The End of History: Maus, Palestine, Persepolis, and Reconstructing a Narrative

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Dominated by victimary resentment and the fear of arousing it, the postmodern era saw the dismantling of virtually all explicitly hegemonic structures and institutional behaviors; many of the ethnic and other counter-resentments unleashed by this liberation are still unresolved. The usually noted characteristics of the postmodern esthetic–its distrust of “the subject” and of “master narratives,” its denial of originality and propensity to citation from historically diverse sources–may all be placed under the rubric of the suspicion and deferral of closure.”

-Eric Gans

“The tireless pursuit of a monopoly of historical life by the absolute-monarchist State, a transitional form along the way to complete domination by the bourgeois class, clearly illuminates the highest expression of the bourgeoisie’s new irreversible time.”

-Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

The notion of the historical narrative has long been one of the institutional consensus. This is to say that the narrative that has the ability to be both recorded in an acceptable form and then propagated, and this is defined almost purely by those with the material assertiveness to dictate the narrative as they would like it to be told. This characterization of the historical record is not the revisionist viewpoint of modern academia, rather than a very standard way of interpreting the standards that have been applied to the historical record.

The periods of de-colonialization, socialist revolution, suffrage, liberatory movements both in academia and in practical protest, as well as a shift in socio-political consciousness that patterned the people in the 20th century gave rise to the need to validate those opinions that that had not only be relegated to the outskirts, but completely left off of the historical record because they had not met the standards set for that record. The function of this new history did not have the systematic functionalization of the previous historical record and was, therefore, focused on the personal narrative. This personal narrative was placed into this context because previous contexts had, as we have seen, failed to aid anyone other than those in the ruling socio-economic classes. The faith in the collective experience began to wane even further through the perceived failures in Marxism-Leninism, the rise of Fascism in Europe, and the obvious failures of neo-liberalism in the Americas. It then seemed much more adequate to revert to the earlier sense of individualism that characterized the early foundations of the novel, except the realism of that period is called into question.

This was not a universal shift, and did not declare overt war on the historical method, but it did grant legitimacy to counter-narratives as part of the collective understanding of event, place, and person. This subjectivity headed for the artistic representation more than any other because of expected nature of fluidity, and it is there that many of the personal narratives still exist.

The modern comic book, which was developed into popularity from its perceived sense of legitimacy in the artistic underground, found new foundations in the personal narrative. This has been paramount to the graphic novel chic of the 21st century with authors like Charles Burns or Craig Thompson, but their own indulgence represents their place in the literary canon. These are not by any means definitive in their perspective, but rather an avenue in which the personal narrative reflects a certain subset of the consumer population, but the growing sense of the international holds the need for this subject narrative even more concretely.

Maus has always stood out, not necessarily because of its content but because of its place in the history of comic books. Hailed as the “first masterpiece,” Maus justified the existence of the comic book to the general literary community. This was done by elevating the comic book beyond its position as proletariat low art to that which would be acceptable for the educated public. This does not take away from its use of perspective, but its effect further on is dictated more by its audience reaction that its content.

In Maus we are given Art Spiegelman and his father, both with stories to tell. Here we recognize immediately that self-reflexivity is going to be paramount to the story as he acknowledges the creation of the comic book right from the start. The basis of the primary narrative, which is the narrative by which the parameters of the story space in Maus are dictated, are done in the service of the medium in which the story is being communicated. This is to say that the story in Maus is the creation of Maus. Though the motivation for Spiegelman, it seems, is to investigate his father and the holocaust, the true functionality of Maus is to frame the concept of narrative as being subjected and based in the form it takes. From here we do not have parallel narratives, but instead a primary narrative whose function is to draw out the secondary narrative. We here have a story that is first about Spiegelman and his father, and second about his father’s experiences in the Second World War.

The function of this is then to put into perspective the experience of the holocaust, which remains more difficult to understand as we step further away from it. The experience that Spiegelman looks for here is to understand the holocaust by relating to his father, both of which he ultimately lacks a clear explanation for. The story of the holocaust is, ultimately, one without reason in conventional logic. In Maus we see momentary glimpses at all the different attempts to discuss it, such as the traditions of German nationalism, working class split and economic crisis, persistent anti-Semitism, new interpretations of science, and so on. None of these tend to suffice the individual who actually had to experience these horrors because they were, essentially, personal in nature and did not, in their purest moments, take on a political character. The ability of a common historical narrative has failed to truly understand the horrific treatment of one person by another. The concepts of this are based around the hegemonic structures that hold the ability to set a collective determinacy of “right” and to have the material circumstances to create a narrative, which then forces a transition to a post-modern period where these structures are then made suspect. The holocaust is seen as the greatest horror of ideological domination, and therefore the base notion must be avoided. Therefore, the only way that Spiegelman would have to identify any understanding would simply be through the accessible experience of a person.

 sacco palestine panel

Palestine runs at opposition with our sense of collective history even further because it assumes a sense of journalism, which adds an even more coveted ethical framework to the perceived objectivity of an accepted narrative. This is challenged specifically right from the opening pages where Joe Sacco is presented as an American journalist, but appears in the frame, begins with sources that are both not of political stature or of overt political dialogue, and then allows the text to take on a less than standard appearance. We understand the word Palestine in ways that have little to do with it as a location or state. Instead, Palestine, in the western context, will conjure the image of political confrontation immediately. We understand that going in, and therefore expect the certain kind of uniformity that we get with political journalism surrounding the Middle East. Instead, we violate many of the assumed standards of the journalistic experience, which is supposed to be depersonalized and where style is supposed to be secondary to the clarity of information. The opening discussion with the two men drinking in Egypt breaks this off immediately by rotating the position of the text, and having the narrative text ,identified by its square borders, take on the same character as the dialogue. The violation of the text as being foundational to our understanding continues throughout, especially where areas of dialogue is cut off by the cropping of the page. This immediately tells us that the content of the dialogue is not of focus, but instead its position within a larger presentation. Here excluding the legitimacy of every opinion available elevates the perspective of the individual.

This takes on less a stylistic choice and more of an actually functionality as we see the contrast in Chapter Two where we switch to a more standard journalistic form with columns of un-interrupted text marked by the occasional picture, usually taking the aesthetic character of a photograph. It appears here that Sacco needs to return to the journalistic form for certain moments in the narrative, but this is only brief before he feels the need to break away.

You cannot separate this shifting perspective both from the written internal narrative of Sacco and the way that he draws himself. He is at all times timid and unsure, unable to make any concrete decisions about the horrors he sees and acknowledges. There are momentary attempts are creating structure, but these actually break away and into areas where the narrative of the people he meets is almost indistinguishable. He fights with the formation that is occurring here, even going back into Jerusalem and attempting to discuss the issues with Israeli women as a way of creating the balance that is fundamental to the journalistic form, but it is actually him that breaks the “objective” role he is intending to take with them.

We see that there is purpose for Sacco, but he does not achieve it. To make order of this situation, even just for himself, requires the creation of a concrete narrative.   He attempts to draw on the traditional historical narrative, for him meaning he will take the traditional forms and investigate on his own terms to create a counter narrative. What he discovers is a situation overwhelming and lacking in ethical clarity, and therefore he has nothing available to him other than his experience. He understands this as the evolution of the story as it is written takes place entirely after the fact, and therefore has the ability to be meditated on before publication. He chooses to end with The Boys in the Rain, which has a sense of simplicity about the nature of objection between two parties. There is no question that he stands in solidarity with Palestinian liberation, but he has no way to say what that means.

Persepolis runs from the program of both Maus and Palestine because, though it discusses overtly political topics more often, it is much less political in character. The story does begin with a look at the veil, and here the visuals communicate how clearly uniformity is achieved through the covering of the head. We go almost immediately into the Islamic Revolution, though we get only a cursory understanding of whom the main players are and what their roles will end up being. This is done, presumably, because Marjane is very young during this and does not have a clear understanding as to what is taking place, but we also have to remember that Persepolis is written by an adult who understands those contexts. She makes choices throughout as to how she wants to portray these events, and to suggest that she is simply writing things down from the perspective in which they were experienced is to defy the reality of how people communicate a narrative. There are a series of profound political engagements that take place in Persepolis but, in terms of international politics, the Islamic Revolution is by all means the most profound. It is likewise given the least attention, except as it caused shifts in the daily life of Marjane. It is here that we declare the nature of the personal and how the international political sphere is going to be decoded throughout the rest of the book.

This is not to say that we are not all encompassed by the politics of the situation, but that every part of this is made personal. The focus in much of both the early book, and somewhat the later half, is the martyrization of the public. This may take this character because of the way that the martyr was characterized in Iran, but more importantly Marjane’s respect and admiration for those who had become political prisoners is important. Here she does not draw a clear political distinction as to why this would be important for making a social change in the revolutions she is discussing, but instead sees it as personal heroism that she wants to be associated with.

We are taken out of this political context as we are shifted into Switzerland, which is determined to reflect the depolitialization that she experienced when separated from Iran. The perspective, however, does not change as politics cease to be of primary importance. Instead, her struggles to communicate, her eventual sexual dependency and attraction to different forms of obligatory sub-cultures, end up taking the same significance as the actions of Islamic martyrs and Marxist revolutionaries did in the past.

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These distinctions are made in Persepolis to communicate the human nature of her experience, not one that is going to be able to create a narrative about the Middle East. Here position in Iran is the same as her position out of Iran, as an individual that can experience both international politics and simple individual interactions. Both are of equal experience because, for our personal narrator, there is no way to give more significance to one or the other. If the narrative is truly personal, than the assumed collective importance of an even should not dictate how it will be discussed in the narrative.

All three books look at a sense of atrocity. Maus presents a new narrative the references one that we know relatively well in the western world. Spiegelman does include maps in the second volume, and explains where different locations are, but we have a fairly concrete understanding of what a concentration camp is and what occurs there. What then becomes important is how the themes that we have been accepted about the holocaust in the historical narrative are challenged. Spiegelman does this by looking at whether or not his father shares the heroism that is normally awarded to holocaust survivors, and he then decides to revoke that status from him. This does not done to celebrate or degrade his father, but simply because the triumph of the individual does not represent how survival took place. At all points there is a sense of melancholy in Maus, especially in the earlier pages of the second volume where Spiegelman wears the mask of a mouse. The mouse, representing Jews, does actually represent his ethnicity in the book. Here he finally feels as though his identity has been sacrificed, and in comparison to his father’s ordeal and the lack of meaning he can find through it he has lost his sense of identity.

In the end these books represent an inability to characterize what atrocity is as to do so would be to make a concrete declaration against it. The collective narrative has never legitimized atrocity openly, but has allowed for its existence. The sense that we can look to the “positive” historical record and see right and wrong through the perspective of discussion is not even an option today, so there is a sense that these personal stories are the only legitimacy that we have since their honesty is not subverted by the means of discussion.   Fragmentation, specifically the shift from essential truth to nominal forms, is at a main cause of this, but in times where the ways in which we understand the world fail to paint a picture that is representational there is no way to create a grand narrative that may be able to come to terms with the horror that has become commonplace.

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