Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation

Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation

Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation

Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation

Excerpt

As a constellation, theoretical thought circles the concept it would like to unseal, hoping that it may fly open like the lock of a well-guarded safe-deposit box: in response, not to a single key or a single number, but to a combination of numbers.

— THEODOR ADORNO

An illustration by Art Spiegelman poses the question at the heart of this book — how to comprehend the Holocaust and its relationship to contemporary culture. Spiegelman is the author of the best-selling comic-book memoir Maus. Using a provocative pictorial vocabulary in which Jews are represented as mice, Germans as cats, and so on, Maus tells the story both of Spiegelman's father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, and of the artist's relationship to his father's story. In a contribution to the magazine Tikkun titled “Saying Goodbye to Maus,” in which he comments on the success of his memoir, Spiegelman draws his characteristic “Maus” selfportrait standing in front of a smiling Mickey Mouse background and gazing mournfully at a “real” mouse (or is it a rat?) that he cups in his hands.

In this drawing, the events of the Holocaust seem at first absent — there are no Nazi cats or Jewish survivors, no swastikas, and none of the barbed wire and guard tower imagery that powerfully evokes Auschwitz in the Maus volumes. But perhaps the very absence of the events signals their overwhelming impact. Through indirect means, Spiegelman evokes the Holocaust as a radical problem for understanding. One quickly notices that the image condenses three levels of representation. In the foreground, the mouse is depicted according to realistic drawing codes. The selfportrait, which occupies the middle of the pictorial field, is done . . .

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