In June, the news broke that Carlos Castaneda had died two months earlier of liver cancer in Los Angeles, proving that the famed author and cosmic trickster was as gifted an illusionist in death as he had been in life. Here his ex-wife recalls a pivotal point in Castaneda’s career: the day he met two other counterculture icons, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (who later became known as Ram Dass).
It was 1964, down in the East Village, smack in the center of the hippest community on earth, that Carlos ran into the great Tim Leary. Carlos, in town to visit some friends, had become quite interested in Leary by this time. Word of Leary’s Harvard experiments, his forced departure to Mexico, and the subsequent retreat to a spacious estate in Millbrook, New York, had been a big topic of conversation among the students at UCLA, where Carlos was a graduate student in anthropology. You couldn’t go a day at Haines Hall without hearing about him.
But the thing was, Leary’s experiments had the vague look of legitimate scientific inquiry. At least in Carlos’ mind they did, and so he paid particular attention. Leary was rising on the East Coast as the hottest thing in psychedelia–a visionary whose time had come; Carlos kept close watch from the West Coast. He read about Leary in Time, Newsweek, and Life, in specialized publications and journals, and he talked about Leary with friends. Carlos had been thinking a lot about Leary, even when he did his own psychedelic research with the Yaqui Indians near the Arizona border; and so it was a real surprise to run into the real thing one night at a party in the East Village.
Carlos had the preconceived notion that he and Leary were somehow on the same wavelength, both scientists probing social unknowns. Carlos was wrong. For one thing, Leary and Richard Alpert were stars at the party, and Carlos was a nobody. Ego was the game here, not science, and everybody huddled around Leary, who was slouched down in a peach wingback chair with that brilliant toothy grin of his. They were talking about mushrooms and acid, so when Carlos interjected something about his experiences with the Indians, nobody paid much attention. It was as if his words disrupted the flow of things.
This was no gathering to talk about cognitive dissonance; Leary was preaching acid revolution. He was babbling on about the “elixir of life” and the “draught of immortal revelation.” All the hip young scholars in bleached Levi’s were nodding, while Leary just sort of jangled at the joints there in the chair, going on in an eloquent stream of consciousness about his mystical tantric crusading vision. He talked about the tantrics, the demons, the Sufis, the Gnostics, the hermetics, the sadhus . . .
Leary was stoned. Carlos shook his head and looked disgusted. Leary must have seen it, because he sat up in the chair and glowered out from behind half-closed eyes, looking carefully at the way the light bounced off the Orlon in Carlos’ suit and the way it was buttoned in the middle and at the Don Loper pastel shirt and that stringy little black tie with a knot the size of a grape at the collar.
“What’s your astrological sign?” asked Tim Leary.
Carlos mumbled something about being a Capricorn.
Leary nodded. “A structure freak,” he sneered. Then he turned to Alpert, giggled, and teased him about being a Jewish queer. Alpert wasn’t saying anything, just sitting in the corner, meditating in a long cloak, making a great serious godhead-like face. Alpert reached into a broad kangaroo pocket in his robe and pulled out apples and bananas, which he handed to everybody. He wasn’t even smiling.
The scene was a crude parody of itself. The luminaries and hangers-on were actually bumping into each other in the center of the room, and they all had the horrible red rims around their eyes that always come in the final stages of a bleak amphetamine daze. The great Leary was indulging in incoherent revelations, and Alpert was in the corner giving away bananas. People were caroming around. It was all just too hip. Carlos Castaneda, the one in the Orlon suit, decided it was time to go.
From A Magical Journey with Carlos Castaneda by Margaret Runyan Castaneda. Copyright © 1997 by Margaret Runyan Castaneda. Published by arrangement with Millenia Press.