In preparation for freshman year at Loyola, we were required to read The Long Walk, a heart-wrenching true story of Slawomir Rawicz, a man who escaped from a Siberia prison camp during the Second World War. Throughout the course of the story, many of the main characters die from heat, cold, over-exertion, exhaustion, starvation, and thirst. What to the reader seems like an emotionally grueling experience and narrative is, ironically, almost completely devoid of any personal expression of feeling. After each tragedy, Rawicz continues on his tale, not commenting on his pain, grief, guilt, or dejection. As an extremely stoic raconteur, Rawicz always maintained a certain distance in his reflections, never allowing the reader to know the depths of desolation he must have felt in his soul.
During class discussion, we were all made to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the book. I raised my hand and pointed to the author’s lack of emotive description as a strength. However, in response, the moderator challenged my statement. She felt that Rawicz’s numbness was actually a weakness in the text, an isolation and alienation from the reader. She believed that this formed a disconnect and made the story less human.
Of course, as an incoming freshman I was easily intimidated and did not attempt to support my assertion. Instead, I sat there and listened as everyone in the class enthusiastically agreed. Still, in my head I knew why I felt the way I did.
It wasn’t that he had felt nothing, but rather that he choose not to include and openly share it with the reader.
The telling of the story is what is most important. I believe that the narrative was made stronger by the decision to give the facts and let the reader decide for themselves the proper emotion to be felt. I think that it shows a certain confidence in the reader’s heart and scope of understanding to let him make up his own mind. The emerging illustration is of a faith in humanity; the subscription that from the ashes of catastrophe, an appropriate emotion will come.
The one recurring thought I had while reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus was that his story was very similar stylistically to that of Rawicz. Spiegelman’s father’s harsh depiction of the Holocaust, focusing especially on the atrocities that occurred in the concentration camps and afterward, is extremely informative but not overly or even slightly emotional.
As an English and Writing major, it is safe for me to say that I’ve read quite a few books. Of them, however, The Long Walk and Maus have been the ones that most stuck out in my mind as devoid of explicit emotion. Besides the occasional “I was sad,” both authors are not even the slightest bit emotional in their recounting of events.
It is ironic to me that both of these stories are of similar experiences in World War II. How can two stories so full of turmoil, despair, and hopelessness- stories that must easily be some of the most painful to tell- elicit such a small amount of emotion from the narrator? Have they become so used to crimes against humanity that they no longer felt pain? Were they desensitized by the Nazis as the Nazis themselves were desensitized by Hitler?
I believe that the answer is actually quite the contrary. The narrators, having been through so much, having suffered so greatly, felt the impact and weight of such hardships so deeply in the actual experiencing, that they can have nothing further to elicit in the retelling. The emotions are so obvious that they are blinding, and the feelings they create in the reader are far more powerful than the words could ever suggest. So yes, they were “sad.” They were very, very sad. But they chose not to lace together words like they did shoes in the work camps. They chose not to bind together phrases as they themselves were bound in chains. They will not strip readers of their emotions as they had once been of their clothing and dignity. Instead, they tell their story. And we listen, unguided by prompts. The telling alone is enough. The telling alone is already too much.
That’s what I would have liked to have said to my moderator.