The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

18 April 2011

Love and Justice

Hugo Perez
For the past week I have been ruminating on what was in every way a fine and moving evening last Tuesday, when we screened Hugo Perez's Neither Memory Nor Magic, a film portrait of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti. I had moist eyes more than once as I watched this beautiful and poignant work, which, though it depicts the life of a man who died miserably in the Holocaust, is ultimately about life, not death; courage, not fear; beauty, not brutality. Radnóti's poems, the few I know from the film and from Carolyn Forché's anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, have burrowed deep into me. He bore witness to the barbarity of the Nazi labor camps where he was imprisoned, with a voice at once elegiac and indomitable, and though he never flinched from the horror of his circumstance, his poems ultimately are expressions of profound love. Love for his wife Fanni, for the music of language, for the world:

. . . tonight the moon is so round!
Don't go past me, my friend— shout! and I'll come around! 
I was just admiring, up there, your eyes' blue sheen,
when it clouded over, and up in that machine
the bombs are aching to dive. Despite them, I am alive

My definition of the "documentary arts" is broadly inclusive, as evidenced in the mission state on this page; it's meant to embrace all art that bears witness to the struggle, striving, and triumph of the human spirit. Bearing witness in this sense is no passive, legalistic stance. It demands an active engagement with the world and, perhaps more deeply, a committed relationship to soul. As Forché writes in the introduction to her book, witnessing art "will have to be judged . . . by its consequences." Among the consequences must include art's ability to advocate for life, to stand on the side of compassion, generosity, care; in short, to love. As a position, this is not at all simple or easy. The instinct of a great many artists who fall loosely under the heading "documentary" is, I observe, not toward love as much as justice. I once asked the poet Hayden Carruth which of those two imperatives was "more important"; he declared in favor of justice, since justice implied love. I'm not entirely sure I agree with his choice, but the logical equation is not at all straight-forward: all love may encompass justice, but too few things that pose as "justice" can be said to espouse love. Indeed, the concept of justice is commonly defined according to the duality of good and evil, a useful dichotomy if one is in need of enemies or dominion, but not one that accommodates grace. Grace, simply put, is treating others not necessarily as they "deserve," but as love requires — as fellow travelers on a divine journey. This is a radical notion, one that runs counter to logic and experience, yet it seems to me just where we can situate Radnóti, and where the artists I most admire reside. This does not mean I take no interest in art that seeks to expose injustice or address suffering. Far from it. That is also an act of witness. Yet I have long believed, and maintain more strongly now than ever, that art's greatest power is not as a mirror, but as a torch, beacon, guide, path — whatever metaphor works for you — to higher consciousness. Art elevates humanity not so much via the enlightenment of argument and evidence as through the illumination of the soul's mysteries and wisdoms.

This is what Hugo's film accomplishes. There are passages in it as moving as any I've seen in a documentary film; in one, the screen painfully dissolves to black, a darkness broken by one of Radnóti's poems like a herald from heaven. I want to express my gratitude to Hugo for his work and for being my guest in Albany, and thank all those who attended and stayed for the lively Q&A afterward. More screenings are planned for the future; the Opalka Gallery, my partner in last week's event, will be co-host and venue for a series of four films beginning in October. I am currently programming that series and will have more information to share on it shortly.

The audience during the Q&A

Poetry excerpts from "Forced March" and "Letter to My Wife," translated by Emery George, from Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forché. 


Vespersparrow said...

Tim, such a moving piece. Radnóti loved deeply of life, of grace, was tender in the face of human suffering, and on the forced march to his death, he continued to write those breathtaking poems found in his jacket pocket when the grave was exhumed years later. It staggers me that he could have kept describing life with passion even to the edge of the pit. Radnóti believed life was a divine journey, and that deep love has enlightened Hugo Perez's film, and other films he might make; his torch has lit the Center for Documentary Arts, and you, Tim, and your bringing it to us makes bright a part of us that might have been always dark. Thank you. xo

Timothy Cahill said...

Dear Melissa, I agree about Radnoti. He cared nothing about his death, nothing compared to how he embraced life as poets do, by continuing to write. You know what this is like. Your enthusiasm and insight surrounding the film, the screening, and especially the poet have meant a great deal to me. Thank you.

Timothy Cahill said...

Actually, I want to amend what I said. Radnóti, like the rest of us, most certainly cared about death — he did not want life to end, he wanted to return to Fanni, to Budapest, to the world of laughter and blossoms. Yet he was not so paralyzed by the prospect of death that it stopped him from keeping faith with the meaning of his life.

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