When I was in college, I spent an afternoon talking to a charismatic stranger who offered to teach me the secrets of sorcery. Somehow, he knew I had recently read Carlos Castenada’s Teachings of Don Juan, and he sensed that I was struggling to decide what to make of it. He claimed the book merely scratched the surface of mystic arts he had already mastered. Speaking with a bizarre accent that might have been an affectation, he offered to take me into his tutelage. He presented with supreme confidence, as if he were a self-contained measure of all things. I had a flash insight that he was not lying. Not that what he was revealing the truth, but that he absolutely believed he was. I had an intuition that magic was real, but in order to pursue it, I would have to become spiritually committed to this stranger, and the ultimate result would be a confusion of our two identities, a loss of self to gain sovereignty over self, and a complete dissociation from the material world. It was a really difficult choice for me at that moment, for the material world mostly terrified me and disappointed me, or it bored me when I wasn’t being terrified and disappointed. I had to make a choice, a truly profound choice, that would dictate the course of the rest of my life.
I was intrigued. I was terrified. I loathed the enormity of the choice I had to make. It was a dark time in my life, full of all-consuming questions and crippling self-doubt. What was he promoting? The occult? Or a cult? Perhaps the greatest temptation lay in the hope that this might provide a means for me to achieve my long-standing dreams of becoming a truly great writer and artist, dreams that were of paramount importance to me. Yet the magic that was offered seemed like a cheat. I still had some faith that I might be able to pull it off on my own. I really couldn’t make up my mind, and ended up making the decision by not making it. The opportunity passed. As this purported deliverer of deliverance vanished from the material world, he left nothing in his wake but grand enticing promises and teases. The only thing that lingered was the idea of him, as if his entire substance and sole purpose had been a mere rhetorical device.
But still the choice haunted me, and nagged with its surreal temptations. Was magic real?
When Carlos Castenada presented his Don Juan works to the University of California, Los Angeles, there was considerable internal debate as to whether or not they were fact or fiction, or so I was told by someone I considered a reliable source. The University, according to this source, decided that the works were brilliant, whether they were true or not, meriting the award to Castenada of both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in Anthropology. My recollection of this account has been dimmed by decades, and I haven’t been able to independently verify it. It might have been a repeated rumor. It might have begun as a joke. Today, it might provoke a debate as to whether the story about Castenada was itself fact or fiction. It doesn’t really matter if the story is true. It doesn’t matter if I actually got the information from a credible source. It was a lesson in how true magic actually works.
And if you’ve believed everything I’ve said so far, I’ve worked a kind of magic, because I haven’t offered much in the way of evidence or authority, apart from my unsubstantiated representations.