Common Reading 2005 - 2006

Metahistorical Questions for MAUS Readers

By Evelyn Burg

When Art Spiegelman set out to tell his father’s story, he took upon himself the role of a historian interpreting history in comic book form. As a classic example of its form, there are endless levels to his book. If we look at MAUS as an innovative example of oral history, we find that it exposes various metahistorical questions.

Vladek is telling history as an eyewitness. History, in traditional forms or new ones, always depends on human memory. But this can be unreliable. As you may have noticed, people can misremember things; they sometimes believe they were present at events they actually only heard about. They occasionally dramatize or cleanse their own actions or opinions to suit the audience to whom they are speaking. Yet we agree that some witnesses are more credible than others. What makes for credible testimony? Do you find Vladek convincing? Why?

History from below
Art Spiegleman as historian is practicing a form of social history: he is telling the story of an ordinary person caught up in events over which he has almost no control whatsoever, as opposed to a history of heroes or major political players. This “history from below” is a relatively new way to approach historical writing. Why might this approach to history be so significant today? Though his story is a personal one it reveals how important politics really is. The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the movement for equal rights for women and gay liberation all championed the idea the “the personal is political.” Do you agree with this? Can you explain why?

Moral judgment and presentism
Another question raised by MAUS is that of moral judgments in historical writing. Art and Vladek Spiegelman necessarily have powerful points of view regarding these events. They have judged them. How could they not? What makes the narrative strong and keeps the reader turning the page is this passionate viewpoint. Yet historians are required to always remember that it is difficult to judge the actions of historical actors since they are caught up in times that are very different from our own. The author also seems to judge nations or ethnic groups by portraying them in a fabulist manner as animals. We have immediate responses to certain animals; they are part of our symbol system. Does this foster any prejudices in the reader or does it contribute to understanding? Is there any way that Spiegleman’s cartoons acknowledge his own biases?

Metahistorical Questions: A Brief Overview of  Recent Scholarship

By Timothy Coogan

Doing research and oral history on the Holocaust, by its nature, forces historians and other social scientists to confront the horrific atrocities of that age of terror either intentionally or not, while they grapple with the larger metahistorical issues and problems of working with and writing on the various primary documents of the Holocaust.  Such philosophical and ethical considerations as writing "history from the bottom up" or coming to terms with the moral dilemmas/choices such searches for "truth" and the multiple dimension of the peoples' voices present, must be dealt with squarely and honestly by the interpreter of the past.  Consequently, there are numerous problems historians and social scientists must keep in mind when gathering data and "authentic voices" of the Holocaust, albeit, the "deniers" of the Holocaust altogether as well as fake or uncorroborated evidence dealing with it.  Oral history alone, states the highly acclaimed oral historian and expert Philippe Joutard in a recent essay titled, "The Challenges of Oral History," remains a huge problematic issue when it comes to memory and the retelling of the past.  Questions such as how does one evaluate the truthfulness of oral histories and testimonies as well as how significant the ordinary stories of the past are can not be lightly dismissed.  We should not forget, he notes, that "pure orality" in our modern society does not exist.  In fact,"oral testimony is permeated with references to written sources" as well as the pervasive influence of television, "usually on a subconscious level." Importantly, Joutard insists, the "historian...cannot limit himself to using only oral sources; he must consult other documents, be they written or iconographic."  But while the "memorialist” is content to listen, to collect faithfully, without ever intervening to ask questions or bothering to conserve his objectivity, “his silence signals his approval, if not his outright endorsement of the position of his narrator.”  In contrast, “the historian never stops listening and collecting, all the while maintaining his objectivity,” and his empathy, those “cardinal virtue[s] of the good interviewer,” [who] “must never blind him or deprive him of a clear perspective."  In this sense, suggests Joutard , "history puts all this in context and challenges the simplistic ideas that memory, and its more formalized version, oral tradition, are pure, totally indigenous and without outside influences, and that they are the expression of the soul of a group."  History also "shows us that the opposite is true, that memory and oral tradition are constructs which evolve, which assimilate exterior and foreign influences, and which are far more dynamic because of their cultural blending."  Yet history--and particularly oral history--is essential “to get everyone to realize that we recognize that their version of the facts is part of the truth, but not the whole truth, is to help them to open up their identity."  More importantly, in order to facilitate the acceptance of this dialogue, historians must "recognize the partial character of the truth” which [they] are bringing forth, “as each one of us is obviously far from expressing the whole of reality in its diversity and complexity, or of representing the historical community in its entirety."   

The essay on "The Challenges of Oral History" by Philippe Joutard can be found at:

For one of the best sources on Holocaust Deniers and the debate they unleashed, consult

History from the Bottom Up
Holocaust Deniers, Their Critics, & Oral History


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