Monday, September 6, 2010

Maus


Every now and then, just to drive myself crazy, I dip into internet discussions of Polish-Jewish relations. These can be found on discussion boards, but also on Amazon customer reviews of books about Polish and Jewish matters.

To really push myself over the edge, I read reviews of "Maus." Today I succumbed to temptation and posted a rant about this book. Rant:

It's mind boggling to read the reviews here by obviously politically correct reviewers bending over backwards to justify, even to sanctify, Spiegelman's hateful and racist depiction of Poles as pigs. Nothing could be more obvious, and yet they insist that he's really being very sensitive and tolerant and multicultural and subtle and deep. Paging George Orwell; you need his doublespeak dictionary to get through these reviews, and his weirdly apt quote, "Some animals are more equal than others."


When asked about Poles' protests against his depiction of Poles as pigs, Spiegelman said, "…there's been mostly a very understanding and supportive response, certainly within the community of the directly affected and afflicted. And a cry - a squeal, let's say - of outrage from the Polish community." According to Spiegelman, Poles were not "affected or afflicted" by the Holocaust. And Spiegelman dismissed Poles' concern as "a squeal," the sound pigs make. Spiegelman has suffered, so he can say naughty things. Poles have not suffered, so they have to shut up and take it. Spiegelman made clear, in such quotes, that he's not doing anything subtle. He's expressing contempt for Poles, and minimizing their own victimization under the Nazis, and he's identifying suffering as granting license to hate.

Yes, Spiegelman has suffered greatly. Yes, he deserves our sympathy and support – but not license to perpetuate hate. Millions of others suffered, as well. I recommend the poetry books of John Guzlowski, whose father was in Buchenwald and whose mother was a slave laborer for the Nazis. John does not use his history as license to hate.

We use the word "pig" for men who sexually harass women, for rich people who hoard their wealth while the poor starve, for people who behave in disgusting ways in public. "You pig" means you are dirty, it means you are disgusting, it means you are unkind, it means you are stupid, it means you are vile, it means you are more animal than human, it means you are inferior, it means you have failed, it means you are ugly, it means you wallow in excrement, and eat it, too, and it means that the person speaking to you doesn't care how much that person insults you. "Pig" has this association, all but universally, because pigs eat excrement and pigs wallow in mud.

It's a ritualistic exercise in PC absurdist theater to insist that "pig" has some hidden, special meaning that a well-meaning Art Spiegelman was shooting for – and that you, the ultra sophisticated reader, understood and can explain to those less subtle than you.

"Maus" is not alone. Poles as pigs, Poles as scum, Poles as brutal, dirty, low, vile creatures is a widespread image in the West today. Poles are not randomly bad – Poles are bad in a specific way. Poles are bad exactly because they are low, they are closer to the animal state than the human. They "squeal" as Spiegelman has it.

"Maus" is part of a trend in Holocaust discourse that, cumulatively and ultimately, replaces German Nazis as perpetrators of the Holocaust and places the blame on Poles. The West has had a hard time identifying Germans as the perpetrators of the Holocaust because Germans are like us – they are modern, sophisticated, intelligent, scientific, clean. Poles are poorer, less modern, in Western eyes, more "primitive," more "backward" – and intensely Catholic. It makes the Holocaust go down easier to place blame for the Holocaust on Poles because Poles are less like us than Germans. We don't want to believe that highly modern, educated, sophisticated people could have mastered the world's most notorious genocide. In fact, this difficulty in seeing villainy in people so civilized as the Germans interfered with the West's ability to respond to the Nazi threat in time to save millions of innocent lives.

What is the real world impact of Spiegelman's depiction of Poles as pigs? Page through Amazon reviews. Readers use this Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, often assigned in schools, to learn that Poles are, well … pigs. A high school student reports that he learned from this book that Poles turned Jews into the Nazis as a matter of course. Another reviewer cannot differentiate between Poland and Germany.

The point here is not the Poles did not do bad things during the Holocaust. Poles did; please see my positive reviews of responsible books like Jan Tomasz Gross' "Fear" and Michael C. Steinlauf's "Bondage to the Dead." Those books, both written by children of Holocaust survivors, don't play games with hate.

10 comments:

  1. In Nazi German terminology Jews were Mice and Rats, Poles were Pigs. End of discussion.

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  2. Then why didn't Spiegelman depict Jews as Rats (instead of cute little cousins of Mickey & Minney)?

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  3. Hello,

    I am a college student reading Maus I and II for an English class. I am writing an essay on the use of stereotypes in these books and thought you made some very interesting and good points. I definitely did not get the impression that Poles were (or are) pigs. For a high school student to say that "he learned from this book that Poles turned Jews into the Nazis as a matter of course" to me just seems ridiculous. How can you judge an entire group of people like that? Is that EVER really accurate? What about the Polish women who hid Jewish people? Spiegelman did write about that, as well as Jewish prisoners who cheated their own family members and made them pay bribes. It came across as a balanced viewpoint to me. I think this book could be looked at in a simplistic view because it is in a comic-book style, but it’s important to look past that. This is all just my quick two-cents worth of ideas. If nothing else, these books seem to spark dialogue. - Morgan

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  4. Hi, Morgan, thanks for commenting.

    I think it's great that you can see past the use of pigs to depict Poles, but I hope you are aware that not every reader has your level of sophistication, and I hope, also, that you are aware that S's depiction of Poles as pigs is not an isolated phenomenon.

    Morgan, I'm going to ask you a favor. I'm honored that you would care to comment on my blog -- that shows a level of involvement that many readers don't show.

    If you want to delve into this topic a bit more, please have a look at my book "Bieganski." If you don't want to buy it, you can probably request it at the library.

    After you read about anti-Polish stereotypes in that book, you may see "Maus" differently.

    Thanks again for your comments.

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  5. Morgan, What kind of college or teacher would use or allow such an obvious hateful and racist book into a classroom. That book shows its ugly head every now and then by questionable teachers, to say the least. Reputable and schools of caliber would not let that book antwhere near the school. Spiegelman is such bitter, miserable man filled with so much hate. So many suffered, but unlike a sad Spiegleman took the higher road of dignity.
    Danusha(your writing is powerful, and have read Bieganski),Morgan, recommend Bieganski for your class, and really see what your teacher is made of. If a true teacher, then the class would have balance. Did the teacher balance the class and talk at all about how horribly the Poles suffered, and that spiegleman is just one opinion, and an extreme and very unfair one at that.

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  6. I think the animal classification system really breaks down, especially in Maus II, and I'm certain I've read an interview with Spiegelman in which he stated that this break down was intentional; to so narrowly divide races into such clear categories misses the mark, and this clear division is exactly what the Nazis did to both Jews and Poles.

    The negative connotations of the pig (lazy, dirty etc, all of which you aptly stated) are certainly intentional on the part of Spiegelman, but I don't think this is necessarily offensive. Take the negative connotations of mice (weak, hunted, quick to breed, vermin, living in the cracks of society) all are applied to the Jews in Maus, just as those of the pig are applied to Poles. You can read this as racially insensitive, but I think it's a commentary on racism itself; Nazi Germany exploited these profiles and stereotypes to the worst possible conclusion, and the book depicts this. Narrowly defining an entire race by characteristics and then further polarizing nations into an us-versus-them mentality is always harmful, and I think Spiegelman shows the pitfalls of such thinking.

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  7. I think many people who are uneasy with Spiegelman's depictions defend him by pointing out that mice are vermin and dog (as the Americans are depicted) is often used as a term of abuse. However, in modern fiction, especially in American culture, mice are very high profile as brave and intelligent survivors of hate (Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse for example). Dogs, similarly, have many, many depictions giving them good and positive qualities. You have to look further with pigs, and though there are some positive depictions: Charlotte's Web, for example, these are few and far between. Interestingly, Disney wanted to change A. A. Milne's cute pig, Piglet, to a gopher, which suggests US culture does not widely accept pigs as having a positive image. Remember the pigs' blood in Carrie.

    There is a pretty universal negative connotation relating to pigs - they are seen as unclean in two of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Islam) and as symbols of greed and sloth in Christianity. 'Pig' or 'swine' is pretty much a universal insult. Anthropologists believe many cultures see the pig as unclean because it is anomalous - it has a cloven hoof but it doesn't chew the cud. It crosses boundaries, and boundaries are dangerous. The Bible explicitly talks about this (Deuteronomy 14, I think).

    There would have been an outcry if Maus had depicted either the Jews, or the American Blacks as pigs, and I think this just about sums it up, really.

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  8. danuta, bingo.

    interestingly, maus' defenders do not, ime, address any of the points u mention above.

    they just resort to calling any critic of maus a bigot.

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  9. Danusha,

    If I carried out an exercise to form a view about the "truthful" or "real" interpetation of Maus based on the discussion on this thread,I would come to this conclusion:

    "I think it's great that you can see past the use of pigs to depict Poles, but I hope you are aware that not every reader has your level of sophistication"

    The above to me suggests that you accept the characterisation/dipiction of Poles as pigs in Maus not to be deliberately offensive or racist.

    Set against this I would place the words:
    "Poles were not "affected or afflicted" by the Holocaust. And Spiegelman dismissed Poles' concern as "a squeal," the sound pigs make."

    These to me are the telling words as the use of the word "squeal" is difficult to interpret as anything other than provacative and the removal of Poles as being affected or afflicted is similiarly difficult to interpret as anything other than, at best, an attempt to present Jewish people as the only victims, excluding others including Poles (a kind of martyr sydrome) and at worse to implant the notion that the Poles were in some way in league with the nazis.

    The book shows Jewish people in a bad light sometimes and conversely Poles in a good light sometimes (as stated on an Amazon review that I have just read), although this is in relation to assisting Jewish people

    It is anti Polish, pro Jewish propaganda written in such a way as to prevent any definitive interpretation, and therfore any verifiable unchallenged critism, utilising intellectual techniques allowing the author to accuse critics of not being intellegent enough to see his "real" meaning.

    An interpretation of this book, like everthing, is carried out within the prevailing thought streams of any given time, and these are always subject to change based on dominant ideas and the relative power bases of each interested party, with whichever group is dominant at any given times view being the "accepted" view.

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  10. Without doubt, MAUS is unmitigated anti-Polish trash. However, for those who insist on a story with anthropomorphized animals as representatives of ethnic groups, I would like Spiegelman to have the following:

    Mice--the Jews, a prey item.
    Snakes--the Germans. Snakes are all carnivorous, and therefore predators.
    Mongooses--the Poles, who fight Germans.

    Mongooses are skilled at killing snakes, and Poles took a lead in fighting the Germans.

    ReplyDelete

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