Marianne Hirsch on Maus
by Martha Kuhlman

Marianne Hirsch, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, has been interested in Art Spiegelman's Maus for over a decade. Her article "Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning and Post-Memory" (Discourse, Winter 1992-93) was instrumental in bringing Maus to the attention of a broader academic audience. Professor Hirsch's areas of scholarly expertise include feminist theory, narrative, Holocaust studies, and visual culture. She is the author and editor of numerous books, including Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (1997), in which she discusses Maus. Currently Professor Hirsch is the Editor of the PMLA, the official journal of the Modern Language Association, in which she recently wrote an Editor's column about Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers (October 2004).

Martha Kuhlman: In reviewing the MLA list for keywords "Maus" and "Spiegelman," I found 56 citations. Of these, 15 were chapters in books, 2 were dissertations, and the rest were journal articles. But your groundbreaking 1993 article in Discourse was one of the very first articles to appear in an academic journal. What prompted you to write about Maus in the first place?

Marianne Hirsch: I read Maus I right after it first came out. It was a defining moment with Maus and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, both coming out around the very same time. These two works actually really prompted my own work on the Holocaust and Holocaust memory. Even though I'm a child of survivors, I had looked at and read as little as possible because it was material that was difficult for me to deal with. But Lanzmann's and Spiegelman's work drew me into this history precisely through, in both cases, the persona of the person who is searching for the story and the process of that search -- and the distancing devices that, in spite of their differences, both of them use. Actually, I taught Maus almost right away in an Introduction to Comparative Literature course because at that time it seemed like a really good way to teach beginning literature students about representation. There was no way that students could, after reading Maus, think that one could tell a story exactly the way it happened. That layer of representation was right there, foregrounded and on the surface of the text, impossible not to discuss. In that class, I was not concerned with the Holocaust or with how to tell that particular story; it was a course about narrative itself.

When Maus II came out, I was just beginning to think about family photography and beginning to work on [Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Post-Memory, Harvard, 1997]. Of course there was already the photograph of Artie and his mother in Maus I but when I opened Maus II and saw the photograph at the beginning and again the one at the end -- I felt like the book was written for me to think about. It became the prototype for my book about family photographs as figures of loss.

Kuhlman: What does Maus bring to the representation of the Holocaust that could only be conveyed through the form of comics? Which sections do you consider the most innovative and why?

Hirsch: A number of things, really. First of all, there's something about the drawing of comics and the hand -- the drawing hand, which we see represented on the page along with Art who sits at his drawing table, creates a very literal connection between the narrator and the story. The drawing hand is like the tape recorder in making visible, palpable the connection between the past and the present, the father's story and the son's adoption and adaptation of that story. We see the process of transformation.

Secondly, the medium of comics enables Maus to call attention to visuality. In comics you look and you read, you move between the two activities and there are always several things going on at the same time, which is how memory works. And what you look is at a great and acknowledged, obvious, distance from the event. So, for example, if we see photographs as standing at an indexical relationship to the person or thing photographed, then the drawings of the photographs show us that the relationship is actually much more contingent. That is true of drawings even when they want to be as true and as accurate as they can be, when they are based on photographs, for example. Comics enable us to expose the layers of mediation and transformation. Third, and related, I cannot think of another work that is so clearly situated in the present and so graphically juxtaposes the past and the present which, of course, merge in the structure of comics. It thus shows us all that we don't know, cannot know, and also the effects of the past on the present characters, on their ways of thinking, feeling, being, and on our present repertoire of images and affects.

Another aspect I've written about is the aesthetics of trauma, which is the way the information doesn't fit into the boxes, spills out, the way that we have to read the space between the boxes as much as the boxes themselves. This is a very literal rendering of the way that the story is uncontainable, and thus untellable. Temporality and spatiality intersect in comics, and Maus shows up the convention of linear temporality as insufficient in dealing with trauma with its repetitions and reenactments.

Consider, for just one example, the section in Maus II about the orchestra in Auschwitz (p. 54), which has to do with memory and forgetting. Artie tells his father that he's read about the camp orchestra that played as people marched out of the gate, and the father says, I only remember marching, but not any orchestra. Through the comics form, he can show us both, the orchestra in one panel, and then the orchestra covered with a row of marching prisoners in the next panel: it's both there and not there. It's there because there's a historical account of it, but it's not in memory and so he covers it. And this is something that comics can do and I can't really see how you might achieve this otherwise and make it so vivid.

Kuhlman: In your "Family pictures" article, you coined the now often quoted term "post-memory" to refer to the experience of the children of Holocaust survivors. Do you think that this term is a product your specific encounter with Maus, or do you think you might have eventually developed it in reaction to a prose text (for instance)?

Hirsch: I did actually think of it first in relation to Maus so it's hard to say... there was something in my reading of it that I recognized from my own experience: that sense of having your own story and your own memories both invaded and overshadowed by your parents' memories which become something like your memories. I felt I needed a term for that, but the term and the experience is certainly applicable to other texts and other contexts. See Under: Love by David Grossman would be another really great example... if you read it you would definitely recognize the very same syndrome. Even though, in that case, the author is not a child of survivors; he just grew up in that community. There are actually quite a few powerful second-generation texts that illustrate these symptoms, this particular form of transmission, or transfer. My favorites are Summer of Aviya, both the film and the book by Gila Almagor, or The War After by Anne Karpff.

It's not just novels and memoirs; there are a number of performance pieces by children of survivors. And maybe those are even more applicable because here the performer enacts both voices. For example a piece by Deb Filler called Punch me in the Stomach; and Lisa Kron's Two and a Half Minute Ride both stories of returning with the parent back to the camps. This kind of ventriloquism of speaking in the two voices is an interesting aspect of second generation literature.

I would also cite the excellent somewhat critical discussion by Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge. She points out, as needs to be done, how easy it is to be appropriative of the parents' story and I can think of a number of texts that are indeed appropriative, that close down a distance that needs to be maintained, and that are therefore sensationalist. Maus is aware of that danger, for example in the "Prisoner on Hell Planet" section where Artie is wearing the striped shirt and acting like he was in the camps. This is more than having your life invaded by the story of your parents; it is becoming your parents and that is precisely when postmemory falsely turns into memory and reenactment.

Kuhlman: How would you situate Maus within the field of Holocaust studies?

Hirsch: In the early 1990s, Saul Friedlander published his book Probing the Limits of Representation in which he invited scholars from different fields to think about the question of representing the Holocaust. Hayden White who wrote a now classic essay for that collection actually says that "Maus manages to raise all of the crucial questions regarding the 'limits of representation' in general." Is the story of the Holocaust speakable? Is it representable? How, from this distance, can we imagine it? I have used the example of the image on the cover of Maus II which is based on the famous photograph by Margaret Bourke White -- the photograph of the liberation of Buchenwald that shows several rows of prisoners behind a barbed wire fence looking out at the photographer. This is also the basis for the first image of the three-page "First Maus" published in the 1970's. In the "First Maus" the drawing of that photograph has an arrow pointing to someone in the back row, and it reads "papa." You see, the American child growing up in the 1950s has only a highly and multiply mediated version of this history through which to imagine it. While for Art it is a familial story and a familial memory, he imagines it through an image from the public archive. Our knowledge is filtered through an archive that is both public and private. Maus raises all those questions in a very pointed and poignant way. The distinction between the family album and the public album disappears and Maus shows what has survived and what hasn't -- and what is available to those who were not there.

Maus is also a very valuable text for historians in the sense that Spiegelman has made a great effort to draw these things accurately, and did a great deal of archival research. He was rightly upset when Maus was categorized as fiction.

Maus also gets to another central question in Holocaust studies which is the question of oral history and testimony, and the voice of the witness. Testimony is inevitably transformed in the works of artists and writers. Spiegelman did what these archives at Yale, and Spielberg's archive, are doing, which is recording his father's testimony. And then what does one do with those voices? You can collect them and make them available to scholars but then when they enter the realm of the arts they get reworked, transformed, appropriated. Whose story is it and what rights do we have to that story? Connected to this is the role of the listener and the way the story only emerges in the context of a dialogic relationship between the teller and the listener. And [Spiegelman] represents that and gives us the occasion to think about that relationship and how it is inflected by family.

Kuhlman: Do you think that there is there a general consensus about how to analyze the particular qualities unique to comics?

Hirsch: I think that people writing about Maus who, like me, come from literature, have mostly gone outside comics to find ways to analyze those qualities. But there are a few articles by people who come out of a comics background. And there's beginning to be a larger literature, which I really haven't read yet. But some of the classics are Scott McCloud and Miles Orvell's article ["Writing Posthistorically: Krazy Kat, Maus and the Contemporary Fiction Cartoon," American Literary History, Spring 1992]. But, interestingly, I think that Spiegelman himself teaches us how to read the book. With what he has written and said about Maus, especially on the CD-Rom version, there's a whole heuristic there about how we might read it and how certain pages work. Some of the observations that come out of film and film imagery and narrative work only to a degree. I almost think that the best reading strategies are taken from the text, rather than the other way around. Maus itself can suggest some of that.

Kuhlman: So Maus teaches you how to read it?

Hirsch: It teaches you how to read comics. And In the Shadow of No Towers is doing some of the very same things. He takes some familiar stories and images and then distances you from them or alienates you from them, so that you see them in a new way. Obviously you need to think about temporality, and how time works, and how comics actually then constructs a narrative flow.

Kuhlman: It's generally well-known that Maus presented some disciplinary quandaries for both the Pulitzer committee, which created a "special award" because it didn't fit their existing categories, and for the New York Times Book Review, which famously placed it under the "fiction" column, much to Spiegelman's distress. What kinds of disciplinary problems (or advantages) does this work pose for those of us in academia who write about it?

Hirsch: People writing about Maus have come out of very different disciplines. I was looking it up as well, and it's interesting to see how many different journals have published articles on Maus. I've seen psychology journals, sociology journals, American studies, material on graphics, writing courses -- it's a huge range. Different people have addressed different aspects of the work. I think it's an enormous advantage to have it be not solidly in a category because it's open to readers and writers from a number of different disciplines. But the conflict with the Pulitzer really had to do with the question of whether it is fiction or non-fiction. And this has to do with this form of representation. By defying all of these categories it's opened up a lot for Holocaust studies in particular because of the initial questions about the Adorno quote about how writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, and then of course his taking it all back in the 1950s when he claimed that only writers and artists could begin to do justice to the story. But the question of how the Holocaust should be represented was and remains fundamental. Jorge Semprun's Literature or Life? begins with a group survivors who are waiting to be let out of the camp after the camp was liberated, and who even right then discuss how they might tell their story. Maybe someone should come with a camera right now and film us, they say. How can we be believed? So in that initial moment it already becomes a burning question. And the measure of it is -- which will be most realistic or most true, closest to the event? The issue of whether it's fiction or nonfiction -- what would make it closer to the event -- is a complicated question about genre. And the fact that Maus is uncategorizable really shows that this is a red herring. In a way, Maus disqualifies that very question.

Kuhlman: Have you ever taught Maus in another class?

Hirsch: Introduction to Comparative Literature was the first time that I taught it. I taught a course two years later right before Maus II came out which was called After Such Knowledge and it included a unit on the Holocaust. It was about culture and ideology in 20th century Europe, starting with the late 1930s. It was a team taught course, an interdisciplinary course, and I taught it with a historian. And we had very different perspectives on Maus. My colleague, the historian, felt that this was a very irresponsible way to teach this kind of representation of history since it was making it too easily accessible to the students; it was too much at their level. It was a form of consuming history that didn't force them to think, he thought. He said, "So what's next, the video game? The movie? The animated movie?" showing us a slippery slope towards consumption and popularization. We had this debate in the class which was actually very interesting and productive for the students and brought out the controversy of the text (which is harder to do now in light of the Pulitzer Prize and the way that Maus has been accepted in academia that practically evacuates that question when you teach Maus).

On the other hand, last year I team-taught a course at Dartmouth and at the University of Tel Aviv about memory of the Holocaust in Israel and the U.S. (we communicated through videoconferencing and the internet). And we looked at memory and national identity, and at what is specifically Israeli or American about the texts that we were reading. At this point, I skipped over the question of "is [Maus] controversial" because I had gotten used to not raising it anymore. But after we talked about all sorts of details about how the work functions, some of the students in Israel were just bursting to talk about how troubling they found the book. Especially the professor, but also some of the students. We pressed this issue as much as we could and the students had a long discussion about it over the internet. It came out that first of all, there really is no comics tradition in Israel. And Maus has not been translated into Hebrew, despite the fact that it has been translated into many other languages. Why not Hebrew? So it was very unfamiliar as a mode. And I think that being in Israel, picking up a book that has a swastika on the cover, no matter what the book is about, is really searing... the cover was painful and offensive to some of the class members and those students could not get beyond that shock to talk about it further.

Kuhlman: It's very different. I guess it depends on the context in which you teach it.

Hirsch: Exactly... the context in which you teach it, and the context in which you read it. Increasingly, we're getting students who have read it before... whether it was in school or on their own. Which doesn't mean that all of those things that I agree with what my historian colleague said -- that it's easily accessible. I don't think that's true at all.

Kuhlman: Were the Israeli students eventually able to get over their initial shock? Were you able to convince them of the value of the text or did they remain unconvinced?

Hirsch: It really depends. Some of them were more sophisticated in terms of their exposure to this medium. The ones that weren't never got beyond their conviction that the author just wanted to "shock." And they basically held on to that position. It was really a moment in the course, a productive moment, that allowed us to look at some of our assumptions, and think about how different those assumptions were. We actually read it comparatively with David Grossman's book See Under: Love and some other short second generation texts that has very similar elements: the abject or pathological survivor, the parent-child competition over who owns the story, the violation of boundaries. See Under: Love is about a child who grows up in a community of survivors. They never really tell him the story but they transmit it through non-verbal cues and innuendoes. It also does something that Maus does in that it literalizes the metaphors. For example, they talk about the Nazi "beast." And the child thinks that there is literally a beast, in the basement. It uses some similar issues and techniques -- and we tried to point out some of these similarities but somehow because that's a novel and this is a comic the translation was not easy for the students.

Kuhlman: If you were to teach Maus in a graduate seminar, which articles might you include on your syllabus, and why?

Hirsch: I even include some articles in the undergraduate courses. I think that James Young's chapter on Maus in his book At Memory's Edge is important in that he brings out is his notion of received history, that is both the history and the way that it has come down to us. I might also include Michael Rothberg's article, not just because of the very good notion of traumatic realism, but also because of the commodification and Americanization of the Holocaust that he writes about (see Traumatic Realism: the Demands of Holocaust Representation, University of Minnesota Press, 2000). Michael Levine's essays on Maus in American Imago, for example, include some illuminating and memorable close readings of different passages. I might also include Amy Hungerford's essay ["Memorizing Memory," Yale Journal of Criticism, Spring 2001] which is a critique of Maus just to discuss the way that she believes that there's a kind of over-identification on the part of the son with the father. She also looks at Spiegelman's insistence that this is not fiction but history and shows how there is a syndrome in Holocaust literature in which the distance between the persona of the narrator and the story itself collapses. For her, Art becomes his story. I don't agree with her but unlike other recent critiques of second generation discourse, hers is a coherent position and it would be a good article to have for discussion. Nancy Miller's article about Maus and autobiography is also excellent for a discussion of that genre.

Kuhlman: In 1993, you described Maus as Spiegelman's "controversial cartoon representation of his father's survival in Auschwitz." Is it still controversial, or did the Pulitzer Prize award in 1992 effectively end that debate? How did Maus gain acceptance in academia?

Hirsch: It's probably still controversial in some contexts, even if it is totally accepted, if not almost canonical in others. It's certainly accepted not only in academia but also in high art circles; it no longer belongs to the world of underground comics, as its first incarnation did when it appeared in Raw. And still the comics as a genre is still controversial outside of popular culture circles. For example when I chose an image from In the Shadow of No Towers for the cover of the PMLA, there was some resistance on the part of the Modern Language Association. They were worried that MLA members might find this particular genre inappropriate for the cover of the Journal of Modern Languages and Literatures. You see, they saw it not as art but as a political cartoon. So I think that the genre itself is still on the border, in spite of the fact that we are crossing all sorts of boundaries and challenging accepted categories. I do think that representing the history of the Holocaust (and other traumatic histories) in comics form still needs some framing or conversation. And I'm never sure of how much knowledge students have coming to the course. Students come to class having read comics in very different contexts; they may never have heard of Maus or of Spiegelman.... it's actually those students who are interesting because as readers of comics, they've grown up with the genre, but they would not necessarily associate it with their college classes. These border crossings are very productive pedagogically.

As for Maus and its acceptance in academia... it's more than acceptance. Everyone is rushing to write about [Maus] and if we have 56 (or more) citations, it's because it is such a complex, layered and fascinating work that can be approached from so many different and generative angles.