Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008). Art direction by Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington.
THE SOMA OF MADNESS
Seeking wisdom in late-Sixties Mexico City, filmmaker ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY found several unusual masters. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky (translated by Joseph Rowe), he discusses his encounters with the Japanese Zen monk Ejo Takata and the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington…
I was raised by a merchant father. All the wisdom he had to offer me could be summed up in two proverbs: “Buy low and sell high” and “Don’t believe in anything.” I had no teacher from whom I could learn to love myself, others, and life. From adolescence on, driven by the thirst of an explorer lost in the desert, I sought a master who could show me that there was some meaning in my useless existence. A voracious reader of literature, I found only self-absorbed and pretentious meanderings there. A very cynical phrase by Marcel Duchamp led me to flee that sterile world: “There is no finality; we construct from tautology and arrive at nothing.”
I sought consolation in books of Eastern philosophy, holding for dear life onto the notion of enlightenment or awakening. I learned that Shakyamuni Buddha awoke while meditating under a tree. According to his disciples, the holy man perceived the deepest truth by ceasing to preoccupy himself with the question of his survival after death. Twenty-eight generations later, in China, Bodhidharma sat in silence for nine years in front of a stone wall until he discovered in his consciousness that fathomless emptiness, like a pure blue sky, in which neither truth nor illusion can be distinguished. . . . The longing to free myself from the terror of dying, of being nothing, of knowing nothing, had dragged me implacably into a quest for this mythic awakening. Striving for silence, I ceased to be so attached to my ideas. To further this goal, I wrote all of my beliefs in a notebook, then burned it. After this, requiring calm in my intimate relationships, I shunned the vulnerability of any sort of self-abandon, always setting up aloof relationships with women, thereby protecting my individualism behind panes of ice. When I met Ejo Takata, my first true master, I wanted him to guide me to enlightenment by purifying my mind of the last illusions I had not yet succeeded in uprooting. I saw myself as conqueror of both mind and heart.
“Feelings no longer dominate me. Empty mind, empty heart.”When I solemnly proclaimed these words before my Japanese teacher, he burst into laughter, which was quite disconcerting. Then he answered: “Empty mind, empty heart—intellectual raving! Empty mind, full heart: That is how it should be.”
Born in Kobe in 1928, Ejo Takata began to practice Zen at the age of nine in the monastery of Horyuji, under the direction of Roshi Heikisoken, the head authority of the Rinzai school. Later, at Kamakura, he entered the Shofukuji Monastery founded in 1195 by Yosai,† the first monk to bring Chinese Zen Buddhism to Japan. There, he became a disciple of Mumon Yamada of the Soto school. The life of these monks aspiring to enlightenment was very hard. Always living in groups, deprived of intimacy or privacy, they ate little and poorly, worked hard, and meditated constantly. Every act of daily life—from how they slept to how they defecated—adhered to a strict ritual.
After living in this way for 30 years, in 1967 Ejo Takata decided that the times were changing. It was useless to preserve a tradition by remaining closed up in a monastery. He decided to leave Shofukuji and encounter the world. His determination led him to embark for the United States, for he desired to know why so many hippies were interested in Zen. He was received with great honor in a modern monastery in California. A few days later, he fled this place with only his monk’s robes and twenty dollars in his pocket. He reached a major highway and began to hitchhike, communicating mostly with gestures, because he spoke little English. A truck carrying oranges picked him up. Ejo began to meditate on the odor of the fruit, with no idea where he was going. He fell asleep. When he woke up, he found himself in the immense city that is the capital of Mexico.
By a series of coincidences, I had the chance to meet this master. Seeing that he was homeless, I offered him my house, inviting him to transform it into a zendo. There, the monk found his first honest students: actors, painters, university students, martial arts practitioners, poets, and so forth. They were all convinced that through meditation they would find enlightenment: the secret of eternal life which transcends that of the ephemeral flesh. It was not long before we realized that Zen meditation was no game. To sit very still for hours, striving to empty our mind, enduring pains in our legs and back, and overwhelmed by boredom was a heroic undertaking.
When Ejo Takata first visited my house in order to choose the right space for his teaching, I showed him my large library proudly. I had been surrounded by books since childhood, and I loved them as much as I loved my cats. I had a sizeable collection of books on Zen—in English, Italian, French, and Spanish—but the monk glanced at them only briefly. Opening his fan, he moved it rapidly to cool himself. Then he left the room without a word. My face darkened with embarrassment. With this gesture, he was showing me that my erudition was nothing but a disguise for my lack of true knowledge. Words may show the way to truth, but they are not the truth. “When you’ve caught the fish, you don’t need the net anymore.”
Time passed. Thanks to the support of the Japanese embassy, Ejo was able to set up a small zendo in the university quarter of Mexico City. For five years, I arose each morning at six o’clock to drive for at least an hour through heavy traffic in order to arrive at the zendo for two meditation sessions of 40 minutes each. Yet it became clear to me that my path in life was not that of a monk. My ambitions were becoming centered on the theater. Nevertheless, Ejo Takata’s teachings—to be instead of to seem, to live simply, to practice the teaching instead of merely reciting it, and knowing that the words we use to describe the world are not the world—had profoundly changed my vision of what theater should be. In my upcoming production, a theatrical version of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, I had stripped the stage of its usual décor, including even curtains and ropes, and had the walls painted white. Defying censorship, the actors and actresses undressed completely on stage after reciting lines from the Gospel of Thomas: “The disciples asked him: ‘When will you be revealed, and when will we be able to see you?‘ And Jesus said: ‘When you shed your clothing without shame, and when you take your jewels and cast them under your feet and trample them like little children, then will you be able to contemplate the Son of the Living One and have no more fear.’”
Ejo proposed that the two of us meet once a week at midnight—he chose this dark hour because it is symbolically the beginning of the new day’s conception. We engaged in conversations which literally began in the darkness and ended with the light of dawn.
Many people know nothing of koans, and even those who do know do not accord them their essential importance. A koan is a question that a Zen master gives to a disciple, who is then to meditate and reflect upon it and (sometimes immediately, sometimes years later) offer a response. A koan is an enigma that holds a fundamental absurdity, for it is impossible to reply to one by using logic. And this is precisely its purpose: to open our initial point of view to the universal so that we understand that the intellect (words, words, words, and still more words) is useless in helping us find a response. In fact, we do not really live in the world; we live in a language. We think that we are intelligent because we can manipulate ideas and that things become known and real because we are able to define them—but if we really want our life to change, we must undergo a mutation of the mind, opening the doors of intuition and creative energies so that our unconscious becomes an ally.
Every one of the koans that Ejo presented was an immense challenge for me. I had to solve not only the riddles the masters offered, but also the incomprehensible replies of their disciples. My reason was made to endure agony. I had to concentrate all my energy only to open a door in the wall of an absurd blind alley. To act or not to act? To follow reason or to follow intuition? Choose this one or that one? Trust others or myself?
One night, seeing how uncertain I was, Ejo quoted these words from Hakuin: “If you constantly explore a koan with total concentration, your self-image will be destroyed. An abyss will open beneath you, with no place to gain a foothold. You will confront death. You will feel a great fire burning in your chest. Then, suddenly, far away from body or mind, you and the koan will be one. You will go far and enter unmistakably into your own nature.” Ejo paused, and fanned himself for awhile. Then, with a huge grin, he added: “Master Rinzai said: ‘All the sacred scriptures are nothing but toilet paper.’ Words won’t solve a koan.”
Yet as a person who has spent much of his life reading, finding an indescribable joy in books, I protested: “Wait just a moment, Ejo. You say that you can’t solve koans with words, but I’m sure that there are words that can dissolve them. Just as cobra venom can serve as an antidote to the poison of a bite, I believe that the poetic mind is capable of providing a kind of cleaning service: One luminous, poetic phrase could nullify the question that has no possible answer.”
“Well, your poetic answers certainly have power, but the only thing they can accomplish is to do away with the question without reaching its essence. When you use words to conquer words, you find yourself ultimately on a battlefield full of corpses. How do you take a stone from the bottom of the ocean without wetting your sleeves?”
Using the skills I had learned as a mime, I plunged into an imaginary ocean, swam to the bottom, lifted a large stone in my arms, came to the surface, and emerged from the water. Confident of the rightness of this gesture, I placed the stone before Ejo and awaited his enthusiastic response. But instead, he asked me abruptly: “What is this stone called?”
I was silent for a moment. “It . . . is called ‘stone,’” I stammered. “It is called ‘awakening’ . . . it is called ‘Buddha’ . . . it is called ‘truth.’” I could have gone on like this, but Ejo silenced me with a blow of his flat kyosaku.
“Intellectual, learn to die!”
I was offended. This was the first time he had said this to me. Then he struck me again.
“Awakening is not a thing. It is not a goal, not a concept. It is not something to be attained. It is a metamorphosis. If the caterpillar thinks about the butterfly it is to become, saying ‘And then I shall have wings and antennae,’ there will never be a butterfly. The caterpillar must accept its own disappearance in its transformation. When the marvelous butterfly takes wing, nothing of the caterpillar remains. . . . Now come on, let’s play a game!” he said. “You be me, and I’ll be you. Ask me a question.”
Imitating his Japanese accent, I said: “What is the name of this stone?”
Imitating my Chilean accent, he said: “Alejandro.”
Now I understood: This stone was me, identified by my name, my imagined limits, my language, my memory. To remove the stone from the bottom of the ocean—the world as it is, an inexplicable dream—meant removing my identity in order to realize that it is illusory, seeing that there is no difference between master and disciple, for one is the other and all apparent multiplicity is eternal unity.
I took his stick and gave him a blow on each shoulder. He bowed to me as if he were my disciple. Then he went to the kitchen and returned with a large bottle of sake.
“Now, master, we are going to celebrate this!” he exclaimed, pouring me a glass of the delicious beverage. We finished our glasses and continued drinking. Ejo was frolicsome but very conscious. I also felt that my mind had been set free. Only my body, with all its muscles relaxed, seemed still to be living its own life, far from me.
“Alejandro, poetry—at least the way you use it—is a game that I do not know. It amuses me to see how you use it to nullify koans. It is also a sacrilege, but that is good: Without sacrilege, a disciple cannot realize himself. ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, cut off his head.’ Now let us see how you will nullify the two major koans of the Rinzai school!”
“Oh, Ejo,” I protested, “I have had too much to drink to be able to do that.”
Ignoring this, he clapped his hands. “That is the sound of two hands clapping.” He then raised his right hand. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
I lifted my hand and placed it directly opposite his hand. “The sound of my one hand is the same as the sound of your one hand.”
The monk laughed uproariously and continued: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
“The Buddha has dog nature.”
Staggering as a man staggers on a boat in choppy water, he went to the kitchen and returned with another bottle. Filling our glasses, he said: “Let’s continue. This is an excellent game.”
We drank until the dark sky began to fill with light. He challenged me with a great many koans. I do not remember all my responses, but what I cannot forget is the immense joy I felt in being one with the master. By the end of our session, I no longer knew who was asking the questions and who was answering them. In the zendo, there were no longer two people, only one—or none.
“It never begins and it never ends. What is it?”
“I am what I am!”
“How does the intellectual learn to die?”
“He changes all his words into a black dog that follows him around!”
“Do the shadows of the pines depend on the moonlight?”
“Pine roots have no shadow!”
“If a woman advances on the path, is she your older or younger sister?”
“She is a woman walking!”
“How many hairs are on the back of your head?”
“Show me the back of yours, and I’ll count them!”
“All the Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future: What do they foretell right now?”
“Now I yawn, because I’m drunk!”
Holding each other steady in order not to stumble against the walls, we walked out into the street. We mimicked pissing against a post. Ejo lifted a leg, imitating a dog. “The Buddha has dog nature!” I imitated him. Then we were both seized by a long fit of joyous laughter. When we calmed down finally, he bowed goodbye to me. Then he said: “Art is your path. Accept my friend Leonora Carrington as your teacher. She doesn’t know any koans, but she has resolved them all.”
When I woke up after a ten-hour sleep, I called the master.
“Ejo, do you remember the last thing you told me yesterday? I was wondering if perhaps too much sake was . . .”
He interrupted me. “A great Japanese poet wrote: ‘To remain silent in order to appear wise is despicable. Better to get drunk on sake and sing.’ A poet from your own country, Pablo Neruda, once exclaimed: ‘May God preserve me from fabricating things when I sing!’ What I told you yesterday, I repeat today. Go see my friend Leonora.”
“But Ejo, it is you I want to study with!”
“Do not be deceived, Alejandro. Empty mind does not mean empty heart. Perfection is empty mind and full heart. You can rid yourself of concepts, but not of feelings. Little by little, you must empty your head and go into your heart, gathering and refining, until you arrive at that sublime state which you call happiness. According to what you have told me, you have not yet finished with the bitterness you harbor toward your mother. Feeling deprived of this essential tenderness, you are still an angry child who rejects woman in every domain except that of sex. You think that you can learn only from men. The archetype of the cosmic father dominates your actions. The Great Mother is still surrounded with shadows. . . . Before continuing to unravel koans, go and lay down your sword before the flower; bow down to her. Without knowing it, you have always been waiting for this. You are an artist, as is Leonora. She is the being appropriate for you. Let her give you the inner woman who is so lacking in you.”
The little I knew about the English-born Leonora Carrington was gleaned from what I had read in André Breton’s Anthologie de l’ humour noir. He described her in these terms: “Those respectable people who, for a dozen years, had invited her to dine in a prestigious restaurant have still not recovered from the embarrassment when they noticed that, while continuing to take part in the conversation, she had taken off her shoes and meticulously covered her feet in mustard.”
I also knew she had been the mistress of Max Ernst. When Ernst was imprisoned by the Germans during World War II, she underwent a crisis of madness. After recovering from this, she described it in her book Down Below. From that time on, she had abolished definitively the walls that separate reason from the realm of dreams. She had a mythic reputation among Mexican painters; she was an incarnation of the most extreme surrealism. During a party, Luis Buñuel, seduced by Carrington’s beauty and emboldened by the notion that she had transcended all bourgeois morality, proposed (with his characteristic bluntness) that she become his mistress. Without even waiting for her answer, he gave her the key to the secret studio that he used as a love nest and told her to meet him at three o’clock the next afternoon. Early the next morning, Leonora went to visit the place alone. She found it tasteless: It looked exactly like a motel room. Taking advantage of the fact that she was in her menstrual period, she covered her hands with blood and used them to make bloody handprints all over the walls in order to provide a bit of decoration for that anonymous, impersonal room. Buñuel never spoke to her again.
When I arrived at her place, a house with no facade, just a bare stone wall with a high window and a narrow door on Chihuahua Street, I was surprised to notice that I was trembling from head to toe. An absurd, uncontrollable shyness made me unable even to ring the bell. I remained standing, petrified, for at least a half hour. I knew she was waiting for me, but I felt incapable of taking action before this prisonlike dwelling. There arrived a small woman with a strong and youthful body, pulling a little cart full of vegetables, fruits, and cigarette cartons.
“Are you the mime that the Japanese sent to us? I’m Kati Horna, Hungarian photographer, and I’m Leonora’s oldest friend.”
She lit a cigarette and began speaking rapidly, without waiting for any response from me. She paused in her talk only to take quick drags from her cigarette. Her Spanish was poor, and she punctuated her verbiage with many large gestures.
“Last night I dreamed of three phrases. When I woke up, it was as if I had brought them into the light. They were already in my life, like a sort of cyst. Everything I know, I receive in dreams. Sentences come to me fully composed. When I wake up, my behavior changes—I leave a country, sometimes I try to kill someone. ‘Live like a star!’ ‘Eliminate the superfluous!’‘Concrete manifestation!’ What do you think about that? The stars shine without worrying about the darkness of the planets. The sun and the moon use no ornaments. Matter contains everything. . . . By the way, I have some of my photographs in this envelope. Would you like to see them?”
Without waiting for my answer, she brought them out and displayed them one by one with great rapidity. They were portraits of beggars, survivors of concentration camps, the mentally ill, women of the Spanish Civil War, and children in misery. All of them seemed to have the face of Christ, all of them seemed to be waiting, certain of not being disappointed.
“Good dreams always come true in the end.”
Then she rang the doorbell herself, murmuring: “To want . . . to dare . . . to be able . . . to obey . . .” Her skirt, made of ordinary cloth, was blown up by the wind, but she paid no attention.
With a creaking of rusty hinges, the door opened slowly. I walked into a cold, dark, hostile room. From the floor above, someone had been pulling on a cord which lifted the bolt. With a dry mouth, I climbed the stairs. I had just turned thirty. According to what Breton had said, Leonora was born in 1917, which meant I would be meeting a woman of 52. I feared that I would be received by an old miser whose shadow had the form of a tarantula. In those days, age was associated with ugliness in my mind.
I was pleasantly surprised. I beheld a being rather than a woman standing at the top of the stairs. I perceived, rather than a body, a kind of silhouette, like a concrete shadow, and two eyes shining with an impulsive yet crystal-clear spirit. Her very look seemed to be made of soul stuff.
Confronted with this intensity, any formalities, any masks I might have worn, fell from me like dead leaves. To enter into the mind of such a woman was as if I was being immersed and baptized. My voice changed, my gestures seemed to rediscover a forgotten delicacy, my consciousness lit up like a flame. I knew that I would never be the same after this encounter. . . . Much later, she wrote me a letter about what she had felt at this moment:
You knew Leonora was home. You came to have tea—with a suspicion that it would be a terrifying experience. You washed your hands three times more than you normally do, you wondered why you were going to see this starchy, powerful woman who made you afraid. You could not decide which was more courageous: to go here or to leave without saying anything. As for me, I had already made my preparations to petrify you with respect. I savored your discomfort, which radiated an enchanting stench that would be able to make me into a goddess for a certain time. You entered into a room perfectly designed to make you feel claustrophobic so that you moved with difficulty among my traps. You realized that there was an egg stain on your coat which began to shine like the setting sun before my eyes. In despair, you wondered if your fly was open. You did not want to, but I insisted you sit on the couch, between the two Anubises in the tapestry covering it. You barely allowed yourself to cross your legs, for any other movement would have seemed an outrage. With panic, you looked at the tea and dry biscuits, for you felt you were being observed while you committed the pornographic act of drinking—and worse, eating—in my presence. At that moment an owl came down the chimney and disappeared in my bust. Your heart beat with an infinite compassion, for you suddenly understood my lamentable condition. In my own way, I asked you to deliver me, a deliverance that you alone can give me. Is it you, then, who will set chance in motion?
Although expressed in surrealist language, this description corresponds perfectly to what I was feeling at that time. If the outside of the house was like a prison, the inside was the magical extension of her mind. The painter and artist was in every piece of furniture, every object, in each of the many plants that flourished in every corner. Sitting here and there were large, delicate dolls, some of them hanging from the ceiling, swinging slowly like pendulums. The armchairs were covered with tapestries that glittered with strange symbols. The one covering the couch featured two godlike young men with dogs’ heads squatting and looking toward each other.
With an imperious gesture of her white-gloved hand, Leonora bade me sit between these two men. Then she spoke with a strong English accent. “Ejo told me that, among other things, you are a mime teacher. I want you to show me how you move. This will help me to know you better.”
At that very instant, I realized that this artist wore absolutely no jewelry—no necklace, rings, earrings, or watch. She wore no makeup, and her dress was a simple black tunic. Before such a presence that was shorn of any ornament, to engage in pantomime seemed vain, infantile, and vulgar. The idea of demonstrating some stereotypical mime technique such as carrying a weight, pulling a rope, walking against the wind, creating imaginary objects or spaces with my hands, or simply walking like a robot made me ill at ease. I had the impression of being dressed in an old, useless overcoat. Thanks to my work with koans, I was able to purify my mind by emptying it of abstractions; but I knew that I must also empty my gestures of any sort of imitation in order to arrive at a purity of movement. I undressed, and in that otherworldly space where silence nestled in the very air, I began to move with no goal. One with my body, a union of flesh and spirit inspired by Leonora’s eyes, I allowed myself to be possessed by movement. I have no idea how long it lasted—a minute, an hour? I had found the place, and I knew the ecstasy of freedom from the domination of time.
Suddenly, I fell upon the couch. Drowsily, as if waking from a deep sleep, I began to dress.
Smiling, she whispered, “Silence. Let us not disturb the mystery.” Then, walking on tiptoe in order to avoid making noise, she left and returned with two glasses of tea and some biscuits. She sipped the drink, which was sweetened with honey, then she lifted her tunic, which covered her down to her ankles, and showed me a small wound on her calf. With the teaspoon, wearing the childlike expression of a sorceress, she scraped the scab away from the wound and let the spoon fill with blood. She brought it carefully over to me without spilling a drop, emptied the red liquid into my glass, and bade me drink it. I sipped it with the same slowness and attention I had learned in the Japanese tea ceremony. Then, rummaging in an oval box, she pulled out a small pair of scissors and cut my fingernails as well as a lock of my hair. She put them all in a tiny sack which she hung around her neck.
“You will return!” she said.
For a long time, we sat in silence. It was broken by the footsteps of her two children, Gaby and Pablo. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the silence was completed. These two children belonged fully to the strange world of this artist. There was nothing abnormal about them, but they were different—as beautiful and incomprehensible as their mother’s paintings. They each sat on one side of me, directly upon the Anubises. They showed no surprise at my presence and acted as though they had always known me. The thought occurred to me that I was their brother, for the same blood now circulated in my veins and theirs. While the children devoured the biscuits, Leonora gave me a key to the house.
As I walked down the stairs, she said from above me, as a sort of good-bye: “I am nine doors. I shall open the one on which you knock.”
That night I could not sleep. It was three o’clock in the morning, and my eyes were wide open. I was possessed. I could feel this woman in my blood, like a boat moving upstream. “Come, come,” she was saying with a voice that seemed to emerge from a distant past. I got dressed, went outside, ran though the streets until I was out of breath, and arrived at her house, opening the door silently with my key and making no noise on the stairs. From the room that served as her painting studio, I saw the flickering light of a candle and heard her voice reciting a litany. Edra, the watchdog, wagged her tail and let me pass without growling. I saw Leonora seated on a wooden throne whose back was carved with the bust of an angel. Naked except for a Jewish prayer shawl, her gaze fixed, unblinking, and focused on infinity, she seemed like a figure on the prow of a ship from an ancient civilization. She had left the world of the rational. She continued to recite in English, taking no notice of my presence. I sat on the floor, facing her. There was little left of any individuality in her. She seemed possessed simultaneously by all women who had ever existed. The words poured out of her mouth like an endless river of invisible insects. I remember a few of her verses:
I, the eye that sees nine different worlds and tells the tale of each.
I, Anuba who saw the guts of pharaoh, embalmer, outcast.
I, the lion goddess who ate the ancestors and churned them into gold in her belly.
I, the lunatic and fool, meat for worse fools than I.
I, the bitch of Sirius, landed here from the terrible hyperbole to howl at the moon.
I, the bamboo in the hand of Huang Po.
I, the queen bee in the entrails of Samson’s dead lion.
I, the tears of the archangel that melted it again.
I, the solitary joke made by the snow queen in higher mathematics.
I, the gypsy who brought the first greasy tarot from Venus.
I, the tree of wisdom whose thirteen branches lead eternally back again.
I, the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt despise no being.
I barely noticed Chiki’s arrival. He wore the same Spanish beret that was on his head day and night, and he was dressed in pajamas with vertical stripes, like a concentration-camp uniform, and house shoes shaped like rabbits’ heads. I noticed that he had broad shoulders and looked Jewish (Hungarian, Russian, Lithuanian, Polish?). With the air of a well-trained dog and never acknowledging my presence, he placed his large hands on Leonora’s fragile shoulders and, with infinite tenderness, lifted her slowly and led her, step by step, into the bedroom. I could see him making her lie down on a wooden bed which was higher at the foot than at the head. Then Chiki went to lie down in another bed. Stretched out on her back, Leonora continued to murmur her interminable incantation until she drifted off to sleep.
I wandered around the dark house like a disembodied shadow. Leonora, her husband, her two children, and the dog were all sound asleep. No one was disturbed by my presence, which seemed utterly natural to them. Either I did not exist for them or I had become a ghost—or perhaps just one more of the dolls. I glided from room to room, living a long-held fantasy of mine: to become an invisible man and observe others in their intimacy without any interaction between us. In the master bedroom, lit by a lunar light, I saw a large oil painting: a portrait of Leonora by Max Ernst. Very young and beautiful, she wore a dark green dress blown by the wind and seemed to be on the lookout in the midst of a forest of black trees.
Young Gaby was sleeping next to a pyramidal pile of poetry collections, arms wrapped around a wooden princess who wore a crown shaped like a half moon. Upon young Pablo’s desk was a candy box, and pinned on it was the cadaver of a large toad, its belly sliced open so that its entrails were exposed. Several scalpels and other surgical instruments were lying on his bookshelves along with some instruction books on the techniques of taxidermy. Eldra, half awake but drowsy, lay on the couch between the two Anubises, gnawing contentedly on a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Down on the humid ground floor I discovered a photography lab. Its walls were covered with photos of baptisms, First Communions, birthdays, marriages, and funerals. This was how the antisocial Chiki earned his living: taking photographs of groups of people who all seemed to have the same face. When looked at together, these photographs gave the impression of an anthill.
As the darkness gave way to daylight, I ceased to be a shadow. Ill at ease in my dense body, I returned home.
Three days passed, during which I could do nothing. I spent hours lying in a hammock, allowing my mind to ruminate cowlike upon my experiences in this household, where people lived by laws that were not those of reason.
Then I was awakened at five o’clock in the morning by a phone call from Leonora. She spoke very fast in a low, conspiratorial, almost whispering voice.
“Your name is no longer Alejandro. It is now Sebastian. Beware! They are watching us. To seal our union, we must commit a sacred misdeed. Get up now and rent a room at the Hotel Reforma. [Some years later, this building would be destroyed by an earthquake.] Do not accept any room but number 22. Don’t worry, for according to the laws of St. Random, this room will be free. Come dressed in black, as if in mourning.”
Then she hung up abruptly without waiting for any response from me.
I took a bath, washed my hair, and put on some scent, clean underwear, and a black suit which had recently been returned from the cleaners. On the way to the hotel, I bought a dozen red roses. Overcoming an attack of timidity but clearing my throat like a guilty person, I demanded room 22. I had no hope of getting it, for the hotel was packed with people attending a horsemanship convention. To my great surprise, room 22 was the only vacancy. I settled in, strewing the roses along a counterpane with multicolored stripes. I closed the curtains to hide the ugliness of the room, lighting only the small bedside lamp, which I covered with a pillowcase in such a way as to cast a discreet, rosy aura in the room. Every five minutes I washed my hands, which were sweating profusely. My genitals were filled with a deathly cold. Any erection seemed totally impossible. I felt castrated by ancestral fears of maternal incest. I thought of Ejo. I took up a position of meditation, intoning “om” constantly, emptying my mind of every other word.
At exactly nine o’clock, seven soft knocks on the door announced Leonora’s arrival. I tried to hurry over to open the door, but my legs had gone to sleep. I dragged myself as best I could, stumbling and shaking my feet to restore circulation, and with a dry mouth, I opened the door.
It was a new Leonora who stood facing me. She was dressed completely in black, like me, except for green leather shoes. Her head was covered with a veil. She glided into the room with the grace of a 15-year-old girl. Her voice had also changed: She spoke no longer in the low tones of a priestess, but instead assumed a musical voice full of enchanting shyness. She bore two cubical boxes, one wrapped in silver paper, the other in gold. After I closed the door, she made sure it was properly bolted as well. Then, in a murmur, she asked me to remove her veil. Slowly, with trembling hands, I did. For the first time, I saw makeup on her face—discreet, but sensual. In her carefully coiffed hair there were five authentic green scarab jewels.
We sat on the edge of the bed. I soon realized that any suspicions I harbored of sexual intentions on her part were totally unfounded. The misdeed she spoke of had nothing to do with adultery. I breathed a sigh of relief. What I felt for her had nothing to do with sexual or romantic desire. My soul wanted to unite itself with hers. My rational consciousness wanted to drown in her limitless spirit. What I truly desired was to taste the soma of holy madness.
Leonora opened her boxes. From the golden one she took a skull made of sugar—the kind Mexicans use on the first day of November, Día de los Muertes. It had ALEJANDRO engraved on its forehead. From the silver box she took another skull engraved with LEONORA. She gave me hers and kept the one with my name.
“Now we shall devour each other,” she said, and bit into the skull with my name. I did the same with hers. Our eyes were fixed on each other, and we seemed to forget everything—the world and even ourselves—as we ate the skulls slowly. For an instant her face disappeared, and I saw my own in its place. At this moment, as if sharing the same hallucination, she said, “From now on, your face is my mirror.”
When we had finished this strange breakfast, she put a finger on her lips as a sign for me to be silent, donned her veil, placed one of the scarab jewels on my hand, and with no further ado, opened the door and left.
The next day, Kati Horna brought me a letter, saying: “This is from Leonora. If you open the door to her house, I implore you not to let in any bees, because they come from Venus. They can transform her into a woman. If, by misfortune, you make her cry, you must realize that her tears are not liquid; they are of hard, frozen ice armed with geometrical points which can make her go blind.”
Along with the violet envelope, she gave me a small wooden doll: a bearded goddess with horns. Reaching into a deep pocket of her large skirt, she gave me a fish of the variety known as huachinango in Mexico. Then she took a photograph of me and backed away, disappearing.
With trembling hands I read:
Long ago your naked footprints already sketched out the labyrinth in front of you, which is your path. Listen: By absolute necessity, I rediscovered my mother, the Spider. She offered her multiple hairy arms to my tongue. On each hair, a drop of honey glistened. “Lick!” she commanded. I obeyed. Then she gave me her web to dress my shadow and yours. Come!
I ran all the way to her house. I was utterly fascinated by Leonora’s mind. In her universe, thought was so concentrated that it was transformed into a dark stone submerged in the phosphorescent ocean of an unconscious with no barriers. A multitude of feelings and strange beings inhabited its depths: joys such as earthquakes, anguishes and terrors disguised as beautiful husks, angels as delicate as endless threads, repulsive yet comic.
Hidden in the folds of the envelope, I found an additional detail:
I have discovered the marvelous qualities of my shadow. Lately it has been detaching itself from me by virtue of its powers of flight. Sometimes it leaves wet footprints. But I confess: I constantly sleep wrapped in it, and the moments when I am able to awaken are rare.
I found her in her studio, working on a large canvas. When she saw me, she exclaimed: “Sebastian, don’t move! I want you to come into my painting!”
I saw myself already depicted there: My body was elongated; a large, black chrysanthemum was pictured in place of a head and two enormous eyes were figured on my chest. I was pale, and on my shoulders, I bore a pale blue dwarf with a round, flat head like a soup bowl. With a gesture of frenetic uncertainty, this little being was pointing toward three paths which led to other spaces.
After two hours of immobility, I dared to move slightly to look at the other paintings that leaned against the walls. On one of them, in the middle of a kabbalistic sketch, there floated the head of Maria Félix so realistically painted that it almost could have been a photograph. When I let out a small exclamation of surprise, Leonora understood immediately.
“Do not suppose that I am capable of mastering a style that I detest. That famous actress insisted on paying a very high price for a portrait signed by me. She demanded that the likeness of her features be exact to the fraction of an inch. She didn’t care about the rest and left that to my imagination. You see that hole in the wall there? While the diva was posing, Jose Horna, Kati’s husband, was watching and painting her from the other room. He has no imagination, but he does have an incredible talent and technique for reproduction. As you see, the only thing Maria’s head is missing is the ability to speak in that black scarab voice of hers. I am thinking about painting her with three transparent, superimposed bodies in the middle of a magic forest. The contrast between my style, with its hazy borders, and that face will give birth to an angelic demon. Its soul will be satisfied by my painting and its narcissism will be satisfied by that of my friend.
“But don’t think I have disdain for Jose. He is an extraordinary being, a Spanish gypsy with emerald eyes. I’ve known him for many years. When he was still a humble carpenter, he came to see me because he had had a dream about me. He was inside a cathedral, standing before a very high pillar. Looking up, he saw the eyes of a serpent. Its body was white, heavy, smooth, and covered with prophetic messages. It slithered down the pillar and passed by him like a sigh. It then changed into me. Turning around and smiling, I said: ‘I am going. Follow me always.’ Jose obeyed and followed his dream serpent. He came to Mexico with Kati in order to find me. For years now, they have been my neighbors. He takes care of my plants, he sculpts my dolls, he makes my furniture and the frames for my paintings. I know that his emerald eyes belong to the hidden unicorn in the tarot.”
She had to finish the painting of Maria within a week. The actress was going to Europe and wanted to hang it in her luxurious house there. For the next few days, I arrived at six o’clock each morning and assisted Leonora during this period of feverish activity. My task was to stand by as she worked, paint flowing uncontrolled over the canvas from the brush she held in each hand, which created two forms simultaneously around the famous face. As she did this, she asked me strange questions which I took as surrealistic koans.
“Everything lives because of my vital fluid. I wake up when you sleep. If I stand up, they bury you. Who am I? . . . We shall transform ourselves suddenly into two dark, dashing Venezuelan men drinking tea in an aquarium. Why? . . . A red owl looks at me. In my belly, a drop of mercury forms. What does it mean? . . . A transparent egg that emits rays like the great constellations is a body, but it is also a box. Of what? . . . Only bitter laments will enable us to cry a tear. Is this tear an ant?”
How could I answer? To each of her questions I rose up on tiptoe and let my body dance.
On the ground floor there was a rectangular courtyard full of flowering plants and trees that rose up to the second story. Kati watered them and at the same time photographed every flower, leaf, and insect. Suddenly, we heard her calling us with loud screams. Thinking that some accident had befallen her, we all ran tumultuously down the stairs—Leonora, Chiki, Gaby, Pablo, Jose, the dog, and me.
Kati was standing there, safe and sound, photographing a chrysalis.
“Look, look! This is a divine moment! The caterpillar is dying and the butterfly is being born. The coffin of one is the cradle of the other. But at this moment, though the caterpillar has died, the butterfly is not yet born—so there is nothing. I am photographing nothingness.”
As a fiery-colored insect arose to flutter among the flowers, Kati murmured: “Nothingness has densified, and a new illusion is born.”
Leonora added, “We, too, should open ourselves as the chrysalis opens, to emerge completely new—our hair prickling like rays of light, unimaginably other.”
The portrait was completed on time. The disconcerting realism of Maria Félix’s head floated like a deaf and blind planet in a threefold, magical body. The world Leonora had painted vibrated with ecstasy. In it, the classic head, satisfied with its limits, seemed like a prison.
“I will give it to her today, this evening at nine o’clock. I want to prepare a dinner for her and a few friends, and I’d like you to help me in the kitchen.”
Wearing a dress covered with tiny stars, and with me in the kitchen as the only onlooker, she commenced the preparations for the feast. In five chamber pots (brand new, of course), she planned to serve 33 pounds of caviar, about six pounds in each pot. I was appalled at the fortune this must have cost. With a mischievous smile, Leonora revealed her trickery: In fact, she had drenched cooked tapioca grains with black squid’s ink. Using this simple technique, she managed to obtain a delicious pseudocaviar.
Then she explained how the soup was to be made: “With an unbroken stream of incantations spoken in the voice of a lion, I make my soup on wild rocks while looking at certain stars. The ingredients are simple: half a pink onion, a bit of perfumed wood, some grains of myrrh, a large branch of green mint, three belladonna pills covered with white Swiss chocolate, and a huge compass rose, which I plunge into the soup for one minute before removing it. Just before serving the soup, I add a Chinese ‘cloud’ mushroom, which has snail-like antennae and grows on owl dung.”
At exactly nine o’clock, the great lady arrived. Only male guests had been invited so that the actress would have no feeling of competition. They all stared at her, tongue-tied. There were four painters, two writers, a film director, a banker, three important lawyers, and me—a theater director whom the others seemed to regard as a visitor from another planet. Chiki, who detested this sort of event, had taken refuge with his children and the Hornas in the red shadows of the photography lab. The resplendent painting, covered with a veil, was set on an easel in the middle of the room.
In person, Maria Félix was far more impressive than on the screen. Her luxurious, jet-black hair; her fine features; her queenly bearing; her potent, castrating regard; her intoxicating Mexican beauty; her baroque jewelry; her splendid evening gown; and especially the imperious flash in her eyes were breathtaking. A palpable testosterone silence hung in the room like a pall. Leonora broke it by whipping away the veil from the canvas dramatically and tossing it into the air so that it flew like a bird over our heads and struck a window before falling out of sight.
With a gasp of admiration, Señora Félix stood in front of the painting, her naked back toward us. Then she turned slowly around to face us, as if gazing upon her audience from a high throne. An invisible flame seemed to shoot out from her pupils as she looked at each of us fully in the eyes, one by one, with the clear intention of arousing us. Finally, her gaze strayed to the dog, Eldra. With great satisfaction, the Señora pronounced these sultry words, which slithered through the air like a snake:
“Even the dog desires me!”
When I heard this, I felt a ripping sensation deep inside me. I remembered the terrible words my mother, Sara Felicidad, had said to mewhen I was seven years old: “After giving me a black eye because he imagined I had flirted with a customer in the shop, your father raped me and got me pregnant. I have hated him ever since, and I cannot love you. After you were born, I had my tubes tied.”
It is a cruel blow to know that your birth was not desired. This is why I had always lived with the feeling that nothing really belonged to me; in order for the world to belong to us, we must believe that the world desires us. Only that which desires us can be ours. By feeling that she was desired even by the dog, Maria Félix was a queen who possessed everything.
From that moment on, I began to work on myself: to affirm the conviction that the world desires my existence. This world includes all of humanity, past, present, and future. My father and mother identified themselves with their acquired personalities, their families, and social and cultural influences. Their insane ideas (inherited from their parents and ancestors) gave rise to negative emotions, unhealthy desires and false needs. They believed that they had not desired me, had not loved me. They saw me more as a tumor in my mother’s stomach than as an embryo. I was protected by the placenta from the attacks of antibodies which wanted to destroy me. The life that had been granted me was able to resist these assaults. Something mysterious, immense, and profound had already decided, since the beginning of time, that I would exist. Because they desired my presence in this world, all the forces of the universe cooperated so that I could be born. Thus every living being represents a victory of cosmic desire.
I had come to Leonora wanting to be loved, seeking the perfect mother, which arose from the same need as my infant cries and weeping in the cradle. I was demanding and needy. Yet how could I give, for nothing was really mine? If the world did not desire me, how could it receive my love? I had only learned to desire myself, which split me in two—or more.
I escaped to the kitchen. The frivolous aspect of Leonora’s world had become cloying to me. A few minutes later, she entered, wearing a doe’s head as a hat.
“Don’t lie to me, Sebastian. I have heard the temple veil tearing. A force now inhabits you which is foreign to me. Please excuse me, but I must withdraw. I’m afraid you will let loose a bee in my secret spaces.”
I understood: Our relationship had arrived at an end. Without a word, without looking back, I walked down the stairs, out of the house, and into the street. In those days, the sky of Mexico City was still clear, and the stars lit up the sky almost like a full moon. I was stopped in my tracks by a cry like the wailing of a bird being slain. It was Leonora.
“Stop, Sebastian!” she called, running to catch up with me, her clothes falling from her little by little as she approached me. Her body, bathed in the starlight, was silver. With a voice so soft it seemed to emerge from a beehive deeper than the earth, she spoke:
“Before you go, I want you to know that your appearance has been absolutely essential for me. It goes beyond personal limits, beyond the celestial bodies that shine in the caverns of animal gods, beyond the murmurings of the praying mantis in my hair. It goes beyond that, and yet perhaps, even more, it is still under threat by the human body. I speak as one submerged in time. This umbilical cord exists only if we allow it to exist. You can always cut it, but as long as you want it, it will be there. For you, I am exactly what you desire, but never believe that you can lose me, because my role changes relative to you. That could happen—I could also become your bearded, toothless grandmother or your ghost or even an undefined place. If I withdraw someday, for human or nonhuman reasons, you should never fear to look for me, because you must know always that you will find me when you wish it. Later, we will communicate in such a perfect way that all our terrors and weaknesses will become bridges. Meanwhile, the ways remain warm and open. If by chance you sever ordinary communication for a period, I will be here each time you wish to find me, because the subterranean elements do not depend in the slightest on our personal will.”
Worried about her public nudity, I said, “Cover yourself, Leonora; someone might come by.” She bent double, as if I had struck her in the stomach.
“You do not yet understand,” she groaned, “I am the moon!”
Chiki arrived, carrying an astrakhan cloak. Without deigning to look at me, he covered her, lifted her delicately in his arms as if she were an amphora full of precious liquid, and bore her away.
Dawn was breaking. Ejo Takata would be arising right now to prepare for his morning meditation. I took a bus full of schoolchildren. With little toy bows they shot small paper arrows at me. Suddenly an idea formed in my mind: “I am like St. Sebastian being shot through by koans.”
Furious, I returned to the zendo.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films include El Topo, Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre. He is also a Tarot expert and the author of dozens of volumes of fiction, poetry, comics and autobiographical work. He lives and works in Paris. This article is excerpted from The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky by Alejandro Jodorowsky, translated by Joseph Rowe, with kind permission of Park Street Press, a division of Inner Traditions International (innertraditions.com).