Questions of conscience

by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Guilt (Issue II/2019)


Recently, here in Israel, I received a politely-worded commission from a German magazine to write an essay on “Guilt”. Now, sitting at my desk in Tel Aviv, three identities are jostling to prevail as I hover over the computer keyboard. There is my Jewish identity, perhaps the most dominant of the three, which wants to address the historical guilt whose best-before date has proved to be considerably shorter than expected. Meanwhile, my writer's identity wants to talk about guilt in literature, asserting that guilt is for literature what oxygen is for life – an absolute necessity. And there is my identity as a psychologist, which leads me to the private sphere, to focus on the guilt of an individual, both as seen through his own eyes and those of his loved ones. Perhaps this revolves around the archaic, elementary guilt, the guilt of man before God.

From the Jewish point of view, a question posed by the German magazine was particularly intriguing. It read: “How can we overcome historic guilt?”

I was particularly attracted by the question's implicit assumption that we want to “overcome” historic guilt in the first place. Guilt is then regarded as a kind of obstacle that has formed in relationships, a disturbing and toxic element. If only it could be removed by a precise snip, it would benefit all those involved. But as a Jew, I do not consider the recognition of German guilt to be a disruptive factor in bilateral relations, but rather a necessary prerequisite. I do not blame today's Germans for the deeds of previous generations, but I urge them to remember, know and accept their collective past.

I look at the question of guilt as follows: If, because of Goethe and Kant, you are proud to be a German, if you boast of being the son of an advanced civilization and gain pride from your collective identity and your collective achievements in football or literature, then – assuming you have a hint of intelligent honesty – you cannot escape the collective shame either. Collective pride (“German literature! German philosophy! German football!”) cannot exist without the collective shame – German history.

We need this sense of guilt because it is the precondition for any improvement.

And this applies not only to Germany, but to every collective identity. As an Israeli, I carry 2,000 years of Jewish victimhood around with me, but also the Israeli government's ongoing injustice towards the Palestinians. Of course, it is very tempting to shake off the guilt, for example, by blaming a government whose actions I reject on a personal level. But it doesn't work without guilt. We must not “overcome” or reject it. We require a sense of guilt, or a sense of responsibility, to help us enact necessary corrections. If the occupation in the West Bank is only linked to the “Israeli government” and not to “Ayelet”, then Ayelet does not have to fight against it.

Collective guilt, and with it a sense of responsibility, causes people to confront their governments' injustices, even if they are not directly affected. It is good when public places – in Berlin and Tel Aviv, in Munich and in Jerusalem – are filled with guilt-fuelled people who leave their sofas and take to the streets to protest against misdeeds.

From the city squares and demonstrations I would like to head to the therapist’s. In the last decades the psychologist couch has replaced hard wooden pews as the place to confess one's sins. In the church, sins once cost you ten Hail Marys, but here in the clinic they cost you about a hundred euros. After the ritual one feels purified. But what did we purify ourselves from with the psychologist? Did we shed sin or guilt? Do we intend to change our actions, or do we just want to view them differently?

In Freud's day, guilt arose from a strict, occasionally sadistic superego that suppressed or even suffocated the individual's drives. Psychoanalysis brought with it some degree of emancipation. It is said that where an “it” was, the ego will rule, but becoming aware of the impulses of the “It” in itself, does little to liberate us from the tyranny of the superego. But does 19th-century Vienna, where young women were forced into corsets and social conventions, really have parallels to our times? Do people today suffer from the excessive restraint of individual instincts and desires, or is it not, rather, the other way round, with people suffering from the excessive worship of the individual, the liberation from guilt and shame?

These questions preoccupied me while I was writing my third book, “Liar”. At the centre of the novel is Nuphar, an inconspicuous ice-cream buyer who, following a lie about a supposed sexual assault that did not really take place, transforms herself into a kind of Cinderella. The plot is based on a true case that happened in Israel. As the case was unravelled, the roles were reversed: The “victim” turned out to be the actual attacker and the accused was the innocent party. Immediately after the announcement of this investigation result, everyone in Israel jumped at the accuser, who had swiftly become the accused. She was dubbed a “psychopath”.

The word “psychopath” means a person who is devoid of guilty feelings. In clinical terminology it refers to someone who suffers from a severe antisocial personality disorder, who cannot feel any guilt at all and who therefore is a public danger.

From my point of view, a person who cannot feel guilt is not only morally but also literally defective. There are no conflicts within them, and that is why I am not interested in them. HBO and other television broadcasters will, of course, contradict me in this. Countless television series and films feature psychopathic murderers, but despite the incredibly exciting plot of these films – how many women will the sex offender be able to dismember before his arrest – they hardly show any dramatic tension. Dramatic tension arises from a mental conflict, a confrontation between drives and impulses, on the one hand, and the moral imperative, human, social and family duties, on the other.

Guilt arises in the soul as a result of such a conflict. Feeling guilty is the necessary side-effect of every decision, part of the full responsibility that I have to bear as a free individual. That is why, for me, guilt is the vital oxygen of literature.

Where would Raskolnikov, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary or Jean Valjean be without guilt, without the constant conflict of passions and drives with the social order? Even figures we consider completely without a sense of guilt – Humbert Humbert from “Lolita”, for example – captivate us precisely because of their perverse nature.

When I thought of the character of Nuphar, I wondered what would happen to a young girl who is not a psychopath, who can feel guilty, but who is still entangled in lies about an imaginary sexual crime. A tame little lie, which Nuphar initially thinks she has on a short leash, but which suddenly rushes off and drags her behind it. Nuphar feels guilty about her lie, but fears the price she would have to pay if she admits to it. The feeling of guilt could lead to her assuming responsibility. Nuphar's mother then uncovers her daughter's lie. Will she report her to the police? Israeli parents today ask themselves less: How do I educate my child to be a good person? but more: How do I educate my child so that he or she does well? A child who does well is one who does not feel guilty most of the time. Because, as I said, guilt is not a particularly pleasant feeling. Actually, we would rather quell it, both as a collective and as individuals, we think that a little less guilt would make for a better life. But is that true?

My second novel, “Waking Lions”, also examined the question of guilt. The protagonist, Dr. Etan Grien, considers himself a good person – until the moment when he approaches an Eritrean refugee on the side of the road and, after stopping to think for a moment, leaves the fatally injured man to his fate. From a legal point of view, Etan's guilt is obvious, but I was more interested in the psychological side. While writing I was concerned with how the sense of guilt develops. My little daughter, for example, has just reached the age when she no longer beats her younger brother in my presence. But when I leave the room and leave her alone with him, I hear him crying a little later. My daughter's guilt is still in its infancy, in the form of a concrete fear of punishment. She does nothing evil as long as two eyes look at her. But if they disappear, the fear of punishment also disappears.

But in a few years my daughter, if I do my job properly, will have internalized my accusing eyes so emotionally that something in her will prevent her from beating her brother even in my absence. It is the internalized gaze of one parent that lays the foundation for the superego, the source of guilt.

The doctor in “Waking Lions” lives by a detailed code of “right” and “wrong”, he is a morally principled man who makes his contribution to society. But what will he do if no one sees him? What are we all capable of doing if nobody is looking? The moment in which we are left to ourselves, the moment in which these internalized eyes briefly close, our superego falls asleep at the wheel. This moment fascinates me as a writer and as a person.

No discussion of guilt would be complete without a reference to the Bible, to original sin, and to the roots of guilt. Here, too, we see how the sense of guilt is created by the gaze of another. When God sets out in search of Adam in Paradise, he hides.

Adam hides from the gaze of God like a child who is afraid to look his parents in the eye after he has done something forbidden. There is the expression: “How can I still face him or her after what I have done?” How our eyes meet the gaze of another, or even with our own gaze in the mirror, is a delicate matter.

The Greek tragedies bring, I think, a clear distinction between guilt and shame, embodied in the difference between Aias and Odysseus. Aias, an enemy of Ulysses, is maddened by Athena, under whose influence he holds a herd of sheep for Ulysses and his soldiers. Aias kills sheep in the belief that he will defeat his enemies. When he awakens from his delusion, he feels terrible shame for having made a fool of himself in front of the whole world and kills himself. Just consider what would have happened if no witnesses had been present. If he had slaughtered the sheep on a deserted island and then regained consciousness, he probably would not have killed himself: his disgrace stems from the fact that he acted in public and embarrassed himself in front of a large audience. When Oedipus discovers that he killed his father and slept with his mother, he feels guilty. There is also a sense of guilt when no one but Oedipus knows anything about the crime. A person is ashamed in front of his or her fellow humans and feels guilty. For me, this is the transition from dependence on being scrutinized by the eyes of an observer, to becoming accountable to our inner eye, to ourselves.



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