as nonfiction, all scholars who have looked into Castaneda's claims are certain he was a big seller of pure fantasy bullshit in the form of tomes such as Tales of Power and The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.

Salon's story is a very lengthy, but very entertaining, account of his checkered career and obvious lies, and the mysterious fate of the gaggle of "witches" who served him in his dying days in the late 1990s.

In that circle of witches was Amy Wallace, heroine of my youth for her role in the Book of Lists series, which taught me half of what I knew in my pre-teen years. Wallace wrote her own memoirs of her Castaneda years, far softer on the old fraud than he deserved. I reviewed that book, Sorceror's Apprentice: My Life with Carlos Castaneda , in the Washington Post. An excerpt:

The world Wallace paints isn't one of brave warriors beyond human pettiness striving for the prize of infinite life in infinite dimensions. It is more like a combination of Jackie Collins and Sweet Valley High gone wrong—a gaggle of cruel harridans fighting for status through disturbing psychological gamesmanship in a screwy, destructive clique, vying for the approval of a squirrelly dying old man on Los Angeles's west side.

……. As the absurdities and lies of the sorcerer's world pile up, the skeptical reader can't help but lose sympathy with Wallace for not doing her own vanishing act. The closest thing to any actual mystical experience she had, after all, was a magically delicious custard dessert that Castaneda served to her. He promised his students he would show them bizarre creatures shipped in from the other dimensions in which he could supposedly travel freely, but they somehow never materialized.

……Wallace refuses to let go of her affection and respect for her Castaneda. Some think him a huckster, she admits, but "I think he was a wizard of Oz, trying hard to create a spectacle that would cause people to reach for the stars. In so doing, he failed personally, damaging some of those close to him and inadvertently spearheading a cult, the last thing he would have consciously wished to do."

Mmmmaybe. But as the Salon story has it:

Many [Castaneda] obituaries had a curious tone; the writers seemed uncertain whether to call Castaneda a fraud. Some expressed a kind of nostalgia for an author whose work had meant so much to so many in their youth. [His initial publisher at Simon & Schuster Michael] Korda refused comment. [Debunker Richard] De Mille, in an interview with filmmaker Ralph Torjan, expressed a certain admiration. "He was the perfect hoaxer," he told Torjan, "because he never admitted anything."

NEXT: The Octopus Now Enfolds Me/ I Know You Too Well*

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  1. Oh, lord. Here comes tros.

  2. Anyway, so, yeah I read these books when I was in college. Regardless of their truthiness, they are engrossing and highly entertaining if you come upon them at the right time. I read them, took them as twisted truth or allegory, then got on with my life. I had no idea that late in his own life he became something of a guru.

  3. I remember my friends took a course on Castenada in college and would tell me all about it. I couldn’t believe they offered credit for such bullshit and worse my friends actual believed in it (not in an allegorical way but in a “I’m gonna go fight this mystical eagle and teleport across the world” kind of way).

    That was the only time I ever thought there might be something wrong with smoking pot (not for me but for other people).

  4. At least pot and opiate users tend to be quiet. Psychedelic users never shut up.

  5. My personal favorite was Don Genaro. He made the earth tremble when he shit.

  6. Psychedelic users never shut up.

    Oh, I thought that was cokeheads.

  7. Yeah, I read “A Yaqui Way of Nonsense” when I was in law school, and felt extraordinary gratitude to the insane cops in my hometown, the blind terror of whom kept me from ever using anything stronger than (then) cheap German white wine. I really thing DARE should just assign kids to read that book while listening to Grateful Dead records sober. It’d be the end of drug culture entirely.

    It makes me very sad that Amy Wallace, daughter of Irving and inventor (I think) of the “fantasy dinner party” game got caught in this charlatan’s web. Proof of the “if you don’t believe in God, you won’t believe in nothing, you’ll believe in anything.”

  8. Proof of the “if you don’t believe in God, you won’t believe in nothing, you’ll believe in anything.”

    This word, proof, I do not think it means what you think it means.

  9. Karen, that was truly funny stuff but I actually think that Lileks has the best take on how to get people off the junk….

    You want to end illegal drugs? Legalize them and turn the distribution system over to Chuck E Cheese. Make crack addicts line up at CEC for their daily vials. People will be off that crap in a week.

  10. Cults all are fun and games till someone instigates a mass suicide.

  11. I used to go out with a chick that would astral project when she smoked dope. It was freaky. I don’t even believe in that stuff, but dude, if you were there, you’d say whoa. She was also suicidal & epileptic. Saved her sorry ass twice. Second time I had to get a writ to get her out of the looney bin because they knew, man, they knew, and they were just not going to let her go. My mistake. Getting her out, I mean. Well, that and I shoulda dumped her long before I did.

  12. Problem is when, how or who determines “the truth”. Castaneda’s lecture implies a contraculture standpoint of alternatives that -certainly, make no sense to american or occidental values or axioms. In the search not of alternate dimensions but of substitute views, Castaneda certainly continues to give a valid display of possibilities. Not to mention that, for too many, he represented a hope in a deceived world of hunger and war deaths. I would not dare to call him the “perfect hoaxer”; it would be too narrow. Poetry, philosophy and phenomenology exist.

  13. I like the Chuck E. Cheese scenario. Yeah, getting your hits from a guy dressed up like a hockey-playing mouse would scare anyone off drugs. (One of the few childrearing resolutions we’ve kept was our flat refusal to have any birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese. Andy has been to a couple and got violently sick both times. Not, sadly, from the food so I couldn’t have the health department close the place down. Aaron’s friends, thankfully, shun the place.)

  14. I couldn’t believe they offered credit for such bullshit…
    I had it in college English. ‘Twas amusing, but clearly just as you described it (well, either bullshit or just some guy getting wasted and then making a big out of it). I was amazed to discover that the teacherette seemed to take it seriously…which was more than I could do for college English.

    Make crack addicts line up at CEC for their daily vials.
    Make ’em play skee-ball and then don’t give ’em their tickets.

  15. making a big out of it

  16. making a big out of it…
    …making a big deal… (arrg)

    I used to go out with a chick that would astral project when she smoked dope.
    Good psychedelics can make anyone think or feel like that’s happening, but non-crazy people recognize it for what it is: games with brain chemistry. Interesting game, though, apparently seeing yourself from above and behind.

  17. Maybe an anti-mexican immigrant case can be made from the scientific anthropologocal evidence Castaneda presents. We certainly dont need a buncha doped up brujos walkin around like Randall Flagg just doin whatever mischief they want.

  18. Martin Gardner has a chapter on Castaneda in his “Fads and Fallacies”.

    I would not consider that people who reject the belief in God necessarily will fill it with any woo-woo that comes along. More mass suicides have been carried out in the name of God/Salvation than have been carried out in the name of Atheism.

    (And anyone who thinks that Christianity hasn’t had mass suicides is invited to look at any good history of the religion. Yes, in most cases it’s been “suicide by getting whacked by the authorities”, but the result is the same: one human willfully dead.)

  19. Sorry about the Chesterton quote, I really should have looked harder. It’s the only remotely relevant thing I could thing of on short notice.

  20. I would have to suggest that there are more suicides by believers because they believe they are destined for better things.

  21. “Not to mention that, for too many, he represented a hope in a deceived world of hunger and war deaths.”

    so he was a spiritual tv set? a good distraction?

    personally, if you’re going to pick a 20th century charlatan, how about osho rajneesh? dude collected classic cars, was credited with the classic line “a disciple is an asshole in search of a human to attach itself to” and got people to pay him stupid amounts of money to have “guilt free” sex and listen to lectures that always ended with a 10 minute transcendental rant about the corrupting force of government.

    that’s classy! everyone got something out of the deal.

    “Yeah, getting your hits from a guy dressed up like a hockey-playing mouse would scare anyone off drugs.”

    are you joking? i’d start just to hang out with those guys.

  22. personally, if you’re going to pick a 20th century charlatan, how about osho rajneesh? dude collected classic cars, was credited with the classic line “a disciple is an asshole in search of a human to attach itself to” and got people to pay him stupid amounts of money to have “guilt free” sex and listen to lectures that always ended with a 10 minute transcendental rant about the corrupting force of government.

    Don’t forget when his followers launched a botulism attack on their non-believing neighbors.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioterrorism#1984_Rajneeshee_Salmonella_attack.

  23. Karen, if you deny me on a Hit & Run thread, I will deny you in heaven.

  24. More mass suicides have been carried out in the name of God/Salvation than have been carried out in the name of Atheism.

    Well, obviously. It would be quite odd if many who believed that this life is all there is to existence, chose death for its own sake. The quote Karen posted was saying that a person who rejects their faith usually doesn’t remain an atheist for long.

    (And anyone who thinks that Christianity hasn’t had mass suicides is invited to look at any good history of the religion. Yes, in most cases it’s been “suicide by getting whacked by the authorities”, but the result is the same: one human willfully dead.)

    Now that’s silly. Anyone who is willing to die for their beliefs is committing suicide? Does that mean that anyone who volunteers for a dangerous mission in a war zone is suicidal?

  25. Note: for Richard Gere, ‘best-of-career performance’ still isn’t very fucking good.

  26. “I think he was a wizard of Oz, trying hard to create a spectacle that would cause people to reach for the stars. In so doing, he failed personally, damaging some of those close to him and inadvertently spearheading a cult…”

    “Problem is when, how or who determines “the truth”. Castaneda’s lecture implies a contraculture standpoint of alternatives that -certainly, make no sense to american or occidental values or axioms. In the search not of alternate dimensions but of substitute views, Castaneda certainly continues to give a valid display of possibilities. Not to mention that, for too many, he represented a hope in a deceived world of hunger and war deaths. I would not dare to call him the “perfect hoaxer”; it would be too narrow. Poetry, philosophy and phenomenology exist.”

    I guess it doesn’t matter whether it’s Castenada, Edgar Cayce or John Edwards. The hoax works because otherwise intelligent people will go to any end to make up a rationalization for their desperate need to believe you. Seriously, the sentiment is always the same.

  27. I read the first book at 18 while overseas in the Air Force. I loved the concept of “a Separate Reality”. Then I read his second book, realized he wanted us to take him literally and decided I wasn’t as blown away as originally thought.

    Same with Richard Bach, Read and loved “Illusions” around the same time but a few years later picked up a followup, don’t remember the title, which was an account of his romance with his wife that referred to the events of “Illusions” as having actually happened (as well as a truckload of astral projections). To this day I still enjoy the message of “Illusions” but could give a crap about reading anything else by Richard Bach.

  28. And anyone who thinks that Christianity hasn’t had mass suicides is invited to look at any good history of the religion. Yes, in most cases it’s been “suicide by getting whacked by the authorities”, but the result is the same: one human willfully dead.

    By that definition, was this suicide?

  29. …about how secret Indian knowledge allowed him to turn himself into crows and travel through alternate dimensions, thanks to Yaqui wise man “Don Juan.”

    How is that any different than the claims of “revealed religion?” Water into wine, raising the dead, parting the waters, etc.

  30. Grotius,

    Looks like it to me although I’d be willing to bet that a few of the kids involved were a bit reluctant.

    Of course the issue isn’t about clear suicide, the question I asked came from the assertion that dying for a belief is suicide. By that definition, as somebody else here already said, every soldier that ever volunteered for and died in war was committing suicide. In fact, anybody that has ever died when they had any option for their own survival committed suicide.

    “One human willfully dead.” is suicide? Perhaps you can better explain because I haven’t figured it out yet.

  31. “One human willfully dead.” is suicide? Perhaps you can better explain because I haven’t figured it out yet.

    It’s a convenient standard for those who don’t believe in a religion, or a secular ideology, or presumably anything worth dying for, or presumably even refraining from sexual activity for. Just as convenient as the “rational argument by religious person == religious dogma” standard that some here apply to discussions on abortion and other issues that certain religions have weighed in on.

  32. I read one or two of Castandeda’s books when I was in college. They were kind of fun, but not as fantastic as good fantasy and not as suck-you-in believable as good “magical realism”. I’m not surprised that a few kooks actually believed it, but I am surprised enough did to form a sort of cult, or to sustain college courses. A good reminder that people will believe crazy shit. (Also a good reminder that a decent living can always be had pushing crazy shit.)

  33. eb,

    Sure, I’d agree that it is a sloppy definition.

    crimethink,

    Just as convenient as the “rational argument by religious person == religious dogma” standard that some here apply to discussions on abortion and other issues that certain religions have weighed in on.

    That’s not the argument at all. The argument is that presuppositions inform ones views. Whether those presuppositions are religious or secular in nature.

  34. I prefer the mysteries of Yawkey Way myself.

  35. It’s a convenient standard for those who don’t believe in a religion, or a secular ideology, or presumably anything worth dying for, or presumably even refraining from sexual activity for. Just as convenient as the “rational argument by religious person == religious dogma” standard that some here apply to discussions on abortion and other issues that certain religions have weighed in on.

    As an agnostic I am at a loss at the antagonism from some people towards religion as a concept. The assertion that religion is responsible for all wars, grief,sadness, stubbed toes blah, blah, blah is based on faulty logic. Of course religion is involved in a lot of wars but then religion has been so deeply ingrained and around so long that it would be hard to absent itself from that one big issue.

    Then consider the most obvious societies that rejected religion, like the French Reign of Terror, The Soviet Union, Mao’s China etc. etc. etc. and its pretty clear that the lack of religion does nothing to limit carnage.

    So although it isn’t for me, I kind of like religion (except one in particular that’s wearing me out). It seems to work for a lot of people.

  36. Never heard of this guy Castaneda.

    Was his stuff the inspiration for the movie Altered States?

  37. I was thinking of whatever cult of Zealots it was that ran around in early Christianity accosting people and demanding that that they be martyred otherwise they’d kill them.

    Also, look at many of the religious sects in history. Christianity’s history is littered with groups that decide they have found The True Way, make nuisances of themselves to everyone around until the authorities get fed up, accuse them of heresy, and stamp them out. A lot of religious groups have indeed been just wanting to live in peace and quiet, but there have also been quite a few groups who go out actively seeking martyrdom. Great drama, one’s own soul involved in the struggle for Good and Evil, etc., etc., and so forth.

    If these people want to be martyrs, be my guest. But I don’t think that they’re the ones with Virtue on their side and the authorities are automatically Evil. In many cases, it’s the religious equivalent of “suicide by cop.”

  38. Mention of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh reminded me the day he finally got deported. One of the best NY Post headlines ever: “Let Bhagwans be Bhagwans.”

  39. media: i think that was more john lily. if you want to see what happens when very smart people get freaky, he’s a sometimes interesting read.

    “Don’t forget when his followers launched a botulism attack on their non-believing neighbors.”

    that’s what makes osho the fuckin’ illest. he lays out that he thinks seekers are fucking retards and what do they do? hook him up with 93 rolls royces.* (at which point he was deported) holy fucking shit, you know?

    scientology, even with the awesome hubbard-parsons moonchild scheme, can’t really hold a candle to that kind of glossy mag perfection.

    to be fair, i think i have a greater appreciation for charlatans than most. perhaps a bit unhealthy; i was totally jazzed to find a kundalini yoga cult had set up shop down the block from my cma teacher’s house. crazy hats, standing out the rain…what’s not to love?

    *is it mere coincidence that 93 corresponds with both love and will in the thelemic system?**

    **yeah!

  40. Skipped most of the posts, so hope none of this is redundant.

    I remember seeing plastic models of “The Spruce Goose” (the Hughes flying boat) with cupons for the “diary” advertised on the box. It was a mistake and I wish I had one of them today as they will be big collectors items too.

    These days hoaxes are features, like in The New Republic with Searching for Mr. Right by Eve Fairbanks, or almost anything by Stephen Glass. Then there is The New York Times with their Jayson Blair articles, and a recent book review by Eve Fairbanks. Editing is nothing but “punching up” a good story, like Dan Rather’s “fake but accurate” fables of George W. Bush.

    The Examminer did a great job of creaing a hoax from nothing with their “Big Shame in a Small World” article last year, where a New York Times articls, that actually seemed accurate and well written, was twisted into something that did not resemble the original in the slightest. Cell phone thieves transformed into ‘victims’? Give us all a break.

    MSM is nothing more than fiction, without the fiction writers.

  41. Was his stuff the inspiration for the movie Altered States?

    It was some other pschonaut whose name I can’t recall. Lilly?

    I’m a little fuzzy on that topic. No reason. Why do you ask?

  42. all I can say is “don’t drink the kool-aid, man”

  43. about how secret Indian knowledge allowed him to turn himself into crows and travel through alternate dimensions, thanks to Yaqui wise man “Don Juan.”

    Meh, I can do that.

    Well, my Tauren druid can do that in World of Warcraft.

  44. Oh, lord. Here comes tros.

    ROFL

    Well, the truth is I don’t realy care about Carlos Castaneda. Who the fuck cares what he says when you have Erowid and the internet? Still, he does talk about mushrooms and Datura and Peyote, so I don’t think his influenece has been all that bad over time. It just annoys me when people read the whole fucking thing like its the fucking bible or something.

    Want some secret ancient Native American knowledge? Why don’t you throw a rave in the basement of the biggest dorm on MIT campus, hotbox the place, and give out free mushrooms. The ghost of Maria Sabina will appear to you and tell you to help get her people out of the gulag concentration camps.

    P.S. I am told by people whose opinion I respect (lycaeum.org) that the Art of Dreaming is a good introduction to lucid dreaming.

  45. This article is more important than how lame Carlos Castaneda is:

    http://thetyee.ca/News/2007/04/23/Feldmar/

    LSD as Therapy? Write about It, Get Barred from US
    Andrew Feldmar. Photo by C. Grabowski.
    BC psychotherapist denied entry after border guard googled his work.
    By Linda Solomon
    Published: April 23, 2007
    email this article print this story
    TheTyee.ca

    Andrew Feldmar, a well-known Vancouver psychotherapist, rolled up to the Blaine border crossing last summer as he had hundreds of times in his career. At 66, his gray hair, neat beard, and rimless glasses give him the look of a seasoned intellectual. He handed his passport to the U.S. border guard and relaxed, thinking he would soon be with an old friend in Seattle. The border guard turned to his computer and googled “Andrew Feldmar.”

    The psychotherapist’s world was about to turn upside down.

    He was told to sit down on a folding chair and for hours he wondered where this was going. He checked his watch and thought hopelessly of his friend who was about to land at the Seattle airport. Three hours later, the official motioned him into a small, barren room with an American flag. He was sitting on one side and Feldmar was on the other. The official said that under the Homeland Security Act, Feldmar was being denied entry due to “narcotics” use. LSD is not a narcotic substance, Feldmar tried to explain, but an entheogen. The guard wasn’t interested in technicalities. He asked for a statement from Feldmar admitting to having used LSD and he fingerprinted Feldmar for an FBI file.
    ADVERTISEMENT
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    Then Feldmar disbelievingly listened as he learned that he was being barred from ever entering the United States again. The officer told him he could apply to the Department of Homeland Security for a waiver, if he wished, and gave him a package, with the forms.

  46. “I’m a little fuzzy on that topic. No reason. Why do you ask?”

    Because I remember watching that movie in my high school years and enjoying it. And the whole “I took a psychoactive substance and turned into an animal” thing was a big plot point in Altered States.

  47. For me, castaneda is not nonsense. I’ve been a practitioner of his knowledge for over 15 years and I’m glad I made that decision. Through his book “the art of dreaming” I’m now able to have lucid dreams almost everyday and it keeps getting better. Tensegrity (magical passes) is a wonderful way to keep the body fit and alert. Through the art of stalking castaneda shows us that the only prey a warrior has is himself. And these techniques are an effective way to change oneself into a impeccable warrior. One of his last books “the wheel of time” is actually a good book to start with. It’s a compilation of warrior quotes from all his books. They really bring you into the warriors mood. Well this is my share.
    Cheers,
    Alexander

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