Sunday, 27 December 2015
I tumbled out of bed at 8.30 the other morning, then staggered across the cold, hard floor into the bathroom. I had hardly slept a wink; when I dared to peer blearily into the mirror, it showed. My dried-out hair was flying in every direction, like an elderly Warhol gone wrong. The rims of my half-closed eyes were red, the eyes themselves shot through with fatigue. Sinuses were up, and my brain felt dessicated. In many ways I resembled the sunken-eyed protagonist of the chapter that I had read the evening before, the main prior condition for my nocturnal disturbances. The main difference was that he had, the day before waking in his Los Angeles apartment, jumped into an abyss thousands of miles away in the Mexican desert. Despite the plenitude of suitable precipices within a two-hour drive of my bathroom in northern Scotland I had done no such thing. Not to the best of my knowledge, at least.
The very mention of the word 'Castaneda' provokes a veritable avalanche of views, feelings, opinions and counter-opinions. Scattered across the face of the globe are the remains of those once-believers who still reel in confusion at the discovery that maybe not everything Castaneda wrote was true in the literal sense. These people feel betrayed, victims of a pseudo-spiritual conman par excellence. I find this slightly perplexing, or at least not very clever. When, along with a close friend, I first came across the writings of Casaneda in the mid-1970s, we did not question the literal verity of the books. There was the unmistakeable mark of authenticity about them, they resonated with something within us. And that was the most important thing. The tantrums of the disillusioned are not, I suggest, the mark of emotional maturity.
It occurs to me that people claim to learn plenty about life from Shakespeare, or for that matter Buddha, without resorting to literal verity. Fundamentalist Shakespeareanism is not commonplace. So why apply this criterion to Castaneda? 'Ah' the smart will pipe up. 'Shakespeare didn't pretend that his plays were real. And Buddha goes back so far that we don't know for sure. But Castaneda passed off his writings as literal accounts. They formed the basis of his doctoral degree. He was dishonest in the extreme, and a very bad man.'
This is the crux. People have a crisis of faith, not because the lack of literal truth makes Castaneda's work any less valuable, but because they feel duped. This pseudo-shamanic bastard has got one over on them. He has insulted their intelligence, their ability to discern. He has well and truly humiliated them. What a great teaching this is! Ego mortally bashed where it most hurts! They don't realise it, but these Carlos-knockers should be truly grateful for his artful piece of sorcery; it has done more good than a wheelbarrow load of books on self-improvement could ever do. And as for writing a thesis built on fiction - another master-stroke. If Castaneda is out to demonstrate anything, it is that our linear, 'rational' mode of experience is only one of many. Don't reify that university view of life as the biggest, best, or one-and-only, please. Should you do so, it's further proof that you haven't done your Castaneda studies properly yet.
Many are the critics and detractors from Castaneda's life and work. There are the knockers of literalism and academic deception that I have just written about. Then there is Amy Wallace, She was one of Castaneda's inner circle of witches, and has written a book about life with the Great Shaman, majoring on his sexual preferences and propensities, not generally in very glowing terms. There are others still who point out that Castaneda died in a way unbefitting a great Sorceror. Instead of living to 110 years old in rude health, then disappearing into a rainbow at sunset, he was afflicted by a particularly nasty form of cancer of the liver, and died at the unremarkable age of 72. What's more, rumour has it that he spent a portion of his last period on Earth watching war films. Most inappropriate.
Without wishing to exonerate Castaneda at all, I am left with the unavoidable impression that the criticisms of Castaneda say more about the critics themselves than about the object of their ire. Their presumptions, prejudices, preconceptions about what sorcerors do and how sorcerors behave. They are all, as Don Juan puts it in an early chapter of 'The Active Side of Infinity', making 'figures in front of a mirror'. Making their own show, their own display, saying 'look at me, with my shit-hot intellect, my shit-hot reason, my shit-hot debunking of this loathsome fraud and trickster.'
For worthwhile critique, there are John Lash's thoughful and thought-provoking articles on the themes in the 'Gnostic Castaneda' section of the Metahistory website, communicating more sense than most of Castaneda's critics put together. Meanwhile, it remains for me to say that, in my view, there is one fatal flaw in the Castaneda world, a flaw not uncommon among the moulders of spirituality of a certain generation. Needless to say, it is a topic that appears to have passed Castaneda's hardcore detractors by. I shall return to this topic at a later date.
In the meantime, the volume giving rise to my early morning horrors is 'The Active Side of Infinity', in my view one of the finest and most important volumes in the Castaneda library. Written during the final passage of Castaneda's time on Earth, it catalogues the 'memorable events of his life'. The creation of an album of these memorable events is, according to Don Juan, a vital piece of work for the warrior-traveller. Having read the book several times, and on each occasion spellbound, I begin to understand just why.