PoCo and Shoah: Books #12 & 13

No humor intended. Well, not good humor anyway.

I have two more books to review for my Lunar New Year of reading, both of them very famous: Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and Edward Said’s Orientalism. Both of these books have been regarded as revolutionary, and both were fascinating. But I’m not sure what I can say about each that will add anything to what’s already been said, which in both cases in voluminous. Still, I’ll take a stab and presenting my take of them:

Book #12: Orientalism by Edward Said, with an Afterword dated 1992.

This book, especially, has had everything written about it. People seem to react mainly in one of two ways: they either deify Said as the saviour of the academic-political nonwhite left, or belittle him into a whining, racist Palestinian academic version of a suicide bomber.

He’s neither. He’s flawed in ways, though not in the ways that his loudest critics claim: his history isn’t all that flawed, because after all he didn’t write much about history. Okay, okay, he made gaffes. I’m not defending them. I’m saying those gaffes don’t really hurt his argument all that much. (And I didn’t notice many in the text… I couldn’t even find the most often-cited one. Maybe the text was tidied up somewhat for the new edition with the newly added afterword?)

Said does overgeneralize about Europeans, even as he shows how much Europeans overgeneralized about Orientals. He does pick and choose elements of a tradition, yes, and perhaps he chooses the worst bits… though I hardly think most common folk would think Richard Burton a ridiculous example of and Orientalist, nor do I think citing the representations of Orientals in the works of famous French authors is so far off when charting the French conception of the Orient.

There are problems with his argument, to be sure, and a simple search on Google will show a number of them quite clearly. And yet, there is still a lot of stuff to admire in the text. Especially when coupled with the Afterword, and even more especially when we see how the American government even now regards Arabs—I have a hard time imagining an American invasion and drawn-out occupation in today’s Balkans or Latin America at all, let alone one comparable to the current one—I think there is a great deal to be learned from the text. But I do think the critics do, in some places, have a point. When Said claims something like, “All Europeans were therefore racist,” I have qualms.

I have qualms not because I necessarily am sure he was wrong; in my travels and readings I have discovered that plenty of traditional cultures are very race-conscious, and that this does color how they think of outsiders. But I have a problem because the logic within such a statement cannot be but faulty.

edwardsaidorientalism.jpgThat said, sometimes his critics are giving Europeans too much credit, in response to his giving them too little. When one critic complained that Said missed the whole point of Dante keeping Mohammed on the outer circle of Hell, and that it was a show of respect, I couldn’t help but flinch. For someone who doesn’t believe in Hell, it’s a gesture of systematized respect, I suppose; it’s doing the best one can for those non-Christian figures one admires or respects. But on the other hand, Hell is Hell. If one believes in Hell, then relegating anyone there is not only an act of profound arrogance (for in Christianity only God may say who is banished to Hell) but also a Eurocentric, totalizing use of religion to safeguard own’s own moral (and perhaps aesthetic) superiority.

The long and the short of it is, this book is a hell of a lot of work to read, it’s a slow haul, and sometimes you find yourself wondering who the hell Said is talking about. But when coupled with some of the best bits of criticism leveled against it, the book is not irreparably
damaged, but rather comes out even stronger for the criticism. The argumentation was flawed, but the transformation of your view of the problem can withstand the clarifications and corrections because, really, fundamentally, all Said’s arguing is pretty straightforward and none too surprising.

I makes me wonder why it took so long for someone to say it at all.

Which is not to belittle Said at all. In fact, I have a lot of respect for the man as a committed intellectual. I think he is far less guilty of any clerkly treason than any number of professors who author far more dubious “criticism” for far less lofty reasons. In a way, the “Yah, of course”-ness of it suggests that it isn’t just the flatulence of a prof trying to make sure he holds onto his tenure and status in the logorrhic community of the modern university.

Book #13: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman. (Mine is a boxed set with Volumes I and II together.)

This graphic novel—really a pair of graphic novels—is wonderful, painful, and horrifying all at once. Everyone knows about it, or at least it seems that way. I mentioned Maus to a co-worker and he said, “I know the concept,” which is to say he knew that it was a book about the Holocaust in which the Jews were draw as mice, and the Nazis were drawn as cats.

But the concept, I told him quickly, wasn’t the whole of the book. It’s like telling someone, “No, I haven’t read Moby Dick, but I know the concept.” Well, you know Moby Dick is about a whale and some guy who wants to kill it, right? maus.gif Likewise, you know the cats are Germans and the mice are Jews. But nobody ever mentions how the Poles were pigs, Americans dogs—black and white alike, significantly at one point—and French as frogs. Likewise, nobody ever seems to know, from that basic sketch of the concept, that more than half the book is dedicated to the relationship between the cartoonist and his father, the Holocaust survivor who is relating the story. Nobody ever seems to count the harrowing (and often frustrating, and also often funny) exploration of that relationship as part of the “concept” of Maus. This book is so very much more than just that concept, and yet that concept is unarguably part of the genius of the book. It’s hard to get around the centrality of the concept as a depictive device. It’s a trick that turns Mickey Mouse on his big black ear, using mice in such a meaningful way. And yet, the aged father-character is, at the same time, anything but mousy… the status of the mouse is always in increasing jeopardy, even as it is constantly being worked through. (Which is why I was so relieved to see points at which the cartoonist depicts himself as a human wearing a mouse-mask, within the book. Genius, like I said.)

All of that’s there, that engaging self-contradiction and endangerment of Disneyesque sentimentality: the paradoxical racism of the Holocaust survivor against blacks; the paradoxical fact that while he survived the Holocaust, in another sense he really didn’t. There’s the pain the cartoonist faces in telling the true story—which includes the suicide of his mother and the Jewish-stereotypicality of his shattered father, a man who pinched pennies so terribly some would consider it abusive, and who was not above using his Holocaust survivor status to take whatever pittances he could from strangers.

It’s a pretty painful story, especially if you read it straight through in one sitting, as I did. It’s gritty, and honest, but so many of the sorrows are understated. The unrelenting hellishness of walking down the tunnel with a family who is unknowingly trudging towards the Holocaust, walking with them but having foreknowledge denied them, is broken up by the exploration of the cartoonist’s relationship with his father.

And yet perhaps because of this, each return is more painful than the last. One gets the feeling of someone who keeps returning to the surface for a breath of air, so as to have a chance to dive deeper, but who increasingly finds himself barely getting back up to the surface alive between dives.

But the comic is absolutely so worth it. The artwork took a while to grow on me—though eventually it did—but the story had me from almost the first page.

If you’ve not yet read Maus, now’s the time to do it.

UPDATE: Back in 2004, Joi Ito posted a link to a very worthwhile piece by Said from 2003, which was in fact a new introduction to the text.

5 thoughts on “PoCo and Shoah: Books #12 & 13

  1. Thanks for posting this.

    I do respect and appreciate Said’s statements in Orientalism regarding the perpetuation of Arab ‘myths’ such as Holocaust denial and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. When one considers that these and other forms of Jewish antisemitism are taught in many Arab countries to schoolchildren, his statement takes on an even braver aspect. I thought sections of the book were incredibly insightful.

    But his repeated, lifelong referral to the entire Palestinian struggle as a “moral quest for equality and human rights” smacked of either apologism or a failure of ethics. He repeated this claim in Orientalism, which I found astounding.

    The Palestinians cold-bloodedly murdered non-combatant Israeli civilians. They blew up children and teens in Universities and pizza parlors. They attacked unarmed families at funeral processions. They laid waste to religious celebrations and they did their damndest to kill as many Israeli Jews as they possibly could. The only conclusion any rational person could draw was that the Palestinians didn’t want to live in peace. Every time peace was declared and an offer placed on the table, they committed another atrocity.

    A just cause is not sufficient grounds to call a struggle for equality a ‘moral quest’.

  2. I just finished reading Orientalism too. For me, it was one of the most honorable works ever from the Western academia. Said analyzed and studied how people from Oriental world have been exoticized and stereotyped by the colonial Europeans. Like Said referred to Foucault quite a bit, Orientalism became a discourse, which we should discard eventually. Anyway, I am trying to post about it on my blog later…

    Regarding Jon’s comment on Palestinians, I try to remain neutral; vbut from Palestinians?perspective, Israelis were intruders who wiped out indigenous people in the Palestine. However, the conflict between Palestinians and Israeli Jews is significantly overrated through the U.S. media. One of my best friends, Israeli Jew from from Jerusalem never hates Palestinians (none of his family or friends hate them). Vice versa, Palestinians don’t hate Jews either. My friend compares the tragedy there as occasional traffic accidents in the U.S.

    There are always extreme people like suicide bombers and rightwing Israeli politicians. Except those extreme people, most of Palestinians and Israeli Jews love peace.

  3. I dunno, from where I stand, the majority of people aren’t quite nice or aware, but also aren’t quite nasty or brutish either.

    I think most people do want peace, but also they want it on something resembling their own terms. This is the leverage that the extremists use to get support for all kinds of garbage.

    Extremists are extreme because, well, actually, for something like the reason that academics are academics: it’s a career, an industry, a speciality. If there were peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a lot of people on both sides of the divide would lose a lot of the provisional, conflict-generated power that they have within their own communities.

    I think it’s important to remember the meaning of the word “jihad” in common Arabic usage: it means “struggle”. According to a Tunisian friend, this is used in the way Koreans say “Fighting!” or “힘내!” to one another, or how North Americans might say, “Fight the good fight,” or “Don’t give up” or even “Hang in there.”

    I think for a number of average Palestinians, life in general involves a lot of “jihad” of this kind: the struggling just to hang in there, to not give up hope, and not succumb to all that pressure they feel. So taken as describing the lives of many Palestinians, I think Said’s sense of a “moral quest for equality and human rights” is sensible.

    Jon, you’re dismissing the wider struggle on the grounds that certain factions espouse violent terrorism. Would you apply the same dismissal of all Israelis on the grounds that a few zealots have no compunctions about what they do in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories? For that matter, do you think there was no moral struggle for “equality and human rights” on the part of American blacks simply because some militant groups used their ends to justify organized crime and violence? Hell, even mainstream America would not be above the same criticism, if we take the right-wing extremists’ worst actions to stand for the whole group’s. And yet you seem comfortable generalizing about one group, when you write “The Palestinians”.

    Ironically, this is precisely the same kind of generalizing logic that Palestinian extremists use when consolidating public support—you’re Palestinian, so you must be with us. It’s a feature seen in almost every human culture, though, so it’s hardly surprising.

    A note: since I haven’t read Said’s writing specific to Palestine, such as the book he wrote after Orientalism, you may know more about the specifics of his dealings with the Palestine/Israel conflict. However, I do think there’s a flaw in your own characterizations, when taken out of context Said’s writings.

  4. A bit of serendipity reading your post about Maus today (found your blog randomly). I’ve also just recently finished reading (and re-reading) both volumes. I found myself strongly affected by two particular scenes: the one where Art and Vladek argue about matches in the Catskills, and the one where Vladek organizes a belt and shoes for a friend in Auschwitz. In these scenes we see Vladek the survivor, and the older Vladek who never quite gets out of survival mode.

    Spiegelman’s work is so honest and raw, one can see where the ink is so agitatedly applied to the page. And yet, perversely, throughout there is levity, irony and wit, and much affection underlying Art’s frustration. Maus is a very human, intimate and yet heroic work that treats the history of tragedy and the triumph of survival in a very different way, becoming powerful literature beyond “plain comics”, that bears reading again and again.

    What can I say, I’m a fan.

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