The past is full of shadows. After sixty years, most of what we remember of Maya Deren is her film. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her books discussed, honestly. Or her interest in Haitian Vodou. I’ve heard a lot about “Meshes of the Afternoon,” but I think my preparation for this article was the first time I’d actually watched it. I didn’t realize it was under fifteen minutes long. I’m sure that even people who know that she added a soundtrack to it to avoid the Freudian interpretations people were putting on it are unaware that the composer of that soundtrack, Teiji Ito, was fifteen when he began a relationship with Deren. Who, shall we say, was not.
Maya Deren was born in Kiev as Eleanora Derenkovskaya. They fled pogroms in 1922, moving to Syracuse, New York. Young Eleanora—now Deren—got quite the education. She went to the League of Nations International School of Geneva. She went to Syracuse University. She was, in short, quite the educated woman when she joined the émigré art scene of Greenwich Village. She was, at the time, writing for newspapers and radio shows. She was interested in photography, dance, and poetry. She moved to Hollywood to advance her poetry career, surely a sentence I have never written before.
It was in Hollwyood, perhaps not surprisingly, that Deren began making film. “Meshes of the Afternoon” was her first short, and she became firmly established in avant-garde circles for it. To the extent that certain people felt betrayed when she decided to move on to work on a film about Vodou. Because it was planned to be, you know, a documentary and follow linear narrative and things. And what’s avant-garde about that?
And, in 1951, she met Teiji Ito. My usual sources do not have a lot of information about this; the fact that he was fifteen at the time is mentioned only in the trivia of her IMDb page, which is wild. You can do the math comparing their pages, but you have to hunt it down. It’s not that I necessarily have a problem with the age difference itself; sometimes, it can work. If both parties are consenting adults, you do you. But the important thing is consenting adults. His IMDb page said he’d run away from home at fifteen, but I want a timeline.
I am not familiar with her work on Vodou. But I am hesitant to get into it. It’s not impossible for it to be an intelligent, sympathetic treatment of a religion born of pain and cultural absorbtion. It just doesn’t feel all that likely to me. “Meshes of the Afternoon” is beautiful and well done, and I wouldn’t say no to watching more of her work, although I didn’t feel the need to seek more of it out, either. But when you look at Maya Deren beyond her work, there’s a pretty big roadblock there.