by Salman Mohtadi
Art Spiegelman is a contemporary American artist known for his Pulitzer Prize winning comic, Maus: a Survivor’s Tale. Maus is the story of Spiegelman’s father, a Jew who lived in Poland during World War II. It is a story of the sufferings, struggles and fears his parents, relatives, and the Jewish community underwent in one of the most tragic events in history. The description of its characters by the use of personifications rather than actual humans, where Jews are portrayed as mice and Germans as cats; the creation of a new world where the plot unfolds, in which real events take place; the plot’s structure, and the insertion of events that could, at a simple glance, be omitted, such as interruptions on the interviews through which Spiegelman writes his story, reflect an unique and remarkable mode and style of narrative, important and valuable concepts that flesh out this masterpiece, and that I will, in the best of my abilities, try to extract and thoroughly analyze.
Born in Sweden in 1948, Spiegelman and his family immigrated to the U.S. where, abandoning his parent’s desire for him to become a dentist, he pursued a career as an artist. He is the founder of RAW, a well known comics magazine, and has written and illustrated numerous stories with a wide range of themes. Regarding the importance of comics, Spiegelman is recorded to have said: “Comics echo the way the brain works. People think in iconographic images, not in holograms, and people think in bursts of language, not in paragraphs” (Barclay). This quote reveals Spiegelman’s aim to create art as closely related to reality, and bind it with the images he builds with fragments of words he thinks and expresses.
Trying to mimic how the brain works, and moreover trying to simulate reality, as he does in his comic, is no new concept. Aristotle, wrote about mimesis thousands of years ago in his literary work, Poetics. He states: “So just as in the other imitative arts, one imitation is of one thing, so too the story, since it is an imitation of an action, ought to be of one action and it ought to be a whole” (31). That is, art is a copy of reality, an imitation of an action, and what defines a masterpiece is its ability to grasp reality wholly and in full detail. So, the artist absorbs the world he sees and seeks to replicate it. If he succeeds in this task, he will enter in a relationship with the reader in which both will exchange emotions and feelings. For, Aristotle also mentions that above all, the story being told has to be about things that produce fear and pity (33). Spiegelman clearly puts these elements in practice. In Maus, the plot’s structure demonstrates the range of realism he seeks to convey.
Maus starts with Spiegelman meeting his father and telling him about his idea of writing a comic about his life during World War II. Spiegelman records his father’s reluctance to accept his offer, his insistence, and details that happen before the interview, such as introducing his stepmother, Mala, and telling us about her relationship with his father. Furthermore, every chapter takes a similar format: meeting his father, a particular detail about his relation with Mala, the interview, and irrelevant interruptions –such as the dropping of pills, his father health issues, and Spiegelman’s question to clarify an event he was being told of. Seen from a simple glance, these secondary events have no meaning and do not affect the entirety of the comic, since an event in the present will not change the past, and therefore has no connection with the plot –World War II in Poland. However, details like these offer a degree of realism to a story because they mimic reality in all its minimal details, and inserting it in the narrative is of crucial importance if the aim of the author be to describe a certain aspect of reality. In reality, interruptions are an intrinsic part of a dialogue, and background information is necessary in order to fully comprehend its meaning.
Moreover, the interruptions act as a way the author communicates directly to us, instead of showing us his perspective by means of a plot where his idea might get lost in. American writer, Wayne C. Booth, in his book The Rhetoric of Fiction, notes that although we live in a world where showing is more artful than telling, the author’s existence in the artwork can never be effaced, and that he eventually appears, intruding and telling his point of view in the story. “Wherever they are placed,” he states when referring to these intrusions, “they will call attention to the author’s selecting presence, just as Homer is glaringly present to us whenever the Odyssey takes one of its many leaps back and forth over a nineteen-year period” (19). In other words, all of the interruptions Spiegelman includes in his comic are his intrusions in the story. This is clearly seen when in page 23, Spiegelman reveals that his aim is to make his work feel as real as possible.
If we want to understand what it means to “feel more real”, we should understand what reality, or truth, is. In Phenomenology of the Spirit, German philosopher Hegel offers his definition of truth. “Truth is a whole,” he states, “but the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development” (11). This means that in order to convey truth, or reality, the author must describe the events that took place prior, during, and after the interviews.
In our analysis, another fundamental question comes to mind: Why does Spiegelman interview his father and include his words, instead of just writing it as what he remembered his father said? Leo Tolstoy, a Russian writer from the nineteenth century, in his literary work, What Is Art? defines art, and names its three components: individuality, clarity, and sincerity. How successful the artwork is depends on the degree of each of these elements. Individuality refers to the uniqueness of each character, clarity to the use of what he calls “external indications”, or background information, and sincerity to how true are the emotions being conveyed. He notes that sincerity encompasses the rest because by being sincere the artist will convey feelings he actually felt, and by using external indications, he will be able to portray them clearly and accurately, and since those feelings are his, and each person is unique and different from another, the artwork will be unique, individual, and standout from reality and become novelty (134). This means that in order to accurately write about a particular subject, and describe an aspect of reality, the author must feel, or have experienced those feelings. So it would be less effective and according to Tolstoy a lesser form of art, if Spiegelman chose not to include every word his father used to convey his feelings.
In Maus, events and names are real, but the whole world, the portrayal of Poland, and the characters being mice and cats are not. Both realism and fiction bond together, and it is this that makes the artwork distinct from reality, and what immediately attracts the reader to truly embrace with it. Curiously, this contradicts Aristotle’s notion of mimesis because we are no longer talking about a perfect copy, but a copy introduced in a world of fiction. Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian writer from the nineteenth century, spoke of this linkage when he said: “In truth, great novels are great fairy tales” (632). What this means is that the author must create a new world, not an unintelligible world that does not accurately describe the subject it aims to portray, but that art has to take the reader to a journey away from reality to where the author and reader are linked together. The author is the master of this world. He decides the arrangement of elements, the depiction of houses, cities and people. For instance, in page 125, Spiegelman sketches the path his parents walk as a Nazi symbol, the swastika, to show their hopelessness.
However, to add fiction in an artwork has a deeper meaning that not only makes it distinct from reality but makes it appealing. But to understand how, we must understand what aesthetics means and how it can be approached. German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, in his essay On Aesthetics, defines aesthetics as that which makes us detached from our will, our individuality, and takes us out from reality so that for just a brief moment in our life we become a subject free from our will. According to him, our will keeps us from seeing things like they really are, and links everything to our needs and appetites. “This perception,” he says, “stipulates the existence of its essential correlative, the will-subject of knowledge, i.e. a pure intelligence without aims or intentions. Through this, when an aesthetic perception occurs the will completely vanishes from consciousness” (155). He exemplifies this by contrasting a human figure sculpted out of wax and another of marble. While the first will accurately and precisely portray the human form, it’s texture will truly simulate a human skin texture, and the form will look much more realistic, the latter will convey a higher level of pleasure because no matter how it is sculpted it will look fake, and fakeness causes us to be aloof from reality, it takes our mind out of our will, so we can enjoy what we are seeing, instead of rationalizing on its purpose and our needs.
In like manner, Spiegelman, by using personifications, causes the reader to be aware that what he is seeing is not real, and we can therefore, go beyond the tragic and terrible events in the story, and enjoy the artist’s skill. Throughout the comic we see no humans, but domestic animals put in the pages of history, where one runs to save his life, and the other exterminates unfairly his enemy. This reality is horrifying and cruel, and if it be told realistically, it can never be appealing or entertaining.
Nabokov also writes about the importance of implementing elements of fiction and their ability to enchant the reader. He points out that a good writer must be a storyteller, teacher, and enchanter. He states: “To the storyteller we turn for entertainment… a slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for a teacher in the writer… a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genus…” (635) Spiegelman teaches and tells us about history. He takes us to World War II to feel what his father and the Jewish community felt. And by illustrating a fictitious world he uses his magic and creativity, keeps our will –which thwarts our way of perceiving art- aloof, and lets the reader study and unravel his narrative style.
Spiegelman writes a story about a world where paths resemble symbols, humans are replaced by domestic animals, and yet their identities and the events that take place are real and being told by his father. He inserts a narrative style of realism and fiction to balance the work in order for the reader to appreciate art wholly, more neutrally, and aloof. He sorts out events, edits the plot to intrude, and reveal his point of view and ideas. All of these signs and modes are left out for the discerning reader to interpret and unravel, and further his knowledge of the art of storytelling.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, Massachusetts: R. Pullins Company, 2006. Print.
Barclay, Steven. Art Spiegelman. Steven Barclay Agency, 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. J. Hoffmeister. New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press, 1977. Print.
Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” The Norton Reader an Anthology of Nonfiction. Brereton, John C., and Peterson, Linda H. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. 631-635. Print.
Quinn, Dawn. Art Spiegelman visits Puyallup. TacomaWeekly.Pierece County Community Newspaper Group, 24 Feb. 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2011.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York, United States of America: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo. What Is Art? Trans. Aylmer Maude. LaVergne, Tennessee: New York Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. Publishers, 2010. Print.