In a recent post, I shared my conversation with Michael Dando about Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Along with talking about Maus with Dando, I spoke with Eir-Anne Edgar about Maus volume II for my Multicultural American Literature course. Eir-Anne recently spoke about McMinn County’s banning of Maus for an event at West Virginia University. When students read and discussed Maus volume I, they also read “Why Mice?” from Spiegelman’s MetaMaus and Hannah Arendt’s “We Refugees,” pieces that continued threads we have examined throughout the course about identity, representation, stereotypes, generational trauma, and more. For our discussion of volume II, students read María Jesús Martínez-Alfaro’s “Caught in the Grip of an Inherited Past: (Post)Memory and Representation in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” During my conversation with Eir-Anne, we talked about a myriad of topics, and today I want to share some of that conversation.
At the beginning of our conversation, I shared images from my visit to Warsaw a few years ago. While I did not make it to Treblinka, Auschwitz, or other camps, I visited the The Warsaw Rising Museum which chronicles the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and Pawiak, the prison that the Nazis occupied during World War II and turned into a German Gestapo prison. About 100,000 people were imprisoned at Pawiak during the war, 37,000 died there, and 60,000 were shipped to concentration camps. From Pawiak, I showed images of concentration camps clothes like those Vladek wore, cards and games that individuals made while at the camps, and more. From the Warsaw Rising Museum, I shared information about the clandestine schools and talked about the ways that teachers kept educating students, telling them facts in the face of propaganda and suppression. One thing I did not share, though, was an image of the card catalogue I took at the University of Warsaw. The catalogue survived the war because professors took books and items from the library and hid them in the basement behind a false wall.
I began with these images to show students actual, tactile items connected with Maus. As well, I wanted them to see some connection between recent calls for banning books such as Maus and what occurred in Poland and elsewhere during World War II. I wanted them, even though I did not explicitly state it, to connect the importance of teaching history and facts in the face of oppression and attempts to silence the transmission of factual information.
Over the course of our conversation, we spoke about the ways that Maus blurs the line between memory and facts, specifically in relation Vladek’s memories. This occurs at multiple points throughout the narrative, and one of the notable examples is when Art asks his father about the orchestra at Auschwitz and his father says that there wasn’t an orchestra there. In this four panel sequence, we move back and forth from Vladek’s memories to Art and Vladek talking about Auschwitz.
The sequence begins with Vladek talking about marching to work everyday and hoping he’d be able to see Mancie and learn about Anja. The panel shows a guard overseeing individuals walking from the left. On the right, in the background, we see a conductor and the orchestra playing music as the individuals march. The next panel moves to Art and Vladek talking, and Art asks his father about the orchestra. Vladek, confused, tells Art that he doesn’t remember an orchestra, and the next panel repeats the first; however, now the marchers obscure the orchestra. We only see the top of the conductor’s wand and the top of a couple of instruments. They appear as notes on a treble clef as well. The final panel moves back to the present and Art tells his father that he knows there was an orchestra because that fact was “very well documented.”
This sequence highlights the slippery nature of memory, and Art’s depiction of the orchestra in the two panels with the marchers shows him navigating historical, documented facts alongside his father’s recollections. Even though his father did not remember the orchestra, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The trauma he endured and the fight to survive could account for Vladek not noticing or remembering the orchestra. However, since Art knows the orchestra existed, he leaves it within the sequence, obscuring it behind Vladek’s memory.
This sequence also highlights the generational trauma the Maus confronts. Art faces this trauma from the outset of the narrative, and specifically from the outset of volume II where we see him struggling to enter the gates of Auschwitz in the novel. We see him talking with his psychiatrist Pavel, another survivor of Auschwitz. During their talk, Pavel asks Art if his father’s survival was admirable while those who were murdered were not admirable. Pavel laments that people have written so much about the Holocaust and nothing has changed, but we must tell the stories of those who cannot tell their own stories because they were murdered. Art responds, “Samuel Beckett once said: ‘Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.'” In essence, why say anything about anything? After a panel where they sit in silence, Art says, “On the other hand, he SAID it.” To which Pavel replies, “He was right.”
At play here, and throughout the entire conversation between Art and Pavel, is the ways of confronting and depicting such horrific acts. The telling of Vladek’s story, the telling of Anja’s story, the telling of the stories of countless others, has an effect on Art. He endures, on some level, their pain and suffering. As a kid, he tells Francoise, that he used to have nightmares about the S.S. taking him and the other Jewish children away or about taking a shower and imagining Zyklon B coming out of the shower head instead of the water. He knows that those nightmares connect to his parents’ experiences, and he also knows that they do not encompass what they endured. He feels guilty, in a way, and he tells his wife, “I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams.”
Art’s comments remind me, in many ways, of John Jennings when he talks about drawing the graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. When he spoke with me once, he told me that the emotional toll of drawing the violence in Kindred got to him, having to draw numerous panels depicting violence, racism, and hate. It has a toll. It is emotional. I is a traumatic conduit that connects to the actual event. In Art’s case the Holocaust. In Jennings’ the history of racial violence in the United States. While Eir-Anne and I did not talk about the generational trauma in this manner, we spoke about the ways that Art depicts it throughout Maus.
Eir-Anne and I discussed a lot more, and I hope that you find my conversation with her useful and enlightening. What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.