Don Juan and the Sorcerer's Apprentice

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1935. His father, who later became a professor of literature, was then 17, and his mother 15. Because his parents were so immature, little Carlos was packed off to be raised by his maternal grandparents on a chicken farm in the back country of Brazil.

When Carlos was six, his story runs, his parents took their only child back and lavished guilty affection on him. "It was a hellish year," he says flatly, "because I was living with two children." But a year later his mother died. The doctors' diagnosis was pneumonia, but Castaneda's is accidie, a condition of numbed inertia, which he believes is the cultural disease of the West. He offered a touching memory: "She was morose, very beautiful and dissatisfied; an ornament. My despair was that I wanted to make her something else, but how could she listen to me? I was only six."

Now Carlos was left with his father, a shadowy figure whom he mentions in the books with a mixture of fondness and pity shaded with contempt. His father's weakness of will is the obverse to the "impeccability" of his adopted father, Don Juan. Castaneda describes his father's efforts to become a writer as a farce of indecision. But, he adds, "I am my father. Before I met Don Juan I would spend years sharpening my pen cils, and then getting a headache every time I sat down to write. Don Juan taught me that's stupid. If you want to do something, do it impeccably, and that's all that matters."

Carlos was put in a "very proper" Buenos Aires boarding school, Nicolas Avellaneda. He says he stayed there till he was 15, acquiring the Spanish (he already spoke Italian and Portuguese) in which he would later interview Don Juan. But he became so unmanageable that an uncle, the family patriarch, had him placed with a foster family in Los Angeles. In 1951 he moved to the U.S. and enrolled at Hollywood High. Graduating about two years later, he tried a course in sculpture at Milan's Academy of Fine Arts, but "I did not have the sensitivity or the openness to be a great artist." Depressed, in crisis, he headed back to Los Angeles and started a course in social psychology at U.C.L.A., shifting later to an anthropology course. Says he: "I really threw my life out the window. I said to myself: If it's going to work, it must be new." In 1959 he formally changed his name to Castaneda.

Biography. Thus Castaneda's own biography. It creates an elegant consistency—the spirited young man moving from his academic background in an exhausted, provincial European culture toward revitalization by the shaman; the gesture of abandoning the past to disentangle himself from crippling memories. Unfortunately, it is largely untrue.

For between 1955 and 1959, Carlos Castaneda was enrolled, under that name, as a pre-psychology major at Los Angeles City College. His liberal arts studies included, in his first two years, two courses in creative writing and one in journalism. Vernon King, his creative-writing professor at L.A.C.C., still has a copy of The Teachings inscribed "To a great teacher, Vernon King, from one of his students, Carlos Castaneda."

Moreover, immigration records show that a Carlos Cesar Arana Castaneda did indeed enter the U.S., at San Francisco, when the author says he did: in 1951. This Castaneda too was 5 ft. 5 in.,

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