The Sorcerer’s Explanation

I’m just going to go ahead a post a single chapter from “Tales of Power” by Carlos Castenada, 1981. Enjoy!

The Island of the Tonal

Don Juan and I met again the next day at the same park around noon. He was still wearing his brown suit. We sat on a benchl He took off his coat, folded it very carefully but with an air of supreme casualness, and laid it on the bench. His casualness was very studied and yet it was completely natural. I caught myself staring at him. He seemed to be aware of the paradox [* paradox- something that contradicts itself] he was presenting to me and smiled. He straightened his necktie. He had on a beige long-sleeved shirt. It fit him very well.

“I still have on my suit because I want to tell you something of great importance,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “You had a good performance yesterday. Now it is time to come to some final agreements.”

He paused for a long-moment. He seemed to be preparing a statement. I had a strange feeling in my stomach. My immediate assumption was that he was going to tell me the sorcerers’ explanation. He stood up a couple of times and paced back and forth in front of me as if it were difficult to voice what he had in mind.

“Let’s go to the restaurant across the street and have a bite to eat,” he finally said.

He unfolded his coat, and before he put it on he showed me that it was fully lined.

“It is made to order,” he said and smiled as if he were proud of it; as if it mattered.

“I have to call your attention to it or you wouldn’t notice it, and it is very important that you are aware of it. You are aware of everything only when you think you should be. The condition of a warrior, however, is to be aware of everything at all times.

“My suit and all this paraphernalia is important because it represents my condition in life- or rather, the condition of one of the two parts of my totality. This discussion has been pending. I feel that now is the time to have it. It has to be done properly, though, or it will never make sense. I wanted my suit to give you the first clue. I think it has. Now is the time to talk; for in matters of this topic there is no complete understanding without talking.”

“What is the topic, don Juan?”

“The totality of oneself,” he said.

He stood up abruptly and led me to a restaurant in a large hotel across the street. A hostess with a rather unfriendly disposition gave us a table inside in a back corner. Obviously the choice places were around the windows.

I told don Juan that the woman reminded me of another hostess in a restaurant in Arizona where don Juan and I had once gone to eat. She had asked us before she handed out the menu if we had enough money to pay.

“I don’t blame this poor woman either,” don Juan said, as if sympathizing with her. “She too, like the other one, is afraid of Mexicans.”

He laughed softly. A couple of people at the adjacent tables turned their heads around and looked at us.

Don Juan said that without knowing, or perhaps even in spite of herself, the hostess had given us the best table in the house; a table where we could talk and I could write to my heart’s content.

I had just taken my writing pad out of my pocket and put it on the table when the waiter suddenly loomed over us. He also seemed to be in a bad mood. He stood over us with a challenging air.

Don Juan proceeded to order a very elaborate meal for himself. He ordered without looking at the menu- as if he knew it by heart. I was at a loss. The waiter had appeared unexpectedly and I had not had time to read the menu, so I told him that I would have the same.

Don Juan whispered in my ear, “I bet you that they don’t have what I’ve ordered.”

He stretched his arms and legs, and told me to relax and sit comfortably because the meal was going to take forever to be prepared.

“You are at a very poignant crossroad,” he said. “Perhaps the last one, and also perhaps the most difficult one to understand. Some of the things I am going to point out to you today will probably never be clear. They are not supposed to be clear anyway. So don’t be embarrassed or discouraged. All of us are dumb creatures when we join the world of sorcery, and to join it doesn’t in any sense insure us that we will change. Some of us remain dumb until the very end.”

I liked it when he included himself among the idiots. I knew that he did not do it out of kindness, but as a didactic [* didactic- excessively instructive] device.

“Don’t fret if you don’t make sense out of what I’m going to tell you,” he continued. “Considering your temperament, I’m afraid that you might knock yourself out trying to understand. Don’t! What I’m about to say is meant only to point out a direction.”

I had a sudden feeling of apprehension. Don Juan’s admonitions [* admonition- cautionary advice about something imminent] forced me into an endless speculation. He had warned me on other occasions in very much the same fashion; and every time he had done so, what he was warning me about had turned out to be a devastating issue.

“It makes me very nervous when you talk to me this way,” I said.

“I know it,” he replied calmly. “I’m deliberately trying to get you on your toes. I need your attention; your undivided attention.”

He paused and looked at me, I laughed nervously and involuntarily. I knew that he was stretching the dramatic possibilities of the situation as far as he could.

“I’m not telling you all this for effect,” he said, as if he had read my thoughts. “I am simply giving you time to make the proper adjustments.”

At that moment the waiter stopped at our table to announce that they did not have what we had ordered. Don Juan laughed out loud and ordered tortillas and beans. The waiter chuckled scornfully and said that they did not serve them, and suggested steak or chicken. We settled for some soup.

We ate in silence. I did not like the soup and could not finish it, but don Juan ate all of his.

“I have put on my suit,” he said all of a sudden, “in order to tell you about something; something you already know but which needs to be clarified if it is going to be effective. I have waited until now because Genaro feels that you have to be not only willing to undertake the road of knowledge, but your efforts by themselves must be impeccable enough to make you worthy of that knowledge. You have done well. Now I will tell you the sorcerers’ explanation.”

He paused again, rubbed his cheeks, and played with his tongue inside his mouth as if he were feeling his teeth.

“I’m going to tell you about the tonal and the nagual” he said and looked at me piercingly.

This was the first time in our association that he had used those two terms. I was vaguely familiar with them through the anthropological literature on the cultures of central Mexico.

I knew that the ‘tonal’ (pronounced, toh-na’hl) was thought to be a kind of guardian spirit, usually an animal, that a child obtained at birth and with which he had intimate ties with for the rest of his life.

‘Nagual’ (pronounced, nah-wa’hl) was the name given to the animal into which sorcerers could allegedly transform themselves; or to the sorcerer that elicited such a transformation.

“This is my tonal” don Juan said, rubbing his hands on his chest.

“Your suit?”

“No. My person.”

He pounded his chest and his thighs and the side of his ribs.

“My tonal is all this.”

He explained that every human being had two sides; two separate entities; two counterparts which became operative at the moment of birth. One was called the ‘tonal’ and the other the ‘nagual’.

I told him what anthropologists knew about the two concepts. He let me speak without interrupting me.

“Well, whatever you may think you know about them is pure nonsense,” he said. “I base this statement on the fact that whatever I’m telling you about the tonal and the nagual could not possibly have been told to you before. Any idiot would know that you know nothing about them because in order to be acquainted with them you would have to be a sorcerer, and you aren’t. Or you would’ve had to talk about them with a sorcerer, and you haven’t. So disregard everything you’ve heard before because it is inapplicable.”

“It was only a comment,” I said.

He raised his brows in a comical gesture.

“Your comments are out of order,” he said. “This time I need your undivided attention since I am going to acquaint you with the tonal and the nagual. Sorcerers have a special and unique interest in that knowledge. I would say that the tonal and the nagual are in the exclusive realm of men of knowledge. In your case, this is the lid that closes everything I have taught you. Thus I have waited until now to talk about them.

“The tonal is not an animal that guards a person. I would rather say that it is a guardian that could be represented as an animal. But that is not the important point.”

He smiled and winked at me.

“I’m using your own words now,” he said. “The tonal is the social person.”

He laughed, I supposed, at the sight of my bewilderment.

“The tonal is rightfully so, a protector; a guardian- a guardian that most of the time turns into a guard.”

I fumbled with my notebook. I was trying to pay attention to what he was saying. He laughed and mimicked my nervous movements.

“The tonal is the organizer of the world,” he proceeded. “Perhaps the best way of describing its monumental work is to say that on its shoulders rests the task of setting the chaos of the world in order. It is not farfetched to maintain, as sorcerers do, that everything we know and do as men is the work of the tonal.

“At this moment, for instance, what is engaged in trying to make sense out of our conversation is your tonal. Without it there would be only weird sounds and grimaces, and you wouldn’t understand a thing of what I’m saying.

“I would say then that the tonal is a guardian that protects something priceless; our very being. Therefore an inherent quality of the tonal is to be cagey and jealous of its doings. And since its doings are by far the most important part of our lives, it is no wonder that it eventually changes in every one of us from a guardian into a guard.”

He stopped and asked me if I had understood. I automatically nodded my head affirmatively, and he smiled with an air of incredulity.

“A guardian is broad-minded and understanding,” he explained. “A guard, on the other hand, is a vigilante; narrow-minded and most of the time despotic [* despotic- characteristic of having absolute authority]. I say then that the tonal in all of us has been made into a petty and despotic guard when it should be a broad-minded guardian.”

I definitely was not following the trend of his explanation. I heard and wrote down every word and yet I seemed to be stuck with some internal dialogue of my own.

“It is very hard for me to follow your point,” I said.

“If you didn’t get hooked on talking to yourself, you would have no quarrels,” he said cuttingly.

His remark threw me into a long explanatory statement. I finally caught myself and apologized for my insistence on defending myself.

He smiled and made a gesture that seemed to indicate that my attitude had not really annoyed him.

“The tonal is everything we are,” he proceeded. “Name it! Anything we have a word for is the tonal. And since the tonal is its own doings, then everything, obviously, has to fall under its domain.”

I reminded him that he had said that the ‘tonal’ was the social person, a term which I myself had used with him to mean a human being as the end result of socialization processes. I pointed out that if the ‘tonal’ was that product, it could not be everything, as he had said, because the world around us was not the product of socialization.

Don Juan reminded me that my argument had no basis for him, and that long before he had already made the point that there was no world at large but only a description of the world which we had learned to visualize and take for granted.

“The tonal is everything we know,” he said. “I think this in itself is enough reason for the tonal to be such an overpowering affair.”

He paused for a moment. He seemed to be definitely waiting for comments or questions, but I had none. Yet I felt obligated to voice a question and struggled to formulate an appropriate one.

I failed. I felt that the admonitions with which he had opened our conversation had perhaps served as a deterrent to any inquiry on my part. I felt strangely numb. I could not concentrate and order my thoughts. In fact I felt and knew without the shadow of a doubt that I was incapable of thinking. And yet I knew this without thinking; if that were at all possible.

I looked at don Juan. He was staring at the middle part of my body. He lifted his eyes and my clarity of mind returned instantly.

“The tonal is everything we know,” he repeated slowly. “And that includes not only us as persons, but everything in our world. It can be said that the tonal is everything that meets the eye.

“We begin to groom it at the moment of birth. The moment we take the first gasp of air we also breathe in power for the tonal. So it is proper to say that the tonal of a human being is intimately tied to his birth.

“You must remember this point. It is of great importance in understanding all this. The tonal begins at birth and ends at death.”

I wanted to recapitulate all the points that he had made. I went as far as opening my mouth to ask him to repeat the salient [* salient- having a quality that thrusts itself into attention] points of our conversation, but to my amazement I could not vocalize my words. I was experiencing a most curious incapacity. My words were heavy and I had no control over that sensation.

I looked at don Juan to signal him that I could not talk. He was again staring at the area around my stomach.

He lifted his eyes and asked me how I felt. Words poured out of me as if I had been unplugged. I told him that I had been having the peculiar sensation of not being able to talk or think, and yet my thoughts had been crystal clear.

“Your thoughts have been crystal clear?” he asked.

I realized then that the clarity had not pertained to my thoughts, but to my perception of the world.

“Are you doing something to me, don Juan?” I asked.

“I am trying to convince you that your comments are not necessary,” he said and laughed.

“You mean you don’t want me to ask questions?”

“No, no. Ask anything you want, but don’t let your attention waver.”

I had to admit that I had been distracted by the immensity of the topic.

“I still cannot understand, don Juan, what you mean by the statement that the tonal is everything,” I said after a moment’s pause.

“The tonal is what makes the world.”

“Is the tonal the creator of the world?”

Don Juan scratched his temples.

“The tonal makes the world only in a manner of speaking. It cannot create or change anything, and yet it makes the world because its function is to judge, and assess, and witness. I say that the tonal makes the world because it witnesses and assesses it according to tonal rules. In a very strange manner, the tonal is a creator that doesn’t create a thing. In other words, the tonal makes up the rules by which it apprehends the world. So, in a manner of speaking, it creates the world.”

He hummed a popular tune, beating the rhythm with his fingers on the side of his chair. His eyes were shining. They seemed to sparkle. He chuckled, shaking his head.

“You’re not following me,” he said, smiling.

“I am. I have no problems,” I said, but I did not sound very convincing.

“The tonal is an island,” he explained. “The best way of describing it is to say that the tonal is this.”

He ran his hand over the table top.

“We can say that the tonal is like the top of this table. An island. And on this island we have everything. This island is, in fact, the world.

“There is a personal tonal for every one of us, and there is a collective one for all of us at any given time which we can call the tonal of the times.”

He pointed to the rows of tables in the restaurant.

“Look! Every table has the same configuration. Certain items are present on all of them. They are, however, individually different from each other. Some tables are more crowded than others. They have different food on them, different plates, different atmosphere, yet we have to admit that all the tables in this restaurant are very alike.

The same thing happens with the tonal. We can say that the tonal of the times is what makes us alike in the same way it makes all the tables in this restaurant alike. Each table separately, nevertheless, is an individual case just like the personal tonal of each of us. But the important factor to keep in mind is that everything we know about ourselves and about our world is on the island of the tonal. See what I mean?”

“If the tonal is everything we know about ourselves and our world, what then is the nagual?”

“The nagual is the part of us which we do not deal with at all.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The nagual is the part of us for which there is no description: no words, no names, no feelings, no knowledge.”

“That’s a contradiction, don Juan. In my opinion, if it can’t be felt or described or named, it cannot exist.”

“It’s a contradiction only in your opinion. I warned you before, don’t knock yourself out trying to understand this.”

“Would you say that the nagual is the mind?”

“No. The mind is an item on the table. The mind is part of the tonal. Let’s say that the mind is the chili sauce.”

He took a bottle of sauce and placed it in front of me.

“Is the nagual the soul?”

“No. The soul is also on the table. Let’s say that the soul is the ashtray.”

“Is it the thoughts of men?”

“No. Thoughts are also on the table. Thoughts are like the silverware.”

He picked up a fork and placed it next to the chili sauce and the ashtray.

“Is it a state of grace? Heaven?”

“Not that either. That, whatever it might be, is also part of the tonal. It is, let’s say, the napkin.”

I went on giving possible ways of describing what he was alluding to: pure intellect, psyche, energy, vital force, immortality, life principle. For each thing I named he found an item on the table to serve as a counterpart and shoved it in front of me until he had all the objects on the table stashed in one pile.

Don Juan seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. He giggled and rubbed his hands every time I named another possibility.

“Is the nagual the Supreme Being; the Almighty, God?” I asked.

“No. God is also on the table. Let’s say that God is the tablecloth.”

He made a joking gesture of pulling the tablecloth in order to stack it up with the rest of the items he had put in front of me.

“But, are you saying that God does not exist?”

“No. I didn’t say that. All I said was that the nagual was not God because God is an item of our personal tonal and of the tonal of the times. The tonal is, as I’ve already said, everything we think the world is composed of, including God, of course. God has no more importance other than being a part of the tonal of our time.”

“In my understanding, don Juan, God is everything. Aren’t we talking about the same thing?”

“No. God is only everything you can think of, therefore, properly speaking, he is only another item on the island. God cannot be witnessed at will, he can only be talked about.

“The nagual, on the other hand, is at the service of the warrior. It can be witnessed, but it cannot be talked about.”

“If the nagual is not any of the things I have mentioned,” I said, “perhaps you can tell me about its location. Where is it?”

Don Juan made a sweeping gesture and pointed to the area beyond the boundaries of the table. He swept his hand, as if with the back of it he were cleaning an imaginary surface that went beyond the edges of the table.

“The nagual is there,” he said. “There, surrounding the island. The nagual is there, where power hovers.

“We sense, from the moment we are born, that there are two parts to us. At the time of birth, and for a while after, we are all nagual. We sense, then, that in order to function we need a counterpart to what we have. The tonal is missing and that gives us, from the very beginning, a feeling of incompleteness.

“Then the tonal starts to develop and it becomes utterly important to our functioning; so important that it opaques the shine of the nagual. It overwhelms it. From the moment we become all tonal, we do nothing else but to increment that old feeling of incompleteness which accompanies us from the moment of our birth, and which tells us constantly that there is another part to give us completeness.

“From the moment we become all tonal we begin making pairs. We sense our two sides, but we always represent them with items of the tonal. We say that the two parts of us are the soul and the body. Or mind and matter. Or good and evil. God and Satan.

“We never realize, however, that we are merely pairing things on the island, very much like pairing coffee and tea, or bread and tortillas, or chili and mustard. I tell you, we are weird animals. We get carried away, and in our madness we believe ourselves to be making perfect sense.”

Don Juan stood up and addressed me as if he were an orator. He pointed his index finger at me and made his head shiver.

“Man doesn’t move between good and evil,” he said in a hilariously rhetorical tone, grabbing the salt and pepper shakers in both hands. “His true movement is between negativeness and positiveness.”

He dropped the salt and pepper and clutched a knife and fork.

“You’re wrong! There is no movement,” he continued as if he were answering himself. “Man is only mind!”

He took the bottle of sauce and held it up. Then he put it down.

“As you can see,” he said softly, “we can easily replace chili sauce for mind and end up saying, ‘Man is only chili sauce!’ Doing that won’t make us more demented than we already are.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t asked the right question,” I said. “Maybe we could arrive at a better understanding if I asked what one can specifically find in that area beyond the island?”

“There is no way of answering that. If I would say, ‘nothing’, I would only make the nagual part of the tonal. All I can say is that there, beyond the island, one finds the nagual”

“But, when you call it the nagual, aren’t you also placing it on the island?”

“No. I named it only because I wanted to make you aware of it.”

“All right! But becoming aware of it is the step that has turned the nagual into a new item of my tonal”

“I’m afraid you do not understand. I have named the tonal and the nagual as a true pair. That is all I have done.”

He reminded me that once while trying to explain to him my insistence on meaning, I had discussed the idea that children might not be capable of comprehending the difference between ‘father’ and ‘mother’ until they were quite developed in terms of handling meaning. And that they would perhaps believe that it might be that ‘father’ wears pants and ‘mother’ skirts, or other differences dealing with hairstyle, or size of body, or items of clothing.

“We certainly do the same thing with the two parts of us,” he said. “We sense that there is another side to us. But when we try to pin down that other side the tonal gets hold of the baton, and as a director it is quite petty and jealous. It dazzles us with its cunningness and forces us to obliterate the slightest inkling of the other part of the true pair, the nagual.”

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