“Guilt is at the heart of being human”

an interview with Bart van Es

Guilt (Issue II/2019)

Why is guilt such an enduring theme in world literature?

I guess guilt is partly fascinating at a literary level because it gives you a view of the present layered onto the past. Guilt is often figured through ghosts; as in Macbeth. There is often a sense of uncanniness about it.

And what makes guilt such an overarching human issue?

Somebody without a sense of guilt becomes inhuman. Being human is about having empathy.

Literature could be seen as helping us process guilt?

That's been a huge part of post war literature, take W.G. Sebald and important post-war Dutch novels, like The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, a book that talks about national guilt.

With so much already written about the holocaust, why did you feel compelled to write the story of Lien, a young Jewish girl hidden by your grandparents during the Second World War?

I certainly worried about duplication when I started. The book began due to a number of factors: the death of my eldest uncle, the return of anti-Semitism/ far-right politics and my work on children in early modern England. When I started out, I wanted to do something other than write a story which either ends in the camps or in surviving. I wanted to ask about the consequences of survival itself, less has been written about that.

Do you think we will keep writing and reading about the holocaust?

I’m sure we will. But I wasn't really thinking I was writing holocaust literature when I wrote The Cut Out Girl. In many ways it is an ordinary family story. Breaks happen in families, it doesn't need to be a holocaust story. There is enough guilt in normal ones.

My book refers to men who showed apparently no guilt whatsoever for collaborating, like the policeman Harry Evers who served three years in prison and then carried on with his normal life and always felt badly treated, or the man who arrested Lien's parents (who later died in Auschwitz) who felt wronged because he'd just followed orders.

There is also the guilt of the smaller things. There is some guilt in my family as a whole, particularly in the generation after my grandparents about how they could lose contact with Lien.

I hope we will continue to have literature about the holocaust and guilt because of the fake news culture and the frightening way that facts about that time seem more disputable than they should be.

So you see a direct line between writing about the holocaust and today's political reality?

Yes. Look at the police boxes outside synagogues because of the current threat of anti-Semitism, or the rifts within the labour party in the UK over anti-Semitism. I think it is a failure of guilt. Some people are straightforward anti-Semites but others lack empathy, failing to see how threatened one can feel as a religious minority and how important history is in defining a group like that.

As a society, are we getting better at shrugging off guilt?

That is a danger of Internet echo chambers. If you just channel things to people based on algorithms giving you more of what you already believe, then you are being fed with a kind of information junk food. You will not be confronted with anything that will make you feel guilty. That applies to major issues of the day, like climate change. People don't want to feel guilty for flying to Thailand for a week or driving a massive four by four. A bit of guilt there is a productive thing. It is the core of a morally responsible reaction to the situation.

Can you imagine the theme of guilt ever being redundant in literature?

No. It is so at the heart of what it means to be human.

an interview by Jess Smee

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