Great Literary Bleemersnarks: Carlos and Don Juan

The Teachings of Don Juan

The recipe is simple but the preparation may take some time. Start with your favorite slices of fraud, hoax, scam or forgery. Mix well with several cups of greed. Garnish it with the essence of a failed self-lobotomy. Simmer until done. Serve while hot. That’s a literary bleemersnark.

Today’s favorite recipe: The entire body of work created by Carlos Cesar Salvador Arana Castaneda, better known to us as Carlos Castaneda. In total, a dozen books in the series. A unique smorgasbord of tasty fable-weaving, wrapped in obvious writing talent, with a likely daily diet of self-delusion. Ironically, this all worked well for nearly everyone involved, including Castaneda’s readers.

When and Where: The series began in California, in 1968, with the publication of The Teachings of Don Juan. Eleven more books would follow, including two published after Castaneda’s death.

The Bleemersnarkee: Not much damage here, unless you believe what publishers like Simon and Schuster tell you. Like Castaneda, the publishing house never failed to classify his work as “nonfiction” despite decades of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Consider this a case of mislabeling, perpetuated at the altar of corporate income. For Castaneda, it was a dream come true. Yes, even wizards can be surprised.

Carlos Castaneda

The Bleemersnarker: Castaneda was born in December 1925, in Peru. He died in April 1998, in Los Angeles. These are the facts, contrary to Castaneda’s changing stories about his birthplace, age, and a layer-cake of other goodies. He was a first-rate writer, as anyone who has read his books can attest. This is especially true of his first three novels.

The Plot: In a nutshell, Castaneda claimed to have received special training in native mysticism from a Yaqui “Man of Knowledge,” who went by the name of Don Juan Matus. His entire collection of books involves the practice and passing on of the sacred knowledge through a variety of characters. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, was allegedly the dissertation required for his doctoral candidacy in Anthropology at UCLA. This first book fooled them all, as did his next two. For a time, Castaneda was golden in both anthropological circles and literary ones. Several luminaries drank fully of the Castaneda cocktail, and life was so good.

After a few years, a small enclave of researchers began to look more closely at the body of Castaneda’s work. Their microscopes revealed some very nasty bugs.

The Fallout: In the 1970s, everything started to unravel. A number of articles critical of Castaneda’s work began to appear. Internal inconsistencies were many, time lines didn’t match up with movements, gaps in his work were appearing frequently. In fact, a close look at Castaneda’s first three books proved to unwind the myth that he had created with their publication. For example, when Carlos said he was out in the field dropping peyote and having mystical encounters, library slips showed him back at UCLA researching a wealth of related material. Woops.

Primary among his critics was Richard de Mille, who summarized his findings in Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory. There were many other doubters, who also published scathing yet usually well-researched rebuttals. It soon became clear that Castaneda’s work was anything but nonfiction. Nonetheless, the author continued to insist on the authenticity of his work and the reality of his experiences. As criticism reached a crescendo, Castaneda disappeared from public view for long periods but would resurface at rare and convenient moments. He was a master at the dodge, only allowing a few individuals close access. In the last decades of his life, Castaneda had, of course, become a full-blown wizard, just like Don Juan before him. He was also somewhat of a cult leader.

However, all was not the pure pleasure of enlightenment for him or his closest associates. In fact, it all got pretty nasty near the end.

The Reveal: In April 2007, Salon published a lengthy article written by Robert Marshall, The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda. It’s a fascinating, detailed look at Castaneda, his life, his devotees, his cult and, of course, the hoax. Marshall leaves no stone unturned and offers readers a penetrating investigation into the whole affair. The Castaneda story did not end well for some. At least five of his closest followers disappeared. Many others were left holding the bag. As Marshall points out in his article, Castaneda left a very dark legacy in his wake.

Yet, for those of us who read his books, especially the early ones, the fond memories remain. Call it hoax, fiction, or whatever you may, Castaneda could weave a heck of a tale. He created characters that last a lifetime for many readers. Perhaps a little honesty would have been better, but would it have killed any chance at publishing his first book? It’s one of the many enduring mysteries of Carlos Castaneda.