Essay: Art Spiegelman’s Maus

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  • Published on: 6th June 2012
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Art Spiegelman’s Maus

Art Spiegelman’s Maus was first published in two separate volumes and then as The Complete Maus in 1996. It attempts to portray the Holocaust and its long term affectation over his family and many others through the comic book form. For many; the formation of art and/or literature portraying the Holocaust can be seen as an immoral and inappropriate endeavour. As a low art form Spiegelman's comic book engagement with the Holocaust can be linked to Wyschogrod's assertion that 'To transform the Holocaust into art demeans the Holocaust and must result in poor art'(Michael Wyschogrod cited in Franklin 6). At first encounter the use of the comic form in Maus could also be fittingly applied to Adorno's proclamation that 'To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric' (Adorno 34). In light of this Spiegelman's use of the comic form can be seen as an apparent indignity to the representation of Holocaust testimony. Spiegelman opts for a light-hearted form; which partially undermines the severity of the destruction imposed on Holocaust victims. However, in order to justify his attempt to represent the horrifying act of annihilation and genocide through a graphic novel; Spiegelman suggests the form holds a 'synthetic ability to approximate 'mental language' '. (Spiegelman cited in Young 672 ). Through this he is attempting to evade the insufficiencies of literature or language by combining his narrative with a visual relation. Whilst imperfections are at the heart of Spiegelman's graphic form they serve to emphasise the imperfections of humanity in both the victims and perpetrators of the oppressive Holocaust.
Cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud defines comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response"(McCloud 9). Spiegelman conveys the Holocaust through graphic depiction. Spiegelman deemed comic drawing/writing as 'natural' (MetaMaus 206) for him as an artist as he was a cartoonist. He alludes to the abstract minimalism of cartoonism when he says 'it's an art of compression that breaks narrative events down to their most necessary moments' (MetaMaus 168). The extended metaphors of Nazi's as cats, Jews as mice, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs serves to weaken the atrocities and reinforce certain fascist Nazi ideals. For example, the Nazi ideology of Jews as vermin is portrayed through the allegory of mice. Initially this appears as an insensitive metaphor and by making all Jewish characters notably indistinguishable at times "his visual simplification renders all Jews in virtually the same way" (Harvey, 234). It can therefore be argued that the metaphors add emphasis to the Nazi ideal. However, this can be seen as playing off the racial stereotypes against an absurdist portrayal, once the metaphor is detracted the mice appear as human beings allowing for reader empathy. Spiegelman states Maus casts 'Hitler's pejorative attitudes against themselves' (MetaMaus 125). The anthropomorphic aspects are just one contributor to this effect; Campbell mentions Spiegelman when he highlights that the sketchy images are as "a result of my deficiencies" ( Spiegelman cited in Campbell 56). However it can be argued that whilst the drawings are not flawless the imperfections contrast with Nazi ideology as they juxtapose the Nazi 'fascist art . . . utopian aesthetics ' that of physical beauty and perfection' (Doherty, ) with the minimalist etchings of comic graphics. In doing so he casts aside any lingering Nazi ideals of a dominant race, or in this case dominant art form.
The cat and mouse depiction promotes cats as a natural predator of mice; by instilling these allegories Spiegelman is rather unsuitably condoning their actions as instinctive. On the contrary the Nazi's methodically rounded the Jewish prisoners up and collectively endeavoured to annihilate them with well documented precision. Johnstone argues that 'cats don't just kill mice: they capture them, play with them, and then kill them' (Johnstone,). This further adds to the emphasis of the extreme inhumanity cast upon Holocaust victims by the Nazis. Spiegelman's extended allegory of animals serves to provide an accessible interpretation and reading of the horrific genocide imposed by the Nazi regime. Spiegelman utilises the metaphorical use of animals to denote general suggestions of extermination and predation rather than defining the allegory as definitive. By doing so he depicts the appalling ideology of Nazi Europe whilst displaying his own imperfections.
Spiegelman's ability to parallel his work as a flawed portrayal whilst maintaining his father Vladek's biographical representation of the atrocities of the Holocaust enables Maus to be respected as a legitimate mode for Holocaust depiction. Michael Rothberg concurs with this suggestion, 'By situating a nonfictional story in a highly mediated, unreal,'comic' space, Spiegelman captures the hyper intensity of Auschwitz" (Rothberg 206). Maus incorporates what Barry details an 'intrusive frame narrative" whereby Spiegelman's construction of the novel and interviewing of his father is thrust upon the narrative of Vladek's testimony (235). In terms of the comic form here Spiegelman explicitly illustrates the metanarratives of the present by drawing the characters and sketches outside of the frames. This serves to contrast the somewhat ordinary construction of the novel against the horrific reality of the Holocaust.
Whilst a photograph is basically an image of which we know definitely exists; a testimonial text is a voice open to interpretation or subjectivity. The use of the comic book form allows for a unique combination of the two. The mode of visual representation of the Holocaust in Maus is not restricted to Spiegelman's sketches. There are limited examples of photographs used which demonstrate the ability of visual aids to distort or detract, comparable to how dialogue or prose can be misinterpreted. One key example of this is Vladek's 'souvenir' which depicts Vladek in a brand new 'camp uniform' (294). The fresh faced Vladek appears healthy and content masking the psychological and physical cruelties exacted upon him. This can again be attributed to Spiegelman's incorporation of masks into his text. Maus uses photographs not in order to portray the past truthfully but as Hirsch suggests in an attempt at exposing 'the levels of mediation that underlie all visual representational forms' (Hirsch, 25). Whilst seemingly absurd to want to have a photograph 'souvenir' it can be seen that it is an attempt at displaying a constant reminder of survival rather than one simply of oppression. The photo acts as another example of metafiction firstly due to its realist form but also due to Art's postmodern proclamation of a significant 'need' to have that 'photo in my book!' (Maus 294). This adds an immediacy to the narrative as it allows us to witness the creation of Maus first hand, something that ultimately cannot be achieved with Holocaust representation. Spiegelman places the photo at an angle with the bottom right corner pointing directly at Vladek's comic sketch portrayal. The sharp contrast in the low art sketches and the photographs serve as a reminder that behind the animal allegory, the masks and the low art comic form are real people. Spiegelman's 'rough images put traumatic history into sharp focus' in a fittingly absurd representation (Doherty 70).

Spiegelman allows for many metafictive breaks in his mice allegory including a scene whereby the mice are scared of rats 'Those aren't rats ' They're just mice!' (page number) use of the bold acts as a self-proclamation and serves as a reminder that the characters in Maus are not really mice but allegorical depictions. Spiegelman takes this opportunity to suggest that irreverence and prejudice is embedded in history not just in the Holocaust. Other examples include Art's psychologist's pet cat depicted through a sketched photo frame which is explicitly highlighted to the reader; 'Framed photo of pet cat. Really!' .(Spiegelman Maus 203). Metafictive aspects are highlighted in the graphic novel in order to reinforce Spiegelman's art creation process. For example when talking of stray cats and dogs Art asks if including them would 'completely louse up my metaphor'?(203) .Spiegelman's deliberate act of displaying his creative processes throughout Maus endeavours to instil the idea that it is in fact a fictional archetype rather than a completely fact based document. In a sketched conversation with his psychologist Artie states that he 'can't begin to imagine what it felt like' thereby guarding himself against being read solely as a non-fiction writer and permitting his work to be read as a fictional yet fact based reconstruction of his and his father's memory (206). It reflects any allegations of not being historically accurate. Art suggests that he feels 'inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality' of the holocaust when he has had no first-hand experience of such brutalities; which he states are harsher than his 'darkest dreams' (Spiegelman reflects on his self-consciousness and inability to portray the Holocaust with complete accuracy whilst deliberately detailing the creation of his literary work. Although many critics question his ability to convey the Holocaust effectively through a graphic novel it can be argued that Spiegelman had his own doubts about the project.
Whilst the sections on Art's creation of Maus highlight the flaws in his work Robert Harvey argues that Maus is 'not so much about the experience of the Auschwitz survivor as it is about the obsessions of the artistic temperament' (243). Maus somewhat encompasses an authorial self-indulgence that the nature of the Holocaust rarely allows. However, Elmwood argues that 'It is as impossible to have Maus without Art as it is to have it without Vladek; the extent of the project reaches well beyond Vladek's survival story' (Elmwood, 695). Although this is technically true, the postmodern references to the formation of the comic are not necessary to Vladek's testament but serve as a reminder that his retrospective testimony is being reverberated and funnelled through Art Spiegelman. The singular narrative of the Holocaust would not be diminished if the references to its construction were removed from the graphic novel, but Art/Spiegelman would have no subject if Vladek's testimony was. This highlights the primary focus back to the Holocaust.
Spiegelman's self-indulgence highlights the problems of inherited trauma, referring to the unlikelihood of both his parents surviving Auschwitz Spiegelman states 'I'm not supposed to be here' (MetaMaus 199). Survivor's guilt appears to be hereditary for Spiegelman in this instance. Similarly he deals with his own guilt and the 'moral implications of using his father's testimony as the subject of his art' (Franklin 231). This is outlined in the sequence 'Time Flies' which presents Art as a human wearing a mask rather than in his metaphoric mice form. Art is depicted with flies hovering around his head in multiple frames culminating in him sitting slumped at his desk above a mountain of mice corpses (201). This takes a deeper more personal stance in that it allows the reader to envisage the guilt he feels as profiteering artistically from the suffering of so many Jewish victims. In this same section 'Time Flies' (Spiegelman Maus 201-207) there are several characters portrayed as wearing masks and explicitly underneath lies a human head. Rather than embodying anthromorphic characters as a constant Spiegelman's comic illustrations allows for a sometimes implicit reference to identity loss and formation. In this moment Spiegelman humanises his characters and reiterates that Maus is more than a comic on the Holocaust ' it is a testimony to the horrors of humanity. 'Time Flies' also allows us to gain insight into Spiegelman's lack of Jewish identity (find quote) or belief ' and the mask he is wearing suggests his self-confessed lack of Jewish faith makes him somewhat of a fraud.
Dominick LaCapra suggests 'the mask may be one of the most radical gestures in problematizing identity" (LaCapra cited in Mcglothlin 75). The use of masks being tied to the characters faces breaks the mould of Spiegelman's animal allegory thus reminding the reader of its slightness in comparison to the real aim of the piece ' to depict the holocaust memory of Vladek and the other survivors. Masks also propose a change of ethnic identity at least in appearance which is embodied in the Jewish characters who out of necessity must disguise themselves as pigs (Poles) in an attempt to disguise themselves from the Nazis. The characters do not pay attention to the masks whereas to the reader it is notably apparent. LINKS
Spiegelman 'juxtapose[s] present and past' capturing the uniquely barbaric history of the holocaust and its influences on first and second generation survivors (Johnston). He does so by enabling the narrative to fluctuate between periods of time seamlessly and often permits them to overlap; outlining the unavoidability of the Holocaust as the dominant theme. It alludes to the idea that the characters are all intertwined with their personal and public history. Whilst testimonial fiction of the Holocaust usually strives for complete truth, Young suggests that "in an era when absolute truth claims are under assault' Maus leans towards an 'essentially reciprocal relationship between the truth of what happened and the truth of how it is remembered" (Young 698). As such memory representation takes the forefront away from vivid truth to an extent. This can be seen in the section where Vladek and Art discuss the band playing at the liberation of Auschwitz ' Art knows that the band definitely played at the liberation of Auschwitz as it is 'well documented' however he allows Vladek's disagreement to appear in the graphic novel as a reminder of the fragmented nature of retrospective testimony (Maus 214). Spiegelman includes the band in the next frame anyway although it is hidden and excluded to the background behind a mass of prisoners. This is in line with Art's construction narrative being relegated to the background in consideration of Vladek's testimony and the magnitude of the Holocaust. Further to this the truth discussion seeks to affirm through a visual representation that total resolution is impossible in terms of Holocaust literature. However, these instances narrow the 'divide between history and memory while still acknowledging the epistemological limitations implied by each' (Elmwood 698).
In conclusion, Art Spiegelman's Maus attempts to portray the Holocaust through a coexistence of language and vision; thus striving to evade the insufficiencies of language as Holocaust representation. The act of witnessing the trauma of the Holocaust requires much precaution for writers and inevitably Spiegelman doesn't escape criticism for his attempts. However, he manages to highlight the shortages of his own metaphors and instead shifts his audience's focus back to the significance of the Holocaust survival testimony. The ideal that the past is always present appears no less so for second than first generation Holocaust survivors is presented and engaged with suitably. This is achieved through the present day relationships whilst using the key issue of the holocaust as the catalyst for the story. The idea that Maus places too much emphasis on the 'artistic temperament' of Art Spiegelman is considered and although it is present doesn't displace the struggle of Holocaust representation and Vladek's testimony. Subsequently, Spiegelman's adoption of the comic form and embedded animal allegory to depict such an atrocity creates a 'peculiarly apt' depiction of the Holocaust (Doherty 72 )

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