A Yankee way of knowledge

Carlos Castaneda, whoever he was, is dead -- whatever that is.

Published June 24, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Last week, the Los Angeles Times ruefully alerted us to the death of Carlos Castaneda, noting the occasion with a baffled overview of his life. He was believed to be 72, born (perhaps) in 1925 in either Brazil or Peru, depending on which story one accepts. On his death certificate, his occupation was listed as a teacher in Beverly Hills, but records don't show Castaneda teaching there. A (possibly bitter) ex-wife was quoted: "Much of the Castaneda mystique is based on the fact that even his closest friends aren't sure who he is."

The obituary was accompanied by a very odd photograph taken at the University of Texas in 1951. The picture, however, didn't show a kid in his mid-20s. It looked like a Hollywood publicity photo of a character actor who specializes in playing stout bankers. He might have played one of Lionel Barrymore's clerks in "It's a Wonderful Life." Time's obituary of what it called, in its mighty wisdom, an "enigmatic personality who was either an unfairly vilified anthropologist or a wildly inventive novelist," was accompanied by a picture of a face covered by a hand, with only intense eyes and a few strands of black hair showing. This is the only photograph, according to Time, to which Castaneda would consent. For a cover story!

I hadn't thought about Castaneda in years. As a matter of fact, the last time I thought about Carlos Castaneda, after the previous years I hadn't thought about him, was at a party in Mill Valley, Calif., in the early '80s. Midnight or so, a short, long-haired Latino man walked through the door. He had a huge mustache and a grin that ate half his face. On either side of him, two women, gorgeous in a Playboy/hippie kind of way (honey-blond, vacant, faded blue jeans, halter tops, you know), sashayed through the door. They seemed like a dream sequence from a Cheech and Chong movie.

After a while, somebody came up to me and shouted over the music (the '80s equivalent of whispering) that this guy was Carlos Castaneda. I went over to the cluster of people surrounding him in the corner of the garage, out of the way of the dancers. He had his wallet open, beaming, showing everybody his driver's license. The two women were moving their bodies idly to the music, looking away, scanning the crowd. I elbowed to his side. Like a stoned pope offering his ring, he held his license up for my view. Sure enough, it said, "Carlos Castaneda."

And that was that. I didn't talk with him. I danced until 3 and drove home erratically.

Was he the One True Castaneda? I doubt it. He was too young and pleased to be recognized. On the other hand, he did have two fabulous babes following him around, always a sure-fire fame indicator. Maybe he was a con man who'd convinced them that he was the real Castaneda. Maybe he was the genuine Castaneda, acting like a con man to teach us a lesson, and the two women were spiritual guides from a separate reality. I just don't know.

After reading the obituary, feeling both nostalgic and mildly alarmed that I couldn't remember what the deal was with Carlos Castaneda, I rushed out and tracked down a copy of "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge." I found one for $2 in a used bookstore in Santa Rosa, from a woman who seemed excited that I was buying it. I guess the news of Castaneda's demise hadn't precipitated a rush for his output.

The book was pretty much as I'd remembered it -- an earnest seeker hooks up with a cranky old magician and learns what fear is. That was the appeal of the book (and series) when I was a kid, and probably remains so today.

There are all kinds of echoes in the relationship between Carlos and Don Juan -- Plato and Socrates, Boswell and Johnson, Watson and Holmes, Luke and Yoda, Scully and Mulder. The book is very well written, in an old-fashioned meticulous style that only contributes to the -- what? Verisimilitude, I guess. I liked it as much as I had the first time I read it, which was quite a lot.

But I also remembered why I stopped reading the series. "Journey to Ixtlan" was the last one I read, I think, if that's the one that ended with Carlos leaping into the Nagual. Anyway, I didn't leap with him. I lost interest, that's all. I was as fond of amazing dope tales as the next guy, but I wasn't about to pack my troubles in an old kit bag, hitchhike to Sonora and stalk old Apaches in the hope of finding luminous beings, magical gestures or even the secret of life. My parents would have killed me.

I'm a Tonal, not a Nagual, kind of guy, in other words. I had a life, such as it was.

What Castaneda's life was, though, remains a mystery. He seems to be one of those peculiar Americans (despite his origins), like Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Walt Disney or Hugh Hefner, who had a dream of combining mission with marketing. He was more subtle than most, and therefore less successful (though successful enough to remain in print, and on required reading lists, for 30 years). Cruising the Internet, however, I've noted that he has bickering female "disciples," roaming the land, promoting his (Don Juan's?) concept of "tensegrity" through workshops and seminars. Tensegrity is a tool that allows us to cross the bridges of space, time and awareness. Nothing wrong with that, but where's the theme park? The church? The drugs?

Ah well, if it isn't dead, Castanedaniasm is young. As are we all. Forever young, forever stupid.

As the ever-wise Don Juan put it in "The Teachings," re. the abuse of magical power:

"I killed a man with a single blow of my arm ... Once I jumped so high I chopped the top leaves off the highest trees. But it was all for nothing! ... For what? To frighten the Indians?"

Really. What's the point of that? That's the true lesson of the '60s, isn't it? On the magic bus, we're all Indians. What's the point of that?

By Ian Shoales

Ian Shoales is a regular contributor to Salon.

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Brazil Drugs Fiction Latin America