Mar 16, 2014
No Mickey in This ‘Maus’
Posted on Jan 20, 2012
By Mr. Fish
“MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern, Classic Maus”
When critiquing a book about another book, the reviewer is faced with a dilemma: Should he erase any prior views about the original work, making his arguments for or against the secondary work objectively? Or does he anchor his heels squarely in his preexisting interpretation of the original work, and judge the success of the secondary work by how closely it jibes with the reviewer’s opinion? On the rare occasion when the original work has acquired a cultural significance larger than the mere reading of its text, and the secondary work is ambitious and broad enough to reflect on both the original book and its influence on society, then a reviewer is free to critique from both perspectives. Art Spiegelman’s “MetaMaus,” the 300-page user’s guide to the spiritual physics and existential biology of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” published 25 years ago, is such a book.
My biggest fear upon learning about MetaMaus was that it would be an artistic and cultural vivisection, as if the best way to appreciate a painting was to dissect the artist’s brush and examine the integrity of each individual bristle, or a Shakespeare sonnet could be understood only if processed through the large and small intestine of a liberal arts education. I’d seen it happen innumerable times before with academic scholarship, this taxidermy of something meaningful only in motion and emitting its own heat, and I found myself damning Art Spiegelman for allowing it to happen.
Then I found out that the deconstruction of “MetaMaus” would be conducted entirely by Spiegelman himself, with the majority of text culled from taped conversations between him and Hillary Chute, currently in the English department at the University of Chicago and previously a junior fellow in literature at Harvard. Then I found out that the book would include, in addition to hundreds of historical documents, sketches and character studies from Spiegelman’s private notebooks, a digitized archive of, among other things, audio interviews with his father, Vladek, upon whose story “Maus” is based. Then I decided to ignore my own disdain for bibliology and refrain from judging a book by its cover, or, more accurately—and in the spirit of battling back against a genocidal mind-set, at least in those much more psychotic than myself—judging a book by its brothers.
I first read both volumes of Spiegelman’s comic book masterpiece in 1993 when I was in my mid-20s, approximately the same age that Spiegelman was when he first strapped on his mouse mask and set cartooning pen to Poland. Unlike Spiegelman, however, when I was 27 years old I lacked the wisdom and maturity to recognize what an artist’s responsibility might be to both the past and the present. I remember being willfully unimpressed with, first, the artwork, and second, the narrative, as if the subject matter could’ve been saved by a less BEK-meets-“Little Orphan Annie” rendering or a more heroic protagonist or a less ambiguous denouement.
My deliberate attempt to avoid being swallowed up by “Maus” when I was a young cartoonist was, ironically, precisely the same white-knuckled stab at distance and intellectual sobriety that Spiegelman hoped for while composing the work. He was always fearful of tripping and falling headlong into the familial dysfunction and the slippery tricks of memory that threatened to corrupt the retelling of his father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor. Spiegelman explains to Chute in “MetaMaus”:
When, in the early spring of 2009, I was assigned the task of rereading “Maus” by an editor at Random House who had asked me to write a graphic memoir and wanted me to avoid inadvertently borrowing too heavily from the innovators of the art form, my deep appreciation for the book(s) finally—and thankfully!—came to the fore. The genius of “Maus” never resided with the author’s overt artistic abilities, but rather had everything to do with his ability as a curator of both his father’s tale and the process by which all tales are told and then passed around as if they were recipes—recipes tweaked for taste, made sweeter or saltier or slightly more tart depending on the occasion, and whether the meal’s purpose is to sustain us or entertain our palate.
Wisely examined throughout “MetaMaus” is how “Maus” adheres to the strange dramaturgy specific to the Holocaust. It was a remarkably ghoulish event that inspired no archetypal heroes, nor did it provide a meaningful testing ground for moral fortitude. Whereas most top-selling books typically involve a protagonist whose depth of character is revealed by his or her eagerness to be shaped by unique experiences, Holocaust stories are the antithesis of this prototype. The reason for this, of course, is because there is only one strategy for survival inside a concentration camp, and that is to avoid any and all ostentatious feats of bravery or self-actualization. For the protagonist of a Holocaust story to live another day, he or she must be as inactive as possible and pray that nothing happens, that inactivity helping to camouflage him or her from the bloodlust of his or her captor.
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