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CARLOS CASTANEDA Recalled and Reconsidered


The John Robert Colombo Page

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New Mexico Desert

New Mexico Desert

carlos-castaneda

Carlos Castaneda

Carlos Castaneda Recalled and Reconsidered

A Short Review of William Patrick Patterson’s “The Life & Teachings of Carlos Castaneda” by John Robert Colombo

Carlos Castaneda (hereinafter CC) and William Patrick Patterson (hereinafter WPP) are names well known to students of consciousness studies.

CC was a Peruvian-born American author who made a considerable reputation for himself with the publication of his first book of mystical, visionary, spiritual, or magical adventures titled “The Teachings of Don Juan.” It appeared in 1968 and was such a success that it was followed by eleven more such books, which further enhanced the author’s reputation as an apprentice of a “brujo” or sorcerer in the Mesmoamerican tradition of shamanism. The final book of this series, “The Active Side of Infinity,” appeared the year following the author’s death. CC’s vital years are 1925 and 1998. At the height of his fame he became a recluse and WPP tells us why.

WPP is an indefatigable researcher, editor, writer, author, publisher, public speaker, director and host of documentary films on the Fourth Way, and seminar leader – someone concerned with “esoteric perspectives” and “the ways of self-transformation” (to quote the pertinent words on the back cover of the current book). WPP may know more about the history of the Fourth Way than any other living writer, excepting, perhaps, Paul Beekman Taylor and James Moore. He was a student of the late Lord Pentland, who oversaw the Work in America, and the present book is dedicated to his memory (“To my don Juan”).

In my last contribution to this website, I outlined many of WPP’s accomplishments and achievements. In this review, I will focus on his book “The Life & Teachings of Carlos Castaneda.” It appeared in cloth in 2008 and in paper in 2009. Oddly, on the title page it is identified as “Volume 1.” Whatever will fill the pages of “Voume 2″?

The present volume is a handsomely produced, medium-sized trade paperback (xviii + 270 pages) with a Prologue (but no Epilogue), a Chronology, Notes, Bibliography, two Appendices (CC’s reply to R. Gordon Wasson, an academic critic; “Ouspensky on Dreams,” ten quotations from “A New Model of the Universe”), and an index. It also reprints anthropologist Daniel Brinton’s 1894 essay “Nagualism: A Study in Native American Folklore and History” (a source of some of CC’s conceptions). Brinton’s essay, about one-third the length of the book itself, remains a model of its kind.

The entire work was edited by Barbara Allen Patterson and published by Arete Communications, Publishers, Fairfax, California. (By the way, “Arete” is a word known to Aristotle. It means “inner excellence.” In English it is pronounced “A-re-tay,” and WPP regards it as “a working aim.”)

I gather that CC attended the University of California at Los Angeles where he was awarded a B.A. in Creative Writing and Journalism in 1962. Thereafter he switched his major to Anthropology and apparently that institution awarded him a Ph.D. in that discipline in 1973 for an dissertation on “A Yaqui Way of Knowledge,” which is the subtitle his first book, issued by the University of California Press, an academic imprint rather than a trade publishing house.

Thereafter the books were enthusiastically published and promoted by Simon & Schuster, a major trade publisher. (The above details appear in CC’s Wikipedia entry, and there are discrepancies between them and those that appear in WPP’s book which, on the whole, is thorough, appreciative, and non-critical. A critical biography of CC may never written; in the meantime, WPP’s is “as good as it is likely to get.”)

CC’s reputation was made by “The Teachings of Don Juan.” Is the book a work of Anthropology? Does it contribute to our knowledge of Shamanism? Or is it a work of creative writing, imaginative recreation, or “wishful thinking”? Perhaps it is both. CC says it is based on notes taken down in Spanish but the notes do not seem to have survived.

I know where I stand on what kind of book it is. I read it a year following its original appearance and had no problem concluding that it was an instance of “creative non-fiction,” rather than a contribution to field research in Anthropology, one of my minors at the University of Toronto.

CC’s book I found to be “a thrilling read,” like millions of other readers, but I also found it impossible to take it seriously – at least as seriously as I had in younger years taken Paul Brunton’s “In Search of Secret Egypt” and “In Search of Secret India.” (In passing, Brunton’s pretensions to Sanskrit scholarship were effectively and affectionately debunked by the Sanskrit scholar Jeffrey M. Masson in his memoir “My Father’s Guru.”)

CC’s work constitutes a romance of mystical thought (in this instance sorcery) in the same way that Erich von Däniken and Immanuel Velikovsky are purveyors of a science of the imagination. In no way did CC’s book resemble the Anthropology texts that I had studied. Nor have more recent contributions to the discipline begun to resemble his.

It did not surprise me that CC had opened a Pandora’s Box of insights into what he calls the “tonal” world (of ordinary reality) and the “nagual” world (of non-ordinary realities). Readers in the late 1960s were receptive to that distinction, a cornerstone concept of the New Age, and the times were ripe for a shaman (even if called a sorcerer) named Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian, knowledgeable about the effects of the ingestion of psychotropic plants.

Later, I read with surprise Time magazine’s cover story on the man, “Don Juan and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” March 5, 1973, which referred to CC in facetious terms (“the man is an enigma wrapped in mystery in a tortilla”). Time’s editors had problems with the elusive CC, but they gave respectability to his work by granting a passing grade to his accounts of outlandish and otherworldy experiences.

No so the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who penned a letter to “The New York Review of Books” on November 16, 1972. It was headed “Anthropology – a Fiction?” and it was followed by a flurry of critical reactions to the books as they rolled off the presses. The result was that CC retired from public life (rather like another touchy recluse, J.D. Salinger). The standards and integrity of the University of Southern California were called into question for dealing with a work of fiction as if it were a work of scholarship and even publishing it.

CC re-emerged in the 1990s, the last decade of his life, and what a life he had been leading! WWP is good on these details, which first appeared in his journal “The Gurdjieff Review,” for they describe an unconventional California lifestyle – a man driven by demons to the point of obsession – with his own coven of three witches (named Florinda, Taisha, and Muni) whom he sexually dominated. The women conducted popular seminars devoted to the practice of sorcery. Then there were seminars that promoted Tensegrity, a discipline of “magical passes” that adopts a term previously introduced by Buckminster Fuller.

At the same time CC was married to Amy Wallace, the talented daughter of the popular novelist Irving Wallace. She outlived the three witches and subsequently described CC as a “sexaholic” who near the end was afflicted with glaucoma and diabetes and died of the liver cancer that he boasted he would never have.

While he was alive, CC was adamant that there would be no Hollywood film version of the novels, as he did not relish the sight of Anthony Quinn playing the sorcerer-warrior Don Juan! CC did meet with Federico Fellini in Rome who described the author as “a smiling Sicilian.” The Italian director was intrigued and repelled by the vision offered by the novels – it was “as if I was confronted with a vision of a world dictated by a quartz! Or a green lizard!” He was not far wrong!

Why was WPP drawn to CC? “By the sheer force of his connection with intent, Castaneda brought to life and inseminated into Western culture an age-old sorceric perspective long ago rendered insensible by the modern world’s pursuit of rationality.” What I detect here is a rapidly emerging appreciation of the depths and dimensions of “magical thinking,” “as if,” “active imagination,” shamanic spirit journeys, hoaxes and hypnotism and dreaming, and the antics and adventures of the Trickster Hero of North American Native culture. Here we have “A Yaqui Way of Knowledge,” not “The Yaqui Way of Knowledge.” Indeed, it might even be said that what we have here is “A Yankee Way of Knowledge.”

WPP devotes many pages to early influences on CC: Aldous Huxley’s psychedelic trips and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Then there was the person and literary effect on him of Anais Nin, the memoirist who spoke of “mensonge vital” and “déboublement.” WPP suggests “Don Juan Matus” was named after Nin’s father, Joaquín – if not after the Mateus brand of Portuguese wine so popular with beats, hippies, and New Agers!

It is assumed that Don Juan Matus (described as being born in Arizona of Yaqui and Yuma parentage) was not a single person but an amalgam of various teachers both spiritual and academic who were meaningful in CC’s life. WPP devotes ten interesting pages (pp. 65-75) to outlining the dynamic universe occupied by Don Juan and then five pages to pointing out “difficulties” with his accounts of the “sorceric” universe. Five further pages (98-103) are devoted to CC’s exchanges with Swami Muktananda with parallels between the world of sorcery and Hinduism.

There are ten pages (81-91) that measure the trace elements of Fourth Way material to be found in these books. “Awareness of the total body – this is the foundation to everything Castaneda is saying,” writes WPP. “Many of the fundamental ideas Castaneda puts forth can be seen to have a correspondence with Gurdjieff’s teaching. It is not in the province of this book to summarize it, but the following are some examples of the cross-referencing.”

Thereupon WPP offers twenty-nine instances of dynamic parallels in the sorceric and Fourth Way traditions. Here are five parallels:

* “‘Shifting the assemblage point’ is moving the specific gravity of attention so that one is in a higher stage of self-consciousness or self-remembering.”

* “‘Buzzing’ is an initial inaudible frequency which prepares for reception of the Niroonossian-World-Sound.”

* “‘Real mind’ is the higher intellectual center connected with the higher emotional center.”

*”‘Human mold’ is founded in self-love and vanity, i.e., Kundabuffer.”

*”‘Energy body’ is the Kesdjan body developed through practices of self-sensing and the impartial observation of the functioning of the physical body.”

WPP writes, “Castaneda did have an actual, as opposed to simply a theoretical, connection with the Work, as it is sometimes called. His first direct encounter was in 1970 when he attended Movements demonstrations in Los Angeles. Later, he accepted an invitation from Lord John Pentland, the man Gurdjief appointed to lead the Work in America, to spend a weekend at St. Elmo, the home of the Gurdjieff Foundation in San Francisco. There Castaneda met Kathleen Pohlman, aka Carol Tiggs, a student of Pentland’s. He is said to have also attended meetings at the Los Angeles Foundation for some time.”

Carol Tiggs played an active role in CC’s life, less so Claudio Naranjo. WPP concludes, “The teaching Gurdjieff brought is based on sacred science; what Castaneda brought is based on sorcery. Both aim to awaken one from the dream of ordinary life, but while Gurdjieff rejects working with the dream state and insists on grounding consciousness in ordinary life in order to come to real life, dreaming for Castaneda is the basis of sorceric exploration.”

WPP sees CC’s life in terms of “octaves,” but I will leave the interested reader to turn to “The Life & Teachings of Carlos Castaneda” to appreciate these phases. Overall what he finds absent from CC’s cosmology is “a spiritual appreciation and valuation of the scale of Being and the duty to serve and offer ‘help for God,’ as Gurdjieff says.”

The author concludes, interestingly but somewhat debatably, “In the end Castaneda’s significance and value rest on his ideas and sources, not the strangeness of his story.”

John Robert Colombo has yet to find any Canadian references in the work of CC or in the writings of WPP, but he keeps searching. On August 9, 2009, he delivered the academic keynote address at the Worldcon, the convention for 3,500 fans of fantastic literature held in August in Montreal. His address was called “Up! Up! And About!” For more details, check his personal website: www. colombo-plus. ca.

John Robert Colombo
Colombo & Company
42 Dell Park Avenue
Toronto M6B 2T6 Canada
vox 1(416) 782 6853
fax 1(416) 782 0285
email jrc@ca.inter.net
professional website http://www.colombo.ca
personal website http://www.colombo-plus.ca

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See Also Osho on Castaneda

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