More Human Than Ever

The Holy Mountain at 50


in Pop Studies • Illustrated by Esther Lee


For Alejandro Jodorowsky, art is life. An artist’s role is to follow a continuous thread of liberation between worlds. Over his nearly eight-decade adventure in art, he has dealt in literature, theater, mime, comic books, tarot, spiritual texts, repulsive performance, cinema, poetry, visual art, music, therapy. He intended his unrealized film of Dune in the mid-’70s to usher in a new era of human consciousness. As chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, that project was doomed by the director’s refusal to make anything other than a 16-hour opus that would star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles; his revolutionary visual ideas, however, preserved in sketch and story-board form, determined the future of science fiction cinema from Star Wars to Alien onwards. 

Calling Jodorowsky an egotist is so obvious a point as to be beside it. This is a man, after all, who, in his debut film role, decided to cast himself as essentially a black leather-clad, sharp-shooting god, and whose late-career return to film in the 2010s was intended to comprise an autobiography in five parts. To come away from either of his early ’70s masterpieces — violent psychedelic Western El Topo (1971) or its successor, The Holy Mountain (1973) makes one wonder whether it is Jodorowsky, or we, who is stuck in the wrong reality.  

Still with us at 94, Jodorowsky was born in 1929 in Tocopilla, a small coastal town in Chile. The son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, and an unhappy child of marital rape, he grew up with a distant mother and a brutish father. He turned to poetry and art for solace. He dropped out of college in Santiago, started his own mime company, and began to write plays. Before long Chile was too small for him and he headed to Paris, studying mime further under Marcel Marceau, for whom he claims to have invented the “I’m trapped in a glass box” act. In Paris, he teamed up with artist Roland Topor and Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal. Through their collaborative triumvirate — The Panic Movement — they intended, in Arrabal’s words, to “release destructive energies in search of peace and beauty,” electro-charging surrealism (by then assimilated and defanged) into visceral life again. They staged happenings replete with ritualized nudity and, apparently, the occasional live animal slaughter. In the 1960s, Jodorowsky moved to Mexico, where he directed more than 100 plays, wrote a controversial comic book, studied Zen, and befriended British painter and novelist Leonora Carrington. 

The Holy Mountain, a three-part Divine Comedy, follows a Christ-like “Thief,” as he navigates a brutal militarized hell-world, ascends the purgatorial tower of a spiritual “Alchemist,” and pursues wisdom and “immortality” atop the paradisical “Mountain” of the title. Along the film’s never-predictable course, there are riddles, trials, parables, violence, and endless indelible images.  

It was Jodorowsky’s third film. He had made 1967’s Fando y Lis in Mexico — an intentionally provocative, half-remembered adaptation of his friend Arrabal’s play — from whose premiere the director, if he is to be believed, scarcely escaped with his life. In 1970, El Topo (The Mole) started running every Friday night from December 1970 to June 1971 at New York’s Elgin Theater, making Jodorowsky the symbolic father of the “midnight movie” phenomenon. After seeing it, John Lennon persuaded Beatles manager Allen Klein to fund Jodorowsky’s next project, also putting up his own money.  

Taken on its own, El Topo is sublime. It follows Jodorowsky’s aforementioned gunslinger on his (increasingly unmoored) quest for revenge; the first half is a bloody, disorienting voyage through a distorted desert world, familiarly full of Western tropes — bandits, horses, damsels in distress — while the second half, in which Jodorowsky is reincarnated as a Christ-like saint and tries to bring salvation to a hellish, USA-coded town, serves as vastly ambitious social commentary. 

When it came out, the late New York Times art critic Peter Schjeldahl hailed it as “a vastly complex, genuinely profound comic allegory —a sort of bloody Latin American Peer Gynt.” The only thing which might diminish it is to place it side-by-side with The Holy Mountain. And it’s difficult to say quite why. They are very different films — one is driven by continual and violent transformation, the other by a ludic sense of the absurd and the miraculous. They are both explorations of humanity’s potential for evolution (“revolution isn’t enough,” Jodorowsky has said, “we need a re-evolution.”)  

Not that The Holy Mountain, too, doesn’t abound in violence. But it is only one component in a constantly revolving constellation of effects and moods, flitting by us, through us. It is the dream to El Topo’s nightmare: it has a lightness, in the sense that Italo Calvino used that word — rising above the deadly weightiness we project upon material reality, “not superficiality, but a gliding above things, not having weights on your heart” — that El Topo does not. The film weighs itself down by its overwhelming marination in brutality, blood, and bleakness. Jodorowsky at this time was, by his own account, a “psychological killer . . . not able to love.” And there is no doubt that a great deal in his early work — generally around apparent attitudes towards women, queer people, the disabled — gives off somewhat foul evidence of this failure to our contemporary eyes. For some, the inherent ambiguity and interpretability of Jodorowsky’s work may not excuse, but at least extenuates, this exploitation. For others, “surrealism” can only extenuate or excuse so much.  

By 1973, Jodorowsky fully believed in his ability to do absolutely anything. “El Topo was normal,” he said. The Holy Mountain was abnormal. My ambition was enormous. I wanted to make a picture like you would make a holy book, like the Bhagavad Gita or the Tao Te Ching.” After all, he reasoned: “Maybe I am a prophet. I really hope one day there will come Confucius, Muhammad, Buddha, and Christ to see me. And we will sit at a table, taking tea and eating some brownies.”  

Jodorowsky consciously draws on a heterogeneous, yet somehow-unified universe of spiritual, mystical, and occult imaginaries: Christian, Jewish, and Kabbalistic, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, I Ching, Islamic and Sufistic, Gurdjieff, the then-fashionable Human Potential Movement which had arisen in Latin American parapsychological circles. Tantra, tarot, astrology, alchemy, magic, animal and color symbology. The film functions as one kind of way of looking into what some call the “perennial tradition” or traditionalism: all religions and spiritual systems share one underlying, unified truth, a unity, namely that “all is one.” This an idea (or a feeling) so bursting with meaning as to always be at risk of breaking into meaninglessness.  

So, what is the “immortality” that Jodorowsky’s pilgrims seek atop the Holy Mountain? The eternal, the infinite, the absolute, the immortal — what do any of these things actually mean? That question is game the film plays: yet its outcome as we will see, could not be more serious. 

In the sacred texts, Jodorowsky stirs blood and guts: decayed religions, vicious sex, sadistic violence, murder, pedophilia, military brutality, every kind of cowardly and nihilistic wretchedness. Simultaneous with the film’s debut, his home country was ravaged by General Augusto Pinochet’s American-backed coup — which transformed Chile into what we might dub the first national experiment in capitalism with a nakedly, shamelessly fascist face. Jodorowsky’s anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and anti-militarism are the most obvious aspects of his films, both El Topo and The Holy Mountain, which feature clear excoriation of American money-and-violence worship and their effects across Latin America.  

One of many paradoxes that make up the grand paradox that is The Holy Mountain is that, really, it has a very distinct three-act structure. Our protagonist, “the Thief,” who looks like Jesus (and is associated with the “Fool” card of Jodorowsky’s preferred Marseilles Tarot deck) lies unconscious, covered in flies and his own urine in the middle of the desert. He is awoken by a dwarf (“Five of Swords”) and after sharing a joint, they travel to a city that seems to be a mixture of Sodom-Gomorrah and Santiago circa September 1973. Rampant soldiers, public executions, rapes, explosions. The Thief, soon noticed for his Christ-like looks, gathers 12 prostitutes as followers. What is obvious is that the film’s first act (largely without dialogue) takes place in a version of Hell, except that this is clearly Earth, as Jodorowsky sees it, in 1973.  

Following Dante, Jodorowsky follows the Inferno of his first act with a Purgatorio in his second. In a tower above the self-destructing city, “The Alchemist” (Jodorowsky) initiates the Thief and seven other figures, each a recognizable capitalist “type,” with their own astrological planet and tarot card. The narrative breaks into short films, one for each planet: the girl-boss arms manufacturer with castrated secretaries; the media sicko and art-world pervert; the military propaganda-brainwashing toy-maker; the technocrat “Financial Advisor to the President” who reads off algorithmically-derived directives for war; the mass-castrating chief of police;  the modern architect who wants to sell the idea of a city of Freedom, where there will be “not a house, a shelter: if we can sell them on the idea of shelter, we can make millions!” 

Jodorowsky’s own clearly voiced instruction to his cast, and to us, is to discard “money . . . self-image . . . fear of death.” “Possession is the ultimate pain,” he tells us, and must be forgotten to discover “your new body, which is the universe.” In one of the film’s indelible images, these avatars of modern capitalism tip all their ill-gotten wads into a huge, Korean barbecue fire pit. How is all this meant to be taken? Jodorowsky’s honey-thick Chilean accent and fiercely ripe delivery may flavor things, to some viewers, ironically. Or take the moment when the Thief shits into a pot and, through a Zen meditation and some truly unspeakable (watch it) magical-scientific work by the Alchemist we witness the transformation: “You are excrement. You can turn yourself into gold.”  

Plenty of viewers apparently take the entire film as a satire on “the quest for Enlightenment” itself, and indeed, Jodorowsky might well be sending up the woolliness of then-ascendant New Ageism. (One of the best gags in the film features a burnout explaining how “The Egyptian Book of the Dead . . . describes . . . the experience of mescaline,” a clear and well-deserved swipe at LSD guru Timothy Leary.) The director disapproved of recreational psychedelics in general, since he never needed them: “I have a big imagination . . . I wanted to make a film like people in North America want to use psychedelic drugs.”  

To this end, Jodorowsky put himself and others through months of spiritual prep. Part of this did include trying psychedelics — for research purposes. He took LSD and psilocybin and insisted his cast do the same. They endured months of communal living and various spiritual training regimes, all on just four hours of sleep per night. The director participated in an experiment for John Lilly, developer of the then-novel sensory deprivation tank, and trained for months with his fellow Chilean, guru Oscar Ichazo. Founder of the Arica School, a center of the Human Potential Movement, Ichazo is one of several claimants to the contemporary understanding and usage of the Enneagram, a geometric form mapping onto the supposed nine interconnected “types” that make up the human psyche. This, too, would make its way into the film’s mystical mélange. 

Of necessity, let us broadly and over-simply define “mysticism” as the direct, personal attempt to experience divinity within the self. (It is important to note that, despite New Age’s best efforts, this is very much not the same thing as the self, or ego, being divine.) Despite many attempts to revive or invent our own traditions in the West, especially throughout the ’60s, the mystical remains something of an embarrassment. We remain stuck in a cycle of appropriating other cultures or relying on drugs to re-alienate us from our habituations. Of course, there was absurdity — no less than an arrogant, Western impatience — in Jodorowsky’s attempts to skip the steps to enlightenment in just a few months, with the help of a few chemicals and a selection of gurus. If then, Jodorowsky exemplified and immortalized the somewhat vacuous, hedonic, pick-and-mix spiritualism of his era, it may also be the case that The Holy Mountain functions as a kind of prism through which a reasonably self-aware Westerner might reflect on this lack. 

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was published the same year that The Holy Mountain was released. In this Brobdingnagian epic, a worthy literary analog for Jodorowsky’s film, Pynchon also incorporates a vast matrix of allusion. The novel is a bewildering hypertext, 30 years avant la lettre: astrological, Kabalistic, Teutonic, Christian and other references are intertwined with dense historical accuracy, symbolisms of geometry and color, reams of scientific detail and metaphorical riff upon metaphorical riff, spinning out into confusion. The two works share a technique: heterogeny. Crowding so many keys of “meaning” together really means that any one strand of allusion, if pursued, will unravel our interpretations of another. The works collapse inwards toward a vastly dense yet empty singularity. They suck the reader into it. They contain endless meaning and resist it, like the “real” world. With such prismatic works as these, one gets the feeling not so much of reading or of watching but of a being read, being watched. The experience is an almost physical sensation of resonance, a reciprocal vibration; it feels, in other words, rather like something mystical. 

Both of Jodorowsky’s direct sources for his film were, in fact, mystical texts: Ascent of Mount Carmel, written in the 16th century by the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, and the unfinished 20th-century allegorical novel Mount Analogue, by a rogue French surrealist named René Daumal. In both these texts the ascent of a mountain is a metaphor for the struggle toward contact with divinity. Within the Christian hermetic tradition that began with the Gnostics in the 1st century AD, John recommends asceticism and abnegation — an emptying out of the self to receive God.  

All these imaginings must be cast out from the soul […] all must learn to abide attentively and wait lovingly on God in a state of quiet, and to devote no attention either to imagination or its working […] the soul must take care not to lean on visions that take place in the mind […] they perturb it, and for this reason the soul must renounce them, and strive not to have them. 

If “the imagination”, according to St. John, is the enemy of true mystical emptiness, then surely, and doubly so, is the artistic impulse. A modern artist fights on two fronts: to glorify the world, and to glorify the self. It is a seemingly intractable double-bind of the ego, one from which the astronomically self-important Jodorowsky of this period was hardly immune. Does this fatally undermine the film’s pretensions to mystical import? Or, in fact, is this dilemma, reflective of our spiritually craven and utterly narcissistic age, the heart of The Holy Mountain’s import? 

René Daumal, like many of the most interesting French surrealists, is almost unknown in the English-speaking world. In Daumal’s novel, a group of mountaineers made up of scientists, artists and thinkers are led by the charismatic Father Sogol (“Logos” spelled backward); their diverse quests for enlightenment are united in climbing this invisible mountain, where Heaven meets Earth. It can be found only by those who seek it.  

Mount Analogue ends in mid-sentence because Daumal died of tuberculosis in 1945. He mingled and clashed with the official Surrealist group, but Daumal had his own artistic brotherhood, Le Grand Jeu, or “Great Game.” The whole thing was something of a self-reflexive joke, a very serious one.  

Around a decade prior to Mount Analogue, Daumal’s best friend, the poet Gilbert-Lecompte, wrote in his preface to the first issue of Le Grand Jeu journal: 

The great game is irremediable; it is played only once. We wish to play it every moment of our lives. It is a case of “loser wins” since the aim is to lose oneself. And we want to win… 

In his preface to Mount Analogue, Daumal writes: “Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action.” According to both Daumal and Gilbert-Lecompte, the apparent contradiction in the role of the artist and the mystic, the revolutionary and the revelatory, is illusory. Why? Because everything is only process and change, including the work of the artist, which is only “knowledge in action.” The self, the subject, is neither coherent nor consistent: the only constant is change, and it is this fact that enables a new kind of collectivity and solidarity. “For us,” Gilbert-Lecompte concludes, “those frames of constraint which social beings are conditioned to accept have been cracked by an immense surge of innocence.” 

The Grand Jeu has been dismissed by historians of Surrealism as “reclining revolutionaries.” There are great pitfalls of equating self-liberation with political revolution; the sixties and early seventies demonstrate this amply. Yet The Holy Mountain offers — enacts — an alternative fork in the road. It is one that our terminally self-aware, self-obsessed, and spiritually embarrassed culture might just recognize. 
As Jodorowsky’s film nears its end, the nine pilgrims approach the nine “Immortals” at the mountain’s summit, from whom they seek the secret of everlasting life. They take their seats around the table. They find nine seated dummies.  

Following the lead that Daumal had inadvertently set down by dying and leaving his work unfinished, Jodorowsky/The Alchemist announces that there will be no ending, no immortality, and no meaning. “Zoom back camera!” he commands. And the cast breaks character. They stare back at us as a film crew is revealed: 

We began in a fairytale, and we came to life, but is this life reality? No. It is a film! Here you see us — more human than ever. Images. Dreams. Photographs! 

Jodorowsky overturns the table, emblazoned (you might miss it) with a giant Enneagram. And he and his cast walk away. With one supremely cinematic act of anti-cinema, the film is over, and the joke is now on us — but not quite. Jodorowsky makes his impassioned plea, which reads, at least to me, like the only dead serious moment in the film:  

We must not stay here! Prisoners! We shall break the illusion! This is Maya! Goodbye to the Holy Mountain. Real Life awaits us. 

“Maya,” a word derived from Hindu philosophy, has a multiplicity of meanings, which I leave to the reader to investigate, but two primary ones are “illusion” and “magic.” 

Where are we now? More to the point, who are we? No answer. “So, what’s the point?” as Daumal asks in Mount Analogue. “Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above.”  

We hear everywhere, and all the time, that more than ever we need a renewed “political imagination”, or something like it. Might not being “cracked by an immense surge of innocence” have something to contribute to this? Moving beyond “capitalist realism” might mean climbing above our notion of “the Real”. This might be a necessary part of any movement by which (somehow) capitalism, its annihilating imprisonment of human and ecological realities, might be transcended. 

A renewal of our ability to be “serious players”, to be imagined through imagining, and thereby exceed “Reality” itself — this is what Le Grand Jeu and Daumal sought. It is the heart of many traditions, all of which may also be found, in some form, in The Holy Mountain. And it is this, above all else, that makes Surrealism, Le Grand Jeu, Jodorowsky’s work, and all the wisdom traditions it plays with (potentially) revolutionary.  

Jodorowsky was making a film to re-enchant the world, a redemptive “holy text” in the popular medium of a deeply fallen age. Fifty years on, we may have fallen lower still; we may even have slipped below ground.  

The damned state of the world, our culture, our collective imagination, is the one thing everyone nowadays seems to agree on. Like the black-clad gunslinger in El Topo then, we need to re-emerge. Jodorowsky’s irreverently playful and limitless sense of imagination might be as good a place as any to start from.•


Gus Mitchell is a writer from London, currently based on Welsh borders. His plays have been performed there and elsewhere and his writing has appeared in Prospect, Compact, The Cleveland Review of Books, Maisonneuve, Long Now and other places.