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April 22, 2007

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

Over the years, my interest in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis has more than once led to a moment of conversational awkwardness, when it turned out that the other party had been quietly distracted by the effort to figure out what the anti-totalitarian left had to do with taking peyote.

With time I have learned to detect the signs of struggle early, and so make haste to point out that I don't mean Carlos Castaneda, whose tales of cosmic shenanigans with Yaqui shaman Don Juan once played a big part in the counterculture.

Maybe they still do. I don't keep up. But the books remain in print -- even though it's long since been been proven that Castaneda's writings, while taken seriously as ethnography at one point, actually belong to the field of con-man studies.

Salon ran a long feature last week that extends the story beyond the debunking of Castaneda's tales that took place by the early 1980s. Scholarly fraud and metaphysical kitsch were the least of it, really. It is a story that ends on a somewhat Heaven's Gate-ish note.

There's also a BBC documentary covering the same material called Tales from the Jungle, now available in six segments here. The portions reenacting scenes from Castaneda's books are very cheesy -- which is to say quite accurate, in their way. I remember reading one of them in junior high and giving up because it was all so silly. But the will to believe is a powerful force; and there's always someone who will try to live on a diet of cheese during the quest to reach enlightenment.

(crossposted from CT)

Posted by smclemee at April 22, 2007 4:25 PM