(The Power of Silence by Carlos Castaneda)
“Would you say, don Juan, that death is the only real enemy we have?” I asked him a moment later.
“No,” he said with conviction. “Death is not an enemy, although it appears to be. Death is not our destroyer, although we think it is.”
“What is it, then, if not our destroyer?” I asked.
“Sorcerers say death is the only worthy opponent we have,” he replied. “Death is our challenger. We are born to take that challenge, average men or sorcerers. Sorcerers know about it; average men do not.”
“I personally would say, don Juan, life, not death, is the challenge.”
“Life is the process by means of which death challenges us,” he said.
“Death is the active force. Life is the arena. And in that arena there are only two contenders at any time: oneself and death.”
“I would think, don Juan, that we human beings are the challengers,” I said.
“Not at all,” he retorted. “We are passive. Think about it. If we move, it’s only when we feel the pressure of death. Death sets the pace for our actions and feelings and pushes us relentlessly until it breaks us and wins the bout, or else we rise above all possibilities and defeat death.”
“Sorcerers defeat death and death acknowledges the defeat by letting the sorcerers go free, never to be challenged again.”
“Does that mean that sorcerers become immortal?”
“No. It doesn’t mean that,” he replied. “Death stops challenging them, that’s all.”
“But what does that mean, don Juan?” I asked.
“It means thought has taken a somersault into the inconceivable,” he said.
“What is a somersault of thought into the inconceivable?” I asked, trying not to sound belligerent. “The problem you and I have is that we do not share the same meanings.”
“You’re not being truthful,” don Juan interrupted. “You understand what I mean. For you to demand a rational explanation of ‘a somersault of thought into the inconceivable’ is a travesty. You know exactly what it is.”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
And then I realized that I did, or rather, that I intuited what it meant.
There was some part of me that could transcend my rationality and understand and explain, beyond the level of metaphor, a somersault of thought into the inconceivable. The trouble was that part of me was not strong enough to surface at will.
I said as much to don Juan, who laughed and commented that my awareness was like a yo-yo. Sometimes it rose to a high spot and my command was keen, while at others it descended and I became a rational moron. But most of the time it hovered at an unworthy median where I was neither fish nor fowl.
“A somersault of thought into the inconceivable,” he explained with an air of resignation, “is the descent of the spirit; the act of breaking our perceptual barriers. It is the moment in which man’s perception reaches its limits. Sorcerers practice the art of sending scouts, advance runners, to probe our perceptual limits. This is another reason I like poems. I take them as advance runners. But, as I’ve said to you before, poets don’t know as exactly as sorcerers what those advance runners can accomplish.”
“I’m going to tell you something fundamental about sorcerers and their acts of sorcery,” he went on. “Something about the somersault of their thought into the inconceivable.”
He said that some sorcerers were storytellers. Storytelling for them was not only the advance runner that probed their perceptual limits but their path to perfection, to power, to the spirit. He was quiet for a moment, obviously searching for an appropriate example. Then he reminded me that the Yaqui Indians had a collection of historical events they called “the memorable dates.” I knew that the memorable dates were oral accounts of their history as a nation when they waged war against the invaders of their homeland: the Spaniards first, the Mexicans later. Don Juan, a Yaqui himself, stated emphatically that the memorable dates were accounts of their defeats and disintegration.
“So, what would you say,” he asked me, “since you are a learned man, about a sorcerer storyteller’s taking an account from the memorable dates – let’s say, for example, the story of Calixto Muni – and changing the ending so that instead of describing how Calixto Muni was drawn and quartered by the Spanish executioners, which is what happened, he tells a story of Calixto Muni the victorious rebel who succeeded in liberating his people?”
I knew the story of Calixto Muni. He was a Yaqui Indian who, according to the memorable dates, served for many years on a buccaneer ship in the Caribbean in order to learn war strategy. Then he returned to his native Sonora, managed to start an uprising against the Spaniards and declared a war of independence, only to be betrayed, captured, and executed.
Don Juan coaxed me to comment. I told him I would have to assume that changing the factual account in the manner he was describing would be a psychological device, a sort of wishful thinking on the sorcerer storyteller’s part. Or perhaps it would be a personal, idiosyncratic way of alleviating frustration. I added that I would even call such a sorcerer storyteller a patriot because he was unable to accept bitter defeat.
Don Juan laughed until he was choking.
“But it’s not a matter of one sorcerer storyteller,” he argued. “They all do that.”
“Then it’s a socially sanctioned device to express the wishful thinking of a whole society,” I retorted. “A socially accepted way of releasing psychological stress collectively.”
“Your argument is glib and convincing and reasonable,” he commented. “But because your spirit is dead, you can’t see the flaw in your argument.”
He eyed me as if coaxing me to understand what he was saying. I had no comment, and anything I might have said would have made me sound peevish.
“The sorcerer storyteller who changes the ending of the ‘factual’ account,” he said, “does it at the direction and under the auspices of the spirit. Because he can manipulate his elusive connection with intent, he can actually change things. The sorcerer storyteller signals that he has intended it by taking off his hat, putting it on the ground, and turning it a full three hundred and sixty degrees counterclockwise. Under the auspices of the spirit, that simple act plunges him into the spirit itself. He has let his thought somersault into the inconceivable.”
Don Juan lifted his arm above his head and pointed for an instant to the sky above the horizon.
“Because his pure understanding is an advance runner probing that immensity out there,” don Juan went on, “the sorcerer storyteller knows without a shadow of doubt that somewhere, somehow, in that infinity, at this very moment the spirit has descended. Calixto Muni is victorious. He has delivered his people. His goal has transcended his person.”