The Art of Disillusionment: Alejandro Jodorowsky and the Uses of Fiction
By Askold MelnyczukMarch 27, 2015
Where the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Reality is the progressive transformation of dreams; there is no world but the world of dreams …
A MAN IN A TUXEDO stands alongside a baby elephant on the brightly lit stage of a dinner theater in Las Vegas. He smiles at the audience of bored and tipsy diners. Lost in a world not of her making, the elephant gazes pensively into the middle distance. The man then turns to the elephant, leans over, and, with a heave, tosses her into the stunned crowd. Screams shake the room until … people realize the elephant hurtling at them like a cannonball has disappeared. Long silence while they take this in. It’s like … magic! Our modest Merlin coughs into his sleeve. “Ladies and gentlemen …” For the next 10 minutes, he proceeds to unpack his own trick. He rubs it in: mirrors, of course, plus a projector, and, yes, the internet — the elephant is actually in San Diego. By the time he’s done, every last vestige of enchantment and mystery has disappeared, along with the elephant. Every trick we do is like this, he says.
By robbing magic of its, well, magic, he’s pissed a lot of people off. After all, the audience already knew the trick was a trick. They’re not fools, though they paid top dollar to be fooled. Why rob them of the childish wish embedded inside every magic act: that the invisible forces at the heart of the universe are accessible to a handful of initiates, most of whom are on our side? Why snuff hope’s brief candle? Why not fan the flames instead?
But the performer is, at heart, a novelist, and like all that ilk, he’s got the missionary urge. He’s fired by a belief that there are at least a few folks out there who’d rather know how the machinery works than live in ignorance. It is to them he speaks.
Still, why cut through what one philosopher called the necessary illusions on which we feed? Isn’t that cruel? But the novelist isn’t trying to spoil our fun. On the contrary, he’s aiming to enhance it — to push it to a level few in his audience knew possible. It’s been that way ever since fiction’s granddaddy, Miguel de Cervantes, launched the jaunty La Mancha on a jaded world. Winking Cervantes never asked us to suspend our belief. Rather he invited us to believe differently — to listen with the wisdom of the child to his tale for adults. Disillusionment has always been the fictionista’s reason for being: it made her who she is as surely as water whelped the whale and the cocoon exhaled a butterfly.
In an age such as ours, the importance and value of disillusionment can’t be overestimated. We live in a culture whose economy runs on the sale of fantasies. Its success in blurring the boundary between spectacle and art has contributed mightily to our national stupefaction. Art worthy of the name is life ablaze at full intensity. Not a transit space, but a place of arrival. Work that aspires to art gives us what we need yet can’t name until we meet it, like an unexpected lover. It bewilders us the way spring does after an infernal winter.
We read for power. And power comes from seeing things as they are, even when that’s not to our liking. Like the scientist, the novelist pushes past appearances toward essences and deep structures. How else can we begin to understand who we ourselves are, and why we’re here? Disillusionment may well be a prerequisite for love. Until then, we have romance, which is what the earliest novels were called. They gave their audiences caricatures in place of characters. The representation of ideal and real sides of human personality hadn’t been integrated and the effect was to feed our fantasies without stimulating our imaginations.
This may seem a strange introduction to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Where the Bird Sings Best, a book in which magic, circuses, gypsies, and virtual rabbis romp across just about every page, but the dazzle of Jodorowsky’s carnival is not without purpose. His heightened images point to underlying truths obscured by the speed of the magician’s hand. Jodorowsky aims to blind us until at last we see. In the end, Jodorowsky hopes to drive us toward the ultimate recognition: that we, or at any rate our selves, are the greatest illusion of all.
Alejandro Jodorowsky was born in 1929 in the coastal town of Tocopilla, Chile, to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. The family was unhappy in its own rather terrible way. His father was a merchant and Stalinist whose general store was called Casa Ukrania. According to Wikipedia, his father also abused Jodorowsky’s mother, going so far as to rape her. Alejandro was the product of the assault. He also had a sister with whom he did not enjoy a good relationship. The region from which his parents fled — at the time, a part of the Russian empire — happens to be the same that’s under siege today by separatists and Russian troops. Home to many important Ukrainian cultural institutions and architectural gems, which have earned it the label “Little Paris,” it’s also the birthplace of Leon Trotsky. The area’s violent history embraces several devastating pogroms and some of the worst famines on record. Such a legacy has an effect.
Jodorowsky’s career has been every bit as improbable as his fiction. Possessing what Seamus Heaney once characterized — addressing the poet Derek Walcott — as an obscene fecundity, Jodorowsky has worked as a filmmaker, playwright, mime, actor, composer, memoirist, comic book auteur, novelist, shaman, and kabbalist. He’s studied mime alongside Marcel Marceau and talked tarot with André Breton. You can see clips of him doing tarot readings on the web. In Mexico, the Zen Buddhist monk Ejo Takata urged him to become a student of the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. One teacher led to another, and Jodorowsky was an eager pupil. His mentors included beautiful actresses, Gurdjieff’s daughter, the Chilean singer Violeta Parra, and LSD.
Is it significant that so many of Jodorowsky’s early mentors were female? It is when you consider the bleakness of his relationships with his mother and sister. Growing up in such a hostile environment might well nurture a rage against women. Jodorowsky is the first to admit he had to find a way of transcending his experience. The need became especially acute after his son Teo’s sudden death in 1995.
But it was in 1970, more than two decades earlier, that John Lennon’s enthusiasm for Jodorowsky’s second movie, El Topo, brought the Chilean international attention. A hybrid of Clint Eastwood, Dali, and Pasolini, it became a cult classic and is often called the original midnight movie. I remember seeing it in New York when I was 15 and glorying in its surrealist excesses. Watching it recently, I was struck by the graphic violence, the absurdity, and the occasional poetry. If my reaction this time was more muted, it’s surely in part because so much of its extravagance had since been mainstreamed — and yet the film retains more than a little power. Its trippiness feels in service of a big idea that had not yet clarified itself in the director’s mind.
All Jodorowsky’s work in his films — and in Where the Bird Sings Best — involves the transformation of violent acts into images of often stunning beauty. He is the archetype of “the wounded healer,” the artist-analyst driven by a need to repair his own psychic scars — that is to say, to teach by example, becoming the physician who begins by healing himself.
Indeed, he eventually developed his own spiritual system, which he alternately calls “psychomagic” and “psychoshamanism.” His website sports a cartoon of Einstein riding a shooting star, and is captioned with a quote from Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Despite his many achievements, he regards teaching as his vocation, and, according to The New York Times, as of 2014 he was still lecturing monthly at a venue in Paris.
Where the Bird Sings Best opens with a scene that climaxes in a sly spiritual epiphany: after her son José drowns in a flood, Teresa, our narrator’s grandmother, curses both God and her coreligionists for keeping faith with such a heartless deity. Teresa’s husband, Alejandro Levi, is better prepared for such losses, having seen his mother axed to death by her mad Hungarian maid. The murder was followed by pogroms once endemic to that part of the world. Alejandro responds to his son’s death by retreating deeper into prayer. He davens so intensely that he breaks into “the Interworld” — a liminal zone of pure spirit — where he meets a rabbi who, to Teresa’s consternation, becomes his constant companion and consigliere.
Structured as the recreation of three generations of family history, the novel ends with the narrator’s birth in a Chilean mining town on Black Thursday, October 29, 1929, which happens to be the start of the Great Depression. One might say that the narrator’s mission becomes to lead the world out of despair.
Jodorowsky’s characters don’t shy away from politics or even polemics. Their critique of capitalism is frequent and savage:
Enough! I will unite myself with the horrors of life. Whatever happens to others, happens to me. I shall denounce in all possible media […] the economic injustice that allows a few egoists to live in idleness, exploiting the labor of the workers. I shall ceaselessly demand the abolition of that authoritarian monster which is the State. I shall vomit on the lie of matrimony, a mercantile contract that legitimizes unions without love; I shall vomit on the patriotic lie that exaggerates natural affection for one’s native land […].
Rebellion or submission? Assimilation or resistance? Starkly put, these were the choices facing the Jews of an Eastern Europe that was never home, where they were forever subject to the whims of a hostile empire, suspicious natives, and marauding Cossacks. In truth, the freedom to choose at all was often limited to the privileged. But it had not always been thus. In a wildly inventive flashback, Jodorowsky carries us to Moorish Spain and the last time the three Abrahamic faiths coexisted more or less peacefully, even fruitfully, until the arrival of “that evil, ambitious, thieving witch, Isabel the Catholic.” Besieged once more, the ever-resourceful Jewish community discovered new ways of responding. One of Alejandro’s ancestors befriended lions: “In his animal body, the divine essence became palpable. […] The Kabbalist rabbis of Toledo understood that a new form of biblical interpretation had been born.”
Thus the opening movement of Jodorowsky’s masterpiece swirls around the reader, lurching from violent episode to mystical encounter to cosmic sexual escapade as we follow our narrator’s grandparents’ journey from the old world to, refreshingly, South America. As the drama unfolds, the reader’s response veers from incredulity to awe, from doubt to delight.
The momentum holds for the length of the novel as a cavalcade of outsized characters careen across the page in a frenzy that seems for once an adequate and just representation of the living fury that is history. Among the myriad challenges facing all refugees, exiles, and immigrants is how to keep faith with their former selves, their ancestors, and their native realm amid changing circumstances and often (usually) hostile environments. The question is simultaneously universal and specific. It’s the riddle the Sphinx posed to Oedipus and is, at its core, an interrogation of identity. Who am I when the world around me keeps changing — and I along with it? How can a Jew maintain her identity in the face of so much hostility? Why should she? Can we lose, or turn, from our inherited beliefs without becoming traitors to our people and ourselves? These are profound questions, and Jodorowsky’s daring lies in his risking answers.
The key lies in the plural: answers. Thus, one of our narrator’s grandparents, who had turned away from his community, is, at the end of his life, driven to offer penance. Attending the voice of his (literal) “inner rabbi,” he’s told: “You have forgotten you are a Jew. Before you die, you must return to the bosom of the community […].”
Another more politically progressive progenitor sees the matter differently:
Being a Jew is much more than a disguise and a mop of hair. You can’t spend your life believing in fairy tales and vengeful gods! […] We’re arriving at a young continent. We have to stop separating ourselves […]. We belong to the world […]. Let’s open our eyes, because the awakening of Awareness depends on Justice.
Every character pilgrimages through illusions in order to recover the power to love. It’s a journey from solitude to solidarity: “I understood that love is a grand thank you to the other for existing.” In the end, the only attitude that liberates us, Jodorowsky seems to suggest, is gratitude — no matter how outrageous the suffering we’re asked to endure. That such insights are born of great personal grief is perhaps too obvious to need underscoring.
There are times when the relentless pace of the outrageous and surreal incidents feels a little like Pixar in overdrive, giddy with the possibilities of CGI: people fall into vats of honey and are embalmed by bees, drops of semen turn into white butterflies promptly devoured by green lizards, und so weiter. But, while a few of the magical transformations feel contrived, more often the images possess an extreme yet striking beauty.
One of our narrator’s ancestors, another Alejandro, formerly Russia’s premier ballet dancer-turned-Argentinian refugee, is inspired by the radical act of an anarchist friend:
Simón’s marvelous sacrifice and this charity have made me understand that as an artist I’ve been a parasite. My dancing is only entertainment for rich people who applaud as long as you don’t show them anything real. I mean, human misery and the industrial destruction of the planet. I’ve been training my entire life for an audience that requires beauty without truth. I’ve submerged myself in myself, becoming an island of form without mind, in an exhibitionist of naïve vanity.
Abandoning dance, he goes to work in a slaughterhouse where he participates in vividly evoked carnage:
Now I live in a reality that is as atrocious as madness, but at least I can share it with the needy. I can no longer allow myself private nightmares. I am no longer an individual. The madness of the poor is work.
Eventually, unable to bear any more ugliness, Alejandro takes his final bow: he appears unannounced in a squalid favela, douses himself with gasoline, strikes a match, and dances while his young daughter watches and sings:
Sara Felicidad […] saw him run, leap, laugh, and combine marvelous steps, all with his flesh spurting flames like a sun. That image engraved itself in her mind, and she transmitted it to me, her son, every night during my childhood. So that as I would fall asleep, she would sing me a lullaby in which her father, transformed into a star, crossed the firmament, granting men a Destiny: “Making tracks in the sky is like opening their soul. That torch Alejandro lit, you, who bear the same name, must in turn transmit it so his sacrifice won’t be in vain. Someday, thanks to you, humanity will become aware of this ephemeral spectacle, eternal monument of the art of dancing, and millions of hands will applaud your grandfather with thanks.”
In perhaps the greatest metamorphosis of all, characters who torment each other almost as brutally as their hosts torture them discover the power of absolution: “I’m not going to forgive you, because there is nothing evil to forgive. You obeyed life. Everything natural is good.” One might not entirely agree with the sentiment, but it’s hard not to be moved. Jodorowsky celebrates the power of the compassionate imagination and the language that shapes it.
While it’s tempting to describe the novel’s procedures as yet another manifestation of “magic realism,” or even surrealism (Jodorowsky has the requisite fascination with both dreams and politics), the fact is all fiction involves transformation. Not only does it describe how out of the deepest dark came light, and out of nothing everything, or how the lithe and lovely Daphne turned into a laurel tree, its very material — language — is itself an alchemical substance. The hallucinogenic properties of language are widely recognized by all repressive societies — China, Saudi Arabia, Russia — which treat words like other tightly controlled substances. Words, with their under- and overtones, define and change the reality inside and therefore around us. In a recent study, physicians advise those with chronic pain to redefine the way they understand the term. Conversely, as Fernando Pessoa observed, “it’s amazing how the common cold changes the metaphysical nature of the universe.” Language, “a mouthful of air,” as Yeats called it, turns leaden matter into squiggles on a page. Probing for the essence concealed by form is fiction’s project and may be its most useful contribution to the advancement of knowledge.
Finding support among the celebrities of the moment appears part of Jodorowsky’s karma. Kanye West’s recent Yeezus tour was apparently inspired by Jodorowsky’s follow-up to El Topo, the even more outrageous Holy Mountain, recently reissued as part of a box set. What’s endearing aren’t the endorsements from the celebs but the way Jodorowsky appears to interact with them. A YouTube video shows Jodorowsky laying out four tarot cards for a famous Hollywood director, then immediately announcing that the man needs to stop worrying about producing hits, that he should make the films he wants to make, and let the chips fall where they may. He’s giving him Beckett’s advice, reminding the man to fail better, and fail again. While not the kind of thing hungry MFA students want to hear, it’s in keeping with the Jodorowsky we meet in the recently released and grandly amusing film about his five-million-dollar failure to remake Frank Herbert’s Dune. The movie was eventually directed by David Lynch and was, according to a gleeful Jodorowsky (though not necessarily the critics), a failure. But, given Jodorowsky’s scale of values, failure may be just the kind of success we should all hope for. Toward the end of the film, Jodorowsky announces that he only wants to make movies that lose money — a goal he appears to have achieved, more than once. Unfortunately, in the case of Where the Bird Sings Best, he has masterminded a success.
Askold Melnyczuk’s first novel, What Is Told, was a New York Times Notable Book; his second, The Ambassador of the Dead, was selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Los Angeles Times; the most recent, The House of Widows, was chosen by the American Libraries Association’s Booklist as an Editor’s Choice. He received a three-year Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fellowship in Fiction; the McGinnis Award in Fiction; grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction; the Magid Award in Editing from PEN; and the George Garret Award for service to the community from AWP. Founding editor of Agni and Arrowsmith Press, he’s taught at Harvard and Boston University and currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston and in the Bennington Graduate Writing Seminars.
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