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
Castaneda fans and a majority of his colleagues at UCLA dismissed the de Mille book as ax grinding. However, by 1978 there was growing disagreement in anthropology circles. Yaqui expert Dr. Ralph Beals asked to see Castaneda's field notes and was unhappy when Carlos continually dodged the request. Dr. Jacques Maquet, then head of UCLA's Department of Anthropology, also objected to the fact that no hard evidence had ever been presented to back up Castaneda's accounts. "What is essential is not simply to have the experience," says Maquet today, "but, if it is anthropology, to make it possible for other anthropologists to repeat the experience. Castaneda never did that. He never presented Don Juan. What he has done is not anthropology simply because he has kept it secret. He has created a brilliant fiction based on something real, but fiction nonetheless."
Further complicating matters, in 1982, a woman named Florinda Donner published a book called Shabono, in which she described dramatic, Castaneda-like experiences with the Yanomama Indians of Venezuela. The normally reclusive Carlos wrote a glowing blurb on the jacket cover, and soon the news circulated that Donner was claiming to also be an apprentice to Don Juan. A single academic apprenticed to an unseen sorcerer was one thing; a second began to stretch the credulity of all but the most ardent believers.
I met Donner in 1982 when she accompanied Castaneda to a dinner party given by Jacques Barzaghi, Jerry Brown's longtime adviser. Carlos, whom I hadn't seen in years, was distant; Donner wasn't, and we chatted for much of the evening. I found her stories of her time with the Yanomama convincing.
When I saw her a few years later at Barzhagi's wedding, she confided that all the apprentices - Castaneda, herself and several other Anglo women - were in a terrible emotional state. She described fantastic incidents - about how, for example, one of their sorcery teachers had turned old before their eyes, she said. "Like the picture of Dorian Gray. It was like something you'd imagine seeing in a science-fiction movie, but we actually saw it happen." Now Carlos was very ill and living in Arizona. "We don't know what to do," she said. "We are waiting for him to lead us. But he doesn't know what to do either, so we just have to wait."
It was difficult to know what to make of such a story. As with Castaneda, Donner's emotional turmoil seemed intense and genuine. But these increasingly fantastic stories of multiple sorcerer's apprentices were hard to swallow whole, leading some to conclude that many of Castaneda's stories also may have been stupendous falsehoods. Even those of us who'd been believers, or nearly so, couldn't help but wonder if we hadn't, in fact, simply been audience members to a sort of Truman Show in reverse, a troupe of actors who had infiltrated the real world, staging a magical theater that had lasted for decades.
After years of inaccessibility, Castaneda began making public appearances in what would be the last decade of his life. At first they were small interactive gatherings held without fanfare at various bookstores; later he led occasional martial-arts classes and seminars in a form of movement Castaneda called "tensegrity," billed as ancient "shamanistic" exercises designed to increase awareness. These were presented by Donner and the various other women who surrounded Castaneda. Through Cleargreen, these women have announced that they will be keeping the work going. With corporate efficiency, Tensegrity seminars are scheduled for July and August, with more seminars and videos planned for the future.
If anything, the controversies surrounding Castaneda are greater than ever. But some of those who knew him well have arrived at a provisional answer. "He had a genius for introducing people to the possibility of seeing other realities," says Gloria Garvin, a former member of Castaneda's inner circle, "but there was never a Don Juan. He knew shamans. He did a great deal of research over the years, often under other names. And he would journey and dream, and stimulate amazing journeys and dreams in the people around him. "
"I had astonishing experiences with Carlos that are difficult to explain," says Douglass Price-Williams, professor emeritus in anthropology and psychiatry at UCLA. "You see, you can't say his work is factual, but you can't say it's false either. It's so much more complex than that. He did have profound experiences of his own. And he had a great deal of ethnographic knowledge. He also engaged in elaborate role-playing that he pushed to the point that I think he could no longer tell the difference. But the thing that set Carlos apart was his genius for taking all this and communicating it in a way that truly moved people."
Larry Peters, an anthropologist and psychotherapist who has done extensive field work with Nepalese shamans, puts it another way: "Carlos was an expert navigator of that other world. Frankly I believe Don Juan was an entity - a spirit, if you will - that Carlos encountered while dreaming. There is a deep wisdom in his texts that cannot be regarded as either fiction or knowledgeable fabrication."