Like most people alive in the world today, I have never been to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Located in Oświęcim, Poland, just west of Kraków, it is a place that demands a feeling of responsibility to history and the knowledge of the past. Yet as much as such sentiments may impress upon me the importance of visiting this place, I don’t know if I will ever be able to get there. The difficulties are not just financial or logistical either, they also derive from the tremendous gravity of these sites of horror and what it takes to confront places of such enormous and gruesome consequence. Yet, in some ways, I have already been to Auschwitz-Birkenau, saw the railroad tracks that lead so many people there, and read the mocking words affixed to its gates: Arbeit Macht Frei, work will free you.
I have been transported to this complex of abominable concentration and extermination camps, of which there were more than 40 total, and been made to confront the meaning of those infamous words through literature. I was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau through memory and word, just as I have been carried off to Hiroshima by Michihiko Hachiya and John Hersey. Brought into the world of American slavery through Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada. Bore witness to the atrocity perpetrated against Blackfeet people at the Marias River Massacre through James Welch’s Fools Crow and Stephen Graham Jones’ Ledfeather. I’ve come to know more about the epidemic of violence against Native and Indigenous women through Frances Washburn’s Elsie’s Business and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House.
While it is true that I haven’t encountered any of these experiences or places firsthand, I have traveled through these and other heartrending shadowlands that I would have no way of visiting otherwise, without the use of a time machine of the sort found in the works of science fictions like H.G. Wells, in a different way. And that has been through the magical power of words and stories that give literature its capacity to remake the world within our minds and to reveal our interconnectivity within it.
The harrowing and deeply distressing stories Art Spiegelman tells in his literary masterpiece, Maus, in ways similar to the subjective realities the texts noted above breathe life into, bring what Gerald Vizenor calls an "active sense of presence" to unimaginable physical and psychic experiences that Spiegelman's own mother and father endured throughout the period of the Holocaust. In Spiegelman’s rendering, dire encounters with the enormous trauma of limit experience formed out of the essence of human evil are commemorated, while offering readers a means of confronting it on their own terms. But most of all, they grant his family an historical voice and a means of articulation for an “enormous and devastating” set of events that “had hit my family.” And through the creative and imaginative sharing of his mother’s and father’s sacred memories and retelling of their experiences, an unmistakable presence is given to the living memories of countless others as well.
In the words of his father whose Hebrew name is Zev ben Abraham, and referred to as Vladek in Maus, he shared his story with the world so that “now you can know what happened,” and in following George Santayana’s famous dictum, so that such an atrocity should “never happen again.” A literary venture that is at once a reflection on the power of art, which Pablo Picasso once called a “lie that makes us realize truth,” and Spiegelman’s commitment and responsibility to avoid the assignment of blame or implication of motives, “but rather to just explain what happened and allow one to make one’s own determination.”
Maus is a book that I was led to when I was an unexpected college student in an undergraduate literature class at Miami University. As such, Maus is a book I’m not sure I would have ever encountered without the luck and privilege of finding my way to college in the first place, and then almost stumbling into a professor’s class in which it was presented as an important exemplar of American literature. Like many other books students are introduced to in high school or college, it conveys the kind of knowledge about life, history, suffering, loyalty, violence, love, anger, courage, hatred, oppression, happiness, and a million other aspects of the human condition, that so many may never have the chance to encounter, know, or remember otherwise. Thank you Dr. Melley!
These are just some of the matters that make the recent decision of the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee to ban Maus from their curriculum so “baffling” and “demented,” as Spiegelman called it. Nestled just west of the Great Smoky Mountains between Knoxville and Chattanooga, McMinn County is home to less than 55,000 people. Maybe that in itself, the community’s geographic isolation and relatively small population, are reasons that might lead some to dismiss the larger relevance of the actions taken by a previously unheard-of Tennessee school board, in an unheard-of corner of Eastern Tennessee.
That may be, but only before we are reminded that actions and results like this have become increasingly common in an America ever more fractured by a toxic political culture fueled by intense divisiveness and partisan conflict. What this latest example of book banning reflects within this context is what amounts to a concerted ideological effort focused in very specific ways on the concealment and marginalization of the inconvenient and shameful truths of history. Acts of suppression that reinforce patterns of systematic exclusion and the imposed absence of oppressed peoples in historical discourses. At the same time, however, it also emphasizes the capacity of literature to fill these memory holes and give voice to people and social groups who have been deprived of equitable representation in the historical record for far too long.
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While the decision of the McMinn County School Board has prompted the criticism of many prominent writers, thinkers and institutions of knowledge including the likes of Neil Gaiman, Jack Kliger, president of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, by providing another seeming confirmation of stereotypic imagery whereby Appalachia—the place where I was also born and raised—and the larger American South are cast, yet again, as synonymous with ignorance, closemindedness and bigotry, it stands as another salvo in a culture war in which conservatives seem intent on sanitizing history and obfuscating the events of the past. And especially where the suffering and oppression of marginalized people and communities are concerned.
In a statement posted to the board’s website, the decision was justified due to what the board deemed to be Spiegelman’s “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” This, in a county in which 80% of its voters voted for a presidential candidate in Donald Trump who routinely used profanity to insult others and spoke about women in crude and graphic terms. Something doesn’t quite add up. These are precisely the details that recall the dystopian fictional worlds of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, while prompting commentators, including Spiegelman himself, to cast the board’s actions as “Orwellian.”
Those familiar with Orwell’s novel may also see this kind of thinking reflected in the board’s rationale as a contemporary expression of what Orwell described as “doublespeak.” In a description found early in the novel, Orwell’s protagonist defines the term in this way, “to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it . . . to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then draw it back into memory again at the moment it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.”
Returning to their justification makes a thinking person wonder in what possible way might one address the Holocaust without reference to such realities? These are observations that also raise the question of who or what a school board that doesn’t seem to have the vaguest notion of what the mass murder of six million Jewish people, and more than four million other people deemed inferior by Aryan ideology within a period of less than five-years, entailed and might actually be trying to shelter their district’s students from? A decision made even more strained and dubious given the society and world in which today’s middle and high school students live is inundated with casual profanity and the near ubiquitous imagery of violence and sex, and whereby the most hardcore pornography or graphic scenes of death are only a flip of the channel, or a mouse click away.
This, without addressing the fact that the text in question is rendered in the form of a series of comic books, with the characters depicted as animals in a brilliant move that creates a sense of narrative distance that blunts the unimaginable horror of the events portrayed. A strategy that at the same time makes Spiegelman’s characters easier for readers to relate to and imagine ourselves in the place of, and thus, cultivate a deeper sense of understanding and empathy. Maus is a harrowing and thematically layered story presented in a form that resists narrative complexity in its use of succinct captions and speech balloons, with simple black and white graphic art that is drawn together to invoke a profound and affective reckoning with the processes by which human beings dehumanize other human beings. A psychological procedure that lies at core of mass violence, warfare and genocide.
Within this context it is also important to state unequivocally that such a decision does not make the members of the board fascists or Nazi apologists either, or not even enemies. That’s simply too easy, while threatening to replicate a kind of binary thinking that we would do well to abandon.
Behind acts that display a reckless exercise of authority, the thoughtless or intentional dismissal of the value of intellectual exchange and betrayal of critical thinking, however, resides the chilling image of how seemingly common, ordinary people can start down the ominous path Spiegelman’s Maus warns us against. A point made so persuasively by Hannah Arendt in her groundbreaking work, Eichmann in Jerusalem in what she termed the “banality of evil.” For Arendt, this all-too-common capacity is born not out the minds of ideologues and totalitarian dictators but of the “thoughtlessness” of human actions whereby people cultivate and reinforce a sense of psychological disengagement from the reality and effects that attend acts of extreme violence and evil. And this potential is what makes Arendt’s words so utterly terrifying and acts of censorship so threatening and dangerous.
From these ideas and observations, it seems reasonable to assert that the excuses offered forth by the McMinn County School Board are not merely flawed, but insincere and dishonest. How can they not be without the application of such a criterion to a host of other books, including perhaps the Holy Bible? Within this context the decision to ban and censor Maus, which is certainly a literary work of enduring quality and one might even see as having imperative value and urgent relevance, becomes a self-reflective reminder of the lessons Maus seeks to convey to readers. Such actions stand as glaring object lessons that highlight anew precisely why such stories of pain and sorrow, suffering and cruelty, trauma and hurt, but also strength, tenacity and survivance are so vital to our understanding of history, the importance of the past and the irrepressible resolve of the human spirit.
Billy J. Stratton, University of Denver