For Document's Summer/Pre-Fall 2021 issue, the artist and filmmaker joins Donatien Grau for a Zen Buddhist conversational exercise expounding his transcendent worldview
Alejandro Jodorowsky is revered for his ability to transform everything he touches. Very early on, when still in his twenties, he revolutionized pantomime, collaborating with and influencing the celebrated Marcel Marceau. In the 1960s, he redefined theater practice in Mexico, introducing such authors as Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. His contribution to the comic strip is unparalleled: no other storyteller can match his breadth and ambition. His oeuvre as a poet, novelist, and playwright has inspired studies around the world. His therapeutic work is legendary. From the end of the 1960s to today, he has been opening up new possibilities for what cinema could be. With his films Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre—and, more recently, The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Psychomagic—he has consistently expanded the language of film. His vocabulary is not merely formal, but a means of liberation, changing the perception humans have of our own lives within the universe.
There is hardly any limit to his creativity, and that is why—at 92—he is such a captivating, youthful figure. Alejandro is free in a truly profound sense of the word. He looks at the world in its entirety, not in the fragmentary fashion many of us adopt today, immersing himself in everything and everyone with an extreme depth and generosity. I have been privileged to consider him and Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, his wife and “love of all lives,” my dear friends. We have done many things together and are working on many more. Over the last months, he and I have begun a conversational practice that is similar to the koans—a Zen Buddhist practice that has played a major role in his spiritual and creative evolution—of his master Ejo Takata. I ask him about any subject or idea that I feel he could address. His impeccable mind immediately begins to answer, drawing from the depths of his knowledge, experience, unique erudition in a multitude of cultures. Any subject finds a resolution that is at once wholly coherent with his vision and truly astonishing.
When Document asked Alejandro who he would like to speak with for this issue dedicated to desire, he suggested I be his steering partner, and I treated this interview as part of our own ongoing conversations, with the very word “desire” as my koan. I started taking notes, and writing down his answers. At first, they came so quickly I could hardly follow. I told him, “Alejandro, please, a little slower…” and he adjusted to my writing pace. By the end, we were perfectly synchronized. There are observations to draw from this practice. Regarding Alejandro, it shows his openness to any koan—any line of questioning—regardless of its origin. The world presents him ceaselessly with such interrogations. As for me, it makes me think: Can’t any conversation be a Zen experience, any question a koan, leading us to new ways of seeing the world?
Donatien Grau: What is desire to you?
Alejandro Jodorowsky: When we ask what desire is, we have to go into the problem of will: Is desire experienced in a voluntary or an involuntary way? In theory, true desire isn’t guided by will. When will intervenes, we desire something that doesn’t correspond to us. We distort our desire to arrive at what we think we desire. The foundation, when we speak of desire, is sexual desire. That’s a real desire. We can’t make it up, we can’t change it. It is what it is. It has an object that will always be the object of desire. People speak, for example, of the desire to have a luxury car. That isn’t a real desire. The desire to be rich isn’t a real desire—it’s a will to possess something. In the spiritual terrain, desire has an abstract object, not a physical object.
Donatien: What is the abstract object of desire?
Alejandro: There are several objects. To begin with, the desire for eternal life. Naturally, the body has the desire to live for a time; once this time has passed, the body experiences the desire to die. To understand what desire is, we have to become fully aware that we are ignorant of absolutely everything. We are ignorant in the macro world; we don’t know what the universe is, we can’t even imagine it. In the micro world, we are totally ignorant. We have such a long way to go that we never get to the raw material. At present, we don’t know what this planet where we live has within it.
Since we are absolutely ignorant, with no hope of knowing anything at all because our minds are limited, we invent the desire for God. That’s where belief comes in. Belief isn’t truth; it’s the desire for something we don’t have. A majority of our desires are beliefs.
Donatien: You often speak of the various components of a person: body, mind, and emotions. In your eyes, is desire equally present in each of these components?
Alejandro: There’s a saying in alchemy: ‘separate and join together [solve et coagula].’ We could apply it to your question. To localize desire, you have to function face-to-face with these four parts. The foundation is the body principle, which functions with vital needs. The body has needs. The sex has desires. The heart doesn’t function with desires, it functions with emotions. ‘I love this person, I don’t love this person’—that’s what the heart says. The intellect functions with concepts and ideas. Two things are real: bodily needs and sexual desires.
“Creation, for me, is like the need to breathe. I breathe art as I breathe air.”
Donatien: What relation do you see between the two?
Alejandro: [Bodily needs are] necessary. If you stop breathing or eating, you die. Desires have deviations, complexes: There’s a whole world of morals and prejudices that forces itself upon them. Desire has to find the true object of its realization, and that takes time. If desire is unrealized, then that can lead to neuroses, which can lead to illness or suicide. But happiness can only come if needs and desires are realized.
Emotions are more complex. They don’t obey rational laws. Desires and needs both have objects, but emotions can exist in the absence of a fixed object. Love can exist even without a counterpart. I can love someone without that person loving me. I can love something that I don’t know. We can love humanity. We can love God, even if we can’t see him. In those cases, we don’t fundamentally know what we love.
The intellect thinks it has desires, needs, and emotions, but everything the intellect thinks it has is imaginary. It’s a map of reality, not reality itself. The only possibility the intellect has of knowing a feeling or a desire is through experience, and experience can never be purely intellectual.
We grow up with these four tangled worlds that are in conflict with each other because they are different languages. We have to follow the first step of alchemical thought—‘separate,’ or, in other words, get to know each thing in its particularity, so that we can then ‘join together,’ make these things into a whole. Then we can be what we are, in peace, without fighting against what we are.
Need has to be acknowledged; it’s essential. But need has to be controlled with an awareness of what is good for us and what isn’t. We can eat things that poison us; we can sleep in a bad bed, which keeps us from restful sleep. Need has to be fulfilled in order to live as long as possible in good conditions, to know and pass on as much as we can, to experience life. Meet the need, but, as the Greek proverb says: ‘nothing in excess.’ It takes will to rid ourselves of everything that is vicious, of the things that stick to us: beliefs, false ideas, prejudices. When the work is done, when everything joins together, we can exist without inner and outer conflicts.
Donatien: Do you associate love with desire?
Alejandro: They are two different things. When we speak of desire, we are speaking, fundamentally, of sexual energy, creative energies. But sexual desires aren’t necessarily the emotion of love. Sometimes, faced with these desires, we judge ourselves and we are afraid. But fear in the face of love isn’t the same; it isn’t about an outward impulse but an inner power, an emotion. We can desire to have relations with someone we hate, if we are masochistic. But we can’t love someone we hate. The question of love finds its strongest expression in saintliness, where everything changes: I’m not talking about religious saintliness, but of a kindness pushed to its sublime degree, when we love the whole.
Donatien: What does saintliness mean to you?
Alejandro: Saintliness is the exaltation of beauty, which manifests itself as compassion. A saint cannot commit abusive acts. The foundation of a saint is total love, without justification, without impulse. Faced with a criminal, saintliness says, ‘You have committed terrible crimes, but I respect you as a divine creature. You do not know yourself.’ We have a human personality with external connections—the self—but at the furthest depth of our spiritual constitution, there is our essential being, the pure domain of our unconscious. This is what gives us saintliness once it is developed. The great principles of our existences are beauty, kindness, truth, and justice. Justice resides in the mind. Kindness in love. Truth in sex, the true desire.
Donatien: What do you think of Plato’s famous parable that says that desire, Eros, is the child of poverty, Penia, and resourcefulness, Poros?
Alejandro: It’s an approximation, an approach that doesn’t give a full account of the thing. Happiness is not and cannot be [stuck] between lack and fulfillment. Desire has to be totally satisfied, but it has to be satisfied in the right place. We say, ‘I have desires, murderous desires,’ but the desire to strangle someone isn’t a desire. Desire has to be creative, sexual: it’s a desire to open up the world. Approximations are a sedative: Since I can’t find the object of my desire, I’ll go look for something else.
Donatien: Does desire play a role in your work?
Alejandro: From time to time, I’ve made images of desire, but fundamentally the answer is no. There are other factors at stake. Creation, for me, is like the need to breathe. I breathe art as I breathe air. We also make art in order to triumph, but it’s a triumph over ourselves. As the Bhagavad Gita says, ‘Act for the action’s sake, do not be attached to the action’s fruits.’ Power, wealth, and all the other ideas that we mistake for needs or even desires can deform our talent. Then we make concessions, and we can’t realize who we are. We can live our life with a partner, but this life as a couple is a sedative; it isn’t the true healing of a wound, or true love.
Donatien: For 15 years, you and your wife, Pascale, have developed a practice of creation you describe as ‘four hands and one heart,’—pascALEjandro—which the art historian Diana Widmaier Picasso included in an exhibition she curated in 2016. What is the place of desire in this work?
Alejandro: It’s the first time I have realized my desire to live with a being in full happiness. I didn’t know what it was to love a being. People think they are in love, but they aren’t in love. To love is to love a being who exceeds you and completes you. Pascale and I created pascALEjandro in an absolutely natural way. Already, the part of the name that unites us, ALE, showed that it wasn’t fabricated, it wasn’t forced; it was an event of reality. I was 76 years old. I was ready to live alone. My individuality was convinced it had everything. And then the miracle came.
When we create with four hands, we aren’t in conflict. Two writers can pair up, but they can’t create a work in common. True love is to create a mutual work. I draw the lines, Pascale places the colors. Each of us creates with the other, toward the other. I don’t draw as if I was making a drawing alone; Pascale, who is a painter, doesn’t paint as if she was making a painting alone. It’s a mutual creation. It’s like the interlocked commas of the Tao: the black yin and the white yang form a kind of coupling; there’s a white circle in the black comma and there’s a black circle in the white comma. Everything is in everything. All sacred things are multiples of 11, two ones, side by side: 33, the age of Christ; 44, a fundamental number in mathematics. From the moment that a one and another one are assembled, the totality exists; otherwise, it isn’t a totality. With a single one, there is unity, but not multiplicity. It isn’t a true totality.
“Humanity is a virus, it’s destructive, but the world also needs this virus—like all the other viruses that exist in the world.”
Donatien: The question of totality seems very important to you…
Alejandro: The universe is what we cannot define. God is what creates this perfect whole where everything has a reason to exist. All things are a need of totality. Like 11, like yin and yang, we are at once a unity and a multiplicity.
Donatien: You speak of desire as a unifying force. Don’t you think it can also be a principle of separation?
Alejandro: It’s a mistake to say that. Life is the desire to be alive. At the same time, everything transforms. When you lie dying, you consciously or unconsciously have a desire to die. For there can be no life without death. That’s the way the universe is made. Humanity is preparing itself to go live on Mars. Things will be a mess here, so the richest and most powerful of us will go live on Mars. Humanity is a virus, it’s destructive, but the world also needs this virus—like all the other viruses that exist in the world. This virus is a necessity, and it compels a search for solutions: there is an intelligence of the Earth. All things work together. If the bees die, we humans are all dead. We need spiders, or we get swarmed by flies. Humanity’s desire is part of a larger desire that is a desire for life. You don’t live unless you desire to live. If someone comes to me and says I can live for 300 years, I’ll accept it. That’s what the alchemists were looking for. It’s like the legend in my graphic novel The Knights of Heliopolis where a brotherhood of hidden beings live for 30,000 years. Everything can exist in hiding. There are many things we aren’t capable of seeing.
Donatien: Do you think it’s possible to put desire to bad use?
Alejandro: When desire is in the wrong place, it’s a catastrophe. When money is the only object of the creative force, it’s a disaster. In the Middle Ages, humanity lived a life perverted by religion; then, in the modern age, this perversion shifted toward money. In our era, politics doesn’t have power; health has power. But if we think of health as the organization of the planet’s health, then everything is for the best. Money wants to make a market of everything. But to have health, you can’t desire glory, or power, or money, for its own sake.