American Literary Traditions: Spring 1997
Form and Function in Art Spiegelman's MAUS
by Douglas Boin
Form follows function. Content dictates design. Writing an English paper as a web document is a clever idea, but it shouldn't be done on pure whim. If the content is specifically suited to the electronic media, then use it.
I debated between typing a traditional paper or instead creating this hypertext document. In the end I discovered that the electronic media is the perfect metaphor for Spiegelman's novel: As a comic book, it is easily accesible, much in the same way as the internet. Furthermore, the story presents issues in a somewhat non-linear manner of storytelling. Which leads to an interesting question: What content made Speigelman decide that a comic book best suited his purpose?
The reason, first and foremost, is that Spiegelman is an artist and a cartoonist. On a deeper level, however, Michael Staub writes that the idea of a comic book makes the topic of the Holocaust "more accessible" to readers and students of literature and history (Melus 33). It doesn't attempt to retell the entire story of the Holocaust but rather focuses on key issues which invite emotional involvement in the story (Melus 33). Three passages in particular serve this purpose:
These three scene allow the reader to extract several of the themes which resonate throughout the two-volume set. The father-son relationship, one of the central themes of the story, emerges in these scenes, as well. For specific treatment of this all-encompassing theme and how it plays off different sections of the work, follow up on the father-son relationship.
For a general list of themes and their links to this paper, click themes.
Art's visit with Pavel shows a significant stoppage in the story-telling. He goes to the psychiatrist to straighten his head out; and the reader, likewise, is invited to pause for a moment and reflect upon some of the same issues Art is grapling with. Spiegelman uses lower case printing during his visit with the psychiatrist--the only place he does so in the novel (everything else is all capitals). Furthermore, the people-as-animal metaphor becomes a bit confused: The psychiatrist, for example, who is himself an animal, has a pet cat. The confusion felt by the reader merely paralells the type of feelings felt by the writer, and he uses this technique of mixing things up to show in a distinct way his own state-of-mind.
Art says, "I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams...There's so much I'll never be able to understand or visualize. I mean, reality is too complex for comics...so much has to be left out or distorted" (II, 16).
He struggles to see how his work can do justice to his father's memories. Ultimately, he comes to the conclusion that no one can ever fully depict the horrors of the Holocaust. He can only tell his story and hope that the readers will become attached to the characters involved. Art's above quote is a lesson he passes on to the reader and student of the Holocaust. It is a comment on the indefiniteness of depicting such a "profane" event as the Holocaust (Spiegelman interview).
Some people might view a comic book as too light of a medium in which to treat such a severe topic. One of my friends, in fact, after I showed him Spiegelman's books, asked, "Is it for adults?" Clearly, the audience of the work is a mature one.
"It's an important book. People who don't usually read such stories will be interested" (I, 133), says Art's wife.
This quote touches at a central idea of retelling the Holocaust. With all our advancements in modern technology--breaking things down into DNA, or finding the genetic basis for obesity--we live in a world where we have grown to expect answers for everything. An extension of this thought is that somehow what has been written on the Holocaust in the past is enough; and that there is nothing more to tell or no different ways of telling it. Clearly, Spiegelman shows us a different way.
As Rothberg says in his article, the story of MAUS and of the Holocaust in general cannot all be wrapped up neatly in a box (Contemporary Literature 667). Ironically, the book is packaged in a nice, tidy two-volume box set. This is itself a commentary on the author's own struggle to tell his story. No one really knows what the Holocaust felt lke unless he/she experienced it first hand, so that ambiguity on our part leaves the door wide upon to a variety of interpretations of form.
The more forms there are, the more we will be able to synthesize a better understanding of the whole event. Spiegelman, in a distinctly post-modern way, uses metafiction throughout MAUS to bring up this issue of being able to tell a story about the Holocaust. From his conversation with his wife in the opening pages about what she should look like, the basic question he has is: How should I draw it?
One of the interesting historical points which relates to the recording of the Holocaust is a site at the National Holocaust Memorial Museum's web page which discusses journalism at the time of the event. The same problem that Spiegelman faced when crafting his book is similar to the one faced by the reporters of the day. Martin Kalb writes in his article "The Journalism of the Holocaust":
"[T]here could be no doubt about the authenticity of the reports of Nazi atrocities against the Jews. And yet, amazingly, the coverage was marginalized. It lacked the explosive force that would carry it from the inside pages to the front pages, from a duckable option to unavoidable action. How come?
"Elie Wiesel, in a recent conversation, explained by drawing a distinction between 'information' and 'knowledge.' On its own information meant only the existence of data. It lacked an ethical component. It was neutral. Knowledge, implied Wiesel, was a higher form of information. Knowledge was information that had been internalizedcrowned with a moral dimension that could be transformed into a call for action" (Kalb, Holocaust Museum).
Spiegelman seems to have drawn a lot from Wiesel's observations. As a storyteller, he made sure to add the emotional component, the type of "information" that can be "internalized." Speigelman used the knowledge of how the Holocaust had been treated in the past to develop a style that would succeed in attracting an audience. Not only does he attract an audience, but, as his wife proclaims, "People who don't usually read such stories will be interested."
Vladek's reaction to the hitchhiker
This scene is significant for two reasons:
(1) it showcases Vladek's own prejudices, which are extremely ironic given his experiences with Nazis and
(2) in many respects Art's reaction to Vladek's reaction shows the tension involved in this father-son relationship.
"In some ways he's just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew" (I, 131), remarks Art to his wife. As the reader, we see what Art sees: that Vladek harbors the same type of prejudice once harbored at him. In a way, even though it was Vladek who experienced the Holocaust, it is the survivors of the survivors who truly can begin to understand the impact of what happened.
Furthermore, it is small scenes like this one which get to the heart of what makes this book a part of the "American" Liteary Traditions (the title of the course). There is a constant paradox in Vladek's character between immigration and assimilation. Vladek's ritual of counting his pills, his insistence upon returning unused food to the supermarket, and this scene with the hitchhiker all show that Vladek's main struggle is learning how to integrate his past experiences with his day-to-day activities. On the other hand, it is Art who takes a deeper approach: that of learning to integrate his past and the history of his family into his whole person. It is his father, his dead brother, and his mother (dead by suicide) who have shaped who Art is today. This theme of learning and searching for our past is one which is distinctly American. Coupled with the theme of struggle, the book takes a truly American voice. Art himself must struggle with his father and with his own history.
The father-son relationship
Perhaps Art's most pronounced characteristic is his cynicism towards his father. At times, it even emerges as true anger. When he learns that his father has destroyed all of his mother's diaries, Art exclaims, "You murderer! How the hell could you do such a thing?...Murderer" (I, 159). One of the difficulties Art faces in establishing a relationship with his father is the grief and guilt over his mother's suicide. Regardless of the obstacles that this father and son have to overcome, that they sit down and talk together is a promising sign.
The importance of oral history is cleary seen in this relationship. In Melus, Staub argues that without talking about the past, these two would, in fact, have no relationship:
"MAUS clearly documents how the son's ambivalence towards the father in the present immensely complicates the work of reclaiming and representing the world of Vladek's past" (Staub 34).
He continues his argument, focusing on Art's insistence to find his mother's diaries. In attempting to rediscover the lost diaries, Staub writes, Art is experiencing first hand the "unrecoverability" of the Holocaust experience (35). Thus, there is an unmoveable road block in the way of Art's and Vladek's relationship.
The Cybrary of the Holocaust has a section solely devoted to the "Children of the Survivors." On this page the visitor will find mention of "Abe's Story," the story of Abe Korn, a survivor of Nazi Germany. His memoirs have been put together by his son, Joseph; and several excerpts are provided. The story is an interesting one to compare with MAUS to see how each of the son's deals with his father's past. The Cybrary describes the novel:
"For modern readers seeking the best in Holocaust literature and riveting drama, Abe's Story is an incredible story of hope, of the human potential to do good in the face of horrible evil. All who read Abe's Story seem to apply it to their lives today. It inspires them to persevere, despite any obstacles in their paths" (Children of the Survivors, Cybrary of the Holocaust).
This brief critique of the book shows the variety of forms of expression which authors (in this case, children of survivors) use to convey their message. "Abe's Story" is much more straight-forward and factual; the process of story-telling is less dramatic; and the voice of the son and his struggles is silent.
The father-son relationship in MAUS stems directly from the need for oral history. Despite all the cynicism and appearance of a generational gap, herein is the bond between Art and Vladek: showcasing the importance of storytelling.
Some themes of MAUS and where they play out in this paper
"Children of the Survivors." Cybrary of the Holocaust web site: http://remember.org/children/children.html 29 April 1997.
Hamner, Ginna; Hruby, Patrick; and Stokes, Mike. E-mail to class discussion list. 5 February 1997.
Kalb, Marvin. "The Journalism of the Holocaust." The National Holocaust Memorial Museum web site: http://www.ushmm.org/misc-bin/add_goback/lectures/kalb.htm 29 April 1997.
Mandia, Patricia. Comedic Pathos: Black Humor in Twain's Fiction. London: McFarland & Co, 1991.
Moynihan, Tyler; Ferguson, Mary; and Spray, Judd. E-mail to class discussion list. 19 February 1997.
Rothberg, Michael. "'We were talking Jewish': Art Spiegelman's MAUS as Holocaust production." Contemporary Literature 35 (Winter 94), 661-687.
Slattery, Grace; McGowan, John; and Cunningham, Meghan. E-mail to class discussion list. 17 February 1997.
Staub, Michael. "The Shoah goes on and on: remembrance and representation in Art Spiegelman's Maus." MELUS 20 (Fall 95), 33-46.
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