The Tragedy of Don Carlos

There is a Greek word, hamartia, which is usually translated as tragic flaw, although it connotes more a cognitive than a moral failing — the lack of an important insight, a misperception, a blindness, a failure to perceive ethical and spiritual consequences. The idea of hamartia is often ironic; the very strength that makes the protagonist a hero is what brings about disaster.

A complete biography of Carlos Castaneda has yet to be written. His life in many ways followed a classic Hollywood arc — a trajectory from obscurity to fame and fortune and, finally, to a sort of desperate madness. And the story, too, is a classic tragedy, since Castaneda was undone by the very qualities that brought him his remarkable success. He was charming, boyish, imaginative, clever, filled with imagination, and driven by a need to outwit the world. Castaneda was ultimately undone by a profound hamartia.

For many of us, The Teachings of Don Juan was our first glimpse into a shamanic world at once magical and meaningful, not just for primitive and superstitious people in distant countries, but for ourselves. The character don Juan Matus was the teacher we all yearned for, an initiator into this dark and magical realm — self-contained, charismatic, cynical, intimidating, wise, loving us despite our flaws.

It was all, of course, a fraud. But we were willing to forgive Castaneda, at least for a while, because he was himself the trickster teacher, who had caught the spirit of our deepest needs.

Eventually it all unraveled. The books became increasingly bizarre and inconsistent. Detailed skeptical analysis revealed fiction after fiction. It seemed that every time Castaneda had a new enthusiasm, his purported teachers would have a new teaching. I stopped reading after the third book.

If you were not paying close attention — if you were not within the oddly contoured boundaries of Castaneda's inner circle — it was easy to miss the accelerating weirdness of Castaneda's final years. When he died of liver cancer in 1998, at the age of 72, the impeccable warrior left behind a legal mess, irreparable damage to Yaqui and Huichol cultures, and a core of female cult followers, at least one — and perhaps all — of whom committed suicide.

Soon after Castaneda's death, The New York Times published an article about the lingering legal and familial chaos. In 2007, Salon published a comprehensive article about Castaneda's last days and the fate of his followers, entitled The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda. And in 2006 the BBC produced an hour-long documentary on Castaneda, which you can see here:


  1. I am no fan of castaneda. He seriously misinformed and confused people about native spirituality in Mexico. However, I am willing to give him the term that Alejandro Jodorowsky uses to refer to him. " A sacred liar". He was the reason many people decided to go into deeper levels of internalization and spirituality. Many so called shamans and nahuales came out of the cloth of his influence, but also many people found very solid cultural roots, elders, peace, commmunity and paths, out of starting their search with the reading of the teachings of don Juan.

  2. Exactly, I was about to comment the same.
    What is this obsession we have as western culture to determine exactly which facts are true, which aren't? I see a lot of obsession in that, the need to feel smart, or snob, or to claim "i'm no fool", "you can't fool me".
    And, like chuntaro, i'm no fan of castaneda. He might be a liar, but I don't care. The important thing is what happens to me when I read one of his books.
    What I do care is that he was a sacred liar. The sacred part is the important one.
    To say that Castaneda was a liar is the politically correct statement, the one that intellectuals, "smart" people are willing to hear. Are they willing to hear about the sacred part? Are they willing to give up on their obsessive need to evaluate which fact is true and which isn't, and focus instead on what the book is saying?
    I just hope that others who might benefit from reading Castaneda, don't stop their search for truth because of hearing the judgment of "smart" people saying "that book is just lies".

  3. I can still remember the feeling when reading his first book. It was wonderful to have my attention directed to the world of indigenous spirituality and the feeling was one of real interest and the anticipation of adventures full of mysterious possibilities. It would be years before I heard about his work and stories being questioned while his character and authenticity were being run down hill. He was being "proved" to be a fraud. I felt misunderstood as a person that day and lonely because of it. I thought I had gained a sense of direction, the exploration of indigenous practices, but wondered if I was somehow being a fraud because the person who inspired me was being called one. For me the books were art, novels about possible ways that I hadn't thought to explore until I read them. The truth wasn't my concern. I wasn't looking for the truth, or becoming someone who tells others what it is and isn't after getting an education in it from those who are sure they know it.

    What's funny about passing judgment on the "truth" of his work or claims is that when your all the way inside of a ceremony with an indigenous elder in a medicine tradition that takes you into alternate realities you don't usually spend the time determining the truth of the experience like some kind of credentialed detective. Questions certainly come up during and after, but if your in an alternate reality, or seeing through other eyes the world you normally see through your own,
    it's what you learn, or are inspired to learn that seems to me to be the most interesting part.

    And if it's true that there are other ways of seeing, other realities if you will, then who cares if the one Carlos was portraying wasn't accurate in a single fixed and agreed on world view of so called "facts", even if it's subscribed to by millions.