October 16, 2011

Absurd Words: Taste, Form and Reaction

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Looming over any contemporary writer or critic is the question of what exactly makes literature important. Many treat good writing as an assumption. The circular logic is self-evident to these authors and critics — we live so we must write about it. We must digest what we experience, and the written word is simply a preferable medium in which to express it. The supposedly insular literary world, therefore, does not exist on any sort of separate plane from the rest of life, but rather is a more refined mirror of reality, apparent to only those who peer within it.

Yet, to anyone who feels alienated by this oftentimes solipsistic canon, this reasoning can seem insufficient. This inadequacy cannot explain how one would go about digesting the indigestible. How can we stomach the Holocaust long enough to write about it?

Twenty-five years ago Art Spiegelman attempted to answer this question and he came closer than I think anyone else has ever since. He released a two-part graphic-novel that recounted the experiences of his father Vladek Spiegelman, an Auschwitz survivor who ended up living in New York in the 1970s and 80s, and documented the process by which Art interviewed him before his death in 1982.

Grappling with the horrors of his father’s experiences and trying to recount them through what was normally a comic medium, Spiegelman chose to abandon any semblance of realism and instead interpret the genocide in as naïve a way as possible. He drew Jewish characters as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, and so on. He reinforced the arbitrary cleavages that motivated the war to show precisely how bizarre and artificial they were. Jews, Germans and Poles weren’t different species. In most cases they were virtually indistinguishable from one another, save for differences in ideology and language. Spiegelman wanted to portray one of history’s most brutal epochs, and the only way he knew how was through absurd over-simplification.

In this way, Spiegelman used literature not to reflect reality, but to reject it. His interpretation differs from those of other absurdist authors specifically because of his chosen medium. Absurdists digest experience through seeing the bizarre within it, whereas Spiegelman rejects the notion of digestion altogether. Spiegelman’s attempt is sincere in the sense that he does not adjust the story at all to fit his premise. When humans undergo suffering the correct response is sympathy, but when cartoon animals do so, visible on the page, all the reader can feel is a bizarre confusion. In this way, Spiegelman mocks conventional literature and, by so doing, he is able to do it justice. Literature cannot reconcile reality if reality is not worth reconciling. For anyone who has tried to understand the Holocaust through film, fiction, or history, Spiegelman shows why this is an impossible feat. We read Maus and all we feel is chaos and disoriented fear. Maybe these are the only correct feelings?

Further complicating this dynamic is Spiegelman’s father, who, at times, embodies the miserly Jewish stereotype that was so pervasive during the Holocaust. Despite having been persecuted for his race, Vladek complains when his son picks up an African-American hitchhiker and his frequent penny-pinching pushes his second wife away. How is the reader supposed to respond to an unlikeable character who has undergone so much to earn our sympathy? What, then, is the correct reaction to Maus?

On October 4 MetaMaus, a collection of interviews, drafts and even a supplementary DVD, was released. Its rare that I advocate purchasing anything in my columns, but I for one will probably pick up a copy, if only for a little more insight into Spiegelman’s mind.

When asked if he thought making a comic-book about Auschwitz was in bad taste, Spiegelman responded, “No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.” Maus was not in bad taste, at all. Spiegelman has simply made good use of the literary form.

Original Author: Adam Lerner