At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architectureby James E. Young
How should Germany commemorate the mass murder of Jews once committed in its name? James E. Young-the only foreigner and the only Jew to serve on the German commission to select a design for a national Holocaust memorial-tells the inside story of this enormously controversial project. Young also inquires deeply into the moral and aesthetic questions surrounding artistic representations of the Holocaust produced by young artists who themselves did not experience it.
Author Biography: James E. Young, professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is also the author of The Texture of Memory, published by Yale University Press, which won the National Jewish Book Award.
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At Memory's EdgeAfter-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture
By James Edward Young
Yale University PressCopyright © 2002 James Edward Young
All right reserved.
Art Spiegelman's Maus and the After-Images of History
"How does history become 'personal'--only when it is survived, or only when private lives become public knowledge? What constitutes an 'experience' of history--'being there,' being told about it (telling it), being taught it (teaching it), reading about it, writing it? Or does history become 'personal' when an individual cares about it?"
--Susan Crane, "(Not) Writing History"
IN SPITE OF THE BRILLIANT EXAMPLE of his work Nazi Germany and the Jews, Saul Friedlander is still not convinced that an antiredemptory historiography of the Holocaust is possible. For even that narrative that integrates something akin to the deep, unassimilated memory of survivors as a disruption of "rational historiography" also seems to mend these same disruptions with the inexorable logic of narrative itself. The question arises: To what extent will the introduction of the survivors' memory into an otherwise rational historiography add a destabilizing strain to this narrative, and to what extent will such deep, unassimilable memory be neutralized by the meaning generated in any and all narrative? Or will such a working through always remain the provenance of artists and novelists, whose imaginative flights bridge this contradiction even as they leave it intact? Friedlander is not sure. "Even if new forms of historical narrative were to develop," he says, "or new modes of representation, and even if literature and art were to probe the past from unexpected vantage points, the opaqueness of some 'deep memory' would probably not be dispelled. 'Working through' may ultimately signify, in Maurice Blanchot's words, 'to keep watch over absent meaning.'"
Here Friedlander also draws a clear distinction between what he terms "common memory" and "deep memory" of the Holocaust: common memory as that which "tends to restore or establish coherence, closure and possibly a redemptive stance," and deep memory as that which remains essentially inarticulable and unrepresentable, that which continues to exist as unresolved trauma just beyond the reach of meaning. Not only are these two orders of memory irreducible to each other, Friedlander says, but "any attempt at building a coherent self founders on the intractable return of the repressed and recurring deep memory." That is, to some extent, every common memory of the Holocaust is haunted by that which it necessarily leaves unstated, its coherence a necessary but ultimately misleading evasion.
As his sole example of deep memory, Friedlander refers to the last frame of Art Spiegelman's so-called comic book of the Holocaust, Maus: A Survivor's Tale, in which the dying father, Vladek, addresses his son Artie with the name of Richieu, Artie's brother who died in the Holocaust before Artie was even born. The still apparently unassimilated trauma of his first son's death remains inarticulable--and thereby deep--and so is represented here only indirectly as a kind of manifest behavior. But this example is significant for Friedlander in other ways, too, coming as it does at the end of the survivor's life. For Friedlander wonders, profoundly I think, what will become of this deep memory after the survivors are gone. "The question remains," he says, "whether at the collective level ... an event such as the Shoah may, after all the survivors have disappeared, leave traces of a deep memory beyond individual recall, which will defy any attempts to give it meaning." The implication is that, beyond the second generation's artistic and literary representations of it, such deep memory may be lost to history altogether.
In partial answer to this troubling void in Holocaust history, Friedlander proposes not so much a specific form but a way of thinking about historical narrative that makes room for a historiography integrating deep and common memory. For the integrated historian, this means a historiography whose narrative skein is disrupted by the sound of the historian's own, self-conscious voice. As Friedlander writes, such "commentary should disrupt the facile linear progression of the narration, introduce alternative interpretations, question any partial conclusion, withstand the need for closure." These interruptions would also remind readers that this history is being told and remembered by someone in a particular time and place, that it is the product of human hands and minds. Such a narrative would simultaneously gesture both to the existence of deep, inarticulable memory and to its own incapacity to deliver that memory.
Perhaps even more important for Friedlander, though he gives it equal weight in his argument, is the possibility that such commentary "may allow for an integration of the so-called 'mythic memory' of the victims within the overall representation of this past without its becoming an 'obstacle' to 'rational historiography.'" Here, it seems, Friedlander would not only answer German historian Martin Broszat's demand that the mythic memory of victims be granted a place in "rational historiography," but he would justify doing so as a necessary part of an integrated history rather than on the basis of "respect for the victims" (as Broszat has suggested). Such history necessarily integrates both the contingent truths of the historian's narrative and the fact of the victims' memory, both deep and common. In this kind of multivocal history, no single, overarching meaning emerges unchallenged; instead, narrative and counternarrative generate a frisson of meaning in their exchange, in the working through process they now mutually reinforce.
The Comix-ture of Image and Narrative
Here I would like to return to Art Spiegelman's Maus, not because it answers Friedlander's call for an integrated history of the Holocaust but because it illustrates so graphically the dilemmas that inspire Friedlander's call. At the same time, I find that by embodying what Marianne Hirsch has aptly termed an aesthetics of postmemory, it also suggests itself as a model for what I would like to call "received history"--a narrative hybrid that interweaves both events of the Holocaust and the ways they are passed down to us. Like Hirsch, I would not suggest that postmemory takes us beyond memory, or displaces it in any way, but would say that it is "distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection. Post-memory should reflect back on memory, revealing it as equally constructed, equally mediated by the processes of narration and imagination.... Post-memory is anything but absent or evacuated: It is as full and as empty as memory itself."
As becomes clear, then, especially to the author himself, Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale is not about the Holocaust so much as about the survivor's tale itself and the artist-son's recovery of it. In Spiegelman's own words, "Maus is not what happened in the past, but rather what the son understands of the father's story. ... It is an autobiographical history of my relationship with my father, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, cast with cartoon animals." As his father recalled what happened to him at the hands of the Nazis, his son Art recalls what happened to him at the hands of his father and his father's stories. As his father told his experiences to Art in all their painful immediacy, Art tells his experiences of the storytelling sessions themselves--in all of their somewhat less painful mediacy.
"In 1970 I drew a short comic strip called 'Maus' for a San Francisco artists' comic book," Spiegelman has written. "It was based on my parents' experiences as Jewish survivors of the ghettoes and death camps of Nazi Europe. In that early work I represented the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats. (Kafka's tale, 'Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk' offered a precedent, as did the Saturday morning cartoons and comics of my childhood.)." That Spiegelman has chosen to represent the survivor's tale as passed down to him in what he calls the "comix" is neither surprising nor controversial. After all, as a comix-artist and founder of Raw magazine Spiegelman has only turned to what has always been his working artistic medium. That the comix would serve such a story so well, however, is what I would like to explore here. On the one hand, Spiegelman seems to have realized that in order to remain true to both his father's story and his own experience of it, he would have to remain true to his medium. But in addition, he has also cultivated the unique capacity in the "comixture" of image and narrative for telling the double-stranded tale of his father's story and his own recording of it.
While Spiegelman acknowledges that the very word comics "brings to mind the notion that they have to be funny," humor itself is not an intrinsic component of the medium. "Rather than comics," he continues, "I prefer the word commix, to mix together, because to talk about comics is to talk about mixing together words and pictures to tell a story." Moreover, Spiegelman explains, "The strength of commix lies in [its] synthetic ability to approximate a 'mental language' that is closer to actual human thought than either words or pictures alone." Here he cites the words of what he calls the patron saint of comix, the nineteenth-century Swiss educational theorist and author Rodolphe Töpfer: "The drawings without their text would have only a vague meaning; the text without the drawings would have no meaning at all. The combination makes up a kind of novel--all the more unique in that it is no more like a novel than it is like anything else." For unlike a more linear historical narrative, the "comix-ture" of words and images generates a triangulation of meaning--a kind of three-dimensional narrative--in the movement among words, images, and the reader's eye. Such a form also recognizes that part of any narrative will be this internal register of knowledge--somewhere between words and images--conjured in the mind's movement between itself and the page. Such a mental language may not be reproducible, but it is part of any narrative just the same.
Thus, in describing Winsor McKay, another pioneering cartoonist, Spiegelman further spells out what he calls the "storytelling possibilities of the comic strip's unique formal elements: the narrative as well as design significance of a panel's size and shape, and how these individual panels combined to form a coherent visual whole." That is, the box panels convey information in both vertical and horizontal movements of the eye, as well as in the analogue of images implied by the entire page that appears in the background of any single panel. The narrative sequence of Spiegelman's boxes, with some ambiguity as to the order in which they are to be read, combines with and then challenges the narrative of his father's story--itself constantly interrupted by Art's questions and neurotic preoccupations, his father's pilltaking, the rancorous father-son relationship, his father's new and sour marriage. As a result, Spiegelman's narrative is constantly interrupted by--and integrative of--life itself, with all its dislocutions, associations, and paralyzing self-reflections. It is a narrative echoing with the ambient noise and issues that surround its telling. The roundabout method of memory-telling is captured here in ways unavailable to a more linear narrative. It is a narrative that tells both the story of events and its own unfolding as narrative.
Other aspects of Spiegelman's specific form and technique further incorporate the process of drawing Maus into its finished version. By drawing his panels in a one-to-one ratio, for example, instead of drawing large panels and then shrinking them down to page size, Spiegelman reproduces his hand's movement in scale--its shakiness, the thickness of his drawing pencil line, the limits of miniaturization, all to put a cap on detail and fine line and so keep the pictures underdetermined. This would be the equivalent of the historian's voice, not as it interrupts the narrative, however, but as it constitutes it.
At the same time, Maus resonates with traces of Spiegelman's earlier, experimental foray into antinarrative. According to Spiegelman, at the time of his first Maus narrative in 1972, he was actually more preoccupied with deconstructing the comix as narrative than he was in telling a story. As Jane Kalir has observed, Spiegelman's early work here grew more and more abstruse as he forced his drawings to ask such questions as "How does one panel on a page relate to the others? How do a strip's artificial cropping and use of pictorial illusion manipulate reality? How much can be elided from a story if it is to retain any coherence? How do words and pictures combine in the human brain?"
Later, with the publication in 1977 of Breakdowns, an anthology of strips from this period of self-interrogation, the artist's overriding question became: How to tell the story of narrative's breakdown in broken-down narrative? His answer was to quote mercilessly and mockingly from mainstream comics like Rex Morgan, M.D., and Dick Tracy, even while paying reverently parodic homage to comics pioneers like Winsor McKay and his Dream of the Rarebit Fiend ("Real Dream" in Spiegelman's nightmarish version). In Breakdowns, Spiegelman combined images and narrative in boxes but with few clues as to whether they should be read side to side, top to bottom, image to narrative, or narrative to image; the only linear narrative here was generated by reading, a somewhat arbitrary reassembling of boxes into sequential order. In his introductory panels to Breakdowns, Spiegelman even rejects the notion of narrative as story, preferring to redefine story as the "'complete horizontal division of a building .... [From Medieval Latin HISTORIA ... a row of windows with pictures on them.]'" But although he explodes comix narrative into a kind of crazy quilt to be read in all directions, Spiegelman deliberately maintains a linear narrative for the Holocaust segment of Breakdowns. When I asked why, he replied simply that he wasn't interested in breaking the story of the Holocaust itself into incoherence, only in examining the limits of this particular narrative for telling such a story.
Excerpted from At Memory's Edge by James Edward Young Copyright © 2002 by James Edward Young. Excerpted by permission.
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