I Seem to Live: The New York Diaries 1950–1969, Volume 1
(Spector Books, 2019)
During a baffling period of change, relative uncertainty, and distress, I’ve been lucky to find the words of Jonas Mekas (1922–2019). Mekas describes the human predicament of constant change that requires alertness and imagination, an open merging of life and art. At every turn, he set out with aspirations to surpass his creative heritage. In 2019, Mekas passed away at the age of 96, leaving a chasm in the creative world as well as a trove of diaries that are being published in large sequential volumes by Spector Books. The first volume spans from 1950 to 1969 and, like his films, is a record that bears a unique vision of what it’s like to be alive, with a young man’s earnestness and a fierceness that comes from hard-won experience.
Keenly attentive to his surroundings with a heightened awareness of the recent past, Mekas’s knowledge emerged from being in the world as opposed to strict intellectually rigorous academic work. He writes, “I knew all the answers, I had read all the books. I used to sit, instead, and listen to what was going on outside, to try and catch the sounds and smells […] I lived in the world of my own senses, fantasies, moods […]” His diaries register a sense of the ineffable, the humorous bleakness, the contingency and tragicomedy of life, the delicate details of its unfolding.
In addition to making films, Mekas was an editor, critic, curator, and co-founder of Film Culture magazine and Anthology Film Archives. By virtue of his being so variously creative, it seems funny to just call Mekas a filmmaker—to imply any conventionality is to miss his gift. In February of 1954, he wrote that all of his work “has been more or less a work of a poet,” and this rings true across all of his oeuvre. Like a poet, from his films to his critical writings on film, Mekas responds not to what’s required from a particular form (narrative, plot, style) but to the moment or situation to which it attends.
Mekas found his path early and out of necessity. In 1944, at the age of 22, he and his brother Adolfas fled to the US from Lithuania, having been caught in Nazi labor camps in Hamburg. The two brothers eventually found a new home in Brooklyn, where the Diaries begin. However difficult it was for Mekas to adjust, there was a new awareness that then provided the energy and perspective in order to tell their story by way of new images with an all new language. Mekas’s 1976 film Lost Lost Lost recounts the story of “a man who never wanted to leave his home, who was happy and lived among the people he knew” as the subtitle reads. He was, of course, preoccupied by the strangeness and despair of his situation. “NO EXIT, says Sartre,” he writes in a short existential diary entry in 1951. Sometime later in the same year, he remarks that the “rejuvenation of language also means a rejuvenation of one’s view of reality, man, objects.” It’s this kind of associative, philosophical thinking that would provide Mekas the pathway to thrive in what was otherwise a distressing, mournful experience.
I Seem to Live starts in the ’50s and foregrounds a few decades of Mekas’s life in his new American home—a country that, to him, represents “a very special kind of unreality,” having forgotten its own unsavory past. “It has mastered the art of forgetting in order to gain happiness,” he explains. I Seem to Live offers a raw telling of life-sustaining moments of creative reflection and action after a period of displacement and loss. This setup forced the artist to adapt, living in a place that appeared to be little more than a dog-and-pony show, a farce without laughter. In the spring of 1966, he rails against the “cruelties, injustice, stupidity across the country,” suggesting that we “bring it into the open with our cameras.”
Throughout I Seem to Live, Mekas comes to accept his circumstances by way of creative acts. He reconciles both his burgeoning place in film and his precarious footing in America in this way—no other recourse but to make, to connect and stay active, to invent or reinvent. “A rejuvenation of language also means a rejuvenation of one’s view of reality” he writes. This determination is part of why even some of Mekas’s darker impressions have an edge of humor. At 826 pages, I Seem to Live shows Mekas to be a vivid rememberer, an includer.
Despite its exhaustiveness, the book is remarkably difficult to put down. It’s rich in diverse impressions of America, the art world and the artist’s life—via Mekas’s unguarded personal reflection, letters, photographs, and ephemera. It tells the story of someone who, having lived through challenging circumstances, is constantly being enraptured by being alive. When reality is challenged to such a degree as Mekas’s was in his displacement, it’s a continuous decision “to keep your own reality alive.” There’s a generative fact in the presence of art in the midst of ordinary life; its availability and consistency is a source of vitality and this is a supreme focus of Jonas Mekas’s work.