In response to:
I Was There from the June 7, 2018 issue
To the Editors:
A historian may have the responsibility to uncover facts that remain obscure and, in doing so, to correct even the memories of those who have witnessed or participated in the events in question. What he does not have the right to do is, even through mere implication, to use his questioning to impute guilt to any individual without positive evidence to support the charge. Nor is it justified to use the subject’s unwillingness to discuss such matters to imply guilt.
Jonas Mekas, whose accomplishments as a poet, writer, and filmmaker as well as a founder of the magazine Film Culture and Anthology Film Archives Michael Casper sets out at the beginning of his article “I Was There” [NYR, June 7], is evidently an unreliable narrator of the events he lived through during World War II. Casper points out that Mekas has spoken of the German occupation of Lithuania as having begun in 1942, when in fact it happened the previous year. It’s strange that Mekas would so misremember an event that had such consequences for himself and his country, but what ulterior motive can be attributed to a misstatement that anyone can correct through a simple Google search? Casper seems sure that Mekas has something to hide.
I should say a word here about my own parti pris. I write, first of all, as someone lucky enough as a teenager to have latched onto the Village Voice when Mekas was still writing there, and to have had my eyes opened to the potential of cinema before I’d even seen the films he was writing about. Later I got to know a small portion of Mekas’s voluminous work in film and video; and, after I was told, on a visit to Vilnius in 2007, that in Lithuania Mekas was best known as a poet rather than a filmmaker, I sought out his translated poetry. Later I met him on a couple of occasions, and—without getting to know him well—found him to be the gentle and generous soul I imagined from his writing and filmmaking. I’ve contributed a brief essay on one of his early poems to a forthcoming Festschrift.
Those of us who admire Mekas’s films, writings, and personal kindness can hardly object to Casper’s effort to reread his early writings in the context in which they were first published—publications Mekas later described simply as a “provincial weekly” and a “national semi-literary weekly” but that Casper clarifies were vehicles of, among other things, pro-German and anti-Semitic propaganda. Although it is a relief, though hardly a surprise, to learn of Mekas that, as Casper says, “none of his writings is anti-Semitic,” it is dismaying to learn of their publication in such vicious company—though we probably shouldn’t be surprised that this was the price of publishing anything at all, other than clandestinely, in occupied Lithuania.
Casper quotes Mekas as saying that later, in 1943–1944, “he became involved in anti-German activity”—and Casper confirms that it was at this “late stage in the war” that “most anti-Nazi activism began to occur among Lithuanians.” Still, he does not accept Mekas’s account of having finally fled Lithuania on account of his fear of arrest by the Germans, suggesting instead that it was the advancing Soviets he was afraid of. Given that Mekas had been active against the Soviet occupation that preceded the arrival of the Germans, this is plausible, but Casper presents no evidence against Mekas’s own explanation: he was afraid that a typewriter he’d been using to create a clandestine publication would be used to identify him. Casper cites the view of another authority, that 99 percent of those who fled Lithuania in 1944 were fleeing the Soviets, but this does not in itself throw any doubt on Mekas’s account. And if he was equally afraid of both sides, as he undoubtedly had a right to be, would that materially change the story?
Still, it’s undoubtedly true that, as Casper complains, Mekas “has been elusive when he addresses the war years, about which he mixes up important dates.” He seems to present himself as a witness to events he couldn’t have seen and to have forgotten things he actually experienced. But Mekas’s own explanation for his inaccuracies—the trauma of living amidst so many murders, and the need to respond to them as a poet if at all—seems worthy of more respect. Still, one thing should be clear: Casper has uncovered no evidence that Mekas ever did anything to be ashamed of, aside from his work on papers that published anti-Semitic material—none of which he himself wrote.
And yet Casper does not accept that this revelation is enough. In the end, he cites a 1978 account of a dream in which Mekas found himself having killed someone to encapsulate “the painful feelings of guilt and complicity” with which Mekas’s war experiences left him. The strong implication is that Mekas must have something more on his conscience than the survivor’s guilt that we’ve all read about, that perhaps he like so many others did something terrible in Lithuania—perhaps even killed someone himself. Really? Of course, Casper is smart enough to leave that implication unstated—to give himself enough wiggle room to deny that he ever intended to denigrate Mekas’s reputation in this shameful way. But then, don’t we all have our ways of being elusive when we want to get away with something? In any case, Casper’s presumption that, even in the absence of any sign of wrongdoing, Mekas owes a more detailed account of himself than he has cared to provide strikes me as having more in common with the attitude of an operative of Trump’s ICE confronting an asylum seeker than with that of a disinterested scholar.
New York City
Michael Casper replies:
I’m grateful that Barry Schwabsky has given me an opportunity to clarify my aims in writing about the life and work of Jonas Mekas. Mekas is, as Schwabsky points out, a kind and generous person who has mentored generations of aspiring filmmakers. He has had a long and productive life, and his stature is secure in the history of cinema and the present art world of New York. The goal of my essay was not to find “wrongdoing” by Mekas, as Schwabsky puts it, but rather, as I state at the outset, to demonstrate that “Mekas’s life during the war years was more complicated than he makes it out to be.” With the help of other sources, I situate his activities, statements, and writings, as best I can, in their historical context. I try to be fair to him, while remaining fair to the history and to the other people with whom his life intersected, especially the victims of mass violence in Biržai.
Mekas was not just a naive, neutral poet wandering the fields and forests of the Lithuanian countryside, as he would have us believe. He was deeply involved in political activism that led him to support the Nazi occupation of Lithuania during the critical period when Jews were killed; he only turned against the Nazis later, when, as he told me, “it became clear that they’re not going to give Lithuania real independence.” His involvement in these underground activities and above-ground publishing was exceptional for someone his age. While Mekas seems to have engaged in some anti-Nazi activism from 1943–1944—no doubt bravely and at great risk to himself—he has repeatedly manipulated his story, taking advantage of people’s ignorance of wartime Lithuania, to make himself appear, when useful, as victim, hero, or oblivious bystander. This is not merely an academic matter, an attempt “to uncover facts that remain obscure,” in Schwabsky’s words. Mekas’s experience of the war is at the heart of his highly autobiographical work, and his attendant artistic positions—extreme subjectivity, negation of history, reverence for romanticized rural folkways—pulsed through the American counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s. You can’t understand Mekas and his work without understanding where he and his ideas came from.
Schwabsky says that Mekas seems to remember “events he couldn’t have seen.” Based on my research, I think it’s possible that Mekas could have seen them. I do not think that Mekas was a killer, and I cited several pieces of evidence to underscore this point. Schwabsky claims that I do “not have the right” to attribute guilt to Mekas, but I bring up the question of guilt in the context of Mekas’s own statement about Lithuanians who did kill Jews: “Isn’t a not-small part of the curse and guilt of what you did also on me?”
Mekas has republished dozens of poems he wrote during the war, demonstrating that he is able to retrieve aspects of these years that reflect well on him. Schwabsky defends this selective memory of the war and suggests that it is perhaps an involuntary response to trauma. But in April, in London, Hans Ulrich Obrist asked Mekas at a public interview about the historian Eric Hobsbawm’s directive for the “need to protest against forgetting.” Mekas interrupted the question to declare, “My dream is that humanity someday would totally lose all memory. So there wouldn’t be always remembering who did what to my nation, to me.” This suggests to me that Mekas’s memory is not only selective but ideologically so. As for Mekas’s films, the truth of his life does not diminish the beauty of his work; it complicates and even enhances it.
July 19, 2018
Tipping the Scales
A Work of Art