An Answer to Langer and Lopate: Two-Layered Representation in Art Spiegelman’s Maus

2014 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing

Maia Silber


In his essay “Pre-empting the Holocaust,” literary scholar Lawrence L. Langer argues against universalizing the Holocaust by using it to convey deliberate morals or themes. Those who “universalize,” he claims, reduce the particular meaning of the Holocaust in Jewish history to vague metaphors about humanity. Their abstracted, symbolic, and ultimately meaningless representations undermine the sheer horror invoked by literal representations. Yet, for writer and critic Philip Lopate, particularism poses its own problems; his “Resistance to the Holocaust” argues that representing the Holocaust as a unique and unparalleled event mystifies its meaning and detracts from its weight and relevance. A refusal to “universalize” in another sense, comparing the Holocaust to other tragedies, defies the human need to draw parallels and analogies; it might also suggest Jewish superiority. At first glance, it would seem impossible to meet both Langer’s demand that the Holocaust not be abstracted into some universal truth without substantiating Lopate’s fear that it be isolated from the rest of human history. How can the Holocaust be represented at all without violating at least one of these camps of theories?

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus makes use of the graphic novel genre and the frame narrative to provide one solution to this seemingly unsolvable dilemma. His new artistic approach meets the demands of both theorists by operating on two different layers, universalizing according to Lopate’s sense of the term but not Langer’s. The outer layer presents us with the universal implications of the comic book form, masking the Holocaust through allegory and burying its horrors within a more relatable contemporary story. But once this layer is peeled away, Spiegelman reveals a stark, specific, emotionally powerful and often physically graphic account of one man’s Holocaust experience, stripped of message or moralizing.

Lopate does not defend the universalist desire to tritely symbolize or blur through abstraction, as Langer detests. He does, though, claim that “ insistence upon separatism […] contains a dangerous element of mystification” (266). Quoting Yehuda Bauer, he analogizes the unique to the “mysterious”—if an event cannot apply to the total human experience; it becomes almost magical, existing in a realm beyond our understanding (qtd. 267). Worse, an event that cannot be thematized or contextualized escapes our attention as well as our understanding. Literalizing the Holocaust, preventing it from slipping outside of a geographical, ethnic, and chronological box, puts it “beyond our pity and commiseration” (Bauer qtd. 267). According to Lopate, if nothing can be drawn from the Holocaust besides the specific actions of one group of people against another, then it has no applicability and therefore no relevance to the rest of history or the rest of the human race. Representations of the Holocaust, then, must justify themselves by depicting “universal problems.”

In art, there is no struggle more universal than that between good and evil, and this struggle finds one of its most universally recognized expressions in the comic book genre. The genre seems perfectly suited to depicting brief, neat, and morally unambiguous battles between superheroes and villains. The trope has become so ubiquitous that when presented with the unfamiliar (supernatural powers and futuristic gadgets), we automatically expect the familiar—endless variations of the same basic plot in which the superhero defeats his foe, good triumphing over evil.[1] Thus when Spiegelman chooses to depict the Holocaust in a comic book, he carries these genre expectations with him; we have already been primed to interpret the story as a universal moral one. When Art[2] first proposes the comic book idea to his father, Vladek worries that “no one wants anyway to hear such stories” (Spiegelman, Maus I 12). This concern, that the narrative of a person’s life would not interest other individuals, parallels a larger one on the part of the author—that the narrative of a people’s history would not interest other groups. The narrator also expresses his concern that “reality is too complex for comics” (Spiegelman, Maus II 16). But, if Lopate fears that the unique Jewishness of the Holocaust makes it “mystifying,” the comic genre allows Spiegelman to embrace this nature—after all, comics usually contain otherworldly, magical, or fantastical subject matter—and universalize it (Lopate 266). As with superheroes and villains, the mystifying becomes familiar.

But would this familiarity not, then, confirm Langer’s worst fears— that the narrative of the Holocaust itself becomes lost when placed in a larger context? Not necessarily. It seems that the negative view Langer holds toward universalism comes in part from its tendency to overshadow literal terrors; it prevents the reader from “troubl[ing] to ask what it might mean to be dead while one is still alive” (106). The “truth of [the Jews] ordeal,” as Langer sees it, rests not in the large themes of human nature but in the story of an SS physician who “liked to amputate the arms or legs of Jews to see how long it would take them to bleed to death” (107). And Langer spares no literal horrors in his own account, describing, in addition to the amputations, a baby torn “in two before the mother’s eyes” and a group of Jews being thrown into a pit of acid (103). Only stark, accurate, unadulterated stories like these, he believes, can fully convey the Holocaust’s horror. These stories should hold a place of prominence in a Holocaust narrative; they cannot be subordinated to analysis or covered up by artistic and rhetorical devices.   

The comic book might seem like just such an artistic device, but its implicit use of Lopate’s universalism actually frees Spiegelman to focus on literal representations rather than explicit thematic messages or analysis. The graphic imagery, in both dialogue and illustration, of some of Vladek’s anecdotes would certainly satisfy Langer. Art promises his father that he will tell “your story, the way it really happened,” and he spares no detail in doing so (Maus II, 23). In Maus II, Vladek recalls: “On one appel [one prisoner] didn’t stand so straight and a guard dragged him away. I heard he pushed him down and jumped hard on his neck” (50). The accompanying picture shows a German Guard with his foot above a partially obscured man whose hands flies up in pain. Later, he recalls a group of Jews who “had to jump in the graves while still they were alive… prisoners what worked there poured gasoline over the live ones and the dead ones” (74). The image here takes up the entire bottom of the page; it depicts the open mouths and wide eyes of indistinguishable Jews being consumed by massive flames. Spiegelman captions it with a single boxed-off sentence: “And the fat from the burning bodies they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better” (72). The placement of images and words highlights the centrality of the violent, physical detail, isolating it from any “universalizing” context. Spiegelman even follows it with a break from the narrative; Vladek conveniently says “Ach! It’s 2:30” (73). The intention to arrest the reader on this image is clear, and the jump back into the present seems jarring.  Earlier, dozens of Jewish bodies pile up around Art, drawing at his desk and becoming overwhelmed by “fifteen foreign editions” and “four serious offers to turn my book into a TV special or movie” (41). The surrealistic image suggests the burden Spiegelman feels to fully convey such horrors as those Langer believes should be represented.

Neither does Maus violate another tenet Langer ascribes to universalism:  its tendency to advocate for an outside moral agenda, which he calls “exemplarism.” This additional dimension to the term would likely offend Lopate as well; both theorists object to representations that convey some particular “philosophy or system of belief or critical point of view” of the artist’s own (107). For instance, the visual artist Judy Chicago uses the Holocaust to advance her feminist ideals (107-114). Though it could be argued that Maus has a message, this message would have to be interpreted largely by the reader; Spiegelman does not provide one explicitly. Rather, when being interrogated by reporters, Art insists that “I never thought of reducing it to a message” and claims not to be “trying to convince anybody of anything” (Spiegelman, Maus II 42). The final part of this speech ,“I just wanted—,” broken off when another character interrupts, suggests confusion and desperation on the part of Art as a character but deliberate ambiguity on the part of Spiegelman as an author (42). Representations of the Holocaust, he suggests, must refrain from stating outright their intent. This refusal to express intent  may be another way to account for Spiegelman’s tendency to abruptly end important parts of Vladek’s narration, coming back to the present instead of pausing for analysis. In doing this, he implies that the author has no literal or figurative place in such unimaginable stories, and can only insert himself into a more familiar context (for Spiegelman, contemporary Queens). 

Thus Spiegelman manages to convey Lopate’s universalism, in that he hints at larger relevance and applicability, without falling into Langer’s universalism, in that he does not evade literal depiction or advocate for some political or moral agenda. Indeed, Lopate’s universalism has more to do with relativism. He claims that “drawing parallels and analogies is an incorrigibly natural human activity;” humans have to be able to compare the Holocaust to other events in order to understand it (265). Specifically, the Holocaust should be compared to other genocides and injustices, for Lopate claims that “a relativistic perspective [is] part of the discipline of competent modern historians” (267). Mentioning the slaughter of Armenians, Bengalis, Cambodians, Russians, Chinese, Nigerians, Ugandans, Hutus, Southern Sudanese, and the people of East Timor, Lopate launches into an analysis of the number killed and method of murder in each genocide (267-268). He concludes that in some cases, the victims of genocide might be ignored “simply because they are Third World people of color” (268).

Spiegelman does not explicitly compare the Holocaust to other atrocities, but he does set up an inherently relativistic framework by employing allegory. In a world where Jews are mice, Germans are cats, and Poles are pigs, comparisons are inherent; the use of animal allegories primes us to view the Holocaust through the “parallels and analogies” that Lopate advocates (265). Moreover, the meta-textual elements of the comic books emphasize the transparency and deliberateness of the allegory; Maus II begins with Art “trying to figure out how to draw” his French wife who has converted to Judaism (11). The humorous quips in the conversation—as Art decides that a “bunny rabbit” would be “too sweet and gentle” for the French—are more than just self-deprecating means for Spiegelman to expose his own construct’s superficiality. If a French woman can so arbitrarily be drawn as a frog or a bunny rabbit or a mouse, she can be anything. If victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust can be likened to animals, they can also be likened to the Hutus and the Tutsis, the Russian peasants and Stalin’s regime.

Again, this method would seem to violate one of Langer’s central objections, that relativistic representations of the Holocaust undermine the suffering of the Jews and excuse the atrocities of the Germans. He scoffs at the notion “that evildoers are not radically different from oneself” because “by evildoers we mean the Germans and their collaborators who tore babies in half and buried human beings alive” (108). Specific acts can only be committed by specific persons, and so to compare these acts to those committed by other groups or metaphorical possibilities would be to undermine the significance of the acts themselves and remove culpability entirely. Moreover, Langer claims that relativism “cannot honor the particularity of the Holocaust in its uniquely Jewish features” (110). It must be viewed as a specifically “Jewish” catastrophe.

Spiegelman’s allegory manages to suggest the possibility of relativism and comparison without excusing the Germans as perpetrators or ignoring the Jews as victims. The words “Jew” and “Nazi” and drawings and symbols associated with these groups appear throughout both books; in Maus I, as Vladek passes a group of Nazis beating and killing Jews, Spiegelman draws him in a panel, surrounded by a Jewish star that looks like an enlarged version of the one sewn on his chest (80). The panel highlights the centrality of Vladek’s Jewishness both to his identity and to his victimhood. Indeed, although the characters are allegorized as mice, we still see Jewish stars and read signs addressing “all Jews” (Maus I 82). In one panel, a reward sign for turning in an “unregistered Jew” even uses a mouse’s head to form one triangle of the Jewish star (Maus I 82). Nazism, too, pervades the books: when Anja and Vladek escape the ghetto, they turn onto a street with multiple paths and wonder “where to go” (Maus I 125). The paths form the shape of the swastika. Thus, just as the literal terrors of the Holocaust lie underneath the universalizing layer of the comic book genre, the actual victims and perpetrators are only thinly veiled by their allegorical disguises.

Spiegelman uses a final layering technique to meet the demands of both Lopate and Langer: the frame narrative. A story-within-a-story directly addresses Lopate’s concerns that graphic representations put too much onus on the reader/ viewer to step into an experience so impossible to imagine. Lopate claims that “it is hard enough in psychoanalysis to retrieve affectively one’s own past, one’s actual memories; to expect to relive with emotion invented memories seems overly demanding” (276).  The inevitable impossibility of completely appreciating incredible suffering not one’s own results only in “blaming oneself if one is not feeling enough” (276). Apparently, many of the graphic depictions that Lopate has observed go beyond Langer’s cold, objective literalism—they turn violence and suffering into spectacle. Holocaust museums, in Lopate’s opinion, “are like a Tunnel of Horrors or a Disneyland park devoted to Jewish Suffering” (276). These attempts, corruptions of literalism, fall completely flat, and seem “gimmicky” (276).

Spiegelman spares us this forced simulation of tragedy by not asking us to step directly into Vladek’s shoes—he asks us to step into Art’s. Thus we are placed not into the unimaginable consciousness of a survivor, but the very relatable consciousness of someone just like ourselves: a modern American trying to make sense of the Holocaust. The character of Art stands in for both author and reader; he adopts each role in relation to Vladek’s story. Maus I opens with a flashback to Art’s childhood, when he remembers complaining to his father about a mean trick his friends played on him. Vladek replies “If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!” (Spiegelman 5). Immediately, we’re confronted with Art’s inability to understand his father’s experience of the Holocaust—this excuses us, or at least prepares us, for our own inevitable difficulties, especially that tendency toward “blaming oneself” (Lopate 276). The aforementioned breaks from Vladek’s narration, besides allowing the emotional impact of horrific events to sink in, also acknowledge the burden that these stories place on the reader; after one such tale, Art remarks that “my hand is sore from writing all this down” (Maus I 40). Once again, this break gives the reader permission— permission to feel tired, overwhelmed, incapable of being fully immersed in the Holocaust. We’re even privy to a conversation with Art’s psychologist, where Art reveals that “Auschwitz just seems too scary to think about” (Maus II 44).

Besides this direct commentary on the difficulty of understanding and representing the Holocaust, the juxtaposition of the Holocaust narrative to the present-day narrative about Art’s family places the reader in a familiar context. After the emotional anecdote of Vladek’s reunion with Anja, Art brings us back to Queens, New York, where his father complains that his current wife “only […] talks about money, always about my will” (Maus I 67). The trivial, petty concerns of a modern middle-class marriage could not be further from the true terrors of the Holocaust and closer to the world the reader most likely inhabits.  They also remove some of the onus to perceive Vladek as merely a victim or a survivor; his present-day self acts as a miserly, cranky curmudgeon who suffocates his wife and frustrates his son. Though the Holocaust narrative of Maus I ends with the arrival of Vladek at Auschwitz, the site of millions’ deaths, the book ends with Art calling his father a “murderer” for destroying his mother’s diary (159). If we can’t make sense of the moral stakes of the Holocaust, we can certainly navigate the domestic conflict of Art’s family.

Again, it might seem that this strategy would offend Langer by tampering with the real, literal experience of the Holocaust, taking it away from its actual victims and survivors. Spiegelman’s narration provides a way to address this concern, for he gives Vladek his due role as a storyteller; we receive the inner frame of the book directly in his voice, grammatical mistakes and all, with few intrusions from Art. Spiegelman writes the narration of the Holocaust entirely in dialect; when Vladek says “the next year father wanted I would again do the same thing,” we can practically hear his Polish accent seeping out of the page (Maus I 47). Spiegelman sometimes portrays himself as a mere faithful scribe; Art just wants to “get it straight” (Maus I 82). The subtitle of the book, “A Survivor’s Tale,” suggests that we view it as Vladek’s story, not Art’s. Besides ensuring that the Holocaust stays in the voice of an actual survivor, such a narration meets Lopate’s demands that artistic representations of the Holocaust “go beyond a sentimental, generic approach to the subject and find a more complex, detailed, personal, and original path” (275-276).

Read back to back, Langer’s and Lopate’s arguments seem to impose an impossible dilemma, as often the hopes of one constitute the other’s fears. If these two views are truly irreconcilable, then the Holocaust can never be represented in a manner not deeply problematic on some level. But Spiegelman seems to overcome this obstacle by innovating in a genre that allows him to compose a story in two layers. In the outer layer, the comic book’s implicit universalism masks the Holocaust through allegory and hides its horrors behind a more relatable and familiar narrative. In the inner layer, though, a stark and powerfully evocative account of one man’s Holocaust experience stands on its own.


Works Cited

Lapote, Phillip. “Resistance to the Holocaust.” Getting Personal. Print.

Langer, Lawrence L. “Pre-empting the Holocaust.” The Atlantic Monthly. Nov. 1998. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991. Print.



[1] When Spiegelman began serializing the Maus comics in 1981, the American comic book field was largely dominated by Marvel and D.C. superhero series. Between World War II and the mid-1980s, the archetypes of the genre were figures like Captain America, Spiderman, and the Fantastic Four. Superman even enjoyed a revival during that time with a 1978 movie adaptation, released the same year Spiegelman began work on Maus. It was not until 1986, five years into Maus’s serialization, that Moore’s Watchmen and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns redefined the superhero genre by introducing morally ambiguous anti-heroes.

[2] To distinguish between Art Spiegelman as the creator of the book and Art Spiegelman as a narrator/character in his own creation, I refer to the former as Spiegelman and the latter as Art.