Why Maus was banned, and why it matters today

In the 1970s, cartoonist Art Spiegelman jotted down an idea in a notebook. “Western civilization may have lost any right to literature with a capital ‘L’,” he wrote. “Perhaps comic books are vulgar, semi-accurate, and the proper form of talking about the ineffable.” It came to him around the time he began producing cartoons about the Holocaust, eventually resulting in a two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, Moss: A Survivor’s Tale.

Forty years later, at an event where I was interviewing him, I asked about this quote. “For one thing,” Spiegelman quipped, “the unspeakable is spoken in 10 minutes, if no one else is around.” (He got up in the middle of the action itself and went out to smoke a cigarette, leaving me in front of an empty chair and a packed house.) It is true that Spiegelmann “talks” – and paints – the unspeakable in moose. In Black Line Art, he presents two stories: that of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to the United States in 1951 with his wife Anja, also a survivor, and their young child, Art—and the story of the cartoonist’s son as an adult asking for his father’s testimony . It is taught routinely in high school, college, and graduate school. In addition, it is taught to many middle school students. This got a lot of attention last January, when moose has been blocked From the eighth-grade English Language Arts curriculum by the McMinn County School Board, Tennessee. The ban became a global news story; moose Sold out on Amazon.

But the ban did not surprise me. A new wave of politically motivated censorship has grown in the Trump era and post-Trump, particularly one driven by unease with discussions about the history of slavery in America. And the mooseHis candid visual depiction of horror, and the way he acts as a witness to dehumanization and genocide, is controversial. Of course, that encounter with horror is exactly what makes it valuable. In fact, it worked like this moose It couldn’t be more urgent during an era of pervasive division, as racism and anti-Semitism are on the rise both nationally and globally. One of Spiegelman’s longtime catchphrases—”Not over and over again”—sounds eerily prescient. gave what he calledmoose Now” talks after the deadly racist and white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 (which included chanting “Jews will not replace us!”), and the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.

Maus Now cover
This article is excerpted from Maus now: selected writingEdited by Hilary Shute.

mooseIts significance cannot be overstated: it has changed the way people talk about racial and ethnic history, trauma, and oppression. Critic and journalist Alyssa Solomon, for example, notes in her 2014 essay “The Haus of moosethat the book “has become a proving text for the academic study of the generational transmission and representation of trauma.” It also marks a milestone in comics—exemplifying the medium-producing tensions between word and image, and presence and absence, that are key to the articulation of memory. The series is best known for its characters as animals; They understand themselves as human beings, but readers see Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Polish Gentiles as pigs, and Americans as dogs.This level of abstraction, which paraphrases a metaphor from Nazi propaganda, is hard to imagine in any other medium.Painting allows Spiegelman to do more than just say What happened.In a rich and multi-layered way, he can show it.

moose It is also a disingenuous text and prone to misinterpretation—as, in Tennessee, to censorship. That was significantly It was banned in Russia in 2015 Because the swastika on its cover was labeled as violating anti-Nazi propaganda laws. moose was too Subject to book burnings in Poland in 2001the year in which it was published there (long after other foreign editions), by people who objected to its portrayal of the Polish Unionists.

When the book emerged as a new target in the culture wars this year, the official and low-key reasons for removing it from school curricula multiplied with outrage. The painting cited bad language (such as “whore” and “damned”) and nudity (specifically, one small portrait of Spiegelmann’s mother, painted in human form, in the bathtub after taking her own life, a picture so disturbing to which we must attach a charge of obscenity). These aspects, while they may not be ideal for an eighth grade audience, seem beside the point in the narrative witnessing genocide.

The meeting minutes from the McMinn County School Board are particularly telling. At one point, a member of the board of directors appears to mark an eye-catching scene Moss I, in which Vladek sees four Jews, executed for trafficking on the black market, hanging on a central street in the Polish city of Sosnowiec in 1942. “Being in schools and teachers and other things, we don’t need to somehow enable or promote this stuff,” said the member. . “People are shown hanging up; they are shown killing children. Why would the education system promote this kind of thing? It’s not wise or healthy.” As with other bans that were enacted and proposed—on acts related to slavery, for example—this rationale whitewashes racist and anti-Semitic violence. The profound reaction to the images of these books ignores the message behind the images. Storyboards and testimonials such as moose Intentionally asking readers to confront, in small part, what their subjects also faced, including the insidious power of Nazi symbols.

moose It does not “promote” killing by witnessing it. As pointed out by some in the meeting, lynching and other forms of deadly violence Event. Spiegelman noted at a post-Prohibition event at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville that censors “want the nicest, gentlest incinerator they can afford.” This version, needless to say, does not exist. what moose She offers pages, like the one depicting Jews hanging in Sosnowiec, that populate the scene—asking readers to confront a shred of horror experienced by Vladek Spiegelman. It invites us to witness—in the anthropologist Michael Taussig’s sense of witnessing as a pause for that moment when shocking things go “from horror to banality.” Even as you resist the policies that drive them, moose Readers are asked to confront violent realities and their role in our present. In the year 2022, facing those realities—and, in some cases, teaching them—is a condition of recognizing that they may always exist.

This article is excerpted from Maus now: selected writingEdited by Hilary Shute.

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