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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.

That 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? 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.

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