Jodorowsky on God, Anti-Semitism and the Uses of Poetry
A Conversation with the Man Who Didn't Make 'Dune'
This interview was conducted via Skype on March 30, 2015, with Alejandro Jodorowsky sitting in his library in Paris, and Ilan Stavans at home in Amherst, Massachusetts. The conversation switched back and forth from English to Spanish—below is the English translation of the interview by the translator of Jodorwsky’s novel Where the Bird Sings Best, Alfred MacAdam
Ilan Stavans: My name is Ilan Stavans, and I’m the publisher of Restless Books. I just want to say how happy I am to have the book, Where the Bird Sings Best, here with me. As it turns out, I’m also the son of a man you did theater with in Mexico many years ago. You put on The Game We All Play. My father, Abraham Stavans, was with a group that worked with your people. I just want to say I’m happy that another generation of my family is getting a chance to work with you.
Alejandro Jodorowsky: Do they still put on plays in that same place?
IS: They do. Alejandro, I have lots of questions for you. Let me start by trying to locate you in the canon of 20th-century Latin American literature, with the writers who came along in the 1950s and 60s, when you were producing plays and beginning to branch out. How do you see yourself in the context of Latin American literature?
AJ: You’re thinking of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa…
IS: And Borges, Cortázar, Fuentes, along with some writers from Chile.
AJ: Look, those writers came out of Latin American folklore. And there was also a touch of politics, because in those days you had to sympathize with the Communist Party and Fidel Castro. And you had to play along if you wanted them to help you out. People like Pablo Neruda. I was always apolitical. I believed in poetic revolution, not political revolution. I hated politics.
IS: I get you.
AJ: Politics, well, it’s like an institution that was necessary once upon a time but is nowadays totally perverted. And usually carried out by people who are practically thieves. And people from the industrial mafia.
IS: What do you mean?
AJ: The industrial mafia, I mean the economic mafia. So I never got involved in that. At the same time, I’m anti-folklore. I don’t believe in that Latin American folklore. I think folklore is a decayed mystical tradition. Sure, it preserves some truths, but no one these days knows what folklore is preserving.
IS: So things like magic realism…?
AJ: Magic realism never interested me. So I wrote about Jews who become Latin Americans.
IS: Why Jews?
AJ: Because Latin America is essentially anti-Semitic. Let’s be absolutely clear about that. Take Chile, where I was living. Half the country supported the Nazis during the war years. And lots of Germans ended up in southern Chile. It’s an anti-Semitic country.
AJ: Well, it was. And I dared to write about all that, which means I never did well with critics, never sold well. I was going against the grain.
IS: Alejandro, do you really believe that because you wrote about how a Jewish family comes to Chile, to Latin America, [it] was the reason the reception of your books was negative? Because of the anti-Semitism you mentioned?
AJ: I do. And also because it was so strange to write about such a subject.
IS: So strange?
AJ: It was. It was like the movie with E.T., an extraterrestrial who moves in. It was also avant-garde. I did so many things of a hyper avant-garde nature, like Beckett or Ionesco. What I mean is that I had nothing to do with the folkloric aspect of Latin American literature.
IS: Does it bother you that in reviews in countries like the United States or Great Britain you’re considered a magical realist?
AJ: It doesn’t bother me, but what I do is not magical realism. I do realistic magic. Look, whenever someone does something new, people have to compare it with things they already know. So even if you innovate, you end up being connected to the past. When I began making movies people linked me to Fellini or Buñuel. Now new filmmakers are called “jodorowskian.”
IS: What is your relationship with Chile? I mean, what connects you to the country? How do you think Chile views you? Has the country changed?
AJ: I have Twitter, and it turns out I have many followers there, more than a million. So the relationship between me and Chile has changed. Over time, people start to see you as having some value, and you become part of national culture.
IS: Has that really happened? Are you part of Chilean national culture? In what ways does Chile define you, if at all?
AJ: That’s a hard one. You don’t want to be anti-patriotic or an ingrate. But what I do is spiritual work. So let’s start from there. In my soul, I have neither race nor nationality. I’m extraterritorial. And I have no particular age. I don’t live within my age. I don’t behave like people my age. No age, no nationality.
IS: But even so…
AJ: Even so, I spent a very important part of my life in Chile. I was born there and had an incredible adolescence. Until I was 23. That’s the movie I’m making now [i.e., Endless Poetry]. I was a poet, I knew poetry. That was before such terrible things happened in Chile, before Pinochet came along. So I have a kind of nostalgia for my roots, but those roots are tangled up with my Jewish roots. I was ostracized in high school. No one wanted to sit next to me.
IS: Well, do you feel the same way about Mexico or France? I mean the idea of not being connected to the country but with nostalgia for those places you inhabited at a certain moment?
AJ: I do. Of course I have different relationships with different places. I have the sentimental relationship of my adolescence, insofar as Chile is concerned. And I mean the adolescence of my early work, the enthusiasm, the youth. Then, with Mexico, I know that it was there my mind took shape for the first time. In France, I worked with Marcel Marceau learning to be a mime. I worked with André Breton and had contact with Surrealism. I worked with Gaston Bachelard and learned philosophy. I acquired a European culture.
IS: What else about Mexico?
AJ: I have very strong links with Mexico. My children were born there. I struggled there. I developed in theater. I helped to change artistic culture in Mexico. The country was my passion.
IS: More than Chile?
AJ: Not in the same way, because Chile for me was paradise. I mean I suffered until I was 17, and then it was paradise until I was 24. There was no fighting, just paradise.
IS: Alejandro, I wonder if you would think about your relationship with the languages you speak—French, Spanish, English.
AJ: The funny thing is that the book has been reprinted about 20 times in Italy. It’s the country where the book has had its greatest success.
IS: Why is that?
AJ: I have no idea. The Italian spirit seems to understand the kind of guy I am.
IS: What about France?
AJ: A Chilean painter, deceased, named Roberto Matta lived there. He said it was easy to be a success in France, but that the first 50 years of trying were the hardest. And I’ve been in Paris for 50 years, so now I’m having success. The government even sent me an official diploma and a medal.
AJ: For having served the culture of France and the rest of the world. So they’ve recognized me. It only took 50 years.
IS: What about your relationship with languages?
AJ: If I could shift my computer around, you would see that I live in a library. The walls are covered with books. I read in Italian, French, Spanish. But I think in Spanish, then French, and then English. I speak English like Speedy González. I learned it watching movies. Actually, I’m not too confident about English.
IS: What language do people speak in your dreams?
AJ: Spanish, I think. Sometimes French.
IS: Spanish with a Chilean accent?
AJ: No, because I don’t speak with a Chilean accent. I’m not from any one country. I’ve been living abroad for more than 50 years, and languages are living things that change. My Spanish is my own, and I can’t use the latest expressions. In Spain, say, people read my books, but I can’t use Spanish slang.
IS: Since you’ve lived outside Chile for so long, do you feel your Spanish is stiff or frozen? Do you ever feel as if there words you just don’t have in Spanish? How do you maintain your Spanish?
AJ: By writing poetry. I write poetry every day. I work on a poem the way an abstract painter works on a picture. I tinker with it. And over here on my right is a shelf of dictionaries. Lots of dictionaries and the sense that my soul is alive. So language is soul. Well, the soul of the ego because our essential being has no language. It has feelings. But my ego is made of Spanish, and since my ego is alive, so is my language.
IS: But there’s more to you than language.
AJ: I’ve opened lots of doors: the door between consciousness and the unconscious, for instance. I got involved with therapy, psychoanalysis. Another door I opened was mysticism. I’m a mystic. Not in the religious sense, but in the sense that I work with that unnamable entity we call God.
IS: Please explain.
AJ: Maybe it comes to me from the heritage of the ancient rabbis, I don’t know. I’ve worked a lot in semantics, especially Korzybski’s non-Aristotelian semantics. Things like “The dog doesn’t bite words” or “The map is not the place.” For me, language is different from being. Words are not things.
IS: And you want…?
AJ: I seek the thing. So language is a means, the airplane that carries me to something. But when I get to my destination, I get off the plane.
IS: A change of subject. I want to ask you about the Jews, another subject that links us, because I’m a Mexican Jew whose rabbinical grandparents came to Mexico. Did your family ever speak Yiddish?
AJ: They did. All the time. My father and mother spoke in Yiddish. They never taught it to me because they hated each other, argued, and didn’t want me to understand.
IS: So they spoke Yiddish so you wouldn’t understand them. But what about your connection to Jewish literature? Just now you said you had no interest in folklore, but what about Jewish secular writing and Jewish rabbinical writing? What effect did that have on you?
AJ: It’s mine. It’s right here next to me. If you were to look around here, you’d see I have a Jewish library. Well, I also have Chinese and Japanese books. And Arabian, and books about magic, and philosophy. Everything in its proper place.
IS: I only wish I could see it.
AJ: I liked many Jewish books. Sholem Asch’s Motke the Thief, for example. And Perez and Sholem Aleichem.
IS: Those authors, did you read them in Spanish or in Yiddish?
AJ: In Spanish, because I didn’t have the patience to read in Yiddish. I don’t know it well enough. All I know actually are some words that tumbled out during the fights between my father and mother. They fell like seeds. Insults I do remember. But I did read Jewish literature, and at one time it really interested me.
IS: Some reviewers have said that they see you as a writer in a Jewish tradition.
AJ: Quite right. I had to study to write the book. It took me—I can’t say for sure—four or five years to write Where the Bird Sings Best. I had to do research on my family because they hated one another and cut off all communication. I had to reconnect them. And when I couldn’t find out things from the family, I turned to history—what happened, for instance, when the Jews left Spain? What happened to the Jews expelled from Russia? All that I had to study. I had to study rabbinical thought so that I could create a character who was a rabbi.
IS: When did you get involved with Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah?
AJ: When I was in Paris I began studying the tarot. I’m adept when it comes to the tarot, but not for telling the future. For me, the tarot was an optical language, and when I delved into magic, into Eliphas Levi and related subjects, I found Kabbalah experts who initiated me. Then I got into the Torah, the Five Volumes with rabbinical commentary. After that, the Talmud and that other group, the ones who get married seated in a chair.
IS: The Hassidim.
AJ: But all that interested me in the same way Japanese or Chinese literature interested me. It’s the literature of a specific nation within universal literature.
IS: Alejandro, do you think this status of yours, that of belonging to no nation, of being a universal citizen, of being beyond age, culture, and geography has something to do with your being Jewish?
AJ: It must. Because right from the start I rejected the idea of having any worldly property. I don’t own this house. I’ve always rented. I have no fixed abode. And in Chile no one thought of me as Chilean. Sometimes I was a Jew. People would call me that behind my back I found out later.
IS: In an offensive way?
AJ: For them Jews were like Turks. They called Arabs Turks, and Hebrews were Jews. And there were genetic differences which I saw right away. From when I was a little boy, because I was light-skinned and circumcised and the other boys weren’t. When we took showers, they would measure penises, and that’s when they started to make fun of me. So there was a difference, one I’m thankful for. And then there was my father, who hid the fact that he was Jewish. He always said he was Russian.
IS: He wasn’t religious.
AJ: He would say, “God does not exist. You die, and you rot, and that’s that.” He was violently against religion and everything else. He never celebrated a single holy day. He assimilated as best he could. But he also deprived me of any metaphysics to fall back on. I had nothing to hang on to, either in the matter of nationality or in terms of belief. I grew up without beliefs. An atheist. My father was a Stalinist. Just imagine that. In my film, I tell all that.
IS: So you’re E.T., but from Chile.
AJ: Right, I think of myself as not of this earth. But I am earthly because I consider myself a citizen of the planet Earth, at least for the moment.
IS: What about God? Does He exist?
AJ: As far as I’m concerned that’s a naive question.
IS: Excuse me for asking.
AJ: Because God is—He cannot exist because He’s beyond existence. Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher, wrote A Guide for the Perplexed to try to define God. He ended up saying “God is the thing about which we can say nothing.” There are no words for Him; God is unthinkable.
IS: So you do believe.
AJ: I don’t believe in God, but I feel Him. I’d be stupid if I didn’t realize that this vast universe contains life. And it has a creator.
IS: I see.
AJ: Call it a creative principle that I see in myself and in everyone else. Ramakrishna, a great Hindu mystic of the 19th century, was asked, “Do you believe in God?” And he answered, “No.” “What,” they said, “how can you not believe in God?” “I don’t because I don’t know Him.” To talk about God we use words. But knowing God is a feeling that one has about cosmic immensity. I have that feeling, but it took me years to get it. I searched.
IS: Would you say yours has been an absolutely free life, or have you lived an absolutely predetermined life? Or both at the same time?
AJ: Both at the same time. Because in this society no one is free. Let’s begin with society itself. We are all slaves of the economy. We’re all in debt. We’re slaves, and we live earning money. Our God is the Dollar.
IS: So instead of adoring God we adollar God.
AJ: That’s it. So we aren’t free. Everything goes to the bank, where we are spied on for tax purposes. We’re being spied on more and more. So how can we talk about freedom? Freedom can only happen when we’re all free. That came to me from a Jewish proverb that goes “The Messiah is not a man. The Messiah is the day when all humans become enlightened.”
IS: Maimonides says that God is the only authentically free being but that even He has no control over the impossible.
AJ: But the impossible doesn’t exist. We talk about it as if it did, but it does not. It can’t. Like nothingness, it doesn’t exist. The fact that you’re sitting there means that nothingness does not exist. The impossible is merely a mental construct.
IS: Do you think of yourself as a messianic figure? Not as the Messiah, but as the hope that at some point we can become free beings or reach a different level of consciousness.
AJ: Look, our planet, our society is not violent. There is violence in the world, but let’s not confuse things that happen with essences. Human beings are fully realized entities, but they don’t know it. We suffer from ignorance. So what you refer to as messianic is already with us. Our society is an illusion. The room where you’re sitting is rectangular, but it’s an illusion. It’s the product of a geometric society. An organic society wouldn’t have such a room. It would have other forms. We are organic beings who live in a geometric, logical society, a mold. But the mold is not reality. When you ask me if I’m messianic, I have to say I don’t know who I am. I have no definition of myself because that would entail putting myself in a mold. I believe in in myself as much as I believe in you, but there are some people who have more limitations and others who have fewer. And so if everything is an illusion, there are ugly illusions. So what we should do is to seek out and live in the most beautiful illusion.
IS: What would that be?
AJ: God. God is the most beautiful of illusions. Why wouldn’t we want that? Being good, not being beasts or murderers.
IS: Or soldiers?
AJ: I don’t think human beings are soldiers. People become soldiers out of boredom or to earn a living. But I don’t think human beings are these beasts we see all the time. I think we’re evolving. Human beings are transforming, and we shall one day be what we really are.
IS: But what about chance or accidents?
AJ: I think the universe created us for some purpose, not by chance. Well, at least I’d prefer it not to be by chance.
IS: So you think there is a plan to the universe?
AJ: The origin of the universe is consciousness. The universe is working to produce a global consciousness. When it does, the entire cosmos will possess that consciousness.
IS: How does evil fit into this plan?
AJ: Evil occurs when good is forgotten.
IS: You are very patient, but I don’t want to steal your time.
AJ: You can’t steal anyone’s time because time is not an object. Actually, you’re helping me create time.
IS: When did you discover Gurdjieff?
AJ: I was working with Marcel Marceau. I was very poor. My wife and I went on vacation to Saint Paul de Vence in southeastern France. A lady kindly lent us a room down there so we could have some time off. There was a shelf of books in that room, and since I’m a reader, I poked around and came up with a book by Louis Pauwels called Monsieur Gurdjieff. I read it with immense curiosity, and that’s how I came to Gurdjieff. The book had a tremendous impact on me.
IS: In what way?
AJ: It contained concepts that seemed very good to me. Gurdjieff talked about the ego, that there was an ego, and that there was an essential being. That we not only have an ego but that we have many egos that continuously change. It’s as if we’re asleep and have to awaken. That caught my eye. I began to see who I was, what my egos were, and what the essential being is. We are many things: a heart, an emotional language, a sex, a sexual language, a body, a language of actions. To start, we are four-in-one. And then I began to see that when I’m speaking with my emotions, when I’m speaking with my desires, when I’m speaking with my needs, I am plural. So I could divide myself and unite myself. I worked hard on that.
IS: So Gurdjieff was one of your mentors?
AJ: I have two grandfathers. One is Gurdjieff and the other is Eliphas Levi, who wrote Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual. Levi was Gurdjieff’s precursor. He reactivated magic.
IS: But this is not ordinary magic.
AJ: No, it’s a quest for intuitive knowledge.
IS: Alejandro, if I may, I’d like to return to your work. How does it happen that one subject will turn into a film while others become books or theatrical productions?
AJ: My point of departure is poetry. Whatever form my ideas take, they are all poetic manifestations. We’d have to talk about the finality of poetry.
IS: Let’s do that.
AJ: The finality of poetry, of art, is the quest for beauty. But beauty, or truth in my case, is, following all my studies, impossible to achieve because you can’t get to truth using language. So truth is something impossible for human beings. We don’t have the brains.
IS: I’m not sure…
AJ: Look, we’d like to capture the infinite, the eternal, something that neither begins nor ends, but we cannot. The most our brain can capture is beauty. Using poetry, I try to find what there is of value in me, not to show it, but to show its beauty to others—the public, readers. It’s like saying I’m here to show you the beauty you possess, the positive, the constructive, the marvelous thing it is to be human. That’s my task. There are various ways to do it. I use graphic works, comics, with fixed images and symbols. Film does the same thing but with motion.
IS: So your creations are access points.
AJ: Ways into other universes, but with different modalities. When a person reads a graphic novel, they turn the pages, so they are active. When you watch a film you’re passive. All that is changing because of new technologies.
IS: What do you mean?
AJ: In the future, books—novels—will contain tiny films, music. They will contain everything we have in movies. We are in the early stages of an immense change in expressive means. Things that were part of Flash Gordon’s world when I was a kid.
IS: Science fiction.
AJ: Right. Flash Gordon could speak by telephone and see the person he was talking to. All that was impossible in those days, but here we are.
IS: But theater involves living actors. It’s alive, and it’s ritualistic.
AJ: And the most tragic, because it disappears when the performance ends. Memories remain, and there are videos of performances, but those are not really theater. Accidents can happen during performances, but in movies no actor ever dies. In theater, an actor can drop dead on the stage.
IS: Do you still do theater?
AJ: Yes. Actually a book of mine called Endless Theater is coming out in France. It’s a collection of my theater pieces. They’re being put on in Belgium—The School for Ventriloquists. My son Brontis has performed The Gorilla, a monologue, five hundred times. I still do theater whenever the occasion arises. But making films takes up most of my time. Each movie takes a year to make.
IS: I’m glad you mentioned the time factor. When do you know a work, a poem, let’s say, that you start writing in the morning, is finished.
AJ: I write the poem. Then I put it aside. Later I rework it. The same way painters work. I go over it again and again and again until there’s nothing left for me to take away or add. Then it’s finished.
IS: So that could take a day or a year or your entire life, right?
AJ: Yes, but there is something else. Poetry produces no money because no one buys poetry books. They give out prizes for poetry, but no one reads it.
AJ: Because poetry, when it’s good, is an art so saturated with meaning that it’s hard to understand. At the same time, the planet is covered with bad poets who just write down any old thing and call it poetry.
IS: I’d like to ask you about the role of translators and translation. Are people who read you in translation really reading you?
AJ: You have to make a choice: do you want people to know what you do or not. The Venus de Milo has no arms, but it’s still a work of art. If what you have to say has a value, that gets through translation. And if the translator is good, then there will also be some sign of the translator’s creativity.
IS: So translation is a necessary evil.
AJ: I think it’s a necessity. After all, we’re all translated. What I’m saying to you, you’re translating even as you hear it. We aren’t telepathic yet. When we are, we won’t be translated.
IS: Speaking of reading and translating: is it true you’re coming to New York to do tarot readings?
AJ: That’s right. I’ll be in the Museum of Modern Art reading the tarot cards for visitors, I think in October.
IS: But in the meantime, you communicate with about a million people in your tweets.
AJ: Twitter is another venue for me. A tweet is another kind of artistic manifestation. It’s art. I make up phrases that are poetry, literature, philosophy. It isn’t just talk as far as I’m concerned.
IS: How many do you do per day?
AJ: Fifteen. I always do fifteen. I started doing it five years ago. At twelve noon I sit down and write them for an hour. Sometimes, when I have time, I answer too.
IS: Here in the United States, the comedian Steve Martin has published a book of tweets.
AJ: So have I. I’ve published two: the 365 tweets of wisdom and the 365 tweets of love. But now I have to get back to work.
Alejandro Jodorowsky was born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Tocopilla, Chile. From an early age, he became interested in mime and theater; at the age of twenty-three, he left for Paris to pursue the arts, and has lived there ever since. A friend and companion of Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor, he founded the Panic movement and has directed several classic films of this style, including The Holy Mountain, El Topo, and Santa Sangre. A mime artist, specialist in the art of tarot, and prolific author, he has written novels, poetry, short stories, essays, and over thirty successful comic books, working with such highly regarded comic book artists as Moebius and Bess. Restless Books will be publishing three of Jodorowsky’s best-known books for the first time in English: Donde mejor canta un pájaro (Where the Bird Sings Best), El niño del jueves negro (The Son of Black Thursday), and Albina y los hombres perro (Albina and the Dog Men).
Ilan Stavans is the Publisher of Restless Books and the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Jewish Book Award. Stavans’s work, translated into a dozen languages, has been adapted to the stage and screen. He hosted the syndicated PBS television show Conversations with Ilan Stavans. He is a cofounder of the Great Books Summer Program at Amherst, Stanford, and Oxford.