by Dr. Connors
At the beginning of Maus, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, the narrator, Art, recounts an incident from his childhood spent in Rego Park, New York where he lived with his parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. After he fell down while roller-skating, Art’s friends abandoned him. Later, when Art tearfully recounted the story to Vladek, his father, the latter replied, “Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week…THEN you could see what it is, friends!” (Spiegelman 6). Two distinct memories thus exist side by side in the graphic novel’s opening scene. On the one hand, Art, now an adult, remembers an incident from his childhood that made an impression on him and shaped his perceptions of his father. On the other hand, Vladek’s seemingly cold and detached response to his son’s suffering is influenced by his own memories as a Jew who was betrayed by friends and neighbors in World War II-era Poland and who was later condemned to fight for his survival in Auschwitz. In this way, the opening scene of Maus performs a specific narrative function by establishing “memory” and “remembering” as central themes in the graphic novel.
In examining Maus we might ask what questions the graphic novel raises about memory and the challenges involved in representing it. Based on personal notes, audio recordings of interviews with his father, and family photographs, Maus represents Art’s attempt to reconstruct his father’s memories of the Holocaust. At the same time, however, Art also undertakes the project to make sense of a traumatic event that overshadowed his childhood and shaped his sense of self, even though he did not experience it first-hand. By collecting Vladek’s memories, Art is essentially trying to fill a gap in his own memory. We might consequently ask what it means to have memories of a historical event. Does a person have to have experienced the event firsthand, as did survivors of the terrorist attacks on New York City on 9/11? Can children who were born after the attacks, but who grew up hearing stories about family members who perished on 9/11, be said to “remember” the event? In “The Generation of Postmemory,” Marianne Hirsch argues that they can. Hirsch uses the term “postmemory” to “describe the relationship of [a] second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to constitute memories in their own right” (103).1
Another “big” question that Maus invites readers to ask has to do with the challenges and limitations involved in representing memory. As explained, Spiegelman wrote Maus to document his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor. To what extent can he realistically expect to do so with any degree of authenticity, however? If we conceptualize memories as objective—that is, if we assume that people are capable of summoning up memories and passing them on to others in tact—then perhaps we can read Maus as a factual rendering of Vladek’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge that Art mediates Vladek’s story in the act of telling it, then we confront several additional questions: Whose story is represented in Maus? Do Art’s motives for telling Vladek’s story lead him to reshape (or repurpose) it? Does Art’s decision to represent Vladek’s story in comics form—which employs pictures—pose challenges that authors working in print do not necessarily confront? How do we position Maus in relation to other Holocaust narratives? When telling another person’s story, is there anything an artist/writer can do to heighten the “authenticity” of his/her work? As we contemplate these questions, we might acknowledge James E. Young’s assertion that, as a graphic novel, Maus “makes visible the space between what gets told and what gets heard, what gets heard and what gets seen” (676, my emphasis). With this in mind, we might also ask what role concepts such as truth, objectivity, and authenticity play in the text.
In light of the above issues, there is a final question that warrants our attention: namely, is the medium of comics up to the task of telling stories about events on the scale of the Holocaust? Art questions its ability to do so while talking with his wife, Françoise, when he states, “I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams. And trying to do it as a comic strip! I guess I bit off more than I can chew.” In the next panel he continues, “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.” Francoise responds, “Just keep it honest, honey” (Spiegelman 16). Is reality too complex for the medium of comics? Furthermore, is it possible to remain “honest” in portraying events that one didn’t experience directly?
I look forward to exploring these (and other) questions with you when we meet for class on Monday night. I hope you’ll arrive with questions you’d like us to explore as well. Till then, happy reading, and enjoy the spring like weather!
1. For an excellent discussion of postmemory in Maus, see “Postmemory and Maus: The Transmission of Memory From One Generation to Another.”
Hirsch, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today 29.1 (2008): 103-128. Print.
Young, James E. “The Holocaust as Vicarious Past: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Afterimages of History.” Critical Inquiry 24.3 (1998): 666-699. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon. 2003. Print.