10 Jul 2015

Rosen (Alan), “The Language of Survival: English as Metaphor in Art Spiegelman’s Maus”, summary

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[Bracketed commentary, underlining, and boldface are my own.]

Summary of

Alan C. Rosen

“The Language of Survival:
English as Metaphor in Art Spiegelman’s Maus

Brief Summary:

Vladek tells his story in a broken English that we would expect from an East European immigrant. English has been argued by some as inadequate for telling the story of the Holocaust, since English was not a commonly used language among the people involved. Vladek’s broken English, however, gives his testimony an authoritative voice [perhaps because it is truer to or closer to the actual languages that were used], while at the same time, its imperfections indicate that English has limitations to its authority in this task [perhaps since the mistakes suggest inaccuracies in the descriptions].


Although there is much study given to the languages spoken by victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust, little has been devoted to English.

Yet in Maus, Art Spiegelman emphasizes the extraordinary role English plays in aiding his father’s survival. The prominence of English in the chronicle of events implicitly directs attention to the fractured English in which the survivor’s story is told and, more generally, to the complex significance of language and languages in representing the Holocaust. (122)

Rosen claims that “Maus’s exceptional concern with English operates on at least three levels” (122).
1) Vladek’s abilities with English play an important role in his courting his first wife Anja and for helping him survive the camps.
2) Vladek’s English is broken. “In contrast to the biographical events recounted, Vladek’s English here is noteworthy not because of competence but rather because of incompetence” (122).
3) Most of the other English speakers have fluency, which [somehow] “frames and envelops both Vladek’s biography and his Holocaust narrative, establishing English as the dominant language.”
And [somehow] “These three levels interrogate the status of English as a language of the Holocaust and, consequently, as a language (un)fit to recount the Holocaust” (122d).

Other Holocaust studies have examined the significance of specific languages, primarily Yiddish, Hebrew, and German, but also other European languages including English.

Sidra Ezrahi, for example, positions English in opposition to Yiddish and German, the major languages of the victim and persecutor, respectively (12)1. In contrast, English, of little significance in the camps and ghettos, has a marginal standing, making it an “outsider” and marking it with “autonomy” and “purity.” Moreover, Ezrahi places English in opposition in another way: as the chief language of the Allies, English came to stand for “defiance,” for “a different hierarchy of values,” values presumably informed by the democratic ideals associated with English-speaking countries.

[Footnote 1 on page 132: “1. Ezrahi’s more recent views pertaining to language and the Holocaust can be found in several essays, including “ ‘The Grave in the Air’: Unbound Metaphors in Post-Holocaust Poetry” (in Friedlander, Probing the Limits 259-76) and “Conversation in the Cemetery: Dan Pagis and the Prosaics of Memory” (in Hartman, Holocaust Remembrance 121-33). Ezrahi is one of a procession of critics who have ventured a taxonomy of Holocaust languages. See, e.g., Steiner; Roskies, “Scribes of the Ghetto,” in Against the Apocalypse; Gillman, “The Ashes of the Holocaust and the Closure of Self-Hatred,” in Jewish Self-Hatred; Levi, “Communicating,” in The Drowned and the Savedi; Felman, “The Return of the Voice: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah,” in Felman and Laub, Testimony.]

But in “Ezrahi’s schema,” English not only serves a heroic role outside the atrocity. The “schema also suggests its vulnerability;” for, “because it was not vitally implicated in the events of the Holocaust, English is less qualified to represent them” (123). In one of the most important Holocaust anthologies, Anthology of Holocaust Literature, editor Israel Knox explains that the primary languages are Hebrew and Yiddish, with English playing only a “tertiary role” (123).

So we have then this context of an “antithetical legacy of English as a language of the Holocaust” that comes from it being outside to the situation and thus unable to contribute very well to the accuracy of documentation. Maus takes English however as a central theme in its account. Rosen then notes that the title sounds like the English word ‘mouse’. But it is instead written in German, which “ ‘contaminates’ it, associating it with, rather than opposing it to, the essential languages of the Holocaust” (124a).

Rosen continues, “This strategy would seem to endow English with an authority that it previously lacked” (124). However, there are two ways that this mixture “provokes suspicion” 1) It is still questionable that the German language is fit for representing the Holocaust, and 2) Native English speakers will find the foreign spelling “something strange and disconcerting” (124).

Thus on the one hand, Spiegelman’s title moves “English from outside to inside of the Holocaust,” while “On another level” it posits “English as foreign” thereby frustrating “the American audience’s sense of familiarity, moving the reader, in a sense, from inside to outside the Holocaust” (124).

Rosen explains that this essay will “elaborate the strategies Spiegelman employs throughout Maus to effect this reformulation and revaluation of English(124).

[Untitled Section Break]

English as a subject first comes up in Anja’s and Vladek’s early courtship. Anja and her cousin try to conceal their judgments of Vladek by speaking in English, and Vladek surprises Anja when he reveals he understood it all.


“As a language of secrets, it signifies a language spoken to prohibit understanding, specifically, the understanding of the one who is being spoken about” (124).

Rosen continues, “Whereas Anja resorts to English to deflect his understanding, Vladek employs it to appropriate a sensitive cluster of thought and feeling not his own. This dynamic parallels the ongoing issue of Vladek’s belief that he has full access to Anja’s story, a belief put in doubt repeatedly by Art’s counter-belief that Anja’s memoirs would give an alternative version of the events his parents lived through.

English also plays a role in understanding their class differences. Anja learns it in school, and Vladek had to quit school at 14 to work. Vladek learned English because he always wanted to go to America, which further suggests their class differences [since perhaps it indicates Vladek is poor and seeks better economic conditions abroad]. (125)

At this early stage of the story, “English is not yet a language of survival” (125).

However, “Early in Maus II, English returns to the foreground, serving as a form of knowledge that can generate extraordinary transformations. In the context of the concentration camp, this power to transform can determine survival. After deportation to Auschwitz and separation from Anja upon arrival, Vladek tries simply to remain alive.” He then becomes the kapo’s English tutor, and thereby is granted much better treatment. “Under the eye of a Polish kapo interested in bettering his own circumstances, English becomes the key to survival” (126).

For the kapo, English has “worth,” since with the prospect of the Allied powers possibly wining the war, “English has the capacity not only to aid survival but also to secure privileged status in the society one inhabits” (126).

English [for some reason] is not “pure,” and it acts as a commodity in the camps. It is subject to the laws of supply and demand, and therefore obtains an extraordinary exchange value.

This view of the worth of English suggests that English is not “pure,” that it does not inhabit a place outside camp society but rather, like other commodities, is subject to the particular logic and laws of camp life. And like other simple commodities in Auschwitz for which there is great demand and little supply, its value rises astronomically. (126)

And so “Vladek’s competence in English, and the association with the kapo that it garners, enables him to achieve a meteoric rise in status,” since he gains high quality food and clothes and preferential treatment (126).

Rosen continues that “The power of English to transform circumstances continues even as con- | ditions worsen” (126-127). [Rosen’s next observations have to do with Vladek’s use of English in the ‘present’ while he is recounting the stories to Art.] After Auschwitz, Vladek is marched to the concentration camp Dachau, and he says, “And here, in Dachau, my troubles began” (127, qting Maus II, p.91). Rosen’s first point is that “the phrase is clearly ironic because absurd: Vladek’s troubles began significantly earlier” (127). This idiom then is “inappropriate for the circumstances to which it refers.” Thus “Art calls attention to both Vladek’s foreignness – the difficulty of mastering English idioms – and to the foreignness of the experience – a degree of suffering that resists idiomatic formulation” (127).

Rosen continues that “One another level, however, it is clear that Vladek (or Art) wishes to suggest with this phrase that a new dimension of anguish here enters the story, anguish generated by a set of conditions in Dachau at the end of the war that brings Vladek closer to death than ever before – they were, he says, ‘waiting only to die’ ” (127). At Dachau, English again helps Vladek survive, since he uses it to communicate with a Frenchman, who shares his goods with Vladek (127).

But unlike before, “English here is not valued as a commodity but rather as a therapy, as a means of countering the madness of isolation that the Frenchmen suffers” (127).

Yet, after the war, when in America, Vladek corresponds with the Frenchmen but destroys his letters along with Anja’s in his depression following her suicide (128).

After the American invasion, “English continues to play a vital, if altered, role in Vladek’s story” (128). It is altered, since it no longer is needed for survival as before. Nonetheless, still “English becomes the language of the survivor” (128). Vladek uses English to explain his story to American soldiers. According to Rosen, that story told in English is used to identify himself, since the page transition seems to suggest that immediately or soon after when he was asked to identify himself, he tells in English what has taken place.

in response to the army’s command “Identify yourselves” (II:111), Spiegelman does not represent Vladek giving his name or any other of the usual factual details that might well be the common response to such a command. Rather, Vladek responds by telling for the first time his story of “ ow we survived to here” (II:112). Importantly, although they are still in Europe, the first telling of the story of the Holocaust is in English, and to an American audience, a telling, moreover, that is linked to identity.

2.111.8 - 112.1

Rosen then notes an “unsettling” element about English usage, which is that the American soldiers subordinate Vladek by only letting him stay if kept their place clean and made their beds, and they also called him “Willie.” This is “servile work and nomenclature that recall the stigmatized position imposed by white Americans on ‘Negroes’ of this time” and “English thus becomes even more deeply associated with  mastery and domination” (129).

[Second untitled section break]

Rosen then asks a number of questions. 1) English is a language of survival. How does this fact “inform the story Vladek tells in English? 2) On the one hand, English is associated with knowledge, power, transformation, and the ability to attest to one’s identity. On the other hand, Vladek testifies in broken English. How are we to understand these two factors in relation to one another? 3) At the beginning we noted the debate regarding whether or not English is a suitable language for capturing a historical event where English played only a small role but also where it is important to convey subtleties that might get lost in translation. And, there is a tension between “English as the competent language of survival and English as the incompetent language of the survivor.” How does this tension “address the issue of representing the Holocaust in English and the issue, more generally, of representing the Holocaust?” (129).

Vladek’s “tortured” English conveys the foreignness of the Holocaust

In one respect, the function of this “incompetence” is clear and forceful. Vladek’s accented English is mimetically appropriate for a Polish Jewish immigrant to America, and critics have noted in this light that Art has a “good ear.”9 But, I want to suggest, Vladek’s “tortured visualized prose” (N.K. Miller, “Cartoons of the Self” 58) is not only meant to represent an English-speaking “foreigner”  but is also meant to torture English into being a foreign language. Indeed, this quality of “foreignness” is the means by which English can become a language of testimony. By fracturing Vladek’s English and by making it the most foreign language in Maus (a point to which I will return), Spiegelman use it to convey the foreignness of the Holocaust itself.10
[Endnote 9 (quoting):] 9. As Alice Yaeger Kaplan phrases it, “One of the many extraordinary features of Maus is that Spiegelman gets the voices right, he gets the order of the words right, he manages to capture the intonations of Eastern Europe spoken by Queens” (“Theweleit and Spiegelman” 155).
(Rosen, 133)
[Endnote 10 (quoting):] 10. To be sure, Maus represents a range of languages foreign to English: Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, German, French. Whereas Vladek’s Yiddish-English functions to estrange the reader, these other languages generally do not function so as to insist on | their own foreignness; Spiegelman uses words so common to even non-speakers that they do not need translation, or, in the case of Vladek’s Polish, he subtitles it with fluent English. the Hebrew that appears in Maus, to my mind, has a more ambiguous status; I hope to address its significance in a longer version of this essay.

Felman uses a similar metaphor of “foreignness” in analyzing Lanzmann’s Shoah in “The Return of the Voice,” and I am indebted to her discussion therein. Yet Spiegelman and Lanzmann pursue this notion by means of contrasting strategies. Whereas Lanzmann foregrounds the foreignness of the Holocaust by making sure multiple survivors speak in languages (native or adopted) different from one another and different from the narrative language of the film itself (French), Spiegelman makes this foreignness palpable through the voice of a single survivor whose testimony is in the same language as the narrative of the graphic novel.
(Rosen, 133-134)

Rosen observes that only Vladek uses this broken English, and other characters, such as Mala, Pavel, and Anja – who “would seem to be candidates for an accent more or less equal to that of Vladek” – in fact speak English fluently (129d). “It is for Vladek alone that Spiegelman reserves the distortions in syntax, the malapropisms, the quirky idiom – the stylistic correlative, as it were, of an accent” (130a).

There is also a temporal significance in Vladek’s broken English: “for episodes in the past, Spiegelman uses fluent, colloquial English to represent the languages of Europe as spoken by their native speakers; for episodes in the present, Vladek’s broken, accented English serves as a constant marker. […] with the terms Maus establishes, Vladek’s broken English becomes the means by which Spiegelman articulates the incommensurability between present and past” (130).

Although the earlier 3-page version of “Maus” has Vladek speaking in broken English, this non-standard usage is “less well defined and exceptional than it becomes in later full-length treatment” for two reasons: 1) Vladek uses this broken English in the same manner for both present and past, and thus unlike the graphic novel version, it does not use the language to distinguish “between Vladek in America and Vladek in Europe, between Vladek in the present and Vladek in the past” (130). 2) [Recall how in the graphic novel, only Vladek uses broken English and other characters like Anja have fluent English.] All European Jews speak with the accent in the 3-page “Maus.” In the attic bunker scene that was reused, Spiegelman changes one character’s dialogue to remove the accent (130).

Rosen claims that, “The contrast between the vignette and the books shows an evolution in Spiegelman’s representational vision of English” (130). In the earlier version, all victims have this accent, which “divides the linguistic world of Maus between native speaker and foreigner, between American and European” (130d), and thus it links members of a group (131a). However, “in the books the erasure of group accent and exaggeration of Vladek’s individual one make Vladek’s American English singular. Paradoxically, it is not the representation of the events of the Holocaust itself that is most foreign to the American readers of Maus; it is rather the telling about the Holocaust, the testimony, that carries the burden of everything that is foreign” (131).

In order to make the point that “Vladek’s broken English testimony is meant to carry immense authority,” Rosen notes the ‘present’ event of picking up a Black hitchhiker who also spoke in a dialect. Vladek reveals himself to have prejudicial views toward Black people, which suggests he “seems to have not learned the lesson of the Holocaust” (131).

What Rosen notes is that when saying insulting things about the hitchhiker, he uses Polish rather than broken English. Here,

the movement from English to Polish also mobilizes a set of representational values. No longer telling the story of the Holocaust but rather uttering racial slurs, it is as if Vladek has foregone the right to the “tortured” English that is the vehicle for his testimony. […] that fluency comes at the expense of, and suspends, the authority his tortured English evinces. (131)

We also see a shift of that authoritative voice of the victimhood of bigotry exhibited in the shift of non-standard English usage from Vladek to the hitchhiker (131).

On the one hand, Maus celebrates English by showing it as mastering and dominating what it confronts. “This celebration would seem to authorize English as a language of testimony, investing it with the knowledge and power to chronicle the events of the Holocaust with unparalleled eloquence” (132).

However, on the other hand, Maus shows the limitations of English as a language of the Holocaust.

Maus inscribes these limits ironically, designating fluency, competence, and mastery as relative and questionable accomplishments. The very capacity to use words well often becomes the ironic sign of blindness and coercion. Significantly, Maus enforces the limitations of English by representing as authoritative an English that is uniquely broken, incompetent, unmastered. Indeed, the only English by which to tell “a survivor’s tale” is one that is singularly foreign. Such a reposition of English would seem to go against expectations of an American audience, asking them, asking us, to question the fantasy – one that Maus itself rehearses – that English can know and master everything, even the Holocaust.

Work Cited

Alan C. Rosen. “The Language of Survival:
English as Metaphor in Art Spiegelman’s Maus”. In Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’s Tale” of the Holocaust. Edited by Deborah R. Geis. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama, 2003, pp.122-134.


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