I’ve been tussling with a blog full of academics over at the Comics Grid (they even quoted my brother at me!) on the subject of Maus and metafictional conceits. Ernesto Priego in the post argued that Maus smartly employs self-reflexivity and irony, particularly in its use of comic-book tropes like caricature.
In the panels above, Artie expresses the melancholia caused by the double bind in which he is trapped by trying to deal with his father’s story (and, as we know, with his own story with his father) through comics. The ironic effect provoked by the juxtaposition of the word “caricature” in a dialogue uttered by a cartoon character unavoidably indicates an illuminating self-reflexivity.
By blurring (and deliberately confusing) the distinction between empirical author and fictional persona, Spiegelman appears conscious that every representational practice implies a distortion (“caricature” is indeed understood as the graphic distortion of recognisable features, usually to achieve a humorous, ironic or parodic effect) and that this is problematic when one is attempting a narrative which makes “truth claims” (Ricoeur 1988:188-192), like the testimony of a Holocaust survivor.
So caricature emphasizes the inevitable distortion of representation; thus comics is especially suited to exploring the problematic nature of truth claims.
I think this pretty much gets things completely backwards. To see why, here’s a poem by Paul Celan (translated by Michael Hamburger.)
It is no longer
heaviness lowered at times together with you
into the hour. It is
It is the weight holding back the void
Like you, it has no name. Perhaps
you two are one and the same. Perhaps
one day you also will call
As with Celan’s poetry in general, this is mysterious — or, to put it another way, fucking confusing. There is a heaviness…then there is another heaviness….there is a you without a name. Which hour? Which weight? Who is me? The “heaviness” and “lowered into” suggest a coffin or death, but only elliptically. And there are two deaths? Or perhaps a dead person and his (or her?) death? The weight of the void, the void in the weight, press on each other, and something escapes. The poem ends up as an elegy for its own meaning. The heaviness is gone; a void slips in. The “me” at the end is not a self so much as a wavering echo of self; the shadow of an ego that hopes to be called, perhaps, by a friend, a voice, that cannot even be named, much less remembered.
Celan’s work is often seen as a long struggle with the problem of meaning and representation following the Holocaust…which is also the problem of meaning and representation in the face of death. Language in his poems doesn’t so much crack as scuttle to the side. The heaviness of speech is not the heaviness of reality; one can call the other, perhaps, but not be it, and that distance is a pain that can itself barely be expressed. Celan is always on the verge of fading into silence; his poems careful scrawls surrounding their own inevitable dissolution.
The tension in Celan’s writing, then, is precisely because of the inadequacy of his resources. Language can only guess at identities (“Perhaps you two are one and the same,”) but language is all he has.
Spiegelman claims a similar kind of tension, a similar difficulty of representation. But his art does not justify the claim. On the contrary, the use of caricature, which Priego sees as emphasizing the problems of communication, actually finesses it.
The characters here talk about the inadequacy of comics representation. Caricature — the way Vladek is portrayed and, of course, the fact that the characters are drawn as mice — is discussed as false. But that falseness is represented unproblematically through language. You can see this even more clearly in another page Priego reproduces:
The last panel comments on the fact that this is a comic strip; what you see is not reality. But the very fact that what you see is not what you get actually underlines the truth of the final panel, where Artie says, basically, “this is not reality.” That statement, the accuracy of that representation, is not questioned. Language in Maus can, and often does, tell the truth, a fact continually emphasized by the fact that images do not.
In short, caricature is an easy out. Spiegelman’s mice offer a comfortable answer to the question of “what is real.” That answer is, not the surface, but the essence; not the caricature, but the language telling you it is not the caricature. Spiegelman questions whether he is telling the story right, but that’s a methodological, not an ontological question. Indeed, the methodological questions allow him to avoid the ontological ones. Spiegelman questions cartooning in order to avoid more difficult questions. Which is why, despite all its vaunted self-reflexivity, Maus is consistently and cripplingly glib.