Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Identity in Maus

           Identity is central to Maus. Art Spiegelman is seeking it from the novel's first page, when he is sketching out various human figures in animal forms (Spiegelman 171). He is trying to draw his wife, as if she were a cartoon animal in his comic universe. A frog? A moose? A rabbit? A mouse? What is she? If she is a mouse, that would rank her among the Jews, who are depicted as mice in Spiegelman's comic universe. But she's only just "converted" to Judaism (171). Is she truly identifiable as a mouse, as a Jew by birth, descended from Jewish parents? The questions are ceaseless and to a point self-defeating. And, who cares? Does it even matter? Well, yes it does matter, and it is Art who cares. And it is Art who plumbs away at this enigma of identity through the form of a graphic novel, in which he hopes to both identify (seeking identity) the human condition by identifying (giving identitiy) man and the human condition through animal imagery. By making men mice and dogs and cats, he hopes to mine out their human identity.

             Art is a traveler in this sense, seeking a solution, seeking identity. His life to this point has been at odds. He has inherited both the horrific and inhumane past of his parents and also been given the beautiful and liberating opportunity of a future in America. In the center of these two forces of past and future is he, Art Spiegelman, who hopes to stitch the two disparate eras together with artistic representation.This question, which compels the novel's narrative, is the crux of his efforts and the solution to this question is the linchpin to his family's two disparate eras: "How am I supposed to make any sense out of Aushwitz ... of the Holocaust?" (174). Art's enormous task is to make identifiable, make recognizable the event and the people involved in the event that effaced people's identities with crytpic numbers scrawled down their arms, dehumanize them with inhumane treatment and persecution, and, with gas, with bullets, with starvation, with disease, wiped them out, some 6 million plus.

          Art approaches his question in what seems a very childlike matter, by drawing animals and having them talk. However, this is far more sophisticated than what it appears. Art is identifying humans with animals, not vice versa. In this way, he mines human identities, which the Nazis have been made obsolete, out of these animal representations. For example, the Jews, which are perceived as a nameless, general mob are depicted as mice. Often throughout the text, the facial expression of these mice are depicted as uniform. Such is the case in the panel where the faceless mob, some alive and some dead, are burned with gasoline. As a scrum of mice yelp in pain, the text box reads: "the fat from the burning bodies they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better" (232). Their expressions are of monolithic pain, their identities dehumanized and converted to fuel for fire, their identity as Jewish people burnt out and blown as smoke. They seem without identity.

          However, it is exactly in this non-identity that the read perceives identity, for the act of making them all the same causes the reader to ponder how awful it was that they were made nameless and humanless. Within this blinding sameness, the reader immediately attaches to any character that exhibits personality and garners sympathy for them. Art's father is one natural choice, but also Abraham, Mandelbaum, the priest are especially interesting for the reader. In this seemingly faceless and unhuman representations, the reader finds a human identity and, thus, the human identity, in the body of an animal, is that much more salient. And humanity too becomes that much more salient and special.

        Therefore, though Art perhaps does not reach a definite resolution to his question, he at least finds a clue or two. Humanity, it seems, is more than just a corporal form. There is something metaphysical about the human condition that is instantly recognizable, even if that man is drawn as a pig or a mouse. Making sense of the Holocaust, therefore, is accomplished by finding what glimmers of humanity are to be perceived, even if just in a word of hope or in an insight to one's individual plight, and hoping to build, glimmer by glimmer, a narrative that might bring to light the humane in the inhumane, identity in non-identity.

The most interesting concept I came across this semester was in how art can be a conduit to travel. Like when Eustace is vacuumed up in the painting. Art, representation, yields to traveling and finding a peace within Eustace. And just as the painting performed that travel for Eustace, the writings of various authors can do the same for us.

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