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Dreaming Castaneda 

Images of a 20th-century sorcerer

Wednesday, Jul 1 1998
For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, at this marvelous time. I want to convince you that you must learn to make every act count since you are going to be here for only a short while; in fact, too short for witnessing all the marvels of it.
-from Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda

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The death of Carlos Castaneda was officially announced on the evening of June 18. According to his death certificate, the best-known proponent of "non-ordinary reality" passed out of this world nearly two months earlier, on April 27, at his home in Westwood. According to his attorney, Deborah Drooz, Castaneda had been ill with liver cancer for some time, and it was his wish to leave his death unpublicized. The news leaked out when Adrian Vashon, the son of his former wife, received a court letter indicating he was mentioned in Castaneda's will. Vashon subsequently called the Los Angeles Times.

"Carlos Castaneda left the world the same way that his teacher, Don Juan Matus, did: with full awareness," read a prepared statement that appeared four days later on the Web site maintained by Cleargreen (www.castaneda.com), the corporation formed by Castaneda and his associates. "The cognition of our world of everyday life does not provide for a description of a phenomenon such as this. So in keeping with the terms of legalities and record-keeping that the world of everyday life requires, Carlos Castaneda was declared to have died."

I first met Carlos Castaneda in the spring of 1972. I was 24 years old and working for Seventeen magazine. Carlos was a doctoral student in the UCLA Department of Anthropology and already famous. His first two books, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (his master's thesis) and A Separate Reality, both detailing his apprenticeship to Don Juan Matus, a Mexican Indian shaman, had sold nearly half a million copies in paperback. Journey to Ixtlan, the doctoral dissertation he was completing at the time we met, would later put him, or a drawing of him - he would allow no recognizable photographs - on the cover of Time.

At this point, the Vietnam War was still in full swing, and Nixon was about to be re-elected. Like many young men and women of the period, I was terrified and alienated by the actions of the prevailing culture, which seemed to have gone mad; the Castaneda books were a desperately needed antidote to a world view that felt increasingly mechanistic and dispiriting.

Many of the concepts in the books - the notion of turning off one's internal dialogue in order to apprehend an expanded reality, dispensing with one's ego in order to follow "a path with heart," having an awareness of one's death in order to live life fully - each had direct parallels in other philosophical and religious disciplines. Yet there was an aggressive emotional imperative with which Castaneda wrote that suited the tenor of the times. He painted himself in his stories as a frightened naif bumbling through a magical yet deeply ethical spiritual system that could be taught and transferred. For a generation trying to account for its religious feelings outside the constrictions of conventional dogma, Castaneda's work had immense appeal.

Anxious to meet him, I talked my bosses at Seventeen into letting me interview Castaneda. By then he was already refusing all interviews, yet I was naively convinced he would see me. I badgered his editor at Simon & Schuster, Michael Korda, until his secretary took pity and pointed me to Castaneda's literary agent, a man named Ned Brown, whose office was in Beverly Hills. The curmudgeonly Brown agreed to pass the message on to Castaneda only because, he said, I reminded him of his daughter, adding that there was no hope of Carlos replying. Two weeks later, however, Brown called back to say that Carlos had consented to see me. Castaneda never showed for the meeting, but a week later, he called me at the office. "My cousin used to read Seventeen!" he said brightly. "So I thought the message from you was a very good omen. When would you like to meet?"

Though he became a distinguished-looking man with age, in those days Castaneda would have been hard to pick out in a crowd. He was, according to his own description, "a plain, brown man," 5-foot-5 and sturdy, with an unremarkable sort of face. His eyes - supremely watchful, intensely alive, often projecting an improbable combination of grief and amusement - were the most remarkable thing about him.

  • Images of a 20th-century sorcerer

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