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Carlos Casanova

The Sorcerer's Bluff (II)


In The Party of Xolotl, an essay in the series on 2012 on this site, I suggested that the eleven books of Carlos Castaneda be regarded as a serial novel in the style of magical realism. This is a literary genre that mixes realistic settings and characters with fantastic events, locating them on the same plane as consensus-reality, and thus expanding the possibilities of ordinary life onto a mythic scale. In this genre, character becomes the vehicle or vector of non-ordinary reality. In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, for instance, Captain Ahab is a realistically drawn personality embellished with magical and supernatural qualities. Written during the seminal period of the 1850s, Moby Dick is an inceptive example of magical realism.

Magical realism is not just imaginative fiction, as seen in science fiction writing, but an interactive medium in which imagination instills the factual world and eventually transforms it, enabling the reader to preconceive and enter aspects of non-ordinary reality. In short, magical realism is a catalyst to the mystical and supernatural side of life. As such, it is the ideal genre for writing on shamanism, musticism, and altered states. In magical realism, a practice for exploring non-ordinary reality can grow from the fictional description of it. Example: some readers of the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling might find themselves having experiences described in those books, or undertaking the practices of the hero and his cohorts.

Supernaturalism in the novel derives from the Gothic romances of English writer Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, author of Frankenstein. The seminal era of Melville and Poe was reflected in Europe by the subversive cultural movement called the Decadence. A great deal of the literature of that period was participatory, even when not intended to be. For instance, A Rebours (Against the Grain) by Joris-Karl Huysmans depicted a Satanist, Des Esseintes, who became the model of anti-social and anti-religious behavior for the bohemian renegades of the day. Satanism became fashionable among those who emulated and imitated the fictional model. The writings of Madame Blavatsky, which come after the inceptive period of Melville and Poe, may be considered as an esoteric variation of magical realism: the Great White Brotherhood of Himalayan adepts was Blavatsky's invention, but has come to be taken for reality.

Castaneda's writing exemplifies magical realism in its most expansive effects, such that many millions of people have come to experience in reality what he described and prescribed in fiction: death as one's ally, seeing, controlled folly, erasing personal history, stopping internal talk, wrestling with the ally, the second attention, the path with heart, non-ordinary reality, stalking and dreaming, shifting the assemblage point, bands of emanations, and dozens of other themes.

The Genre Issue

Following the distinction proposed by religious scholar Henri Corbin in his studies of Sufism, magical realism proposes and generates imaginal worlds, i.e., virtually existing, rather than imagined worlds, i.e., merely fantasized. Magical realism has been developed globally from Russia to Europe to the USA, but it has been primarily identified with South America where Castaneda was born (in Peru) and culturally and sexually imprinted. The premier masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was published in Spanish in 1967 (in English, 1970), less than a year before The Teachings of Don Juan. The proximity of these two books involves far more than a coincidence in timing.

The main difference in these works is that Marquez did not present himself as a character in his fiction, but Castaneda does. The inclusion of the author in the invention of the anthropological novel proved to be a tremendously successful narrative device—but equally so, a huge liability for the author. I reckon that for Castaneda it was a liability he simply could not handle.

Magical realism from South American writers flourished from the mid-1950s onward, a decade before Castaneda developed his unique approach to imaginal writing. Was he reading these works and getting ideas from them? No one knows how and when his creative breakthrough came about... It appears to have occured around June 1961 when he claimed to have met Don Juan Matus for the first time at a bus station in Yuma, Arizona. Amy Wallace does not speculate on this event, which turned Castaneda toward what he would become: the Quixotic exemplar of his own invention. The chronology on sustainedaction.org indicates that Margaret Runyon, who Castaneda met in 1956 and married in 1960, may have suggested the device of subjective creative invention to him:

"If I came to you and I told you that I’d found the ultimate way of life and that I could tell you exactly how to do it, it would be very hard for you to accept. But if I said to you that I’ve got a mysterious teacher who has let me in on some great mysteries, then it’s more interesting . . . It’s much easier to accept." (A Magical Journey pp. 58-59.)

The suggestion to invent a teacher to convey a teaching on ultimate matters seems to have struck a note with Castaneda, but then he had to invent a pupil as well, didn't he? Representing himself as that pupil, he added a wild spin to the narrative form of magical realism, by then a well-established genre. In Moby Dick, Melville does not place himself as a character in his novel, but his alter ego announces itself in the first line: "Call me Ishmael." Melville boldly proposes to the reader, call me (the author) by the name of the fictional narrator, Ishmael (the character). At the end of the novel the narrator says, "I alone survived." This is doubly true, because in the story Ishmael survived the wreck of the Pequod by floating on a coffin, and equally so because the author survived the act of writing the book. The author continues to live on, outside the fiction he invented, but his characters live within that fiction.

This is one way magical realism can work, but not the only way. I regard Castaneda as a daring innovator of the genre. Few of the well-known masterworks of magical realism feature the author in the story, either as an Ishmael-like alter ego, or in person. The latter case is extremely rare, and Castanada is the outstanding example. By including himself as a first-person character in his own fiction, he threw a radical spin on the genre. Magical realism in Castaneda's treatment has an extraordinary pull for the reader for two reasons (and others as well). First, because it engages the reader empathetically or antipathetically in Castaneda's mixed and often balking reactions of what he undergoes on the path of sorcery. Second, because it involves the reader in an intimate way with the other fictional characters in the story. By first-person inclusion, Castaneda was able to liberate his fictional characters from the story and give them the freedom to inhabit an external magical world. Readers who felt compelled by this world then entered it by a vicarious act of participation, and don Juan, don Genaro, and the other characters in the serial novel became totally real and autonomous people within that participation.

Unfortunately for Castaneda, Amy Wallace was not a writer inclined to the kind of writing to which he had committed himself. Ultimately, their amative problems may have hinged on the genre issue. Wallace's first book was a biography, the literal and straightforward story of a child prodigy. Later she became a bestselling celebrity for co-authoring literal-minded books of lists. She also wrote some novels, which I have not read or seen, so I cannot comment on their imaginal features, if any. However, I would guess that, had Wallace engaged in imaginal writing spun as a first person narrative, or anything close to that, she might have been able to recognize and empathize with Castaneda's situation. Apparently, she did not.

A Separate Reality

If she was neither attracted nor intrigued by imaginative-literary propositions of the kind Castaneda was extrapolating to wild and lavish effect, and in great depth and scope, Wallace could not have offered what it would have taken to release her shamanic lover from his creative isolation. To do that, she would have had to show Castaneda that she could play inventively with the master, and play as well as the master played. Instead, she fell hook, line, and sinker for the nagual's cathartic therapy scam, his emotional subterfuge. She bought into the enactment of his rage at the inadequacy of human love measured against the love for invention, if I might phrase it so. Imaginal writing of the kind Castaneda achieved is not a daydream exercise. It cannot be produced without the deep and compulsive subjective engagement of the writer, often to the exclusion of social rapport or personal bonding. Imaginal writing dislocates the writer into "a separate reality," a self-generated realm of experience off limits to ordinary, literal-minded folks.

Yet, the fictional and artistic products of such separation can become vehicles of self-realization and real-life exploration for countless people.

In the first line of his novel Aurelie (1855), written in the same year as Moby Dick, French mythomane Gerard de Nerval wrote, Le reve est un seconde vie.: "Dreaming is a second life." Here is a clear-cut pronouncement of the double standard of imaginal fiction. To Nerval and the poets maudits of his era, dreams were as real as waking life, if not more real. And even if they were not more real, the duality of dreaming-waking was more real and compelling than waking life alone. Nerval went mad over a woman, so the story goes, but equally so because he could not manage the double standard of being a character in his own fiction, and being, well, "Gerard de Nerval." He was agonized because he did not win the love of a totally unremarkable woman, Suzette Gontard (whose name I long ago memorized in honor of Nerval), and hung himself on a gate. But in reality it was not that particular woman who sealed his fate, but the sheer inability to make human contact of any kind. Unable to live the double life, Nerval took his life.

Many adepts of imaginal creativity on the level of Nerval and Castaneda do not look for normal human contact of any kind, and expect nothing from those who do not and cannot share directly in the magic spell of their art. At the very least, they expect a glimmer of genuine inventiveness in those who might wish to befriend them—to say nothing of what they expect of true, deep, heartfelt collaborators. What they most fear, and viscerally reject, is that their fictions should be reduced to make-believe by the judgement of those who cannot match them.

Adepts of imaginal writing do not look kindly upon literal-minded interlopers.

"The warrior acknowledges his pain but does not indulge in it," Don Juan advised. Castaneda's solution here was brilliant: get others to indulge his pain for him. It worked beautifully with the women in his entourage because they came to him over-brimming with pain, their fragile egos fraught with insecurity and self-pity. Don Juan warned that erasing personal history requires strict discipline and, lacking that, "would involve the apprentice in being shifty, evasive, and unnecessarily dubious about himself and his actions." This is precisely how someone is forced to behave who lives the double standard of a separate reality without complicity and compassion from others in doing so. This explanation may go a way to explaining, but not excusing, how Castaneda behaved in the psychodrama of self-abasement he precipitated by accepting the role of cult guru and mastery of mysterious powers.

Exit Strategy

Now the connection between what Castaneda wrote and how he lived may begin to reveal itself. His actions in real life were not consistent with his writings. Rather, they present a warped and inverted version of his fiction. Reader, note well: a lot of what Don Juan warned against is precisly what poor Carlitos ended up doing. Castaneda's art of invention prescribed his personal pathology, it did not allow him to write himself out of it. But his daft apprentices didn't see it that way at all. Entering a theater of absurdity with them, he resorted to a cathartic game that could not possibly lead to its presumed goal of egobusting, because what drove the game was not ego-busting enlightenment nor egocentric lust for power over others, but a futile, unarticulated wish to share power. The more this wish was frustrated, the more desparate Castaneda became. The more desparate he became, the more intense and perverted was his egotistical thrashing.

Living one's fictions is an experience that offers no exit strategy—unless the experience is shared. But how can such an experience of deeply subjective artistic invention be shared? This problem did not arise for Marquez and others who wisely kept the first person singular out of their novels. Doing so, they held the boundaries between the two reality hermeticallly sealed. But for the likes of Castaneda, those boundaries were porous. In clinical terms, someone who lives with such boundaries and freely ranges back and forth between real life and invention is now called a borderline personality. I prefer this term to the insulting variant, schizophrenic, which might also be applied to Castaneda.

The chronologies suggest that sometime after the summer of 1961, the year he claimed to have met Don Juan, Castaneda began to live what he would write, but not necessarily in a literal manner. Rather, in a contradictory or contrapuntal manner. Whether or not he actuallly met don Juan at that time, or someone on whom he based the character of don Juan, and whether or not he entered in a series of shamanic experiences with peyote, etc., it is certain that he underwent a huge shift. I would say that he began to live from the power of his writing. The power of personally originated creative mythology is deep, complex, and immeasurable. Imaginal power is daimonic, twisting whoever taps into it. You have to engage it directly to have any idea how compelling it is. No theory can attain the flux of daimonic reality.

Many who have been compelled by what Castaneda wrote will readily attest to the power of his stories on their lives. But if such power grips the readers, the recipients of the daimonic act, and may potentially affect the course of their lives and afford totally new experiences, what does such power do to the writer or artist who transmits it? I for one can attest to experiences of great mystery, beauty, and intensity that stemmed directly from his tales of power, and involved me in the narrative as if I were there in the books, but what I and countless others have felt cannot compare to the pitch and range of daimonic intensities Castaneda himself must have undergone in producing those tales. Compassion where compassion is due.

The interpretation that Wallace applies to Castaneda, nemely, that he was "corrupted by power," is totally lame. We cannot explain aberrations of behavior in the case of prodigious inventive genius in that way, because it is not the power of egotism that runs such people in the first place. Whatever happens in the personal ego is a distorted epiphenomenon reflecting a power struggle in the depths of transpersonal imagination. Witness the creative agon of a double life.

Failed Accomplices

Castaneda had three main accomplices before meeting Amy Wallace: Taisha Abelar, Florinda Donner, and Carol Tiggs, known as the nagual woman. (I use their assumed names to avoid clutter. For their literal, real-life identities, consult the endnotes of Sorcerer's Apprentice or sustainedaction.org.) He acknowledged both Abelar and Donner as sorcery buddies and literary accomplices, though he seems to have indulged Abelar in that respect, rather than truly respected her. Abelar's The Sorcerer's Crossing (1993) in a pretty good contrivance on its own terms, but it barely qualifies as convincing anthropological fiction. Apparently, it was not up to Castaneda's extremely high standards. It came out just five years before he died, right at the time he was becoming enmeshed with Amy Wallace. He may have dismissed it because he was pinning his hopes for a literary match on Wallace, or merely because he was running late.

Florinda Donner may have come very close to offering the literary love that Castaneda later courted in Wallace. Donner wrote The Witch's Dream in 1985, fourteen years after meeting Castaneda at a lecture in UCLA. It is a masterpiece in the fabulist genre, equal to the best work of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Fabulism is a sub-genre or anecdotal variant of magical realism, propagating imaginal nodes of possible experience in a similar way but without extension on the mythic scale. The most well-known fabulist writing today is Brazilian author Paolo Coelho (The Alchemist) who churns out the literary equivalent to Hallmark Cards, using plots stolen from Sufi parables or born of his own pussilanimous fantasies. Coelho is a genuine fabulist, but he might also be called an imaginal hack.

The nagual needed accomplices. Having literary works that complemented his own was extremely important to him—a way to work toward an exit strategy, perhaps. If not a full exit, an aperture. Perhaps in Amy Wallace he sought a literary accomplice who could breach the bubble of his isolation and mirror his genius back to him in a flesh-and-blood reflection, matching his invention and perhaps even extrapolating it. But Wallace was not inclined to the required genre. Their romance may have foundered on those grounds alone.

Sexaholic Shaman

Amy Wallace says that Florinda Donner pimped her for Castaneda: "You really should sleep with Carlos, Amy. You'd love it—he's great. He can go on forever" (Chapter 6). Amy was floored by the vulgar absurdity of this proposition, yet when the opportunity came, after considerable courting by the nagual, she went for it.  What was she expecting? Some ineffable magic that happens when you shag a sorcerer? What special conditions does a sorcerer bring to sexual intercourse? "He wanted us to remove nearly all our body hair... besides eyebrows and lashes" (Ch,. 25). So Carlos liked his nookie muffless. Is this the rare, exotic preference of an accomplished shaman who wanders at large in fantastic worlds? Hardly.

The muffless look became fashionable in pornography in the early 1990s, just when Carlos and Amy were going at it with a passion. (She says that he watched war films obsessively, but he may well have watched porn, too.) Today it's a common convention among the cooler part of the younger generation, down to teen age. Girls who want to be worshipped as a porn princesses know just what to do: lose the muff and get a tattoo.

The clues to Castaneda's sexual orientation were out in the open, as usually happens with borderliners. He chose to call the main character in his writings after a notorious womanizer, Don Juan.  This is the legendary libertine, a man obsessed with the conquest of women. A man who keeps score of his hits. The scant accounts of Castaneda's early life indicate that he enjoyed the role of Don Juan and played it out with considerable success. Stories of Don Juan or his Italian equivalent Don Giovanni must have been well known to him. If he needed a literary precedent for his natural urges, there it was, ready-made. By naming the master shaman of his books after a famous "sex addict," Castaneda planted a subliminal clue to another name that resembled his own: Casanova. Don Juan was an incurable womanizer and so was Carlos—Castanova. He permuted himself fictionally into what he wanted to be, and in fact already was in real life. By a stoke of borderline genius, he gave his imaginal character the signature of his personal addiction. 

In the social world, in his tonal, Carlos Castaneda was a sexaholic who abused women verbally and emotionally, but not physically, if Wallace tells us all. Of course, verbal, mental, and emotional abuse can be as harmful as battering. It is worth noting that he was able not to hit his women. Rather, he hurt them through the non-physical force of manipulation. Castaneda flatly lied about celibacy as a rigorous requirement for the practice of sorcery. Hypocritically, he preached one thing and did another. He screwed every woman in sight, following advice from his Latino uncle, it seems. What's shocking about that? Does it mean that what he wrote about "the new sorcery" is untrue? Does the hypocrisy invalidate the invention? Or does it undermine the truths embedded in that invention? I, for one, think not. The fact is, in his writings and his public statements, Castaneda was deceptive about his personal behavior. But personal lies do not make the fictional output a lie. A fiction is not a lie.

It seems that Wallace utterly failed to see that Castaneda did not regard his literary output as a vehicle to express personal behavior.  Although he appears in the first person singular in his novels, they are not in any sense confessional works. His writing was the expression of his imagination—the record of his imaginal behavior, if you will.  It was a call to extraordinary action, not an account of ordinary, lived action. This distinction recalls what Robert Haas said about the Duino Elegies of Rilke: they are at once an indictment of ordinary, lived existence, and a call to go beyond  it.

No writer who appears as a character in what s/he writes is obliged to present a literal and factual account of behavior in real life, even if the writing pretends to offer a real-life account. Amy Wallace may be a literary prodigy, but she was too short on imaginative genius to detect the trick of magical realism in the way Castaneda managed it. He did not present his accounts of sorcery for fact, but as if they were fact.  That is the nuance that Wallace and many others fail to detect. But I submit that just that nuance is the key, not only to Castaneda's magisterial literary intent, but also to his aberrant personal style. Especially his sexual style.

Typical of the borderline personality who crave real human engagement and sharing, Castaneda confronted his devotees with a bluff: as "the nagual of freedom," she claimed mastery of secret powers. Hungry, insecure human egos read this bluff as an invitation to acquire those same powers, which, so they imagine, involves going through a gruelling ordeal orchestrated by the master. Wrong on all counts. The devotee egos are deluded. The borderliner is bluffing to get a response from the heart, not the ego. The borderliner is inviting just one courageous person to call the bluff and expose the sorcerer's new clothes. The naked honesty required here was lacking among the people who tended to flock round Castaneda, many of whom would have been aspiring mythomaniacs themselves, but far less talented. No doubt Castaneda filtered such opportunities out to some degree: the borderline personality who invites someone to challenge their bluff will also avoid those who look up to the challenge.

Sorceric Sex

Chapter  35 of Sorcerer's Apprentice is titled "Sorceric Sex and Sorceric Love." Here Wallace discloses what Castaneda said confidentially to her about fucking a sorcerer: how the nagual's heavy sperm is corrosive to humanity, and burns away human nature; how orgasm with the nagual stills the internal monologue; how the nagual's spunk goes to the brain of the woman he fucks, and so on.What are we to make of these statements? Amy Wallace neither denies nor affirms that she believed them, but she acted as if she did. Did Castaneda himself believe them? I would guess not. Why then would he make such claims? I would say that he did so in order to weave a magic aura around his sexual performance, the better to captivate and secure his conquests. He used dissimulation against the fear of losing what he most wanted in life: attention from women. As many as possible. Again, there is nothing unusual in this behavior. The insatiable need for attention and the tactic of captivating women with fantastic lines are shared by many men. They are the predictable traits of a Don Juan, not attributes unique to "the nagual."

Although deeply enmeshed in Castaneda's sexual obsessions, Wallace seriously missed the game. She did not bring the force of insight to bear on why Castaneda lied about celibacy being required for shamanic practice, while fucking every woman he could pull. I suggest that he did so, not because he was a hypocrite with something to hide, but because he had nothing savvy or entertaining to say in fictional terms about the sexual life of a shaman. His powers of invention failed him on that count.

And no wonder. The marvellous invention in his writing derived in some measure from clues he found in anthropology, enthnography, mythology, and classical literature. Castaneda relied especially on the shamanic lore of the West, the Americas. But sexuality does not figure in a significant way in Western shamanism. One notable exception found in MesoAmerican lore is Tezcatlipoca's magical battle with Quetzalcoatl, in which the former (black magician) tricks the latter (white magician) into an act of incest by showing his grotesquely made-up face in a mirror. This battle is the dominant myth of Toltec civilization, and may present an account of its downfall. Although Castaneda claimed that Don Juan represented the modern-day extension of a lost Toltec lineage, Castaneda does not elaborate on this clue. His genius simply did not permutate in sexual-magical terms. He wrote sex out of his literary invention, even though he planted glaring sexual clues in it, such as the name of his mentor. 

European shamanic lore presents another story altogether. Wild, dangerous sexuality is widely associated with witches, who are protrayed as creatures of alluring beauty and wanton sensuality—Vivien and Morgan the Fey in the Arthurian material, for instance. In the satanic-satiric magical realism of Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), the main female character is a sexy witch. In European witchcraft, feminine power often takes the lead and poses a formidable threat to male counterparts. Castaneda could not draw upon such lore without entirely changing his plot line and altering the dominant male tone of his opus, but he did try. One senses a struggle with this issue in the fifth book, The Second Ring of Power, which introduces some daunting brujas and sketches some ambiguous notions about feminine wiles, but goes nowhere with them. This is the least creatively realized of the eleven books. 

In sixth and seventh The Eagle's Gift and The Fire From Within, Castaneda surprized many readers by incorporating some formidable women into the sorcerer's party. He describes the total party as composed of eight men and eight women (which happens to have been the rule for participation in the celts of the European Mysteries). It almost looks like Castaneda wanted to suggest a power-sharing arrangement in sorcery, something he longed for in life, but could not admit openly. In Tales of Power he wrote:

I asked him if women could be warriors. He looked at me, apparently baffled by my question. "Of course they can," he said, "and they are even better equipped for the path of knowledge than men. But then men are a bit more resilient. I would say, however, that, all in all, women have a slight advantage."

Is this a sop, a feeble gesture of appeasement? It may be something he wanted to pretend was so, rather than something he knew to be so. The later novels contain some memorable incidents of dreaming together and other feats of shamanic collaboration, but on the whole the two genders do not operate equally or bilaterally in Castaneda's writing.

Castaneda's creative accomplishment was tremendous, but offers almost nothing on sexuality in magical terms. His version of sorceric sex was a con, a mere feature of his bedside manner, a way to dress up the mindless sport-fucking. His tender passion with Amy Wallace (and who knows, perhaps others) did not have supernatural overtones. Nothing he did with womoen in real life hints at any genuine secrets of sexual magic or sorceric techniques of intercourse. Castaneda was not Crowley. Carlos may have had cojones of solid gold and delivered a multiple cumload in bed, but in literary terms his sexual delivery was a total dud.


This point matters because the genuine magic that Castaneda did offer to the world was in the books, not in how he lived and treated others, sexually or otherwise. The literary legend emerged in the 1960s as he began to live directly from the power of his writing.  At exactly that time, Castaneda bizarrely asked another man, Adrian Gerritsen, to father a child for him with his wife, Margaret Runyon.  The boy, named Carlton Jeremy Castaneda, was born in Hollywood in August 1961. In some way suited to Castaneda's secretive imagination, this act of pseudo-paternity was juxtaposed precisely to his imaginal life. The boy was born the moment that don Juan appeared in Carlos' life. A symbolic compensation, perhaps. Or was it a desparate act of absolution that backfired on him? The vasectomy, rendering him unable to father a child, may have left Castaneda with a castration complex, and driven him even more intensely into promiscuous sexual rutting.

Whatever the case, the ridiculous claims of sorceric sexual prowess stand out in Castaneda's real life story, precisely because they are absent in his fiction. Unable to invent anything entertaining or instructive about the sexual element of sorcery, he had to be hypocrital and pretend it was ruled out of the practice. Yet the concept of dreaming together, and certain brief episodes with the nagual woman, Carol Tiggs, suggest that sexuality might play a role in the new sorcery. Castaneda did not elucidate that role, because he could not. What he lacked in deliberate invention he acted out pathologically in life. The self-induced spell of the borderline personality can only be broken by someone entering it through compassion and complicity. The same approach applies here as applies to autism, the state of intensely creative isolation in which the autistic individual is reached by entering their world and embracing it as if it were one's own.

The interaction between real life and imaginal experience is daimonic, the elements of the one converting into the other, but non-obviously, by twists and turns. This is just one way to understand both the interplay and the separation of Castaneda's real and invented experience, the books and the behavior.

jll: Andalucia April 9, 2008



Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.