Postmemory and Maus: The Transmission of Memory from one Generation to Another

Postmemory is the transmission of memory from one generation to another.  Marianne Hirsch defines postmemory as, “the relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to constitute memories in their own right.” [1]  There are two different types of transmission of postmemory; familial postmemory and affiliative postmemory.  Familial postmemory is the direct transmission of memory from parent to child, while affiliative postmemory is the horizontal transmission of memory from the literal second generation to others of their generation who seek a connection. [2]

Maus exemplifies the familial relationship between Art Spiegelman and his father, an Auschwitz survivor.  Recall that familial postmemory is the sharing of memories across generations, specifically from the sharing of memories between first generation survivors to their children.  The book encompasses two different narratives; that of the father, and his son’s reactions to his experience with the Holocaust.  The story contains a series of conversations between the father and son which illustrates how familial postmemory passes through the father’s memory to his son’s postmemory.  The relationship between father and son is strained; no doubt a consequence of the father’s past suffering, and due to the suicide of the author’s mother, Anja.  The son’s interest in his father lies solely in learning about his experiences before and after the Holocaust.  The strained relationship between the two vanishes while the father tells of his life during World War II, but returns when the father wants to discuss anything other than his memory of the Holocaust.

In one conversation, Art Spiegelman asked his father to search for a series of notebooks in which his mother, Anja, had written.  These notebooks contained all of her experiences during the Holocaust; when she was in hiding, and afterwards when she was prisoner in Auschwitz.  Spiegelman was desperate to find these notebooks, because his mother’s experiences would give another point of view to his book.  When he finds out his father has destroyed the notebooks, Spiegelman immediately ends the conversation, and leaves muttering, “…Murderer.” [3]

This is a perfect example of the strained relationship between Art Spiegelman and his father.  Spiegelman is only interested in hearing about his father’s past, not any everyday ordinary woes.  Also, Spiegelman only visits his father to add more notes for the story he is writing on his father’s memory of the Holocaust.  He does not stay to get to know his father, or for idle chatter, and when he realizes his father has destroyed what Spiegelman sees as a link to his dead mother, he refuses to continue the conversation with his father.  This strained relationship between father and son is one aspect of postmemory.  Art Spiegelman’s childhood and life have been affected by events he has not, and cannot, experience.

The uniqueness of Maus lies in the fact that it is not just one story being told, but two.  It is the father’s story, told in the way Art Spiegelman has heard and interpreted what his father is saying.  It is a story of what happened during the Holocaust with the father, and also a story of the present, of what is going through Art Spiegelman’s mind while he listens to his father.  James E. Young states, “As a process, it makes visible the space between what gets told and what gets heard, what gets heard and what gets seen.” [4]  This quote sums up the difference between the father’s firsthand experience with the Holocaust, and his son’s experience as a second generation survivor.  Art Spiegelman’s postmemory is shaped by how he hears his father’s story, and with how he interprets the event.

[1] Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory,” Poetics Today, v. 29 #1, Spring 2008, 103.

[2] Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory,” 114.

[3] Art Spiegelman, Maus (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1973), 158-159.

[4] James E. Young, “The Holocaust as Vicarious Past:  Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ and the Afterimages of History,” Critical Inquiry, v. 24, #3, Spring 1998, 676.

[5] Image By:  Art Spiegelman

8 thoughts on “Postmemory and Maus: The Transmission of Memory from one Generation to Another

  1. This is interesting and really puts a name to an issue I was thinking about with last week’s reading. As I was reading about women and the blues and how there was this connection with post-emancipation I began to wonder how people from a generation or two removed from slavery were able to claim such a personal connection to the institution without having really experienced it. The answer I came up with was exactly what postmemory describes, but I didn’t know there was a word for it. I personally experience postmemory with second-wave feminism because my mom was such an active participant and she’s talked about it with me my whole life, to the point where I am a devoted feminist as well.

  2. Interesting! Toni Morrison also refers to this connection to the past in her novel Beloved. In Beloved, Morrison defines an inter-generational connection to past events as “rememory.” In a conversation between the main character, Sethe, and her daughter, Denver, Sethe recalls the plantation on which she was once enslaved, Sweet Home. In relation to “rememory,” Sethe states:

    “Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know…If a house burns down, it is gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.’ ‘Can other people see it?’ asked Denver. ‘Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes.’”

    Similar to Marianne Hirsch’s notion of postmemory, Morrison contends that experiences and memories are recycled and experienced across generations.

  3. Tori, I love that you brought up how they wouldn’t fight while the father was telling the stories. I noticed that too, and wondered why Art treated his father so differently when he considered him a source for his book. Art snapped right back to a slightly resentful adult son when his father and step-mother began bickering. This bothered me a bit, as Art clearly had enormous respect for his father’s Holocaust experiences, but couldn’t take the time to help him with his everyday problems.

    1. I also was frustrated with Art’s character at times! How much respect could he really have for his father’s experience if he can’t respect who his father is now? I also found it interesting that Art reflected on the fact that his book might portray his Jewish father in a stereotypical light – and yet he makes no attempts to rectify that situation. Looking back on my reading of the text, it seems that I developed a lot of personal relationships with the characters (otherwise these subtleties wouldn’t be bothering me). This emotional investment can only help the book’s cause. I wish I had Part II to read right away!

  4. Whether Art’s relationship with his father was appropriate or not I appreciated how those interactions made the whole story more nuanced and ultimately real. They both had hard times in their lives and they were both dealing with hurt and and anger and I found it extremely interesting to see how they dealt with each other and their issues.

  5. I also, as Jenna suggested, found the relationship between Art and his father very interesting. I would be curious to know how Spieglman would interpret his reasons for writing this book. While it serves the historical record, the interactions depicted give an emotional layer to this story that makes me hopeful that the writing of this book was healing and created broader understanding of each other and their life experiences. Being family doesn’t automatically mean you understand one another, and even those personal relationships need discussions. Tradegy had struck all of their lives, and understanding the event that had shaped both generations is cathartic. This cleansing allows me love this book on a whole new level.

    1. I wondered as I was reading if the stories became a way for Art to feel like he could connect to his father in a way he hadn’t been able to do before. To tie this back to the earlier comments, perhaps the shared story, the postmemory, was the only avenue he felt comfortable with.

  6. From my perspective, as a man, Art and Vladek exemplified one of the many archetypes of Father/Son relationships. Most sons grow with some type of love/hate relationship with their fathers that then grows into one of mutual respect. In Art’s case, however, his father suffered from a fairly serious anxiety disorder that Art struggles with as well. Art’s reactions to his father are in this way self-preservation techniques, as he attempts to remove himself from a person who exacerbates his own anxiety disorder.

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