This is a pilot presentation of three chapters from the book length essay The Forgotten Evil – the memories of Jonas Mekas. It is a research of the herri-team into the possibilities of combining the reading focus of a book with the visual experience of a film. In this version the original text of the chapters is kept as it was written for the book. One step further wood be to merge the visual impact and possibilities of this version into a rewrite of the text. This would be a search for a new genre in which textual and visual information work together: reading and screening united in one experience.
This experiment in ‘digital writing’ is made possible through financial support of The Dutch Literary Fund, the herri-team Andrea Rolfes, Jurgen Meekel, Martijn Pantlin and the on going enthusiasm and curatorial input of Aryan Kaganof.
To contextualise the three chapters this is a synopsis of the essay.
On the bookshelf to the left of my desk, always in view, is Jonas Mekas’ Movie Journal, a collection of columns from the New York Village Voice. It’s been there for almost half a century. Not only because of the lessons in film that the Lithuanian filmmaker has written down in it, but also because of his lessons for life. With Mekas, film and life were intertwined in a cheerful and melancholic tangle. Since my student days I have been an admirer: of Mekas, of his films and of his views on how to live.
Until in June 2018 I was startled by an article in The New York Review of Books. The historian Michael Casper claimed that the renowned filmmaker and archivist had deliberately forgotten or misrepresented certain events in the Lithuania of the Second World War. From one day to the next, Mekas became yet another fallen angel in a long line of cultural celebrities haunted by their ‘war past’ (think of Günter Grass, Paul de Man, Emil Nolde and recently in the Netherlands poet and visual artist Lucebert). The remarkable thing, however, was that it was not so much Mekas’ deeds that were criticized, but his memory. This made it difficult to accept Casper’s deftly formulated criticism unquestioningly. Doesn’t memory belong exclusively to ourselves, I wondered, and does it not thus escape the standard of objectivity of official historiography?
The answer to that question turned out to be more complicated than I had expected. I watched Mekas’ films again, read his published diaries and poems, and watched an oral history interview that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum administered. This made me think about remembering and the fallibility of our memory, the attractiveness of forgetting, historical versus moral truth, and the role of the historian as guardian of collective memory and judge of personal testimonies. Above all, it forced me to investigate my own moral attitude – who am I (and who is Casper for that matter) to judge Mekas?
I belong to a generation freed from war or occupation, but when I read about it I am never entirely sure on which side of the line my compliant nature would have put me in such a situation. Or how, looking back, I would remember my own role in it. Historians are often more self-confident in that position. Yet a historiography built up from careful archival research is often out of sync with the stories told about it by individual victims, perpetrators or bystanders. Moreover, also a historian has a personal subtext that interferes with his diligent, undoubtedly meticulous, but no less subjectively driven research. That does not mean that the truth of autobiographical memory versus that of the historian would lie somewhere in the middle. Reduction is the most poisonous arrow of moral judgment. What the ‘Mekas case’ taught me above all is that the moral compass can easily run wild, confused by all those magnetic fields of memory that surround it.
So this has become a very personal essay, in which my search is central. A quest that gradually brought more clarity – if only every change of perspective led to a different moral judgment – but which was also painful. Painful for Mekas, for Casper and for myself.
Het vergeten kwaad – de herinneringen van Jonas Mekas will be published in Dutch April 2021 by Atlas Contact.
Amsterdam, Spring 2021