Letters to the Editor: Carlos Castaneda et Co.

In response to “The Myth of the Noble Savage Editorial: The Cultic Milieu”

Jim (writing from Australia):

When I was running a spiritual type bookstore in a good sized city, Marol Morgan's book Mutant Message Down under was still a self-published book that was doing quite well. Someone contacted me and asked if she could do a book signing at my store, so we set it up.

I looked at her book and got an odd feeling that something wasn't right. It was purportedly the true story of her initiation into a four-month “walkabout” in the central dessert of Australia with an Aboriginal tribe. I called the representative who'd set up the signing and asked, “Vince, is this non-fiction? It's promoted as a true story, as non-fiction, but it doesn't ring true."

"It's her story," Vince said.

When she gave a talk and answered questions at the signing, I could tell it was “her story” A total bull story. But the audience (of all women) ate it up. Morgan claimed, for example, that a very thick callous formed on her feet during the “walkabout,” and several women questioned her about this. She said that these calluses eventually just fell off. I looked at her face and sensed that her whole story was a lie and an exploitation of indigenous peoples.

After the signing MS Morgan went into my office to get her coat, and on her way out she tripped and fell. I got the feeling that this was like a “Freudian slip” or that her shadow tripped her up.

About 6 months later Harper San Francisco gave her a lot of money for the publishing rights to Mutant Message. “Morgan made $1.8 million from the first book's publishing rights, is likely to make $3 million from a second volume, and stood to make up to $90 million from lecturing and film rights.”* It soon became the number one bestseller on the NY Times list where it remained for 25 weeks, but it was published as fiction. She wrote a disclaimer inside the book saying that she was publishing it as fiction only to protect the identity of the Aboriginal tribe she’d written about.* These Aborigines, she said, had elected her to be the emissary to deliver a profound “message” to Westerners.

About two years after Harper published Mutant Message, eight Aboriginal elders travelled “to the United States on January 26 to meet with film makers who are in the final stages of negotiations for a movie based on the best-selling book - 'Mutant Message'.”

“We want to block the move by Hollywood executives at United Artists to turn Marlo Morgan's lies and distortions into a major motion picture,” says Robert Eggington, an Aboriginal activist spearheading the trip.

The book has outraged members of the Aboriginal community for misrepresenting sacred religious and cultural beliefs.

Morgan continues to lecture nationally on Aboriginal culture, saying it can teach Westerners about “their inner selves.”

Eggington, however is not amused. “Marlo Morgan has taken away the right for Aboriginal people to tell their own story as she saturates the American market with a complete fabrication.”

“As Aboriginal people, we have the right to ownership of our heritage. We are the custodians of the oldest living culture in the most ancient land mass on the face of the Earth.”  - http://www.magna.com.au/~prfbrown/news96_5.html

Robert Bropho, Nyungah Elder and Spokesperson, Swan Valley Western Australia wrote to the Aboriginal “spiritual elders,” “It is hoped by me that each and every one of you Spiritual Elders will be able to support in whatever way you can. It is to deal with our Indigenous Ancient Living Culture and how this woman, Marlo Morgan of America, a white woman, from Kansas City, is trying to destroy it through her book 'Mutant Message Downunder' and through her lecture tours over the United States, Europe and other parts of the World and now through having a film made. It is through the eruption of Marlo Morgan exploiting our Culture and our Blackfella Religion and our Sense of Belonging that our Elders and People Australia-wide have become deeply concerned with this issue.

Marlo Morgan is becoming a rich woman overnight and telling lies about our Beliefs and Culture. Many Aboriginal people have read her book and have heard tapes of her speaking at lecture tours. She is being very racist saying Aboriginal people have made a decision to die out. Her lecturing makes fun of us the Aboriginal People and our Beliefs. It is not a laughing matter.

All this has to be corrected by the Indigenous People of this Land.

There have been meetings over the last year throughout the Central and Western Desert, South Australia, the Kimberleys, and the South West coordinated by Dumbartung. All are agreed in a united voice of concern that we must speak in America concerning Marlo Morgan's book. Not one individual or group knew or was aware of Marlo Morgan's claimed presence in their areas.

It is also asked by me and my community of Nyungah people living on our Sacred Homegrounds on the Dreaming Track of the Sacred Belief of the Waugal Rainbow Serpent in the Swan Valley Western Australia, to the 11 Spiritual Elders and to Indigenous People where you are and who you are, can you support?

We are asking for world indigenous support by telegram, letters, faxes, making statements, by contacting the Publishers of that book, Harper Collins to withdraw it, and the film people who have bought the rights, Uniter Artists to stop, and American T.V. radio, newspapers and Oprah Winfrey who put Marlo Morgan on air.

We ask the First People, the Native Peoples of the Americas & the World to support strongly as their Ancestors and all the Ancestral People did supporting one another Togetherness is Strength, Togetherness is Hope” – ibid.

Morgan finally admitted to Aboriginal elders “that her work was fiction and a fabrication.” “Dr John Stanton, curator of the Bendt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia, said the book contained misleading and damaging information about Aboriginal people which had pandered to the gullibility of Americans desperate for New Age ideas.”

“It included facile ideas such a dolphins, koalas and platypus being sacred to Aborigines in the middle of the desert and culturally denigrating statements which confused intimate and secret details of men's and women's lore.”

“Robert Eggington, of Perth's Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation… said from Los Angeles that Morgan's apology would send a message to other New Age authors that Aboriginal people would not remain silent while their culture was exploited.”

Arnold Mindell, founder of process-oriented psychology, refers to shamanism as one of the “roots” of process work. He has spent time with shamans in Australia, Africa, and South America, but in some of his books and teachings he mixes Castaneda's fictionalized shamanism with traditional shamanism.

There has been some debate among Jungians (Mindell is a Jungian) about whether Castaneda's work is fact or fiction or a blend of fact and fiction and if it matters. Jungian Donald Lee Williams says, “...whether Don Juan is fact, fiction or a mixture of the two, he is quite real.”

Some believe that psychological reality is more important than factual reality, or might even argue that factual reality is a subset of psychological reality. (And people who think that way are a subset of the type Wilber mocks who believe that all reality is a social construction except for “tenure,” which they never question the reality of.)

I was at a process work lecture by Mindell at U-Michican Ann Arbor a few years back and Mindell talked about shamanism a bit. A native American who was sitting a few seats away from me stood up and challenged Mindell, asking him how he dared to speak of shamanism as if he had any right to refer to a sacred tradition that was not his own.

Later I had dinner and beer with this Native elder, and like many Native Americans, he did not like that white Westerners were appropriating their culture with the craze for dream catchers, sacred pipes, rattles, and drums, etc. And here we were, eating and drinking diagonally across the street from a hip little bookstore called Shaman's Drum.

I knew a woman who was, in the city I had a bookstore in, what some of us called a “North Shore Nancy.” A “North Shore Nancy" was usually rich, supported by her husband, self-possessed, and was often a dabbler in all things "New Age." This particular Nancy had been trying to create a reputation for herself as a teacher of sorts for a number of years, and she'd decided to branch out to become a “tour guide” to “sacred places.” She took a bunch of people to Sedona, AZ, then advertised an ayahuasca trip to South America.

Nancy did not strike me as the kind of person who would've passed the acid test. You can sometimes tell that some people should stick to maybe one or two glasses of wine and not get in over their heads. She took a small group to see a shaman in South America and, as I was later told by one of the tourists, the shaman took one look at Nancy and said, “No ayahuasca, too much fear.”

*(“Australia Elders Receive Apology” by Vanessa Gould in the West Australian Newspaper 31 January 1996)

Kela (using a pseudonym, but he is a genuine scholar) offers a bibliography in regards to the Carlos Castaneda et Co. topic:

Connections between spirituality/visionary experience and psychedelics were of course made early on by Huxley, as you note. Perhaps inspired by such an approach Watts wrote The Joyous Cosmology and Huston Smith, well known proponent of perennialism, wrote Cleansing the Doors of Perception. In reaction to this approach, Zaehner responded with Zen, Drugs and Mysticism.

The “topic” was generally given a more psychologized treatment by the consciousness studies/transpersonal crowd, by which I mean the transpersonalists on the one hand and the “consciousness crew” -- Robert Ornstein, Charles Tart, Arthur Deikmann, Claudio Naranjo -- on the other. Tart's edited collection of articles, Altered States of Consciousness was among the first in this group to deal with the subject matter. Stan Grof's work is well known here. Another important early work was Varieties of Psychedelic Experience by Masters and Johnson. Ralph Metzner has written on psychedelics and recently came out with material closer to your subject matter with, for example, The Well of Remembrance.

Tim Leary's stuff and that of John Lilly is also well known.

In the more contemporary “scene” approaches have become even more various. On the one hand, a more scholarly approach has emerged among those sympathetic to the topic. On the other there is the kind of “inventing of tradition” you describe. There is some interaction between the two poles and a fair amount of mutual recognition in the “middle” area. On the one hand, paralleling Harner's material to some degree is Jim Dekorne's Psychedelic Shamanism. “Contact” with little green men, elves and other “entities” have also been described by people like the late D.M. Turner (note his initials) author of The Essential Psychdelic Guide and, pertinent to the “constructivism” you describe above, Terence MacKenna, known especially for The Archaic Revival and Food of the Gods. Also worth mentioning in this regard is Dale Pendell's Pharmakopoeia.

On the other hand there are the more scholarly yet sympathetic approaches like that of Jonathon Ott. Ott writes on “entheogens” as someone with first hand experience, yet writes with objectivity and authority. His attempts to “contextualize” the subject within the traditional use of psychotropic plants may strike one as slightly apologetic, though. Among the most important of his works is Pharmacotheon. This book is the definitive compendium on the field, synthesizing what we know today about traditional and contemporary use of “entheogens.” It is up to date where Shulgin's chemistry is concerned, but also reflects the influence of anthropology, especially ethnobotany, on the field. Older anthropological studies can be found of course. One of the classics in the area is Weston La Barre's The Peyote Cult. Current scholarly anthropoligical research in the area is represented by, for example, Marlene Dobkin Rios, who has written, Hallucinogens: Cross Cultural Perspectives. A good collection edited by Peter Furst has the title, Flesh of the Gods. Furst also has his own monograph on the subject, Hallucinogens and Culture.

The field of ethnobotany was largely opened up by the late Harvard professor, Richard Schultes, who represents the pole opposite that of the other ex-Harvard professor, Tim Leary. Schultes, too, tried out the stuff he was studying. He claimed though that nothing “special” ever happened to him. He has written extensively in the subject and a partial bibliography of his papers can be found in Ott (op cit). Worth mentioning though is Plants of the Gods, a fine coffee table book, cowritten with Albert Hoffmann, the chemist who discovered LSD.

Hoffmann also moved in another circle, one that is closer to my own field, that of Gordon Wasson. Wasson was an “amateur” yet produced some remarkable theories about the possible role of psychotropics in religion. His theory that amanita muscaria is probably the Vedic soma is well known, and well received today. Besides the larger monographs of Wasson, as per the study of classical texts and mythology as it relates to the field, a couple of notable collections, featuring the work of Greek specialist Carl Ruck, include The Road to Eleusis and Persephone's Quest, which also contains an article by Sanskritist, Stella Kramrisch.

Editor: Tomorrow evening I am returning from Singapore and will complete/upload “The Secret of Carlos Castaneda.”

See also: The Myth of the Noble Savage.


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February 8, 2004





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