Truth in the Gutter

Metonymy and Memory in Spiegelman’s Maus

Figure 1

Art Spiegelman ushers us into the second chapter of the second volume of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale with a visual pun. The title page contains mice, their partially-anthropomorphized mouths agape with torment, their eyes round with terror, surrounded by flames or gas (Fig. 1). The title, hand-drawn in Teutonic block letters, reads “Auschwitz: (Time Flies).” The “S” is bent and angular as in the Nazi logo. These letters hang above the image, and blend with it in conceptual (if not emotional) harmony. It could be a movie poster for our tacitly agreed-upon, collective narrative of the holocaust, with its cast of stock characters, images, and icons. But around the image—violating it, contaminating it—buzz drawings of flies (the “flies of time,” perhaps). They are the size they would be in our world, the wr­iter’s world, and they crawl over the image, over the blank space around the image, partially obscuring the genteel “Chapter Two” above it. They remind us that the text is a superimposition of the author’s own memories, experiences, and biases over the memories of his father. While the words are Vladek’s, the pictures are Spiegelman’s triply-mediated account of those words. The flies become a metonymy for many things at once: the corruption of memory by time; the rank, guilt-poisoned writer’s block preventing Spiegelman from completing the second volume; and the contamination of our culturally-ingrained holocaust iconography, which, the novel seems to suggest, we must carefully protect from becoming prurient melodrama instead of what it is—sacred cultural and personal truth.

Figure 2

Spiegelman inoculates against this corruption with his triple-narrative strategy—a strategy unique to comics. Through deliberate artificiality, he replaces brittle fact with lush Truth; not the surface truth of raw data, but the invisible Truth (in the Romantic sense) at the core of those data. The first narrative is Vladek’s recollection of the Holocaust. It is harrowing, largely chronological, and often recognizable in its iconography. The second, existing interstitially within the first, and often out of sequence, is Spiegelman’s record of obtaining his father’s story. His father in this narrative layer, unlike the hero of the Holocaust narrative, is domineering, difficult, manipulative, selfish, and sometimes cruel. At times, Spiegelman must wrest the narrative from his father’s clutches (clutches so strong that Vladek, who never throws anything away, has destroyed his wife’s journals—the only thing that could contradict his account of events). It could be a dirty business, to coopt someone’s greatest trauma and repurpose it to one’s own ends, but Spiegelman always fesses up, makes the theft transparent, creating a narrative tier that, while casting doubt on the accuracy of his father’s memory, serves not to contradict Vladek but to allow more than one reality to exist at once—to gently expose the fallibility and limitations of memory. In Figure 2, Spiegelman draws two tiers of time. The first, on the right side of the page, records a present-day conversation between Artie and his father in which Vladek recounts marching out of Auschwitz. On the left-hand side of the page, Spiegelman draws the marching prisoners, and includes an orchestra in the background, a fact about which he has read in other accounts of the camps. His father protests: “From the gate guards took us over to the workshop. How could it be there an orchestra?” (Spiegelman 54). Spiegelman grumbles that the facts are well-documented, but concedes by redrawing the march in a panel right below the first, filling in the orchestra’s space with marching prisoners. But the reader can see the tips of the instruments in the background. The ghost of the orchestra is still nestled there: Spiegelman keeps it as one amid a palimpsest of memories. In this way, he includes both his father’s lower-case “t” truth, and the lower-case truth of other survivor’s documented histories. In image form, these two truths, which should contradict one another, instead coalesce. Together, through the imperfection of each, they show that we can approach a capital “T” Truth, however asymptotically. And Spiegelman both complicates and resolves these interwoven tales with his third tier of narrative representation; a metanarrative that exists outside the story—outside of time itself.

In Understanding Comics, one of the most approachable textbooks on semiotics ever written, Scott McCloud tells us that simplified images, with detail stripped away, have a singular power to represent ideas rather than forms. He remarks that:

By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts. Through traditional realism, the comics artist can portray the world without… and through the cartoon the world within (McCloud 41).

Figure 3

Spiegelman leverages this phenomenon throughout the novel by rendering different races and nationalities as different animals, and by creating the world in simple, blocky, crosshatched line drawings. But nowhere do we see this effect used to such perfection as in Spiegelman’s third tier, in which he creates a pure “world within,” and lets it both interact with the world outside and exist free of it. The flies, which are now operating on numerous levels through visual pun, follow us from Chapter 2’s title page into the chapter itself, as does the assertion that “Time Flies…” We are confronted with the artist, slumped over his drafting table. He isn’t a mouse, but a man in a mouse mask (for to expose the artificiality of the storytelling is a classic metanarrative strategy). Flies circle around him, and after a few panels we pan back to see that the drafting table rests on a pile of emaciated human/mouse bodies (fig. 3). The flies have become a triple metonymy—for the passing of time, for artistic stagnation, and for the feeling Artie has that his book has defiled the dead. We have reached a narrative level that exists outside of temporal logic: this is an artist visually grappling with interior demons in the purely sensory space where emotions intersect with ideas. He gives us a unique front-row seat to someone else’s timeless reservoir of identity, the place in which we wrestle with and invent ourselves, and this space can best be explored through the tension between words and images. The words here give one set of data—we learn Vladek has died, that several years have elapsed since the publication of the first volume of Maus, and that it was a critical and commercial success—but combined with the images we see an entirely different data set: we see an identity ripped asunder; a success that feels like murder; a profound guilt that the author has profited from his family’s tragedy. Such conceptual tripling isn’t accomplishable with words alone. Only the interplay of images and words can weave so many layers together.

Spiegelman elbows in on truth by braiding these multiple localized and highly personal narratives together, including his own. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard would approve. It is what, in “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,” he calls “small narrative.” He offers “small narrative” as an antidote to “grand narrative,” or history-by-consensus, which tends to calcify into overly-simplistic tropes of good and evil, written and maintained by the victors (or survivors) of any given conflict. He insists that:

Consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value… We must thus arrive at an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus… it must be local, in other words, agreed upon by its present players and subject to eventual cancellation… limited in space and time (Lyotard 504).

Figure 4

Spiegelman fights the over-simplification of the past through, paradoxically, simplification: his images are metaphoric and metonymic—they are, in other words, so simple they are patently “untrue.” Men are not mice; we do not live in a sketchy black-and-white world; and the swarms of reporters stepping over the dead bodies in Spiegelman’s apartment amidst buzzing flies are there only in Artie’s imagination (Fig. 4). In the same image, these reporters, who cheapen and trivialize the war in their quest for profit, lob their solicitations at a masked Artie, while he shrinks and shrinks until he is child-sized, emitting an infant’s “WAH!” This is not strict verisimilitude, we all know, but we also see how it gets at something deeper, something that exists on a purely experiential level, and that collapses the strict hierarchy we like to maintain between “history” and “emotion.” Simplified forms, as McCloud notes, illustrate the complexity of the concepts.

Spiegelman is wise to use the comics form to tell his threefold tale: comics offer what other mediums can’t, in that the reader becomes a collaborator. McCloud makes much of what he terms the “gutter,” or the space between the panels in a cartoon, as a space where readers commit “closure.” “Comics panels fracture both time and space,” he says, “offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality” (McCloud 67). What better way to reconstruct a shared Truth than to make the reader complicit by asking her to add her own interpretations to a story at risk of becoming clichéd by concensus? McCloud remarks that comics is, “…a medium where the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change” (65). If the project is to present multiple, local, Lyotardian “small narratives” in order to patchwork facts and feelings into a unified (if sometimes contradictory) history, the best way to do so is to make the reader an aider and abettor. History, in our postmodern world, must be apprehended in aggregate, not by consensus, or we risk corrupting it, and the most honest way of getting at it is asking us all to participate. This is our story, Spiegelman seems to say—all of our history. The Truth, in other words, is hidden in the gutter, among the flies.

Works Cited

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996. 481-513.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1993.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus, A Survivor’s Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon Books. 1991.