I have been to Auschwitz. Walked the compound, descended into its gas chambers, peered into the ovens. I was a teenager then, well acquainted with the atrocities of the Second World War and the subsequent fallout. Yet my memories of the camp are not of death and terror but of a neatly manicured complex with a somber affectation. It struck me as being maintained more as a memorialization of death itself, rather than a reminder of the horror.
After that visit I struggled to understand why I was not moved more by what I had seen. For a time I assumed it was my age. I then accused the passage of time and its constant distancing of the event from my own life. I even considered that perhaps I was simply disinterested, or worse, callous. Even after reading texts that provided the numbers and details of the Holocaust, I still found myself disaffected. So it was with renewed curiosity that I found Maus accomplishing what everything else had failed to do.
My reading of Maus left me with the impression that the first book served to acquaint the reader with the people and the setting. While this was not necessarily deliberate, its slow pace allowed me to develop an understanding of who these people were and, more importantly, that they actually were. On this framework was presented the second book, which I found to be the most powerful of the two.
Maus II was where I first found myself feeling and appreciating the suffering that occurred during the years of the Third Reich. Spiegelman’s intertwining of his own domestic trials with those faced by his father, for example, managed to remove the temporal distance of the Holocaust. No longer was it just a memory; now it was a specter that continued to haunt all those it could touch, something not quite live nor dead, but present nonetheless.
Then there was the medium itself. I would have imagined that a graphic novel, where the victims were cast as mice and the persecutors as cats, would be a childish recounting of what occurred. Yet it proved to be exactly the opposite. Perhaps part of its effectiveness has to do with how intimately familiar readers are with the human form. I imagine that a reader is likely to view any depiction of a human, no matter how stylized or accurate, to be simply a caricature, something removed from him or herself. Spiegelman, in choosing not to use humans, forces the reader to focus on what is occurring rather than the fact that it is a “cartoon,” and this allows the story to come out in full force.
Even the simplicity of the panels proved to be a strength. In my own reading, I was not bogged down by the numbers of lives taken or the names of cities that I could barely pronounce. Instead of these abstractions I was presented with small, finely crafted depictions that drew my attention to that which mattered. The Holocaust is remembered for its concentration camps, its furnaces, all the items that were taken from the victims. This is of course depicted in Maus. But these things are meaningless without its humanity, and it seems incredibly difficult to remind an individual that an object once had a life force attached to it—a man, a woman, a child whose life touched it or was touched by it.
It could be that we tend to focus on the material as a reaction to not being able to feel and comprehend what occurred. In turning to the only thing we can grasp—the materials and objects used to visualize the Holocaust—we are attempting to find some footing from which to take it all in. But in so doing we lose the human aspect.
It’s because of this that I think the simplification of the tale—into a minimalist’s visual journey—allows, if not invites, the reader to ignore everything else and focus on what is to be felt. With the visual we are often expected to simply take in what we are witnessing, allowing whatever we feel to blossom. Reading traditional literature is more a matter of active cognition than it is of passive feeling, and this can pollute—or distract from—the actual appreciation of what is being expressed.
I see a degree of ingenuity in Spiegelman’s Maus, even if its inception was mostly a matter of serendipity. Through his graphic novel, he has stripped away all of the historical detritus that has accumulated over the years, removed the need to moralize and process, and given the reader an opportunity to simply bear witness.