Castaneda the Realist

“You must realize,” [don Juan Matus] said, “that it is our cognition, which is in essence an interpretation system, that curtails our resources. Our interpretation system is what tells us what the parameters of our possibilities are, and since we have been using that system of interpretation all our lives, we cannot possibly dare to go against its dictums.”

–Carlos Castaneda, The Active Side of Infinity

It’s a funny thing, my addiction to Carlos Castaneda. He’s not even a particularly good writer, really. I think if you gave me any one of Castaneda’s books and a red pen, I could go through it the same way I would any manuscript of my own and cut 10-20 percent. And it’s not as if his books are long to begin with–I doubt even the hardcovers ever get much past 300 pages.

Most of what I read ‘for pleasure’ can be ascribed by one means or another to my overarching goal of becoming a better writer. Normally, this means reading great writers of fiction, great prose stylists. I went through The Active Side of Infinity with an eye for interesting excerpts I could cull for the purpose of this entry. But I had a hard time at it, because his prose makes it impossible to pull out the meat of any idea without dragging some element of klunk along with it–passive voice, repetitive structure, superfluous wordage–some of it’s forgivable as a form of teaching strategy, but a lot of it feels like the rookie mistakes of a writer less interested in writing than in what he’s writing about.

I wonder about those mistakes. Clearly Castaneda was making bank for some editor somewhere. His stuff has a cult following like no other. Why, then, did that editor choose not to put a little more work into cleaning up the language? Was it a conscious choice? Did this editor believe, perhaps, that not bothering to produce a cleaner manuscript would contribute to a sense of authenticity which, in the case of a crackpot anthropologist writing about the teachings of a fantastical native American sorcerer, was sorely wanting?

I pull down from the shelf the five Castaneda books nearest to hand. From the bindings and front matter, it looks like the two mass-market paperbacks are both from Washington Square Press. The hardcover was put out by HarperCollins, and of the two trade paperbacks, one is Penguin, the other Simon & Schuster–which I believe are the same thing now anyway–but the point is, that’s a lot of imprints. A lot of different hands in the cookie jar. I imagine Castaneda might have made himself rather a difficult talent to work with, what with his insistence on concealing his source, his mysterious disappearance, not to mention the complete irrational implausibility of most of what he asserts to be the truth.

Could something have occurred between Castaneda and his publisher, back before 1968, akin to the conversation that must have taken place between James Frey and some shrewd, impatient businessperson at Random House sometime in 2002?

“Damn, this is a great story. I can’t believe this stuff actually happened to you.”
“Well, it didn’t actually. This is a work of fiction.”
“What? I didn’t buy a work of fiction. Nobody reads fiction anymore. You’re telling me none of this is true? Why the hell didn’t you say that in your cover letter?”
“I was trying to get a foot in the door. I thought I could hook you better if you thought it was true. I mean, it did happen to me. Some of it.”
“Well, you were right. So right, in fact, that I’m not buying it unless you swear on camera in front of God and Oprah and everybody that everything you wrote in that cover letter was true.”
“Uh. Okay. Guess I can do that.”

Of course, I don’t really like this hypothetical. I’d much prefer to assign all the cleverness to Castaneda, just as much as I want to believe there really was an 80-year-old Yaqui sorcerer called don Juan Matus who taught this obsessive, insecure academic how to silence his inner monologue, expand his perception, gain control of himself, kick ass, take names, and transcend time and space. But it’s impossible for me to know one way or another. I can doubt the existence of don Juan all I want; I can even doubt Castaneda the man, at least as his books present him. But there remains a possibility that all of it is real. And that ambiguity is actually a big part of why I keep reading.

I read him for the opportunity to see the line between reality and fiction move. To learn how such things are achieved.

He had said that everything I did had to be an act of sorcery. An act free from encroaching expectations, fears of failure, hopes of success. Free from the cult of me; everything I did had to be impromptu, a work of magic where I freely opened myself to the impulses of the infinite.

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