Don Juan Comes to Hollywood

Carlos Castaneda

When I was writing my review of Maps to the Stars, I was intrigued to learn that the screenwriter, Bruce Wagner, was a disciple of Carlos Castaneda. In case you don’t know, Castaneda was the author of a series of books that were hugely popular in the 1970’s. In them, Castaneda claimed that he had had a series of encounters with a Yaqui sorcerer named Don Juan. This shaman introduced Castaneda to a “separate reality”, in which he could talk to animals and fly through the air. These books were eventually exposed as a hoax, yet they continue to be sold as “non-fiction” to this day. I felt a personal connection here, because I read the Don Juan books when I was in high school, and for a time I came under their spell, so to speak. However, I eventually came to the conclusion that they were basically bullshit. Yet I still vividly recall some some episodes and bits of conversation from them. I actually remember them more fondly than The Lord of the Rings, which I read at roughly the same time.

The debunking of the Don Juan books didn’t hurt Castaneda though. He went on to a lucrative career as a self-help guru. (Contrast this with how James Frey got beat up for embroidering some details of his life.) Castaneda went on to found an organization called Cleargreen, which teaches something called “Tensegrity”. And what is Tensegrity? Cleargreen’s website explains:

    Tensegrity® is the modern version of the navigator’s way—practices and principles that support finding and traveling a path with heart—that don Juan Matus taught his four students: Carlos Castaneda, Florinda Donner-Grau, Taisha Abelar and Carol Tiggs. Don Juan was a Yaqui Indian seer and a leader of a group of men and women seers whose lineage begins in Mexico of ancient times.

And I’m sure the men and women seers of ancient Mexico used trademarks whenever they could.

But let’s get back to Bruce Wagner. According to Salon, Wagner once had the following role in Cleargreen:

    A major player in promoting Tensegrity was Wagner, whose fifth novel, “The Chrysanthemum Palace,” was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner prize (his sixth, “Memorial,” was recently released by Simon and Schuster). Wagner hadn’t yet published his first novel when he approached Castaneda in 1988 with the hope of filming the don Juan books. Within a few years, according to Jennings and Wallace, he became part of the inner circle. He was given the sorceric name Lorenzo Drake — Enzo for short. As the group began to emerge from the shadows, holding seminars in high school auditoriums and on college campuses, Wagner, tall, bald and usually dressed in black, would, according to Geuter and Wallace, act as a sort of bouncer, removing those who asked unwanted questions.

From bouncer to novelist. An interesting career path.

In Maps to the Stars, several characters recite a poem by Paul Eluard entitled ‘Liberty’. The poem begins this way:

    On my notebooks from school
    On my desk and the trees
    On the sand on the snow
    I write your name

    On every page read
    On all the white sheets
    Stone blood paper or ash
    I write your name

The name is ‘Liberty’. At the end of the film, two of the characters recite this poem just before they commit suicide. The implication here is that they see death as a release from the prison of their lives. What bothers me about this is that when Castaneda died, several of his female disciples, including the three women mentioned on the Cleargreen website, disappeared. Some people believe they may have committed suicide. (You can read about this in the article I linked to above.)

At the end of Castaneda’s book Tales of Power, Don Juan urges Castaneda to jump off a cliff, in order to show that he has finally become a sorcerer. I’ve noticed that a recurring motif in Hollywood films that I’ve watched in recent years is someone jumping off a building in order to prove a point. The most recent example of this is in Birdman. (This also occurs in The Matrix.) Castaneda reportedly frequented Hollywood parties, and he no doubt discussed some of his ideas with people at these gatherings.

The fact that someone like Castaneda may have had an influence on popular films is a sobering thought.

11 Responses to “Don Juan Comes to Hollywood”

  1. les Says:

    yeah, castaneda was a fraud and a fabricator, although for a while, he even managed to rope in a fair number of anthropologists. whisful thinking on their part, i suppose. of course, let’s not forget that at the end of “thelma and louise” the two women drive their car off a cliff, but i doubt if callie khouri, the screenwriter, or ridley scott, the director, bothered to read “tales of power” or anything else by mr. castaneda in order to film the two protagonists’ leap of faith, a phrase, by the way, wrongly attributed to soren kierkegaard. as a matter of fact, there’s a famous photomontage of yves klein, one of the founders of conceptual and performance art entitled le saut dans le vide (the leap into the void) which purports to show the artist jumping off of a wall with arms outstretched directly into the pavement with something like a look of ecstasy on his face. you can see it here.

    look, i’m not saying that a bunch of phony hollywood types weren’t drawn to an equally phony guru with predictable results, and there’s a lot of things you can say about hollywood and fakery and how the two have a long and often intertwined history, but maybe, as far as this particular trope goes, he wasn’t directly involved.

    • The Spanish Prisoner Says:

      My comment about the possible influence of ‘Tales of Power’ was speculative, but I think it is worth considering.

      I suppose it’s possible that both Castaneda and Hollywood got the idea from Yves Klein.

      • les Says:

        perhaps, but as a rule of thumb, i think it’s a mistake to attribute too much curiosity or intellectual ability or even interest to the majority of hollywood directors, screenwriters, and even (or maybe especially) actors that they would ever have heard of an artist like yves klein. i mean, really, why would they bother? as for an ex-anthropologist turned self-help guru like castaneda, i couldn’t even begin to guess what went on in his head.

  2. les Says:

    ooops! that should be “wishful thinking”

  3. Andrew Coates Says:

    Even in the UK people read the Dion Juan books.

    Strangely by the time we actually got into eating magic mushrooms (the craze here didn’t begin until the late 1970s when people realised one species grows all over the place in Britain) nobody cared about Castaneda.

    Liked Maps to the Stars though.

    • The Spanish Prisoner Says:

      They have magic mushrooms in Britain? I need to renew my passport.

      • les Says:

        well, for all those of us who spent their youth during the late 60s, or early 70s in the southwest, and especially southern california, our memories of that time and place will forever be enveloped by the sweet taste of peyote. imagine a melange of creamed corn, sweaty gym socks and baby vomit all rolling around on your soft palate. flesh of the gods indeed!

        • The Spanish Prisoner Says:

          I don’t think that the taste of peyote is what’s important.

          I never tried the stuff myself. One of my regrets in life.

          • les Says:

            never tried it, huh? well, to give castaneda his due, he was right about one thing: when you’re first coming on to peyote, everything resembles a peyote plant. you can be casually staring at your refrigerator, but suddenly it looks like a peyote plant, even though you know it’s your refrigerator. of course, shortly after that happens, you have to rush outside and vomit mightily, but by then, you’re in peyote land, and that’s when all your adventures begin…

            p.s. those who are prepared always dig a little vomit pit in the back yard. that way, you’re out of the house when the effects of the mescaline kick in. for some reason, i always found peyote was best enjoyed outdoors.

            p.p.s. don’t worry. castaneda was still a wanker.

  4. The Spanish Prisoner Says:

    Les, it sound as though taking peyote is both a psychedelic and a gastro-intestinal experience.

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