Drawing the Holocaust

Spiegelman_prisoners_day_jpg_470x514_q85The NYRB blog has two excerpts from a book of conversations between Hillary Chute and Art Spiegelman about his Maus books, the first of which came out 25 years ago. The first on “Why Mice?” can be found here. From the second:

Hillary Chute: You mentioned your parents had some books about the war around the house when you were growing up. How did they inform your thinking?

Art Spiegelman: Well, there were the small-press books I told you about, and one called The Black Book, a cataloguing of the atrocities- and one paperback on the same hidden shelf of forbidden knowledge that was about Aleister Crowley and Satanism called The Beast 666. Anyway all of it kind of sat together as a kind of semi-pornography for me. In fact, I think House of Dolls, a sleazily unhealthy fiction/memoir by a survivor that was a widely read paperback book in the fifties about the whorehouses of Auschwitz, might have been on that shelf too. Many years later I read Shivitti, a memoir by the House of Dolls author, Ka-Tzetnik, about his LSD therapy and revisiting Auschwitz on acid, and trying to come to terms with an incestuous relationship with his sister who died in the camps-what an astounding character! Anyway I read part of House of Dolls as pornography, which, I guess, is the way most people read it: as part of the whole leather-bondage sexy-Nazi pathology. As a kid, the connection between the pornographic aspect of the death camps—the forbidden, the dangerous and fraught—was all one big stew that I couldn’t separate out.

To say those books informed my thinking, or even to say I was thinking about this at all in my early teens, would give me too much credit. It was all just part of The Big Taboo. It occurs to me right now, though, that perhaps the whole taboo-smashing ethos of the underground comix scene did allow me to stir up the buried connections to the unspeakable that my mother’s secret bookshelf opened up.