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Voyage to Kazohinia: A Diametric Dystopia

The diametric model of mental illness was anticipated in a novel of 1941.

New Europe Books
Source: New Europe Books

As I commented in a previous post, the diametric model of cognition was anticipated by C P Snow in his famous Two Cultures essay. But thanks to a reader who kindly brought it to my notice, I can now report that the diametric model of mental illness was strikingly presaged by the Hungarian writer Sándor Szathmári (1897–1974) in his novel, Voyage to Kazohinia, first published in Hungarian in 1941, in Esperanto in 1958, and now in English (left).

The book purports to be a sequel to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but with the hero now time-travelling to 1935 and being reincarnated as an Oxford-educated English naval surgeon ship-wrecked on the remote island of Kazohinia. He finds the place populated by two very different peoples, the Hins, and the Behins.

This is also something of a science-fiction story, with the Hins living in a highly technologically-advanced, automated, money-less, seeming utopia, where food, clothing, housing, transport, education, and medical care are provided for all free of charge through spontaneous co-operation without any kind of centralized control, administration, or law enforcement. Gulliver reports that he

felt a deep respect for this country in which integrity and unselfishness were such innate human properties. ... I wondered how a people, a state could be so honest when it did not even have a word for it. I could only say, in English, that it seemed that here everyone was honest and good-hearted towards others.

But I say seeming utopia because Gulliver soon discovers that the Hins' life is one of “loneliness, alienation, supreme indifference towards people, rigid heartlessness;” one where “everyone was a stranger; not a single greeting was heard. Each person simply did not exist for the other.”

Although appreciating the value of exercise and well equipped with gymnasiums, “sport pursued for its own sake was no more than imaginary work, a pale substitute for life…” Among the Hin “it was not worth wasting time with idle chatter,” so that any and all conversations were practical, and to the point. “Personality was hardly present at all;” history was a closed book dealing with senseless, imaginary things; and “They simply had no economic system;” no idea of either Money or Business; “no administration;” and “no literature.” Indeed, “as far as religion was concerned they did not even know what it was.” The Hins “had no word for ‘soul’,” and declare it to be completely beyond their comprehension when Gulliver protests that “the essence of a man was not, after all, his hands, feet, or stomach but his ‘self’.” According to “these automatons" called the Hins, “Only sick brains need to debate their own affairs.” In their view the “disease” Gulliver had called the soul “drives you only to trample upon each other and never to help each other.”

The proof of this is provided by the Behins, who live on a reservation “rather like a lunatic asylum” surrounded by a “big wall” and featuring on its gate the only lock that Gulliver had ever seen on the island up to that point:

many strange things took place among the Behins. They did not use things for the purpose for which they had been made. They asked for unnecessary things, which they were usually given, as there were cases when, if the request was refused, the Behin’s face became distorted, his voice resembled a turkey’s, and he began shouting even though one was standing near him. On such occasions they quite unnecessarily broke fragile objects and sometimes even hit someone ... It was for this reason that a mechanism was needed on the door…

By contrast to the Hins, “It was a general custom among the Behins that they did not expect kindness and morality of each other, but certain compulsory lies.” Indeed, Gulliver adds, “I strongly suggest to anyone who may find himself among such lunatics not to try to be good and helpful, as it is their most characteristic attribute that they fly at the throat of the sound in mind.”

Gulliver remarks that “The situation reminded me very much of our mental hospitals,” and concludes that “The Behins were definitely not hapless normal people expelled by the Hins’ lack of understanding, but were indeed insane." In fact, "Their disease far exceeded the mental disorders known to us.” Worse still,

One cannot isolate oneself! They follow and compel one to rave with them. It is in vain for the sane mind to try diverting itself; it promises in vain to be silent, and against its better judgment it will watch their suicidal dance without a helping word. Madness is a generally binding rule here… Among the Behins you cannot say anything that does not offend some monomania… Anyone in whom the proper faculty of judgment still flickered was excluded from work as being useless. The case of a person who had insufficiently asserted the appropriate figments of the imagination was worse yet; for if he dared profess what was, in fact, reality, they even punished him.

As for the educational system of the Behins: 

The dumbing down of children was carried out in the Institute for Degeneration… They laugh at anyone who does not know the concocted word-products of their fantasy lives. If, on the other hand, somebody does not know what an ellipse or a pancreas is, they view him with respect as it adds to his distinction… While other people honor each other by telling the truth, the measure of honoring each among the Behins is the ability to tell the greatest lie.

And of course, the greatest lie for satires such as this is the belief that we live in better times, and that our cherished cultural beliefs are somehow different. As his Hin rescuer remarks to Gulliver after having saved him from martyrdom at a Behin auto da fé, “you did not recognize your culture, as it differs from theirs in form. Their life destroys itself with different words from yours, but both are the same: Behinity.”

Szathmári’s final pages drive home the parallel between the Behins and the British of 80 years ago—something that it is easy to appreciate today when the British Empire is an embarrassing memory, the Royal Navy a shadow of its former self, and Oxford University is a very different place. No Behins in Britain today!

But by now many readers of these posts will already have noticed that to present-day eyes the Hins look very much as if they collectively suffer from high functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD); while the Behins are afflicted with diametrically opposite psychotic spectrum disorder (PSD). This remarkable book, in other words, prefigured the diametric model of mental illness by a full fifty years. In Szathmári’s words, the Hin and Behin represented “Two worlds, which could never perceive each other simply because the other was not a separate entity but the reverse of itself…” Like mentalistic versus mechanistic cognition, these were “opposite worldviews,” the former the “positive” of the other “negative.”

And just as more mentalism means less mechanistic cognition according to the diametric model, so Szathmári observes that “This disease embittered all fields of life, making it impossible to realize the potential of technology, medicine, and other useful sciences.” Indeed, he describes the Behin as waging war against nature and mathematics, and in one striking passage Gulliver's Hin guide and mentor uses exactly the same metaphor of entanglement that I did in a previous post when "he answered that we appear to perish in tangles created by ourselves, because instead of seeing things in their clear reality and living simply, we preferred to wander intoxicated in a maze of illusory problems that were all entangled with one another." 

New Europe Books
Source: New Europe Books

Sándor Szathmári deserves full credit for writing one of the most brilliant satires of modern times. But in my view he deserves even more credit for implicitly understanding the diametrically opposite nature of autism and psychosis, mentalistic and mechanistic cognition—not to mention the threat to sanity and civilization of hyper-mentalism. Indeed, it is the latter feature which makes this hitherto overlooked masterpiece so relevant to society and psychology today. 

(With thanks to Simone Hickman for bringing this book to my attention.)