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Audio published on July 14th, 2018

Keywords: Artist, Music, Moses, Exodus, Copyright, Prayer, Jewish, Passover

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Myth, Muse, and Animation

A Discussion with Nina Paley

Dr. Jordan Peterson: I’m talking today with Nina Paley, who’s a brilliant animator. She’s making a variety of short films—which, I guess, are going to be joined together into a longer film—that feature Old Testament themes. She’s the creator of the animated musical feature Sita Sings the Blues. Her adventures in our broken copyright system led her to joining as artist in residence in 2008, where she produced a series of animated shorts about intellectual freedom called Minute Memes. More recently, she made This Land Is Mine, which is an absolutely brilliant, shocking, devastating, and also aesthetically impressive film about Israel, Palestine, Cainan, and the Levant that’s intended for her new feature film, Seder-Masochism. You can find a lot of Nina’s pieces of that film online. I would highly recommend watching them. We’ll cut a couple of them into this interview, so you can see what she’s up to.

I guess there’s two things that we could really talk about. I think the most important one, obviously, is your work. But, I guess, the second one is your concern for intellectual freedom, and your feeling with regards to copyright. But let’s start by talking about you, first. Tell my listeners and tell me who you are, and where you come from, and what you’re about.

Nina Paley: [laughter] You want to know about my identity?

JP: I guess that’s it. Yeah.

NP: You trust me to identify myself? I don’t trust myself, there.

JP: Well, that’s OK. You’re the best source we have today.

NP: Actually, I am not sure about that. I mean, I think most of us would agree that I’m an artist and currently an animator. I guess I’ve been doing animation since 1998. Before that, I was a newspaper cartoonist. I still do comics from time to time—not very often. I mean… I guess the thing is, I just came back from a bike ride, and I’ve just been thinking about identity, like, all the time, and how incredibly unreliable it is, and how I don’t respect it, including ways that I identify myself.

JP: Well, I guess that’s part of being an artist. People who are artistic are high in trait openness, and that gives them a very fluid identity.

NP: Huh.

JP: I mean, it’s an advantage, because people who are high in openness can think laterally, and they’re always coming up with new ideas. But it does tend to make your identity rather pluralistic and, sometimes, unstable. That can also be a problem.

NP: Well, I guess it’s not even that it’s fluid. It’s not like, "oh, I identify ‘this way’ one day and ‘this way’ another day." It’s just… I don’t really currently have much respect for the idea of identity at all. I could say all kinds of things about myself, but… you know… does that actually do me any good?

JP: Well, let me ask you a couple of basic questions: where do you live?

NP: Ah! Good. I live in Urbana Illinois. That’s verifiable.

JP: All right, and where were you born?

NP: I was born in Urbana Illinois.

JP: You were—so you’ve been there your whole life, essentially.

NP: No, I left when I was 20; I moved to Santa Cruz, California. I wanted to be a hippy. I failed. But then, you know, I was already out on my own, so I briefly moved to Austin, Texas. That didn’t work out. I moved to San Fransisco in 1991. I lived there for 11 years. In 2002, I follow my then-boyfriend—actually, we were legally married, so my then-husband—to India, which is one of the subjects of Sita Sings the Blues. Later in 2002, I moved to Brooklyn, New York, and lived in various places in New York for a total of about 10 years. I moved back to Urbana in 2012, right after my father died, and here I am.

JP: Why did you move back to Urbana, after all of that adventure?

NP: First, I was done with New York, even though I really loved New York. My first five years, there, was fantastic. I kind of achieved more than I even expected I would be able to and started to just get… The love affair with New York kind of wore off; and I wanted a little more peace and quiet; and I wanted cooler summers; and I didn’t want to smell garbage everywhere all the time. I had an opportunity to move back here, because my dad died; my mom was threatening to sell the house. I joined the Occupy movement: Occupy Mom’s House, trying to keep her from selling the house.

JP: Ah—so you actually had a specific demand, with your Occupy movement.

NP: [laughter] But it failed! She sold the house anyways. But I’m living in her new house.

JP: I see.

NP: Yeah. I was dating somebody that lived here, and that has ended. But I actually really like it. It’s much more relaxed; it’s inexpensive; I get lots of fresh air; I take lots of bike rides; and I don’t really care about… I’m just less stressed out. I care about identity less.

JP: Yes. Well, you had plenty of adventures, obviously. It must take a fair bit of, I would think, time of quiet and some isolation in order to work on your animation.

NP: Yeah. Well, I achieved that quiet and isolation in New York, actually, by just living in New York, in an apartment by myself. I would rather live in New York than visit New York, because when you live there, you can actually control your environment somewhat, and you can shut everything out. Whereas when you’re visiting, you usually have to be out all the time, being overstimulated.

JP: Right. Yes. Well, it’s definitely an overstimulating place. When did you start doing your animation?

NP: I started animating, as an adult, in 1998. Before that, I had done some animation when I was 13 years old, using a borrowed Super 8 camera. I just completely stopped, because I was in central Illinois, and there was no support for doing animation. There was no way I could have advanced beyond the neighbour’s Super 8 camera. But then, in 1998, I was burning out of my daily comic strip, and wanted to do something, and borrowed somebody else’s Super 8 camera. In 1998, it actually was easier to advance, especially in San Fransisco, where a lot of people were doing independent film. Yeah—I just picked up where I left off. I did Pleistocene clay stuff on Super 8 and shared that film with a band called Mick Fulps and the Brocodon Ensemble[spelling unclear] that did live music to animation. That was really fun. I was being gratified by audience feedback, so I made another film on 16 millimetre, and then my next film was drawing and scratching on 35 millimetre, and then my next film after that was drawing and scratching on IMAX film, which is 70 millimetre—really big frames. And then I got into Flash, Macromedia Flash, and I’ve been digital ever since.

JP: Are you using Macromedia Flash now? What’s your primary technology?

NP: A lot of those clips for Seder-Masochism were animated in Macromedia Flash. Adobe bought Flash and crippled it and ruined it, in the opinion of many Flash animators. So I’m still using Macromedia Flash from… 2007? Is that when my copy of Flash is from? I don’t know. Macromedia Flash 8: it only runs on older computers… Actually, I think it might be 2006 or 2005. I have this old Mac, here, running OS 10.6, because it won’t run on any more recent machines. It’s, like, impossible to integrate with a modern video editing system, so I have a new Mac, as well. The newer parts of Seder-Masochism, I’m using a program called Moho Pro 12, which is kept up and runs on modern computers.

JP: It’s funny how, sometimes, software peaks in terms of complexity and usability, and then goes downhill.

NP: You know, I think we’re seeing that not just with software, but with computers all together. Like, personal computers, I think, peaked around 2007, maybe 2010. They’ve been getting worse ever since. Any sort of upgrade to operating systems just means more surveillance and less user freedom, at this point.

JP: Yes, as well as a steep learning curve—which is somewhat annoying, if you happened to be an expert with the previous system.

NP: Yeah. Anyway, I don’t know if I can keep animating digitally, because the software that I’m using now, Moho—I just found out that the person that created it and was an integral part of its team this whole time just left the company. So Moho’s fate is unclear, and I’m like, "if I have to learn a whole other piece of software again…" I just don’t know if I can take this anymore. I’m so fluent with Flash. It took me years to become fluent at all with Moho.

JP: Yeah. Well that’s another thing: it takes a long time to become an expert user of a complex software program. And then, when it shifts, the ground shifts from underneath you. It’s rather disheartening, because all of that expertise, essentially, disappears. I guess it’s part of what we’re experiencing, as our technology advances fast enough so that our lifespans are too long, really, to keep up: we get outdated and superannuated on about a 5-year rotation, and it does get exhausting.

NP: Yeah. Well, maybe I’ll just die early, and won’t have to worry about it.

JP: Oh, yeah. That’ll solve the problem. But then you won’t finish your film, and that seems like a bad idea.

NP: Well, I’m going to finish this film. I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, for Seder-Masochism.

JP: Good for you. So, let me ask you, some, about that. You made This Land Is Mine. When was that?

NP: That… was that in 2012? I think it was. That’s the first scene that I made. It’s going to be the last scene in the film, but it’s the first one I made.

JP: I see. What possessed you to make that?

NP: I knew I wanted to make a movie about Passover, because I was raised observing Passover—although, not much else. So I was doing research. I’d never seen the movie Exodus. You know that movie?

JP: Yup.

NP: I’d never seen that movie, so I watched it as part of my research. I learned that the theme music had lyrics written to it by Pat Boone, and that it was a really popular song in the ‘60s. Tons of artists did it. I’d never even heard it before. So I heard it, and I just thought it was ridiculous. Because: "this land is mine, God gave this land to me…" Everyone would say that, right? Every group feels that way about the land that they’re on. Every single one. So the absurdity of it was just apparent in the song, and there wasn’t even, really, a process of coming up with a concept for it. That was just what the song evoked for me—showing how every single tribe has that attitude towards their land. And so, saying that "this land is yours" and "God gave this land to me" gives you no authority at all, because, I mean, that’s just what it is, to be a tribe living on land.

JP: So what sort of reaction did you garner from This Land Is Mine?

NP: This Land Is Mine is the most popular thing I have ever made. It’s been viewed on various channels more than 10 million times. Many people like it. In terms of criticism, the criticism seems equally divided between people that say I’m a Zionist and people that say I’m an anti-Zionist. So it’s ether a really anti-Zionist film, or it’s a really Zionist film.

JP: >I see. So you can just add that criticism together, and sum to zero, and ignore it.

NP: Yeah. Well, I’m really flattered by it, right? Because if people that passionately, on polar opposite sides, are saying that, I feel like I’ve really done something right.

JP: Well, you’ve definitely done something right. I think that was the first film of yours that I saw, and then I’ve watched many of them—I think every one that I’ve been able to get my hands on, since then. It struck me in a variety of ways. The first thing that’s, let’s say, strange about your animation, is that it’s… First of all, you have great taste in music.

NP: Oh, I copy the best.

JP: You certainly do. How do you get permission?

NP: I don’t.

JP: Oh, you don’t!

NP: I don’t.

JP: Really. Really? How’s that working out for you?

NP: In the case of This Land Is Mine, it’s pretty clearcut fair use, because the film is parody. Like I said, it’s literally a parody of those lyrics, and that’s fair use.


NP: I actually think most of my uses are fair use. They’re transformative, but a lot of uses are not as clearcut as parody; so that’s actually a really interesting issue with the film, and "how is this film going to be released," and "how is this film going to shown," because there is no way I am going to ask for permission to use this music—particularly music that entered my head as a child, which I did not consent to, and I had no control over. Of course, nobody has any control over what goes into your head, right? You go out in the world and music is playing: it goes into your head. And yet, once it’s there, that part of your head that it occupies belongs to a corporation. I’m just done asking corporations for permission to use what’s in my head, which they put there.

JP: OK, so you basically solved the problem by saying, "to hell with it: I’m going to do this no matter what." And you’re going to iron out whatever difficulties are with that as you move along. That’s what it looks like.

NP: It’s an illegal film. In the case of Sita Sings the Blues… I made Sita Sings the Blues when I was—I was certainly questioning copyright, but I didn’t really see it as a completely bankrupt institution. When that film was done, I cleared all the rights, which was an incredibly difficult process and required hiring intermediaries, because the rights holders don’t talk to normal people. So if you do make a film, and you don’t have permission to use the music in it, you can’t simply ask for permission. They won’t talk to you. You have to pay lawyers and intermediates just for them to even listen to you, to tell you how much money they’re demanding, which is, inevitably, an absurd amount that you can’t afford. But I ended up spending a mere 70,000 dollars to make Sita Sings the Blues legal to show for free and legal to share for free. If I wanted some other model, it would have been more than that.

JP: Right.

NP: 70,000 dollars just to be able to give it away. Hah. But I’m not doing that with the new film. The new film, I’m making an illegal film. All of my music choices have to do not with their licenses but with the content and meaning and resonance of the songs. Most songs have a kind of cultural resonance that is related to the point in time they were circulating. For example, This Land Is Mine refers directly to this period of the ‘60s.

JP: Yup.

NP: It has a cultural resonance because of that, which a new song—like, if I commission a new song, sort of like that, it wouldn’t have the same meaning at all.

JP: No, definitely not. Songs like that, they pick up—it’s really interesting to watch what happens to a song across time, because it’s embedded in a context, and that context grows and develops and transforms. A song is really a mutable entity. It transforms tremendously, as it moves across time.

NP: Yeah, and that meaning comes from the audience. It doesn’t come from, even, the person who wrote it, let alone the copyright holder. The value of it comes from us.

JP: OK, so back to This Land Is Mine. When I watched that, it produced a lot of mixed feelings. The first was that it was very blackly humorous. You have this stirring propagandistic anthem-like music in the background that’s sort of overblown. The singer, he amplifies the emotional resonance of it, and then you have this nonstop carnage in the background, to this stirring music. But what’s really strange about it, as far as I was concerned, is it’s eerily beautiful.

NP: That’s something that seems to be a perverse and remarkable element of all of your films: they deal with extremely harsh realities, metaphysical and genuine. But you have this amazing capacity to generate these complex beautiful images, and to set them in an equally beautiful relationship to the music. I mean… I didn’t know and still don’t know what to make of the film, because you don’t often see what you might describe as stunningly beautiful satire. Stunningly beautiful artistic satire.

NP: [laughter] I don’t know. Mad Magazine was pretty stunningly beautiful, back in the day. It had, like, the best artists working for it.

JP: That’s true. That’s true. But there’s an element to what you’re doing, especially with the juxtaposition of the music that seems to elevate it, in my opinion, to something like the level of high art.

NP: What’s high? What’s low? Well, thank you. I thank you for the compliment. I can’t really respond with anything other than thanking you.

JP: Your aesthetic sense and the style that you developed… Do you have sources for that? Do you have influences that helped you develop that particular style? I know it’s a foolish question to ask artists where they get their ideas, but I’m wondering how it is you came up with the concepts you’re working with.

NP: Well, graphically, some of the style is determined by the software that I use. This Land Is Mine and all the songs and scenes in Seder-Masochism are Flash; and Flash, the way I use it, it’s what we call a "cutout" style, where I’ll draw shapes, and I’ll move them in relation to each other, but the shapes themselves don’t bend, or anything. Cutout is an animation technique where people would literally cut out shapes from paper and move them around under a camera. So that’s part of the style. With This Land Is Mine in particular, I was looking at ancient Assyrian art and ancient Egyptian art. Some of that is reflected—there’s, like, a little border of flowers, which comes from Assyrian art. Those are the main things: cutout style and Assyrian style.

JP: When you made This Land Is Mine, did you have the Seder-Masochism film in mind? or did that emerge afterwards?

NP: I knew I wanted to make this film about Passover, and that’s why I watched Exodus, and that’s how This Land Is Mine came to be. I just knew I wanted to do a film about Passover. I didn’t know what it was going to be, because I had never read the Old Testament before. Reading Exodus was, of course, an eye-opener. The film… I didn’t imagine what the film was going to be like when I started it, other than the topic I would work around. But the way the film is actually shaping up is a surprise to me.

JP: We should probably walk everyone who’s listening through the film itself. You’ve created a variety of what appear, at least to me, at the moment, to be animated shorts that detail out different episodes in the biblical narrative, essentially, surrounding Moses. There’s more to it than that, but certainly surrounding Moses.

NP: Yeah.

JP: Does the film, essentially, concentrate solely on Exodus, or are there other elements of Old Testament stories that you’re including?

NP: It’s really just Exodus, but Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Numbers all have bits of Exodus in them.

JP: Right, right. So it’s basically the story of Moses.

NP: It’s the story of Moses. Right. It’s the story of the Exodus, and then the establishment of the tabernacle and the priesthood and the religion. That’s sort of… I mean, it’s regarded as the birth of the Jewish people.

JP: Right, right. Now you said that, when you were growing up, you observed Passover but not much else.

NP: Yeah.

JP: It’s not unreasonable, I think, to observe that there appears to be something like a deep religious sensibility in your work. I mean, you seem to be treating the stories with a tremendous amount of respect. What do you think is welling up inside of you, to do that?

NP: [laughter] Well, I’m glad you recognized the respect. Any respect for this was… I approached these stories with an open mind and an open heart, and was expecting to find some wisdom in them. When I began this project, I thought, "I’m going to explore the religion of my father." My father came from a religious, Jewish family, but he wasn’t really religious when I was growing up—although, he wanted us to observe Passover, I guess, as part of our… He wanted us to have some Jewish identity. He wanted us to be in touch with our heritage, as Jews. But it was a bit muddled. We were forbidden from observing any Christian holidays. There was no Christmas in our house, whereas a lot of secular Jews do observe Christmas. There was, like, a really half-assed Hanukkah, and there were no other High Holy Days.

My dad was an atheist; so, after spending years reading many different versions of Exodus and commentary on it and things relating to it, and trying to understand it, and trying to find some way to connect to it, what happened was, I realized I had found the religion of my father, and that was atheism. I became, sort of, a born-again atheist, reading this stuff. My neutrality towards the religion changed to a kind of abhorrence towards it—which is not to take away from its importance as a cultural foundation. Like, I live in Western culture, and these texts are stories that everybody knows, to some extent, and they’re very important, and I respect them for that reason. They’re, like, a cultural touchstone for everyone. But I did not emerge from Exodus with… I had less connection to God than I had ever had in my life. I actually had, like, a spiritual crisis. It was really hard for me to have any kind of sense of a power greater than myself, after reading this and working with it.

JP: And that’s also been the case as a consequence of doing the animation?

NP: Yeah, because animation is like a meditation.

JP: Yes.

NP: When you [inaudible] an old story, it’s just a long, drawn-out meditation on it. And, sometimes, insights can pop up while you’re working on it. I mean, it’s just, like, in your face every day. There are insights that I have. A lot of them are comparative religion insights, because the previous film was Sita Sings the Blues. In this film, I included Aaron a lot. In Sita Sings the Blues, I left out Laxman, who is Rama’s brother. I decided not to do that here, even though, with a lot of these stories, when they’re turned into films, Aaron is turned into a minor character, and a lot of things that Aaron does—in movies, they show Moses doing them, like casting the staff down, and it turns into a snake. That was Aaron’s business.

Anyways, I showed Aaron in this, and I thought about how both stories have these brothers: they have the big, important, memorable brother, and the other brother, who actually carries out quite a bit of the work. That’s a similarity. Both stories also have a really gruesome scene after what we normally think of as the end. With Exodus, especially growing up with Passover, I always thought the story was, you know, "the Hebrews were slaves, and then they were free," right? The end is, they were free: they cross the Red Sea; they get away from the Egyptians. Hooray! Of course, what actually happens in the story—after that, there’s this Hebrew-on-Hebrew slaughter, because of the golden calf. A whole bunch of those Hebrews who were liberated, they die.

JP: Yeah. Well, liberation turns out to be a very complicated thing. It’s funny: when I watched the Americans go into Iraq with their initial optimism, and then the absolute disintegration of the Iraqi state and the failure to produce something, you know, stable as a consequence, I thought, "well, a little bit of Exodus would have gone a long ways." It was quite funny, in some sense—in a black way, because, of course, the people who invaded Iraq, who planned the invasion, were, at least nominally, committed Christians. I thought, "well, they took out the tyrant, just as the Hebrews escaped from the tyrant, let’s say." But Exodus lays it out pretty clearly: you escape from tyranny into the desert; and that’s no joke; and it’s 40 years, right?

It’s three generations before the desert disappears. In the desert, there’s nothing but intertribal warfare and the conflict around new emerging values, which is, of course, the conflict between the idolization of the golden calf and the necessity for the new rules that Moses imposes. It’s no picnic. I mean, a lot of the Old Testament is like that. I’ve been doing a series of lectures. I don’t know if you know about this, but I’ve done 12 lectures on the Old Testament that have actually become quite popular. I think the first one has about three quarters of a million views. I’ve been attempting to treat the stories with as much respect as I can, because, like you, I believe that they’re foundational stories.

I would say that my respect for them has actually grown, and my relationship with whatever you might regard as transcendent has been improved by that. But, be that as it may, even in the story of Abraham, he’s called forward by God to go out into the world. He’s an old man, by that time: he’s 75 years old. He should have left his father’s house and his kinsmen long before. But God calls him on an adventure, to go out into the land of the stranger, and to leave his home. It just goes terribly badly for Abraham. The first thing he encounters is a famine; then he moves into the tyranny of Egypt; then the Pharaoh takes his wife. One of the things you can say about the Old Testament is, "it’s not naively optimistic, in any sense of the word."

NP: Yeah, but the Passover story kind of is, as people observe it. When you read the Passover story, it’s just this nice part. Like I say, that other part, that later chapter—we never discuss that at Passover. The closest we’ll come is "40 years in the desert." I did know that the Jews wandered the desert for 40 years. I didn’t know they killed each other.

JP: Right.

NP: This is something that’s similar to the Ramayana, because the Ramayana is frequently told without the last chapter—without the Uttarakhand, which is the difficult part, right? which I think is the richest and most interesting part of the whole story. So I focused on it in Sita Sings the Blues. But yeah: I think that the most valuable parts of the stories are the most difficult, and they’re the parts that are left out, and most people don’t know about them. You have to actually read them.

JP: They are the most useful parts, because life is full of difficulty. And so, if you leap over the parts of the stories that are pessimistic and dark, then you miss part of what the stories are trying to teach you about how to prepare for catastrophe. In the Exodus Story, the fact that the Hebrews escape from tyranny is presented as a good thing, and even as something that God wills. But it’s by no means a straightforward passage from tyranny to the promised land. And Moses doesn’t make it to the promised land, right? He dies before he gets there.

NP: Yeah, and even the promised land is not nearly as much fun as we have been led to believe, right? The Jews are constantly falling short, right? They’re constantly angering God. They’re never getting their shit together. God’s ambivalence towards them persists.

JP: Yeah. Well, I also think that’s very realistic, because there are very few times in life where, even if you’re not suffering from the tyranny of other people or yourself, it’s very difficult to walk the proper straight and narrow path, and to keep everything organized, and to keep things going properly. There’s never any shortage of severe challenges.

NP: Yeah.

JP: Even if you’re chosen by God, let’s say, there’s no shortage of severe challenges. You also see that in all the other stories in the Old Testament. I mean, even when God is walking with someone, like, say, Abraham—or Noah, for that matter—it’s still pretty much nonstop carnage. I mean, Noah has his family together, and his "generations are perfect," right? And he walks with God, so he’s properly oriented in the world. But he still has to build the ark and get through the damn storm, and be humiliated by his children at the end. It’s a very rough business. So, in one of your shorts—and I don’t know the name of it. I guess it’s the one that specifically deals with the Passover, where the Egyptian firstborns are all killed.

NP: Yeah.

JP: What’s that one called?

NP: Death of the Firstborn Egyptians.

JP: There we go. An appropriate title.

NP: [laughter]

JP: I can’t help but harbour the suspicion that you had a fair bit of sympathy for the Egyptians.

NP: Yeah. Well, you know… They had some great art.

JP: Yes, and you do a wonderful job, by the way, of incorporating that into that film. That was spectacularly beautiful.

NP: Well, thank you. And they had religion, and… Doing visual research for this project, there was not a lot of really great ancient Hebrew art, possibly or probably because it’s against the religion to make art: you’re not supposed to make graven images. So in terms of coming up with the style that evoked this, I had to—you know, I was looking at art from the region, and I was like, "oh, it’s all Egyptian and Assyrian." Those are the people, there, that made the art—fantastic art. It breaks my heart that that’s supposed to be evil: that that art, which actually moves me when I look at it, is what we’re supposed to smash, right? That’s what we’re commanded to destroy, because it’s all full of idols. I’m not down with that, so I, you know, just naturally was going to sympathize with the Egyptians.

JP: There’s a real tension, there, that I think is worth thinking about. I understand, from a psychological perspective, why there was an injunction against making images. You see the same thing acted out right now with Isis, say, in the Middle East, where they’re destroying, for example, all the great Buddhist art and all the ancient monuments, which, of course, is an absolute and utter catastrophe.

NP: I mean, they’re following it better than we do.

JP: Right, right. Well, the conundrum seems, to me, to be that—and this is also played out in the story of Exodus with the golden calf. The idea of God is supposed to be something that, at least in principle, you can’t really grip; you can’t really encapsulate; you can’t dogmatically represent, because then it turns into an idol, and "idol" and "ideology" are very much the same thing. I think ideology is incredibly dangerous, because you take something concrete, like an axiom of some sort that’s very concrete, then you make that your highest value. It narrows you and restricts you, and also makes you incredibly dangerous.

NP: The idea that there’s a great danger in idolization, I think, is a very, very powerful notion. I think that’s what informed the restrictions against making graven images of God, because you end up confusing the image with the transcendent reality. And then you think that you understand it and have it in your hands, but it certainly does seem to have some pretty dramatically negative consequences, when the consequence of that is the absence of visual art in any profound sense, and also this injunction to destroy the idols of, well, the foreigner, or the person who’s heretical. I’m not exactly sure how to… what would you say… I’m not exactly sure what the mediating path is between those two extremes.

I think a real artist—and I definitely think that you belong in that category—is someone who isn’t using idols as representation, because you’re using your artistic talent to push beyond what you already know: it’s a form of exploration, rather than a form of canonization or categorization. It’s a journey into the unknown, and an extension of the way that people think. I think of that as a way of uniting with the transcendent, rather than trying to encapsulate it in some sort of formulaic box. But there is a great danger of that kind of formulization.

NP: There is that danger. That is, of course, the commonest interpretation of the injunction against idols. But I think the—I mean, it’s never borne out, right? It’s like, any injunction against that kind of idolatry has never resulted in the absence of idolatry, ever. We can clearly do it with abstract concepts. We clearly don’t need images to do this.

JP: You could argue that you could do it with words just as effectively.

NP: You can do it with anything. It doesn’t work. I wondered, when I was working on the film, whether it might have been a simple and misunderstood injunction against using Egyptian hieroglyphics, and it was a requirement to use Semitic written language, rather than Egyptian—because Egyptian hieroglyphs are full of things that fly in the air, and things that crawl on the ground, and things that swim in the sea, and men and women. All that stuff. I was working on these little animated hieroglyphs: "maybe it was just this!" Which would have made sense, right? They were antiEgyptian when these stories were written down, and they were promoting the Semitic language. That’s what you were supposed to learn.

JP: To put it, in some sense, in the same category as the dietary restrictions, right? The best evidence of the reason for those dietary restrictions isn’t hygiene, or anything like that. It’s, "don’t eat the food that the people who worship other gods eat," right?

NP: Yeah.

JP: There’s a variety of useful reasons for that. Certainly, one of them is that it… Well, it’s a price and an advantage. The people you eat with are your kinsmen and your tribesmen, pretty much by definition. So, if you share a menu and you share restrictions, it’s much easier for you to socialize with the people who have the same restrictions that you do. So it seems, to me, a reasonably intelligent way of keeping a culture cohesive. Well, it certainly worked for a very long period of time. So that would be an idea that’s in keeping with that: you certainly don’t use the idol representations of the people who you are not, because, then, you integrate with them, and your culture disappears.

NP: Right. And you don’t use their language, and you don’t write down things that they can read.

JP: Right.

NP: But so much of the books of Moses were about being different from neighbours—like, "don’t let your neighbours corrupt you. You are different from your neighbours." Interestingly, I was raised with that. My father, the atheist Jew, was adamant about not doing the Christmas things. When I went to school, they would have Christmas projects in the winter. He would say, "just tell your teacher you don’t have to do this project because you’re Jewish." He never said, "you don’t have to do the project because you’re atheist." Just, "because you’re Jewish."

JP: Right.

NP: We maintained some sort of difference in spite of not actually practicing Jewish religion, really.

JP: Yeah. Well, it’s one of the things that’s always been interesting to me about Judaism, particularly—and a mystery, I would say. I think there are very many ways of believing in God. One way of believing is conscious, and that would be the sort of belief that you can state as "I believe" or "I don’t believe." I think, in some sense, that’s the weakest form of belief, and it’s also the one most easily undermined. I think the more profound forms of belief are the ones you act out. They’re like a dance, in some sense, and they’re built into your behavioural coding. They’re not so easily criticized and undermined, because they don’t really operate at an intellectual level.

For example, watching your videos—they’re not reducible to an intellectual exercise. I can’t watch them and—first of all, I can’t say exactly what it is that you’re up to. And, even if I could lay out a reasonable, comprehensive description of what you were up to, which would be by no means complete, it wouldn’t be easy for me to mount an intellectual attack on that; because of your use of dance, in some sense, with the cutouts, and your use of imagery, and your use of music. It puts the entire discussion on a plane that can’t be easily reducible to an intellectual discussion. In Judaism, you see this—and this is the case, I think, with the atheist Jews, perhaps, most self-evidently: the rituals are kept, and the division is kept, and the encoded actions are kept.

The person might say, "well, I don’t believe in God." The proper objecting to that might be something like, "well, you might say that you don’t believe in God, but you sure act it out." People have asked me about my religious faith, which is a question that I find quite intrusive—not that people don’t have the right to ask it, because they certainly do. But I’m sufficiently ignorant about my own orientations, in some sense, to not know exactly how to answer that. But one answer that I find quite useful—and I think fairly truthful—is that I certainly act as if there is a God. The rest of it, I leave—I suppose, in some sense, in a cloud of as-of-yet incompletely explored ignorance.

I do believe that human beings have a relationship with the transcendent. I see that manifest itself in great art, for example, where people seem to be able to reach beyond themselves, to produce something that’s of spectacular, lasting, intense, emotional, and practical significance. That’s the realm of inspiration. I don’t think that we understand that very well at all. I don’t think that we understand consciousness very well, as well—at all, in fact; and I think it is a fundamental element of Being. In your work, too, I see—and it’s interesting to hear you talk about it. I see a profound religious… what would you call it… Well, I see a profound religious spirit at work. It’s so interesting, to me, that your experience of reading Exodus and doing these animations has actually, for you, been an increased sense of divorce from, let’s say, the realities of the text.

NP: Yeah, but, you know… The word I used to describe it is—I was "bereft" after spending all this time with them; because the more time I spent with the text, the more time I spent working on this… the less connected to anything I would call God, I felt. After I finished those scenes, it took me a really long time to get inspiration for finishing the film. I guess I finished the last scene of the Moses parts a year and a half ago. I just could not continue work on the film. I was thinking, like, "more Moses, more Old Testament," and it just made me feel sick every time I approached it.

JP: Is it possible—just out of curiosity—that that was a form of something like spiritual exhaustion? Because, I mean, your films are very, very serious, and they’re very complex. I kind of wonder, too, if you just haven’t, like, drained yourself of inspiration, as a consequence of working on this for so long. They’re very complex, deep themes. As you said, they do sit at the bottom of the culture, and it’s no joke to mess around with that kind of thing.

NP: That’s true, but I now see what I was missing. My muse has returned. I could say that I’m not religious, but I clearly practice like a religious person, because I have a muse, and I’m inspired by my muse, and I have faith in my muse, and I even have a prayer that I say to my muse. That’s a sort of religious lifestyle.

JP: I would say so.

NP: A spiritual one, anyway.

JP: Yes. OK, so you said that you even pray to your muse.

NP: Yes.

JP: Tell me about the muse.

NP: OK, well, would you like to hear my muse prayer? It may be amusing.

JP: Sure. Definitely.

NP: OK. "Our idea which art in the ether, which cannot be named. By vision come, by will be done, on earth as it is in abstraction. Give us this day our daily spark; and forgive us our criticisms, as we forgive those who critique against us; and lead us not into stagnation, but deliver us from ego. For thine is the vision, the power, and glory forever. Amen."

JP: Hm. That certainly seems, to me, to be—I would think of that as a mantra, to open up the gateway between you and this transcendent force that allows people religious inspiration. And you’re doing something like clearing out your ego. I think it is very interesting that it’s associated with the Lord’s Prayer, especially with regards to—you know, you make this interesting identity between criticism and temptation. One of the things, of course, that does interfere…

NP: Stagnation. "Lead us not into stagnation."

JP: Yes, but "deliver us from criticism," I think you said. Didn’t you?

NP: Yes. "lead us not into stagnation, but deliver us…" Wait, wait… "deliver us from ego…" Oh, boy… Oh. "forgive us our criticisms, as we forgive those who critique against us."

JP: Yes, the criticisms. That’s a very interesting element of it, too, because it’s often the case—one of the things that I teach my students, when they’re writing, is to get their critical spirit out of the way, to begin with. What people try to do is produce and edit at the same time.

NP: Yeah.

JP: And you actually can’t do that. What you have to do is open yourself up to the creative process, and all of its errors. When you first start, it’s going to be very much error ridden; but you have to allow yourself to manifest that error-ridden spark of creativity, to begin with, and keep the criticism at bay. The ego element is also, I think, extremely interesting; because to the degree that you’re trying to bend your artistic production to the proximal demands of your ego, then you actually pollute it. You propagandize it.

NP: Yeah.

JP: You reduce it, I would say, to something like an idol, because then it’s to serve some other master, rather than whatever it is that is supposed to be, in some sense, flowing through you.

NP: I totally agree. And that "serve the other master"—that’s a good way to put it. I have a real problem doing work for money. I love money, and what I like to do is do my work, and then encourage people to send me money [laughter]. But this whole thing where somebody says, "I’ll give you this money if you do the work"—I’ve done that. It’s just called "being a professional artist." It never works out for me. I did this segment of this commercial film. Ironically, it was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet—all animated. I did it for money. I got paid well. I thought I was never going to animate again, after that, because it burned me out so badly. It was a really unpleasant process, because the authority in this was not my muse: the authority was the people with the money.

JP: All right. So you were subjugating the greater to the lesser.

NP: Yeah, and if I do that even a little bit, the feeling is horrible. I liken it to how I imagine prostitution—like, all the warnings about prostitution, and what it does to your soul, even if you think it’s… I can relate to that, when I do the work for money. It’s really different.

JP: Yeah. OK, so back to your prayer. You modified the Lord’s Prayer.

NP: Yeah.

JP: Did you write that down? How in the world did you come up with this? And thank you for actually telling me. I’m quite amazed that you did, because, of course, it’s a peculiar thing, and I mean that in the best possible sense. But it seems, also, to be quite a private thing.

NP: I’ve been out about it since… I mean, the thing with Sita Sings the Blues is that it was, like, such a profoundly weird experience making that film, and it was so much like the channeling, and it was so much like getting out of my own way that I did want to share that. People would ask me these questions, like, "how did you make that?" And it’s like, "I don’t really know."

JP: Yeah. Well, you just said something that I think is quite profound. You said you got out of your own way.

NP: Yeah.

JP: One of the things that I’ve been struck by, with regards to both the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament and also the Passion story in the New Testament, is that there’s a tremendous emphasis in those stories on getting out of your own way. The idea is supposed to be—and this is part of the idea of the dying and resurrecting hero, of course—you’re supposed to let everything in you that gets in your way burn away and die, so that whatever can flow through you, that has true value and that’s oriented towards the highest good, let’s say—which I think is what you’re doing, when you’re establishing a relationship with your muse: there isn’t anything that’s part of the ego, part of the critical capacity that’s inappropriate, or part of, let’s say, worldly concerns that interfere with your ability to reach beyond yourself.

That’s a holy calling, I would say. Maybe it’s the primary holy calling. I certainly think it is. It seems, to me, to be the case. And I do think, in some sense, that is what artists act out, when they’re really being artists. They’re establishing a relationship with the source of inspiration, whatever that is. It’s not like we understand that. We don’t understand that. It’s something that’s very, very deep.

NP: I do feel, or I do believe—if I have beliefs—that regarding it as something that comes from elsewhere, something bigger than yourself, is, for me, helpful. I don’t like this idea that it’s all me. I’m connected to other people; I’m connected through culture and through language, which is culture, and through art, which is culture. Again, I’m just, like, a fish swimming in a sea of culture. What we call "creating" is really, you know, absorbing and processing all of this culture that I’m a part of, and just expressing a little bit out. I’m very dubious of the idea of originality, for example. I wrote an essay about that, on the cult of originality. I think that’s delusional.

JP: Yeah. Well, maybe the cult part of the originality idea is that it’s tied up with ego. I think that people can be spectacularly original, but I don’t know that you get to attribute that to their ego—to that part of them that you call "me". The mind is a very strange place, because there is obviously a part of it that we identity with as ourselves. That would be the "me"; that would be the ego. It’s the thing, I think, that’s capable of generating egotistical criticisms, and standing on principles for self-defence or dominance display, or something like that.

It operates at a relatively low level of moral virtue. But then there’s parts of us that are obviously far beyond ourselves, and that’s the part, for example, that generates dreams and visions—and, perhaps, even ideas. One of the things I really liked about reading Carl Jung, one of the things he made me really conscious of was the fact that—and Nietzsche, of course, talked about this in the same way, to some degree: it’s not so much that you have ideas: it’s that, one, you could say, "no, no. Don’t be so sure about that. The ideas have you."

NP: Yeah.

JP: So there’s that. The next thing is, "it isn’t so much that yo