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Back in the 70’s, Carlos Castaneda—a young anthropologist from the University of California—wastamongst hippies, new-agers and wanna-be-cool academics desperate to shed their stuffy tweed. Now? Not so much. For many readers, Castaneda’s death knell sounded when most of his accounts turned out to be—f—complete and utter BS. To which diehard Castanites objected: “But, like, what is truth anyways, man?”
I don’t wish to get terribly enmeshed in the debate. But to my logical, unenlightened mind, the following statement seems like it should hold: namely, that since T purports either to be non-fiction or fiction, and since these possibilities are mutually exclusive (or at least could easily be defined as such), then we can inquire into which accolades and/or criticisms apply to each, and whether any apply to both.
Accordingly, we should be able to forward a general appraisal of the book that doesn’t rely upon any dodgy factual corroboration. Let us begin…
Case #1: It’s non-fiction.
Ever since it was first published in 1968, T has been marketed as non-fiction. Yet as a work of non-fiction, Castaneda’s exploration of hallucinogens and spirituality suffers from several major defects. Perhaps the most glaring of these involves the description of Don Juan as a “Yaqui sorcerer,” despite the fact that the actual Yaqui culture of Mexico is absolutely nothing like that described by Castaneda. I mean, the Yaqui don’t even use peyote (although the Huichol do). Major awk! And for those interested, Richard DeMille has devoted two entire books to the chronicling other such factual gaffes.
So Castaneda makes a pretty piss-poor anthropologist, a flaw which extends to his treatment of alternate epistemologies. Apart from some recurrent and annoyingly sophomoric discussions on the nature of objectivity, he doesn’t even attempt to broach the political and social dimensions of “Yaqui” (or whatever) knowledge. Like, the Native Americans of Mexico have had a pretty rough time with oppression, colonialism and whatnot. Couldn’t this be relevant to Don Juan’s lament for the lost Golden Age of “Indian” sorcerers, or his individual preference for knowledge over power? And as an anthropologist, shouldn’t Castaneda have made more of the (sexist) gender norms that pervade much of his benefactor’s teachings?
Finally, I ought to briefly mention the “Structural Analysis” that makes up the last quarter of this book. Holy academic posturing, Batman! If sentences like “Corroboration of the rule meant the act of verifying it, the act of attesting to its validity by confirming it pragmatically in an experimental manner” prove anything, it’s that the UCLA professors that originally allowed this drivel to pass for Castaneda’s MA thesis are guilty of gross charlatanism and intellectual dishonesty.
Case #2: It’s fiction.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading T. While Castaneda isn’t the best of writers, he ain’t half bad; and the various hallucinatory experiences that he describes tend to be wonderfully bizarre enough to make up for any weaknesses in his prose style. And sure, the fundamental claim of the book—that reality is far more malleable than we may first think—is probably true in a rather general sense.
Does all this make it a good novel? I don’t think so. Ultimately, the characters struck me as too flat, the emotional dimensions too underdeveloped. And why introduce the mysterious ‘la Catalina’ (complete with scare quotes) without doing anything significant with her? And why oh why subject the reader to the abject torture that is the “Structural Analysis”? Tell me that, Carlos! Tell me that!
Yet the most serious problem with the book q fiction is that its author never once admitted it to be as such. And here’s where things get fucked up. In the latter part of his life, Castaneda led a spiritualist cult called Cleargreen (check out their website!), and it’s suspected that he convinced several of its members (attractive young women, naturally) to commit suicide upon his death. In the words of one former Cleargreen initiate: “If he hadn’t presented his stories as fact it’s unlikely the cult would exist. As nonfiction, it became impossibly more dangerous.”
As a work of anthropology, T isn’t fit to wipe a monkey’s ass. As a novel, it’s decent enough, but potentially harmful. If this was thirty years ago, I’d maybe recommend reading Castaneda as a source of conversational fodder. But now? Just pick yourself up a copy of T or Hallucinations,
B In T, Castaneda puts forward an epistemology according to which the concepts of “truth” and “reality” don’t mean what we think they mean. How can we refute him, then, without begging the question? Upon what standard of “truth” can his view be “wrong”?
Furthermore, Castaneda talks a lot about power, and how one’s experiences in “nonordinary reality” possess “pragmatic” value in the “ordinary” world. He also displays a certain penchant for y (i.e., “devil’s weed”), an “ally” which confers “superfluous power” upon the knowledge-seeker.
Where am I going with this? As far as I can tell, the following two propositions should strike most people as uncontroversial: (1) from writing bestsellers to brainwashing vulnerable babes, Castaneda certainly possessed a remarkable degree of power over others, and (2) as this Salon article explains, he eventually let it go to his head. Whether you want to explain these two propositions by appealing to chance, psychology or shamanism—well, that’s up to you.