Jun 25 2009
An Original: Richard De Mille, Carlos Castaneda, and Literary Quackery
I was away in Nature – with a real capital N, and decided to insert an allegory this week instead of a medical subject. The genesis here was a sweeping of the mind and brushing away of cobwebs and detritus called worries and other preoccupations. The application to this here blog is – methodology. The experience is one of discovery, and of loss, and of bearing the burden of inaction.
Some thirty or more years ago a family member became enamored of a new book, The Teachings of don Juan by an unknown author, Carlos Castaneda. But mention the name now and one gets one of two responses: Who is that? Or, Oh, he is that literary fraud. But in the late 1960s – 1970s, two social movements had captured imaginations of youth, academics, and much of the intellectual world. They made fantasy seem plausible, and fraud seem believable – psychedelics and postmodernism.
Advocates of psychedelics, most of whom experienced drug-induced alterations, promoted revolutionary psychological ideas such as drug-induced multiple realities. The other, postmodernism, was and is the intellectual and philosophical movement originating in academia that similarly views of reality(ies) as possibly multiple. (The relation, if any, to alternate universes and relativity theories in physics I have to leave to philosophers.) But the ‘60s and ‘70s were decades of several revolutions in social and personal thought – paradigm changes – that brought fairy tales, delusions, and irrationality onto realms of plausibility, from which we are still reeling, and trying to deal with.
Carlos Castaneda wrote eight books (or was it nine?) on the same subject. He related meeting Yaqui Indian seer and healer don Juan Matus at an Arizona bus station and following him through mountains of Mexican Sonora and a series of hallucinatory drug-induced episodes and lessons of life. Later books introduced different main characters (la Catalina, don Gennaro.) At least three books made the NY Times best seller list, and all netted him millions of dollars. His books sold well even well after his exposure as a fraud and plagiarist. The psychedelic and postmodern mental states apparently became dominant enough and entrenched enough in modern folklore that believers could not yield their comfort with fantasy.
Then, after mentioning the name Castaneda, state the name Richard de Mille, and chances are neither one questioned will know who that is. Richard de Mille (1924-2009 died April 9. I found this out after starting this post. Richard (most people were on first name basis with him, as was I) was author of two key books on Castaneda, both written in the 1970s: Castaneda’s Journey, the Power and the Allegory, and The don Juan Papers.
Through Richard de Milles’s diligence and intellectual power, Carlos Castaneda was exposed as a fraud, and his eight books describing psychedelic rituals and perceptions of Yaqui Indians of Sonora were proved to be mislabeled creative fiction. Castaneda did not deny the charge and never brought legal charges against de Mille. (After the first $1 million, who cares, might even have been good for business?)
I read Castaneda’s The Teachings on a ski trip in 1970 or so. Fascinating. Given the 1960s psychedelic experiences, don Juan Matus, the Yaqui teacher, who leaped vast distances and moved immovable objects or whose spirit could transform into an animal, kneaded and molded younger minds into trying to concurrently rationalize, imagine, and dream single experiences in differing forms. Castaneda described standard interpretations of reality as “ordinary reality” and a others as a “special reality.” Another of his book titles was “A Separate Reality.”
The process of reading and following Castaneda’s odyssey required toying with mind-bending ideas. One such was human perception itself being faulty in that it disallowed more than one form of reality at a time. If this does not make sense to the 21st century mind, it didn’t make sense to this 20th century mind then, either, although not for lack of trying. .
I read the first Castaneda books, and was left in a limbo between, possibility and improbability and the author’s delusional thinking or drug-induced hallucinations. The confusion was aided by the appendix of the first book, The Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, which was the ostensibly real summary of Castaneda’s field work with don Juan for which he was awarded his PhD in anthropology at UCLA. The method used was ethnomethodology, in which the investigator is not a distant observer of a society’s social behavior, but an active participant in it. The investigation becomes experiential. And, in the process, scientific method becomes something other than science. But that was the new standard of the time.
Complementing such neo-ideation, was/is the takeover of academic departments and faculty by postmodernism, the neo-philosophy that formalizes varying perceptions and formulations of reality, going so far in some views to proclaim that language creates reality. It was and is an academic world where almost anything is possible, and there are no ground rules for determining the borders.
Castaneda’s PhD thesis had a ring of fantasy. Castaneda could not produce his original field notes – essential in supporting a PhD thesis – claiming that they were destroyed in a flooded basement of his Westwood residence. (Floods in Westwood?)
I began heated discussions about the writings because I became more and more skeptical and found what I thought were some errors of timing and of psychedelic plant use (no, I never smoked, inhaled, ingested, etc.) But just because of an error or two I could not dismiss the rest of it – a PhD, after all.
At about that time I was introduced to skeptical thinking through a local community college symposium at which several CSICOP members from Buffalo, NY spoke – and by an ensuing subscription to Skeptical Inquirer. It was in an early SI issue that I read a review of de Mille’s book or books, which I promptly bought and spent weeks devouring.
The first book, Castaneda’s Journey, is itself an allegory as the title states. Written as a partial imitation of Castaneda, de Mille introduces an imagined – or maybe not – meeting of himself and Castaneda, and an ensuing series of real-or-not meetings and dialogues in which de Mille is the student-seeker, and Carlos the mysterious shadow appearing-disappearing Teacher. This short work is itself a masterwork of layered, allegorical story-telling. This book is still in print, and I highly recommend it. Like good music or fine wine, enjoy the literary pleasure.
But Richard’s other major works were as different as phyla. The don Juan Papers traces Castaneda’s academic works in cultural anthropology at UCLA, through comments from his advisers, others who had input into the granting of the degree, and outside observers. The conclusion of most: the thesis was a work of fiction, perhaps based in some personal experiences, but mostly in works of others, knowledge of other cultural rituals and myths, synthesized into a nearly plausible epic analysis of the occult mysteries of native American tribes.
Perhaps most fascinating for us types is the inability of some academics to discard their beliefs, or to resolve their cognitive dissonance in some rational way…they continued to rationalize the episode of being taken in as good illustrative methodology, containing kernels of truth, and other face-saving imaginings. Academia. Peer review. Not always what we would like them to be. Humans run them.
The department chairman retains his silence in the matter, as embarrassing as it is. To complement the work is a series of analyses and commentaries by other prominent social anthropologists. It is at times heavy going through anthro-sociology jargon and working concepts. Four hundred pages of it, fortunately and mercifully punctuated at crucial points by de Mille’s interpretation, and identifying of contradictions. Indexed and notated in detail, this is the work of an accomplished academician researcher.
In both works, I marveled at de Mille’s attention to detail, to the lengths of comparing time intervals and dates of the same events in several books. It took a great memory and talent to see the contradictions, so often obscure and separated in place and context.
I asked Richard to contribute an article on his methods to Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, which he did. [De Mille R, How I Learned Not to Believe Carlos Castaneda. Sci Rev Altern Med 1999; 3(2):11-14.] He has a short section devoted to some of this in each book as well.
Richard’s method derived directly from his academic career, about which I had forgotten. He had both MA and PhD in psychology, spent brief times at USC and UC Santa Barbara faculties, and more time as an industrial and career psychologist, and had done considerable research in various related fields. He said to the effect of, “I merely strolled over to the UCSB library and applied what I had learned.” He became an authority on social anthropology and ethnography – and a professional skeptic researcher along the way.
I later read his autobiographical and biographical portraits of himself and his prominent mother, (My Secret Mother, Lorna Moon.) a script writer in Hollywood, who bore him out of wedlock to Cecil B. de Mille’s brother, William. Sin and secrecy were the behavior modes at the time, not public confessions or live-in arrangements, so Cecil B. raised Richard as his son, not telling him his real father was Cecil’s brother until William’s death, when Richard was in his thirties. Interestingly (to me) is that for part of his childhood he lived on the same L.A. street as my grandmother. We might have crossed “paths.” Perhaps not.
The heart of this tale is that Richard de Mille, himself the guiltless player of a real life mirage, was the key who exposed the largest literary and academic fraud in history, using techniques of research, objective methodology, intelligence, and diligence. Studying his methods I was able to construct techniques for teaching that I used years later, and that many other skeptics have developed as well.
Richard de Mille was a mild, retiring giant intellect with (insert superlative) writing talent. He was generous with time and a most gracious human being.
The lament: I wanted to write a re-review of one or both of Richard’s Castaneda books, but did not get around to it. I always wanted to visit him in Santa Barbara where he lived, but delayed in that also. A lesson re-learned all too frequently.
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