Of Maus and Men

Postwar Identity Through a Postmodern Lens in Art Spiegelman’s 'Maus'

by Eric Steingold

24 March 2015

Cover of Maus 
cover art

The Complete Maus, 25th Anniversary Edition

Art Spiegelman

US: Nov 1996

There is no cultural or historical moment of the 20th century more important than World War II. The Great War, along with the Holocaust, is also the most unfathomable and heartbreaking of its time. Adolf Hitler’s genocide of six million Jews and five million other “undesirables” in the ghettos of Poland and eventually the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau at the hands of the Nazis, in the name of creating an absurd Aryan race, presented a reality that was far worse than the most atrocious and richly imagined nightmare.

It makes much sense, then, that in the second half of this last century, many artists have made a point of exploring the psychological and sociohistorical underpinnings of such an event through their work in attempts to understand something so completely unbelievable. Many of them, such as Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List or Primo Levi’s book If This Is a Man, are tremendous works of art, sparing no detail, be it horrifying or not.

The Holocaust is a force that looms over much postwar fiction, from undertones of Jewish anxiety on the American homefront in World War II in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman series,to the centrality of the Holocaust in the works of Saul Bellow.

The search for a Jewish identity in America became another considerable large theme of postwar literary works. Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus falls directly under this thematic categorization. Truly a book that defies description, Maus, Spiegelman’s attempt at understanding the Holocaust through the eyes of his father, was met with great commercial and critical acclaim when it was first released.

At its core, Maus is much more than just a comic; the work is, in actuality, a postmodern journey through the bruising and paradoxical identity politics of wartime Poland and postwar America. As Art comes to terms with the consequences of postmemory as an after-effect of his father’s Holocaust experience, his father in turn works to find identity in the wake of that same experience.

It is a heady claim, to be sure, that a story rendered in a form long thought to be a debased narrative mode – the comic strip, as it were—is deserving of such high academic discussion. It should be noted, however, that postmodernism is, at its very core, a scholarly movement that prides itself on defying description. As Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle posit in their book An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, “The word ‘postmodern’ itself seems odd, paradoxically evoking what is after (‘post’) the contemporary (‘modern’)” and that the postmodern confronts “the important paradox in relation to the contemporary study of literature” (279). As this claim suggests, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what postmodernism is.

The suggestion that the term is paradoxical, though, falls in line with Holocaust narrative, in that the Holocaust is defined by everything before it. The genocide would then in turn define everything after it. As a consequence, it would seem that the Shoah is both modern and postmodern at the same time. As Joshua L. Charlson elucidates in a rather luminous reading, “The Holocaust is an event both modern and postmodern… [it is] more or less [a] repressed divider or traumatic point of rupture between modernism and postmodernism. In this light, the postmodern and the post-Holocaust become mutually intertwined issues that are best addressed in relation to each other” (Charlson 93). Defining Maus as postmodern, then, is certainly apropos. It is virtually impossible to talk about the postmodern condition of Jewish Americans, and Jewish American literature, too, without discussing the Holocaust. The two are closely interwoven, if not inseparable.

Furthermore, the ways in which postmodern philosophy and narrative structure are centrally focused on how time is processed and remembered—illustrated by a fragmentary aesthetic and various points of view, as is seen in such works as Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow—is paramount to the subtext of Maus. As many scholars have pointed out, the idea of postmemory is important to the text. Postmemory is a term denoting the experience of those who live in a world that Marianne Hirsch describes as “dominated by narratives which precede their birth.”

In Maus, postmemory can be seen in how Vladek’s struggles in Auschwitz have, in turn, become Art’s struggles further down the line. Art must deal with a father who, while well-intentioned, is plagued with the stubbornness critical to his survival of the Shoah. Additionally, the text draws a line between history and memory as two inexorably different ideals and two different ways of understanding the same event. Eric Berlatsky explains, “While the traumatic event often leads to the repression of memories of the event… it also leads to the attempt to control, and narrate and give meaning to the event through recollection and narration” (Berlatsky 123). He goes on to point out that the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation plan to record the testimony of 50,000 survivors.

This postmodern phenomenon runs parallel to Maus’ narrative aims: Spiegelman retelling his father’s story. This goal holds true even though at times the differences between history and memory are called into question, as Vladek cannot always get his timeline, or even his facts, straight. This is, of course, understandable; he is an old man. Vladek’s unreliability and paradoxical nature indicates an occurrence of postmodern fiction: unreliable narrators, a nearly omnipresent trope. 

Opening page of Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus.

The text’s self-consciousness, evidenced by Berlatsky’s explanation of the aftermath of traumatic event in the preceding paragraph, is demonstrative of the self-reflexivity of the work – which is, assuredly, a postmodern narrative mode. A common theme of Spigelman’s work is his struggle to present something that is, of its very nature, unrepresentable, to borrow the author’s words. “I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my father,” Spiegelman laments to his wife early on in Volume Two, “how am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz? Of the Holocaust?” (15). More than any other postmodern text, Maus is endlessly self-aware of its construction, carefully documenting it within the pages of its own book, in addition to Spiegelman’s depiction of himself as a central character. But, as Rosemary V. Hathaway reminds us, “Philosophers from Dilthey to Ricouer to Heidegger acknowledge that even ‘the simplest cultural accounts are intentional creations’”.

Art Spiegelman’s perpetual suffering at the hands of his father is indeed an effect of postmemory. As Michael Brown contends, “Vladek lives as if the Nazi persecution never ended” (135). That is true, as Vladek’s identity is defined by his experience and is, by association, now a part of Art’s identity as he tries to understand it by writing his novel. Vladek obviously lives with survivor’s guilt, as he constantly grieves for his late wife and son, who lost his life during the Shoah. This anxiety as a result of postmemory plagues Art as well, as he notes early on in the text to his wife: “It’s spooky having a sibling rivalry with a snapshot” (Spiegelman 15). This was, of course, alluding to his late brother Richieu. In the end of the novel, though, when Vladek refers to Artie as “Richieu” he is able to die peacefully, as he has now brought his first son back alive again, which metaphorically erases his identity, or self.

As previously mentioned, one of the most contentious aspects of Maus, which has prompted the cautious scholar to disregard Spiegelman’s work as worthy of academic discussion, is its status as comic. The artwork in this book is at once the most striking aspect of it though, as Charlson notes, the artwork is simplistic when compared to Spiegelman’s other work, notably Prisoner on Hell Planet which he surreptitiously inserts into the first volume. The juxtaposition between Maus’ whimsical line drawings and Prisoner From Hell Planet’s emotive woodcut style suggests that Spiegelman understood the weight of his father’s tale,and as such pared down the art, depicting cat and mice rather than Jews and Nazis, which successfully brings more importance to his father’s words. As Charlson notes, “The visual style of Maus serves to distance Spiegelman from his own past” (98). Additionally, the visual style is used to insert humor in the work while concurrently employing moving metaphor. The depiction of Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats is self-explanatory, and Spiegelman is cleverly using the comic format to relay a serious issue. namely the stereotyping of Jews by Adolf Hitler as vermin.  As a German newspaper once noted in the 1930s:

Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed…Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal…Away with the Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross! (Spiegelman).

This quotation was used as the epigraph to And Here My Troubles Begin, so, as is readily apparent, along with the realization that Zyklon B—the poison used to gas the Jews—is rat poison, Spiegelman is using the postmodern medium of adult comics to insert ahistorical recorded racism and anti-Semitism in the form of metaphor. The depiction of Polish citizens as pigs also fits their (mis)characterization as pig-headed accomplices to the Nazi’s war crimes.

The metaphorical depictions are, however, meant to evoke this type of reaction. As the author describes it, “It’s crazy to divide things down to nationalistic or racial or religious lines, and that’s the whole point” (The Complete Maus, 59). This quotation, and the cartoon metaphor in general, is an allusion to Hitler’s belief that “Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” Spiegelman is thusly toying with the twisted concept of Nazi racial theory.

The faultiness of the metaphor is affirmed yet again when Art goes to see his therapist. At the beginning of the chapter, when Art is prompted by a journalist asking if how he would depict Israeli Jews as animals, he responds by saying, “I have no idea…porcupines?” (42). In this scene and the succeeding one, all of the characters are clearly wearing masks, one of the only instances where this occurs in the novel. As is illustrated by twisted Nazi notions about the self, identity cannot and should not be boiled down to one trait, such as pig-headed Poles or mousy Jews.

Here it is revealed how Spiegelman deconstructs ideas about identity politics. “The reader is the only one who is privy to this literal masquerade. Maus’ animal metaphor authenticates Spiegelman’s account of the Holocaust by calling attention to its own artificiality” (Zuckerman 61). There are many times throughout the text wherein it is entirely obvious that the characters are humans wearing masks. At the beginning of “Time Flies” in the second volume, on the first panel it is apparent that Art is wearing a mouse mask. This occurs once again when he visits his therapist. This is what Charlson calls the “postmodern interrogation of identity”, which elucidates further that a mask is nothing more than a guise. This calls into question Spiegelman’s own identity as a non-practicing Jew, which renders the masks metaphor a paradox of sorts.

The artifice of ignorant identity politics against Jewish people, portraying them as a racialized other, goes back long before The Holocaust, as evinced by Shakespeare’s Shylock. Berlatsky expounds, “…in the nineteenth century Jewish identity constructed race rather than as religion… Jews were identified by their flat feet, their big noses, their proclivity for sexually transmitted diseases, and above all, their circumcised penises. [It] marked the Jew as not only racialized but also feminized and pathologized. In this sense, the figure of the Jew becomes a ideal site for early twentieth century discourse” (Berlatsky 124). Berlatsky goes on to explain that race was commonly seen as a social issue and not a scientific one and, as such, patriarchal society was able to construct an identity for Jews in the years preceding the war. It was this faulty racial principle which justified the Nazis actions and Polish inaction. Just as Art is victim of postmemory because of his father’s experience during the Shoah, Vladek himself suffers from this consequence of culture on the basis of ahistorical categorization of the Jews.

As Hathaway observes, on another level the portrayal of animals “immediately alerts the reader to the book’s constructedness.” Though Maus is carefully assembled even sometimes hilariously self-referential, making a joke of its own constructed fiction, Spiegelman himself has said in his book Breakdowns, “Perhaps the only honest way to present such materials is to say: ‘Here are all the documents I used… and here’s like a thousand hours of tape recording, and here’s a bunch of photographs to look at. Now go make yourself a Maus!’”

Although he pokes fun here, this quotation is interlaid with a serious and illuminating truth regarding postmodern fiction and biography. All works, whether fictional or not, are carefully constructed. Even biographies straddle the line between truth and fiction, since biography is nothing more than an author’s compilation of what he chooses to include about his experiences. Maus just raises this constructionism to a wild level as a way to show the weaknesses of the postmodern biographical format.

Maus is undoubtedly a stunning work, straddling the line between a Holocaust narrative and postmodern ethnographic study on the seeds of identity. Even though the characters are mice and cats, the emotional response is one of terror and horror. Even though Vladek escaped death in the camps, his and his children’s identity are irretrievably changed. While the story is filtered through the words of a decrepit, curmudgeonly old man, it could be any person’s story.

That is one of the themes of Spiegelman’s comic: people have more in common than it may at first seem, as a father and his son were able to find common ground and ultimately put aside their differences in the name of love and history. In the end, Maus II ends by Vladek telling Art, “I’m tired from the talking Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now” (136). The emotional journey has indeed come full circle, showing that our differences are nothing but a façade—nay, a mask.

Works Cited

Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow, U.K.: Pearson/Longman, 2009. Print.

Berlatsky, Eric. “Memory As Forgetting: The Problem of the Postmodern in Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” and Spiegelman’s “Maus.”” Cultural Critique 55 (2003): 101-51. Web.

Brown, Michael. “Of ‘Maus’ and Men: Problems of Asserting Identity in a Post-Holocaust Age.” Studies in American Jewish Literature. 12.1 (1993): 134-140. Print.

Charlson, Joshua L. “Framing The Past: Postmodernism and the Making of Reflective Memory in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” Arizona Quarterly 57.3 (2001): 91-120. Project Muse. Web.

Spiegelman, Art. Breakdowns: History of the Artist as a Young %@&*!. New York: Pantheon, 2008. Print.

—————. MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale, II: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon, 1991. Print.

—————. Maus. A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon, 1986. Print.

—————. MetaMaus. New York: Pantheon, 2011. Print.

Zuckerman, Amanda. “The Holocaust and the Graphic Novel: Using Maus and Its Narrative Forms to Bring Creedence to the Medium.” Kedma Spring 6 (2008): 54-72. Web.

Eric Steingold, a graduate of Michigan State University, is a writer living in Detroit, Michigan. Currently he is working at a radio station for beer money and applying to doctoral English programs. He is a fan of Neil Young, the films of Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, and tacos.

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