Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Art Spiegelman's work in Hayden White's view
Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus, first published in serial form starting in 1980, is the story of Spiegelman's father Vladek as he tries to survive under Nazi persecution from 1939 to 1945. Maus is notable for using a cartoonish style rather than a realistic style, in which different ethnicities are represented by different types of animals. The two main people, Germans and Jews, are drawn as cats and mice, respectively. The setting of the comic is Poland, and the Poles are drawn as pigs.
Hayden White, historian, professor, and literary critic, has made some bold claims about the nature of man and his need to create narrative. He believed storytelling was universal among all humans, and that mankind had an inherent need to create stories. I think Maus is a perfect example of why this is so. Art Spiegelman sat down with his father over the course of many days, writing and recording the family history. Art felt a need to understand how and why he came to be and the trouble his descendants went through to reach their point in modern New York City. People have a desire to understand the past, and storytelling, or historical narrativizing, fulfills this role.
Narrativized history appeals to us because it relates the story to the reader; it adds a personal touch. It cannot reproduce reality, which has no tangible substance, but it can relay the information to someone who was not a witness to help them understand what happened. The reader or listener can recreate the reality for themselves mentally. This understanding of history, from one event to the next, influences the reality of today. Remember the old phrase from George Santayana: "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
Maus's style, with the cartoon characters, simple arrangements, and black-and-white art, creates a reality with the reader that is even more compelling than a closer reproduction would. We create a continuity in our minds as we read that may not be there 100% on the page. Also, readers are better able to associate themselves with the characters the less similar we are to them. The artwork on page 86, for example, is deceptively simple. The 90 year old grandparents are being taken away by the Nazis, given up by their own family. The art is straightforward and the mouse characters look essentially the same. However, it is a heartbreaking scene for the reader. We sympathize with these people/animals, despite them being small ink drawings on a page. We can drop our preconceived notions about the actual events of the Holocaust and instead pay closer attention to the story as presented by the author. It is an unorthodox but effective means of storytelling.