Guru, sage, shaman, mystic, and near recluse; these were titles that made us understandably nervous. We were met with a very simple man dressed all in black, slumped into the couch alongside his 44-year-old wife, Pascale Montandon. Charming, eccentric and animated, this was not the man, nor the discussion, we were expecting at all. The artist was reluctant to talk about his own work, instead his responses were deeply profound, abstract and rooted in Buddhism. At times he would meander through philosophical tangents in his patchy English. Like his work our conversation with him was both a surprise and a gift.
His legendary works include Holy Mountain, El Topo, and Jodorowsky’s Dune (the documentary of his unsuccessful attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s novel.) All have remained highly relevant and have affected several generations of new artists and free spirits, from John Lennon (whom financed Holy Mountain), Marina Abramovic and David Lynch, to Kanye West and Nicolas Winding Refn.
Alejandro Jodorowsky is someone who doesn’t limit himself, but finds peace in discovering new art forms in everything including the circus world, poetry, and comic books. His latest film, the autobiographical Endless Poetry, documents a life full of anguish, and a deeply tormented relationship with his father. From this he interprets his work through the prism of absurdity, symbolism and humour, but underneath it all we find a very sincere individual calling for understanding and unity amongst everyone.
Lets start with a very open question. How would you describe yourself?
This is the fundamental question. Lets look back at history for some context: when Bodhidharma the monk came to China thousands of years ago, he came alone and transported Buddhism with him. The emperor at that time welcomed him after he had travelled all this way like a beggar and was very dirty. The emperor said to him, “you are a very wise person. You’ve translated many books and spent time in many monasteries. I want to ask you a simple question, what is my value?” And Bodhidharma said, “There are no values.” The emperor answered him irately, “Who are you to tell me this? Who do you think you are?”
After that Bodhidharma went on to become the father of Zen Buddhism. That’s why I love Zen Buddhism, it teaches that you can’t know who you are, because there is no you. You are an illusion. You think you’re a certain character but you’re not. When we are speaking like this you are only speaking to yourself, not anyone else. That is the biggest illusion. But I can honestly say that I am very happy when I see myself. I have a big pleasure.
You mean when you see yourself in the mirror?
No, I don’t see myself in the mirror, except maybe once a day in the morning when I get up, but otherwise never. My wife likes my face but I don’t understand that. I feel my consciousness but not as a physical form. If I was to try and describe myself I would start by saying that all of that is artificial. If I were to describe myself physically then that would be the ego talking. Ego is a vision that you create. You create a story of your family, society, your country and your culture. We all have characters we create. Good character, bad character, every person creates a unique character, but the character is not you, it’s just a way to live. Where all your structure lies. It’s desire, its emotion, it’s thinking.
If every person really knew who they were then the world would be fantastic. There is a deep centre, an emptiness around the character. I say I have a name but the name is not me. I have no age, I don’t have a nationality, I’m not Jewish, nothing. Even memory is just a point of view of something that happened. We are a part of a whole thing but not the whole thing. In Greek temples thousands of years ago there were three maxims that they lived by. “Know thyself,” “Nothing to excess,” and “A pledge comes from madness”. These still ring true today.
"We put limits on ourselves that don’t exist."
Alejandro Jodoroswky on limitations
Pascale [Montandon – Alejandro’s wife], do you relate to Alejandro’s existential description and how he sees life? Does he talk like this in the house?
Pascale: Yes, Alejandro, he is the love of my life but he is also an artist. He is an example of a man of integrity. He does what he says. I am absolutely in agreement, in harmony with the way he thinks, lives and is. It’s a privilege to live with him.
Alejandro: We’ve been together 11 years. We’re an old couple. We have a big difference of age, but as I said we don’t have age.
Pascale: It’s not a game. It’s not a character. He is really like that.
I would agree that you’re a man of integrity. You take your time with things and you never sell out. One of the messages I took from your new film Endless Poetry is that life almost has an element of absurdity. Do you think that life is absurd?
Life is not logical. The universe is not rational. This is absolute. We don’t understand a thing. When we take out the logic we are lost. Why? because all the schools and universities are teaching words. Words are not the thing. They describe the world around to us but they are not the thing. From early on in life you are asking for definitions, but there are no definitions. Life is not absolute. It is what it is. When I wanted to become a Zen master, the first question to me was, do you understand that life doesn’t start and doesn’t finish? I tried to think about the answer and he looked at me and said, “You fucking intellectual! Learn to die.” If you think about it then you are not answering the question.
All life in the universe is living in me. All this universe at the moment is not in the past and not in the future, it’s living here as a whole. It seems absolute but it’s not. It’s also not logical at all. They once asked a big spiritual master, “Do you believe in god?” He told them no and they said, “Wow, how can you say no , you are a master?” He said, “When I say no I don’t believe in god its because I know god. It’s always there. The believing is to make definitions. To say “I believe” is to already distance yourself from the truth. You need to live life, not analyse or describe what it is. You’re asking me all these things the social life, the industrial life, well that is absolute because it is artificial. Every single thing that happens now is absolute because it’s artificial.
Alejandro Jodorowsky starring in his 1970 film El Topo
I like your intention of being positive. You talk about how a lot of media and films permeate our society and try to make it negative and apocalyptic. You said “the point of art is to show how people how beautiful the soul of a person is, to open the consciousness of others.” So you want to wake people up?
My father gave me life and I became an artist. Early on in my life I decided that God doesn’t exist and we will die and life will finish. I had an enormous anguish about that. So where do you find an answer to life? I went searching and found a lot of things. I went to all these religions, and societies, kabbala, everything. But then I find an old book of George Gurdjieff. He was a philosopher and mystic in Europe in the early 20th century, and he taught Sufism. He was all about this idea that the mind and body if not conscious is asleep most of their life and not fully living. From this moment I started thinking, what is sleeping? It’s living as if you don’t know yourself. Later I came to this conclusion that the person is living with an idea of himself, but it doesn’t touch their essential being. What you are essentially, out of your history, out of all definitions. To be aware of the essential part of you and nothing more, that is to be awake. For years I was trying to develop my consciousness and I see it grow, but I realized that there is nothing to grow, it’s all there already. We put limits on ourselves that don’t exist.
Are you more at peace now than you were earlier in your life?
Sure. I never was like this, how I am now.
Because I get a sense of a lot of anger in your film the Endless Poetry.
At one time yes, but not now. I was neurotic until I was 40 years old. But the natural reality is wise. Why do you get old? To get old is not to get easier, but to get better and better and more and more comfortable in the reality. The older you get the more you realise everything is mortal in this world. But there may be other worlds, who knows. But when you get old it is easier to discard what is not important and start to only live what is important for you, what is real.
Right, it’s like the word enlightened, which could means to become lighter.
Well actually when a person says they are enlightened they are not enlightened at all because they are self-conscious. To get lighter is to get free. Free of the limits, free of a cage. Consciousness is in a cage, and you need to open the cage.
We have three minds that we’ve evolved with, the lizard brain, the emotional and the cognitive. This gives us boundaries of knowledge but beyond that we all need to evolve another brain, so maybe we need 10 brains. There’s always another boundary we encounter.
Let’s turn to your earlier work, you have described your film Holy Mountain as a manifesto of sorts.
It was in its time.
"I was neurotic until I was 40 years old."
Alejandro Jodorowsky, looking back on his life.
That film seems to be ever-present in popular culture, it seems to have had an effect on a lot of artists. It has deeply affected many people.
Yes because in the industrial society we are living everything is a game in order to forget who you are. As an artist you need to play a game and unfortunately you need to play immediately. As an artist you need to give product in order to please the person who is playing. Its like a childish level of satisfying. It needs to be presented on the same level, on a childish level. When you start as an artist you don’t know who you are. When you make a picture or a poem that feels connected it is timeless, it’s difficult for the person to understand because these are things that people don’t know they have because they haven’t looked deep inside themselves. The world we’re living in is a lie. It is nothing. They say, this piece of work or picture is from the 40s, this one is from the 60s, this picture has a time. But a real creation doesn’t get old.
Is it true that you talked with George Harrison about him being in the movie Holy Mountain?
Yes, sure. He was dressed in white. He was taking tea in a fancy hotel and was very angry because he was asking for a little more hot water in the tea and they asked him for one dollar. He said, “One dollar for the water!” I waited for him to calm himself and he said he wanted to be in the movie.
[ed. note. – He ended up backing out of the project because Alejandro wanted George to show his anus and clean it on camera and George refused.]
A still from his latest autobiographical film Endless Poetry
Did you find him enlightened?
What a question. Every person is enlightened, but some people have more and less limits and I see his limits.
What is your limit?
I don’t know. If I knew my limits I would not really have the limit.
But some people sense their limits.
You cannot be aware of your own limitations. If you realise your limits then they dissolve.
"The industrial society we are living everything is a game in order to forget who you are."
Alejandro Jodorowsky on the futility of art
Alejandro, my last question is this; you’ve tried so many things, the circus, films, comic books, poetry. What has been the biggest lesson that all of this has taught you?
Everything I do I see as a lesson. Yesterday I switched on and off a light and I saw that my hand and the light made a dance and that was a lesson for me. I am learning every moment.
Everything has a union, everything is like a dance, and every day is a lesson. I may go to a library and open a book that is 40 years old. All my life it has been there, but I take it, I open it, and the book starts to stick to me. Whichever page I open it to, it is teaching me something. Every single thing is a lesson, even the bad things. Even the most terrible things are good lessons.
Endless Poetry is out on the 6th of January in the UK