Seder-Masochism Progress Report

My two goals for 2017 were to bicycle 5,000 miles, and to finish Seder-Masochism. I have 30 miles to go on the first goal, slowed down by mysterious health problems (for which I’m about to undergo a series of invasive tests). But the second goal keeps getting farther away.

I have all the pieces made, and they’re pretty good. The musical numbers are entertaining, and the “Our Father” scenes, based on recordings of my own father shortly before his death in 2012, worked remarkably well.

Scene of Our Father
Our Father

But the overall story isn’t holding together. In fact, it’s hard to tell what the overall story is. I set out to retell “The Passover Story,” but what is that? It’s Exodus. But it’s also more than Exodus, and far less. I tried structuring the film around the Passover Seder, and the result is incoherent. Perhaps because as a story, the Passover Seder is itself incoherent, its popularity and persistence due to early indoctrination and strict rules rather than narrative quality.

So now I’m looking for the story again, at this rather late stage. The narrative quality of the Book of Exodus itself is dubious, but it does contain at least one strong story: the going out, the leaving, the separation, the exit, the Exodus itself. I thought a lot about the meaning of Exodus a few years ago when I animated Death of the Firstborn Egyptians (the solo clip of which has become rather popular, at over a million views on YouTube alone).

Even as the mythological Hebrews exited mythological Egypt, the mythological Firstborn Egyptians exited Life, led by the profound power of Death – who is the Abrahamic God Himself, according to many Haggadot. According to the ancient Egyptian conception of Death and the afterlife, this was not necessarily a tragedy; in fact it would have meant something entirely different to the mythological Egyptians than it does to us. Still an Exodus, but from another point of view.

And that’s where I’m returning to seek my story. To Abrahamics, the Exodus is the story of going forth from the “narrow place,” from cruel slavery to freedom. But what were they exiting, really? According to them it was slavery, oppression, and, worst of all, the worship of false idols. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” commands Yahweh in Exodus 20. How does this story look from the point of view of “other gods”? Specifically, goddesses?

Patriarchy celebrates Exodus as a triumph of civilization. But these days I question the value of civilization, since it’s (we’re) killing the planet and perhaps our souls and minds as well. The popular myth, amongst anxious environmentalists like myself, is that Once Upon a Time humans lived in harmony with nature, gathering and hunting, attuned to the natural world through animism and reverence for the Great Mother. There followed a Great Fall: Agriculture, and its attendant sins of property, hierarchy, and slavery. With the plow we were expelled from the Garden, and things have gotten worse ever since. Genesis in a nutshell.

Exodus is a different angle. This time the Great Mother isn’t a nurturing Garden, but a suffocating oppressor. Man isn’t expelled; he escapes. All those (formerly) animistic spirits are now ridiculous and evil idols. The sacred snake becomes the demonic serpent. Nature and fertility become disgusting things to be controlled. Yeast – spores of Life in the very air – is loathed and mastered through the fetishized Unleavened Bread. This loathing and mastering continues today, as we continually kill Life in the soil with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. (My 4,970 miles of cycling mostly took place in Central Illinois, the heart of the agri-desert, where yesterday I rode past tanks of ammonia being dragged through denuded fields.)

What does Exodus look like from the point of view of the Goddess? She was in Egypt as Hathor, Hekket, Wadjet, Nut, Maat, Isis, and others portrayed already in Moses Goes Down. She was elsewhere in Mesopotamia as Ishtar, Astarte, the “Queen of Heaven” and other mis-named or un-named “idols.” She was in Europe. She was everywhere – all humans conceived the divine as female, long before the invention of the male God.

The Golden Calf (Return of the Goddess) from Nina Paley on Vimeo.

Watching Man walk out on Her, going forth from revering Nature to enslaving and killing it – would she even want Him back?

So I’m currently trying to articulate the Exodus from the Goddesses’ point of view. I hope it works. I’ve put a lot of effort into Seder-Masochism so far, I’d hate for it to be a BIG FAILURE WITH NO COHERENT STORY. Then again, I may end up with a coherent story that is despised. If my current storytelling angle succeeds, even more people will hate it, especially men. But that I could live with. Releasing a weak, incoherent film would be harder.

But this late in the game, that may be its fate – it’s up to the Goddess.


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

14 thoughts on “Seder-Masochism Progress Report”

  1. Using the Goddess as your focal character sounds very promising—at one level, Exodus is the story of Yahweh abandoning Asherah. Does it also make sense to add a little focus on some of the human women? You could bring one or two out of the corners of the Exodus story.

  2. You can do this! My friends and I have been looking forward to seeing how your film turns out. The title alone is great, but the brilliance of the “This Land Is Mine” sequence sold me fully on it.

    Related to Will’s comment, I’m wondering what the Exodus looks like for the daughters of Israel: liberation, or more of the same?

    The thing I always found most striking about the Seder is the metafictional part, being exhorted to experience this liberation from the land as if one were there. Reminds me a little of the invocation of the muse

  3. Gah, butterfingers here. That’s *liberation from the land of Egypt of course.

    The metafictional of the Seder also reminds me a little of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, written in 2nd person with the reader as a character.

  4. The ‘new’ perspective you’re describing doesn’t seem so new to me after all. ‘Return of the Goddess’ is out there on the web for some time now and when I first saw it, it brought across to me precisely the message you’ve now made explicit in this blog post. I have to admit that the somewhat reverse angle on good and evil (identified with male/female) compared to the traditional bible story really caught me and my impression back then was: ‘Oh, I see. This is the actual story she is trying to tell.’
    Who says a story needs to be coherent? You cannot fix and unite the ancient tellings of past millennia with a single film. Make it entertaining, diverse-angled and manifold. I’m sure people will like it (even if your own doubts about it should remain).
    On the other hand, if for you the story remains intolerable confusing, but you don’t want to throw away a lot of work, you could still make different works out of it.

    Anyway, looking forward to the final result!

  5. I find this tale of history as you are weaving to be quite empowering. It’s one of those things that reminds me that (ignoring the convincing arguments that we live in a deterministic universe) history didn’t have to turn out as it did.

    We look at the status quo, especially one that largely goes back to relatively early days of written history (like patriarchy), everyone seems to think it couldn’t be any other way. It seems impossible that we could actually have entirely different social structures and relationship to the earth etc.

    The non-Abrahamic earth-mother type tales are surely appealing, but they seem like counter-narratives that are nakedly powerless today. The refuge of those who daydream in utter fantasy of a different way of living.

    But telling the story of patriarchy within the context of these other perspectives offers a more powerful way to reject the patriarchal narrative.

    I realized relatively recently how much co-opting language and narratives is so often a more effective technique than trying to reject a dominant narratives in favor of competing counter-narratives.

    Go down, Nina and… I’m failing to make a clever pun. Just please finish co-opting the awful standard patriarchal narrative. If people hate it, it will only because it is actually a threat to the dominant narrative.

  6. It’s complicated. African Americans treasured the Exodus, even though the Torah permitted slavery– the Exodus was literally the only liberation story available.

  7. The Golden Calf (Return of the Goddess) is so beautiful (breathtaking, really), it stands alone as a complete work of art. I just discovered this two days ago and can’t stop thinking about it. I haven’t even seen This Land is Mine, but plan to. If you should decide to leave it just as it is, please know that you have made me very happy just by it’s beauty.

  8. Wow. Wow!!! So much to process. Astounding, beautiful work. I agree with the comment above that a perfectly coherent storyline might not be crucial. Many works consist of loosely related vignettes, essays, etc.

  9. A coherent storyline is crucial, and I empathize with your struggling with finding one.

    I wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t know how. So I googled it. I found this website.

    I bought her character workbook, and answered all the questions. I was amazed how doing the exercises improved the story that I already had. Answering the questions got me into that state of flow bringing forth all the Good Stuff. I also learned about character arcs, and how characters react to plot makes stories interesting. I learned that my favorite character arc in the book had a “flat arc” where she knew The Truth, and struggled her way through the story with everyone else being seduced by The Lie.

    You’re telling Exodus from the Goddess’s point of view. Understanding how to tell a story with lead character with a “flat arc” maybe helpful to finding the coherence.

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