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On Spiegelman's Maus I and II

[The following is the text of a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston for students in Liberal Stuides 112 at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada (now Vancouver Island University). This text is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged. The text was last revised on December 28, 2001]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston


Today I'd like to offer some discursive general reflections on Maus I and II, exploring somewhat gingerly the relationship between the artistic style of the book and our attempts to make sense of it, to derive from it a coherent shared understanding of what's going on. This issue of the relationship between the form and the content (a somewhat artificial distinction, I admit, but a useful starting point) is a particularly fascinating and important aspect of this text (for reasons I'll be exploring in more detail later).

Let me begin by raising an obvious question: What is the central concern of these books? That might seem a question relatively easy to answer, but I'd like to suggest that the answer is rather more complex than it might at first appear. And exploring an answer will enable me to telegraph where I'm going with this lecture.

One might be tempted to respond to the above question by claiming that the central concern of these books is the Holocaust, and, to some extent, that's obviously the case, since the main narrative focuses so much attention on a particular prisoner's experiences in pre-war Eastern Europe and the death camps. But it's also clear enough that the book is centrally about something different, something more complex and elusive.

Spiegelman, after all, makes no attempt to illuminate the Holocaust by focusing on what we might call the big picture (an exploration of the larger historical, political processes which gave rise to it). Nor is he concerned to provide an overall sense of the scope of the horror (as a historian might do, for example). His focus throughout is on the particular details of his father's experiences which are not, in the context of Holocaust literature, remarkable (his father has no new perspective to add to what we already know about his horrible event—his story is, if I may use the expression, an ordinary man's experience of extraordinary circumstances). And a considerable part of the book is taken up with his father's and his own experiences after the war.

In fact, the book is set up rather differently than what we might expect if the point is first and foremost an examination, a re-telling, of a Holocaust narrative. For it's made clear to us from the opening pages that the main issue here has something to do with the relationship of Artie and his father, that, in a sense, the experiences of Artie's family in the Holocaust are less central than a more elusive question—Artie's relationship to those experiences years later. I want to begin by stressing that, although these issues (the Holocaust experiences and Artie's relationship to his family) are obviously intertwined, they are not the same. And I want to do that in order to stress that Maus I and II are not (and should not be approached exclusively as) another Holocaust-survivor narrative, but are rather an attempt to confront a collateral issue: How does one make sense of a Holocaust narrative? Or, more particularly, how does one, as an artist and the child of Holocaust victims (and thus someone with deeply personal and permanent emotional roots in those horrific events), make imaginative sense of the Holocaust?

The Hero of the Book?

One way of appreciating the significance of the questions mentioned above is to think for a moment about an apparently simple question: Who or what is the main issue in the book? Who is the hero (the main subject under scrutiny, the source of most interest)? The answer to these questions may not be so simple as the questions suggest.

At first glance, one might be tempted to see Vladek as the main character. After all, the central narrative describes his experiences, and he (or at least his symbolic equivalent) is our main contact with the Holocaust experiences we witness. The book tells his life story (more or less). However, there are some problems here. For a start, Vladek is not a particularly complex or sympathetic figure—either before, during, or after the war. He survives largely as a matter of luck (combined with a good native intelligence), but his experiences have left him crippled emotionally, and he has learned nothing particularly momentous as a result of his experiences—there's little sense that he understands or has even attempted to understand his experiences and their effects on him. They haven't left him with anything significant he can tell his son to help him adjust to the loss of his family. The text at times seems to go out of its way to emphasize Vladek's limitations as a human being (his racism, for example, or his treatment of women, or his inability to deal with Artie), as a victim, as someone very ordinary, without any privileged insight into what has happened to him or why. If we are seeking here some illumination of the events we witness, that does not come from anything Vladek has to offer.

Then, there's the figure of Artie, Vladek's son and the artist-author. Now, he is in many respects much more interesting and complex than his father, because he takes on the task of trying to make some artistic sense of his own pain, the emotional scars he carries as a result of his family's experiences. And this issue—the relationship between the artist and the story he is trying to create—appears repeatedly in the foreground as we witness the artist wrestling with his own feelings (with his wife and father and his psychiatrist, or by himself) and, more important than that, with the adequacy of the book he is trying to create in order to explore that pain.

[Parenthetically, it is important to mention that we need not make any immediate connections between Art Spiegelman's life outside the text and the interpretation of Maus. It seems obvious enough from the character's name and his profession that he is closely based on the author himself—but exploring this issue does not require that we move beyond what is given to us in the text. And the interpretation of the text would not differ if we learned, for example, that the entire story was made up and had little immediate connection with the real artist outside the book. This caveat is a useful way of reminding us that there is no need to supplement our understanding of the book with material imported into it from a special knowledge of the author's biography (something not provided in the text itself).]

In fact, the issue of Artie as an artist striving to give symbolic shape and narrative form to his family's experiences in order to cope with his own pain is such a persistent feature of the books that the matter of central concern at times moves beyond Vladek and Artie and becomes the text itself: can the artistic result—Artie's attempt to “catch” his family's past—provide whatever it is that Artie needs or wants, that is, satisfy him as an artist and a human being? In that sense, we might be tempted to nominate the text itself as the hero and to describe the main focus here as not one on human character (Vladek or Artie or their relationship) but as something else: the adequacy of this work of art as an exploration of a range of different issues. In other words, the most fascinating thing about this text may well be, not the particular narrative it gives of the characters involved, but the way it calls attention to its own genesis, its own artistic style, and its own success or failure.

The Artist and His Art

In calling attention to its own creation, Maus locates that origin in the emotional pain of the artist, Artie, who is driven, for reasons he does not fully understand, to come to terms with his family's past (his brother's death, this mother's suicide, his father's wartime experiences). That phrase “come to terms with” is, of course, excessively vague, but clear enough, I think, if we see in it a desire to reach some sort of emotional understanding of something deep within himself—to give it an intelligible shape, something that will provide significance and perhaps a sense of closure to what has up to now been a shapeless intense inner pain.

It's important to grasp this last point: Artie, as an artist, does not wish merely to express his pain (he can do that with the psychiatrist)—he wishes to find an adequate artistic way of reaching an emotional understanding of his pain. That requires finding a suitable artistic way of distancing himself from his complex inner feelings, as it were, establishing a distance between his own inner feelings and the work he is creating, so that he will be able to communicate (to himself and others) in an intelligible way some insight into what he feels. The issue, then, is the adequacy of what he is creating. This is an important issue for an assessment of any important work of art, of course. But what I'm claiming here is that in this book the text itself raises this issue repeatedly and explicitly, so much so that it becomes (arguably) the central concern of the books.

By way of explaining this in more detail, let me draw here on one of the most famous analytical concepts in literary criticism in the past hundred years, T. S. Eliot's notion of what he calls the “objective correlative”:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. . . . The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion. . . . (“Hamlet and His Problems,” from The Sacred Wood)

Eliot here is indicating a key issue in the creation and the interpretation of works of art: the form in which the artist chooses to present whatever it is she has to communicate. The success of the work, Eliot points out, depends above all on the adequacy of the symbolic form to the emotion which the work is to convey.

This concept reminds us (if we need reminding) that the creation of a work of art is a form of exploration. It is not the case that the artist begins with the work clearly and totally formulated in her imagination. It is much rather the case that the artist begins with an idea about an “objective correlative,” that is, with a sense of how she can take the imaginative feelings within her (which may be strong but shapeless) and give them some initial form, some shape outside herself, something which the audience or the readership can accept in such a way that the form communicates something that is emotionally intelligible. The “objective correlative” may be (indeed, one suspects it often is) merely an initial artistic gamble which, if it works, then provides some impetus to the development and clarification of the welter of feelings inside the creative artist.

And that gamble may, of course, not work, so that the result is muddled, unintelligible, and confusing (Eliot introduces his “objective correlative” principle in an essay on Hamlet in order to make the point that Shakespeare, in some important ways, failed in this play—that is, the artistic gamble did not work as it should have). There's no way to guarantee what will happen once the author launches his artistic gamble, since the work which results will depend upon the way in which his imagination works with the symbolic form he has launched (and which makes its own demands as he proceeds). Anyone here who has tried to write poetry, fiction, or music or to paint a picture should understand readily enough this notion of an initial gamble on the symbolic form and of its success or failure.

Spiegelman present Maus to us as an artistic gamble, and, in the figure of Artie, raises some important questions about the extent to which that gamble is paying off. I'll have more to say about this later, but let me offer a couple of specific examples of Spiegelman's initial artistic decision.

The Comic Book Style

The first, of course, was his decision to set up his artistic exploration as a comic book. Naturally, he could have used plenty of other forms (poetry, novel, music, essays, diary entries, and so on), but as a professional comic book artist he, understandably enough, moved to his artistic strength. That's a unique gamble (something that has contributed to the book's fame and generated some heated debate) because until Maus appeared, the popular conception of subjects fit for comic books did not generally include serious treatments of deeply-rooted historical evil like the Holocaust.

Incidentally, the objection that a comic book is not a suitable artistic form for such a serious subject is a point of view we can (and should) respect, but not one we have to agree with. A person who makes such an objection may well be indicating some real difficulty he has with squaring his understanding of comic books (based on his own experience) with his emotional response to the Holocaust, but that's his personal response and hardly a valid artistic generalization. People's artistic preferences can always interfere with their response to a particular art work (as in, for example, productions of Shakespeare's plays, where spectators often tend to have decided preferences for and dislikes of particular production styles—Elizabethan, modern dress, historical accuracy, and so on. Such preferences do not and cannot establish that some production styles are, in themselves, appropriate or inappropriate, even though we recognize the importance of personal preferences in our aesthetic responses. The test is surely the quality of the result—that is, how the style has been used in this case).

It's not part of my purpose here to discuss particular details of the comic book style, except to note that this form of art which involves a sequential series of “boxed” pictures arranged spatially on two facing pages at a time permits Spiegelman constantly to juxtapose present and past in a way that keeps alive in front of us the central thrust of the text—the relationship between the family's past and Artie's present. The style does not encourage us to get seduced into the father's story without constantly holding onto the fact that the attempt to understand that story is the main concern here.

The comic book style is uniquely equipped to achieve this, because it can keep past and present alive before us in a way rather different from other art forms. Unlike a film or a novel it does not have to fade in and fade out (i.e., alternate past and present). In dealing with a comic book, the readers always experience a particular “boxed” image in relation to those around it and to the entire layout of the two pages. The shape of the boxes, their size relative to each other, and the visual patterning of images and the calligraphy of the script all help to shape our response to the text, but always in the context of other images on the page. And, most important, the reader controls the pace of the experience—he can linger on a particular image, shift his attention back to a previous one, move on quickly to a dominant image further ahead on the page, and so on.

These matters are fascinating to pursue in more detail, but they are not immediately germane to my main purpose in this lecture. So I'll have to settle for one example of what I have been talking about. Spiegelman's narrative moves back and forth from modern-day New York to the dislocation of his father's experiences in the 1930's and 1940's. The transition back and forth is evoked visually by the structure of the panels in the respective parts of the narrative. In modern day New York, for example, the panels tend to be all more or less equal in size, and we move to them in a logical way from left to right. The artistic style tends to remain the same, without sudden interruptions or jarring contrasts. As we start to move to the father's memories, however, the easy flow often becomes instantly upset, and visually we have to sort out where we are and where we are going. The transition points often invite us to linger on some evocative contrasts (pages 12 and 13 of Volume I, for example, force us to contemplate conflicting images of the old and young Vladek under the number tattooed on his arm; the image sets up symbolically the contrast the book is seeking to explore)—how did we get from there to here, and what does it mean?

This point becomes almost a repetitive pattern within both books, and the visual contrast between past and present becomes a constant reminder of the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility of fitting in the father's experiences into the framework of an easy, regular, and predictable pattern. Given that one of the main themes of the book is the attempt to sort out the relationship of the past to the present, the visual form of the comic book is here used in a rich and fertile manner that keeps this issue always in front of us visually, without any awkward shifts back and forth.

[As I mention, there's a great deal more one could (and perhaps should) add by way of paying tribute to Spiegelman's enormously subtle use of the comic book style here. I refer readers interested in pursuing these matters to look to Scott McCloud's extremely interesting book Understanding Comics.]

The Beast Fable

A second gamble is the decision to cast the story as a beast fable—that is, to symbolize the human interactions with different animals and groups of animals (as in, say, Animal Farm). In terms of that concept of the objective correlative, this decision has the effect of establishing some distance between the author and his story, of making the depicted fiction something less immediately related to his own personality and distress.

We can appreciate the effect of this decision (and are meant to appreciate the effect) by comparing the beast fable style with an earlier gamble, that section called “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” which uses a completely different style—a much more intense, immediate, and personal expressionistic style. This has the effect of cranking up the intensity of the art work but so such an extent that it becomes much less accessible—a private nightmare rather than a publicly intelligible vision (there's a sense here that the artist is creating far too close to his own immediate personal feelings). One senses the pain, but loses the ability to reflect upon it or understand it. And the style is so excessive that it leaves the artist with no room to alter the dynamics or the subtlety of the art. The contrast between the art in this section and in the rest of the book helps to make the point about how much more effective, especially over the long haul, the apparently simpler style of the beast fable is in shaping the artist's experiences in such a way that we can contemplate them and come to some understanding of them.

In fact, the contrast between these two styles may well serve to remind us again that, where powerful feelings are the issue, it's not always necessary to find an immediately symbolic expression where the overt power in the language seeks to match the intensity of the feelings (as in nightmarish expressionism). There may well be an important artistic point in using a much quieter and more subtle artistic language precisely at such times (some of the most effective songs or poems of desolation and despair and pain are often very quiet, apparently simple blues melodies and lyrics)—and for the reasons suggested, in Maus a more immediately powerful language of pain might well bring the work too close to the intense but muddled personal feelings of the artist; whereas, a more “objective” language (like the symbolism of a beast fable) may encourage a more eloquent and dispassionate text, and therefore perhaps something more emotionally honest, intelligent, and clear.

Now, the beast fable metaphor is something which, to judge from the immediate reactions of students, people find interesting, agreeable, and clever.  Artistically it works to keep readers involved in the story—the gamble seems to have paid off. But I'd like to linger on it for some time in order to make the point (in case it needs to be made) that what is going on here is much more subtle than might at first appear.

How are we supposed to interpret the animal imagery used throughout Maus? Some people have made the obvious suggestion that this form creates an obvious allegory, in which the different types of people are characterized in a simple, one-to-one manner with the characteristics of the animals which represent them. And to a certain extent this is true. Depicting the Jewish people as mice, for example, summons up a host of contradictory associations which, in fact, conveys an assortment of different attitudes towards the Jewish people: small, loveable (like Mickey Mouse), harmless, on the one hand, and yet verminous, repellent, and ugly on the other. Portraying the Germans as cats brings out the power and malevolence of the entire Holocaust experience, the point being that cats don't just kill mice: they capture them, play with them, and then kill them.

So the allegorical basis of the story seems clear and unambiguous. But is it? In a sense, the story is always calling attention to the adequacy of that allegory, and it's by no means clear, as we read the story, in what the mousiness of the Jewish people consists. Is it because that is what they, in effect, are? Or is it the case that they are mice because that is the way they are perceived by others (note the example of the mouse who claims he is not Jewish but German—his claim makes no difference because that is the way he is perceived and has been labelled)? Or are they mice because they perceive and think of themselves as mice?

But what's particularly interesting is how the imagery in Maus frequently calls into question the basic artistic gamble on which most of the story rests—that's one of the most intriguing and challenging features of the text. For example, the fact that throughout the story, people can put on a mask and assume the identity of another animal species strongly suggests that a part of this story is trying to tear down any allegorical framework in order to evoke the absurdity of the racial stereotyping which is the basic framework for any allegorical understanding of the differences between human beings—but which is also the basis for the art work in the book.

This point becomes particularly evident in the opening of the second volume, when the artist is trying to sort out how to draw his wife, a French woman who has converted to Judaism. Here the text pauses to draw explicit attention to the absurdity of trying to classify people into racial groups and unite them under a common animal symbol—and it does so in a way that calls into question the validity of the artistic conception Artie has chosen to tell his story.

Why is this section in here? Why is Spiegelman deliberately mocking (or at least challenging) his own art? I would suggest that it is an attempt to put pressure on us to question the adequacy of such a beast fable. Of course, the Holocaust took place very much as a beast fable, with the different groups falling into clearly identifiable classes, each with its distinct characteristics. And the event required that people subscribe to the classification system, that is, accept it as the reality, both with regard to themselves and to others—classification systems only work if people believe in them. But, this moment suggests, such an easy classification is absurd and arbitrary.

Spiegelman has deliberately held off this radical challenge of the metaphor basic to his entire book because by this point the reader herself is an eager participant in the classification system established without fanfare at the start—the reader has gone along with the game, so to speak, has given her imaginative assent to the beast fable. Now the story itself is, in effect, pulling the rug out from under itself, calling attention to the absurdity of dividing people up into different animal groups (that is, the absurdity of the entire artistic undertaking), and enabling us to assess our own complicity, the ease with which we, too, after the horrible facts, imaginatively accept the premise essential to what went on.

But the issue is even more complex than that, because we then, in what is perhaps the most evocative image in the book see the author himself at work (on p. 41 in Volume II)—he is definitely not a mouse but he has on a mouse mask, wrestling with the consequences of the success of his first volume, sitting on top of a pile of dead mice. What's striking here in this remarkably powerful image is the mask—as if the author himself can only continue working by assuming the metaphor he has already exploded as absurd. It may be merely a mask, but it's the only thing protecting him from the rotting corpses (and the flies buzzing around and above them).

The point here is that what started out (perhaps) as an apparently simple allegorical metaphor has become much more complicated—something absurd, but necessary. If the classification system encouraged by the beast fable is an arbitrary and cruel fiction, it is also, in a sense, indispensable. How else are we to understand experience if we don't adopt some system of classification, some basic metaphorical construct which enables us to launch an attempt to understand, even though we have to admit the metaphor is absurd.

It may be significant that this important image of Artie at work—a section that indicates he has found no closure with the success of the first volume—is followed by the session with the psychiatrist. Here both men them adopt mouse masks (which the art work establishes definitely as masks over human heads, not as allegorical mice). The fact that in both of these scenes the author is depressed and unsure of himself suggests that, in spite of the great commercial success of what he has done so far, he is not at all sure if what he is doing is what he ought to be doing. At any event, the success hasn't led to whatever it was he was hoping for at the start—and the duplicity of the mask—the art work suggests—is an important part of the issue (the panel which suggests that the success of volume one has prompted Hollywood capitalists to market mouse paraphernalia is a particularly savage swipe, not just at Hollywood, but at the effectiveness of what he has been doing with his art).

Of Mice, Schematic Mice, and Men

But if this beast fable has the effect on us which I'm suggesting, if, that is, it catches us up and then catches us out and complicates our understanding of what's happening in this text, then one important reason is that we are not really dealing here with mice, cats, pigs, frogs, and dogs, but with schematic animals, especially schematic mice. What I mean by that term “schematic” is this: the depictions of mice are not naturalistic—they are by contrast highly schematized. For the most part all we see of the mouse is the outline of a head, the eyes, and the mouth (and occasionally the tail). We are confronting the cartoon outline of an animal. For Spiegelman makes no attempt to render his mice life like—that is, like real mice. In fact, as we enter this book, we move from much more naturalistic mice on the cover and on the inside jacket, to obviously schematic mice in the first panels and throughout the book.

Why is this important? To get a sense of this I'd like to borrow an idea from Scott McCloud's book Understanding Comics. He talks about a spectrum of art from the fully subjective to the fully objective. What he means by this is that an image can insist upon its factual reality apart from us (i.e., invite us to treat it objectively) or it can invite us to identify ourselves with the image (i.e., draw us into the subjective experience of being inside that image). McCloud argues that the simpler and more schematic the representation of an image, the more subjective it becomes and, thus, the more easily and quickly we can identify with it.

For example, consider the simplest form of a human face, a circle, with dots representing the eyes a simple line representing the mouth, no more. Such a picture makes no pretence towards objectivity, towards representing anyone particular. And so anyone viewing this face can, in effect, see himself in it. There is no particular detail to disqualify such a subjective identification. As soon as I begin to put in particular details (e.g., hair, glasses, a moustache or beard, and so on), I am changing the effect of the picture. I am, in a sense, increasingly objectifying it, pushing it further and further away from the general viewer in a direction which leads, ultimately, to a photographic representation of a particular person, objectively realized—someone who is clearly not an image the reader can immediately identify with (by contrast, such an identification is explicitly denied by the “otherness” of the naturalistically rendered face)..

[It might be interesting to note, parenthetically, that, according to a famous Hollywood story, when Walt Disney first drew Mickey Mouse, the creature was very close to an objective portrait of a mouse, with body hair and a distinct animal appearance. The comic did not start to become famous until Walt heeded the advice of his brother Bill and took the hair off the mouse and put the mouse in clothes. Now, all of a sudden I am not dealing with an objectified mouse but with an everyman mouse, whose character I can enter.]

Now, as McCloud point out, the schematic portrayal of faces is often a common technique of comic books (one thinks immediately of Curious George or Tintin), so that the reader is instinctively drawn to identify with, to enter the experience of the character presented in such a manner. That's particularly the case when, as in Maus and many other comics, the schematic face is surrounded by much more naturalistically rendered objects and people, often heavily shaded or coloured, so that the blank spot on the face (in Maus the white patch of the mouse's face) immediately stands out as the highlight of the panel because it's the brightest spot (often the only bright spot) in the panel (something strongly emphasized by the black and white style).

In fact, a good deal of Maus works that way—especially when we are dealing with Vladek's wartime experiences. The panel is full of heavy and naturalistic depictions of tools, guns, fences, helmets, boots, and so on, even blueprints, but the mouse faces remain open blanks into which we can project ourselves (one has to admire how much expression Spiegelman can put into a face with a minimum of detail). So the experience of reading the comic is, in effect, to place ourselves in that particular and detailed context—and a good deal of the text's effect comes from the skill with which Spiegelman allows us to do that. Certainly, there is nothing naturalistic about the mouse faces which inhibits such imaginative identification.

That's particularly true of the mice, whose faces are far more schematically rendered than the more naturalistic cats or pigs (they have more details on their faces and thus are more objectively realized). So as we read Maus, there's a subtle and continuing artistic pressure for us to place ourselves in the position of the mice, especially of young Vladek, so that we get a much more immediate sense of his experiences as our experiences—as it were, we enter into the world of the objects and setting with which he has to deal.

But there are moments when Spiegelman challenges this easy identification with Vladek and calls into question his own artistic style—forcing us to break our contact with the narrative and reflect upon just what's going on here. What sort of a book is this? What is the relationship between the enjoyment I am deriving from my reading and what the book is trying to say? Let me mention one such moment—a particularly interesting one—the scene where Vladek and Anja are hiding in the cellar and have to confront a rat (I, 147).

This picture brings into play a complex series of associations. The rat, for example, is very real. This is no schematic rat. And in the scene the mice are hiding from or scared by the rat. But the mice are telling each other that it is not a rat; it's only a mouse. But, of course, that's not true. The composition of the frame puts the reality of the rat right into the foreground, and the object behind it is rendered in a naturalistic fashion—the cellar is real enough. So we are in a real place, back in historical time. At the same time, we are, as it were, inhabiting the consciousness of the schematic mice—we are there in the scene.

The reality of the rat, however, and the reference to the fact that it might be a mouse punctures the allegorical basis which makes the Jews mice. The frame reminds us that what is at stake here is not mice, but people with whom we have closely identified. There's a sense here that Spiegelman is deliberately straining the beast fable metaphor to the breaking point in order to call into question the adequacy of that metaphor (and thus of his entire text).

Spiegelman doesn't offer us any sort of a commentary on how we are supposed to respond at moments like this. What we are to make of it he leaves up to us. But here and elsewhere throughout the books the complex interaction of schematic symbolic mice with the hard objective reality of rats and other real animals (for the German “cats” lead around dogs) and of the solid and usually dark objects creates unusual tensions in the reader—we are always on the point of recognizing the absurdity of what we find most effective in the text. The story is always threatening to unmask itself as something false, something fictional, merely art—not life.

There's a telling moment in the story where we are suddenly forced to acknowledge this process with something of a jolt. That occurs in II, 134, where Spiegelman inserts a photograph of young Vladek in his prisoner's stripes (with a schematic mouse right beside it). This is a startling moment, for that photograph is rudely interrupting our subjective identification with the mouse-Vladek. Once again, Spiegelman seems to be pulling the rug out from under his own text, because this photograph says very clearly, “Vladek is not you. See here—he was a particular, objective, different young man. These are not your experiences. They are his.” Once again, the art work seems to be calling attention to its own limitations, its own ability to deceive, to seduce readers into a false relationship to the story—if that photograph is Vladek, then whose story have I been following and how am I now supposed to deal with it, now that it has rudely reminded me of its own artificiality.

The End of the Story

This feature of the style may help to illuminate the rather curious, even unsettling ending of the narrative, which seems to insist upon the ambiguity, perhaps even the failure, of the entire enterprise. We see the reunion of Anja and Vladek—our expectations rise for the major chord of a happy ending. But Vladek's words (“We were both very happy, and lived happy, happy ever after”) are, of course a lie, since the mother committed suicide soon afterwards and Vladek continued an unhappy, ill old man. That's followed by two panels which insist that nothing has been worked out—the father's last words fail even to recognize Artie, confusing him with the dead son Richieu. It's hard to sense here that Artie has achieved whatever it was which drove him to explore his father's past.

The final image is strange—the tombstone of Vladek and Anja, with their dates, and under that Art Spiegelman's name and dates. What does this suggest? Is the entire family now dead? The artist's name and the dates which presumably refer to the writing of Maus, like a painter's signature at the bottom of a painting, are one last reminder that what we have been dealing with is a fiction, something made up. What is its relationship to the truth symbolized in the gravestone—the reality of his parents' lives? That's up to us to sort out.

This characteristic tendency in Maus of forcing the reader to confront the fact that she is dealing with something made up, an artistic interpretation of reality, gives Maus a distinctly post-modern emphasis, something which tends to shift the main emphasis away from the significance of the story or the characters in it (of the sort common in traditional narratives) and onto more teasing questions about the nature of the relationship between the art, the representation of the story, and what we might call the reality of the family's life.

Perhaps that's why, in the end, the story of Maus fails to offer any consoling “solution” to the problems out of which the urge to produce it arose. There is no solution—there is only the attempt, the probing, frustrating, in some ways contradictory attempt to explore (if art has to find some imaginative “solution,” then, in a sense, this attempt has failed—the text makes that clear enough). Spiegelman's artistic style, his habit of calling his own narrative repeatedly into question, of cancelling any apparent resolution, deliberately cuts us off from being seduced by the fiction into reading more into it than, in his view, it offers. That's the reason why, as I suggested at the start, the key issue here may well be the status of the text itself, rather than any “lesson” which clearly emerges from the human interactions depicted in it.

Why then write the book at all? The text itself offers a possible answer. In his conversation with the psychiatrist (II, 45), Artie states, “Samuel Beckett once said: 'Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness'“—which would seem to indicate that all attempts to shape a human response to experience, including, of course, Maus itself, are a futile waste of time (a “stain”). But then he adds, “On the other hand, he SAID it.” That interchange, to me, indicates as clearly as anything why this text matters. Artie addressed his pain—he spoke out. If what he produced is inconclusive, contradictory, and elusive, he did the only thing any of us can do—he made the attempt.



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