Representing History in Art Spiegelman's Maus II
When representing an idea, it is important to realize that a representation is much different from the original idea and can never fully grasp its complexities. It is also important to remember that it is impossible to not represent the concept one is portraying. To portray something is to represent it. The trouble in conveying a historical event is that, as an author, one has the obligation of showing the reader that the author’s representation is just that, a representation and not the original concept or the entirety of the event; nor told with absolute accuracy. Therefore, it is impossible for a narrative to express or truly capture the wholeness of the idea it is representing. This is a postmodern concept greatly understood by Art Spiegelman, author of Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began.
One can understand the necessity in portraying the fallacies of representation through the comments Jean Francois-Lyotard makes in Postmodernism for Beginners. Through the concepts discussed in this text one can see how easy and yet how harmful misrepresentation can be. When discussing history an author must take into account that his depiction of the event cannot capture the whole of the event’s intricacies. The nature of representation is a difficult concept to maneuver and authors must remember to always pair their representation with its identity as a mere representation and not the original context or essence. In Lyotard’s words “Any art attempting to represent the Holocaust should continue to haunt us with its inability to represent the unrepresentable, to say the unsayable” (22).
Spiegelman's Maus II is a graphic novel and I believe Spiegelman chose this format because it is the only way to discuss the Holocaust while simultaneously conveying the impossibility of doing such a task. The Holocaust was such a horrific event that there is no way of truly representing it. Spiegelman realized that everything is a representation. He also realized that representing every aspect of the Holocaust was something that simply cannot be done. It is impossible to capture something free of representation. Spiegelman wanted to write a story about the Holocaust but he was very cautious in his construction. Maus: Volume II is constructed with precise self-awareness and self-devaluation to tell to a story about the Holocaust, while also writing a story about the impossibility of trying to capture this tragic event within the extremely limited parameters of representation.
The plot of Maus II appears as a "frame story," or a story within a story. The graphic novel is not only a story about the Holocaust; it is a story that depicts Spiegelman writing his story about the Holocaust. This extensively self-conscious construction allowed Spiegelman to write a story about something as powerful and tragic as the Holocaust, yet still show his readers that his was merely a meager attempt at representing the unrepresentable. It was his goal to show that he in no way had the capacity to write a story that captured the pure essence of the Holocaust. However he managed to portray the Holocaust to his best ability, while still conveying how lacking his best ability was.
There are several examples of Speigelman’s careful self-conscious artistry and writing in Maus. In pages 41 – 46, Spiegelman describes his guilt and fear in writing his novel. In this section he depicts himself as a writer with the mask of a mouse’s face; the face that appears on his character in the graphic novel which actually is a mouse. This symbolizes the inability he felt in creating Maus. He did this also to show that he does not see himself as having all the answers about the Holocaust or having the ability to portray the Holocaust for all that it was. In this section a number of businessmen and reporters ask Spiegelman questions about Maus that he is unable to answer. This is another way he chose to portray that he does not have the ability (and does not pretend to have the ability) to represent the totality of the Holocaust and its numerous complexities.
In the first pages of Maus II, Spiegelman’s mouse character (which represents himself) begins talking to his wife about how lost he feels attempting to write Maus. This is an example of the frame story of the graphic novel’s plot. Spiegelman did this to show the ineptitude he felt in creating this work. In these pages Spiegelman’s character says to his wife “I mean, I can’t even make any sense out of my relationship with my father…how am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?...of the Holocaust?” (Spiegelman 14). The author chose this method to portray his feelings of inadequacy. Spiegelman saw that the best way to tell his audience how he felt about writing the novel was to say it in the novel itself. This is another example of the frame story which appears in the novel. Spiegelman had to use this self-devaluation to show how he really felt about his novel and to show how he had no intention of trying to capture all of the feelings, connotations, and events that transpired with the Holocaust.
The graphic novel is told in this self-conscious manner so Spiegelman can show his understanding of the nature of self-representation and to show his level of aptitude (or lack of aptitude) in writing about the Holocaust. He wanted to be sure his readers had no misconception about his knowledge of the matter or how lost he felt in such a task. In the same passage where Spiegelman describes his feelings about writing Maus to his wife, he says to her “I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams” (Spiegelman 16). By acknowledging his inadequacies in the text itself, it allows him to portray his lack of denial for an absolute narrative; for a Grand narrative. This is really quite a postmodern idea. The self-aware constructivism in Maus II is an example of postmodern principles. Spiegelman employed this self-consciousness because he was skeptical about being able to represent the Holocaust; he was skeptical about the existence of a narrative that could encompass everything it attempts to represent. This doubt in a grand-narrative is a postmodern concept, clearly making Maus II a postmodern work.
Maus II was purposely written with a very self-aware construction. By accepting that he is unable to draw a grand narrative about the Holocaust he is portraying postmodern themes. In Postmodernism for Beginners, Lyotard says “Attempting to represent Auschwitz in any language – to reduce the degradation, death, and stench to a concept – drowns out the screams, according to Lyotard, is therefore necessary that the Holocaust remains immemorial – that it remains that which cannot be remembered – but also that which cannot be forgotten” (21). The concept of recognizing the foolishness of a grand narrative, or any narrative that captures absolutes, is postmodernism. Maus II is a postmodern text and Spiegelman used his shortcomings to make Maus II portray how the Holocaust can never be truly represented.
The nature of representation is a complicated concept, especially for when dealing with a story about an event as prodigious as the Holocaust. Spiegelman recognized the impossibility of a grand narrative about this event and this is why he wrote Maus II with such self-conscious construction. He did not want his readers to think his account for one man’s story about the Holocaust captured all of the horrific nature of this event. Nor did he want to appear as he had all the answers for it. Maus II and its postmodern construction allowed Spiegelman to write such a moving story, while still making his narrative aware of its own inability.
Powell, Jim. Postmodernism for Beginners. Danbury: For Beginners LLC, 1998. Print.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: a Survivor's Tale : and Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon, 1992. Print.