Carlos Castaneda: The Trickster Sorcerer

Thrift Store FindsI took the above picture after a rather fruitful day at the thrift store a few weeks back. No really, I found a copy of The Disinformation Book of Lists, a hard cover copy of The Art of Dreaming by Carlos Castaneda, and a VHS copy of Harvey all on the same morning. Sometimes everything just comes together. I posted the picture on Facebook (friend me). Of course, I’m only mentioning it here because of the synchromystic hive-mind interconnectivity shit that went down right afterwards. So, someone comments on the picture in regards to Castaneda, which was the second time he had come up in the same week. The first time was in relation to a wizard battle dream I had, where I fought off fledgling spectral witches inside my psychic mind temple. I don’t even pretend to entirely understand this stuff, but because it came up once again, I briefly mentioned how Castaneda was essentially a fiction author and a rather fucked up dude at that. I’ve gotten into this on multiple occasions over the last few years, and I’m fairly surprised to find that most of his fans remain largely unaware of it all.

It’s funny that I picked up Harvey on the exact day as Dreaming because it’s a film I ended up re-watching years ago primarily due to re-reading Robert Anton Wilson. He’s right, it is a classic, and a few weeks prior I finally took him up on his other advice to check out F is for Fake by Orson Welles. The entire film illuminates how whether something is fake or “real” can be largely irrelevant in terms of conscious experience. What’s significant is what whoever is perceiving it thinks. Whether something is fake or not, if you think it’s real, it’s real in your world for all intents and purposes. When you get down to it, these are the basic philosophies underlying modern magickal thought. Besides, who would know more about that than the guy who accidentally convinced a shit ton of people there was a full on alien invasion descending upon humanity?

But back to Castaneda. Most strangely, a day or two after I posted the picture, I saw the excellent witch Pam Grossman contemplating the topic of plagiarism in spiritual writing on Facebook. She mentioned Castaneda. Here’s where it gets interesting. While reading through the comments, I stumbled upon this Salon article from 2007 that I’d never read before. As mentioned, after buying into the fact that the guy’s writing was legitimate anthropology for years in my late teens/early 20’s, my mind completely changed on the matter a good while ago. I tracked down enough info to pretty much figure out that his writing was largely fraudulent. If I were to say what tipped me, it’d be the fact that he used his fame and wealth to start his own egomaniacal sex cult. He then told his followers that his writing was fiction straight up. Also, no really, the guy had a coven of sex witches. What’s sad is that half of the dudes reading this right now are all like, that is so bad ass, man! No, starting a cult isn’t cool. It’s the same shit lame-o Christian freaks do. Why do these cults always seem to involve an older dude who wants to bang teenagers in the name of higher spiritual conquest? Sadly, as much of a fan of Carlos’ writing as I am, taking young vulnerable women, cutting them off from their families and then supporting them financially so they live in a dream world completely dependent on you, is a total dick move in most situations. Karma’s a bitch and all. Anyway, if you’ve never read that article, check it out here as it is the main reason for this post:

No one contributed more to Castaneda’s debunking than Richard de Mille. De Mille, who held a Ph.D. in psychology from USC, was something of a freelance intellectual. In a recent interview, he remarked that because he wasn’t associated with a university, he could tell the story straight. “People in the academy wouldn’t do it,” he remarked. “They’d be embarrassing the establishment.” Specifically the UCLA professors who, according to de Mille, knew it was a hoax from the start. But a hoax that, he said, supported their theories, which de Mille summed up succinctly: “Reality doesn’t exist. It’s all what people say to each other.”

In de Mille’s first exposé, “Castaneda’s Journey,” which appeared in 1976, he pointed to numerous internal contradictions in Castaneda’s field reports and the absence of convincing details. “During nine years of collecting plants and hunting animals with don Juan, Carlos learns not one Indian name for any plant or animal,” De Mille wrote. The books were also filled with implausible details. For example, while “incessantly sauntering across the sands in seasons when … harsh conditions keep prudent persons away, Carlos and don Juan go quite unmolested by pests that normally torment desert hikers.”

De Mille also uncovered numerous instances of plagiarism. “When don Juan opens his mouth,” he wrote, “the words of particular writers come out.” His 1980 compilation, “The Don Juan Papers,” includes a 47-page glossary of quotations from don Juan and their sources, ranging from Wittgenstein and C.S. Lewis to papers in obscure anthropology journals.

In one example, de Mille first quotes a passage by a mystic, Yogi Ramacharaka: “The Human Aura is seen by the psychic observer as a luminous cloud, egg-shaped, streaked by fine lines like stiff bristles standing out in all directions.” In “A Separate Reality,” a “man looks like a human egg of circulating fibers. And his arms and legs are like luminous bristles bursting out in all directions.” The accumulation of such instances leads de Mille to conclude that “Carlos’s adventures originated not in the Sonoran desert but in the library at UCLA.” De Mille convinced many previously sympathetic readers that don Juan did not exist. Perhaps the most glaring evidence was that the Yaqui don’t use peyote, and don Juan was supposedly a Yaqui shaman teaching a “Yaqui way of knowledge.” Even the New York Times came around, declaring that de Mille’s research “should satisfy anyone still in doubt.”

Some anthropologists have disagreed with de Mille on certain points. J.T. Fikes, author of “Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties,” believes Castaneda did have some contact with Native Americans. But he’s an even fiercer critic than de Mille, condemning Castaneda for the effect his stories have had on Native peoples. Following the publication of “The Teachings,” thousands of pilgrims descended on Yaqui territory. When they discovered that the Yaqui don’t use peyote, but that the Huichol people do, they headed to the Huichol homeland in Southern Mexico, where, according to Fikes, they caused serious disruption. Fikes recounts with outrage the story of one Huichol elder being murdered by a stoned gringo.

Among anthropologists, there’s no longer a debate. Professor William W. Kelly, chairman of Yale’s anthropology department, told me, “I doubt you’ll find an anthropologist of my generation who regards Castaneda as anything but a clever con man. It was a hoax, and surely don Juan never existed as anything like the figure of his books. Perhaps to many it is an amusing footnote to the gullibility of naive scholars, although to me it remains a disturbing and unforgivable breach of ethics.”

If you do read that entire article (which I highly, highly recommend — long read though), you’ll find that his primary breach of ethics involved two of his witches who are thought to have offed themselves after his passing. Sad stuff, and you’d think that it would completely sour my opinion of the dude, and it does for sure, but on the other hand, I’m also just sort of astounded at the level of his artistry. I mean, the guy WAS an artist when you get right down to it. The efficacy of his art is a bit of a magick trick at a very base level. F is for Fake. Him selling a gabillion books was almost entirely dependent on people believing that his books were “real.” It was also dependent on compelling narratives. If people think they’re fake, no dice. If they’re not well-written page turners, same deal. So he cooked up a sorcerous trick and sold it to the world. What’s nuts is how far he went to cover it up. After all this stuff started coming out, he just went the fuck underground. Right in plain sight. He died without ever publicly admitting his works to be fiction (even though this is again, what he told his witches in private). More importantly, his publisher has never conceded as much either and they’re still categorized as non-fiction to this day. And they still sell.

As mentioned previously, I don’t think most of his fans even realize any of this at all, and hilariously, being such a huge fan myself, I’d sort of avoided most of it when you get right down to it. I knew his works were fiction and that he used to his fame to fuck everything that moves, but most of that article was news to me. Like, did you know he ended up becoming a big supporter of this weird Tai Chi shit called Tensegrity?

To which, I say, errrr… Also, and this is almost more weird, I had up until, like, 2 weeks ago never listened to the guy talk…at all, but here he is on a radio show before he went full-on incognito:

It was in contemplating all this that I had a stunning revelation. I started reading Carlos Castaneda when I was 18 at the recommendation of my dad. He bought me the freaking book, and despite going to Berkeley in the ’60s, has never gone all-in with a full-on psychedelic experience. He recommended the book precisely because it was recognized as an academic work, and thus it was legitimized in his eyes. I then read nearly the entire series, and it was my very first exposure to shamanic philosophy in any capacity. It helped me realize that I wasn’t crazy. Societies have based their religious practices around the ritualistic usage of hallucinogens for thousands of years. Fiction or not, it’s not like Castaneda didn’t study his shit. It’s not like shamanism isn’t a thing. The books were enormously helpful to me as a developing mystic, and I never would have come into contact with them when I did (which was right when I needed them) if my dad didn’t think they were “real.”  I still don’t think he knows. By even more bizarre circumstances, I have a half brother I grew up with who ended up moving to Peru, partially to pursue ayahuasca shamanism. What’s amazing is that we never talked about these fringe consciousness topics growing up…at all. I was a bit older and out of the house when I got hip. So was he. The pertinent thing is that Castaneda’s books were what inspired him, to a large extent, to move to Peru in the first place. They were basically like his Bible. Real or fake, they were an inspiration to both of us. To this day, I honestly have zero clue if he knows they’re fiction at all.

When I first started dating my wife I recommended his works, even though I knew they weren’t entirely what he was passing them off to be. She checked out some books on tape. They lead to some fairly illuminating inner-dream experiences, which she still mentions on occasion. Again, “real” or not, the way they influence the consciousness of the reader by means of suggestive potentiality is undeniable. Magick. He’s talking about spiritual traditions which have existed forever, so whether or not it’s all “real” is again, largely irrelevant. Was the guy more than a bit of a creepy sleezeball? Sure, so are most men in positions of power, when you get right down to it (it’s really sad). Was he also a master sorcerer? I’m going with yes on that front as well. He perpetuated a hoax that resonates throughout the consciousness of the species long after his death. If he didn’t do what he did, where would I have read about shamanism after blowing my mind on mushrooms as a teenager? I have no idea. My Dad certainly wouldn’t have recommended anything. It’s quite a spectacular trick. Total headfuck shit.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have to rely on deception. Everything about what I do with magick is totally on the level. Here’s a fun trick? Remember the picture at the top of the post? Check out this rather fun factoid I picked up while reading the same article:

Another former insider is Amy Wallace, author of 13 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the best-selling “Book of Lists,” which she co-authored with her brother David Wallechinksy and their father, novelist Irving Wallace, also a client of Korda’s. (Amy Wallace has contributed to Salon.) She first met Castaneda in 1973, while she was still in high school. Her parents took her to a dinner party held by agent Ned Brown. Castaneda was there with Abelar, who then went under the name Anna-Marie Carter. They talked with Wallace about her boarding school. Many years later, Wallace became one of Castaneda’s numerous lovers, an experience recounted in her memoir, “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Wallace now lives in East Los Angeles, where she’s working on a novel about punk rock.

Wait, did you just say that a former teenage witch of Carlos’, who even wrote a book about her experiences called Sorcerer’s Apprentice (which I now absolutely have to read), is actually most famous for writing The Book of Lists? The book that the Disinfo Book of Lists I bought on the same day as The Art of Dreaming (which indirectly lead me to the article in the first place) is loosely modeled after? Yep. That, my friends, is fucking trippy. Nothing fake about it. I posted the picture on Facebook publicly and I have the fucking receipt. My wife can verify it. My browsing history could be tapped if pressed. It’s a new phenomenon I’m labeling technological synchromysticism, which I’m sure you’ll be hearing quite a bit more about as my new book approaches. Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.

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Thad McKraken

Thad McKraken

Thad McKraken is a psychedelic writer, musician, visual artist, filmmaker, Occultist, and pug enthusiast based out of Seattle. He is the author of the books The Galactic Dialogue: Occult Initiations and Transmissions From Outside of Time, both of which can be picked up on Amazon super cheap.
Thad McKraken