Thursday, June 24, 2010

Carlos Castaneda - Novelist

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have some wonderful teachers, and some of the best were those who taught me how to read novels.

My favorite novels? Of the thousands of novels I've enjoyed over the years, at the top of the heap are the novels of Carlos Castaneda. My preference may strike you as a little surprising. I mean, what about Dickens, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Updike and hundreds of other major novelists? Anyhow, didn't Castaneda claim that his books were nonfiction? Didn't he write about anthropology and spirituality? Good questions.

Long ago I chose to take a contrary view of Castaneda's work, that his books were not nonfiction as commonly believed, but novels. In my opinion, they are fictions that derive from two novelistic traditions. The first is called "magical realism," in which fantastic and dreamlike events are portrayed matter-of-factly, as if they were real. Examples are Luis Borges (Argentina), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Columbia), Gunter Grass (Germany), John Fowles (Britain) and Toni Morrison (USA).

The second tradition is the philosophical novel. Because much of Castaneda's fiction has a surreal quality to it, for me the main message is communicated on a thematic level. As I mined this layer of meaning, I encountered philosophical and spiritual insights that have had a major impact on my life. This is why Castaneda's novels mean so much to me, even though I also enjoy the works of mainstream literary novelists a great deal.

In the Castaneda novels, the Carlos persona is a tentative, confused apprentice. Don Juan is the shaman teacher, both patient and demanding. The fourth novel in the series is Tales of Power (1974). I’ve read it half a dozen times, and I look forward to reading it again. It’s the account of the conclusion of Carlos’ 12-year apprenticeship.

My favorite passage is the final chapter. The lessons of Carlos’ strange experiences have all been summarized and clarified, leading up to the final test of “leaping into the unknown.” Don Juan and don Genaro, his teachers, bear final witness to Carlos and Pablito, the two apprentices. “The life of a warrior cannot possibly be cold and lonely and without feelings,” says don Genaro, “because it is based on his affection, his devotion, his dedication to his beloved. And who, you may ask, is his beloved? I will show you now.” He then performs an astounding demonstration, in which he “embraces the earth” by hovering above the ground in a swimming motion.

Then don Juan interprets this amazing performance: “Genaro’s love is the world. He was just now embracing this enormous earth but since he’s so little all he can do is swim in it. But the earth knows that Genaro loves it and it bestows on him its care. That’s why Genaro’s life is filled to the brim and his state, wherever he’ll be, will be plentiful. Genaro roams on the paths of his love and, wherever he is, he is complete.”

“This earth, this world. For a warrior there can be no greater love.”

“Only if one loves this earth with unbending passion can one release one’s sadness. A warrior is always joyful because his love is unalterable and his beloved, the earth, embraces him and bestows upon him inconceivable gifts. The sadness belongs only to those who hate the very thing that gives shelter to their beings.”

“This lovely being, which is alive to its last recesses and understands every feeling, soothed me, it cured me of my pains, and finally when I had fully understood my love for it, it taught me freedom.”

I first read these words 30 years ago. In the context of what has happened in the world since, they resonate stronger than ever. In the end, the apprenticeship isn’t about psychotropic plants. “Seeing” is about experiencing the world purely, without the intervention of received explanations. "Going to knowledge” is about accepting and appreciating these experiences. The ability to apprehend unadorned reality is the source of the warrior’s “power.” A warrior is simply someone who has the courage to be a self-reliant individual. Spirituality derives from his or her connectedness to the earth.

This worldview is at odds with most of the philosophies and religions of the world. As I look around at the constructs of humankind, I see the living earth raped and poisoned without remorse. I see incredible cruelty and pain. I see lies and nonsense embraced as truth. I see unhappy people who aren’t true to themselves, wasting their lives.

It’s enough to make me want live an authentic life, a journey one does not take lightly.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .


sukiho said...

thanks for the post, dont think it matters if they are fiction or nonfiction, novels or anthropology. its the message and the feelings that are what matters

Winyan Staz said...

I have been an astral traveler since I was a small child and a Lucid Dreamer as well.
Carlos's books are not fiction. I recognized things he was describing because I had already experienced many of them.
Any Lucid Dreamer or Astral projector can tell you the same thing.

Peter Prevos said...

Great post. Many years ago I had many discussions with my friends about the veracity of Castaneda's work. I read books debunking it, while my friends tried to replicate the experiences from the book.

Your view of Castaneda as a novelist is the best way to look at this. Dan Brown also wrote that his stories are based on the truth - but almost nobody cares about that statement.

Novels can be great sources of inspiration without being true. Thanks for sharing this idea.

Nomad said...

Study with a true shaman and you will know all events in his books have been done. Whether he took license to make the story more interesting, and whether that warrants classification as fiction, Carlos did get these lessons and has passed them on to us in undisguised form. They are a great service to mankind.