The stories about sorcerers who are determined to outwit death and to `merge with the intent of infinity,' as related in the several books by Carlos Castaneda, could be said to be a reflection of the wave of popular interest in exploration of the boundaries of consciousness that was somewhat characteristic of sophisticated Western society some forty or so years ago. Whether the accounts are really true or fabricated has been a matter of heated debate from the first. Whilst they certainly tend to stretch credibility almost to snapping point, there is a curiously attractive element that invites one to believe in the characters and their extraordinary adventures. The reported death of Carlos Castaneda in Los Angeles (1998) from an ugly disease must have been something of a blow for those readers who had no trouble believing in the stories.
Their relevance today? Well, whatever one cares to believe about the veracity of the story itself the work contains, through implication, a thorough critique of the human ethos. So skilfully is it woven into the texture of the tales that it may well have passed unnoticed, intentionally or otherwise, by millions of readers. Concealed in the romance of sorcery and magic is a totally disenchanted view of human society. The characters in the story simply turn their backs on humanity, occupying themselves instead with their all-absorbing interest: 'the mastery of awareness,' the abandonment of the `inner dialogue' and the exploration of dimensions outside ordinary perception. Though the implied critique of humanity is easy to overlook or ignore, it interestingly amounts to a complete dismissal: why should anyone so passionately desire to leave forever the comfort and reassurances of normal association to travel the relatively lonely and often deeply disturbing path of sorcery?
Further, it appears that these stories are specifically to do with ways and means of leaving the repetitious cycles of the human world; the characters are wholly concerned with such departure and are not concerned with the global doings and importance of humankind--except in so far as human conditioning is considered to be the most serious impediment to the way of infinite freedom.
The `mastery of awareness' is deemed necessary in order to attain complete freedom from the binding conception of the known world, not so as to impress other people with acquired personal powers but in order to achieve freedom or `the totality of oneself.' The sole concession to what might be called 'social consciousness' is to know how to behave so as not to attract unwanted attention and interference. The adepts-in-training simultaneously set about extricating themselves from society: this is the first step to being free, because as far as society is concerned, its patterns amount to the only known truth and no-one can escape its obsessive documentation. It is therefore seen to be vitally necessary to ease oneself out of the grip of the belief in social truth. Obviously this is an arduous task, due to a host of pressing survival concerns, such as bills, responsibilities, commitments, fears and unsatisfied desires.
The character of don Juan is, through Carlos' relative slow-wittedness and his reluctant curiosity, able to reflect accurately the quality of being human in all its complexity and deviousness. That humanity is not a worthwhile investment for the free spirit is regarded by don Juan as self-evident. That one should use every possible means to dissolve one's hapless fixation is unquestionably the only right thing to do!
It is likely that more than a few readers of these books have actually journeyed to the Mexican desert, particularly from the neighbouring US, in search of characters like those described or in order somehow to find their own way to fulfillment. This reviewer doesn't think that going anywhere in particular or trying to secure ideal conditions can awaken an interest in the infinite mystery that surrounds us and in the source of awareness: that must happen from `within,' as it were, regardless of circumstances. To encourage us all, we have these exhuberant, joyful, whimsically humorous stories centering on the play of `power' among some of the most engaging characters ever to have left the earth for inconceivable adventures.