Review of THE ACTIVE SIDE OF INFINITY: Castaneda and Shamanism by Nicholas Breeze Wood in Sacred Hoop No 107.
I first read the books by Carlos Castaneda back in the late 1970s and they ‘blew my mind’ as the old adage goes. They were the first books I ever read about ‘shamanism,’ and at that time they were about the only books available to read on the subject, outside of academic studies. For the next ten-twelve years my life took me in directions where I met and worked with several Native American people, who hinted darkly that they were students of messrs Juan and Genaro and I learned a lot of medicine ways from them. That was the way it was back then. However, gradually I started to meet with other medicine people from legitimate lineage and cultures, and also started to look at the wider global traditions of real shamanism from other cultures, and I started to smell a rat as my experience grew broader and deeper. I also started to see the New Age Toltec franchise start to develop, even profited a little from it as dear Carlos paid for a few adverts for books and other things in the pages of Sacred Hoop, and all the time I was trying to make sense of it because his books still had a certain something to them. Now, forty years later, with a lot more shamanic air-miles under my belt and with all the anthropological studying I have done privately and for my job as editor of Sacred Hoop Magazine, I have - I think - a clearer overall picture of the myth of Carlos.
But his books still attract people.; on an almost daily basis I come across heated and impassioned conversations about him online, with people refusing to even entertain the idea that he might be a fake, or merely a bloody clever novelist. And then along comes a book like this, clearly written dispassionate, non evangelical book about him and his works. Jörgen has done a remarkable separating out of the man and his myth in this book, which is a clearly written and engaging textual analysis of all twelve of Castaneda’s books. In it the author looks at the Castaneda through dispassionate eyes, tries to see through the smoke screen of misinformation he put out about himself, as well as the fog created by other authors who said they were associated with Castaneda. I think Castaneda was a very clever writer, he put a lot of universal truths in his books, and was able to distil complex concepts into brilliant soundbites of sham-manic jargon; and I still use a lot of those short hand concepts myself, because they are so good at describing things, so concise and so understandable.
As Jörgen points out in his book ‘We find very few concrete description of methods in Castaneda’s books,’ but none the less Castaneda did describe something and did write some books of great beauty. I think Castaneda is ultimately a sort of metaphor, a (sham)man for all seasons, a metaphor we each individually make sense of, depending on our own understandings and life experiences. His books do not describe shamanism as I have come to understand and experience it, or even the Native American medicine ways as I have come to understand and experience those, but his books do have that certain something. I am reminded of the article in this issue of Sacred Hoop about aspects of the Mystery in Lakota cosmology, Castaneda’s books seem to contain a trace of his šicų. I think Jörgen has done a splendid job with this clear, thoughtful and thought provoking book. It is, I am quite sure, a very valuable addition to the cannon of works dear Carlos has generated and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Castaneda, whether they think he was the ‘way and the light’ or a complete fake. One thing I know for certain is that I - and many others owe Castaneda a great debt. I can say fairly confidently that if I hadnt come across his books - which so explained ‘my condition’ I would most likely not have gone on to do all I have subsequently done, and you probably would not be reading Sacred Hoop today because it would not have been born as a magazine. Life - and Dear Carlos - is a mystery.
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