Reading Kallocain (2019, tr. David McDuff. Original: 1940) feels very much like taking a small dose of Kallocain: it grows on us, building from the inside, like a tree growing underground, breaking through heavy layers of earth.
We follow Leo Kall, a chemist living in a dystopian society somewhere in the 21st century. When the book starts, he is in prison and has decided to write his memoir. He tells us that he was married, had three children, and worked for the so-called World State, a totalitarian country which seems to be in permanent conflict with a somewhat undefined enemy, called the Universal State.
It is from Leo’s perspective that this dystopian universe is gradually revealed to the reader. There are many gaps in this universe, and we keep asking ourselves why such and such happen the way they do. However, these gaps only add texture to the narrative: they reflect the narrator’s incomplete perspective, since he reports only on what he knows, and, by definition, the State in which he lives imposes strict limits on what someone is allowed to know.
In this society, any form of individual expression and privacy is permanently suppressed in the name of the State. The rule is mutual distrust – not even husband and wife can really know and trust each other. Free time with family is quite limited, and most of one’s life is dedicated to military events or State organizations.
An anonymous entity holds the absolute power. The population is kept in a state of hysteria that both prevents any real solidarity between them, and distracts them from the fact that the living conditions are the worst possible (food, for example, keeps getting worse).
In this particular point, Kallocain (1940) reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Here, Arendt describes the use of isolation as a means of breaking the individual’s contact with his peers and with reality, and thereby destroying the individual’s political capacity: “Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man”.
As Kall’s story progresses, we realize that the way he used to think about himself and others had been thoroughly shaped by propaganda, brainwashing, and an undefined sense of fear. Here I am once again reminded of Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece: “Nothing perhaps illustrates the general disintegration of political life better than this vague, pervasive hatred of everybody and everything, without a focus for its passionate attention, with nobody to make responsible for the state of affairs.” And also: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (…) What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”
In Kall’s world, even private visits are prohibited and require special permission. Nobody greets each other by touching (this is considered something that comes from a primitive age…), people live underground, and free movement outdoors is also not allowed. Government surveillance reaches the most remote corner of private life: there are cameras and listening devices even inside the bedrooms. Everything is submitted to the authority of the State – even sex, whose sole purpose is to provide “fellow soldiers” for the state. People’s lives have been reduced to the most basic existence; and all feelings and emotions are suppressed. Everyone is hiding their true selves from everyone else.
One day, Leo creates a serum of truth, Kallocain, which removes people’s defences and resistance, so that they then disclose facts that they would normally hide. At first, Leo (and the reader) imagines that this serum is the ideal tool for a totalitarian state – something that allows the state to reach the last refuge of individuality, and to control all those who harbour ideas and thoughts against the regime. Through the use of the truth serum, subversive thoughts and feelings considered “unfair” to the regime can be criminalized: the State seems to have finally obliterated the last remaining fragments of individual freedom and spontaneity.
However, once he starts to test his drug (by administering it to people who are used as human guinea pigs), Leo realizes that Kallocain also has a dangerously subversive potential: in a regime based on lies, Kallocain makes the truth emerge freely from people’s mouths; in a regime based on mutual distrust, Kallocain is able to create a genuine moment of connection and openness between people; in a regime based on the suppression of individuality and desire, Kallocain brings out the uniqueness and multiplicity of each individual, and it brings to the fore their longings and desires – with all the transformative power that this entails. Kallocain breaks down the last defences that protect the individual against the state; but it also breaks down the defences that prevent genuine human contact.
Experiments with Kallocain reveal that most people harbour secret and repressed worlds of unfulfilled desire, irrational feelings, and dreams. To his dismay, Kall realizes that, in his society, everyone is trapped in some kind of prison, and that all their singularity and multiplicity is repressed by the state. By seeing some of himself in the stories told by the people who are serving as Kallocain guinea pigs, Leo realizes that he also harbours suppressed feelings and desires.
One important aspect that distinguishes your book from other famous dystopias such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is the subtlety with which you explored the question of truth and its transformative potential. Instead of reducing complexity to make the plot fit your message (like most dystopias do), you break it open into chaos.
The highlight of the novel, for me, was the moment when Linda, Kall’s wife, opens up to him about their life and their society. In this scene, she describes how her perspective on the regime changed once she became a mother and started watching her children grow. She realized then that each child was “a law in him or herself”. While, for the regime, each child was just another small piece used to keep the state machine going, Linda realizes that each child – and each individual – is much more than that. She realizes that human beings are not means to an end: each person is an end in him or herself. It’s tempting to say that Linda is going Kantian here: the fact that we are human has value in and for itself, and we should “act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means“.
Another great moment happens when, through his Kallocain tests, Leo starts to believe that he has discovered a subversive organization. Soon, however, he realizes that this “subversive group” is completely different from what he expected (and from what we are used to expect from dystopias about totalitarian states): to begin with, this group is not even an organized one; it does not act in a functional way to destroy the state or to seize power; it is only a group of people who meet once in a while to be together in silence.
The tension between the incommunicability of language and the expressive potential of silence is a recurrent topic throughout your poems and novels. In an interrogation scene in Kallocain (1940), a young man who had attended one of the subversive group’s meetings explained how people just sat together in silence – something he found scary, but inspiring: “There is nothing worse than sitting in silence. You have a feeling that people are looking through you. As though you were naked, or worse than naked. Spiritually naked.”
Leo recognizes himself in this idea, because he also experiences the same feeling of nakedness when he is with Linda. He feels exposed: “I felt frighteningly transparent.” That’s something between intimacy and loneliness – and the awareness of feeling either of them is extremely frightening for someone who begins to be aware of tha fact that he lives in a totalitarian state.
In the scene where Linda opens up to Leo, he walks over to her and puts his head on her lap. He doesn’t say anything, and both remain silent. The intimacy that Leo feels at this moment, when the two are together in silence – as if completely transparent to one another – grows to become his redefinition of love. At this moment, Leo is able to experience exactly what the members of the subversive group experienced in their meetings – and this is a powerful transformative moment for our protagonist.
Here lies the subversive potential of the group: they are able to experience a moment of genuine connection. And, as they are not an organized group with a definite purpose, they also have a power that is difficult to be persecuted or eliminated by the state. They are just there, together, in silence: “’Organization?’ she said. ‘We seek no organization. What is organic doesn’t need to be organized. You build from outside, we are built from the inside. You build with yourselves like stones and fall apart from outside, and in. We are built from inside, like trees, and between us grow bridges that are not made of dead matter and a dead coercion. From us the living emerges. In you the lifeless enters.”
Here we have another recurrent image in your novels and poems: that of the tree growing from the inside. In the poem The Tree Beneath the Earth (Trädet under Jorden, translated into English by David McDuff in Karin Boye: Complete poems, 1994), we have the image of the “underground tree”:
“There grows a tree beneath the earth;
a mirage pursues me,
a song of living glass, of burning silver.
Like darkness before light
must all weight melt,
where only one drop falls of the song from the leaves.
An anguish pursues me.
It oozes out of the earth.
There a tree suffers deeply in heavy layers of earth.
(…)” (From the collection För trädets skull / ‘For the Tree’s Sake’, 1935)
The image also appears in Linda’s speech to Leo: “I was a branch that blossomed and I knew nothing about my roots or trunk, but I could feel the sap rising from unknown depths.”
The serum of truth has the potential to reveal people to themselves and to others. Here lies its subversive potential: in the fact that it allows for people to discover themselves as subjects – and not merely as instruments of that faceless entity that governs them. And, as such, Kallocain allows for people to refuse to dedicate their lives to the state. The serum makes visible the ‘underground tree’, the multiplicity and uniqueness that exist under the surface of the state’s forced uniformity.
Another highlight for me is the scene where Linda describes her ideas about the world’s salvation: “Perhaps a new world may grow from those who are mothers – whether they are men or women, and whether they have given birth to children or not.” Here I was also reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938), where she explores the types of social structures that lead to fascism and war: “For we have to ask ourselves, here and now, do we wish to join that procession, or don’t we? On what terms shall we join that procession? Above all, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men? (…) Let us never cease from thinking–what is this “civilisation” in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men?” And also: “(…) we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods. We can best help you to prevent war not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society (…).”
The possibility of salvation from tyranny, Linda seems to say, lies in one’s innate potential for freedom, disobedience, birth, and renewal. It lies in the chaos that is inherent in everything that is alive; in that tree that insists on growing beneath the earth. As one of the characters says at the end: “At least, I am alive – in spite of all they have taken from me – and right now I know that what I am is on the way somewhere. I have seen death’s power spread out across the world in wider and wider circles – but must not life’s power also have its circles?“
Even locked in prison and separated from his family, Kall is able to feel the desire for change and renewal that is inherent in everything that is alive: “I cannot, I cannot erase from my soul this illusion that, despite everything, I still participate in the creation of a new world“. And here I am also reminded of Hannah Arendt’s notion of freedom and natality in The Human Condition (1958) and in The Life of the Mind (1977), where she explores the human ability to be an initium, and thereby to counter totalitarianism by identifying what in life poses a resistance to the totalitarian domination over life.
“I still participate in the creation of a new world“. After all, Leo created the most subversive tool against domination: the serum of truth, through which, for a few minutes, people have the possibility to be free, to be themselves, to let themselves be known by others, and to establish connections that are not mediated by fear.
The book ends on an ambiguous note, a mix of sadness and desperate hope: a glint of truth as the most potent form of liberation, if only for a brief moment. And here we return to the beginning, to the epigraph, which comes from The Waste Land (1922), by T. S. Eliot: “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / By this and this only we have existed”.
“Here I am, then. As it must be. A question of time. If truth be told. Can you hear the truth? Not everyone is true enough to hear the truth, that is the sad thing.” – Karin Boye, Kallocain
About the book
- Penguin Classics, 2019, tr. David McDuff, 192 p. Goodreads
- Original: Kallocain, 1940
- My rating: 5 stars