I wrote the following for an assignment calling for a comparison of conscience in Maus by Art Speigelman and Sea and Poison by Shusako Endo.
C is for Conscience
Conscience is an amalgam of the rules and morals laid out by society, authority figures, family and propaganda. It is as inherent to the human psyche as the conscious or subconscious. Much like the alphabet, it is something that every child learns early on in life, and the basics stay the same across cultures and time. In Maus conscience is conspicuously absent. The cats, or Nazis, carry out their atrocious actions without one shred of question or reevaluation. They never ask if what they are doing is truly right, they only continue on, maintaining the status quo. On the other hand, Sea and Poison, a novel examining the same time period is filled with the fraught interactions between Suguro’s conscious and his conscience. These two different approaches towards understanding the enemy offer a clear dichotomy between the pure evil of the cold-hearted Nazis and the human evil of the unsure Japanese medical professionals.
In many ways, the emotionless way that the Nazis carry out their various tasks make them easier to hate, easier to write off, to pass over, to label without further study. The human element of conscience, however, takes men and women in a similarly evil activity, in the case of Sea and Poison the vivisection of the soldier, and makes it necessary to question their motives and examine their hearts through the narration of the author.
Because that “little voice” in one’s head is always there, many unexplainable and horrendous activities can only be explained by the systematic rewriting of a specific set of morals and rules. For example, the Nazis’ actions can be understood through their propaganda and the official stances of those in positions of authority. The followers of the Third Reich cannot be blamed for being the ones who developed the official stances and forced them upon the surrounding populaces. The blame lies solely at the feet of those who knew exactly what was going, who had a voice, other than the fabricated one, in their heads. Those are the people who had a conscience and ignored it. They are the ones who deserve to be written off as completely evil.
In Sea and Poison, the reader can see the contrast between Suguro’s remorseful and guilty conscience and Toda’s lack of one. This offers a more diluted version of the polarity between the Nazis and the doctors. Toda never feels like anything he has done as been wrong, until he is faced with the murder of a man. There, we see a glimmer of the man who could be before it is shot down by the hardening of his heart. Suguro offers the reader something uncomfortable. He is in a position from which the only way can be up. When pressured, he caves and gives into the temptation of a promotion and recognition. This makes the reader pause, and wonder if they, too, in a similar situation, would cave and yield to temptation only to be plagued by a guilty conscience for the rest of their days.
In some ways, of all of Suguro’s punishments, this is the worst, a guilty conscience. He knows that he was weak and that he should have done the right thing and what-ifs will follow from the roof of that hospital till the day he dies.