Carlos Castaneda is, well, y'know, like maybe

By Robert S. Richmond

Carlos Castaneda, the author of numerous books about magical-mystical-ethnopharmacological adventures in the Sonoran desert, has, well, like, left us for some higher astral plane, at the age of, y'know, it depends on who you read.

Any aging hippie or devotee of the NewAge worth his beard and sandals believes in Don Juan Matus, the Yaqui sorcerer that a UCLA graduate student in anthropology encountered in a bus station somewhere in the Woods of Arcady.

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times obituaries, while recording an amazing amount of confusion as to Castaneda's birth and death (he supposedly died on April 27th, but his death was not reported to the media until almost two months later), largely failed to confront the absurdity of his narratives.

Carlos Castaneda seems to have been born in the 1920's or the 1930's, perhaps in Peru, perhaps in Brazil. While a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA he wrote The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge, the first in a long series of books about his supposed association with the Yaqui shaman he described as leading him through many improbable adventures.

Amazingly enough, UCLA granted him a Masters in anthropology for his concoctions, which fiction writers have been unkind enough to suggest that he had to publish as supposed fact because they wouldn't pass muster as fiction.

Apparently Castaneda lived in obscurity, avoiding photographers, interviews and other media exposure, and succeeded in dying as he had lived. A former wife and a son were not informed of his death. A hearing on his future book royalties is to be held in early July.

Carlos Castaneda could tell a whacking good tale. I read several of his books with great relish but diminishing credulity back in the seventies, when I was trying very hard to be a warrior. I'm a linguist wannabe, and what bothered me initially was the lack of Yaqui words in the narrative - one expects, say in an ordinary National Geographic article, to learn several words for ordinary (or extraordinary) objects in the native language.

About fifteen years ago I found - literally at a yard sale - Richard de Mille's The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies (Ross Erickson Publishers, Santa Barbara CA 1980, ISBN 0-915520-24-9). This marvelous collection of debunking essays, published by an obscure publisher, seems to have gone unnoticed, and it is long out of print.

Experts ranging from ethnomycologists (Gordon Wasson informed Castaneda that magic mushrooms don't grow in the desert, so in the next book Don Juan travels to Oaxaca), to desert rats ("Only utterly experienced and foolhardy persons set out across the summer sands, and then not for long, because death soon taps them on the left shoulder."), to an occult bibliographer (who points out plagiarism from an obscure phony "Yogi Ramacharaka" in the 1900's) savage Castaneda from many corners, but the believers continued to believe.

I find Castaneda's books to be a travesty of a proud and witty people. To find out who the Yaqui perhaps really are, look at Yaqui Deer Songs/Maso Bwikam: a Native American Poetry - Larry Evers and Felipe S. Molina - U of AZ 1987. Bilingual texts, in a Uto-Aztecan language quite simple to set in type. has it, with a cassette tape.