Maus I and the “Curious” Appearance of the Modern Sanatorium

A few weeks ago, a blogger featured on Fresh Pressed posed the question, Do you re-read.”  My automatic response was no. No way. Boring. Actually, though, I do re-read, and frequently, at that: in order to teach fiction and write about it in a scholarly way, re-reading is a must.

For me, then, the question re-reading poses  is not why one would do it, but what one would get out of it. When I re-read, I absorb additional material, and in doing so, I gain a better perspective on what the text means in a critical, larger sense.

CC / flickr / torres21

Re-reading also works, I think, on a more profound level, particularly when large stretches of time pass between the final closing of a book and its reopening. It’s interesting to consider how one’s perspective of a text changes based on the reading materials one has absorbed and life experiences one has experienced (or plodded through) in the interim. Case in point:

I’ve read Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus I and Maus II on three occasions–2009, 2010, and  2011–in preparation for three courses I either have helped to teach or have taught as the instructor of record. According to the inside jacket of Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, the text tells

“the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist who tries to come to terms with his father, his father’s terrifying story, and History itself.”

During my readings of Maus, I completed five of six dissertation chapters (and some change). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere here, my dissertation project examines representations of physical disease and their treatments in American literature from 1870-1950.  Three chapters of the project focus on TB (pulmonary tuberculosis) and its management in the modern sanatorium, a residential hospital which focused exclusively on the care of “consumptives” (i.e., TB patients).  Before the widespread availability of penicillin in the 1950s, TB was an incurable, and therefore a potentially deadly, bacterial infection. Nevertheless, TB infections could be “arrested” or mitigated with a strict regimen of ongoing physical rest, mental relaxation, and abundant fresh air; this treatment, also known popularly as “the rest cure” could last anywhere from a few months to a few years. The modern TB sanatorium existed in order to administer such care, and it represented the pinnacle of TB treatment in American medicine from roughly 1890 to 1940.

On my third pass of Maus–completed only a few weeks ago–I was surprised to rediscover that Book I prominently features a sanatorium, albeit one of a Eur0pean variety. (The European sanatorium, in my opinion, differs from the American sanatorium in that the former provided care to individuals with a variety of ailments, including TB, where as the latter only served “consumptives.” Maus bears out this assumption regarding the European sanatorium of  the early twentieth century.)

Anja, Vladek’s wife and Spiegelman’s mother, went to a sanatorium in Czechoslovakia in 1938, i.e., “before the war,” to seek treatment for depression, which likely was brought on by the birth of her first son, Richieu. “Peaceful,” “quiet,” and “far away from everything,” the facility was one of the best in Europe, and “people came from all over the world with different sicknesses” to recuperate in its beautiful, opulent surroundings. By day, Anja and Vladek strolled the sanatorium’s manicured grounds, and by night, they “went either to the [sanatorium’s] theater or to dance in [its] cafe.”  They stayed at the sanatorium for three months. [1]

I suppose I had noticed the sanatorium scene in my previous two readings of Maus, but I guess I didn’t think much of it, or perhaps, more accurately, I couldn’t think about it in a certain way: while I had completed a great deal of archival research about TB, the early 20th century  sanatorium, and the “rest cure,” I hadn’t completed much extended, formal writing on these subjects.

What did I recently discover about the (not so) curious appearance of the sanatorium* in Maus?

*A note about the spelling of this word: In my research, I’ve come across two spellings: sanatorium and sanitarium.  Spiegelman uses the latter.  I use the former simply because that’s the spelling I use in my dissertation and related writing projects.

The sanatorium represents a significant engagement with the question of  why the Spiegelmans, their community, and a large part of Europe were caught unaware and under-prepared by the steady, crushing ascendancy of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. (This claim becomes all the more compelling when we consider that Maus, and therefore the text’s sanatorium, is more than a literary device, and thus, a powerful symbol; it also is a historically-grounded detail drawn from the experiences of Spiegelman’s parents, Anja and Vladek, before, during, and after their internment in Auschwitz.)

Consider the placement of the sanatorium scene. Spread across two pages and occupying 12 panels, the scene is sandwiched between two significant events which occur before the Nazi-occupation of Poland: (1) the first time Vladek and Anja see a Nazi flag hanging in public area, and (2) the first time Vladek, Anja, and their families personally witness Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism. The sanatorium scene, then, interrupts an important narrative thread whereby Spiegelman explains how Vladek and Anja perceived and experienced the encroachment of Nazism before Warsaw fell to Hitler in 1939. [2]

Before entering the sanatorium, Vladek and Anja view Nazism as being largely confined to Germany. Anja and Vladek’s reaction to a Nazi flag glimpsed during their train voyage to the Czech sanatorium further underscores their perspective of Nazism in 1938 (“before the war”): to the Spiegelmans, the swastika represented a foreign, and therefore a contained, political development. Thus, while Nazism was disturbing in its ability to incite violence, it did not cause Vladek and Anja great concern.

This sentiment, however, eventually is called into question. After Vladek and Anja’s three month sanatorium stay, during which they were practically cut-off from the outside world, they emerge to a much different Poland: the Spiegelman family’s factory in Bielsko had been robbed, and anti-Semitic riots are occurring in Sosnowiec, the town where the couple calls home.  In other words, Vladek and Anja now have experienced from afar and witnessed first-hand anti-Semitic violence. In portraying these events, Spiegelman implies that, despite the evidence, his father’s family has no clue as to what looms on the horizon for Jewish Poles, and perhaps, all of Europe. [3]

During my first two readings of Maus, I picked up on this narrative thread but failed to fully appreciate the material with which Spiegelman interrupts this track.  Now that I’ve completed three dissertation chapters about the modern American sanatorium,  I appreciate the extent to which this medical facility symbolizes escape as well as extreme mental and physical seclusion.

Through the sanatorium’s presence in Maus I, Spiegelman acknowledges that Vladek, Anja, and their contemporaries  repeatedly fail to grasp the full import of the region’s changing political climate and its significance to their personal safety, and eventually, sheer survival.  In fact,  the sanatorium’s presence implies Spiegelman is, to an extent, critical of their ignorance, which seems inexplicable (inexcusable?), given the evidence that was available to them.

Importantly, though, the sanatorium scene also indicts non-Jewish Europeans for their ignorance (inaction?) regarding the spread of Nazism. Spiegelman’s sanatorium in Maus reflects an extreme degree of multiculturalism in that it houses Jewish patients like Vladek and Anja as well as non-Jewish Europeans. How do I know this?  Well, part of Maus‘ uniqueness stems from its use of animal, as opposed to human, characters. Each animal represents a particular ethnicity. The sanatorium scene includes cats (Germans), pigs (Poles), frogs (French), and dogs (Americans). (In fact, these “animals” or ethnicities appear throughout the text.) Moreover, the sanatorium scene includes other animals, like giraffes and moose, whose ethnic equivalent or nationality remains unclear. By populating the sanatorium scene with a variety of ethnicities and cultures that span the globe, Spiegelman suggests that Vladek and Anja’s incredulity regarding the  pre-WWII spread of Nazism represents a wide-ranging sentiment not confined to any one religious group, ethnicity, or nationality. [4]

Have you re-read a book lately that you read awhile ago?  Did your initial (or most recent) interpretation change, and how so?  What do you think influenced your reconsideration?

Works Cited
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.
[1]  page 34
[2] page 32
[3] pages 36-37
[4] page 34
Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Books, Fiction, Lifewriting
One comment on “Maus I and the “Curious” Appearance of the Modern Sanatorium
  1. sharjem says:

    This is going to sound just ridiculous…but I teach _Reservation Blues_ by Sherman Alexie in my version of the same course. And, one of the last times I taught it I was influenced in my reading by…_Twilight_. Ugh! Not that I’ve read those books (I’ve seen the first 2 films), but I found myself thinking of the character of Junior as similar to the Jacob character. They are both these types of lonely, rejected, “Strong Indian” men–both rejected, specifically, by white women who want a different life than what Junior/Jacob represents.

    Yet, unlike _Twilight_, Alexie is more playful with his character and presents Junior in certainly a tragic light, but also as one of the few really capable members of the Spokane society. When he commits suicide, it’s an example of the endemic conditions on the Reservation–joblessness, alcoholism, poverty–rather than simply an emo gesture. Whereas Jacob, for true youth appeal, is all kinds of emo.

    But as a teacher, I of course was trying to draw parallels between the literature and something “the kids” were familiar with. And so Twilight came to mind one day!

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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