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American Imago 59.3 (2002) 317-341

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Necessary Stains:
Spiegelman's MAUS and the Bleeding of History

Michael G. Levine

"In making MAUS, I found myself drawing every panel, every figure, over and over—obsessively—so as to pare it down to an essence, as if each panel was an attempt to invent a new word, rough-hewn but streamlined."

—Art Spiegelman,
"Little Orphan Annie's Eyeballs"

The publication of Art Spiegelman's MAUS "comix," the first volume of which appeared in 1986 and the second in 1991, has helped to define an important turning point in the history of Holocaust testimony. 1 Forty years after the Second World War, many survivors had reached a point in their lives where they knew that if ever there was a time to pass on their experience as a "legacy," it was now (Hartman 1996, 133-50). It was also a time when the children of survivors began to participate in increasing numbers in the process of bearing witness. For this second generation it was a question not only of helping to elicit their parents' stories—of persuading them to write, speak, or agree to be interviewed—but also of coming to terms with their own implication in their parents' experiences. Indeed, many of these children had come to the discovery that the stories of the first generation had already been passed on to them, that they themselves had become the unwitting bearers of a traumatic legacy.

For Spiegelman, the question of Holocaust survival is not only a matter of who survives as a witness, but of the interminable nature of the Holocaust itself. As Claude Lanzmann remarks of his film, Shoah: [End Page 317]

I did not have the moral right to give a happy ending to this story. When does the Holocaust really end? Did it end the last days of the war? Did it end with the creation of the State of Israel? No. It still goes on. These events are of such magnitude, of such scope that they have never stopped developing their consequences. . . . When I really had to conclude I decided that I did not have the right to do it. . . . And I decided that the last image of the film would be a train, an endlessly rolling . . . train. (quoted in Felman and Laub 1992, 241-42)

Like Lanzmann, Spiegelman has stressed the way that the Shoah outlives its apparent end, characterizing it in an interview as a "cataclysmic world event the ripples of which keep seeping through the pages of The New York Times on a regular basis" (Rosen 1992, 1). When asked to comment on an earlier statement that during his childhood his father was Auschwitz for him as much as he was its victim, Spiegelman responded, "for a child, a father can be a very threatening figure, and the fact that he carried so much pain with him, well, that spilled over" (9).

In referring to the Holocaust as "seeping through" the pages of the daily press, and saying that his father's pain had "spilled over" into his own childhood, Spiegelman captures the dissolution of generational boundaries in ongoing cycles of victimization. In MAUS, the first volume of which bears the subtitle, "My Father Bleeds History," such bleeding is most obviously associated with the hemorrhaging of the left eye of Art's father, Vladek, who, the text suggests, cannot come to terms with what he has seen. Indeed, so wounded is his eye by flashbacks and nightmares that it must eventually be removed by a surgeon and replaced by a glass facsimile. 2 What is perhaps less obvious is the connection between this seeping of the past into the present through the medium of vision and Spiegelman's carefully delineated visual images, which overflow their pictorial frames on numerous occasions. To understand the hemorrhaging of history, that is, it is necessary to pay close attention to the multiple layers of verbal and visual narrative that repeatedly bleed into and through one other. The question, then, becomes, how is one to read this...


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