Sex and the Sorcerer (I)
A while ago I found myself cruising west on I-95 on the outskirts of Yuma, Arizona, when I ran into some roadworks where the crew had ignorantly torn up a Toltec-Anasazi serpent line, and I drove right into the fissure. Next thing I knew, I was walking southward into the Sonoran desert -- don´t ask how I got across the border, it was a subliminal moment -- and soon lost any sense of where I was. Suddenly, I came to an outhouse made of slab timber with a roof of corrugated tin. This was not a shamanic vision, but a real old-fashioned two-holer, planted in the sand. Yet I took it for a supernatural omen. In the heat of the day, the phantom outhouse smelled pretty ripe, I can tell you. Nevertheless, I was compelled to peer inside where something on the crude plank floor caught my eye. It was a book, spread-eagled, spine upward, as if it had been tossed aside. I picked it up and read the gold-embossed title: Sorcerer´s Apprentice - My Life with Carlos Castaneda.
I recalled what Don Juan Matus said when Carlos gave him a copy of his first book: "You know what we do with paper in Mexico." What's true for the master is true for the apprentice, I guess. Fortunately, only the first two pages had been ripped out. I furtively snatched it up, moved to a warm rock situated upwind in the shade of a cactus, sat down, and began to read. After an undetermined time, I found myself staring at the death certificate of "the nagual," a man who by some accounts (including his own) ought never have died an ordinary death. I was stunned. Then, looking up from that stark document I found myself on my terrace in Andalucia, the book spread-eagled on the tiles at my feet.
First of all, I ought to state that I believe everything Amy Wallace says. She has no reason to lie or invent. She writes with discernible sincerity and honesty, baring her soul in many places. What strains credulity is not the extent of Castaneda´s sexual compulsion, nor the cornball sadism of his acting out, nor the atrocious verbal, mental, and emotional abuse he inflicted on his (mostly female) apprentices -- no, all that is normal in the world as we know it. What boggles the mind is the naïve, unresisting, unprotesting, and long-enduring acquiescence of the apprentice witches to all that Castaneda put them through. And the author's acquiescence most of all: Amy Wallace was some kind of prodigy, an eclectic schoolgirl genius who won huge approval for her talent with the written word. Her first book was about a prodigy, and her co-authored "List" books, some of which were bestsellers, were prodigious collections of arcane information. Between meeting Castaneda at seventeen and becoming intimate with him at thirty-five, she made it big in the book world. Very big.
But Carlos Casteneda was also exceptionally talented with the written word, prone to compiling arcane lists ("recapitulations"), and truly prodigious in his literary output. (I assume here that he did actually write the books, which are said to have been heavily edited by someone at Simon & Schuster. They could have been ghost-written, as were the Lynn Andrews books -- but that is another issue ) Might it be that Castaneda's unique obsession with Amy Wallace, compelling him to track her down with deliberation after a chance meeting when she was in her teens, was in part based on his attraction to her literary genius? Would he have pursued her after so many years had she not in the interim achieved an impressive literary career, like himself? Did their shared status as bestselling celebrities play into his personal obsession with her? Oddly, Wallace herself never makes this observation. She merely notes in an off-handed way that Castaneda was highly literate.
Sorcerer's Apprentice reveals a lot about how much mindfucking and outright, but seemingly pointless abuse presumably intelligent and sensitive people will take, but next to nothing about why Castaneda inflicted this kind of treatment on his accomplices and bedmates. Read as a first-hand account of how one genius was abused by another, the book may engender some remarkable insights, even though it does not itself explicate them.
For me, the overriding impact of Wallace's book rests in the way it shows the utter lack of resistence by the author and the other female apprentices to the maltreatment and manipulation inflicted on them. They almost never question, challenge, or defy the appalling actions of "the nagual" (shamanic jargon for the leader of a party of sorcerers). Did Wallace play down their defiance to make the master look all-powerful? In a rare instance of protest, Florinda Donner "admitted that he [Castaneda] was just a man and that she and I had a choice -- to enjoy one another's company rather than fall to pieces over the dictator's rage" (Ch. 29). But then Donner crumbled, calling herself "a garbage dump" and "the teat that everyone sucked on." The juxtaposition of these two tropes, trash and tit, in the mouth of a woman is alarmingly self-damning. Damaged self-esteem was typical of the witches in Castaneda's entourage. One would have thought that Amy Wallace, with her extraordinary career and reputation, would have been the exception. But clearly she was not.
Wallace says that Castaneda was "increasingly irritated with my irreverence toward his cult-like rules and whims," but this is just one general statement, and it stands isolated. She provides little indication of how she rebelled or even protested to being fucked on command, i.e., treated as a guru-groupie sex-toy, and mindfucked in an outrageous manner during eight years. She admits she liked the fucking. She and Castaneda had a good, raw sexual connection, with plenty of animal magnetism at work despite the thirty-year age difference.
Wallace also admits that "my upbringing led to me expect bad treatment from a man" (Ch. 29). In her treatment of events, Castaneda fits the profile of the abusive lover who gave Amy what she was expecting in negative terms, but also fulfilled the positive terms that suited her "romantic nature." She admits to craving a life-long partner in love, and seems to have found it with him. At moments. In certain ways. He likewise seems to have fallen for her in a big way. Throbbing hearts and valentines, showers of jewels, breathless bilingual endearments, extravagant attributions of magical power to the beloved, pleas for a Las Vegas wedding—all the elements of a shamanic soap opera. No wonder Fellini was so keen to film Castaneda's books. The socio-sexual melodrama Castaneda constructed around himself in the last twenty-five years of his life was worthy of Fellini at his self-indulgent best, blending the grotesque and the sublime. But there was nothing genuinely magical in the cult theater. The magic was in the fiction.
If there was true love between them, why did Castaneda direct consistent and vicious abuse toward Amy, sometimes implementing it through weird strategies to which the other witches were accessory, all the while fucking a gaggle of women? Her vivid portrait of the abusive lover lacks any original insight into why this rare particular man, with his rare particular gifts, would act in such a foul and indiscriminate manner. Wallace concludes that he was "corrupted by power." I don't know about anyone else but I find this stock, predictable analysis to be totally inadequate. It's a cheap shot that could be aimed at anyone who abuses the power and privilege granted to them, but I maintain that it cannot be applied unilaterally to individuals of imaginative genius. Werner Erhart, founder of est, used to say that "undersanding is the booby prize" of the egobusting transformational process he invented. It looks to me as if Wallace has won the booby prize in understanding that Castaneda was corrupted by the power he acquired through his literary mystique.
Wallace and the other witches interpreted (and, to some degree, excused) Castaneda's real-life abusiveness via a fictional parallel: namely, the ruthless way Don Juan treated his apprentice in order to drive him beyond his ego hang-ups. Wallace makes this rationale explicit. She says that Castaneda claimed to be "the nagual of freedom," a role that gave him the right to treat others cruelly for the same presumed purpose that Don Juan tormented poor Carlitos. But this argument is manifestly skewed. It does not hold up against close scrutiny of the fiction. In the books, Don Juan does not continually inflict acts of mental, verbal, and emotional abuse on Castaneda. Rather, he genially allows his apprentice to play the fool, and doing so, to trick himself out of his egocentrism and personal conditioning. Occasionally, Don Juan will exercise a ruthless ploy, but this is not a consistent method, for the way of sorcery presents its own exigencies and ordeals. The veteran shaman was hard on Castaneda in various ways, but his tactics are hardly comparable to the sadistic games demonstrated by Castaneda himself, according to Wallace.
To me, the connection between the cult fiction Castaneda created in his books and the way he behaved in the cult that devolved from those books is the most interesting thing about his personal history. And here the Casanova Complex comes into play. If Castaneda did not re-enact in real life Don Juan's treatment of himself in the books, he did emulate and imitate the literary Don Juan—not the character he invented, but the legendary libertine and seducer of women, Don Giovanni of Mozart's opera and other allusions. In other words, Castaneda enacted the Casanova Complex by adopting the behavior of a literary figure after whom he named his shamanic initiator. This clue is writ large, and Wallace sees it, of course. But in my opinion she does not read it deeply enough.
The stated rationale for Castaneda's abusive tyranny does not work, for reasons just stated, and even more so because of the element of sexual compulsion -- or sexual addiction, to use the current jargon. There is no such element in the Yaqui shaman's treatment of his apprentice. In fact, Castaneda has Don Juan insist on sexual abstinence, which insistence the writer carried into his real-life public teachings and classes. More on this consummate act of hypocrisy in the second part of this essay.
I take the view that sexual intercourse is social behavior, even though it is usually enacted in private, behind closed doors. Although sorcerers operate outside normal society, they also have their own kind of social order in which, we are asked to believe, sexual activity is discouraged or disregarded. So the fictional narrative goes... How, then, does the behavior ascribed to the characters in Castaneda's books, including himself, determine or reflect the author's behavior in "real life," especially his sexual behavior? This relation is non-obvious and cannot be explained by way of psychological norms such as the abuse-bonding, sex addiction, the guru complex, etc. It concerns the interactivity between factual and fictional experience, a kind of contrapuntal dynamic that has to be assessed in literary-critical terms, framed by the laws of imagination and creative invention, and cannot be reduced totally to predetermined norms of mundane psychology.
The question remains: How does such atrocious behavior connect to the sublime literary fictions invented by the man who is committing it?
As Wallace tells it, no one in the inner circle had the nerve to stand up to the irrational fits of rage and jealousy (real or play-acted?) that Castaneda demonstrated at every turn. No one had the balls to kick the master in the balls. In fact, balls is an informing theme of Sorcerer's Apprentice. We learn early on that Castaneda had a vasectomy. (He may have left a pregnant girlfriend behind when he sailed from Peru to the USA at the age of 26.) Later, we are informed that in bed the nagual could deliver three or four spermy loads in rapid succession. Well, a good many Latino men of his age could do the same, no doubt. Are we asked to believe that his sexual potency was a result of his accomplishments in sorcery? That is a far stretch. Nothing in the fictional work supports this claim. Quite the contrary. In his writings, Castaneda insisted that the way of sorcery requires celibacy.
But back to the issue of balls. Wallace recounts that Castaneda's machismo was active from his early years, long before he became a cult figure. The pain and confusion it caused to the women in his life was immense. His apprentices seem to have been subjected to virulent doses of machismo sadism. But there comes the moment when the long-suffering victims of his sadistic games decide to celebrate the master's testicular rage, and honor him for inflicting it on them! It is impossible to keep a straight face reading Wallace's account of how, "after enormous expense and difficulty the class... presented Castaneda with a custom-made pair of solid gold balls, an inch and a half in diameter... When Carlos opened the velvet box and saw the golden orbs, he cried. We all did" (Ch. 20).
Carlos cried, but perhaps not for the reasons Amy supposed. He may have cried from the sheer anguish of having to accept that he really was the sole regent in his own personal hell attended by a court of hopeless fools who took whatever he dished out and revered him for how lavishly he abused them. The incident of the golden balls is hilariously grotesque, but not in the least touching.
Wallace says "when Carlos wanted to play bust-the-ego between the sheets, he had a rich repertoire." She describes him making sure that she, tucker under the covers in mid-fuck, overheard him talking dirty on the phone to another apprentice. But what made Amy think this action was directed toward her, or performed specifically to effect her? The attribution to Castaneda of the intention to bust her ego is itself an egotistical presumption. He may just have liked to talk dirty to one woman when he kept the other one he was fucking on hold. Simple enough. And totally consistent with his self-flaunting and perverse machismo.
The notion of "sorcerer's affection" that comes up here and there in Wallace's book is without foundation either in Castaneda's writings or his lifestyle. Sorcery is a loveless affair. Those who go deeply into it know this is so and don't pretend it can be otherwise. In the final chapter of Tales of Power, Don Genaro vividly demonstrates his love for the earth as the source of his power. He cavorts over the ground with swimming movements that defy gravity. Don Juan explains:
This is a moving scene, one of the more sublime in all Castaneda's writing, but there is no hint of human-to-human sentiment here. The love described is for the earth and the power it gives the sorcerer to explore the unknown and undertake supernatural adventures. In Castaneda's shamanic mythology, human-to-human love is nowhere implicated in such adventures. I am not saying that it cannot be, I am just saying that he does not propose or develop such an implication.
In Journey to Ixtlan, the parable of the phantoms encountered on the road when the sorcerer tries to return to the human condition says it all: sorcery is about breaking the parameters of perception, including the perception of oneself as a human entity with all-too-human needs, especially the need to love and to be loved. "Losing the human form" is another Castaneda idiom for this transcendent shift.
I am not writing from word-for-word scrutiny of everything Castaneda said, or is reported to have said, about love and human affection, but I am fairly certain that any suggestion of "sorcerer's affection" coming from the likes of him would have been decoy syntax, a way to throw the fans off track. This tactic is standard for creative prodigies who are capable of inventing sublime scenarios, but not of sharing them openly in personal reality. Those who create in isolation often use the genius for literary invention to enforce their real-life isolation. The syndrome of creative isolation is, in my humble view, the key to connecting Castaneda's literary expression with the unacceptable factors in his personal style. The connection is twisted, not straightforward, because the tactics of literary invention cannot be transposed directly into external, shared experience.
Readers of Castaneda's book can engage in his inventions because the relation of reader to novelistic narrative allows and indeed invites such engagement. But people in real life will not be able to engage the inventor inventively, unless they have complementary and adequate talents. I believe that Castaneda hoped that Amy Wallace had such talents. Yet as long as she did not show him that she did, he would have been forced to treat her like everyone else in real life who could not engage his inventive genius, stroke by stroke.That is, he would have subjected her to a theater of absurd abuse to act out the pain of his isolation.
Castaneda's perverse behavior, I would argue, was about communication of pain, or even contamination by pain, if you will allow that phrase, rather than anything so common as corruption by power.
I know this syndrome rather well, since it applies to me as far as creative invention goes, though I do not claim anything like Castaneda's talent in that realm. And a precious few of my closest friends have exhibited the same syndrome. Last year I lost a friend to suicide precisely because he could not share his invented world, even though he recognized me as a qualified entrant, a likely and willing conspirator. I strongly suspect that encountering someone who was able to embrace and engage his invention, threw him definitively into the painful isolation in his rich and resonant world -- the signature dilemma of the borderline personality, if you will. He had to meet someone who really could enter his subjective world to realize that he was, despite wanting to be, incapable of allowing access to it. In this sense, meeting me was a catalyst to his suicide. It finalized his creative isolation.
To be continued in two parts...
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.