Graphic Novel * Art Spiegelman * The Holocaust * 1986/1991
The Holocaust is too large to really comprehend. In the abstract, you can look at the raw numbers and come to an intellectual understanding about what happened. No, what the Nazis did. Language is important here, because this far into the post-apocalypse it is easy to refer to the actions of the Nazis as some passive disaster, something that ‘just happened.’ This is not accurate. The Holocaust was the result of cold, calculated, bureaucratic planning. It was executed by a system of presumably rational, feeling human beings who knew exactly what they were doing. And yet, because the Holocaust was so vast, it is easy to look past this aspect of it. To allow the abstraction necessary for even a basic understanding of the scope of the genocide is to obfuscate the true nature of this apocalypse.
Six million is a number that your brain can’t handle in a concrete sense. For instance, you can discern individual grains of sand. One grain, two grains, ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand. You can count them and place them into little piles of ten and keep track of them fairly easily. Then you go to the beach and try and do the same thing and eventually your brain goes from a concrete image of a true number of items to the abstract. Your internal counter just rolls from a number to ‘lots.’ This happens with pretty much anything, even people. This is why estimating crowd size is difficult (which is why it is useful to compare images in a known space, like just for instance how Obama’s inauguration was so obviously better attended than that other guy). Again, think of your friends. Individual faces attached to individual personalities each with their own unique history and families and quirks. Put them all in a room and you can still discern them, even if you’re some ridiculous social butterfly with like ten friends. Now take those friends and shove them onto a field where six million other people are milling around and try and find them.
The point of all this is fairly simple: after a certain point the numbers become to too big to care about. While their very size is impressive, they don’t actually mean anything by themselves. The numbers, even with names attached to them, become abstract and thus there can be no emotional attachment. This is part of the reason the Holocaust was allowed to happen in the first place. Hitler was evil, but it’s not like the dude killed six million people by himself. No, in order to make something of this magnitude happen, you need most of an entire nation to be complicit in your scheme. You need to hijack modern technology and the surrounding bureaucracy to further your aims. A high-functioning office structure was essential to the proceedings. The people processing that paperwork may not have been as evil as the people shooting Jews for fun in the camps, but there was certainly a mental disassociation needed to perform their function. The very abstraction of numbers and names made this possible.
By the same token, it is difficult to look back into history and really understand what the Holocaust was and what it meant for the people involved. This is especially true now, considering that most of the survivors and veterans are gone. If humans are good at anything, it’s forgetting. Once the living reminders of the worst human-caused apocalypse in history are gone, it will be easier to forget the massive scale of death and suffering caused by an evil, irrational philosophy aided by the industrial scale of a modern nation-state. Humans are, after all, terminally short-sighted. Years tick by and inevitably the same ideas will start kicking back up with apparently no self-awareness by people who are ‘just asking questions.’ Then those people get into power and now it’s ‘just give them a chance.’ Cool. Well, while we’re doing that let’s pull this discussion out of the abstract and into the concrete.
Maus is a graphic novel featuring cute little cartoon creatures that happen to represent various nationalities and ethnicities and is subtitled “A survivor’s tale.” It is the story of a Polish Jew named Vladek. He was a captured Polish soldier who was returned to his family from a German work camp before the purges that followed the capitulation of Poland and the Nazi advancement of aggression that would follow. Vladek and his wife Anja were able to elude the Nazis for a long time, due to both luck and the ingenuity and industry of Vladek. Eventually, however, their luck ran out and they were both sent to Auschwitz towards the end of the war. Again, through a combination of luck and ingenuity, Vladek and Anja survived. Vladek’s story is recorded and written down by his son, Art, who then turned it into the graphic novel.
Maus is an important work for a multitude of reasons, but the most obvious is that by focusing on an individual in detail, the work is able to convey the true horror of the Holocaust. Vladek’s story distills life from the abstract numbers, but it also contextualizes death. Instead of faceless numbers, Vladek sees smoke churning out of a chimney. Further, this story isn’t told by the survivor himself. Rather, it is told from the point of view of the son, who is hearing these stories and writing them down. This in itself is an act of abstraction, as the son has no way of truly understanding the horror his father lived through. There’s also the matter of filtering the story through Art’s personal relationship with his dad. It’s clear that Vladek kind of sucks. That said, despite the cute little mice and kitties and whatnot, Maus is affecting and impactful. In other words, it’ll wreck your shit.
While Maus is mostly concerned with Vladek’s story of survival in Poland during the war, it’s important to remember that Maus is actually a post-apocalyptic story. The apocalypse in this case is obviously the Holocaust, and everything about the creation and consumption of this work is a means of dealing with the post-apocalypse. Okay, fair warning, I might get a little scholarly for a hot second, so bear with me. There is a way of thinking about apocalypse that likens the massive social event to a personal trauma. This would be the point where I would bring up Freud and Lacan and other impressive names to bolster my case if I were trying to put forward an actual argument here. I’m not. I think it is helpful with a complicated work like Maus to think of things in less abstract terms, however.
The apocalypse-as-trauma idea is fairly simple. At some point during your life, something bad happened to you. Either you suffered a severe physical injury, or you lost someone you love, or some other trauma occurred. That event was a moment of pain, distress, and/or calamity. Bad times. Whatever happened leaves its mark on who you are as a person. It takes a lot of time to process and work through that life-changing event. If you suffered a disfiguring injury, well now you have to learn to live without that arm. If you lost a loved one, now you have to figure out how to live without them. It’s difficult, and depending on the severity of the trauma, the process may never actually end. After the traumatic event, as you learn how to cope and deal with the changes in your life, you will be a different person. In the best case scenario, you’ll grow and become a better and stronger person because you dealt with the trauma with grace and perseverance. In the worst case scenario, you’ll barely be able to deal with your life after the traumatic event at all, and will spiral into depression and despair, perhaps turning to external means of coping. More likely is that any post-traumatic effort will be a mix of both things, again, depending on the actual trauma.
The apocalyptic event (and again this is a gross oversimplification of a complicated mesh of critical theory, something something Derrida) can then be considered as traumatic event applied to an entire society. Instead of an individual processing the aftereffects of a personal disaster, now we’re dealing with a group of people suffering their own individual traumas caused by this one, overarching event. So, let’s say San Andreas comes true and you’re The Rock flying over Bakersfield and you’re looking down at a bunch of screaming Bakos scurrying over their busted-up, smoldering giant strip-mall of a city. The same apocalyptic event happened to each of those people, namely an unlikely massive earthquake. Being individuals, they will all have different methods of dealing with what happened to them. Yet Bakersfield as a social group will also have to cope with the trauma that The Rock didn’t even stop to help out. In addition to this, long after the traumatic event, the repercussions will resonate throughout the social fabric of the town. The children of those spurned by The Rock will grow up refusing to watch Fast and the Furious movies, strip malls will be proudly rebuilt, and life will go on. However, it will be without the obvious joy and comfort of Dwayne Johnson.
Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus, created and published this work as part of an endless, ongoing process of an entire civilization coming to terms with the Holocaust. His perspective is what we’re reading about as we work our way through the horrifying experience of his father, Vladek. Art, the son, did not have these experiences. Rather, his own childhood was marked by the post-traumatic processing of his parents. His mother failed, and committed suicide when he was a child. Vladek also has trouble coping – and to be entirely fair, his experiences are so horrible as to be borderline unbelievable. Yet from Art’s point of view, he’s had to grow up with an unfair weight on his shoulders due to the experiences of his parents. The very opening panels of Maus depict how difficult this must have been for a child with no tangible experience with the horrors of the ghetto or concentration camps. He’s ten or eleven, and Art is bummed out because he was skating with his friends and they ditched him. He’s sad and explains to his father what happened. His father’s response? “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!” What is a ten year old boy supposed to do with a statement like that?
Maus if a framed narrative, with the framing taking place as an adult Art follows his father around trying to collect the stories he’ll use in the finished comic. Vladek is an older man now, and still kind of sucks. He’s cheap, racist, bitter, and otherwise a passive-aggressive asshole. Most of Art and Vladek’s interactions are fraught with tension and extracting the stories of the Holocaust are difficult. That said, it is clear that Art has a deeply ingrained respect and even reverence for his father. There is no romanticizing of Vladek’s actions, but it is clear that he survived by the fruits of his own ingenuity as much as by sheer luck. Vladek was a shrewd man, and was able to work many terrible situations to his favor, thus aiding in not only his own survival, but that of his wife. Now, since we’re dealing with two degrees of testimony, the actual events may have played out differently than they are depicted. It’s possible that Vladek might be making himself sound a lot cooler than he was. It’s also possible that Art wants to think better of his father and thus makes him look better than even the story Vladek told would suggest.
The notion of testimony and narrative transmission becomes a problem, then. Here we are, way down the line of storytelling, far outside the actual events that transpired, so now what do we do with the story? We’re still in a post-apocalyptic civilization, all these years later we’re still processing the trauma of not only the Holocaust, but World War II in general. Narratives such as those in Maus are still important for an understanding of the human cost involved in modern, industrial-scale wars of genocide and aggression. After all, civilization now has the power to destroy itself entirely, which was not the case even at the end of World War II. The Nazis demonstrated then that it was possible – and even easy given the right set of circumstances – to engineer a totalitarian state aimed at the eradication of an entire race of people. This, of course, gets us back to the abstraction problem, which is something a work like Maus seeks to mitigate by rooting the Holocaust in an individual’s story. The bickering of post-structuralist theorists aside, these stories are now of the utmost importance.
Once again, humans are terminally short-sighted. The ideas lurking within the Third Reich still fritter around the edges of human thought, in spite of (or even because of) the unprecedented scale of the Holocaust. The further away from the traumatic event we get, the easier it becomes to willfully ignore what happens when the ideas of unilateral hatred and racial superiority are put into practice. We imagine ourselves healed as a civilization, ready to move on with lessons learned. Yet the worse the trauma, the longer it takes to process. World War II and the Holocaust was the worst thing humanity has ever inflicted upon itself, and it will be long time yet before we find out whether or not we’ve succeeded in growing stronger as a civilization, or if we repeat the same pattern and end up killing ourselves in the bathtub. The continued understanding and transmissions of stories like those found in Maus can only help bring along the former. One can still hope, at least.