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Castaneda—Then and Now

I first got into Castaneda in the mid-’70s, when Tales of Power was his latest and he was a huge inspirational figure to the psychedelic movement, but at the same time was coming under attack on the grounds that his anthropological fieldwork was a tissue of fiction. What my friends and I particularly liked about the books was that we could act out their various elements, adapting them to suit our own lives. So we would go out to various ‘power spots’, partake of ‘the little smoke’ and then, having entered the correct frame of mind, ‘stop the world’. In more general terms, we also attempted ‘living like a warrior’, following ‘a path with heart’, practising ‘the gait of power’—which incredibly did work!—and we also developed Castanedaesque commentary to accompany our favourite games. Therefore to attain a maximum score was to achieve a feat of ‘knowledge’, whereas to score poorly was considered to be ‘indulging’ and succumbing to the various enemies of a ‘man of knowledge’.

When we read Richard de Mille’s Castaneda’s Journey, which attempts to tear Castaneda apart sentence by sentence, my friends and I disagreed. One friend, who had read widely on anthropology and shamanism, considered that Castaneda no longer had any credibility amongst his peer group members, such as R. Gordon Wasson, Peter Furst and Michael Harner, and ought to be honest and start calling himself a novelist. I then argued that the tenets of his philosophy still held up on a mythological level regardless of whether they had factual or fictional sources.

I wondered whether de Mille’s expose would damage Castaneda’s popularity in the long run, and shortly the ’80s came along and there was a radical zeitgeist shift, with Reaganism taking hold in the U.S. and Thatcherism in the U.K. The acquisitive cult of the yuppie was born, and there was no longer any place for teachings such as don Juan’s. But much more recently, when I looked into Castaneda again, I was struck by how venerated he is by new generations of fans. The ratings for his books on Amazon are impressively high and the number of websites and blogs dedicated to him is huge.

Seemingly today’s psychonauts are not interested in de Mille’s dogmatic wrestling with the issues of fact versus fiction, and instead, like the acid and mushroom trippers of the ’60s and ’70s, see Castaneda’s philosophy as a series of charts by which they can help map their own experiences. Back in the ’70s I saw that the strength of the books rested on their ‘how to’ elements, like recipe or fitness books, and that Castaneda had conferred the status of vicarious sorcerer’s apprentices upon his readership. Now it seems axiomatic that such a process would continue through time. As history teaches us again and again: myth is more powerful than fact.

First appeared on Evolver

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