An excerpt from Fakes, Frauds and Other Malarkey by Kathryn Lindskoog
CARLOS CASTANEDA’S graduate studies at the University of California were one of the most preposterous hoaxes of all time. While witching his way to a Ph.D., he sold 4 million books and became a famous cult figure. One of his academic defenders said that he was “a fine, gentle, kindly young man,” attacked only because of envy.
Carlos Castaneda was born in Brazil in 1935, the son of a literature professor. When he was six years old, his mother died and he moved to his grandparents’ chicken farm. His uncle was Oswaldo Aranha, who was both President of the United Nations General Assembly and ambassador to the United States. Carlos grew up speaking Italian and Portuguese, attended boarding school in Buenos Aires, graduated from Hollywood High School, studied art in Italy, and served in wartime in the United States Army in Spain. In the summer of 1960, when he was an anthropology student at UCLA, he made several trips to the Sonora Desert to collect information on medicinal plants used by Indians there.
Coincidentally, another Carlos Castaneda was born in Peru in 1925, the son of a well-to-do jewelry store owner. He grew up with his parents in the Andean city of Cajamarca, speaking Spanish. He was in no way related to Oswaldo Aranha. He was known for gambling and telling tall tales. In 1948, at the age of twenty-two, he finished high school in Lima and entered art school there. His mother died in 1950. He married in 1951, and then deserted his wife and baby and moved to the United States. In 1956 he studied creative writing at Los Angeles City College and married again, but never lived with his second wife. He entered UCLA in 1959, when The Piltdown Forgery and the story of Ferdinand Demara, The Great Imposter, were popular. In 1962 the Anthropology Department gave him some money to help him do his fieldwork.
The Brazilian Castaneda was the famous one; the Peruvian Castaneda was the real one. Their 1968 book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge and the four that followed it recounted Castaneda’s years of experimentation with Yaqui Indian religion and hallucinogenic drugs under the tutelage of Don Juan, a desert shaman who took a liking to him and taught him sorcery.
Aside from sorcery, Castaneda claims to have done many things that are humanly impossible. Without mentioning how he could have done it, Castaneda claims to have transcribed verbatim Don Juan’s Spanish monologues at lightning speed, no matter where they were or what they were doing. (Linguists observe that many of Castaneda’s English translations of those phantom Spanish monologues can’t possibly be translations from Spanish). Late one day Don Juan told Castaneda to catch two lizards (with no equipment) and then to use the fiber of a century plant and thorn of a prickly pear to sew shut the eyes of one lizard and the mouth of the other without damaging them. Castaneda did all this promptly, with no trouble – in twilight. He didn’t explain how he turned cactus fiber into thread, how he turned a thorn into a slender needle, or how he held two lizards still while stitching their eyelids and lips shut. Readers took it all on faith.
It is said that Castaneda’s only real sorcery was turning the University of California into an ass. No one but Castaneda ever saw Don Juan. Castaneda had no corroborating photos, tape recordings, or even any field notes. In his nine years of alleged desert research with a Yaqui Indian, he learned nothing about the region’s plants and animals and didn’t learn one Indian name for any of them. He claimed to climb trees that can’t be climbed and to stalk animals that can’t be stalked. He casually referred to hiking for hours in 100 degree heat. He said he enjoyed being drenched by warm winter rains in a desert where winter rains are icy cold. He could provide no samples of the hallucinogenic mushrooms that he supposedly used, and indeed there are none in that region. Worst of all, he obviously knew nothing about Yacqui Indian beliefs and culture.
Charles Caleb Colton once said, “The more gross the fraud, the more glibly will it go down, and the more greedily be swallowed, since folly will always find faith.” In spite of everything, Castaneda’s first book was issued by the University of California Press in 1968 with this announcement: “It has been assumed that the West has produced no way of spiritual knowledge comparable to the great systems of the East. The present book is accordingly nothing less than a revelation.” An eminent reviewer in American Anthropologist said it “should attain a solid place in the literature of both hallucinogenic drugs and the field behavior of anthropologists.”
Castaneda cranked out one wildly popular Don Juan book after another and contradicted himself right and left. The Anthropology Department at UCLA granted him a doctorate in 1973 for his third book, Journey to Ixtlan, under another title. Professors knew better than to offend the members of his doctoral committee, but some of them must have wondered, “Does a daydream count now as an informant? Does a fantasy count as a field report?” In The Decline of the West, philosopher Oswald Spengler said that fraud by scholars is one of the signs of a decadent civilization.
In 1976 Richard de Mille completed some masterful sleuthing and published Castaneda’s Journey. He kept digging, and in 1980 he published The Don Juan Papers. Among many other things, he reveals that UCLA’s Professor Goldschmidt was Castaneda’s Department Chairman and the ranking anthropologist on the editorial committee of University of California Press. His foreword to Castaneda’s first book is the reason it was taken seriously. At the end of 1978, in the face of overwhelming evidence of fraud, Goldschmidt said “We possess no information whatever that would support the charges that have been made…. I am not going to say mea culpa.” The members of Castaneda’s committee refused to give an inch.
De Mille suspects that a small group of dissident culturologists at UCLA arranged for publication of Castaneda’s first book as an inside joke and an affront to their opponents. Because of the way it was promoted and its appeal to the youth and drug culture, the book caught on beyond their wildest hopes or fears, turning their picaresque graduate student into a celebrity scholar.
Though he had done nothing that would ordinarily merit such advancement, the Dreaming Dissertator made no secret of his aspiration to doctorhood. The pranksters had three choices. They could repudiate The Teachings, claiming Castaneda had deceived them, which would make them look like fools. They could boldly admit their prank, which would set off an endless professional wrangle, wherein they would suffer sorely, and which might provoke administrative reprisals. Or they could stonewall, thumbing their respective noses at critics, handing the prodigy his scroll, and closing the village gate behind him. Of three bad choices, the last was least.
De Mille has analyzed Castaneda’s appeal. His book told young people what they wanted to hear, that their 1960s idealism and drug use were akin to an ancient and noble culture. In person Castaneda was usually charming and full of stories. He spoke softly, in a soothing way. He often acted a bit fragile, naive, confused, or vulnerable; and he told women tales that made them want to comfort him. He appealed to older men by playing son to them, and to young men he told of brave adventures.
De Mille theorizes, “The mortal yearning for Paradise is very strong indeed, and anyone who promises to lead us there is trusted. For the born-again the promised land is Beulah, for Marxists a classless society, for futurists like Timothy Leary a homey mechanical doughnut in the sky. For a handful of professors and thousands of pseudo-anthropology fans, Paradise is a balmy purple desert where one can have endless private metaphysical conversations with a mystical old Indian named Don Juan.”