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“Why do we read a writer’s journal?” asks Susan Sontag in her 1962 essay “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer.” Following a thorough survey of recently published artists’ diaries (including those of Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Cesare Pavese), she concludes that it is because of “the rawness of the journal form, even when it is written with an eye to future publication … the journal gives us the workshop of the artist’s soul.”
A half-century later, the intrigue of an immediate emotional register, coming from the hands of those who so beautifully mediated their emotions into constructive form, remains evergreen. But as new generations of artists pass away and bequeath the reading world with lifetimes’ worth of jotted urgencies, it seems the eye-to-future-publication’s gaze has tempered this rawness. Sontag herself is exemplary in this regard; her diaries — two-thirds of which have now been published in glossy volumes — are ostentatiously legible and painfully self-aware, musings at age 15 notwithstanding. It strains credulity that she was writing only for herself. Instead of catching our authors naked, unawares, we now find them dressed and ready to greet us in the sketched-out corners of their mind, caught up in the work of self-preservation.
This form of reflexivity is most apparent in the entrancing work of film diarists like Agnès Varda and Jonas Mekas, both of whom died last year and left considerable documentation on what it was like for them to live. Varda, who played ingeniously with the artifice inherent the act of deliberate recording, has been the subject of a series of retrospectives internationally, duly mourned by the generations she inspired. Mekas’s films are much harder to come by, occasionally cycling through Mubi or playing at Anthology Film Archives, the New York theater and study center for the avant-garde that he founded in 1970. But his filmography shares with Varda’s a fastidious attention to the incongruous parts of life that make a whole, the sense of time passing through age, and the expressive, playful vacuity that is the unknowable self.
As a compendium to his works, Spector Books has released I Seem to Live, volume one of Mekas’s diaries and notes which record the author’s life in New York through the 1950s and ’60s. The book’s very title evokes Mekas’s spectacle of uncertainty. The eponymous entry is his first, dated January 11, 1950: “I seem to live on moods, ups and downs,” he writes, “And I seem to be repeating the same mistakes over and over again … I keep avoiding any definite ties with anything and anybody. There are places and moments during which I feel that I would like to always remain there. But no: next moment I am gone.” At the time, he and his brother, Adolfas, had just arrived in Brooklyn, after spending years in the limbo of Europe’s displaced persons’ camps, having fled their native Lithuania with the Red Army’s advance. Less than two weeks later, the brothers would buy their first Bolex camera. The through-line of I Seem to Live is Mekas’s gradual emplacement, from the social margins of a Williamsburg enclave to the center of an American avant-garde he helped engender. But the tone of the entries, counterbalancing these triumphs, is doubt; for these decades Mekas was constantly questioning his devotion to his perennially endangered and bankrupt projects — the American Film House, which would become Anthology, and Film Culture, a magazine he started with Adolfas that revolutionized an understanding of experimental cinema in the United States. The magazine would eventually win him lauded tenure as film critic for the Village Voice, but Mekas spent its first years repeatedly sued by printers, under scrutiny from the FBI, and gossiped about by the downtown intelligentsia, who believed him to be crookedly successful from it. (September 15, 1955: “Overheard Anaïs Nin telling that she has proof that Film Culture is sponsored by Moscow. Where else could the Mekases get all that money to publish the magazine and have parties at Waldorf Astoria? We fell on the floor laughing.”) Mekas published his magazine bi-monthly, at a $300 per-issue personal loss.
“I say I have to continue Film Culture, despite all the problems, despite the debts, despite the fact that I have to work full-time, often overtime too …. We say, the art of cinema needs it! Isn’t it true that probably we ourselves need it more than the art of cinema. So I am writing again,” Mekas chronicled in 1957. His grief and uncertainty were almost always his impetus for writing (the book makes shrewd use of more pragmatic journal entries by Adolfas, when logistical matters such as fundraising and apartment-hunting were at play), and the same rule applies to his iconic diary films, Walden and Lost, Lost, Lost, the latter of which overlaps with this period in the maker’s life. Mekas elevates his recordings from prosaic home videos to memento mori thanks to slow, probing voiceovers that interrogate the illusory agency of his existence. Though this too is the tenor of I Seem to Live, the book is also rife with insights on the essence of art and notations capturing unexpected beauty within the often-brutal city where Mekas made his home. Nearly every page of this doorstopper contains passages remarkable for their vivacious conviction, their poetic uncertainty, and their artist’s exemplary suffering.
After landing in Brooklyn, Mekas claims he started writing in the language of his new country as a way of teaching himself, but one of the mysteries of this collection is the fact that his English seems fluent from the moment he begins. So too does his critical stance toward cinema, which would go on to have a massive impact on the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Frank, Maya Deren, and Jack Smith. “What with the endless flood of cheap and low movies from all over the world, it’s an effort of Tantalian proportions to prove to anyone that film as an art exists and that a film artist exists too, and that he doesn’t create ‘in his spare time as a means of recreation’ but from his deepest needs,” Mekas writes in the mid-fifties, a manifesto of his career-long critical conviction. In a 1953 letter to the New York Times’ film editor, he compares an unfavorable review of Chaplin’s Limelight to Nazi book-burning.
While the author’s aesthetic outrage was always in earnest, our sense of his articulation, fully-formed on arrival, is perhaps a sleight of hand. Mekas was largely responsible for compiling and editing all of his journals and notes in the years before his death. When he handed the work off to editor Anne König in 2016, she noted that the text and pictures were already organized, surnames and context notes included in brackets. “He must have been working on it to the last,” she writes, “arranging, assembling, and moving events, notes, and images until he was happy with the dramaturgy of the text as a whole.” This makes I Seem to Live not only testament of a life, but, in Mekas’s reflexive, self-effacing way, a living text in its own right.
I Seem to Live: The New York Diaries, 1950-1969 by Jonas Mekas, with entries by Adolfas Mekas, is published by Spector Books and is available online and from indie booksellers.