by Mehak Burza
This article analyses the depiction of trauma in Art Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began. Post First World War, the definition of trauma has undergone a significant change. While trauma theorists are still divided in their opinion about a proper medium of traumatic representation, the graphic novels of the Holocaust paved a new way of experimenting with the traumatic form. Interlacing the text with images and conveying the meaning through the architecture of the panels, Maus bears witness to the Holocaust in a unique way.
Ethics of Representation of Holocaust Trauma
The Nazi rule came to an end in 1945 with the liberation of the concentration and death camps. However, the cataclysmic event of the Holocaust continued to re-live through the traumatic memories of the survivors. For this reason, the repercussion of the event was even more horrific as the wounds of the trauma were slow to heal. The recounting of the first-hand information of the event, reconnecting with relatives, restitution of confiscated wealth and property, immigration, and rebuilding of fragmented lives characterized the aftermath paraphernalia of the Holocaust. Following the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, many survivors were forced to live in displaced persons camps, where they had to wait years before being able to emigrate to a new country.
The late 1940s saw a significant increase in the number of exiles, Prisoners Of War (POWs) and other dislodged populaces moving across Europe. In order to prosecute the perpetrators of the Holocaust and deal with the Nazi war criminals, the Allies conducted the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46, which revealed the Nazi’s horrendous crimes. The Nuremberg Trials were a series of thirteen trials held in Nuremberg, Germany. The litigants, which included Nazi Party authorities and senior military officials alongside German industrialists, legal advisors, and specialists were prosecuted on charges such as crimes against humanity. Increasing tension on the Allied forces to make a separate country for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust would eventually prompt a mandate for the formation of the separate state of Israel in 1948.
The Holocaust thus remains a major touchstone for trauma, and any response to it inevitably elicits a traumatic response. Trauma has been regarded problematic in its representation. Trauma theorists are divided in their opinion with regard to the propriety of its definition and a medium of representation. It is considered as a state that is dominated by aporia and hence eludes a straitjacketed description and definition. The trajectory of the definition of trauma has indeed been a long one. Reports of the psychological and physiological damage inflicted upon Holocaust victims circulated within a few years after the end of the Second World War; however, it was not until the 1960s that an extensive body of literature began to appear on this subject, and a number of comparative studies were introduced. These findings documented a wide range of physical and psychic impairments suffered by Holocaust survivors. This included severe headaches, fears, anxieties, dependence and indecision, and various forms of social maladjustments. These symptoms were then interpreted as constituting a syndrome characteristic of individuals subjected to the peculiar trauma experienced by Holocaust victims.
Consequently, the notion of trauma has undergone significant change. What was earlier known to be a wound inflicted upon the ‘body’ came to be known as a wound inflicted upon the ‘psyche’. It is this psychic wound which becomes the pivotal force in driving the traumatic Holocaust testimonies. According to Judith Herman, such traumatic memories often lack verbal narrative and context and rather are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images. Thus, the traumatized people see intrusive images and have recurrent dreams and nightmares – a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder. The disorder was known by at least a hundred names before its formal recognition, shell shock, combat fatigue, and soldier’s heart being the most common. As late as the 1980s, the term Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was given its formal recognition by the U.S. medical and scientific community, which is central as a concept within Trauma studies.
The paradox of trauma is that it cannot be represented – and yet it should be. Cathy Caruth, in her work, Unclaimed Experience, argues about psychological trauma being the state that is possessed by an image or event. Trauma warrants recognition, and hence testimony of trauma imports a moral obligation for others to bear witness to it and participate in its reconstruction. The narrative of trauma that is provided through testimony generates our knowledge of that trauma, which emerges from the void. With respect to traumatic memory and the reconstruction of events, Dominick La Capra goes beyond the notion of ‘belatedness’ viewed by trauma theorists such as Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman as being essential to trauma. Elaborating on the Freudian discourse of psychoanalysis, La Capra suggests the dual processes of ‘acting out’ and ‘working through’. While in the former, the victim relives the past as if it were fully present; the latter involves gaining a critical distance on the event in order to distinguish between the past and the present. This becomes necessary for the victim as having survived the catastrophe, the victim sees himself as a changed person. The haunting by a traumatic event, La Capra believes, can be countered by narrative, and over the decades post Second World War, there was an increase in the Holocaust memoirs written by the survivors describing the inhuman atrocities and their disquieting experiences.
When looking for representations of the Holocaust’s trauma, one finds numerous examples. On one hand, there are survivor testimonies with a chronological account of the traumatic memories, on the other, literary texts also exist that defy the chronology. One such example is the genre of graphic narratives that breathe life into texts through images. On the Western front, the nineteenth century was the time when the speech balloons evolved as a means of ascribing dialogue and William Hogarth established a set of narratives over a number of images. It was also the era of the mass enlargement of the press and the hitherto satirical drawings, which appeared as individual works of art, were superseded with the advent of lithography and woodblock etching. This paved the way for the regular appearance of caricatures in the newspapers and magazines, which gained the name cartoons around the middle of the nineteenth century Soon after, the sequences of drawings in the cartoons were assigned certain sections of narratives along with it, a form that emerged as comics. They consisted of interrelated panels displaying brief humor with text in speech balloons, with R.F. Outcault being the major driving force of the form. However, unlike the comics, the graphic narratives provide stand-alone stories with a more complex plot, delving into all sorts of social, political, and psychological issues. The first decisive usage of the term ‘graphic novel’ is attributed to Will Eisner, who coined it in his 1978 book entitled A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories.
Maus by Art Spiegelman not only illuminates vivid memories of the Holocaust but also attempts to analyze the trans-generational trauma of the second generation. Representing the second survivor generation, Art Spiegelman makes an effort to recover his father, Vladek’s tale. Maus is a two-volume graphic narrative (Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began) in which Art Spiegelman retells the tale of his father Vladek, a Polish Jew, who endured the Nazi death camps along with his better half and Art’s mother, Anja. Other than recounting an anecdote about the Holocaust totally in the funny cartoon/comic design, Maus’s most salient component is the animal metaphor. Spiegelman draws the characters as humanized creatures and Jews as depicted as mice (German: Maus), the Nazis as felines, the Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, and the French as frogs.
There exists a dialectical relationship between the images and the text. At the heart of the story is the tortured relationship between Art and his father, an old man who is obsessed with his past, helpless, and totally impossible in his present, and thus can be seen existing in two different worlds: the present – today’s world of his retirement and the past- the world remembered for occupied Poland and extermination camps. The overall impression of both the volumes is in the form of a memoir, in which the author tells of his interviews with his father’s experiences in the concentration camps. As Vladek tells his story, annotations from the perspective of past speaker’s conscience in Art’s voice give way to those in Vladek, so the bulk of the narration is technically in flashbacks. The construction of meaning is done at multiple levels within multiple timeframes. The different temporal planes involving interplay of the past (Holocaust) and present are captured in unique ways, through the architecture of the panels, unlike the linear narration. Lettering plays a significant part in the organization of the graphic novel as it vibrantly represents and marks the voices of the various characters, and includes devices as diverse as spelling, bold, italics, and visual alliterations. Eisner argues that in a graphic narrative, the style of lettering and the emulation of accents are the clues enabling the reader to read it with the emotional nuances the storyteller intended.
While the present conversation is shown in a white background, the past is revealed with a greyish background. Bold letters are used to emphasise a point. The different temporal planes of the Holocaust and the present coexist on the same page.
Pictures and sometimes, even words can be either black and white or colored. Both are important techniques and add different connotations to the story. Further, there exists temporal blurring in the narrative as the past narrative sequence is constantly punctured by Vladek’s present interruptions. This is depicted in several instances such as scolding his son for dropping ash on the carpet, returning the half-eaten cornflakes packet, losing count of his pills, and using the burning matchstick to light up another burner. Thus, Vladek does not make any efforts to redeem himself throughout the narrative.
Since Art has no direct experience of the Holocaust, the traumatic incidents are mediated to him through interviews with his father, which he records on tape. During these interviews, Vladek re-enacts his suppressed trauma as brought about by the loss of almost his entire family. Art, the secondary witness, receives the history of the Holocaust and re-interprets it by rewriting Vladek’s testimony in the form of a graphic book. In doing so, he acquires what can correspond to Marianne Hirsch’s concept of post-memory, and thus belongs to the hinge generation that receives broken refrains of trauma from the survivor/first generation. Through the interview, it becomes clear that Art had a brother Richieu, who perished in the death camp. His photograph was in his parents’ bedroom and it is evident from his father’s talk that he values Richieu more than him. Art thus becomes Richieu’s imperfect surrogate and calls him his ghost brother. Art’s traumatic competition with his brother reaches its ironic climax at the end of volume II, when his seriously ill and disoriented father confusing him with Richieu, asks him to stop recording his interview on the tape. Gabriele Schwab argues that the competition with a dead sibling is a classical syndrome of replacement children. It is also a prevalent form in which parental trauma is transmitted to the next generation and often to generations to come. Art’s ‘inheritance’ of his parents’ trauma results in his preoccupation with the Holocaust, although he is in constant denial with it. Vladek’s and Anja’s past experiences form an important part of his identity. His identification with his parents’ affliction becomes so intense that he starts imagining being in Auschwitz. He recalls his aberrant dreams from childhood about Nazi soldiers storming into his classroom and taking away all the Jewish pupils, and he fantasizes about Zyklon B coming out from the shower of their bathroom instead of water. His awareness that he did not live through the Holocaust contributes to his feelings of incompetence. Art’s trauma requires psychotherapy, and this can be seen in Volume II of the book when he consults his Czech psychiatrist, Dr. Pavel, who is also a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz.
Although there does not exist a perfect way to represent trauma, as each representation has a veracity of its own, the graphic novels provide a new outlook to perceive the trauma of the Holocaust without traumatizing the readers. By approaching history through spatiality, the graphic novel provides an experimental way of representing the trauma, and in turn providing alternative ways of telling stories. In the narrative, the trauma of the Holocaust is also connected to the trauma of everyday events. An instance of the everyday trauma can be seen in the hitchhiker episode in Maus II. In one of his interviews, Spiegelman was asked about his choice of choosing mice to depict the Jews, to which he stated that he wanted to show the events and the memory of the Holocaust without showing them.
Mehak Burza is a doctoral research scholar of Holocaust Studies in the Department of English, Jamia University (New Delhi, India). Her thesis title is Literary Representations of The Holocaust; An Assessment. Her primary interests include Holocaust/Genocide Studies, Gender Studies, Holocaust Trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). She has presented papers in international conferences in Texas and Gettysburg. Her creative works have been published in Trouvaille Review, Visual Verse and Galaxy International Multidisciplinary Research Journal. She also translates from Hindi/Urdu into English and her translations are published in Purple Ink Magazine, the online magazine of Brown University, Los Angeles. She is also associated with LLIDS Journal as a peer reviewer, as a copy editor (part time) in Journal of International Women’s Studies and is a moderator for The Digital and Computer Games in the discord server. Apart from academics she is trained classical dancer, with Kathak being her forte
Mehak is a External Representative at Strife.