Carlos Castaneda And The Shaman.
April 12, 2008 7:38 PM   Subscribe

Carlos Castaneda And The Shaman. A BBC documentary on the anthropologist, best-selling author, con-artist, drug guru and cult leader: Carlos Castaneda. (google video, 1 hour)
posted by empath (54 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I read most of Castaneda's books back in college and was rather obsessed with them at the time. Later I found out that he likely made up the whole thing (they're supposed to be non-fiction, but the opposite seems to be true). Castaneda was a secretive and strange person, to put it lightly. Still, even approaching the books as fiction, they're still really fascinating.
posted by zardoz at 7:59 PM on April 12, 2008

Cool. My dad's favorite anti-drug story when we were growing up was the time he and some friends, while hiking in the Grand Canyon, decided to smoke some jimson weed as described in The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Instead of meeting their spirit guides, though, they WENT BLIND for several nerve-wracking hours. Apparently their faith in the guru was somewhat shaken after that...go figure.
posted by chihiro at 7:59 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I read them as a teen and while I fantasized about them being based in reality, I knew they clearly were not. Maybe I'm in the minority as most of the people I've talked to who have read them (very few these days) believed they were real, at least at the time of reading and some certainly long afterward.
posted by Kickstart70 at 8:33 PM on April 12, 2008

I picked them up when I was going through that phase and the 'new age bullshit' alarms were going off all over the place. I didn't get very far into the book at all before I put it away. For some reason, while Terrance McKenna's books set off the 'bullshit' alarms, too, I found the tone much less obnoxious. I think it's the level of self-seriousness that I found off putting. I much prefer Robert Anton Wilson, though. He tells you right up from that he's full of shit.
posted by empath at 8:38 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, back in the day Castaneda books were all over the place. I never did get around to reading one. Apparently I am no worse for it.
posted by konolia at 8:45 PM on April 12, 2008

I too was a big fan of the first couple of books back in my teenage years: we're talking the 70's here, of course, and the books fit in nicely with the psychedelics being consumed... Looking forward to seeing the film. Thanks, empath.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:46 PM on April 12, 2008

Funny, I saw one of my co-workers with one of these books recently. Incredible that theyre still being read. I thought I was quite the relic when I read them 15+ years ago.

In retrospect I understand the popularity of at least the first one. It falls in line with the Campbell mythological pattern: novice meets a master, master reluctantly turns him on to some thing huge, novice then slowly becomes a master himself. This is also one of the reasons the first Star Wars trilogy resonates so well with people.

Sadly, if he would have sold these books as fiction from the start then he would probably be regarded as good writer, not a fraud. That makes me wonder if there was a real Don Juan-like character. Perhaps an old Yaqui who he befriended and then worked into an elaborate spiritual story. I also wonder if this story of a sorcerer's jouney existed as a Yaqui myth in itself and he just repackaged it for modern audiences.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:57 PM on April 12, 2008

I enjoyed this very much. If you enjoy this subject you may find The Serpent and the Rainbow interesting.
posted by nola at 9:32 PM on April 12, 2008

Only good thing, look at your hands when you dream and wake up!!!!
posted by zengargoyle at 10:31 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

His books are great fun, but clearly fictional and likely harmful to real anthropology.

That he then used his fame to build a New Age empire of invisibility seminars and similar quackery for middle-aged burnouts is just the final nail in a coffin lovingly carved by hand of pure, shade-grown suck.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:46 PM on April 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Carlos Castaneda is the shaman's Tasaday.
posted by adipocere at 10:55 PM on April 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

His close disciples disappeared after his death.
posted by hortense at 11:17 PM on April 12, 2008

Prior to Castenada's books, I think there were very few people who talked about gathering "Native American" wisdom using European mastery archetypes. Now the continent is littered with people who tell me about these journeys, or, better still, tell me about books written by people who have studied with "Native American" masters.

Spend some time with Elders in a community, even in ceremonial settings, in most indigenous cultures and you will discover a very different way of learning. For me, interesting as the Campbell archetypes are, they are a virtually guaranteed bullshit alarm for the wisdom being peddled. In general the pattern has it that the student finds the teacher, the teacher reluctantly reveals knowledge and at the end of the day the student writes a book about Buddhism with a Choctaw flavour.

It's demeaning to all real wisdom traditions, east and west.

Thanks Carlos. Smoke another cactus for me.
posted by salishsea at 11:34 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

A phenomenally successful fraud. Great post.
posted by jouke at 11:48 PM on April 12, 2008

lukemeister's foolishness in 1975: Reading Carlos Castaneda books
lukemeister's foolishness in 2008: Reading Carlos Castaneda posts
posted by lukemeister at 12:00 AM on April 13, 2008

You don't smoke the cactus, and fuck Carlos Castañeda.

I wasted too many hours talking some of his readers out of bad peyote and mushroom trips. NO, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE EATEN BY THE IMMATERIAL BEINGS WHO WANT TO STEAL YOUR RARE MASCULINE NATURE! YES, YOU ARE JUST HALLUCINATING! Drugs are supposed to be fun. Castaneda ruined some great drugs for a whole generation of my peers.

There is a great story, which I have been unable to find in the last half our, by one of the important mexican writers of a previous generation (think Octavio Paz), who knew Castaneda as a friend's small kid. It is about the older writer recognizing Castaneda trying to be invisible among the people attending a talk on one of the Don Juan books. Older writer approaches Castaneda, and says something like "Hello Carlitos, Carlitos Castañeda". The rest of the story is about Castaneda's not quite supernatural escape, and how for people who knew his father, and him as a kid, are amazed and amused at how many otherwise intelligent young people swallow Castaneda's stories whole.
posted by Dr. Curare at 12:05 AM on April 13, 2008

Finally, the man who launched thousands of ill-advised trips gets his due.

I have to say that I genuinely felt defrauded when I found out about his dishonesty. I read a couple of his books back when I was at an impressionable age, and although I didn't take them too seriously, they definitely had an effect. I don't think I would have tripped any more or less had I not read his books, but I probably would have had a different attitude toward my trips and tripping in general.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:47 AM on April 13, 2008

Thanks for linking back to the old post. ( if any one has news about nicky could they memail me please)
posted by adamvasco at 12:52 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the final year of my undergrad I earned a D in an elective Sociology course because the instructor was a Castenada fan. I repeatedly brought up the evidence that he was a fraud and was told that he was a new type of sociologist. I replied that he was the oldest type of sociologist.

The comment that came along with the paper I wrote detailing all this was that I was too critical of other people's thoughts. For my next paper I pasted the critical thinking educational objective from the student handbook into an appendix.

I had a good solid A average and made the Honour roll every semester other than that one and went on to graduate school. That D cost me a shot at a graduate scholarship I would have otherwise been eligible for - so in total probably about $45K over 3 years.

I'd do it again because some shit just isn't worth eating. The difference is that this time around I would appeal the grade. I suppose I was a future "the man" and the hippie twit was preemptively sticking it to me.
posted by srboisvert at 2:08 AM on April 13, 2008 [8 favorites]

[I] was told that he was a new type of sociologist. I replied that he was the oldest type of sociologist.

Points for that.
posted by sidereal at 5:43 AM on April 13, 2008

srboisvert: You are definitely a luminous being. No Datura stramonium needed fo this conclusion.
posted by rdone at 5:55 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I went to college at the height of Castaneda madness, and he visited our campus, so I not only read his first book, I met the guy. I thought he was full of shit, and nothing since then has caused me to alter my thinking.

Great story, srboisvert. I had a similar experience with a lefty poly sci professor who gave bad grades to anyone who didn't agree with everything he believed. It's annoying (especially when, as happened with you, it costs you money), but it sure teaches a valuable lesson about academia and authority.
posted by languagehat at 6:25 AM on April 13, 2008

That "con-artist" link at Reality Sandwich is really good - short, sharp and full of damning information. Thanks for the post.
posted by mediareport at 7:00 AM on April 13, 2008

srboisvert, that sort of thing is endemic to professors everywhere, no matter where on the political spectrum they rest. But I think you could probably do the world a favor by tracking the guy down: a guy like that can't have gone far.

Send him a copy of the DVD and other materials. Underneath that, a copy of your papers. Next, your transcript, with the "D" in question circled and a little writeup (plus whatever evidence) of this $45,000 loss. At the very bottom, simply put "Your worship of this fraud and inability to accept the evidence cost me precisely this much." It's a few hours of work. Sometimes people need to be confronted with the consequences of their actions. It'll feel great for you and might save the scholarships of some students coming after you.

Bonus round if there's no reply: send a duplicate of that package to the dean of the relevant school.
posted by adipocere at 7:44 AM on April 13, 2008

And as for the mid nineteen eighties, in my Native Studies program at Trent University near Toronto, the mention of Castenada's name would elict either guffaws of laughter, or a quiet emtying of the room, depending on whether his name came up in casual conversation, or some over eager white kid burst into the Native students lounge looking for peyote.

Everyone seemed on to him back then. I read the books to find out what the fuss was about and was incredulous but I enjoyed the stories. However, I remember thinking at the time that it would have been more realistic if he had set them on Arakis.
posted by salishsea at 8:13 AM on April 13, 2008

Huh. Well, that's me whacked right in the assemblage point.
posted by flabdablet at 8:32 AM on April 13, 2008

The BBC documentary was very well done. Like others here, I read these books when I was in high school back in the late 1970's. They were certainly great stories, though looking back I'm somewhat embarrassed that my critical thinking facility was not well formed.

The use of Datura reminded me of a passage from Tex Watson's book Will You Die For Me?

On April 23 1969 I was arrested in Van Nuys for being under the influence of drugs in public. It began with a small piece of belladonna root that Brenda-Nancy had found in the fields behind the ranch and boiled up in the kitchen, a piece no more than a half inch long and a quarter of an inch across. It ended up with me slithering across a sidewalk on my hands and knees through a crowd of schoolchildren, unable to walk, unable to make any noise except little mechanical sounds, over and over; Beep, beep....beep, beep, beep." Before it was over, ten days later, I would have seen space people beeping back at me, landing and taking off from circles of light; I would have seen the wind itself. The arrest was not only the source of a mug shot that showed me grinning up at the camera like a demented animal-a photograph that later became the best-known image of me in the press. It also resulted in me being fingerprinted for the first time in my life. Later it was one of those fingerprints that matched a print lifted from the freshly washed door at 10050 Cielo Drive the day after the first murders.

Andrew Weil also wrote about Datura in The Marriage of the Sun and Moon.
posted by Tube at 9:49 AM on April 13, 2008

The funny thing is that, even knowing that this was a total crock, I still have fond memories of these books. As the nerdiest teenager ever, who had never smoked or had a drink, I thought it might be a good idea to wander around the desert and try some hallucinogens. I never did, and eventually got more or less the effect I was seeking by wandering around the Peruvian rainforest.
posted by lukemeister at 10:02 AM on April 13, 2008

Eeech. I don't know. If you make it any distance into the second book and you still have doubts, you're firmly in "I Want To Believe" territory. Not that you don't have a lot of company.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:33 AM on April 13, 2008

One of the best takedowns of Carlos Castaneda ever written was "Carlos Castaneda: The Greatest Hoax Since Piltdown Man" in Ward Churchill's book, Fantasies of the Master Race. Ironic in a "takes-one-to-know-one" sort of way, isn't it?
posted by jonp72 at 12:16 PM on April 13, 2008

All I can surmise from the fact that Carlos Castaneda ever managed to dupe anyone is that some people don't have very good bullshit detectors. I was twelve when I first encountered Castaneda, and I knew it was crap, then. Instantaneously. The same with Uri Geller, slightly later.

I got my first Nigerian scam letter in the early 1980s, and knew without the shadow of a doubt that it was a scam, seconds after first perusing it.

I don't think that other people (those who are duped) are necessarily stupid, but I do think that they might be missing a faculty (of incredulity?) that some were lucky enough to be born with.
posted by Chasuk at 12:41 PM on April 13, 2008

I had a good solid A average and made the Honour roll every semester other than that one and went on to graduate school. That D cost me a shot at a graduate scholarship I would have otherwise been eligible for - so in total probably about $45K over 3 years.

Too late now, of course, but under the circumstances an anomaly like this might have been brought to the dean's attention. Depends on the dean and the school, of course, but you might at least have been able to get it stricken from your transcript.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:21 PM on April 13, 2008

It’s easy to strike a cynical pose.
Castenada was doing anthropology from a an existential phenomenological base. Read Husserl if you’re capable... specifically “Cartesian Meditations”.
posted by Huplescat at 5:45 PM on April 13, 2008

Um... no. Casteneda was not doing anthropology from an existential phenomenological base. He was pissing off to Mexico to cheat on his wife and do drugs, and spinning an amazing (and, later, very lucrative) line of bullshit to cover that up.

The only real question remaining is how much of his own bullshit he himself ended up believing.
posted by flabdablet at 6:03 PM on April 13, 2008

That’s cute flabdablet. You get 2 points. Now tell me something about Edmund Husserl without resorting t o google . You have 2 minutes starting now.
posted by Huplescat at 6:25 PM on April 13, 2008

Hang on Huplescat. While it is certainly possible to do existential phenomenological ethnogrpahy, I think it's pretty clear that Casteneda was writing fiction.

And anyway, your reply to flabdablet was funny in a kind of schoolyard gauntlet dropping way. I have this image of a fifth grader challenging someone to quote Husserl on the spot, or...or...or what? What happens if flabdablet fails the test? Does that mean Casteneda was right all along?

My god flabdablet...don't fail us now!
posted by salishsea at 6:33 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Huplescat, it's up to you to prove your assertion. In what way was Castaneda's chronic deceit and manipulation anything like Husserl's work?
posted by empath at 6:41 PM on April 13, 2008

I'm currently a junior at university, and, though I am an English major, I do fit in as many philosophy courses as I can manage. I know who Husserl was without looking him up. However, all I remember is that he was the founder of phenomenology. I don't remember that he had anything to do with existential phenomenology. I thought that came later, with Heidegger.

Anyway, I still suspect that flabdablet's appraisal was right.
posted by Chasuk at 6:48 PM on April 13, 2008

Real understanding of existential phenomeneology is close to a religious experience but grounded in and based on a rigorous intellectual process.
posted by Huplescat at 7:28 PM on April 13, 2008

Still, walking around with your fingers slightly curled is an effective consciousness-raising technique, in that it increases the feedback loop between the huge number of links between the big physical/neuro areas of our bodymind. Just sitting down placing one's concentration on the palms of one's hands is a little-known meditation technique, not too dissimilar to focussing on one's breath (the most common technique, whether employed in connection with a mantra or not).

Bullshit acknowledged fully, the books were helpful to many of us in the Seventies.
posted by kozad at 7:30 PM on April 13, 2008

Real understanding of existential phenomeneology is close to a religious experience but grounded in and based on a rigorous intellectual process.

Isn't that similar to what Scientologists claim?
posted by Chasuk at 7:59 PM on April 13, 2008

Kozad...with bullshit fully acknowledged, I'm interested to know where Casteneda's books led you...did you come to a practice within a contemplative tradition as a result of reading his work?

I ask because that was certainly my experience, even though I knew Casteneda's writing was fiction. But I'm curious to see where it led others.
posted by salishsea at 8:31 PM on April 13, 2008

Huplescat, I have never read Husserl. However, I gathered from your comment that Husserl's writings support gonzo anthropology in some fashion. That's fine, I'm all for that. What I'm not for is lies, fiction, confidence tricks and self-serving newage (rhymes with sewage) masquerading as gonzo anthropology.

I would be interested in your responses to the specific points raised in the BBC documentary, if you can spare an hour of your valuable contemplation time to view it. In particular, I'd be interested in hearing what you have to say about the detrimental effect of Casteneda's writings on the peoples he was purportedly studying.

Several people have made the point that some of the techniques Casteneda described are indeed useful. That's absolutely true, of course. When you lift stuff from as many different sources as Casteneda did, the occasional nugget is bound to be scooped up along with all the garbage. Hell, even Scientology scores a few.
posted by flabdablet at 1:33 AM on April 14, 2008

I believe Castaneda was a spiritual paedophile. He was infantilised in later life (if not all the way through) and attempted to influence those around him to also become infantilised, causing considerable damage to their lives in the most cavalier way. Which is what it says in the documentary and in the 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' Book.

He was a trickster, in that the whole Don Juan story was invented to get out of explaining why he had done nothing in the way of field work.
posted by asok at 2:51 AM on April 14, 2008

Now tell me something about Edmund Husserl without resorting t o google . You have 2 minutes starting now.

What a juvenile thing to throw into an argument. Grow up.
posted by mediareport at 6:10 AM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

salishsea, yes. I was overly credulous in my reading of the spiritual books popular in the early '70's, like Castaneda's first few books, Autobiography of a Yogi, Be Here Now, etc.

But they did lead me away from drugs and toward involvement in "practice within a contemplative tradition," which I am quiet about but which has been profoundly transforming.
posted by kozad at 8:43 AM on April 14, 2008

I think it is wrong what Castaneda did. The fact is that, due to the War on Drugs, we have very little useful information to go on when it comes to psychedelics. In school, they tell you enough lies and propaganda to utterly destroy their own credibility. So even when they do tell you the truth, you're not inclined to believe it. Now, back in my tripping days (think mid-to-late 90s), we didn't have any resources like Erowid, so most of my knowledge of drugs came from personal experience, urban legend, and books like Castaneda's. So you can see how, in this context, such disinformation as Castaneda produced can be quite harmful.

His books led me to expect things from drugs that they just couldn't deliver. More than that, they reinforced the idea, contributed to by other cultural sources, that tripping was somehow good for you - kinda like eating your vegetables.

Furthermore, his books unfairly occupy a place in popular culture that would be more rightly held by genuine narratives of indigenous psychedelic use. The fact is that religious psychedelic use is an ages-old tradition, and I would have been far better off reading about the Huichols (who, unlike the Yaqui, actually use peyote) or any of the Peruvian ayahuasca traditions. Instead, I wasted my time with this dude's fantasy novels.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:48 AM on April 14, 2008

Thank you kozad...I respect that.

Afroblanco...I know two interesting people in their 80s, one of whom was a respected head of surgery at a fine medical facility who have been experimenting with drugs lately. Both of them are dharma students, and they report that when LSD and ecstasy are used to heighten consciousness and compassion respectively, amazing states are experienced. They report that these states are very useful for understanding more about what dharma practice is about. They also warn that if one approaches these drugs as entertainment or with fear, the resultant experiences don't work out so well.

While this is by no means a new discovery, I think it's cool that my two Elders are experimenting in this rather clinical and open minded way. If anything, people should know that there is a path associated with using these kinds of drugs if you want to use them as tools.

Me, I'm past that stage, and not going back to these drugs (maybe in my 80s). But I wish I'd known about a much more responsible way to use them back in the day. I might have learned something far more useful about myself than what complete paranoia feels like.
posted by salishsea at 12:05 PM on April 14, 2008

Both of them are dharma students, and they report that when LSD and ecstasy are used to heighten consciousness and compassion respectively, amazing states are experienced.

"an Amazing State" is a pretty accurate description. Especially if you do them both at once. But you aren't going to reach enlightenment that way.
posted by empath at 1:22 PM on April 14, 2008

Both of them are dharma students

Yeah, the fifth precept is for suckers.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:27 PM on April 14, 2008

“A Fish Called Wanda”:
"Apes don't read philosophy"

"Yes they do Otto, they just don't understand it."
posted by Huplescat at 1:51 PM on April 14, 2008

Sorry Burhanistan, not aimed at you. Just trying to lighten things up.
posted by Huplescat at 1:54 PM on April 14, 2008

Next time I'll hit refresh before I post.
posted by Huplescat at 2:00 PM on April 14, 2008

Just chalk it up to con trolled folly. We're all Bozos on this bus.
posted by Huplescat at 2:26 PM on April 14, 2008

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