Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Comic Book? Really?

What you’re reading that for? Class? What class? Are you serious? An ENGLISH class? This isn’t a novel. I didn’t know you guys had any fun! Back in my day, we read history books! Slacker!
All these were responses to my enthusiastic claim that I am reading a comic book about the Holocaust for my Honors English class. I could sympathize with these comments. I was thinking the same thing when I first found out that we were going to read comic books. I was perplexed. I had never read a comic book (I know, I know! Where have I been?!) because I tended to look down on them. I wasn’t going to bother with them, I said, since I could get a much better experience from a novel. I know comic books are always filled with pictures, but what are mere 2-D images when I have my own imagination working on a spectacular image—no, scene—that is partly inspired by the writer’s words and partly by the feelings invoked by the events of the story. I was a complete snob about it. When my sister asked to get a graphic novel once day, I looked at her with disdain. Go read a book I shouted, filled with scorn at her audacity to mention such a thing to me, an almost fanatic English major.
Until very recently, I continued on with this view of the inferiority of the comic book/graphic novel (a term which I simply hated. I thought it gave some sort of credibility to comic books by bestowing the scholarly term “novel”). My negative take on the whole comic book genre was reinforced repeatedly, as I complained, or sometimes bragged, about reading a comic book in an Honors class. Some straight out laughed at me, and really wondered about the course (Sorry Dr. Ellis, but rest assured. I gave them plenty of reasons to believe that our class was both fun and challenging). Some didn’t believe me, especially since I usually complained about the lengths of novels we are always forced to read. Others were envious, hoping that they, too, read and discuss a comic book for “legitimate” reasons. For my part, I was waiting. I knew I would be forced to pick it up and read it eventually, and until then, I wasn’t going to look at it and focus more on the more scholarly readings that I had to do. But now that I finally picked up Maus, I can’t seem to put it down! I had to force myself to, so I could write this blog before its deadline. As I am writing this, I keep looking at the book, at the intricate drawings that seem to be filled with details yet at the same time look sketchy; at the bold words on every page that seem to scream violence, pain, surprise, etc.
Now, to me, Maus II is a great introduction to the graphic novel genre. Even though I am still harboring some belittling thoughts about comic books (they’re sooo for kids!), my very positive first impression of Maus II is forcing me to think that comic books or graphic novels could be legitimate forms of reading. And now, when anybody wonders, “Are you seriously reading this book now?” I could response proudly with, “Yes, I am. You should too! It’s worth your time!”

Correction to post

In the first sentence of my second paragraph, I meant to say, "In Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the powerful characters, the German cats, are shown to have the least desirable characteristics despite their physical strength." Sorry about that!

The sound of a person v. the look of a person

I have been babysitting one family’s children for three years. Connor is now four and Zachary is three; their baby sister will be one in November. The two older kids are at a neat stage in their development because they are learning how to play make-believe. They love to pretend that they are animals and they enjoy telling me what to be even more. If we are playing sea creatures, both of them want to be the shark; if we are playing house animals, they both want to be the dog; if we are pretending to be at the zoo, they both want to be the lion or the bear. Sometimes tears ensue when they want to be the same animal. I suggest alternatives and ask them what is wrong with being a minnow, a kitten, or a penguin. Then I ask, “Well why can’t you both be sharks/dogs/lions?” I think the make-believe is an outlet for their ongoing power struggle. Since they are so close in age, they are constantly competing for dominance and attention. Tonight, they will both be trick-or-treating as Spider-Man, but they will wear different colors to try to minimize the arguing; Connor will wear a red costume and Zachary will wear a black costume. Last year, Connor was Buzz Lightyear and Zachary was Superman. The costumes that Connor and Zachary wear signify similar characteristics: strength, power.

In Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the powerful characters, the German cats, are shown to have the desirable characteristics despite their physical strength. Cats are predators that hunt and play with their prey before tearing it piece by piece. The Nazis in Germany similarly hunted Jewish Europeans, and then kept them in concentration camps before killing them. Nazis did not believe that a person could be both Jewish and European, or Jewish and a human being worthy of life. There was no room for Jewish people or people of Jewish descent on the Nazis’ map. In Maus, the animals that represent different nationalities (and the qualities that those nationalities have come to typify), do not always act the same way. For example, there is one pig (representing a Polish person) that, despite being a prisoner, perpetrates violence on other prisoners as a Kapo (Spiegalman 32) and then uses Vladek to his advantage. However, there is another pig that is not at all self-interested. He is a priest and shows Vladek how his tattooed identification number is a sign of fortune (Spiegelman 28). Vladek recalls of this pig, “He put another life in me.” This shows that outer appearance does not always reflect what is inside. Similarly, in an interview about his book Totality and Infinity, Levinas encourages people not to notice the color of the Other’s eyes, but to enter a social relationship with the Other through speech because outer appearance is meaningless; it does not reflect a person’s inner potential for social relationships. Levinas says that “it is discourse and, more exactly response or responsibility which is this authentic relationship” (88). Levinas goes on to suggest that it is only through interpersonal relations that justice is possible. He says, “Justice, exercised through institutions, which are inevitable, must always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation” (90). The priest-pig in Maus demonstrates the social aspect of justice; he shows that it is speech—not appearance—that is the true indicator of a person’s soul and capacity for meaningful relationships.

Connor and Zachary’s obsession with physical strength and power does not worry me much now because they are still very young; however I hope that when they get older, they realize that being strong does not necessarily mean physical prowess. As they grow, I think they will learn that being a mouse (minnow, kitten, penguin) is not a sign of weakness, and they will also learn that looking like a cat (shark, dog, lion) does not necessarily condemn a person to viciousness and inhumanity. Hopefully, they will learn to trust the sound of person, rather than the look of him or her.

Pig Mask

In high school I was geared to go to art school. I had a massive portfolio of sketches, paintings, and even photography, however, my concentration was 3-D art. My favorite medium was clay because I could create anything that existed in the physical world and even in my head. Every quarter my art teacher assigned one theme to a series of ten projects. I could create anything and use any medium as long as the project correlated with her theme. My last theme of my senior year was “Escape”. I thought about the word escape, and how I could interrupt it. The only thing I could come up with was how people escape the world. So, my project became a series of masks representing emotion; anger, love, and sadness. My art teacher was confused when I completed my project. I tried to explain to her that the mask allows use to hide behind it, but we also become the emotion that the mask represents. Then, she asked me whether I believed that the mask made the person wearing it have the emotion, or did it make him appear to have the emotion. Looking back on this project, I think my art teacher and I were focusing on how a mask can act as a signifier, but does not necessarily mean that it signifies the person it is on. The person and public can assign two different meanings to the mask the person wears. I thought about this idea in relation to Spiegelman.
Does it matter whether the characters wear masks or not in Maus II. Initially, I was trying to figure out why Spiegelman used mice, cats, and pigs as characters in the story. Why didn’t he use some other animals or objects, why these specific ones? I tried to construct the universal symbolism of a mouse; small, weak, squeaks, bottom of the food chain, and lack of self-defense. Then I looked at cats; predator of the mice and aggressive. This symbolism is obvious in correlation to the Holocaust, but I still wasn’t satisfied. As I began to read, I assigned these characters meaning, and significance based on my common assumption from their appearance. As I continued to read, I noticed the characters did not take on an “animal-state”, but rather were conveyed as humans. By the end of the story I did not see the characters as mice or cats; each character became an individual human. The concept of the mask breaks down and the reader does not see the images of a mouse, but relates to the emotion and ‘character’ of the human story.

This is not a blog

Growing up, my mother had a plaque on our piano: dark brown wood covered with white markings, both horizontal and vertical straight lines. What looked to us as children like ancient Chinese symbols, we would later learn had a very hidden meaning, available only to those with a willing concentration. One day, my sister and I asked my mom why we had the weird symbols in plain view, in a place of honor with all our family photos and favorite possessions. She told us to look closely at the plaque, paying close attention to its meaning. We looked for a very long time, after which my mom gently prompted us not to look at what was there, but at what was not there. We understood almost immediately. In the negative space between the white markings, the brown wood spelled out the word “JESUS.” In essence, we needed to read between the lines. Literally.
Similarly, Rene Magritte was a Belgium surrealist painter famous for his eye-catching and purposefully-deceptive paintings. One of his most famous paintings, a selection from “The Treachery of Images” was a painting of a pipe against a plain background, underneath which were written the words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” translation: “This is not a pipe.”
Inspired by Magritte, my friend Jackie decided to get a tattoo which would translate into the French of “This is not a tattoo.” We all thought that this was a creative-if not completely random- selection, but at the same time we supported her decision. Now, the original painting by Magritte is clever because, obviously, the words are true: the painting is of a pipe, and therefore is nothing more than a painting of a pipe. A painting of an object, the re-creation of an original, cannot still be considered the same thing, not possessing the same integrity or characteristics necessary for it to be similarly classified. In other words, a pipe is a pipe is a pipe… except when it’s not.
Jackie’s tattoo, however, takes a nice spin on this idea because a tattoo of any type will still remain a tattoo, even if the tattoo itself asserts the very opposite. This reminds me a great deal of Lacan’s exploration of the phrase “I am lying.” The enunciation takes on a greater meaning. You cannot say that you are lying if, inherent in the lie, you are telling the truth. A character from a popular television show explains this idea perfectly when he awkwardly explains to his teenage son how he often stretches the truth, “Oh Chris, everything I say is a lie. Except that. And that. And that. And that…”
Therefore, a person can say one thing and simultaneously say the opposite. In the same vein, two people can look at a single thing and see/interpret it in two completely different ways. In fact, the cover of the writings by Levinas had a similar eye-teasing image: the trademark two faces and/or the one goblet. One picture can signify, and often does signify, a very specific meaning to a person. Individual responses elicited by such illustrations say a lot about the duplicity of signification. In our readings and class discussions, we have often come across this idea. The difference between the signifier and the signified becomes embroiled in individual perspective as well as greater societal implications. This focus on perspective nicely sets up the new unit we are beginning: a survey of the face and body, the vessel through which we carry out our interpretations, and, at the same time, are most quickly interpreted.

Tragedy in Comics

As it happens, I am currently enrolled in another class that requires us to read Maus: Comics in America. Through my coursework in this class, I found it particularly interesting to note the more serious nature of comic strips. Though we have not gotten up to Maus yet, I feel that I can see the natural progression of the medium as a way to address political and social concerns.
For instance, the very first images that could be correctly identified as comics depicted scenes of urban poverty in the early twentieth century. R. F. Outcault's Yellow Kid was directly influenced by a series of early photographs that introduced children in crowded tenement buildings and the troubles they encountered on a regular basis. The title character was shaved bald(a precaution against the spread of lice) and dressed in an oversized nightshirt(a hand-me-down that could get ruined with little concern for cost). The dialogue of the Yellow Kid and his companions demonstrated a strange combination of ethnic dialects and otherwise uneducated English and was often concerned with the death of siblings and the shortage of food, at least initially. Though the Yellow Kid comics eventually became more lighthearted, the themes of poverty and urban squalor remained.
George Herriman's strip Krazy Kat is largely considered a work of genius in the medium. In short, the series features Krazy Kat, his antagonist Ignatz Mouse, and the local lawman Officer Pup and their struggles against each other. Within this context, sexual and racial arguments are explored. The creator admits that each of the characters are of an ambiguous nature and, as a result, several love triangles emerge depending on the strip. As race is concerned, the characters have been known to either die their hair to appear white or fall into mud puddles to appear black and receive different treatment from their fellow animals. Herriman himself was of mixed racial descent and used his art to express his own feelings of displacement and confusion.
Thus, Art Spiegelman's Maus follows in a line of profound comic strips that engage in serious, topical themes. It lies somewhere closer to Yellow Kid than Krazy Kat on the scale of intensity as there is no obvious layer of comedy at the surface. It is shocking, and intentionally so. The mice characters are reminiscent of Mickey Mouse; seeing them play the part of Jews in the Holocaust is a surreal experience, but one that in no way lessens the historical importance of the event. In fact, I find that the seriousness of the horrors suffered by Vladek Spiegelman are even clearer to the reader as juxtaposed against the comic medium. The animals also provide a very clear division between the nationalities involved in World War II and suggest an inborn tendency towards violence against one another. It makes sense on a basic level that the German cats would be disposed to harm the Jewish mice. Making dogs of the Americans completes the classic cartoon triumvirate.
As we have just begun a new topic in class, that of the face, it is interesting to apply Levinas' interview with Philippe Nemo to Maus. Essentially, every Jewish figure in the comic strip possesses the same face, as does every German and so on. As a result, it is impossible to physically differentiate one character from another based on a defining characteristic. This actually becomes a strength of the work as the reader is forced to come to grips with Vladek and Art on a personal level. It is impossible to judge any character in Maus based on appearance. Ultimately, a deeper understanding and emotional connection is established between the reader and the subject. Also, in the introduction to the part two of Maus, Spiegelman appears in person, but covers his face with a mouse mask. This is strange because he is simultaneously identifying with the character he has based on himself while making it clear that he is a human being. This seems to be a conscious decision by Spiegelman to avoid the reader identifying with him as the writer, but as a subject that requires as much analysis as Vladek in his work.

Masks and Narrative

The mask is an object that has long fascinated me, and I think it is a relevant consideration in our discussion of the face as a signifier. In many of his illustrations for Maus, Spiegelman himself makes use of masks (41), not to mention his device of changing Jews and Germans to cats and mice. Masks are outward signifiers that may signify different things. Sometimes they accentuate different aspects of an individual’s character; other times, they obscure characteristics and add a new layer. Tonight being Halloween, I think this is a well timed reading: in choosing to done particular masks, individuals may be giving sway to unconscious parts of the self, such as the kind Lacan was discussing. Masks may choose people as much as people choose masks. There is both a freedom and a constraint to wearing a mask: it can free and individual from the traditional rules and mores a community, but what it portrays may connect you to a larger history. For instance, in wearing your George Bush mask, you may cease to be yourself, but now you are inaugurated (pun intended) into a different history. Of course, the face itself is the primal mask, capable of signifying both true and false feelings and emotions. It is open to interpretation by others. There is even an element of the sacred in some masks: they are often used by indigenous and native people for religious ceremonies; this even brings us back to the question of whether or not God could be signified in righting or art.

In Maus, I think Spieglman uses the face and the mask on pages 41-46 to both connect himself to the past and differentiate himself from it. In wearing the mask, he is signifying his connection to his father and to the history of the Jewish people in the concentration camps. His life, however, is far removed from the direct experience of his relatives and even of his psychologist. Unlike the other characters, his mask signifies the kind of separation that time has created. Through his writing, however, he is re-unifying the present with the past; the mask and the face become one. This is particularly signified by his narrative structure, which switches between narration of the father’s story of Auschwitz to his contemporary narration, and then into the future after the death of his father. While I believe there is more significance that simply this to his use of the mice, cats, and pigs in his illustrations, I believe it emphasizes a continuity or a unity between the story being told and the person telling it despite the lack of direct experience by the author.

The Mask of Humanity

When I was in high school, I was heavily interested in photography. I spent all my free electives taking photography classes, and even helped to found a photography club at school. After school, the first thing I’d do when I got home was go out and taking pictures in the waning light of the afternoon. Most of my best photographs were of natural forms and landscapes and usually obscured—either by snow or the cover of night.

One thing I could never photograph well was people. The only good photographs I ever took of a living person were self-portraits of myself. I was never able to aptly represent another person through film, and for a long time I couldn’t understand why. Looking back on my efforts, I think that I couldn’t ever really connect with another person when I had a camera between myself and the subject. My friends that I photographed were never absolutely comfortable being captured, and I was never able to facilitate their experience. Alternately, I never even really tried to take pictures of people I didn’t know. I remember one of my teachers gave me a lesson on how to photograph other people, how to get their consent and make them feel at ease—but I never even attempted this. I was too afraid to ask a stranger for permission to photograph them.

I believe this fear and inability to capture the image of others speaks to notions of the face and the Other, as detailed in Lévinas. There exists invisible barriers between us all as humans, artifices that we wear to prevent others from seeing our true selves. To be able to take a truly great photograph, the artist must be able to break down these barriers and expose the true self of the subject. I believe that in a certain sense we all don masks that we present to the public. Different people may get to see different masks, different aspects of our persona—but few people truly know the reality of one another.

This all relates back to the idea of the signifier and the signified. I wonder if we, as signifiers, actually deign what it is that we signify. Whether or not that is interpreted is a completely different aspect of this question—but nonetheless tied to the signifier. The human face is our main source of communication—indirect and direct. Sometimes we cannot control our face and it belies things that we did not wish others to know, but we are in control essentially of its very essence.

In Maus, Spiegelman reflects this question of representation through his caricatures of race. The Jews become characterized as mice, the Nazi’s as cats, and other Germans and Poles as pigs. When we are first introduced to the author, he is with his wife and father and they are represented as mice. Later though, in the second part, we see the author wearing a mouse mask. The work takes on aspects of meta-fiction as we see the author not only describe himself, but narrate thoughts of his own mind.

The contrast in how the author represents himself dually reminds us that he is not actually a mouse, that that is only a contrivance for his art, and that we all wears masks of sorts. Perhaps he is forced to don the mouse mask because he cannot deal with the memory of the Holocaust in human terms. Lévinas writes that we are unable to commit violence to a human face—yet the Nazi’s were able to enact terrible atrocities on millions. The only way this could be done would be to dehumanize them, and this is represented in Spiegelman’s mice and cats. As an author, perhaps the only way he can confront this awful event is to put on a mask of sorts, which detaches him from considering the ability of humanity to perform such evil. In different aspects, both Spiegelman and I are unable to confront the human face in relation to art.

Mice=Good, Cat=Bad

I read Spiegelman’s Maus series when I was very young (my older sister was a big fan) and, as a child, read the book as purely a comic. I don’t think I was even old enough to understand the impact of the Holocaust or even what had truly occurred during the Holocaust. I probably just flipped through the images, pretending to know what was happening. All I knew was that mice equal good and cats equal bad.

Reading it today, I’m totally blown away by what Spiegelman was trying to portray in his work. Yes, it is a story about the Holocaust and does a wonderful job of showing us the horrors (both visually and emotionally) of what happened in Nazi concentration camps but, in reading it this time, I found I connected a great deal with the father-son relationship, which ties into the past-present relationship, which, ultimately, ties into how stories are perceived. Spiegelman’s graphic novel becomes just as much about perception and how humans look at the world (how we look at the Holocaust, how we look at our relationships, how we look at ourselves, etc.).

Take for example on page sixteen as Artie and Francoise are driving to Vladek’s place in the Catskills and Arties says, “There’s so much I’ll never be able to understand or visualize. I mean, reality is too complex for comics…So much has to be left out or distorted.” I think that one line basically embodies the entirety of what Spiegelman is attempting to do. He is trying to recreate reality through his comics; he wants his father to recreate his experience in the Holocaust so he can feel as though he was there too; and, as the time changes in the graphic novel and we see Artie as the award winning novelist, he is recreating what the present was for him. But these are things that can’t fully be recreated. So the focus goes away from just a story about the terror of a concentration camp but how a story is told. Artie is telling us a story about how he wrote a story from which he based on his father’s own stories. Thus, at times, Spiegelman is able to create this kind of filtering down of reality into these images that become more of a reinvention of the events that have happened.

In doing so, Spiegelman is changing our own perceptions. For instance, on page fifty the image of the German in the camp who believes he shouldn’t be with the “Yids and Polacks” changes from the way the Germans saw this man to the way the man saw himself (as an image of a cat, not a mouse). In addition to this, it could be said that maybe Artie is seeing this man in the back of the head as being German and, because of this, his perception, as represented by the background image in the comic, our own perception changes. Reading Maus, this tension between how all the different characters see the world becomes the reader’s own anxiety.

Happy Halloween!!!

Mountains of Shoes: how to approach the unfathomable

My parents love to travel, and have been to Europe more than several times. When my mom heard that one of her high school friends had moved to Munich, Germany, where her husband had been transferred, it seemed like the perfect excuse to take my sisters and I on a tour of Europe, and visit Martha while we there. We stayed in Paris, Venice, Lucerne, and finally Munich.

I was about twelve at the time, and so had a general knowledge of Nazi Germany, and like Barry had read a few novels, like Number the Stars, that told the stories of survivors of the Holocaust. I always tried to appreciate the enormity and atrociousness of the concept of the Final Solution, but nothing could have prepared me for facing the Holocaust as a reality.
On our third day in Munich, my family and I visited Dachau. It was the first concentration camp built in Germany, and served as a model for camps that followed. As you stepped through the iron gates into the dusty, deserted camp, the emotion of the site was actually tangible. The blocked medical building, the rows of brown barracks, the towering bricked chimneys—it was all so very real. The officers’ quarters had been turned into a gallery of photos, mostly taken by the Americans and British soldiers when they liberated the camp. It was an attempt to document the atrocities of the death camps in order to display the faces of the murderers and victims to the world in a way that would be impossible to deny the reality of the events. I can clearly remember stepping into a large, empty beige-colored room. On the far wall, one large picture was displayed—it was a mountain of shoes, with a small caption underneath: When the prisoners, who were brought to the camp to be gassed immediately, exited the train, they were instructed to put their shoes in this pile. Shoes…representing hundreds of thousands of innocent souls extinguished. There were very few photos of the faces of the survivors; whether out of respect of these suffering victims, or that the images the cameramen witnessed were simply too graphic to record, I’m not sure. The barracks and crematorium were left as is, and open to the public.

Even now attempting to relate the experience to you, I feel as inadequate and mundane as Spiegelman, “no matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz”(44). How can the horror and the helplessness of these people possibly communicated in a way that does justice to the vulgarity of the concept of exterminating millions of innocent people for what they believed in? Spiegelman’s choice to tackle the topic in comic-form seems to be genius. You cannot have comedy without tragedy, or tragedy without comedy—he relates the details so bluntly, but in the context of an animal world, it’s brilliant. His father’s account of his time in Auschwitz as a matter-of-fact, while he walks around the area near his condo in the Catskills. Spiegelman’s vulnerability when he relates his difficulty in approaching the subject, and sorting out his emotions (“should we feel guilty? Are my struggles unimportant?” etc…)

The social aspect of recognizing a face as a point of connection between two people is absolutely evident here. Vladek is simultaneously a miserly, anxious, sickly old man, as he is a brave, resourceful and honorable Holocaust survivor. Characterizing him as a mouse allows Spiegelman to communicate that on a different, less-familiar plain, and establish a connection with a story that touches on the impossible (a world of mice and cats) since the reality of the Holocaust often seems so unfathomable to the point of being impossible. Visiting the camp drove that point home for me. Seeing the buildings, the faces, the shoes…

The Ever Changing Face

Recently, I visited the Baltimore Museum of Art. In the three years I have been at Loyola, I had yet to go to this well-established museum that's minutes away from campus. When I finally decided to get up and do something with my Sunday afternoon, I was amazed with what I discovered and reminded of how much I enjoy art. One of the pieces that really caught me off guard and kept me staring for fifteen minutes was Andy Warhol's Self-Portrait. I was completely mesmerized. The background was black making his white face and hair stand out. As an overlay, there was another print of the same picture, however, it was not completely in line with the black and white photograph. The other print was positioned in a way making it seem like Warhol had a second pair of eyes directly below his original pair. The contrast between the black and white of one photo and the pinkish, over-exposed hue of the other made the portrait eerily life-like and 3-D. I stood there, not able to move; Warhol's eyes had pinned me in place, forcing me to look not only into the depth of the eyes, but also his face as a whole. Anywhere you looked on his face you could simultaneously see another part of his face. I felt uncomfortable looking at a portrait this way. I felt as though I was seeing more than I was meant to see or supposed to see. In the same way, Spiegleman's presentation of the human face in Maus II presents the human face in a way that forces the reader to look at his characters with a different perspective.
When I first picked up Maus to read I was not accustomed to the form of the graphic novel and was unsure of why Spiegleman chose to portray his characters as mice--something completely opposite from our notion of the human face. As I continued to read, I noticed in some frames, the mouse faces are actually masks. With this in mind, Spiegleman is suggesting that as humans, we wear masks to shield our identity, protect ourselves from being exposed and violated, or to hide in shame. With the events of the Holocaust as a focal point of the book, one can understand how those who commit such brutalities and are victims of violence and dehumanization would want to disguise their human face in an effort to protect their true identity from being exposed. Ironically, however, by suggesting this, Spiegleman encourages his readers to look more closely at the human face. The form of the graphic novel, just like Warhol's form of pop culture, forces the readers and observers to look at ourselves, at our faces and at the faces of others. If one can look closely enough, one can find the string to the mask, untie it, and reveal their true identity. Although tonight many of us will don make up and disguises, creating alter-egos, Halloween is not every day and eventually those masks must come off.

BOO! But always

I received the Maus box set – I and II – as a Christmas gift last year. I stumbled across it around November in a book store and it looked mildly interesting so I put it on my list because, apparently, I’m the hardest person in the world to buy for so I still keep a list like a five year old. Anyway, I got down to reading it right away since I had barrels of time on my hands and I blew through it in about three days; I couldn’t put it down.

Like probably everyone else, I have been exposed to a lot of holocaust information; between the History Channel, Night, and school, it got to the point where it became another event in time, like the Napoleonic Wars or the dinner I had last night. Simply put, I became so inundated with these horrific stories that they lost all of their significance and impact. Unfortunately, and it’s even unbelievable to type, the atrocities which took place in Nazi Germany were as normal and everyday as clouds.

This is where Maus came in. I’m not sure why, but I while reading it the first time – and it happened again as I was going through the Maus II – I would be forced to stop. When this would happen, I would involuntarily and immediately stop reading and either look at the page or some point on a wall. Moreover, I’m not really sure what would pass through my mind – it’s probably a mix of “Oh my God,” “Are you serious,” and some utter existential confusion in light of these events.

What shocks me still about all this is that Maus is, crassly, a comic. I know technically it’s a graphic novel, and I completely respect that, but to any person looking for simple reductions it’s a comic. This was my view when I would be stunned: “Barry, it’s a dressed up Marvel comic.”

Nevertheless, it’s very simplicity and authenticity is what drives this very graphic novel: it strips the holocaust of all of the typical facts – six million Jews killed; concentration camps; horrible conditions; “final solution;” and reduces it to the simple humanity. The device of animal personification does more than symbolize the relationships of different sides; it shocks the reader into looking at the event with new eyes. We are exposed to the bare essentials of the holocaust – people were lost; six million people enslaved, degraded, and systematically or randomly slaughtered – and they knew it was coming.

Spiegelman focuses on the lone story of his father, as man (mouse) who survived the Nazi regime. By doing this, he leads us away from the common known facts and into the world of an individual whose face has been altered to make the common story even less familiar. Pavel describes being in the camps as “BOO!... But always,” (46). This is what the story does for me – it’s BOO! at every page.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The "Live" Tattoo

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back,” one repeated motif is the idea that Parker’s tattoos exist with a life of their own. Each tattoo has its own being and Parker seems unable control them. This is especially true when one considers the necessary fact that tattoos are subjective, and for better or worse are subject to the interpretation of observers. While these tattoos to some degree exist for themselves, O’Connor also hints at the fact that they reflect the world that Parker inhabits on his own body.
O’Connor writes that Parker began to create his tattoo himself with “lifeless ones like anchors and crossed rifles” (428). Following his original exposure to tattoo and his submission to his mimetic desire to obtain one, his initial tattoos lacked the “life” that characterized his later creations; they were the result of his travels with the navy – at time at which he felt lifeless himself as “a natural part of the grey mechanical ship” (428). Quickly, however, his tattoos appear to have taken on a different nature; specifically, they appear to have a life of their own: “the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a ranging warfare” (429). As his tattoos charted Parker’s history, they also controlled his future, compelling him to seek an unknown satisfaction through this art. It is his dissatisfaction that ultimately leads him to the tattoo the Byzantine Christ. The fact that he limits his tattoos to the front half of his body is significant: it is a place where he can read them and assign significance to them himself.
The Byzantine Christ appears as an example of purposes and effects of tattoo, and perhaps of writing. The figure has spiritual, “all demanding eyes” (436) which parallel Parker’s eyes from earlier in the story: they reflected the “immense spaces around him” (428) on his navy ship. The Christ both reads and reflects the world around Parker and the world within Parker. To some degree it even causes action, such as the bar fight. Importantly, as an element of writing, it was still subjected to interpretation: the men at the pub believe it was simply a symbol of spiritual “witness;” Paker’s wife Sarah Ruth ultimately denounces it as idolatry. In these ways, the tattoo both exists as a “live” being within itself, and at the same time is reflective of Parker and the world around him.

Vanity of Vanities

I completely agree with Courtney’s assertion: what we are seeing in both Wendt’s “Cross of Soot” and Flannery O’Conner’s “Parker’s Back” are classic examples of mimetic desire. Both the boy and Parker are fascinated by the permanent soot/ink they see on others and desire to be adorned with the same thing. The major difference between these two characters is their respective reactions to the permanent additions to their bodies. The boy sees the tattoo as an honor—a platform that catapults him into a new level of maturity, a cross-roads in his life. He is humbled by the pain of the procedure, and respectful of the importance of the addition to its body as well as the meaning of the motif of the tattoo. He exemplifies all of the qualities that make the Pacific ritual tradition of tattooing so significant and sacred.
O.E. Parker, on the other hand, appreciates the tattoo simply for its aesthetic value; it is, as Sarah Ruth terms it, “the vanity of vanities”(429). There does not seem to be much meaning besides the choices of the designs of each tattoo. He often sleeps through the procedure itself. He attempts to show his body art off at every opportunity he gets(and especially to the ladies for the sex appeal he believes they hold, though the scene in the pool hall at the end of the story makes it clear that men know of his affinity for tattooing as well). He refuses, until there is quite literally nowhere else to put it, to get a tattoo on his back because, “he had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself”(429). In short, he appreciated the permanent art for its decorative value alone—and each only for a brief period at that. He seems to be the epitome of the shallow Western conception of tattooing as simply body adornment.
While the boy may have mimicked Samasoni in choosing to be tattooed, he internalized and personalized the art; he allowed the symbol to morph into a sacred part of himself. Parker’s mimetic desire fell short of attaining personal meaning—his choice to be “decorated” left him feeling more isolated each time he acquired a new design. He was attempting to be an individual, and to allow this individuality to make him a recognized member of community—an idea we discussed in class—but his misinterpretation of the deeper meaning behind tattooing simply rendered him isolated and confused. His treatment of his newest tattoo in Christ’s likeness seemed to be quite literally the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, as aggressively tries to convince his wife of the merit of his choice, and instead wines up crying against a pecan tree. O’Connor does creates this dismal, self-absorbed character to illustrate the pitfalls of vanity. From what we have read in the tattoo unit, vanity seems to be the last element that should be associated with the sincere and meaningful lifestyle of the tattoo.

Tattoo, Compensation, and the Placebo Effect

One of the ideas that we talked about in class was that of mimetic desire. In Albert Wendt’s “Cross of Soot,” the young boy is impressed with the tattoo on the character Samasoni. When the muscle-bound role model flexes, the bird comes alive to the boy and all at once, he knows that he wants a tattoo, too. His sudden decision to get a tattoo is based on his desire to be like Samasoni; he believes that getting inked (or sooted) will bring him closer to his goal.
In Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back,” the character of young O.E. Parker has a similar experience. While at a fair, he sees a man completely covered in tattoos from head to toe. This ignites a slow, but wild desire within him to get a tattoo, “It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.” (p.427)
Both boys were young when they were first exposed to tattoos, and both had the same reaction: to paraphrase, “I want that!” In both cases, the initial desire is to get a tattoo because- to put it simply- they look cool. Upon further character analysis, however, it seems that both the characters of the young boy in “Cross of Soot” and Parker in “Parker’s Back” want the tattoo as a sort of compensation. The young boy associates Samasoni’s tattoo with his masculinity, his muscles, and his adulthood. He thinks that if only he can get a tattoo as well, he, too, could be something of a man.
Parker’s character also sees the tattoo as a vehicle through which to propel change. He thinks that his tattoos make him attractive to girls that would otherwise not give him the time of day. He tries to keep adding on to his collection of tattoos, only to end up feeling a general disappointment. Something is missing in his life, and no amount of tattoos will ever be able to fill that void. This is evident because the more tattoos he attains, the more unhappy he becomes. The impulsive branding does little to help him become the person he wants to be.
In both stories, what originally seemed to be mimetic desire, simple mimicry, are actually attempts to compensate for a larger inadequacy (or mental supposition of an inadequacy). We learn that a tattoo is not able to change a person, augment or improve their life or person. The only changes that a tattoo can bring about are mental ones, which can then bring about physical or personal results. In this way, a tattoo has a kind of placebo effect. The lesson is as old as the art itself: if you’re not enough without something, you’ll never be enough with it.

Mimetic desire and the finished tattoo

Mimetic desire describes the motivation a person feels when they see something that another person has and then he/she wants it too. In Albert Wendt’s “The Cross of Soot,” the boy sees Samasoni’s shimmering eagle tattoo and immediately wants a tattoo of his own. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Parker’s Back,” the protagonist goes to a fair and sees a man whose body is covered in tattoos; Parker gets his first tattoo a short time later. Both the boy and Parker get tattoos as a result of mimetic desire; however, the characters do not experience mimetic desire in the same way. Tattoos represent different things to the boy and Parker so they are drawn to the art by different desires. The boy in Wendt’s short story sees Samasoni’s tattoo as a symbol of strength; Parker sees the carnival show man’s tattoos as distinguishing marks. “Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed” (O’Connor 427). While the boy wants to be respected as a mature, strong member of the (prison) society, Parker merely wants to be viewed as something, anything so long as he is distinguished. By becoming distinguished from others, Parker also hopes to be accepted and to find his place among others.

The tattoos not only signify different things to the boy and Parker, they also bear different results once on their bodies. The boy in Wendt’s short story becomes a man when he gets his tattoo. Although his tattoo is not the traditional full body male tatau, it still puts his young body “through the pain to be endured to prepare for life, and recognizes its growing maturity and ability to serve the community” (Wendt “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body” 401). For the first time, the boy is “no longer afraid to stare straight at her [his mother] when she was angry with him. He had changed, grown up” (Wendt 20). When the boy receives his cross of soot, he realizes for the first time the fate that awaits Tagi and the other prisoners. His trips to the prison are no longer amusing excursions, but a place where he must leave his childhood behind. He becomes connected with Samasoni, the old man, and Tagi and his tattoo represents his maturation and new strength.

Parker’s tattoos do not represent strength or growth, but rather weakness and isolation. Instead of connecting him with society, his tattoos separate him from everyone, including his wife. Parker’s fascination with tattoos springs from his desire to be different from the people around him, yet at the same time to be noticed as special and to be accepted by others. In his essay “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body,” Wendt notes, “In a deep psychological, mythological, symbolic way, tatauing is the act of printing or scripting a genealogical-spiritual-philosophical text on the blood, of testing it to see if it can bear the pain of being in a human body, of storying it, giving it human design, shape, form, and identity (Wendt “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body” 409). Parker stories his body with tattoos; whenever he is angry or emotional, he relieves his feelings, thereby making permanent that moment of heightened feeling, with a new tattoo. Parker wants a story, significance and he believes that tattoos will transfer meaning into his blood and being. O’Connor writes, “Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he [Parker] would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched” (O’Connor 428). Parker does not ever find fulfillment with his tattoos because they do not reflect any inner growth, as the boy’s tattoo does in “Cross of Soot.” Inking the skin does not change what is inside. Together, O’Connor and Wendt’s stories suggest that tattoos only have connective power when maturation and growth have already occurred.

Parker's Tattoo: Eyes into the Soul

In “Parker’s Back,” Flannery O’Connor tells the story of O.E. Parker, a young man who is constantly striving for fulfillment and finds temporary pleasure from the various permanent tattoos he receives. Throughout the story, the reader comes to understand Parker as being somewhat of a lost soul, blind in terms of spirituality and his true identity. O’Connor makes consistent reference to eyes all through her short story as a way to show the reader how tattoos are the eyes into a person’s soul and identity.

In the beginning of the story, O’Connor states that Parker “could account for her [Sarah Ruth, Parker’s wife] one way or another; it was himself he could not understand” (425). Parker seems to be lacking an personal identity or at least trying to come to terms with his identity, whereas his wife is very clear cut and predictable. We see this when O’Connor describes how Parker felt after seeing the tattooed man at the fair. “Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact he existed” (427). In an effort to identify himself or make himself more identifiable with others, Parker becomes obsessed with tattoos. For him, getting a tattoo is a thrill, even though the thrill is temporary, and admits that they are effective in attracting women. Sarah, however, is the one woman who is not impressed with his tattoos. In order to connect with Sarah and make her want Parker, he decides to get a tattoo on the one place he refused to ink, his back.

Up until this point, Parker refused to mark his back with his tattoos because he could not easily see them. This logic implies Parker’s unwillingness to see or accept himself for this would require too much of an effort just as standing between two mirrors to see a back tattoo. Also, this goes along with the constant allusion to Parker being blind or not having eyes. For example, O’Connor describes the woman Parker works for as pointing out a tree to him “as if he didn’t have eyes” (434). When he is searching for a tattoo to get on his back, a picture of a Byzantine Christ with “all-demanding eyes” captivates Parker (436). Their gaze penetrates into his soul and makes him feel uncomfortable, perhaps because they force him to look at himself and who he has become as a person. This idea is reinforced when the tattooist shows Parker the completed tattoo. “The eyes in the reflected face continues to look at him—still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence” (439). The eyes and face in this sentence remain ambiguous and offer the allusion that the tattoo and person have become one. Parker, through this tattoo is finally forced to truly look at himself, a situation that makes him feel very uncomfortable.

Through the tattoo on his back, Parker is forced to finally confront the emptiness in his life. Unlike his other tattoos, this one of the Christ figure holds meaning and gives him sight. By focusing on the importance of eyes, specifically eyes within a tattoo, O’Connor reveals to the reader the power a tattoo has in terms of marking a person’s identity and marking a transition, much like the way the tattoo in Pacific cultures mark one’s various life transitions. The tattoo gives not only outsiders, but also the person who holds the tattoo, insight into their own life and identity.

Tattoo as Other

One thing that sticks out in Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back” is the notion of the tattoo as something completely “other.” Parker’s tattoos mark him as being very separate from society, for better or for worse.

The first instance of a tattoo in the story is that of the nameless man who showed off his ink to a gazing crowd at the fair. The scene, while not explicitly described as such, has the feel of a freak show and one can imagine the man with the body art on a podium next to the bearded lady and conjoined twins; he doesn’t have a name but rather stands as an object for people’s viewing pleasure. When Parker finally gets one of his own, his mom disapproves of them – except for the heart with her name in it; when he finally starts to get into fights, drink, and hang out with less than reputable women, his mom is so appalled that she tries to bring him to an intervention of sorts. Later, when he joins the Navy, he does so as a journeyman, traveling around the world simply to accumulate tattoos. It gets to the point that his “otherness” lands him in the brig for being AWOL. Later, when he is back in the city, he gets into a fight with a group of people he used to be friends with. However, even before a fist is thrown, his ink is something of a spectacle – something not normal to be gawked at. Finally, at the end, his last tattoo – an attempt to become closer with his wife perhaps, the person to stand by him the most – ends up being the one that leaves him “leaning against the tree, crying like a baby,” (442).

It seems that because of his tattoos, Parker himself is regarded as some sort of “other” – be it a rebel or “idolator” [sic]. Also, the more body art he accumulates, he more he distances himself from the normative values of the world.

Parker's Problem

Parker is devoid of an identity. He has no idea who he truly is. “He stayed as if she had him conjured” (p. 425), “it was himself he could not understand” (p. 425)—he lacks definition in himself, he leaves the defining to someone else. His tattoos work in a similar way. He wishes that they will define his being. However, his tattoos are purely aesthetical- “he did not care what subject it was so long as it was colorful.” They have no meaning, and any aesthetical meaning they have is lost in a month. The tattoo becomes a symbol of his “huge dissatisfaction”. In addition to this, he only wants the tattoo to be for himself and views the idea of getting a tattoo on his back, one that he cannot see, as ridiculous. Thus, it is not a communal tattoo and, as we learned, without the communal aspect of the tattoo, the tattoo itself loses its meaning.

Both Parker and the boy in “Cross of Soot” get tattoos after seeing another person with one. Before the fair, “it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed”—until then he saw “no wonder in himself”. I’m sure this is a similar feeling the boy has but as Wendt is able to take the tattoo and give it meaning, allowing the tattoo to define him, Parker only concerns himself with the aesthetic aspects of the tattoo—the tattoos have no meaning and are empty symbols upon his skin. If we apply meanings to tattoos and the tattoos, in turn, define us then Parker cannot define himself. Parker is searching for an image, an identity, but lacks an understanding of what a tattoo is. He is constantly searching for the tattoo that will give him his identity, validating his existence, but is incapable of doing this because he places his identity in the hands of empty symbols.

The Realm of Being and Becoming: We Must Exist in Both

Karl Marx believes in order for a human to validate it’s existence, the individual must reflect the “self” in the world around him, creating significance or a meaning for his existence. This reflection must happen with other humans in order sustain his position in the world or ensure that he is human at all. Levinas discusses relationship with the “self” in The Face. He states, “ It is difficult to be silent in someone’s presence; this difficulty has its ultimate foundation in this signification proper to saying, whatever is the said…to speak to respond to him and already to answer for him.” This reflection of the self creates existence and comforts the individual sustaining he is human.
This conversation is with both the “self” and another human. In Parker’s Back , Parker cannot find meaning, significance, or even existence in his life. Initially, he lives his life aesthetically, receiving tattoos for pure physical admiration. He does not assign any meaning or significance to his tattoos and relishes only that he have tattoos on the front of his body for purposes of entertainment for their color and brilliance. This aesthetic perspective does not allow him to live, or feel even for his wife. Flannery O’ Connor describes Parker as someone “who could not account for her(wife) one way or another, it was himself he could not understand”. Parker cannot relate to his “self”, therefore he cannot connect to anyone else. Further, O’Connor expresses Parker’s disconnect from others in the conversation or lack of conversation he has with his wife. This interaction sparks a marriage with no vivid description of love or emotion.
Aristotle comments that there are two realms that humans must interact with; being and becoming. The realm of the being is purely aesthetic and physical, and humans must transcend themselves into the realm of the becoming to make the realm of being meaningful. Parker lives in this world of the being up until he realizes that he yearns for his wife. Placing the tattoo of God on his back transcends the tattoo and the realization of his “self” into a meaningful existence, both for the tattoo and himself.
Parker experiences the pain that comes with his progression into the realm of becoming. His wife’s reaction hurts his pride, and even further separates him from the relationship with another human. His wife is unable to see the transcendence or the “becoming”, she too is tramped in a world of aesthetic. Parker’s tattoo was not merely to capture God on his back. He received the tattoo to receive love from her. It was not the tattoo, but the meaning that he placed on it, which his wife failed to see and accept.

The Duality of Tattoos

Reading “Parker's Back” by Flannery O'Connor provides an interesting contrast to the other stories and novels we have been reading concerning tattoos. Parker's multiple tattoos are first presented as a statement of identity, a particular characteristic that makes him unique among the world. This concept is not unlike the motivation that drives most Westerners to get tattooed. It is, however, much different from the attitudes surrounding the traditional tatau of the South Pacific. The tatau is a unifying mark that represents obligation to the community at large. If anything, Parker's tattoos drive him away from any community he has known. He flees his family and travels the world with the navy until he attempts to escape them as well. The tattoos isolate Parker from more than the world; his wife refuses to look at them and considers them marks of sinful vanity. He grows thin and ragged in marriage because his ego is no longer inflated on a regular basis by awed admirers of his inked body.
Parker displays a trend of growing tired with the tattoos he already possesses and feels a persistent itch for a new one. However, he does not see the purpose of getting his back (the only blank spot on his body) tattooed since he would not be able to easily see it. Such sentiments make it clear to the reader that Parker is extremely self-absorbed. His tattoos hold no significant meaning, even to himself in time. Therefore, it is surprising that a freak accident inspires him to get Christ tattooed across his back. He is unsettled throughout the entire process, feeling the strange eyes of Christ on him through the night. Even after the tattoo is completed, Parker is unsure of what he has accomplished. Searching for divine inspiration, he seeks comfort from the most religious person he knows, Sarah Ruth. She is appalled by his actions, however, calling Parker an idolater for possessing a false image of God, who cannot be seen by man.
By the end of the story, Parker is inconsolable. He has covered himself with hollow, empty images that mean nothing of any significance to himself or anyone else. What makes this a tragedy, though, is the fact that Parker had defined his entire life with the images on his flesh. As a result, he is forced to confront his own pointless and unhappy life. This is an unfortunate story in light of the way tataus are treated in Samoa and other island nations in our other readings. They are not mere ornamentation though they do define the bearer in a sense. The tatau gives the young man a purpose and a responsibility to his family and his community, enriching his existence rather than denying it.

Blood and Ink: The Relationship between Violence and Tattoo

Whenever I read a Flannery O’Connor story, I think of a quotation by the author that I once read. Regarding her fiction, she said,

“...[in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one that is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world” (Mystery and Manners, p 112).

I believe that this is a crucial component of nearly all O’Connor stories, but especially in Parker’s Back. This story is so particularly dense with such imagery and action that the tattoo itself becomes reflective of this violence.

Considering Parker himself, we find a lost character. He has no direction and no motivation, even acknowledging at times that he feels as if he is losing his mind. His actions have no explanation, he often says that he does not know why he does things, but he is compelled to. Whether getting a tattoo or marrying Sarah Ruth, Parker moves like a ghost or a shell throughout the story. He seems to be motivated only by his own dissatisfaction and, as Sarah says, “Vanity of vanities” (429). In the first half of the story he obtains tattoos because he likes the way they look and the reaction they elicit in others. In the second half though, Parker becomes dissatisfied to a point “that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be his back. There was no help for it” (433).

Following this revelation, Parker experiences a spiritual counterpart to his tattooing. While working he hits a tree and is flung from his tractor. He views the tree burst in flame and he has to run to salvation, his truck, barefoot. The episode is ripe with religious imagery and very cathartic for Parker, emblemizing the violence O’Connor speaks of. It forces Parker to consider his own mortality and in turn, his faith.

After this odd episode in the field, Parker drives into the city and gets a large Byzantine Christ tattooed on his back. The event turns into a long and painful ordeal, making Parker uncomfortable. When the piece is finished, the artist forces Parker to look at it, and the gaze of the figure on his back shocks him. There is a dual violence here, both in the form of the physical pain of his tattoo, and the psychological pain of the artist making him confront it. This tattoo is a new experience for Parker. It is the first tattoo that has meaning to him, and it is the first that hurts him. Through the act of receiving this tattoo Parker is transformed, as some may be by finding God or attending church.

Parker becomes a much different man after receiving this tattoo. He no longer finds joy in drinking and going to the pool hall, instead he finds himself soul searching. The reader finds Parker at a low, sitting behind the pool hall in an alley, “examining his soul. He saw it is a spider web of facts and lies that was not at all important to him but which appeared to be necessary in spite of his opinion. The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed” (440). The permanence of his tattoo is equally important as the process by which he obtained it, he is now forever marked and forever changed.

When Parker finally returns home to show Sarah his tattoo he experiences “light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors” (441). For the first time his tattoos no longer seem random, unmatched—he experiences synthesis he has longed for ever since first seeing the man at the fair. Now that Parker has brought Christ into his life, he feels balanced. When his wife sees the tattoo and hits him, welts swell up on his back and on the image. They share the same pain, further connecting Parker to the image of Christ and humanizing him. Through various forms of violence, emotional and physical, mental and spiritual—Parker transforms. The last image we have of him is embracing his birth name and weeping—a completely different action from the character presented at the beginning of the story. It is almost as if by being scarred by Christ, Parker brings him into his life and heart. Like the characters in Figiel’s They Who Do Not Grieve and Wendts’ A Cross of Soot, the tattoo transforms the person—a reflection of spiritual and the actuality of physical change.

I Want a Tattoo, Too!

Like the characters we have read about so far, Parker is motivated to get a tattoo once he sees it on another person. However, he is later motivated by what he perceives the desire of another, his wife Sarah. His obsession with tattoos is first formed he is only fourteen “when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to toe” (427). The appearance of the man affected Parker to such a degree that a “peculiar unease settled in him” since that moment (427). Since then, he lived his life to add more tattoos to his body. In this phase of his life, his main goal is to merely get tattoos: “He did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful” (428). His only criteria, though, is that the tattoo must be easily visible to himself, since he has “no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see” (429). As a result, Parker’s back remains free of any tattoos.
However, his desires soon begin to change when he first meets Sarah. Her reaction to his tattoos bewilders Parker. Unlike the other girls who were attracted to him mainly because of his tattoos (428), Sarah shows almost no interest in them. After gazing at his tattoos with “an almost stupefied smile of shock” (427), she dismisses them as “a heap of vanity” and “vanity of vanities” (429). To add insult to injury, she demeans his eagle tattoo (his first one) by calling it a chicken (429). Sarah’s insulting stance on Parker’s tattoos prompt a new phase in his life, where he is more obsessed with the desire to get a tattoo that will force Sarah to notice it and him in the process. Thus, the tattoo becomes a way to actualize for Parker’s desire to be accepted by Sarah.
Knowing that she is dead set against looking at his tattoos, which she demeans as “trash” (442), Parker is consumed in thought until he experiences almost prophetic vision that leads him to an epiphany: the best tattoo to get Sarah to notice is an iconic representation of her god on his back. In this decision, Parker caters only to his perceived ideas of what Sarah wants. Since “if she had had better sense,” she would enjoy a tattoo on his back, one that would be exclusively for her viewing pleasure (432). The subject of the tattoo now matters to Parker; he desires the subject to move Sarah to force her to notice and enjoy it. Thus, what is a better image than for an iconic representation of her God? “She can’t say she don’t like the looks of God” (438).
The main reason for Parker’s motivation to get a new tattoo no longer depends on his “own sound judgment” (437) but rather depends on what he thinks Sarah wants and what he’ll ultimately gain from her once he meets her perceived desires. With the right tattoo, he would get Sarah’s admiration, something he always lacked (433). With Christ’s image on his back, Parker believes that once Sarah sees it, she has to worship it and admire him in the process. Unluckily for Parker, she is disgusted at the tattoo, and views it as idolatry. Instead of the desired admiration from her, Parker is disappointed to receive criticism and punishment.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Asserting individuality and group membership through tattoo

My friend, Jamie, who is also one of my coworkers at the Annapolis Mall, is pretty heavily tattooed. Some of the tattoos are permanent remnants, or even scars, left over from a rebellious and difficult youth. The red stars behind her ears and the Chinese symbols on her lower back no longer have significance for her, but are instead marks originally intended to assert her individuality and to promote a sense of belonging with her friends, who are also tattooed. Jamie's largest tattoo is two gargoyles sitting back-to-back forming a set of scales, her Libra birth sign. This tattoo, in vibrant, multi shade hues, stretches the breadth of her shoulders, and from nape of the neck to lower back. To other people, this tattoo may make Jamie seem intimidating; however, it is a representation of the state of balance she seeks in her life, and also demonstrates her belief in being nonjudgmental. This tattoo connects Jamie to many of her friends and to a particular group of people, but it also represents her individuality by separating her from non-tattooed people. The particular symbol she chose also asserts individuality because it belongs to and represents her alone. Choosing a tattoo is difficult not only because it will be permanent, but also because it must satisfy two purposes: asserting both individuality and group membership. Jamie's tattoo does have personal meaning for her because she got it at a time when she was attempting to make a break with a difficult youth and find balance. This tattoo is part of Jamie's map. Like Lalolagi's tattoo in Sia Figiel's They Who Do Not Grieve, Jamie's tattoos shows where she has been in life. Each one, whether it remains significant to her today, represents some aspect of her younger or present self.

Jamie's last tattoo is a rainbow colored grim reaper surrounded by roses that stretches from her right knee down to her ankle, completely covering her calf. She regrets this tattoo. Jamie dated a tattoo artist who wanted to tattoo her body in some way. At the time, she felt that even if the relationship didn't work out, the tattoo would remain a reminder of their friendship and a link to the artist-boyfriend. Because he chose the tattoo, its meaning disappeared from her when the relationship broke.

When Jamie is at work, she must cover all of her tattoos. Her hair must be down to cover the stars behind her ears and she always wears pants to cover her leg. It is interesting that a tattoo, which in our society is meant to publicly assert individuality and group membership, must be covered up. While I recognize the importance of being professional, I also think that the store we work at wants to suppress Jamie in some way by covering her tattoos, which are part of who and what she is in the world.

In Sia Figiel's novel, They Who Do Not Grieve, Lalolagi's tattoo is begun at the request of a lover, just like Jamie's grim reaper tattoo. Like Jamie, Lalolagi is reminded of her tatooist-lover by the permanent ink on her body. Tattoos in Figiel's book about Samoans and tattoos in America both have personal and public significance. To foreigners or strangers such as Alisi, a tattoo may be mesmerizing or even erotic as it is a permanent identifying mark on the body of the lover or the other person. In Samoa, when Lalolagi and Tausi get tattoed together, they are blessing and solidifying their friendship through blood (life) shed. They decide to "seal their friendship with the permanancy of starfish on their thighs" (Figiel 249). Pain and the shedding of blood are forms of sacrifice. Tattoos are really wounds made permanent by pouring ink into cut skin. Demonstrating a willingness to wound the body and commemorating that wound by making it a permanent part of the body is powerful. The body becomes a display for declarations of friendship, womanhood, adulthood, and love. According to Figiel's book, a "tattoo is the ultimate expression of alofa, of love" (Figiel 248), and a tattoo is also a prayer for the entire aiga, or community (Figiel 248). In this book, tattoos are closely linked with sex or union (Figiel 250). The tattoo artist is also Lalolagi's lover and she thinks about their lovemaking during the tattoo process. Both love and tattoo are extremely painful. Lalolagi gets the tattoo for love of the artist, for love of Tausi, and as a prayer for the community, in which she may now finally be a member after years of being outcast. The tattoo is a scar that represents the individual's map and the individual's place on society's map.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


“There were two little girls who were the best of friends. One day they woke and they were women…They decided to be tattooed. To seal their friendship with blood.”(164)
It was in the Jackie’s basement that we made the decision: the four of us, who had been best friends since the 4th grade, were going to get matching tattoos. I have to confess that a little wine was involved, or I could have hardly have imagined that I would agree to the plan so quickly. I had never planned on getting a tattoo—not that I have any real problem with them, but their permanence is so, well, permanent. In other words, it always seemed like a decision that people made on a whim, and then were forced to spend the rest of their lives with an inked in reminder of that choice. But the more I thought about it, the more meaning the idea had. Each of us would carry a piece of each other for the rest of our lives—a daily reminder of our commitment to and appreciation of one another.
On the day we got the tattoo, I will admit that I was a little apprehensive. But with my girls by my side I did not for a second think of turning back. We each hopped on to the table, and let the artist do his work, while the others watched the pain (I’ll be honest, its not the most comfortable feeling in the world) that we were dealing with for each other. The tattoo artist, named “Demon”(seriously), wore his hair in a long ponytail and was literally covered in his own art, so you can imagine that a group of giddy, giggly girls getting such a thrill from such a small tattoo could have been scoffed at by a man who even has his forehead tattooed—but instead, he repeatedly told us how cool it was that we were doing something like this, together. The tattoo is only the size of a quarter, and reads in small cursive “lylas” with a four-leaf clover underneath the script. L.Y.L.A.S., or “Love You Like A Sister” was the little insignia that we used to end our notes to each other with in elementary school, and the four separate leaves making up the one clover was a symbol of our friendship. What I had always considered to be a tacky thing had turned into a tasteful representation of our love for and loyalty to one another. It seems especially important now that we are all separated, and our lives our blossoming and our time for one another grows more and more stretched.
Figiel emphasizes the importance that the Samoans place on tattoos, and their meanings. Although my friends and I had the power to choose the art that was sketched into our bodies, the meaning of the Samoans tattoos are just as personal and communicative as ours are. I also find it significant that it is a source of pride, and how shameful it is to have an unfinished tattoo, as Figiel demonstrates in the nose-flute man’s story, as well as in Tausi. The body and sexuality, although not quite as liberated and carefree as Mead and others would like to have the Western culture believe of the Pacific Islands, in general it seems to be celebrated as natural. I, on the other hand, originally agreed to get the tattoo only when I was positive that it could be covered up, and not seen unless I actually showed it to someone, the tattoo and its personal meaning was simply for me. It seems that the notion my notion of privacy has been influenced by conceptions in Western culture that sexuality and the body are private, and to speak or display either is inappropriate. Figiel describes her Samoan characters’ bodies through beautiful, nature metaphor, and details sexual encounters in a less vulgar and more natural way. She is not the first writer that we have read this semester to do so; it seems that Figiel and the other authors are approaching these subjects that are fundamentally a part of human nature and exhibiting them as such, and thus breaking down the conventional taboos and ideas that our bodies are only private and not something to be discussed in detail. In essence, she is representing the important power of the face, the body, and how it communicates to others with an example of the power of art on the body, the tattoo. Its simplicity coupled with its permanence and specificity is what makes the ink so significant to the Samoan culture, and to me and my best friends.

The Meaningful versus the Meaningless

While reading They Who Do Not Grieve, I was particularly struck by the contrasting attitudes of the Samoan culture and contemporary American culture regarding tattoos and their significance for the community and the individual. Though it is fad that may be (thankfully) dying down, the end of the twentieth century saw the transportation of the tribal tattoo from the Pacific into American culture in the form of the comparatively simple “tribal band.” These tattoo designs seemed to be wrapped around an astounding number of people’s arms and ankles – from rebellious college students to middle aged adults. In becoming a trendy piece of American pop culture, the most important element of the tribal tattoo was lost in translation: its significance for the community. As Figiel discusses, the Samoans considered tattoos an essential element of their community structure. An incomplete tattoo is tantamount to light cultural treason, as evidenced by Lalolagi’s social exile along with that of her entire family. Community members are bound through the mutual experience of pain and the outer markings they display to others. It is this unifying element that has seemingly been lost in the American pop-culture adaptation. Paralleling the Winterson’s view of Fiji and Samoa, most individuals that choose such a tattoo view the design as wild and exotic; rather than binding them to any culture or tradition, it is supposed to make the person “unique.” Upon closer analysis, however, this conception of the “tribal tattoo” is utterly shallow and self-defeating: in my experience, I have seen only a handful of variations of on this imported theme shared by hundreds if not thousands of people. The result is that an important Samoan tradition has become devoid of meaning in American culture because of a wide-ranging misconception about what it signifies. Whenever I see such a tattoo, I tend to think not of how the person has made some great physical and emotional sacrifice that binds them to others with similar designs, but rather how in an effort to differentiate themselves they have become representatives of a poorly translated and probably meaningless signifier.

This relationship of perception versus reality and the disjunction between the signifier and the signified is readily apparent in Figiel’s story. The story of the Wintersons is one example. Mrs. Winterson strives to appear as her perception of the perfect wife: subservient and beautiful. In place of something like a tattoo, Mrs. Winterson and Mrs Harcourt let the physical stature of their bodies to signify who they are; they are the hyper-image-conscious Americans. As a result, however, they are devoid of a real life and therefore a real story. It is more than ironic that the second book opens with an image of food: “It always starts with food. Potatoes. Pasta. Brown Rice” (133). This image of the carbohydrates these two women studiously avoid (or later discharge) quickly becomes associated with the mouth and the idea of oral storytelling. Stories start with the stomach or the cut, two bodily functions that these American women refuse to relinquish the reins to because they perceive it will communicate an unpleasant reality. Ela, on the other hand, is an example of a character that embraces reality: while her story is far from ideal, she becomes empowered enough to achieve her dream and have “the freedom to be” (123). She refuses to allow her society’s perception of her as an outcast to hold her back from achieving her goal and takes the necessary steps to accomplish it; the signifier did not accurately reflect the being that was signified.

Tattoo: History Marked in Ink

Tattoos are often perceived as being merely things one puts on their body in an effort to be unique or rebel against the conventional. Unfortunately, those who prescribe to this doctrine miss the underlying meaning of the tattoo itself and to the individual. Tattoos have the power to connect- - connect to another person or connect to time.

A friend of mine recently got a tattoo; actually she finally completed the tattoo. 0riginally, she had a single clover on her wrist. She got it while she was abroad with a friend of hers and in some ways felt it was incomplete. When she returned home, she added more to the tattoo, including two additional symbols in a band across her wrist. The explanation of the tattoo is simple. The clover represents her time she spent in Ireland; the medical symbol represents the health affliction she has had to live with and will continue to live with; and the turtle represents the farm her family used to live on. When she told me about the tattoo, I thought, “Oh, that’s really nice. At least you got one that means something rather than something random just for the sake of getting a tattoo.” But after reading, Figiel I began to think about my friend’s tattoo and it’s connection with history and time.

Figiel’s Those Who Do Not Grieve places a strong emphasis on history, the mark it leaves on individuals and how their lives are subsequently affected by their history. When we think about history, we often connote it with the past. The present and the future, however, also make up history. My friend’s tattoo is made up of three objects that represent the past, the present, and the future- - my friend’s history. Similarly, in the story, the tattoo is symbolic of history of the three generations of women. Each generation, however, has a different relationship with the tattoo and thus the tattoo affects their lives differently. Figiel uses the technique of repetition to convey this theme. Throughout the text, there are certain words that are repeated three times. For example, Apa spends time describing how a Pacific Islander works in a different country and how the overalls their job forces them to wear are “stained with sweat, stained with blood, stained with a history of submission” (207). These repetitions are symbolic of the tattooing process, which is a painful process, but at a certain point the pain becomes a numbness and meditative like a prayer. The tattoo artist states, “Every action associated with the tattoo was a prayer. Is a prayer” (248). Here, we see the elements of history in terms of the change in verb tense from past to present. More importantly is the emphasis on prayer.

Further along in his perception of tattooing, he states that the tattoo is, “A prayer that is prayed not for the one undergoing the tattoo itself, but a prayer that is prayed for the whole ‘aiga, the whole family, the village, the district, the country” (248). The tattoo connects the individual with their community and the process is almost like a sacrificial offering or prayer for the community. Through this connection, the individual is connected to their history and possesses the ability to grow and learn from history, just as Malu does at the end of the book. She perpetuates the family history by having a child outside of wedlock and outside of the culture, but changes her history by decided she will not let the grief that has intoxicated the women in her family affect her life.

Figiel describes the tattoo as a mark of history and a mark of truth. The previous generations of women are so consumed with the grief associated with the tattoo that they are unable to move forward. Their history in a sense is constructed of the past and present, with no hope of the future. Malu, however, completes the cycle. She represents the future. Malu has changed the meaning of the tattoo and as a result, changed her history and her truth.

What It Really Means to "Think in Ink"

One of my favorite commercials of all time is one in which a man and a woman, presumably his girlfriend, are in a tattoo parlor. The tattooist is in the process of doing a tattoo on the man’s bicep that is supposed to read “I love Donna.” The tattooist, mid-ink, tells the man how much the tattoo is going to cost him. Unfortunately, the man doesn’t have enough money to cover the whole thing, so the tattooist stops abruptly, leaving the man with an arm that reads, “I love Don.” Understandably, the woman gets very upset and storms out of the parlor, despite the man’s begging her to stay. It looks as if the tattoo cost him not only the contents of his wallet, but his pride as well.
As a society, it seems that we are obsessed by tattoos. Some people find them to be expressive. Some people think that they are distasteful. Some people see them as a trend and nothing more. Whether you have tattoos, want tattoos, hate tattoos, or are completely different, it is undeniable that they are very much a part of our culture. And despite amazing advancements in laser removal, the tattoo is not going away anytime soon.
Will you be able to see it at work? Will it show in your wedding dress? Will your dad find out? These and other questions like them are important considerations when it comes to the final decision: to ink or not to ink? Of course, I have considered getting one. In this day and age, who hasn’t? I think that part of the attraction of the art form to me, as well as many others of my generation lies in its permanence.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the French philosopher Descartes. In his famous Meditations, he states, “Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakeable.” This idea, the incessant desire to find one thing that will last forever, that it without end, is what I believe is at the root of the ink epidemic.
With so many changeable things in this world- family, career, health, relationships- it is understandable that a person could want to have something unconditional and forever. Permanence. A tattoo will be with you forever, even if your boyfriend or girlfriend will not. This is a lesson that cultural icon Johnny Depp learned all too late, after appendaging himself with “Winona Forever,” only to experience a break-up which prompted him to alter his tattoo to “Wino Forever.” Lucky for him, the man enjoys a nice glass of red.
Where does this need for permanence come from? I would venture that it goes hand-in-hand with the need for control. This is an idea we touched upon in class: one of the central themes of Sia Figiel’s novel, They Who Do Not Grieve. While their tattoos serve a different cultural purpose than our own, I think there is an emerging parallel. The importance of control, the ability to control one’s self, one’s family, and one’s surroundings, is at the root of their Samoan culture.
Is our culture so different after all? Let’s look at one example from the text. Why do Mrs. Winterson and her friends feel the need to avoid or regurgitate food? There is a common misconception in our society that eating disorders are solely the manifestation of negative body image. While self-esteem and self-image are definitely factors in this sensitive equation, they are not necessarily the primary reason for a girl (or boy, even) to develop an eating disorder. Instead, it often an unhealthy fixation on one’s ability to control his or her own body. Why the body? Oftentimes, because that person feels as if they are unable to control some other (or many other) aspects in his or her life.
There is a comfort in being able to take control of one’s own life. There is a quiet confidence that results from having power and dominion over something tangible. Just as there is a distinct beauty in attaining something unconditional, there is a certain peace implicit in the “foreverness” of a tattoo.

My (and my brother's) tattoo

My younger brother and I have matching tattoos. Mine is on the inside of my right leg, right above the ankle; his is on the back of (don’t quote me) his right calf. They are Celtic-style arrow heads and are a symbol of, among other things, fraternity. Before that, I had wanted a tattoo for as long as I can remember, but I couldn’t think of anything really good to put on there the first time. I was also aware of tattoo blunders from my other siblings: my older brother’s tattoo is heinous, my sister’s makes her feel “unfeminine” sometimes, and my younger brother had to get his first tattoo amended after him and his girlfriend broke up – it said “forever.”

Needless to say, I was immediately drawn to the story of Po and Ao that runs from pages 60-61 in Sia Figiel’s They Who Do Not Grieve. After all, they are two boys of similar age – my brother and I are Irish twins, eleven months apart – and they grew up together. Also, they wanted to get the tattoos done together in a symbolic unifying event. However, this is where the similarities stop. For one, my brother and I are complete opposites and fought often until my freshman year in college; needless to say, we did not often go fishing together. But, more importantly, I did not get this tattoo to symbolize my following my brother to his grave as Po tells Ao. Andrew is the first one to admit I will tell him when he screws up and his mistakes are his mistakes and although I’ll help as much as I think is right, he gets a fair amount of tough love; God knows I don’t follow him blindly.

However, I think our tattoos are just as beautiful as those of Ao and Po. We have had to work for our brotherhood and sift through all of the extreme and yet superfluous differences to the point where we understand our dynamic, our “click.” Also, and I can not speak for him, I realize that a true brother does not follow the other into the grave – as Po realizes at the end – but rather walks by his side as his brother. I love this tattoo, and I couldn’t be happier that it – and its meaning – are under my skin forever. Even when it becomes old and grey it will have only increased in value because it charts and commemorates the work my brother and I have put in to truly deserve an enduring image of fraternity.

Color the World

Color is mentioned frequently through the book and its correlation with black or lack of color. Mahu describes how Tausi told her about her namesake and how she began to see colors. The colors signify information or revelation she encounters about herself and her family. The knowledge is the antithesis, it is the aggressor which enables her to grow. The colors she sees, black, brown, and red, are also the color of the tattoos. Black is the primary ink which is used. It is the lack of color.
Color is also applied differently in the Western culture opposed to the Samoan traditional tattoos. The Samoan culture uses little color or mainly black to connect members of the tribe to the community. These tattoos are physical representations of an individuals association to his culture. However, Western culture views tattoos as a separator. Western tattoos apply color and even different symbols to separate from society in order to associate the individual meaning to his physical mark.
The colors black, the ink used to apply the tribal tattoo, and red associated with pain and blood are the two colors which Malu sees and associates herself with. The blood signifier evokes life line, family, and the instance of flowing which are all associated with tattooing. There are also constant “flowing” terms used to link Malu with her past. The blood as a flowing of unrestricted facet of the body resembles her unrestricted or lack of correlation with her tribe.
As the novel ends, more colors are mentioned I n reverence to Malu. This could signify her break from the tribe, and the balance she must obtain between her tradition and the weight of her family’s shame. “The blue turtle felt the wind on its neck and grew wings” (154). The blue turtle is not associated with the traditional Samoan culture, but it is growing and progressing. She becomes the combination or the color, that is no longer “black” or lack, but a palette of flowing blood and continuation.