My father bleeds history...Images of empathy in Maus

By Sophia

Since then, at an uncertain hour
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told
This heart within me burns

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
S. T. Coleridge

The 25th publication anniversary of Art Spiegelman's award winning graphic novel Maus, a seminal text in the history of comics, memoir, and Holocaust narratives, has seen the publication of MetaMAUS, a definitive guide to the volumes, and a tantalising portrayal of the author and his influences. Since its first publication, this illustrated history of collective consciousness, survival, and empathy has reconstructed Auschwitz-Birkenau as a location of the psyche; a space for memory and imagination, in the words of the author “a safe place (...) where [Vladek] could talk and I would listen” (Cooke, 2011). 

This peculiarly brilliant narrative has proven, however, “an extremely difficult work to talk about” as Philip Pullman notes in Picture Stories and Graphic Novels, wherein he reflects upon the underlying craftsmanship, emotion, and truth of the literary masterpiece. This difficulty is, to a certain extent, attributed to the elusive nature of the text: the complexity of its narrative structure and characters evoke the reader's inquiry into the interaction of poetic techniques with an equally rich visual narrative.

One of the most striking features of Maus is the anthropomorphic representation of Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Swedes as deer, Poles as pigs, et cetera, concurrently raising the question on whether this unconventional “classification” into different species implies a form of essentialism, as Pullman (1998) notes: “Cats kill mice because they are cats, and that's what cats do. But is it in the nature of Germans, as Germans, to kill Jews?”. From a narratological perspective, however, anthropomorphism in Maus serves a different function: the dual portrayal of Art as both an author and narrator (man and mouse) reproduces the elusive and ambiguous identity conflicts that underpin the narrative.

In the second volume of Maus, Art has composed a self portrait of himself at work. Seated behind his drawing desk, he sits upon a pile of corpses, wearing the mask of a mouse, and speaks of his father's death, the success of the first volume, the pregnancy of his wife Françoise, and his mother's suicide. Masks are thus a recurring motif in the novels, utilised by characters and by Art himself, calling the reader's attention to the narrative levels and the symbolism that runs through the volumes. The author (Art) in the mask differs from the narrator and character (Artie). His narrative transports the reader into a different narrative space, a technique that provides an ironical distance from both story-worlds: Vladek's past and present relationship with his son Art.

As a work more often placed within the comic tradition, Maus observes many of the conventions of this form: the narrative is related sequentially in a series of panels which contain captions with capitalised lettering and onomatopoetic sound-effects to echo the sound of rifles. As the narrative progresses, these first-person captions, set in the simple past tense, and belonging to Art the narrator, are replaced with Vladek's account, transforming the narrative into a flashback. In At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture, Young suggests that for Maus it is “the memory work itself, the difficult attempt to know, to imagine vicariously, and to make meaning out of experiences [Spiegelman] never knew directly that consitutes the object of memory” (Young, 2000, p. 9). Maus thus draws on postmodern techniques as a means of representing memory and trauma through the eyes of the writing subject, who serves both as the audience and recorder of memory. This mode of representation, as psychological discourse, illustrates the dual identity of the narrator: “Art, with his even more intense psychic torments, acts as the audience who records memory and is the subject of the narration” (Thormann, 2002, p. 127). 

The filial relationship is further complicated by son's confusion and pain throughout the narrative, as if the narrator is burdened with his father's “emotional inheritance”. This foregrounding of the narrator's emotional response is expressed in Artie's frustrated declaration to his wife in the second volume: “I can't even make sense out of my relationship with my father... how am I supposed to make sense out of... the Holocaust?” (Spiegelman, 2003). This question, like many others, is left unanswered, though Art provides the answer though responding empathically to his father's intense affliction. 

This communion of feeling progressively develops throughout the second volume And Here My Troubles Began, culminating in images of empathy at the end of the novel: drawn photographs of the fragmented family, a real photograph of Vladek, and Artie responding to his father's heart attack, after which Vladek pleads with him to stop the recording: “I'm tired from talking, Richieu, and it's enough stories for now” (Spiegelman, 2003, p. 296). The replacement of Artie's name with that of his first son Richieu, may reflect the father's emotional and physical exhaustion after delving into his haunting Odyssey; it may also imply Artie's complete immersion into his father's affective world, through a textual unification of the two sons, the dead and the living. Artie, who has momentarily attained catharsis, will now remain the sole survivor, witness and narrator of his father's magnificent tale of horror and tenderness.

Works cited:

Cooke, R. (2011, October 23). Art Spiegelman: “Auschwitz became for us a safe place”. The Observer. Retrieved from:
Pullman, P. (1998). Picture Stories and Graphic Novels. In K. Reynolds & N. Tucker (Eds.). Children's Book Publishing in Britain since 1945. London: Scolar Press.
Spiegelman, A. (2003). The Complete Maus. London: Penguin.
Spiegelman, A. (2011). MetaMaus: A look inside a modern classic, Maus. New York: Pantheon.
Thormann, J. (2002). The Representation of the Shoah in Maus: History as Psychology. In Res Publica. 8(2), 123–139, DOI: 10.1023/A:1016044401839.
Young, J.E. (2000). At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture. London: Yale University Press.

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