Sweet Land of Naivete

The word immature reverberated in my head last week when I read about a Tennessee education board banning the graphic novel Maus from its schools, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less.

Art Spiegelman’s memoir, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is an absolutely stunning masterpiece. It’s the true story of the artist and writer trying to come to terms with his difficult father Vladek, a Holocaust survivor crippled by PTSD.

The book (or books — originally Maus appeared in two volumes) juxtaposes Spiegelman’s modern-day frustrations with Vladek against flashbacks of his father’s experiences in Europe. I read it first as a teen, then reread it while preparing this post. There are parts that are hard to read without my eyes watering.

One scene has always stuck with me. Mouse Artie and mouse Vladek are walking down the street, and Artie is enraged because his dad rummages through the trash barrels they pass. The dad finds some wire which he keeps, mentioning it might be useful later. You always pick up trash! mouse Artie shouts. Can’t you just buy wire?

But Vladek is mystified by his son’s reaction. He scavenges because he’s a survivor. He’d be foolish not to take the wire!

That scene, emblematic of Vladek’s entire life, hits even harder with me now, some thirty-odd years after first reading it. That’s what good art does. Good art sticks in the head decades later. Good art you never forget.

Let’s assume the members of the McMinn County Board of Education aren’t anti-Semites or Holocaust deniers. Let’s assume their banning of Maus from their schools because of “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide” is sincere. Let’s assume that when the Board wrote in their statement, “We simply do not believe that this work is an appropriate text for our students to study,” they were totally serious.

Most of those McMinn County eighth-graders have game consoles at home and already know worse words than the very few swears printed in Maus. Likewise those kids know more euphemisms for penis than there are hollows in the Tennessee hills, let alone what penises or women’s breasts, cartoon or otherwise, look like. They have phones.

And because it’s impossible to teach the Holocaust without discussing violence, I don’t know what would be an appropriate text to study that would meet the board’s criteria. Even The Diary of Anne Frank doesn’t end with a happily ever after.

You have to wonder at the callowness of people too immature to look past a few bad words and cartoon peens — how do they survive in this world of ours? The characters Spiegelman depicts were real people with real names who actually existed, but by the board’s logic their stories and memories are invalidated by the same violence by which they died. In their naivete, the horrors of the Holocaust fade in relevance to a belief in their children’s moral chastity which, like Santa Claus, doesn’t exist.

I wish I could say this childishness is something new, something that’s appeared in the past few years, but I’m old enough to remember the Satanic panic of the 80s and the time Tipper Gore’s freakout over a Prince album led to congressional hearings. For my entire lifetime America has been a nation of thumb-suckers, some of them in charge.

The only response is for the rest of us — the grown-ups — to push back every way you can, in any small way you can.

Coda: When I first read Maus, I assumed it was the Holocaust that made Vladek Spiegelman who he was, that his experiences shaped him — that he was, as I said above, “a Holocaust survivor crippled by PTSD.” At one point in the narrative, when Artie’s wife Francoise empathizes with Vladek by suggesting that very idea, Artie is unconvinced, commenting that he knows many other Holocaust survivors who aren’t like his dad. There’s something harder and more extreme about Vladek.

For many years I agreed with Francoise — after all, it’s presumptuous to expect everyone to process trauma in the same way.

But now I’m not so sure. Not too long ago I wrote a book in which the protagonist encounters relatives from his mother’s estranged side of the family, all of whom are wealthy and successful. They’re not bad people (well, most of them aren’t) but they are, to varying degrees, obnoxious and difficult to get along with. It’s fiction but the story is based upon my observations from decades of rubbing elbows with prosperous people in which I’ve realized the same traits that drive some to succeed also make them intolerable. Is Elon Musk evil? I very much doubt it. Is he a prick? Sounds like it.

Likewise I now suspect Vladek was who he was all along; the reason he survived the Holocaust was precisely because of his character. His traits are what led to his success — and during the Holocaust, success was measured by survival. Those same qualities that grated on Artie’s nerves are what allowed his father to live. That’s not to say other survivors had those same manners or that all survivors are somehow obnoxious. But the skills that preserved Vladek were often not so easy to turn off afterward, much to his son’s exasperation.

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