Memory & Horror Vacui in In the Shadow of No Towers

As we discussed in class, Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers is fueled by horror vacui, both in terms of content and form.  The visual networks and layerings that saturate each page and even seem to extend off of the page in its intensity.  Various narratives entrenched with a multiplicity of themes and symbols intertwine and constantly complement and compete with each other.  Spiegelman’s obsessive dependency on intertextuality in constituting his work also contributes to the overall cenophobic aesthetic.

The maximalist principles that No Towers operates under root in that the work explores the nature of memory; specifically, the complex and idiosyncratic individual systems of remembering and forgetting in regards to traumatic experiences.  Spiegelman had already begun to unfold a discourse on how trauma shapes an individual’s agency in accessing and understanding his or her memories in Maus.  The experience of trauma that the character of Spiegelman undergoes as he navigates through the account that his father presents has as much to do with Spiegelman’s father’s willingness and capacity to recount, how the character of Spiegelman internalizes the information available to him, and the framing device and formal constructs that the character of Spiegelman channels his newfound trauma narrative through, as the initial first-hand experience of trauma that Spiegelman’s father experienced.

In No Towers, he intensifies his interrogation of the problems of remembering and forgetting and the interstitial space between and around, as he immediately contextualizes the trauma that he experienced post-9/11 within the lineage of trauma embedded within him beginning with the second-hand trauma that his interaction with his father as portrayed in Maus initially spurred.  A recurring integral intertextual moment is when Spiegelman draws from Maus and layers the representation of himself as a mouse as in Maus with the representation of himself in the wake of the 9/11.  For example, the series of panels entitled “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist” on the second page show four different iterations of the author Spiegelman’s pereception of the character and narrator Spiegelman.  The way in which the four faces are presented compactly and serially in relation to each other not only chronicle the different manifestations of self as undergoing traumatic experiences but also introduces the obsessive rehearsing of identity as well as how traumatic experiences complicate representations of self.

On a broader scale, the acknowledgement, if not celebration, of the multiplicity of truths that No Towers draws upon emerge as an integral property of postmodernism.  Much like how Jameson dissociates the notion of the “ultimate truth” from postmodernity, Spiegelman poses that there is no neatly packaged linear, unified narrative that accurately accounts for all the multifaceted responses to the universal trauma of 9/11.  Not only is Spiegelman commenting on the extent of the impact that 9/11 had, but he is also alluding to the essential (if I can say that) condition of postmodernity that there is no single all-encompassing narrative and that the individual narratives have a horizontal, rather than hierarchical, relationship with one another.  A recurring example of Spiegelman’s anti-minimalist presentation of assorted intertexts that simultaneously remarks on the construct of memory and postmodernity are the interweaving of a multitude of public and public source materials such as on page 3.  On page 3, a number of different media compete with one another for attention yet complement each other in that they serves as diegetic worlds and metanarratives for one another simultaneously, much like the self- and otherwise referential nature of memory and postmodernity. (Maybe it’s mostly in the semiotics and it’s the “language used to describe memory” versus “language used to describe postmodernity”—but does it matter?)

In fact, not only do multiplicity of truths fuel No Towers, but explode it.  Spiegelman is constantly establishing and challenging frames within frames in the giant book form that he chose.  Each frame seems to contain a kind of structured universe, but the expectation is quickly subverted when the boundaries between the frames literally become destroyed and the “inside” and “outside” become moot points.  For example, on page 8, a magnified rendition of the face of the character of the author intrudes upon the neatly contained world of a single panel where the character dwells at the same time—or is it the other way around?  The outside lining of cartoon figures on the page “PLATE V” seems to constitute their collective identity in that they are anonymous faces outside the “main” narrative, and seems to invite the reader to identity as one of them.

Navigating through the thick jungle memory that Spiegelman created reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov’s quote: “I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.”  Without being sappy about the graphic novel and putting Spiegelman on a pedestal too much, I think it is important to note the immense generosity and bravery that must have been required of Spiegelman to vomit in text and images his process of coping with the accumulated trauma.  The intense vulnerability that Spiegelman as a narrator allows us to access makes the work a one that constantly corporealizing itself in ways that are unique and compelling to individual readers.

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