Art Spiegelman’s Maus & The Limitations of Bearing Witness
Updated: Nov 6
Minor spoilers ahead for Art Spiegalman’s Maus.
In the past I have observed that it is generally difficult for people to come to terms with the experience of an anonymous collective. Collectives are often difficult to humanise and to empathise with, so in order to be able truly grasp the great horrors, tragedies and calamities of history, I believe that we tend to do two things.
Firstly, we are more easily drawn to personalised accounts of an event, i.e. Individual stories of individual people who bear witness. Thus we tend to internalise and absorb these narratives faster and more profoundly than any broad account that may describe the experience of the collective. Secondly, I have often noticed in myself and in others that once these stories have been absorbed mentally that they have a tendency to become indicative of the experience of the collective, often even becoming generalised into a kind of mental shorthand to quickly bring forth a concrete image or idea that allows us come to terms with what the collective experience might have been like. However, one very real danger of this is erasing other experiences. One experience does not represent all experiences, thus by mentally generalising one experience to make the whole memorable and comprehensible we tend to diminish dissonance and diversity.
Whilst Maus is a very personal story, it resists any temptation of the audience to (subconsciously) generalise Vladek’s story into the account of the holocaust. It does this in two ways. Firstly by embedding divergent partial and implied narratives within Vladek’s story. Secondly, by indicating the limitations of Vladek’s story and how it erases and clashes with other narratives. Some of the aforementioned partial and implied stories are illustrated, like the story of what happened to Richieu, some of these are simply told to Art by Vladek. Most of these are incomplete, being either a character’s backstory, their ultimate fate, their rumoured fate etc. None of these snapshots of other experiences are prominent enough to rival Vladek’s story in focus, but they do indicate the boundaries of Vladek’s perspective and give us an idea of the many different Holocaust experiences that lie outside of his story.
Vladek’s story erasing and clashing with other narratives is mostly represented by Vladek having destroyed Anja’s diaries and thus telling her story exclusively by telling his. It’s also present in the discussion between Art and his therapist on page 205. This discussion draws attention to the fact that those who did not survive cannot tell their tale. Consequently, each testimony is framed/coloured by the perspective of ‘the survivor’ and his/her possible evaluation of having survived. Maus also draws attention to the limitations of the medium (the graphic novel) and the author (not a direct witness himself) at being able to accurately imagine and depict the horrors of the Holocaust (p176).
In conclusion, in addition to being a breath-taking literary testimony of one of the most horrific events in human history, Maus is also a contemplation of the power and weaknesses of such testimonies; how they can be limited (by their perspective, by their medium etc.), how they can prioritise one kind of experience and erase others. Ultimately, Maus does not let Vladek’s story be construed or generalised as the Holocaust tale. Instead it draws attentions to silent narratives, incomplete narratives, divergent narratives to indicate the incomprehensible immensity and horror of the experiences we do not get to see.