|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.
History from below
Moral judgment and presentism
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 http://www.mtsu.edu/~baustin/denial.htm