A close reading and compare & contrast of Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers looking at the second generation Holocaust survivor text in comparison to a first hand account of the attack on the twin towers.
The Complete Maus tells the story of Artie, a figure representing Spiegelman, constructing an account of Jewish experience of Auschwitz in World War II through interviews with his father Vladek. In the Shadow of No Towers is an attempt to represent Spiegelman’s own first-hand experience of the collapse of the twin towers in New York 2001. Both of the texts raise complex issues about representability, possibilities of testimony and witnessing, strategies of writing, trauma, graphic novel form, memory and the use of images. I will first put the texts into the context of a debate over the ‘ineffability’ or otherwise of the Holocaust. I then go on to focus in detail on The Complete Maus (Maus I & Maus II, referred to throughout as Maus), looking at strategies of narration, self-reflexivity and graphic style. After considering questions of trauma and narrative, I will focus on In the Shadow of No Towers, in particular on its use of multiple historical styles combined with personal visual imagery as a counter to media representations and government appropriation of the event.
Some have argued, from a philosophical perspective, that the horror of the Holocaust is impossible to represent in words or images. This view is expressed by Wiesel, “Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized” (Wiesel 1978: 29). Discourses based on this view claim that the event was so unique that it can never be fully known, and can be defined only negatively in relation to representation. As Gillian Rose argues, “the uniqueness of this break delegitimises names and narratives as such, and hence all aesthetic or apprehensive representation” (Rose 1996: 43). These views, of the ‘ineffability’ of the Holocaust, suggest that the event is unrepresentable as its horror is incomprehensible through modes of representation such as writing or images. Any attempt at representation then, will only misrepresent it. Others have argued, from a more moralistic or religious perspective, as Libby Saxton has pointed out, that the holocaust should not be represented (Saxton 2008: 10). Both of these views act as a form of prohibition against attempts to represent Holocaust experience.
On the other hand however, many others have argued against the ineffability of the Holocaust. Jorge Semprun for example suggests that this is “an alibi, or a sign of laziness,” and that actually, “You can always say everything, language contains everything” (Semprun 1997: 13). Some point out the contradictions of the ineffability view. As Saxton points out, people holding this view say that the Holocaust is inexpressible but then go on to express it (Saxton 2008: 8). Rose has shown how, “’piety’ protects us from recognizing uncomfortable continuities between the Holocaust and other realms of human experience” (9), suggesting that from an ethical perspective, rather than maintaining distance by claiming the impossibility of its representation, we should engage with the Holocaust in order to learn more about humanity and how we or others may be implicated in related structures of power. As Saxton also argues, “the concern to articulate moral limits or interdictions on representation can become a strategy for evading a properly ethical confrontation with the event” (2). Giorgio Agamben takes the critique further to suggest that positing the Holocaust as incomprehensible is a euphemism in the classical sense of the word meaning an adoring silence in the face of God. According to his argument then, theorists of ineffability, against their intention, actually contribute to the glory of the Holocaust, rather than just its horror. (Agamben 1999: 157)
From another perspective, as portrayed in Maus, the Nazis attempted to erase all documentation of the extermination in order to remove it from history:
Vladek: They wanted to pack it all to Germany. There they could take also all of the Jews to finish them in quiet. The Germans didn’t want to leave anywhere a sign of all what they did. (Spiegelman 1992: 69)
It can be argued then that we have an ethical duty to remember the Holocaust, rather than playing into the hands of attempts to erase it from history by claiming its unrepresentability. In the context of these critiques of ineffability, Saxton describes a move away from the question of whether or not events of the Holocaust can be or should be represented, to the question of how writers (artists, or filmmakers) can or should engage with them:
The focus of critical discussion and artistic invention has shifted from the question of whether the event could or should be represented to the question of how it might adequately or responsibly be represented. (Saxton 2008: 2)
One aspect of the event pointed out by Saxton as remarkable is the lack of archive images of concentration camps, precisely because of attempts at erasure, either by Nazi perpetrators, or by Jewish survivors, desperate to erase the memory of the horror themselves, as in Maus where Vladek has burnt all of Anja’s notebooks and related material, “I had too many memories so I burned them” (Spiegelman 2003: 161). For Saxton, this lack of images can lead to innovation:
This haunting (by missing archive images) has served as a catalyst for aesthetic and ethical innovation, for an ongoing search for more responsible forms of witnessing. (Saxton 2008: 2)
This can be seen clearly in Maus, with the character of Artie playing the self-reflexive role of the historian-writer (graphic novelist) trying to piece together fragments of his father Vladek’s memories of the war into coherent form, using innovative methods in order to search for a ‘responsible language’, “I mean, I’m just trying to portray my father accurately!” (Spegelman 2003: 134). While his father’s memories can be jumbled and rambling, Artie imposes a narrative order on them:
Wait! Please Dad. If you don’t keep your story chronological, I’ll never get it straight. Tell me more about 1941 and 1942. (84)
This suggests that he must now bear ethical responsibility for his depiction of the events, as he has actively formed them into a narrative and written them. The graphic novel form allows him to experiment with different modes of representation to those employed by writers using only words. He uses different animals for example to portray the different nationalities and ethnicities of his characters. This also allows the use of masks when, for example Jews are disguising themselves to avoid capture, adding to the tension and fear in the story in an instantly impacting visual way, or revealing identities as masks that don’t quite fit (140). The use of visual images also relates to debates over different testimonial strategies. Saxton for example outlines a debate between Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Lanzmann over whether or not to show images of the extermination camps in their work. While Godard has used shocking violent images in some of his work such as segments of Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988) and the opening sequence of Notre Musique (2004), Lanzmann chose not to show the gas chambers in his nine-hour film about the Holocaust Shoah (1985) and has been hostile towards more representational accounts, suggesting that prohibition on direct representation is more appropriate, leading to much critique:
The filmmaker [Lanzmann] has been accused variously of ‘sacralising’ the Holocaust, perpetuating Adornoesque prescriptions and pernicious rhetorics of ineffability, advocating the destruction of historical archives, and even ‘book burning’ (Saxton 2008: 25).
While such strategies can be seen as an avoidance of ethical engagement, more direct representations of images of brutality can seem relentlessly exhausting and numbing, again bypassing critical engagement. The narrative structure of Maus on the other hand, moving back and forth between the present, where Artie is amassing archive material through interviews with his father, and the past, allows a negotiation between showing and not showing, representing the horrors of the Holocaust, and then stepping back to a position beyond them. When Vladek’s narrative shows the first image of Auschwitz for example, its gates are shown along with horrific images of swastika marked vans, guards, dogs, the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign, and the description that “we knew that from here we will not come out anymore” (Spiegelman 2003: 159). The next frame then cuts back to the present, where they sit in the garden, and Artie’s response, “My God” (160), as if the narrative had become too much to show without this pause for breath. Such constant contrast allows for movement between the Godard and Lanzmann positions and the possibility of building up a more complex critical and personal relation to the events recounted.
Rather than going immediately back to the framed narrative of the past, the novel then focuses for the next few pages on their relationship in the present, showing how the traumatic memories have lingered on and infected their lives now. They can never be fully escaped from. Vladek is represented as neurotic, racist and obsessive, causing Artie at one point to question to what extent he has ‘survived’ Auschwitz. Indeed, it is moments in the narrative which represent traces of the past in the present, such as the nightmarish image of Jews hanging from a tree as Artie and his father drive past (79) that have some of the most powerful uncanny effects in the book, breaking down the distinction between time frames necessary for critically aware distance.
This structure also allows for the novel’s self-reflexivity, as Artie constantly withdraws from constructing the narrative to agonise over its complexities and problems:
I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams… (Spiegelman 1992: 16)
While struggling to find language for his father’s experience, Artie is constantly drawn to the inadequacy of representation, his own guilt, and the limits of his chosen medium:
…And trying to do it as a comic strip! There’s so much I’ll never be able to understand or visualize. I mean reality is too complex for comics. So much has to be left out or distorted. (16)
On the other hand however, the structure of Maus as a graphic novel allows a further negotiation between language as representation, and the use of images or other techniques when language fails or is inadequate to represent experience. When Artie goes to see his therapist for example, typography is used to both reveal the difficulties in representing the experience, but also make an attempt to do it:
What Auschwitz felt like? Hmm, how can I explain?… BOO! (46)
This representation, along with Artie’s response, “YIII!” suggests an attempt to recreate the affective force of the experience, even though the reality is complex and difficult. It is also done in a specifically comic way, using the most clichéd exaggerated comic language as, in a sense, a more realistic way of engaging with the horror than a directly documentary historical account.
These moments of self-awareness also reveal other problems for Holocaust narratives such as the potential of trivialization, commercialization and commodification, “Maus. You’ve read the book. Now buy the vest!” (42), and the way a complex account can be reduced to a simple message, “I..I never thought of reducing it to a message” (42). This section of the book shows the represented Spiegelman being reduced to a child by press and publicity agents desperate to both reduce the complexity of his account, and expand its commercial range. It operates on one level as a direct critique of what happens to the book when it is out of the author’s hands. On another level, it operates as a warning for published survivor testimonies in general, raising the question of how to write an accurate and emotive account which won’t be reduced to the ammunition for others arguments, or exploited for trivial commercial gain. Such moments add a further frame of distance between the reader and the story, allowing a constantly self-aware focus on how it is constructed and in who’s interests.
Bearing these in mind however, Maus also reveals much positive potential for survivor accounts. The importance of the personal account is emphasized, in one sense as a way to avoid the universalisation of Holocaust experience, as many people will have experienced it differently, “lots of the people here are survivors, they’re whacked up in a different way than Vladek” (22). Also, the first person testimony acts as a rebalance to accepted, more romantic or euphemistic narratives, as when Artie suggests that there was an orchestra at Auschwitz and Vladek replies that there was no orchestra, only marching, the difference illustrated sharply by contrasting image panels (54). The narrative is always problematic, it is based not just on knowledge but sometimes Vladek’s fears or fantasies as for example when he describes the death of Mandelbaum but admits he didn’t know this but just guessed that it could have been this way (35). It is structured as much around forgetting as memory, “Ach! Here I forgot to tell you something” (Spiegelman 2003: 22), around gaps and what is not seen, “I didn’t go to see what happened” (126) as much as what did happen, and it is structured around bursts of storytelling limited by human capacities of emotion and exhaustion, “woo, I overdid a little, I’m feeling dizzy” (94). It is told from a single perspective, which is already fragmented, selective and based on inclusions and exclusions, ”I don’t want you should write this in your book” (25), before it is filtered through another perspective which has its own ideological reasons for another level of selection and exclusion, “it’s great material, it makes everything more real, more human” (25). Sometimes there is conflict between the perspectives, for example, Vladek’s prohibitions, “this isn’t so proper, so respectful” (25) contrasting with Artie’s desire for authenticity and personalization, “but I want to tell your story, the way it really happened” (25). All of these factors are important in first-person testimonies but in Maus they are highlighted and emphasized through its self-aware structure. The reader is always aware of Vladek’s story framed through his memory and then reframed through Artie’s narrative.
Another central opposition is, from Vladek’s perspective, but also suggesting a broader cultural perspective, that between repression and the coming to terms with trauma:
All such things of the war I tried to put out from my mind once and for all until you rebuild me all this with your questions. (Spiegelman 1992: 98)
Vladek’s burning of the notebooks showed how he tried to repress the horrific memory from his consciousness. Its ‘rebuilding’ through his son’s narrative suggests a psychoanalytic approach to revisiting and coming to terms with trauma where, “the subject attempts to recover the memory and understanding of the traumatic event or encounter that dominates his or her mental state” (Bradley et al. 2002: 6). For Freud, the event is registered as traumatic only when returned to at a later date and ‘re-coded’ as a narrative. The narrative of Maus recalls Freud’s assembling of his patient’s self from fragments of repressed memory:
Connections, even obvious ones, are generally fragmented, the sequences of different events uncertain; during the narration itself the patient will correct a piece of information, a date perhaps, before returning more or less to her original statement. (Freud 2006: 444)
This retelling of the story becomes a vital way for the patient to come to terms with repressed experience and escape symptoms associated with it:
If the practical goal of treatment lies in the abolition of all possible symptoms, and their replacement with conscious thoughts, one theoretical goal might be the healing of damage done to the patient’s memory. (444-5)
From a Freudian perspective then, Artie can be seen as playing the role of the analyst, listening to Vladek’s story and forming it into a narrative. Necessary for this is the distance from the event. As Bradley, Brown and Nairne argue, “Trauma indicates a caesura, necessitates a pause – it arises from a moment of rupture, of radical disjunction” (Bradley et al. 2002: 6). The Holocaust was a moment of rupture, a radically dehumanizing event as represented throughout Maus. This sense of its break has been described by Adorno and his now infamous claim that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric…it has become impossible to write poetry today” (Adorno 1967: 30). Adorno’s quote has been taken up, as Saxton suggests, in a misunderstood way (Saxton 2008: 7), and used to legitimate prohibitions on Holocaust writing by theorists of ineffability. Approaching Maus as a trauma narrative on the other hand suggests the importance of retelling the story, fictionalizing it as writing it or as art and attempting to learn something, or gain something, from this experience. As Bradley, Brown and Nairne point out, “trauma may be discussed in both individual and collective terms” (Bradley et al. 2002: 6). The Maus narrative is not only a coming to terms with the event for Vladek, but it acts as part of a range of narratives as attempts for culture and society as a whole to come to terms with, learn about and learn from traumatic experience. They go on to emphasise the importance of images in this context:
These images are used initially to support an account of a traumatic event, and then, as they are repeated, to direct its meaning…their success as art lies not so much in the creation of beauty from horror or order from chaos, but rather in the provision of a space in which to think about the events they describe, an image within which meaning may begin to collect. (7)
Rather than repressing memories of the Holocaust, they suggest that it is important, as a culture, to use images to create a space to think about it. Similarly, Jacques Ranciere has argued, “after Auschwitz, to show Auschwitz, only art is possible because…it is art’s job to make manifest the impossible” (Ranciere 1997: 64). Against Adorno, art, writing or images have an important role to play in moving from documentation to active reconstruction of the event, in order for a culture to start to address its traumatic past. If the telling of the story acts as a way for survivors, or cultures more generally, to come to terms with their traumatic experience however, then the ethical question remains of whether they should be forced to go through this and how such testimony should be treated.
Laub describe Nazi attempts at making testimony impossible:
It was the very circumstance of being inside the event that made unthinkable the very notion that a witness could exist, that is, someone who could step out of the coercively totalitarian and dehumanising frame of reference in which the event was taking place, and provide an independent frame of reference through which the event could be observed. (Laub 1992: 80-81)
According to Laub’s argument, a ‘radical forgetting’ was forced onto the Jews by the Nazis throughout the whole process of the camps. On one hand, this is made clear in Maus. It is hard for Vladek to act as an independent or objective witness as he is so caught up in the dehumanizing process himself. Everything is taken from him and he becomes just a number (Spiegelman 1992: 26). At one point he sees someone being shot as a dog and the drawn panel shows this image (82). On the other hand however, here he still retains enough critical distance to be shocked here by his own perceptions, “And now I thought, how amazing it is that a human being reacts the same like a neighbour’s dog” (82). The retroactive structure of the narrative leaves it unclear whether Vladek thought this at the time or is thinking it now as he tells the story. What is clear though, is that his telling of the story and its representation as graphic novel acts as a negotiation of the traumatic narrative and a form of testimony, which while of course can never be wholly objective or ‘independent’, can still act as document, as space to let meaning collect, and as part of a multiply perspectived network of survivor witness accounts. Recalling Godard and Lanzmann’s debate over whether or not to show the gas chambers, Spiegelman uses codes of documentary realism to represent them in the most realistic way he can (within the graphic novel form). There is a labelled architectural plan, marked drawings of the buildings including a sign for where “Zyklon B, a pesticide is dropped into hollow columns” (71), and details such as the sign on the shower room wall, “please tie your shoes together” (70). In contrast with the more personal tone of much of the rest of Maus, here he draws attention to the fact that, despite Nazi attempts at erasure, the gas chambers did exist, and he uses more scientific or technical imagery, language and terminology to achieve this. This section of the narrative ends with a horrific image of burning bodies (72) and a jolt back to the present with Artie’s exclamation, “Jesus” (73). It is the combination of such detailed representation, the use of shocking imagery and reader identification with a frame of reference in the present, which allows an engagement with the collective repressed traumatic event.
Engagement with traumatic experience is also evident in Spiegelman’s In The Shadow Of No Towers. Here however, the structure is different. Rather than the second generation narrative of Maus, which draws attention to processes of memory and relationships between the two main characters through its constant self-awareness and framing devices, In The Shadow of No Towers is Spiegelman’s own attempt to come to terms with an event, which he was a first-person witness to himself. This leads to a different form for the text. Rather than clear shifts between representations of present and a remembered past which we are critically distant from, the text uses a jumble of styles suggesting the lack of any safe critically distant ‘norm’ which the writer can occupy and analyse from. Instead of the consistent style and metaphors of Maus (the animal masks for example), Spiegelman uses a variety of techniques including references to Maus, references to other fictional comic characters and styles, real photographs and advertising and new styles of his own. This, combined with the fragmented panels rather than a linear narrative, creates a completely different effect from Maus, throwing the reader into a state of confusion not yet ordered into coherent form.
The first panel for example uses at least six different drawing styles. This encompasses the hazy image of the glowing tower, which represents Spiegelman’s own memory of the scene, an early 20th Century newspaper cartoon style, a more 1950s Marvel style, a crisper contemporary block coloured style showing media images, a more underground 80s/90s style in ‘The New Normal’, and finally an actual photograph of a shoe. It varies massively not only in style but also in content, encompassing an advertising parody, personal recollections, cultural analysis and historical comic references within the same panel. The initial effect of this variety is bewilderment as the reader is left with no central point from which to make sense of the sheer excess of the text. The style recalls some of Fredric Jameson’s definitions of Postmodernism as the cultural dominant of late capitalism:
The explosion…into a host of distinct private styles…where the norm itself is eclipsed…itself become but one more idiolect among many…In this situation, parody finds itself without vocation; it has lived and that strange new thing pastiche comes to take its place. (Jameson 1999: 73)
For Jameson, pastiche is one of the dominant modes of postmodernist style. Rather than parody, which has a critical function, pastiche is “neutral practice of such mimicry” (74), or repetition of other styles for no political or satirical intent. With no normative space to be critical from, according to Jameson, parody is not possible in the postmodern leading to this meaningless “blank” (74) version. In the context of In The Shadow of No Towers, it is certainly the case that Spiegelman is not engaged in a parodic critique of previous styles. They suggest rather a nostalgic homage for past forms, something also discussed by Jameson, “nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination [with past styles]…yet it directs our attention to what is culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste” (75). While Jameson is critical of postmodern style, associating it with the ‘depthlessness’ and ‘effacement of history’ of capitalism (74), Spiegelman’s relation seems more complex. The text itself questions his use of historical styles in a similar staged self-aware self-doubting fashion to Maus, “Many found comfort in poetry. Others searched for solace in old newspaper comics” (Spiegelman 2004: 10). This suggests that his use of old forms may be a form of escape from the confusion of contemporary life. On the other hand however, they also become a way to retrieve a more personal language and frame of reference for events which, although he witnessed first-hand, he feels increasingly out of control of:
Our hero is trapped reliving the traumas of Sept. 11, 2001. Unbeknownst to him, brigands suffering from war fever have since hijacked those tragic events…
His memories swirl and events fade, but he still sees that glowing tower when he closes his eyes. (4)
In direct contrast with the lack of historical records of the events of Auschwitz, media images of the events of September 11th 2001 have been endlessly circulating globally since the event. This creates the effect for Spiegelman of overpowering the images of his own memory with those he sees constantly repeated in the media, “he saw the falling bodies on TV much later” (4). While his own memories ‘swirl and fade’, the constant repetition of media images makes them stronger, etching them into collective memory. In one sense this operates on a personal psychological level as a feeling of loss. Importantly in this context however, it also has immense political ramifications as the American Government ‘hijack’ the events and their representation as legitimation of so called ‘War on Terror’:
It wasn’t essential to know how much my ‘leaders’ knew about the hijackings in advance – it was sufficient that they immediately instrumentalised the attack for their own agenda. (Preface)
If the media images then, become part of the image of September 11th, which is instrumentalised as legitimation of colonial aggression on behalf of the US, Spiegelman’s memory, although faint, the ‘glowing tower’ mentioned above, becomes his personal resistance against this image and the way it is used. This suggests that, against Jameson’s critique of postmodern style, Spiegelman’s excessive raiding of history does actually have a political function. The faint image of his memory, and the ‘retreat’ to previous historical modes and styles, become a form of resistance against dominant media images and their associated political ‘hijacking’. The radical mish-mash of styles suggests the lack of any coherent form to place his experience into, not only as a confusion, but also as a refusal to allow it to fall into a simple narrative of good and evil, or to become a ‘message’ as in his fears in Maus. As Spiegelman proposes:
I wanted to sort out the fragments of what I’d experienced from the media images that threatened to engulf what I actually saw, and the collagelike nature of a newspaper page encouraged my impulse to juxtapose my fragmentary thoughts in different styles. (Preface)
These media images become not only propaganda for the Americans but also, as Baudrillard points out, for the terrorists:
Among the other weapons of the system which they have co-opted against it, terrorists have exploited the real time of images, their instantaneous global diffusion. They have appropriated it in the same way as they have appropriated financial speculation, electronic information or air traffic. (Baudrillard 2001: 10)
In contrast with Maus, where fragments, through translation and after time, are shaped into a narrative, it is the fragments themselves which here become his attempt to retain a critical space away from media repetition operating as either propaganda for Al-Qaida of for the Americans, between whom Spiegelman is presented as “equally terrorized” (Spiegelman 2004: 2). The use of historical styles may suggest an alternative history to the official Government interpretation of events, which is represented through the media as universal, and the spectacular terrorist use of the media to disseminate their act. The proposed “19th Century source for 21st Century’s dominant metaphor” (1) for example, may be more than a meaningless raid on history but instead a revealing of the contingency of any narrative attempting to explain the traumatic events.
Mainstream media representation is represented, on the other hand, as an oppressive weight:
I’ve consumed ‘news’ til my brain aches. The papers have confirmed that the towers I saw really did fall..
Aside from that, the news just confirms that I’m right to feel paranoid. My subconscious is drowning in newspaper headlines! (8)
These panels are accompanied with direct physical imagery, showing the figure of Spiegelman having newspapers literally drilled into his head, and then literally drowning in them. He uses strategies of fantasy to reclaim the images of his own witnessing from the suggested media violence, “the blast that disintegrated those Lower Manhattan towers also disinterred the ghosts of some Sunday supplement stars born on nearby Par Row about a century earlier” (8). Indeed, trauma in this text is engaged with in a very different way from Maus. Spiegelman describes the events of September 11th as a re-activation of feelings of suppressed rage, “the paranoia I’d barely manages to squelch returned with a vengeance” (Preface), and there is a sense that it is his uncontrolled unconscious thought which he attempts to represent in the panels, using the graphic novel medium as an appropriate way to attempt to move beyond the limits of mimetic representation. Dreams, for example, mix in with his stories, and at one point he enters the same ‘reality’ as the ‘Crazy Lady’ on his street, “Her inner demons had broken loose and taken over our shared reality” (6).
At some points in the text, he makes direct comparison with the events of the Holocaust:
I remember my father trying to describe what the smoke in Auschwitz smelled like.
The closest he got was telling me it was ‘indescribable’.
That’s exactly what the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like after Sept. 11. (3)
This again raises issues of the ‘indescribability’ or ineffability of the event in its horror. Baudrillard has also described how the events challenged conventional modes of interpretation:
Not only are all history and power plays disrupted, but so are the conditions of analysis…
…As we have, for once, an event that challenges not only morals, but every interpretation…
… The terrorist attack corresponded to a primacy of the event over every model of interpretation. (Baudrillard 2001: 2, 5, 13)
In one sense, the spectacular nature of the event is in excess of structures of interpretation. This is one reason why its images have become so powerful. It is not however entirely ‘indescribable’ and Spiegelman goes on to keep searching for an appropriate language to make sense of his experience. Again he goes back to historical styles, mixing 60s Top Trumps apocalyptic Mars Attacks images with 40s style Government health warning posters, and his own fragments of memory, mixing personal feelings with overheard pieces of information, “They saying a plane just bomb into the Pentagon / Nadja?” (Spiegelman 2004: 3), while the smoke continues to surround the figure of the writer and start to escape the frame.
Rather than the lack of archive material inspiring innovation in Holocaust representations, in this case, the shock of the event, and a determination to reclaim a language for representing it forces Spiegelman into more experimental styles. His collapsing of subjectivity, consciousness and history alludes to connections in history and suggests we have an ethical duty to find a language for expression in relation to history:
The killer apes learnt nothing from the twin towers of Auschwitz and Hiroshima…And Nothing changed on 9/11. (8)
Amidst the fragments of In The Shadow of No Towers, there are moments of personal realization:
I finally understand why some Jews didn’t leave Berlin right after Kristallnacht. (4)
Forcing a shift from self-definition as a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, Spiegelman comes to define himself as a “rooted cosmopolitan” (4) discovering a new identification with the multi-cultural streets of Lower Manhattan. This then gives him a sense of historical perspective as he starts to make connections with the Holocaust experiences dealt with in Maus. In the next panel however, this is undercut by loss as the image of a painter trying to capture the towers as they become “only billowing toxic smoke” (4) is used to represent the loss felt and the feeling that this place he identifies with will never again be the same.
Spigelman uses a three-panel strip at the top of page one of In The Shadow of Two Towers to depict what he calls ‘The New Normal’. A family are shown watching TV on Sept 10 in the first panel. In the second, they are shocked by the images on Sept. 11 causing their hair to shoot up. In the final panel, they return to the positions of Panel one, but with the shocked hair remaining, and an American flag on the wall instead of a calendar. Using only visual material, he here creates a powerful image of trauma. After the break of the shock everything is seemingly back to normal, yet it is not quite the same as traces of the event remain, either repressed, engaged with or manipulated by the media and government ideology. After the events of September 11th he suggests by analogy, we are all living in the state of The New Normal. The break of linear time into a before and after created a feeling of the redundancy of exiting representational modes, and the need for experimentation in order to try and find a form for expression. As Baudrillard proposes:
One must slow down; without getting lost under a mass of discourses and the shadow of war, and while keeping undiminished the unforgettable flash of images.
(Baudrillard 2001: 2)
Spiegelman constantly emphasizes the slowness of his work and this is another way the graphic novel form becomes an appropriate way to come to terms with complex emotion. Although panels one to ten of In The Shadow of No Towers represent only on day, they were produced over a period of months, showing constant shifts in style, form and attitude. As a constant though, he focuses on the ‘unforgettable flash’ of the image of the ‘glowing tower’ left in his memory. Throughout the text, he uses this image and combines it with multiple perspectives which shift between historical styles, forms, characters and subjectivities tentatively proposing a personal testimony outside of the repetitions of media representation of the events.
Against claims of unrepresentability or prohibitions on representation, both texts suggest that firstly, to represent traumatic experience is difficult but possible, and secondly, that we have an ethical duty to attempt it. This ethical duty may be to learn from history, to counter Nazi writings of history, to challenge the spectacularisation of terrorism, or the State hijacking of its imagery, or it may also be, as in both texts, a more personal attempt to come to terms with relationships, writing and identity in the wake of trauma. In both texts, personal testimony is vital and requires constant exploration of new languages and new forms. In Maus, Spiegelman uses the framed narrative structure to draw attention to how memory is shaped into coherent form from a distance, and the importance of that distance for coming to terms with Holocaust experience. In The Shadow of No Towers he adopts a more postmodern mixing of styles and historical references suggesting attempts to think outside of dominant media representations of the events of September 11th. Both texts adopt a constantly self-reflexive style to critically foreground the processes of writing, and both also use the graphic novel form as an innovative testimonial form. Both texts also have a double (at least) ending. Declining in health throughout Maus, Vladek achieves a sense of closure to his narrative when he is re-united with Anja in the past, and a different sense of closure, when in the present time, he dies. Remembering back to previous references to Anja’s subsequent suicide, the reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that all was not such a happy ending. The trauma can be narrated, but traces of the past always remain. In In The Shadow of No Towers, the main text ends with Bush’s appropriation of the memory of September 11th as legitimation of the invasion of Iraq and “tragedy is transformed into travesty” (10). The text does not completely end there however, as Spiegelman then goes back into a history of comic styles suggesting history is not just a linear narrative, but constant recuperation, negotiation with and engagement with styles, histories and traumas of the past.
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Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004, France/ Switzerland)
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985, France)
Histoire(s) du Cinema (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-1998, France)