Carlos Castaneda's work, which has now stretched into six books, began as field work in cultural anthropology but was "derailed" by "compelling inner forces," he admits in the introduction to his latest volume. This happened under the influence of two compelling men, don Juan Matus and don Genaro Flores, Indian "practioners of an ancient knowledge, which in our time is commonly known as sorcery."
What began as a scientific undertaking "has been transformed into an autobiography," and not so much a biography of events as of perceptions, levels of awareness. It is seldom clear in these books whether anything is actually happening, in the sense that it could be recorded and photographed, or where and when it is happening outside Castaneda's mind. In a sense, his books are a map, often indistinct and sometimes apparently self-contradictory, of routes into another reality.
Beyond the first level of perception, reports Castaneda, who says he has been there, one finds a wall of swirling fog -- very hard to get through. "In stage one we had to bring ourselves to our keenest state of heightened awareness so as to detect the wall of fog. Once that was done, stage two consisted of making that wall stop rotating in order to venture into the world between the parallel lines."
This brings you into a condition called the "second attention," and once you get accustomed to it, you are never the same again: "Through the forced practice of journeying behind the wall of fog, we were going to undergo, sooner or later, a permanent alteration in our total being, an alteration that would make us accept that the world between the parallel lines is real, because it is part of the total world, as our luminous body is part of our total being."
Now, if that's clear, we can go on to the matter of the eagle -- or, rather, the Eagle. It deserves a capitalization, as we shall see:
"The power that governs the destiny of all living beings is called the Eagle, not because it is an eagle or has anything to do with an eagle, but because it appears to the seer as an immeasurable, jet-black eagle, standing erect as an eagle stands, its height reaching to infinity . . .
"The Eagle is devouring the awareness of all the creatures that, alive on earth a moment before and now dead, have floated to the Eagle's beak, like a ceaseless swarm of fireflies, to meet their owner, their reason for having had life. The Eagle disentangles these tiny flames, lays them flat, as a tanner stretches out a hide, and then consumes them; for awareness is the Eagles's food."
The point of living, or at least of being a Nagual (or sorcerer), which is living at its fullest, is to escape the Eagle: to get out of the world alive and undevoured, to penetrate beyond the wall of fog into the third awareness, where iron rusteth not, nor does the Eagle devour one's identity. Not many make it, though Jon Juan and don Genaro have apparently managed to do it, and they are trying to get Castaneda to do it, with a medium-size supporting cast and best indifferent results. At the end of this installment in his continuing saga, author Castaneda is perhaps closer to enlightenment than he was about a decade ago in "The Teachings of Don Juan," but he has not yet arrived. When he does, presumably, he will stop writing books about it -- or perhaps when he no longer rises automatically to the best-seller lists.
At the end, when Juan and a group of his disciples have "vanished into the total light," Castaneda has one last glimpse of them as "a line of exquisite lights in the sky," with "a massive glow on one end of the line of lights where don Juan was."
"I thought of the plumed serpent of Toltec legend," he says. "And then the lights were gone."
Whatever lights may have brightened earlier episodes in the don Juan mythos have been gone for some time. With occasional, glittering exceptions, the more recent books have been stirring the dead ashes to gather up a few more sparks of something that was once at least colorful and exotic. These sparks are not entirely extinguished. Probably about 10 percent of the book was still be rewarding to people who are interested in exotic systems of enlightenment (which are, however, not quite the hot commodity they were a decade ago). By the texture is relatively thin, the reading heavy and the rewards scattered and impalpable.
One exception, near the end of the book, is the chapter on Florinda, a woman who has been assigned to teach Castaneda the rules and precepts of stalking, an essential skill for those who want to escape the Eagle (which can be done only with the Eagle's implicit consent). Florinda is one of the few people in the Castaneda books willing to confide her life story, and it turns out to be an interesting one, if rather improbable. She also conveys quite efficiently some basic rules of the game, whcih may be useful, in a metaphorical sense, even to those who are not trying to evade the Eagle -- dabblers in office politics, for example:
"Warriors choose their battle ground . . . A warrior never goes into battle without knowing what the surroundings are . . .
"Discard everything that is unnecessary . . .
"Everything that surrounds us is an unfathomable mystery . . . We must try to unravel these mysteries, but without ever hoping to accomplish this." And so forth. This is about the best reading in the book, unless you are looking for metaphors of total reality, like that of time: "a tunnel of infinite length and width; a tunnel with reflective furrows. Every furrow is infinite, and there are infinite numbers of them. Living creatures are compulsorily made, by the force of life, to gaze into one furrow. To gaze into it means to be trapped by it, to live that furrow."
The the credit of Carlos Castaneda, it must be said that he gives glimpses of alternate furrows otherwise undreamed of. The question is whether they are more interesting or worthwhile than the furrows we already have. And until he comes up with a surefire way of escaping the Eagle, the answer is probably in the negative.