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12/19/03

Carlos Castaneda & Tin Cups

Bruce Wagner was not convinced of the author's accounts of don Juan Matus, the Yaqui nagual, or sorcerer. Castaneda's tales of shape-shifting crows and coyotes in the Sonoran desert seemed far-fetched. Wagner was fortunate enough to get an interview with the reclusive author, an interview which reveals Castaneda in a different light.

In 1960 Castaneda was a graduate student in anthropology at University of California Los Angeles. He said that on a field trip in Arizona researching the medicinal properties of plants, he met don Juan, an old Yaqui Indian shod in huaraches, who offered to help. Don Juan also happened to be a sorcerer.

Narrating the story of the old peasant, Castaneda wrote his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, now a classic, and a runaway best seller when first published. Written in California during the days of LSD and peyote, Castaneda learns how to fly, talk to a bilingual Coyote, and behold wondrous columns of singing light. This and other books made Castenada famous.

Like authors J.D. Salinger, and Thomas Pynchon, his celebrity drove Castaneda into life incognito. Reporters clamored for interviews but he was nowhere to be found. He slipped out back doors as they came in the front, you might say. Photographs of him are publicly unavailable. On a 1973 cover of Time magazine, only eyes are visible against the the dark outline of a head, but then Time discovered that the person wasn't Castaneda. Other magazines have tried to reconstruct his face based on the memories of old colleagues and erstwhile acquaintances. When Wagner asked how he should describe Castaneda, Carlos replied, "You may say I resemble Lee Marvin." (A macho Hollywood star now dead.) In fact he was a short, pudgy Peruvian. His ex-wife, Margaret Runyon, said he looked like a Cuban bellhop.

When they met at a cafe of a hotel in Beverly Hills, Wagner shook the hand of a man who "smiled broadly" and then sat down. All seemed well, and Wagner began to frame his first question when Castaneda's forehead wrinkled, his body convulsed, and his lower lip twitched. " 'Please!,' he declared, a shaky truce with facial muscles just enough to spit out the words, He bore down on [Wagner] in needy supplication. 'Please love me!' "

"We are apes with tin cups," Castaneda said after his sobbing stopped. "We're too busy holding onto mommy's hand," he explained, adding that "the scenarios of our lives have already been written by others." Contrary to this, he also said, "We are sublime--but the insane ape lacks the energy to see--so the brain of the beast prevails. We cannot grab our window of opportunity."

Wagner asked him "But if we have a choice, why do we stay in the gutter?"

"It's too warm. We don't want to leave."

Castaneda later said, "We must see ourselves as beings who are going to die. Once you accept that, worlds open up for you. But to embrace this definition you must have balls of steel." He went on. "What's real?," he asked. "This hard, shitty, meaningless, daily world? Are despair and senility what's real?" Castaneda claimed his system of opening worlds derived from twenty seven generations of sorcerers, bequeathed him by don Juan.

In Castaneda's books, don Juan helped him to perceive energy directly, teaching that we are magical beings who mistake ourselves for egos rather than spirits

Castaneda had encountered people like Bruce Wagner, skeptics of his accounts. Castaneda recalled a party where he met a scientist who read the first book but said he wanted proof, not anecdotes. Castaneda replied that to understand the book, the scientist would have to take Sorcery 101.

Somewhere in his article, Wagner asks himself, "What if it turns out Castaneda is inventing nothing? If that's true, you are in a very bad spot."

Of course, Wagner's suspicions might have been groundless and Castaneda was no fraud. Then again, he could have found support in Amy Wallace. In her memoirs, The Sorcerer's Apprentice: My Life with Carlos Castaneda, she recalls the May-December affair she had with Castaneda--she young, he aging. She met him at one of his workshops where he lectured on body movements, including sexual, as taught by his twenty seven generations of sorcerers. At a seedy Los Angeles motel they got into bed. "Carlos was so nervous that he insisted we leave our clothes on. He seemed anxious to complete the act quickly and was strangely businesslike, evidently struck with performance anxiety," Wallace writes. "As he fumbled with buttons, I stopped him and whispered, 'Let's relax for a while--Carlos, let's kiss for a while'. "

At a lecture by Castaneda in San Francisco, and attended by Wagner, a young man asked Castaneda how people could achieve all his experiences if they could not have access to a sorcerer such as don Juan. Castaneda replied that the fellow didn't need don Juan. Instead, he needed a lot of energy, "and for that you have to work your balls off."

Castaneda ended his lecture by saying that "don Juan used to say, 'One of us is an asshole. And it isn't me.' That's what I came to tell you today."

Although Wagner didn't, the audience roared with laughter and Castaneda disappeared through the back door. While the audience laughed, Wagner responded differently to Castaneda's remark. He made up his mind about Castaneda, and one imagines him thinking of P.T. Barnum's phrase, "There's a sucker born every minute."

After deciding on his opinion of Castaneda, he says of Carlos running into the alley, "I wanted to chase him down, calling 'Please love me!' " Wagner says "that would have been a good laugh, anyway. But I forgot my tin cup."

At his Los Angeles home, Castaneda died in 1998 of liver cancer. He was 72. His death went almost unnoticed by the press.
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This article derives from various sources, including Details magazine, March 1994, "You Only Live Twice," by Bruce Wagner.

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