By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
It was also typical that at some point during the afternoon or evening he would gasp with alarm, slap his palm to his forehead with sitcom-style dismay and rush to the nearest pay phone. Then he would call someone - often a university colleague - with whom he had an appointment. He was always enormously apologetic, offering an impressively dramatic excuse for the oversight. "I'm calling you from Mexico City," he might shout into the receiver, from a gas station in Pacific Palisades. "I feel terrible! But I was unexpectedly detained by power!"
Generally, though, our outings seemed quite ordinary. We would sometimes go to the movies. Often we simply went for lunch or dinner, then for a walk. Once he took me to see a display of masks at UCLA, and afterward presented me with two Yaqui masks. But each encounter was in fact a teaching exercise. Along the bluffs above the ocean, he taught me how to run in the dark without tripping, lecturing me genially on the necessity of living my life more "impeccably." As we emerged into the brightness of a theater lobby after seeing Auntie Mame, he turned to me and said with great poignancy: "I took you to see this movie because I wanted you to know that you must use the world. In fact, it's absolutely essential to do so! But you must remember to use it with love."
In the mouth of anyone else, these words would have sounded hopelessly sentimental. But Carlos imbued such pronouncements with a ferociously poetic force. Some of his sorcerer's tips were more practical than philosophical. When I complained to him how I'd run out of gas the night before, for example, he told me that Don Juan had told him that if he anthropomorphized his car, it would never run out of gas again. (I took the advice to heart and chatted up my Karmann Ghia, which obliged me by running on fumes, if necessary, for the next 13 years.) Another day, he gave me a compass and told me I should turn my bed around, head to the west (or was it the east?) to increase my energy.
Other instructions were not quite so straightforward. One day, he gave me an unpolished rock the color of ochre, half the size of my hand. He said Don Juan had given it to him to give to me with explicit directions as to how I must polish it. With great seriousness, I polished the rock for hours until I passed into a sort of waking dream state. The long-term significance of this event, I couldn't tell you. But I still have the rock.
In addition to trying to help me "collapse the parameters of normal perception," Castaneda talked about personal concerns, such as his worry that his doctoral thesis might not be approved. He often seemed to be in a state of tremendous anguish over his apprenticeship. "Don Juan wants me to attempt to stop the world, but if I don't have the energy to do it I may die," he would say. In Don Juanian terms, "stopping the world" was letting go of the last vestiges of cultural preconceptions. "Maybe I should stay here in L.A. But how can I?"
There was a wildly funny side to Carlos as well. He was a wicked gossip and loved regaling me with tales of his encounters with other luminaries of the so-called consciousness movement. He recounted how famous gestalt therapist and "horny old goat" Fritz Perls had barged unwittingly into Castaneda's darkened bedroom at Big Sur's Esalen Institute, mistakenly thinking it empty, and proceeded to have a noisy, amorous tryst with a young acolyte - much to Castaneda's amusement. On another occasion, he gleefully described a dinner that he and the guru Ram Dass (former Tim Leary associate Richard Alpert) had both attended, at which Ram Dass had gotten roaring drunk and begun shouting boisterously, "That's what they call me, 'Baba ram de ass!' Get it? 'Baba ram de ass!'"
In the spring of 1973, the article appeared in Seventeen, and soon after, I left the magazine. With the publication of Journey to Ixtlan, Castaneda was swept further into the maelstrom of his fame and field work, and became much harder to reach. Eventually we lost contact.
During all the time I spent with Castaneda, it never occurred to me that he wasn't representing himself and his apprenticeship truthfully. Not that I took every wrinkle of his stories to be literal fact. A few of my friends who knew of our acquaintance asked if I thought he had really turned into a crow, as was suggested in one of the books. Such questions struck me, even at the time, as ridiculous. His work wasn't about metaphysical parlor tricks, I would reply, nor was it about psychotropic drugs. It was a system for living, a way of deconstructing consensus reality in order to conceive of a world of unimaginable possibilities.
There had been occasional mutterings in the mainstream press about Castaneda's books being metaphorical in nature, but the first serious attempt to debunk his work came in 1976, when author-psychologist Richard de Mille (son of Cecil B.) wrote a book called Castaneda's Journey: The Power and the Allegory. De Mille painstakingly combed through Castaneda's four published volumes, trolling them for inconsistencies, cross-referencing his ethnographic data with other spiritual and philosophical disciplines from which de Mille felt Carlos had stolen. He also suggested that the standards applied by Castaneda's doctoral committee had not been sufficiently rigorous.