9/22/2008

Dave Sim's Judenhass



So Dave Sim appears to be much on the brain here these days and at the risk of boring the reader with a sort of mono-focus on one particular creator, I think a word needs to be said about his graphic narrative of the Holocaust Judenhass. The fact is that the creation of a new work centering on the Holocaust is something of a risky business, and adopting a critical approach to such a work is not without its own risks. That Dave Sim has managed to create in Judenhass a work that is provocative without being offensive, affective without being sentimental, a work that details the horrors of the Holocaust without being craven is an accomplishment of no minor order.

Sim explains the sort of central conceit of the book with a quote on the back cover in which he laments the inadequacy of the term 'anti-Semitism', a term which ostensibly would apply equally to Arabs as to Jews, to describe the phenomenon which drove the executors of Hitler's Final Solution. In his research, he came across the German word Judenhass, literally Jew-Hatred. He writes:

It seemed to me that the term served to distill the ancient problem to its essence, and in such a way as to hopefully allow other non-Jews (like myself) to see the problem 'unlaundered' and through fresh eyes. Europe and various other jurisdictions aren't experiencing a sudden upsurge in 'anti-Semitism.' What they are experiencing is an upsurge in "Judenhass"--Jew Hatred.



Sim takes a two-pronged approach to his subject in Judenhass, juxtaposing citations from the historical record of Jew Hatred in Europe and the West with archival images largely originating from the liberation of the camps at the end of the war. Sim's aim, in part, is to demonstrate that far from being a question of how a catastrophe on the order of the Holocaust could have occurred, the ubiquity of anti-Semitism at all levels of Western society made it more or less inevitable.

This thesis is not new, nor is it without its problems, but I think the larger point is that the Holocaust happened because not enough people could be bothered to stop it from happening. When you consider that people lived in societies whose intellectual leaders almost without exception characterized Jews as somehow less than fully human, the notion that they would not put their lives or livelihoods at risk to save these Jews becomes somewhat more plausible. I would venture that there are people--even governments--today who would plan and execute the wholesale destruction of the remainder of world's Jews, if given the chance. Presumably, however, there would be enough of us to raise enough of a stink in order to prevent such a thing from happening.

This, of course, will not necessarily always be the case, which is part of the point of continuing to explore the historical facts and implications of the Holocaust in art. Another part, I believe, is to show that even though we are living now fully six decades beyond the end of the war, we are not entirely free from implication in these atrocities. One of the more salient quotes included in the book that speaks to these ideas comes from William Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It is not even past."



Judenhass is a comic and it is a perfect example of how this subject matter is peculiarly suited to the medium of comics on multiple levels. One of the earliest observations that Sim makes in the book is the special relationship that the comics world shares with Jews and how different this art form would be were it not for the Jews who made it what it is. Beyond this allusion to the history of comics in America, Judenhass provides the ideal forum for the practice of precisely the type of photo-realistic illustration that Sim has been documenting in his series Glamourpuss. There is something about the effect of Sim's art in the book, which tempers the realism with something of a storybook quality that makes it somehow more affective and therefore more horrifying than if Sim had simply illustrated the book with a montage of photographs.



Sim employs the very cinematic approach that Dave Gibbons attempted with Watchmen, but in this case to great effect. Alternately starting with an image in a long shot or a tight close-up, he repeats the images, gradually either pulling the viewer in to highlight further detail, or pulling the perspective back in a sort of still image reveal. The repetition of the images of emaciated survivors or the stacked corpses of victims challenges the reader to engage the book without being affected.



Many of the book's more significant moments lay in the unarticulated implications or layers of meaning of the particular images reproduced or narratives recounted. The recounting of the story of Harry Truman's visit with his friend and former business partner (and Jew) Eddie Jacobson and subsequent meeting of Truman with Chaim Weizmann and the resultant recognition of the State of Israel by the United States risks lapsing into just the sort of sentimentality that is amongst the greatest pitfalls of narrative dealing with the Holocaust. It escapes this eventuality by virtue of the unspoken, yet entirely present, implications of America's historical alliance with the Jewish State--implications which arguably play a by no means minor role in America's current position in world affairs.



Another example of this sort of multi-layered juxtaposition of images and irony and meaning comes with a set of images which reveal the aspect of a victim of the Holocaust to be reminiscent to the crucifix, which heads the staff of Pope John Paul II. The former Pope is shown on a later page praying at the Western Wall in Jeruasalem, backed by the text of an address he gave at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 2000. As documented in James Carroll's broad history of the troubled relation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish PeopleConstantine's Sword (which is quoted repeatedly in Judenhass), the Christian cross is a symbol that has long been associated with the history of European anti-Semitism. As recently as the 1990s, controversy has erupted over the presence of a large cross looming over the site of the death camp at Auschwitz Birkenau--very understandably troubling the survivors of the Holocaust and their families.



The history of art--and I lump journalism and narrative history into this term--dealing with the Holocaust is rife with stories that seem to be aimed to make us feel somehow better about what happened by showing that despite the horror of what happened, there were those who risked their lives and their livelihoods in order to save even a few individuals from eventual slaughter. That these stories are based in truth, I do not call into question. What I do call into question is the value of anything which might make anyone feel good about the Holocaust.

The best works dealing with this subject--Alain Resnais's Night and Fog, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem--are effective precisely because they eschew anything which would permit the viewer/reader to be absorbed in the subject matter as they would a densely plotted novel. Moreover, the real horror of the Holocaust lies in the banal repetition of everyday events by ordinary people, all in the service of the systematic destruction of an entire nation.



The barbarity of the result belies the meticulous everydayness of the method. Wholesale slaughter on the scale of the Holocaust could not have been effected without the participation or at least the tacit approval of nearly all levels of society. With Judenhass, Sim contributes to this body of work by illustrating not only the intellectual tradition of contempt for Jews, but also by the merciless repetition of images depicting the practical implications of such an enterprise.

Dave Sim is not without his idiosyncrasies or mad ideas, but he has performed an important service with the publication of Judenhass. Events in the world today show that the currents of Jew Hatred, far from being vanquished, bubble very near to the surface of world culture. As the generation which survived the Second World War ages and slowly passes on, the world will need works like Sim's as a reminder of the dangers of complacency in the face of racism.

7 comments:

brandon said...

David-
Excellent, excellent piece.

Dunno why it bugs me so much, since I'm not usually this pansy liberal type, but I have a hard time getting into this book and Sim's ideas again, because of all the insane weird stuff he's said about women. It's not that he can't say them, but so much of his argument in 'Judenhass' is exactly the stuff he mocks and pisses all over when applied to women and the "struggle"; a struggled nowhere near the Holocaust, but still...

Dave Sim Misogyny Page

david e. ford, jr said...

Brandon- thank you for the compliment and the comment. i have really only become familiarized with Sim's bonkers ideas about women recently as a result of your own input. having spent just a few moments perusing the site to which you've linked (and which i will link from my post--thank you very much), it seems like he has made a really simplistic equation of a certain personality type (emotional) with women, even though there are men who are perhaps more emotionally driven and women who tend to be more rational, but this is a little bit beside the point. the interesting thing, from this point of view, is that if one looks at the foundations of the current political divide (liberal vs. conservative), it is the 'liberal' side which tended more to deny the relevance or importance of the emotions when making decisions or whatever and which tended to argue from a point of view of 'pure reason,' which for obvious reasons is problematic. i am now meandering way off the point, but i guess what i am saying is that it is almost as though these things are too ridiculous to be taken seriously. it is sort of like the case with celine, in that he wrote one of the most sensitive and profound novels of the 20th century with journey to the end of the night, and then spent the war years drafting these nauseatingly virulent anti-semitic tracts.

on the subject of 'Judenhass' in particular, the book is certainly not without its problems. that first sentence in which he writes that he thinks all creative people should consider doing a work centering on the shoah kind of struck me as typically arrogant. moreover, on the next page he complains of people pointing out that people other than jews were the targets of the nazis genocidal campaign. one of the big problems with works dealing with the holocaust is that there is very little room in which a creator can maneuver without potentially veering off the rigid orthodoxy which has developed around the subject. as an example, in one of my classes today, my professor starting talking about the 'post-modern' idea that there is no such thing as pure evil--which he then qualified by saying except perhaps hitler. but this is just the point, if hitler were 'pure evil'--whatever that is--he never would have come to power. of course if my professor had said something to this effect, he might have put himself at risk of charges of anti-semitism. the point i am trying to make is that i very nearly wasn't willing to give the book a chance after the first couple of pages. his technique, however, is so effective, particularly in the repetition of the images, that it transcends these problems.

as you say, it can't just be liberal artists that we allow to have crazy ideas and sim certainly has some crazy ass ideas. at the end of the day, though, i think this book is legitimately very good--good in a way that only a comic could be--significant problems notwithstanding.

david e. ford, jr said...

as a side note to your comment, i am not exactly this freudian, but there is something to be said for the idea that some event or experience must be behind this kind of attitude toward women in an artist who came of age in Canada during the second half of the 20th century.

brandon said...

I think Sim's issues are deeper than Celine's though because Sim has critique and rejected over and over again, politics and thought that falls back on victimization and left-leaning sympathy for a group, that his sympathy for Jews in the Holocaust seems obnoxious. It's not that this creative person has hateful ideas, but that his hateful ideas seem to not even make the most sense and really are restricted to one group of people: women.

I'm troubled by the line about people extending the Holocaust beyond Jews because of course, any research--which Sim seems to have done a great deal of--reveals totally shocking numbers of gays, communists, etc. killed. Nazi-ism was nihilistic, it like radical Islam, focused on a scapegoat (Jews, Imperialist U.S) to gain support, but clearly had murderous ideas for waaayy more people

But you already know this. And I still want to buy this book.

Karen said...

Judenhass is a comic and it is a perfect example of how this subject matter is peculiarly suited to the medium of comics on multiple levels.

I think it's interesting you say this because there's flyers for this "Jewish Literature" group at the Towson public library posted at Goucher, and all of the selections are graphic novels. I'm not sure if its this one time thing or maybe this is their one graphic novel group, but before looking at the flyer and looking over the selection (Maus, obviously, but also this one Yossel I see alot and The Rabbi's Cat and I think this other Joann Sfar one Kletzmer, both of which I'm actually really into. I forget if Judenhass was on there.) I never realized how many Holocaust/ Jewish oppression/culture graphic novels there were.

david e. ford, jr said...

some further comments:

1) you have obviously made yourself more familiar with sim's history in terms of the development and presentation of his political views and to be honest, the more i learn from you, the queerer i feel about judenhass. it is almost as though he needs to be literally smacked in the face with a mountain of evidence of historical discrimination--not to mention the fact that millions of people were systematically slaughtered--in order to admit that perhaps a particular identity group has faced particular and undue hardship.

2) the thing about qualifying that it wasn't just jews is admittedly kind of this tricky thing. i mean, absolutely jews were not the only group singled out for elimination--that is clear. on the other hand, it is true that this sort of argument is used by those who would seek to lessen the historical culpability of europeans in general and germans in particular in the destruction of european jewry. but at the end of the day, i think one must err on the side of intellectual honesty and in that case, it should be pointed out that gays and the elderly and handicapped and roma (gypsies) and commies et cetera were all targeted. it is also true that hitler made a particular specialty of jew-baiting.

3) in terms of sim's research, he actually includes a pretty thorough record of his sources and at least as far as the text is concerned, he really limited himself to maybe one or two books--admittedly these seem to be on the order of encyclopedic references--and a couple of web sites. so i would maybe balk at the notion that his research was all that exhaustive. not that this really matters, i just thought i would share it with you.

Karen- my guess would be that the group is doing a special focus on comics or graphic novels, but it is telling nevertheless. i think the reasons for this phenomenon are first of all the fact that jews have been so important to the development of comics coupled with the fact that the juxtaposition of text with images makes the medium particularly effective at providing a more fully realized impression of the facts and emotions of the holocaust. oh, incidentally, that cat-stronaut fucking SLAYS me . . .

Anonymous said...

this is really long.