Jonas Mekas, Shiver of Memory
By Peter Delpeut
May 2022. Paperback.
Book design by Tauras Stalnionis
$24.95 | 9781954600034
The controversy over filmmaker Jonas Mekas’s memories of his WWII Lithuanian youth are delicately and humanely approached in this book-length essay by a Mekas cinephile.
Stemming from a New York Review of Books article by historian of Jewish life, Michael Casper, which condemned the widely-beloved Jonas Mekas (1924–2019, known as the ‘Godfather of American avant-garde cinema’), this essayistic, self-reflective, and analytical book flowers into an inquiry about memory and forgetting; the wild moral compass of the future that cannot find its bearing in the past; and the roles we all must play in writing the adequate history of events too traumatic for a just accounting.
Examining the filmmaker’s poetry, autobiographical writing, and films, Delpeut travels back and forth between Mekas’s boyhood in a Soviet-occupied borderland, where his first picture was reputedly destroyed by the passing Soviet army, to his youth in German-occupied territory during war and genocide — working as a poet and for the Resistance yet as an editor of an anti-Semitic-inflected newspaper — to his life as young Lithuanian exile, filmmaker, Fluxus artist, and immigrant to New York who became obsessed with recording the details of everyday life so that they might be relived in all their beauty and contradiction through the magical medium of film.
Reduction is the most virulent accomplice of moral judgment. So this has turned out to be a very personal essay, in which my quest is central. Every change of perspective triggers a different moral judgment. In a world that is increasingly trying to force us to come up with unequivocal answers, this may be a consoling message.
Peter Delpeut is himself a filmmaker. His attitudes toward filmmaking, art-criticism, and the film archive are heavily influenced by Mekas’s films, his writings, and the Anthology Film Archives that Mekas founded. Gingerly, he revolves the prism of Mekas’s life to shine a light on the central operations of memory and how Mekas’s filmography interfaced with a barely-spoken-of trauma. Mekas’s recollections of his WWII youth, interrogated by Michael Casper in the NYRB, become stepping stones for Delpeut over a dark lake — enshrouded in mystery with no bottom, but nevertheless with a sure number of victims from Mekas’s provincial area: the 2400 Jewish men, women and children “herded together in the center of Biržai and taken in small groups to the Astravas forest, not far from the town on the shore of the lake” and murdered on August 8, 1941.
There is little doubt that Mekas himself never participated in the horrors, but questions remain about what he knew and what he refused to let himself know, as well as what his artist’s soul necessitated that he forget, in order to live.
PRESS and PRAISE
Delpeut once drew from reading Jonas Mekas’s Movie Journal that every work of art should be allowed to exist. Delpeut had taken it as a life lesson: give every person his place too. But does that also apply to the actions of every human being? Or, to complicate matters, about what he fails to tell? Mekas himself, as far as is known, committed no crimes. He has only victimized himself, in films and hundreds of page memoirs, while concealing the horrific fate of others in his immediate environment. […] Delpeut remains loyal to his hero until the last page. […] His thoughtful, vulnerable, meandering attempts fascinated me, […] read with admiration. The failure of Jonas Mekas’s rehabilitation ensured that this book about him was successful.
—De Groene Amsterdammer
Delpeut examines how distorting memory can be; he tests [Casper’s] claims against the work of Mekas in his films, his diaries, his poetry, his testimonies, etc. “Our memory is a novel. Life is a diary,” Delpeut writes. And can Mekas’s diaries be trusted? Testimonials from other Lithuanians also appear and confront Mekas’s behavior. […] Can personal history, as experienced, differ from what is generally knowledge? In [Delpeut’s book] we get acquainted with the work and memories of Jonas Mekas, the heinous crimes during WWII, the traumatic consequences and the role our memory plays. The essay is a fascinating case for what is referred to in academic terms as historical criticism.
—Art Magazine Flanders
What to do if a hero falls from his pedestal after a bad revelation? Continue to enjoy his work, carefree as usual; only tolerate it; or [perform a] hard cancel? Peter Delpeut, director of Felice… Felice… (1998) and writer of several books including The Forgotten Season (2007), opted for a fourth rather rigorous option. […] He decided not to draw any conclusions and to do his own research first. That research led to a complete book; an essay in which Delpeut treats not only the alleged misdeeds of Mekas, but also the nature of memories, and historiography in general.
—Never Sleep Again [broadcast]
A particularly haunting book. […] Delpeut examines “the Mekas case” from all sides. Is it possible that it is a matter of misunderstanding, repression, genuine forgetting, or ignorance? Almost obsessively, Delpeut tries to find an explanation for Mekas’s silence: historical, psychological, moral. Delpeut is a stakeholder: for him as a young cinephile Mekas has been a beacon, opening his eyes to the value of found footage, non-narrative film, and other forms of underground cinema. […] Very compelling.
—We’ll Always Have Paris
Praise for Past Works:
For In Defense of Dawdling:
“Of course, after reading it you will want to stroll past these artworks, just like Delpeut.”
— Literary Netherlands
For The Forgotten Season:
“An exceptionally mature novel.”
—The Groene Amsterdammer
“A mysteriously beautiful book that trips us and surprises us.”
For In the Black of the Mirror:
“Delpeut is a careful and visual writer and knows how to awaken life with his descriptions of the wanderings through landscape paintings. […] Not a book that you read in one go, but that in small fragments take in.”
“A compelling masterpiece. […] Literature at its best: obsessive, detailed, curious and full of tantalizing reflections and encounters.”
—The Groene Amsterdammer
“The book is thicker than my fist because Peter Delpeut elaborates. A detail from a [painting] can take many pages, […] Delpeut writes in a meandering, micro-detailed way, but also with fascinating mindfulness; he forces you to look far from our present hectic existence. […] Delpeut does not impose anything. He leads the way. And the road is fascinating all the way to the end.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Delpeut (b.1956) is a Dutch author and filmmaker. He has written four novels, several essay books on art and film, and two lyrical books about long distance cycling. The Dutch version of The Big Bend about his cycling trip from Orlando to Las Vegas enjoyed numerous reprints. For his debut novel in 2007 he was nominated for the Gerard Walschap Prize and awarded the Halewijn Prize. He makes films in many genres: found footage, documentary and features. Many of them are critically acclaimed and prizewinning films. He studied philosophy and film theory, graduating from the Dutch Film Academy in 1984. He served as editor for film magazines Skrien and Versus. From 1988 to 1995 he worked as curator and deputy-director for the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now Eye), famous at the time for its revolutionary color preservations of films from the silent era. In 2005 a retrospective of his film work was presented in Washington, New York and Berkeley. He currently lives in Amsterdam.