The Concept of Guilt and Its Representation in Maus
There is an enigmatic quality to Art Spiegelman’s survival guilt, a guilt which presents itself subtly in Book I and much more palpably in Book II. This ambiguity, so to speak, stems from a perplexing notion. That is, how could one of the only characters in Maus not to have been in the Holocaust have survival guilt? How, out of all those portrayed throughout the work who watched their friends and families slaughtered, could Art Spiegelman be the one who is guilty for surviving? It is, ironically enough, the fact that Spiegelman was not in the Holocaust that violently facilitates his survival guilt. His assumed inability to grasp the genocide, combined with the daunting task of representing the millions of unheard victims, creates guilt within him for not being there, which is only augmented by Vladek’s burning of Anja’s diary. Of course, this guilt is also manifested prominently in the ghost of his brother. In the end, he could never be Richieu, benevolently set in stone, and he would always represent that which the father could not have back—his family.
While this discourse will deal mostly within the confines of Book II, it is important to note the catalyst in Book I that not only magnifies the guilt felt by Spiegelman, but also increases the very nature of his guilt, a nature which moves undecidedly between self-pity and outward aggression towards others. This catalyst, of course, is the revelation at the end of the first part of the series—that of the diary burning.
To understand the importance of the diary burning, one must first address the author’s uncertainty about approaching his topic. How can he grasp, in any way, the most tortuous and debauched display of humanity in history? This is, as one frequently sees, a predicament faced by many who have written of the Holocaust, Primo Levi perhaps being the best example. For Spiegelman, though, this uncertainty is exacerbated by his distance from the Holocaust. That is, he never experienced the camps, the stealing, the bitter cold, the smell of burning flesh. In this way, only two things can connect Spiegelman to Auschwitz—his father and his mother’s journal. The former of these sources is the more subjective, especially given the relationship Spiegelman has with Vladek. The latter, however, is an objective piece of empirical footage he can use to effectively portray his parents’ ordeal. Thus, when Vladek reveals he burned the journal, Spiegelman bellows, “You Murderer!” not only because the father murdered Anja’s memory, but because he massacred the last chance the author had to completely understand what so many say no one ever could (Maus I 159).
Within the first few pages of Book II, and therefore directly after the burning of the diary is divulged, the reader is given the first clear portrayal of Spiegelman’s survival guilt. The uncertainty that is alluded to through tone within the first book is now made apparent with Spiegelman’s questioning, “How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz?” (Maus II 14). His tortuous conversation with his wife—covering anything from which parent he would have saved to how diligent, even somewhat psychotic, his parents were in their search for Richieu—is a testament to his now overwhelming guilt. The guilt, though, is now moving from one of passive self-consciousness to one of violence and blame. His father “drives [him] crazy,” and it is this strained relationship which causes him to think so aggressively. Naturally, this strain is stretched to a precarious length by his father’s burning of the diary. His reaction, thus, is certainly one controlled more by emotion than by true culpability (the culpability of his father that is), and he could have, or rather should have taken the burning as a sign of his father’s own pain, rather than selfishly seeing how it affected his own guilt and even writing.
Moving on, Spiegelman’s guilt in relation to his brother is perhaps the most telling and yet ambiguous feelings the reader sees in the writer. Spiegelman is, in the end, Richieu’s doppelganger, and yet he is also his foil, at least in the father’s eyes. Vladeck sees Spiegelman as the physical representation of his first born, but never the emotional or familial representation. In fact, regarding the latter, Spiegelman is the antithesis of Richieu. If the implementation of smoking throughout the books shows anything, it is that Vladeck, whether intentionally or not, tells his son he would never have survived the camps. Constantly cigarettes save Vladeck’s life as bartering tools, which apparently implies, given Spiegelman’s habitual smoking, that the writer would not have lasted if put in the position of his father. Spiegelman’s prodigality, too, is something Vladeck comments constantly about, most notably in his son’s poor purchase of a tape recorder (Maus I 73).
All of these shortcomings, shortcomings that make Spiegelman human, never existed within Richieu. For this, the writer feels Vladeck is more Richieu’s father than his own. This unsettling feeling culminates in Spiegelman’s most clear and literal admission of survival guilt. As his wife relates and stresses that “[Vladeck]’s your father,” the author is brought to a climactic release, yelling “Stop! I feel guilty enough already!” (Maus II 120).
Spiegelman’s guilt is, in the end, ineffable and undefinable. Throughout his story he is constantly faced with the unquantifiable pressure of telling humanity’s most regrettable story. All the while, he is tormented by his dead mother, neurotic father, and ghost of a brother. These coalesce on a psychological level to effect a daunting and alarming survival guilt, a guilt that the writer, one could assume, will never truly be free from.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
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