Hunger in Maus
By Bryan Caplan
I recently re-read both volumes of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s an autobiographical graphic novel where the author gets his father to tell the story of how he survived the Holocaust. The Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, but the rest is painfully real.
Maus opens with one of the author’s childhood memories. The boy (Artie) comes to his father (Vladek), crying:
Father: Why do you cry, Artie?…
Son: I – I fell, and my friends skated away w-without me.
Father: Friends? Your friends?
If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!
When the boy grows up, and gets his father to tell his story, we find out what the father was talking about. Not only did he really endure a week without food in a crowded room – he made it through Auschwitz. There’s even a scene in a train where the father survives simply because he can reach some snow:
[Father Narrates]: I ate mostly snow from up on the roof. Some had sugar somehow, but it burned.
Other Prisoner: My throat! I need water! Water! Give me some snow!
Father: I can only reach a little for myself.
Other Prisoner: Please! Please!! I beg you!
Father: Okay. Give me some sugar, I’ll get you some snow.
[Father Narrates]: So I ate also sugar and saved their life.
Reading a story where hunger plays a central role got me thinking: The sad fact is that through much of human evolution, hunger of this kind was a regular occurrence – anytime the crops failed, there was famine. And as Maus shows, when people are hungry, they do terrible things – even betray others to the Nazis – to get a little food.
All this makes me wonder: How much of our view of human nature is tainted by the fact that we evolved in a hungry environment? When food is scarce, you’re wise to distrust others – even your friends. When everyone has plenty to eat, though, people play nice. But can we fully adjust to the fact that the next famine isn’t coming? Or does evolution instill a distrust of our fellow man that no longer makes sense?
P.S. Please, no comments about financial crisis and bail-outs. When you read Maus, you’ll know what a real crisis looks like…