Guilt is a very powerful feeling that everybody experiences some time or another. The strategies to deal with it vary widely. Many people set out to clear their guilty conscience undoing their wrong or apologizing at least. Others try to push all disturbing thoughts aside in the hope of being able to live their lives as if nothing had happened. The latter rarely works out as imagined. The feeling of guilt uses to be extremely persistent and it can weigh so heavily on the mind that it overshadows every aspect of life even without the person being aware of it.
When grown-up Briony Tallis, the protagonist of Atonement, fully realizes the consequences of her false accusation against Robbie Turner, she does her best to put things right. However, she can’t turn back time and start afresh from the moment before the child that she was ruined the young man’s and her sister’s life. The harm is irrevocably done. As a writer she has the edge on other people despite all since she can give events a completely different twist in her imagination. Thus in her last novel she crafts the life that Robbie and her sister could have had.
Unfortunately, a guilty conscience cannot only urge a person to create in order to make amends, but it also has great destructive power as Daniel Sempere discovers little by little in The Shadow of the Wind. Growing up from a motherless boy into a married man, he explores the mystery around the life of second-rate author Julián Carax which makes him the target of several assaults. In due course Daniel is drawn into the writer’s misfortune and scheme of penitence that revolves around effacing from the world every trace of his existence, especially his books.
Novels often show us unconventional ways of dealing with things. Many of us may be prone to dwelling in if-then-scenarios, when something went terribly wrong (with or without our fault), but very few will sit down to give the person they harmed a different life through their writings. Many of us may wish to never have been born after they made a grave mistake, and yet I dare say that nobody ever thinks of atoning for the past erasing it. Instead we go on living with the new burden that is at the same time a new experience adding to our character.
Lamenting doesn’t help, either, nor can guilt be drowned in alcohol. Joseph Roth might have tried that in the first place although to my knowledge he didn’t have any reason for a bad conscience. He was only a disappointed and very troubled man living in exile. His soul was restless and the political situation in Germany as well as in his home country Austria must have worried him like many, if not all members of the European Jewish community at the time. As an intelligent man, moreover a journalist, he might have sensed that millions would make themselves guilty in one way or another.
We can’t change what we have done in the past, but we decide about what we do in the present and what we will do in the future. Every mistake can help us to take better decisions, if we are ready and willing to face things as they really are.