Dr. Polak's Reading Blog.
Questions to Consider
I really appreciated the questions today, because they gave me a better way to frame my thoughts about this blog. “How could people not know?” is a question we understand as potentially insensitive, but nonetheless, it really needs to be asked given our culture. As Americans, we’re utterly immersed in representations of the Holocaust, and yet, we actually learn very little about it. The representations themselves stand in between us and the event, and often do as much to obscure the circumstances as they do to illuminate the ethical difficulties and moral atrocities it offers.
I reflect on Maus with this question of representation firmly in mind, because Maus is an example of an attempt to “de-romanticize” the representation of the Holocaust. “Romanticizing” the Holocaust is purposefully awkward (and problematic) phrasing: our visions of the Holocaust are bounded by the following tropes:
· Belief in the innate goodness of people (as with the diary of Anne Frank, although the diary ends on that note because she was sent to Auschwitz where she died of typhus).
· The triumph of good over evil (as with Inglorious Basterds and other works, in spite of the fact that evil succeeded in nearly annihilating a people).
· The resilience of the human spirit (as with The Pianist and other works, without reference to the long-standing effects of trauma, as well as the absence of millions of people).
· The reluctant savior (as with Schindler’s List and other works, which essentially recycle the Dances with Wolves white savior trope).
· The unspeakable nature of the “Holocaust experience” (as with Elie Weisel’s Night, although we nonetheless read and watch volumes of material about the Holocaust).
· The survivor as sacred (as with many approaches to Holocaust survivor’s narratives, although less so with how they tell their own stories).
· The dangers of racism (as with many survivor narratives, although we have a countercurrent of messages telling us that we live in a “post-racial age” precisely because of Holocaust education, education about slavery, etc.).
· And, perversely, the cry of “Never again!” I’ll be largely bracketing that one until Unit 2, but make sure you are thinking of it.
Maus seeks to disrupt these narratives by:
· Disrupting expectations about good and evil
· Exposing the idea of “triumph” as an artificial and arbitrary assessment and end.
· The damage that can be caused to the human spirit, and the value in understanding people as complex and wounded.
· The lack of authentic, disinterested saviors, particularly from outside of the Jewish population.
· The obsessive “talkiness” of the comic—Artie and Vladek are constantly filling the space of the page with words, so much so that they sometimes bleed out of the panel or over an image.
· The survivor as human—crotchety, sometimes selfish, awkward, and flawed.
· Troubling the very concept of racism, by exposing the arbitrary distinctions of ethnicity and nationality.
· And finally, gesturing towards the persistence of experiences of extremity, and the idea that the past is never that far behind.
Some of these points of disruption are problematic as well, but I’m well over my word count, so you’ll have to think about those.
On this re-reading of All Quiet on the Western Front, I find myself reflecting most on the dichotomy Paul posits between "primitivity" and "civilization". The "weapon of instinct" he describes (on p. 294 of my copy)leads to an extended meditation on the difference between being "naturally primitive" and "artificially primitive." He argues that he and his comrades experience an artificially primitive state during warfare, but "the Bushmen are primitive and naturally so" (294). My hackles raise at such descriptions--even while I know the historical context and I understand how casual racism does have a place in works of this period--because it partakes of a particularly ugly strain of thought that was dominant at the time.
"Eugenics" was a popular branch of pseudo-science at the turn of the century, positing that the human race could be selectively bred to minimize "undesireable" elements (including the mentally ill, the physically disabled, as well as the "stupid," etc.). This was paired with a conception of the "races" of humanity mapped onto a sort of family tree, which figured the "primitive" races at the bottom and the "civilized" races at top branches. The pseudo-scientific eugenics, when paired with the image of the "family of man," became a powerful cultural trope that persists today. The term "primitive" came to denote a (mis-)reading of Darwin, in which--with the help of the "civilized"--the "primitive" could become civilized.
As we may be able to tell with Remarque's work, however, a certain measure of "primitivity" is never distant--savagery abounds, and the combination of flat affect when describing the horrors undergone by Paul and his friends coupled with the elevated rhetoric of his philosophical meditations, we can tell that setting up "primitive" and "civilized" in contrast isn't a useful division. It's a category failure.
When we arrive at the final pages of the novel, Paul's tone grows more frantic as the "action" of the "civilized" diplomatic efforts is abstracted from his own circumstances.
As we go forward into the poetry of WWI and transition into WWII this week, it is worth considering the replication of this dichotomy, and how it fails in different ways.