The Holocaust - A Literary Inspiration?

Illustrating the Shoah as a Comic Strip in Art Spiegelman’s MAUS

Seminar Paper 2009 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Holocaust Literature
2.1 Representing the Holocaust
2.2 Fiction or Non-Fiction?
2.3 Adorno and the (Im-)Possibility to write Literature about Auschwitz

3. Art Spiegelman’s MAUS
3.1 Animal Metaphors
3.2 Guilt, Luck and Survival in Spiegelman’s MAUS
3.3 The Second Generation- Second Degree Victims?

4. Conclusion


Honesty Declaration

1. Introduction

In the following paper I would like to examine to what extent the Holocaust is appropriate as a literary inspiration. I will cite Art Spiegelman’s comic strips MAUS I and MAUS II (with focus on the latter) as examples since they are two of the most extraordinary works among Holocaust literature and art.

After analysing the problem of classifying Holocaust literature as ‘fictional’ or ‘non-fictional’ I will shortly present Theodor W. Adorno’s main theses about this topic because his opinion belonged to the most extreme and also most responded ones. Moreover it was, even though there were few people who shared it, refused by many and it is thus worth looking at it.

The third chapter will deal with Spiegelman’s MAUS to a greater extent. Some of the main features like the use of the animal metaphor shall be examined and discussed. Furthermore it will be taken into consideration whether Spiegelman’s comic strip is an appropriate way to represent the Holocaust in literature. Since MAUS was written by someone who was rather affected by the Shoah in an indirect way, it will also be examined whether these people from the second generation can be seen as victims as well as those who experienced the Holocaust directly.

In general I want to demonstrate in this paper that Adorno’s thesis about the impossibility of writing about the Holocaust is not true. By giving the example of Spiegelman’s MAUS it should be made clear that it is even possible to use the Holocaust as some kind of inspiration in a fairly unusual way.

2. Holocaust Literature

2.1 Representing the Holocaust

So far the Holocaust was represented through art in many ways. Books were written, movies were made and Art Spiegelman even wrote a comic about this difficult topic. Nevertheless in all times people wondered in how far it was legitimate to see the Holocaust as a literary inspiration. Until this day it is a very precarious issue that needs much tactfulness. Langer calls this kind of literature “literature of atrocity” and describes the problem as follows: “[…] literature of atrocity is concerned with an order of reality which the human mind had never confronted before, and whose essential quality the language of fact was simply insufficient to convey.” (Langer, 3). Writers and philosophers tend to debate whether it is a good and necessary thing to write about the Shoah. Few persons, above all the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno even demand that there shouldn’t be any books written about Auschwitz and the other camps. Yet this extreme point of view is quite rare, there are still many authors who claim the exact opposite and even think writing about the Holocaust is important and necessary. Langer writes: “The challenge to the literary imagination is to find a way of making this fundamental truth accessible to the mind and emotions of the reader.” (Langer, xii). Thus Langer thinks that presenting the Holocaust in a literary way gives people a better understanding of the whole topic. Since it was something so terrible, it might be difficult to imagine for people, at least to a certain extent. Employing it for a book or a movie provides the opportunity of seeing how things really have been. Moreover movies and books often tell about individual fates. This makes it easier for the reader/viewer to understand what was happening. In addition individual fates normally cause much more sympathy and empathy than any other non-fictional way of representing the Holocaust.

Nevertheless it is still a broad consensus that using the Holocaust as a literary inspiration is an explosive issue, hence it is easy to make mistakes or to break a taboo. There are no real rules that could be followed: “The usual criteria for literature […]- originality, wit, formal innovation, and the sundry ‘pleasures of the text’- are suspended for depictions of the Holocaust.” (Doherty, 71). Concerning the fact of breaking taboos it is important to mention that there is a difference between those authors who are Holocaust survivors themselves and those who just made a story out of it. A survivor is allowed to provoke, even in terms of the Shoah. But this is hardly the case for any other author. (cf. Strümpel, 14).

Another difficulty is to represent the Holocaust in an appropriate and aesthetic way while keeping a correspondence to reality. It is not possible to create a horror movie or a thrilling novel since that would not pay justice to the seriousness of the topic and its victims. A book or a movie which deals with the Shoah should not crave for shocking and sensation. Yet the cruel crimes have to be demonstrated in a way. A solution for that can only be found on a fine line which is obviously not easy to find.

However, Spiegelman’s MAUS received rave reviews. “[…] the pertinent and indelible visual backdrop to Maus is the Holocaust itself. As much as any milestone in history, the Holocaust is made real and vivid by its motion picture documentation. (Doherty, 75).

2.2 Fiction or Non-Fiction?

First Art Spiegelman was hardly confronted with the question whether MAUS belongs to fictional or non-fictional literature. This decision was rather made by editors who put the book on the bestseller list for fictional books. Spiegelman was very sensitive to that: “If your list were divided into literature and non-literature I could gracefully accept the compliment as intended, but to the extent that ‘fiction’ indicates a work isn’t factual I feel a bit queasy.” (ibid, 2). It is obviously that the author does not agree with the fictional categorisation of his work. After all the story of both MAUS -books is based on Vladek Spiegelman’s life and experiences. In addition the books tell us a lot about Artie’s life and the protagonist mainly accords with Art Spiegelman himself. Thus it is not right to see MAUS as completely fictional books. Main topics of the books are guilt, survival and luck. These topics were/are also very important in Spiegelman’s life. The biography of his father Vladek is pervaded by his survival from Auschwitz. There is no denying the fact that this also influenced Art Spiegelman’s life, even during his childhood. The suicide of his mother, the indirect but permanent “presence” of his brother Richieu who died in the Holocaust and also the difficult relation to his father did not only let survival become one of the major topics in his life, but also the meaning of luck. While being asked by his psychiatrist whether Artie admires his father for surviving, he says that he was aware of the fact that there was much luck involved. (cf. Spiegelman, 45). In this case luck does not have an entirely positive meaning. Of course the fact of being lucky helped Vladek to survive, but at the same time it was pure random and it caused much guilt in him since other people were not that lucky. Guilt is the third topic that played a big role in Artie’s life. Not only Vladek feels guilty for surviving, also Artie feels guilt for several reasons. He feels guilty because he has used his father’s story for his book, in other words he has used his father’s story for his own success. Artie says to his psychiatrist Pawel: “Mainly I remember arguing with him…and being told that I couldn’t do anything as well as he could.” To what Pawel answers: “And now that you are becoming successful, you feel bad about proving your father wrong.” (ibid, 44). But Artie does not only feel guilty as far as his father is concerned, he has also feelings of guilt in a more general way: “No matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz.” (Spiegelman, 44). Apparently Artie relates things he did or accomplished to the accomplishment of surviving the Holocaust. This is of course a requirement which he cannot fulfil.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
539 KB
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Institution / College
Ruhr-University of Bochum – Englisches Seminar
Spiegelman Maus Holocaust Literature Shoah Comic Adorno Holocaust Literatur Jewish American Literature Jüdische Literatur



Title: The Holocaust - A Literary Inspiration?