«STEPHANIE CERASO Survivors’ Tales: Cultural Trauma, Postmemory, and the Role of the Reader in Art Spiegelman’s Visual Narratives Trauma is a ...»
Survivors’ Tales: Cultural Trauma, Postmemory, and the
Role of the Reader in Art Spiegelman’s Visual Narratives
Trauma is a disruptive experience that disarticulates the self and creates holes in existence. 1
Many traditional modes of historiography represent the past as though it were completely
severed from the present. As Hans-Georg Gadamer writes, “there are innumerable tasks of historical scholarship that have no relation to our own present and to the depths of its historical consciousness.” 2 Historical narratives often create a false sense of closure by appearing to be unified, coherent stories based solely on factual evidence. These narratives isolate us from the past by masking history’s contemporary relevance. But, Gadamer continues, “there can be no doubt that the great horizon of the past, out of which our culture and our present live, influences us in everything we want, hope for, or fear in the future. History is only present to us in light of our futurity.” 3 In terms of continuity, or creating a continuous historical narrative, traditional historical accounts are problematic. Although the transmission of history is dependent on the reader’s ability to make connections with the past, the reader is alienated from these seemingly objective historical narratives. Furthermore, because these accounts ignore the relationship Stephanie Ceraso: Survivors’ Tales 204 EnterText 6.3 between the past and the present, thereby making history appear irrelevant, they produce a dehistoricised notion of the future. Art Spiegelman’s Maus and In The Shadow of No Towers, however, present historians with an innovative alternative model of historical representation in which the ways we come to know and understand our personal and cultural histories are made explicit.4 In Maus, Spiegelman tells the story of Vladek, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, and his son Art, a cartoonist who longs to understand his father. Art’s and Vladek’s stories spiral around each other, becoming tightly intertwined as the narrative progresses. Similarly, in In The Shadow of No Towers, an account of Spiegelman’s perpetual anxiety after 9/11, a major historical event is intertwined with Art’s personal connection to the event. As I will demonstrate, Spiegelman also implicates the reader into both of these narratives. His constant weaving of the personal (the incorporation of his own story and the reader’s memories/experiences) and the historical produces a new narrative, one in which a combination of “then” and “now” is brought into existence for future readers. By involving the reader in these historical accounts, Spiegelman is implanting in them a history that will be transmitted to the future. Thus, Spiegelman gives history a sense of continuity by (re)historicising “our futurity.” 5 Although incorporating the reader into the narrative plays a major part in giving history a contemporary resonance, it is also a controversial aspect of Spiegelman’s work. Since Spiegelman is dealing with cultural trauma, the reader is implicated not just in the narrative, but in the horror being represented. The psychic strain produced by this trauma is inflicted on the reader. His texts, then, raise some significant ethical questions and dilemmas that need to be taken into consideration. This essay will explore the disease-like effect of postmemory
(Marianne Hirsch’s term for the notion of being haunted by memories of trauma that one has experienced only indirectly6) on Spiegelman and his work, as well as the ethical questions that arise in Maus and In The Shadow of No Towers. More specifically, I will argue that the proliferation of trauma in the reader, ethical or not, plays a crucial role in the transmission of cultural trauma/history. Because this transmission cannot occur without the reader’s active participation in the text, it is also necessary to look at how the reader’s individual experiences affect the ways in which history is passed on and distorted from generation to generation.
Examining Spiegelman’s engaging mode of historical representation will illustrate that the past’s role in shaping the present, particularly how we have come to know about the past, must be exposed and understood in order for transformation to occur in the future.
Samuel Beckett once said: “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”…. On the other hand, he SAID it. 7 In At Memory’s Edge, James Young comments on Spiegelman’s attempt to capture those Holocaust stories that remain untold. Young writes,
Young continues this discussion of representing the unrepresentable in an interview with Spiegelman. When asked about his substitution of animals for humans, Spiegelman replies, “I need to show the events and memory of the Holocaust without showing them. I want to show the masking of these events in their representation.” 9 The anthropomorphised characters symbolise
that which cannot be revealed: distorted or lost memories, the experiences of the deceased, and the horrific reality of the Holocaust itself, which is impossible to recapture. Moreover, the animals draw attention to themselves, constantly reminding readers not to conflate the actual Holocaust with the constructed memory of the Holocaust. 10 The unshowable and ineffable elements that Young examines take on a visible form in Maus. The gutters (the spaces between panels) tacitly enrich Spiegelman’s story in a way that words or images alone could not; gutters are unique to the comic medium. The silences and voids surrounding personal and historic events are located within these gutters. They are spaces from which we can extract just as much, if not more, meaning as we can from images or words.
Clearly, the transmission of meaning does not simply stop when language stops. As Michel Foucault writes,
Like Foucault, Spiegelman does not subscribe to a binary division that separates the spoken from the unspoken/unspeakable. Rather, he has found a visible way not to say things. Spiegelman uses the inclusion and embodiment of silence, the silence surrounding both the Holocaust and his own life story, as a device to incorporate the reader into his text.
Throughout Maus, we are constantly made aware of what is lacking in Spiegelman’s
never tell THEIR side of the story, so maybe it’s better not to have any more stories.” 12 In addition to the innumerable lost stories, Spiegelman’s deceased relatives (his mother Anja and brother Richieu), are crucial voices that are also absent from his narrative. I would suggest, however, that the very act of acknowledging these voids gives them a ubiquitous presence. They are at once everywhere and nowhere. As Vladek exclaims in the second volume, “Anja? What is to tell? Everywhere I look I’m seeing Anja…. From my good eye, from my glass eye, if they’re open or they’re closed, always I’m thinking on Anja.” 13 Although they are physically missing, the presence of the dead and the silence of things left unsaid saturate every page.
The narrative action, both Vladek’s story and Art’s reconstruction of this story, happens within the borders of the panels. But as Spiegelman himself states, “It’s what takes place between the panels that activates the medium.” 14 Art is compelled to record his father’s story in an attempt to make sense of his own life, to fill in the silences and voids that disturb him. The gutters, then, embody what Art and the reader do not and cannot know about Art’s personal history and the history of the Holocaust. It is the desire to recover what has been silenced, to restore lost or unknown knowledge, that propels the narrative forward. Michael Levine notes, “Staining these silences and those of his father’s story with the words of his text, Spiegelman screens them in such a way as to allow them all the more powerfully and hauntingly to bleed through.” 15 This strategic “staining” is apparent from the very first pages of Spiegelman’s text.
In the poignant opening scene of Maus, Spiegelman gives the reader a glimpse of what it was like to grow up with a Holocaust survivor: even the most trivial events of Art’s childhood are coloured by his father’s memories of the Holocaust. In this scene, a sobbing young Art is abandoned by his friends, who prove to be more skilful on roller skates. When he explains what
happened to his father, Vladek is disgusted that his son would even refer to these kids as “friends.” He bursts out, “If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!...” 16 The spatial arrangement of the very last panel in the sequence, the one that leads us into the “real” story, is especially significant. The panel is double the size of the others on the page and it provides the reader with a zoomed-out view. We see Art and Vladek standing in their empty front yard, surrounded by empty space. The remarkably large font and capacious text bubble containing Vladek’s words, which are also unique to this panel, call our attention to what is missing. The white space around the words, the starkness of the picture, and the physical space between Art and Vladek all make us more aware of what is not there, of what is not being said. And, while the ellipsis after “friends!” alerts us that words have been omitted or cut off, it also reveals that there are answers and stories within the pregnant silence of the panel. Thus, the silence and space surrounding Vladek’s words incite the reader to turn the page in hopes of filling in the gaps. What is not being said is driving the narrative forward.
In addition, the silences between the panels also help draw the reader into the story.
However, it is important to recognise that the gutters themselves cannot activate the medium or produce meaning without the work of the reader. The gutters provide space for readers to make meaning of the story and to incorporate their own memories and experiences into the text. The meaning that pervades this space, the meaning which the reader must bring to the narrative, is precisely what brings the story into being. Furthermore, the silences within and surrounding the panels do not simply invite the reader into the text. Rather, Spiegelman demands the reader to jump into the silences and fill them up with meaning. The narrative will make no sense unless
the reader can navigate through the silences and follow the logic from panel to panel.
Disturbingly, in order to make sense of Maus, the reader must first understand and adopt Nazi logic. For example, Spiegelman never explicitly defines the animal symbolism for the reader (the Jews are represented as mice, the Nazis as cats). 17 The meaning of the symbolism is another one of the text’s silences and it is up to the reader to give that silence meaning. The reader must accept that the Jews are represented as mice because they were viewed as prey, vermin, pests that must be exterminated. The reader’s tacit agreement that this metaphor holds, that it works, is what implicates her into the narrative. Rather than feeling alienated from the horror, then, the reader is actually complicit with the rationale that led to the possibility of the “final solution.” Spiegelman implicates us in the horror by positioning us within the minds of those who were responsible for it.
Since the majority of readers most probably think of themselves as compassionate human beings, the adoption of Nazi logic puts us in a seriously distressing position. But why would Spiegelman intentionally invoke a moral dilemma in his readers? One reason, I think, is that by positioning the reader within the text, Spiegelman is attempting to de-familiarise the Holocaust narratives that we have become so accustomed to: unified narratives that present trauma in a factual, detached way. In these narratives, the reader is expected simply to accept the facts as something that happened in the past, something that is over and done with. Spiegelman’s narratives, on the other hand, jar the reader out of this passive role by making her participate in the trauma. In this way, Spiegelman’s mode of storytelling simultaneously de-familiarises traditional historical accounts of the Holocaust and revives history by making it happen “now” for the reader to experience personally.
Although Spiegelman’s method of historical representation is unusual, particularly due to his choice of medium, it is not unprecedented. Techniques like de-familiarisation and the narrative intertwining of past and present are common tropes in historical fiction, biography, autobiography, and literary non-fiction. What sets Spiegelman apart, however, is that his texts show us how we have come to know what happened in the past. His genre-busting narratives uncover the process of how we interpret and understand history. In this sense, his project is very much a hermeneutical one. The “meta” or self-reflexive aspect of Spiegelman’s work allows the reader to investigate and interrogate how history is transmitted (from father to son, from son to readers, etc.). Spiegelman’s archaeological approach to storytelling makes visible an epistemology of postmemory.