Carlos Castaneda: A Yaqui Way of Nonsense


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."