“You’re too shy to introduce yourself, I’ll introduce you”, said Tina during lunch, “this guy is your hero, you’re so nervous, but it’d be so cute to meet in person!”; I admitted as much: I was as nervous as a schoolboy is when the day for a big exam he’s sorely underprepared for comes. And today was an evaluation, a meeting of teacher and pupil, of sorts: we were finally meeting Alejandro Jodorowsky. I first got acquainted with his work, like most artists I like, by pretending to like his work without actually seeing it, back in college. A good friend of mine recommended me his films El Topo, Santa Sangre and Holy Mountain as great achievements in enlightened cinema, and also lent me “El Maestro y las Magas”, one of his autobiographical books, at some point, and I took those mentions and physical interaction with a book I didn’t read at the time as enough familiarity to tell people on twitter that I totally liked Jodorowsky, name-dropping him when interacting with seemingly more artful internet denizens; enough to return the book unread almost a year after and never actively seek a copy of the films to finally watch.
At some point right out of college I decided (rather, discovered) it was immature and foolish to pretend to like someone’s art just because it’s cool, and took the more minimalist (or indeed, integral) approach of only ever referencing artists that I had put in the work of getting acquainted with; and since there were so many names I had been floating with little to no familiarity, bigger names like Beethoven, Scriabin or Baudelaire, newer, more arcane artists receded into obscurity, including Jodorowsky. It wasn’t until 2014, much later, that I watched The Holy Mountain and The Dance of Reality and realized that this was a man that had sought and found some things I also had sought and found at that stage of my life: what Alan Watts calls “the way of the sly man”, the universal jest, the unity with the Self, the finding out one doesn’t have a head or that other and external are just as part of me as my internal organs, or whathaveyou; this was another guru of eclectic spirituality, playful zest and unbounded creativity that beckoned me to follow his path, in my own path. As I often do, I became obsessed: bought all the books I could get my hands on, finally read El Maestro y las Magas (as well as The Dance of Reality, the novels, the poetry, the tarot books and even some of the psychomagic stuff), watched all his movies, bought the Marseille deck than he and Camois refurbished, discovered the work of his sons Adán and Brontis and even contributed to the kickstarter for his latest movie, Endless Poetry (and was overjoyed when I received the poetic money as a “reward”). I felt as connected to this exuberant, prolific, irreverent man as I felt alien to his personality, and, like Alan Watts before him, I wanted to absorb everything in their lives that I could use as some sort of light to elucidate my own deeply hidden gift to the world. Needless to say, I talked people’s ears off about him whenever I caught them unawares, and my beloved Tina surely sat through many an exultant pontification. So when we went to Europe in 2015, it wasn’t an insane request when I proposed to plan our itinerary to stop by Paris mid-week, between our landing in Barcelona and our meeting with her family in Frankfurt, to go to one of his famous wednesday tarot readings.
On the wednesday we were supposed to see Jodorowsky, we woke up early and checked his twitter feed. He had just announced the day before that he’d be in Nice for vacation after an exhausting post-production stage for his latest film. We missed him by a week. We took some sad photos in front of the café where he conducts the readings and resigned ourselves to probably never meeting him in person.
Last weekend, when browsing the events page for The Rubin Museum–which we for some reason like a lot even though we have only ever been there twice–we noticed that there was an event with Jodorowsky in the name. Closer inspection revealed it to be a dialogue about music and consciousness, an in-person dialogue, which meant that it wasn’t just some dude talking about Jodorowsky’s work, the man himself would be there. And the event wasn’t sold out, even though it was happening four days later (events with more mainstream celebrities at the same venue sell out months in advance). We jumped right in. It was a Tuesday after work, and both of our offices are within walking distance of the museum; perfect.
Tuesday came and Tina forwarded me an email with an ominous subject line “Tonight’s event with Alejandro Jodorowsky cancelled”. My heart sank a little but my pessmistic outlook in life simply took it in stride, ‘my life is never that exciting’, I thought, and was about to go back to work in dejected acceptance when I read the rest of the email “but Jodorowsky’s flight has been rescheduled to Friday and we were able to reschedule this event for Saturday; your tickets will be honored”. I couldn’t believe it: the third one would be the charm. Though perhaps I would have a terrible accident or fall extremely ill, cosmic irony being as spiteful as it is. I made peace with whatever would happened, and let the week go by with its own worries.
On our way there I thought we’d be too late, that we wouldn’t find seats; I was reading Psychomagic and in the prologue the co-writer said that Jodorowsky was infamous for not showing up to events on account of being busy doing something more interesting. I was sure we’d walk in to disappointment. On our way there, I saw an hirsute dude with an officer’s hat atop a full head of shaggy ‘poet hair’ and thought it was Adán Jodorowsky, and took it as a good omen: ‘if his relatives are here maybe they’re nagging him to attend!’. When we walked into the museum, Adán was standing around in the lobby, a full feet taller than the guy we saw and with a better sense of fashion. In typical New York fashion, we pretended to not care about his presence (though we loved his powerful performance in Endless Poetry and his quirky music videos), picked up our tickets and went into the auditorium. Like it was no big deal, Jodorowsky and Pascale were sitting patiently on the front row, waiting for the event to start.
A few minutes after three, they showed a short preview of some Thich Nhat Hanh with music that was more suited for an action film, received with hearty laughter by the audience, and then a shor film made of clips from Jodorowsky movies and quotes such as “burn your money”, “turn your excrement into gold”, “is this reality?”, “too much perfection is not beautiful”, and others that comprise the theme and variations of his variegate output. And the Francesco Clemente was introduced, as well as Alejandro Jodorowsky, received with cheers and roaring applause by the mostly young, mostly hip, completely adorable audience. Francesco, who apparently leans towards Indian art and has been trained in some buddhist tradition, was wearing a linen band-collar robe over some jeans, and Jodorowsky his typical black suit over a more western-looking band-collar shirt.
Francesco, an intellectual, opened the interview by referencing the film, quoting some Sufi poetry and asking Jodorowsky who “were his poets, how does he see poetry”. Jodorowsky, half self-effacing and half in jest, replied in an english with a spanish accent with a french accent that he didn’t know English very well, that he understood enough, but not all, and that he would probably only give half of the answer Francesco would expect; and said “I think you asked me… what is poetry?”; Francesco, a gracious host, went with it and said, and I quote very briefly and very abridged way, as my memory is short and his answers were long: “yes, I presume it was a polite way of me asking that”, and Jodorowsky went on an extremely frank, extremely enlightening, rant: “Poetry is you, poetry is me, poetry is that [pointing at the audience]; it is finding this treasure within yourself and learning to give it, learning to receive and then to give, learning to receive all that is and to give it without restraint”, and so on for about three minutes, and then stopping abruptly and saying “bueno, ok!” and slumping in his chair, chin on hand, like a mischevous little kid pulling his teacher’s leg. Francesco, unfazed, asked “ok, now that I’ve got you talking about big things, there’s a scene in your film where you show The Devil tarot card and say you need to learn to live with your devil, how did you embrace your dark side?”. This was my favorite of Jodorowsky’s answers, and I’m sure I will not do it justice by paraphrasing it, but I’ll try: “well, you keep asking me big questions, I give you big answers! What can I do! This took me years and years and years, but I think I have a gift, I don’t know why: I’m able to be awake in my dreams sometimes, so sometimes I would have nightmares, very negative dreams, and I’d try to force myself to stay in them, to be awake inside them, to not escape them, to let whatever scary thing happen, whatever scary thought be thought until the end; we are like the moon: there’s a luminous side but there’s a big, dark side, that’s never seen, we need to learn to see it, not avoid seeing it, little by little stop avoiding it and just let it come, and after years you’ll realize that dark side was also luminous, that all that is bad about you is also part of you, and you can transform it, like alchemy, like poetry, if you stop letting the limits of your culture, of your parents, of your ideas block this side of you; this is art, for me, to be able to receive this all and transmit it without putting your ego there, to be transpersonal and see your dark side and your exterior as part of you; you are me, she is me, we need to see this and then be ourselves; not an idea you have of yourself, not with a goal for the ego, just be. your. self; everything around is you and is yours. Etcetera”. Another naughty child grimace, and he stopped. Then he looked at the audience and spotted a girl with her arms crossed, and said “you, why are your arms closed, why are your legs closed? Why are you defending yourself against, you need to open yourself, to this dark side and to others, you’ll be okay; your mind will create things that heal, your physical, sexual body will be healthy, your soul will love”. I noticed my arms and legs were crossed too, and laughed: this was a crazy guru, breaking down the ego with his own maniacal ego. Francesco asked what he did when he got bored, he didn’t understand him “born; oh, if I’m boring? Am I being boring right now?”. Someone in the audience translated, Jodorowsky simply shook his head, arms and legs haphazardly and said “I do that when I’m bored, I don’t know”. At this point you could see Francesco was at the same time transfixed by the unruly character before him, spreading wisdom in a passionate but disorderly way, and also defeated by the language barrier. He asked if Jodorowsky would ever have a leading lady in his films, and Jodorowsky probably took it to mean that he was seen as slightly misogynistic and said that he spent so many years understanding himself as a man that he had just barely begun to put healthy male characters that were also strong and could drive a story forward, because in real life one is the center of the universe, the only perspective one can ever know; he added he had always had strong women in his films, more so now that he had finally found love, a love between equals, a love that exalted both, a love that showed him what a healthy woman was like. Then, prompted by a follow up question by Francesco along the lines of “how can one be at the center of the universe in the company of a woman?”, he continued his exultation of a love between equals and told the story about his meeting Pascale, at 74 years of age, during one of his weekly tarot readings; of how he knew at once this was someone he could be with as complements, about how he met her father and discovered he was one day younger than him and thus was “young enough to marry my daughter”, about how even though Adán was the son of another woman, this love was so pure and healing that Adán held no grudges against them and admired Pascale. Then, in the heights of bestowing praise upon these people who clearly are dear and sacred to him, he invited him on stage. I had been following the no photos rule up until this point: it was too much not to photograph to see Pascale and Adán, artists in their own right, sharing the stage with Jodorowsky. He said he was sorry to take up too much time, but he wanted to show that even though he had been a comedian up until that point, an irreverent character, he also wanted to mix reality in, like in his films, by bringing up his family. Pascale added that Jodorowsky indeed was very respectful of women (they were all probably a bit defensive after some second-rate facebook page claimed that Jodorowsky had assaulted an actress in the 70’s even though the incident they quoted was part of the script of El Topo and supervised by the whole crew and cast and the assault claim was made by Alejandro himself in the El Topo character as part of incendiary press releases meant as guerilla marketing). There was a question I don’t remember, but at this point anything that Francesco said was not really relevant as Jodorowsky was happy to just run with whatever he thought he was being asked, and the audience was in rapt attention. At loss for words for a few seconds, Francesco remained silent and Jodorowsky said “can I ask you a question, why is your shirt so long?”. Francesco laughed and said “well, I practiced in India for a few years…”, “but you’re in New York”, said Jodorowsky, “stop living in India and just live in New York!”, “I prefer to be some place in between” said Francesco; not appeased, Jodorowsky said “people need to just be who they are where they are”, and then, seeing the discomfort and possibly hurt of his host, went on, “let me tell you a story: a monk running a monastery needed a successor and set up a poetry contest, all his students submitted beautiful, but phony, poems; the cook, who had joined the temple as a cook because he was too illiterate to become a monk, dictated a simple poem to someone; the leader realized this was a true man, a man of true knowledge, and told him ‘you shall be my successor, but you’re not a monk, no one will respect you; I will give you my robe’. As soon as he received the robe and wore it, the monks wanted to kill him, and he had to run away. A strongman eventually tracked him down as he was bathing by a river and said ‘give me the sacred robe, you don’t deserve it’; the cook pointed at a rock where it was drying and said ‘very well, take it’; the bully was unable to lift it… my friend, you keep your long shirt, you’re a wise man, you deserve a long shirt”. Francesco laughed awkwardly. Jodorowsky shrugged. “You wanted to interview me, I’m sorry, this is what I do you know, I talk and talk.”
At the end of this, the woman who had been crossing her arms in the front row was now covering her mouth, and Jodorowsky said: “what is it? There’s something you want to say but are repressing; tell me, it’s okay, you can insult me, I’m a crazy old man, I think you see your father in me and what I’ve just said makes you want to get things off your chest. I’ll be okay, you can insult me, someone give this woman a microphone so she can insult me!”. The organizer, with extreme grace, deflected and said “that’s a perfect segue Alejandro, why don’t we open the floor for questions”. The lady refused to speak, but other people jumped in with questions.
Some dude asked him about his statement regarding his latest films “I make them to lose money, not to make money”; and Jodorowsky went off on a tirade about how cinema has always been a business, how artists who need money end up getting absorbed (or rejected) by hollywood, and how the goal of making money means pleasing wide audiences and is thus at odds with the true art that seeks to heal, to give something new and positive to the consumer, so if I make some money I’ll take it, I’m not an idiot, my wallet is open, but it is not my goal”. Another woman asked “you mentioned that to create one must learn to receive, how does one do that?”, Jodorowsky replied “you give, you give a lot, you give more than you think you can give, because all you don’t give you take from yourself, because others are you. Even when I’m broke, I give fifty euros to the homeless man in my neighborhood; I need that money, so I give money, and somehow I end up receiving what I need; it’s the same with art, you must give and give and give, and soon you’ll also receive”. Another person asked, to the groans of more impatient attendants, “can you… can you read my tarot?”
- do you know the tarot? Jodorowsky asked
- no, I don’t know anything about the tarot
- very well; he said, unfazed; tell me three numbers, quickly, there’s people waiting
- what? I do not understand your accent? Seis, six [in french]?
- yes, sí, six
- ok what else?
- 13, no, wait, no, not that; 12
- ok, hurry up, there’s not a lot of time, just say whatever comes to you!
- ok, er, 5.
- Okay, I have my three cards; six is the lovers, but in the marseille tarot it’s just the lover; who is the lover? The Lover?
- I don’t know, is it the father?
- You’re right; Is it god, the sun? There’s an angel in the card, you’re right, it’s something Divine. There’s something you look up to, aspire, and love. But then there’s 12. That’s the hanged man. You wanted to reach out, but you’re limited, you’re upside down. The other card, the five, that’s the Pope! Pope, father, papa. You were reaching out to the pope but you can’t get to it.
- So I can’t touch the pope?
- Tell me another number. [I don’t remember the card!]. See, with that card, it says you can reach that which you love, but at your own level, you need to stop aspiring for the lofty pope and instead understand yourself and what is true for you, and you’ll find it. And that’s the tarot reading, thank you.
At this point, the organizer interjected to throw a bone, and a question, to Francesco: how he had selected Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain as one of his favorite movies to be screened at the museum, how Francesco had found the tarot cards to inspire the film and to inspire him to design his own tarot-based art. The question was for Francesco, and after his very succinct answer, saying how Jodorowsky’s very obvert usage of the symbols inspired him, Jodorowsky jumped in and said “there’s something wrong with most tarot decks. You see when I read, when I just read, the tarot I try to simply say what is in the cards. The Marseille deck is beautiful because all the cards are part of a whole: one card contains elements of another, people in one card are looking at people in another card, the geometry symbolizes things–like receptive and active, as circles, intersecting as the oval of The World; it is sacred and ancient art, and it is sacred because it is selfless, anonymous: no one knows who designed it, the person who designed it just let it become another game, and eventually it was found and people studied it and what they understood went on to influence their own tarot decks. But the most ancient deck in europe is impersonal, it’s transpersonal, it speaks a living language. I’ve spent fifty years studying it, like any other language like french or english, it has its symbols that say something. I’ve tried to learn to let it speak, without imposing my own ideas. The problem with artists designing decks is that they impose their ideas, they make each card as an island, isolated, because they too are isolated, they are not yet connected to the whole: they create these decks and put their names on them, their philosophies, their values but also their vices–if I read Aleister Crowley’s deck I’d talk about his ideas, but also his sins, his drugs, his ego-trip, his prejudices; one in ten million decks speaks as clearly as the marseille tarot, all the others are just artists seeking, putting their ideas on each card, separate; a true deck is a symphony, like reality”. Amidst his wisdom, there was a rant, and this rant was yet another rant that was a not so subtle inveighing against urban artists like Francesco. But possibly also himself.
We were still processing the wanton crazy wisdom imparted by this endearing, but almost too frank, old man, when it was over. People started trickling in. But we resolved to at least shake his hand, maybe even take a photo. I had brought my own marseille tarot–didn’t know what I’d do with it, it felt silly to have Jodorowsky do a reading right there and there, or signing a random card– and the psychomagic book. The line was long, and some people took way too much time. One dude with a fedora, an El Topo t-shirt and one of the more obscure comics by Jodorowsky spent his sweet time talking to him, but Jodorowsky looked happy. Everyone was happy. Pascale and Adán were also signing some things. A lolita-like girl took photos with him. A couple shook his hands and hugged him. A girl cried of joy when he signed her book. Some lady was holding the exact same edition of the book I had brought, I don’t know if she got it signed. Some people spoke to him in Spanish. One couple before us, he looked at the line with a sinking heart and we realized he was tired: he was no longer signing, he was just posing for photos with a tired face: he was happy to see people, but there were too many of us in closed quarters.
I was wearing a long band-collar linen shirt. I said hello to him in Spanish and apologized for my “long shirt”, he laughed a little, but said he was sorry but we should hurry up because he had to leave. I took a photo with him and said we were happy to see him, because we had gone to Paris and hadn’t found him. Probably sounded like a stalker, it all went by so fast. Tina shook his hand too and took a photo as well. We could feel his fatigue so didn’t even try to get stuff signed. To have been able to tell him we appreciated his art and shake his hand was enough. On our way out, we passed by Adán. Tina told him she loved his acting. I told him I liked the music video he made with an adult performer. He said “that video was… weird, yes, very intense”. We said thank you and excused ourselves for interrupting his chat with his friends. We walked and talked about this encounter, realized we were nervous and confused, but happy.
We ended the day with tacos and horchata.