The Man Who Wanted to Be Guilty

By Henrik Stangerup
ISBN 0-7145-2733-5

Publication Year: 1982

Tags: Social Morality, Science Fiction, Existential

Rating: ★★★★☆

The world of Stangerup’s main character, Torben, is both strange and familiar. Some of its elements would seem to be part of modern day Europe – perhaps Denmark (the author’s home country), or Sweden or Switzerland – while other elements seem part of a future that had only been conceived in George Orwell’s nightmarish visions of 1984. In this strange, familiar, antiseptic, perfectly balanced world, Torben kills his wife Edith in a fit of rage, and he is taken away by the Helpers to a state hospital. He is treated well, with compassion, and with understanding and forgiveness that surpasses all human comprehension. When his case of aggression has been duly dealt with, he is released back into his caring, clean, orderly society, free from any stain of crime or guilt.

In this futuristic world, the answer to the problem of aggression is to eliminate all trace of it ever having happened. Torben is returned to a home that has been cleansed of any memory of his wife, as if Edith had never existed and her murder had never taken place. There is no trace either of his son, Jasper, nor any hint that Torben had every done anything wrong. “Forgive and forget” becomes the literal translation of this society’s treatment of an act of passion.

Stangerup’s vision isn’t unique; it borrows, philosophically and atmospherically, from Orwell, from Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, even echoes of B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two and George Lucas’ film THX-1138. And yet the vision is startlingly new in its clarity of purpose, in the reaching of its terrifying conclusion: To control an act of passion, one must eliminate passion of all kinds. In an attempt to eliminate crime, this society has carefully created an atmosphere in which strong feeling, desire, or need is shunned or even eliminated. Without the causes for these violent emotions, there is no cause for violence or crime. Police are replaced by “Helpers,” who are part police office and part psychiatric social worker. The equivalent of dialing 911, in this world, results in calling for people who will come to deal with an emotional rather than physical issue. Instead of jail, your destination will be the hospital.

One of the strongest twists in the proceedings is that Torben is supposed to be a writer. In this world, this occupation is much like Huxley’s “jingle writers” – people who create bland, safe fare that meets the guidelines of the AC (Aggression Control) committee. Torben, as Stangerup’s version of an artistic Everyman, struggles throughout the book with the question of how an act of passion, whether it be writing a book or committing a murder, can exist in a world where passion has been disallowed.

        Did not the state have only one air: The Common Good from Cradle to Grave? But why was nobody happy then? What was happiness? Nobody could say – least of all the thousands of sociologists and psychologists who had completed their studies in the seventies and who, because they failed to revolutionize society as they had dreamed of doing when they occupied the universities, compensated through reforms which entailed the abolition of all education favoring individualism, prohibition of “dangerous” television and “dangerous” children’s literature and generally everything glorifying the exotic and the heroic…

Why indeed had he stopped creating? What could inspire him? Concrete and bonsai trees? What human crises could he describe and what breakthroughs could be made in a universal and disturbing way, when the Helpers were telling the people daily that limits were necessary, that the tangible was more important than the universal and that human crises must be considered and treated rationally and in a way which did not disturb?

…[the psychiatrist said] “I was just thinking of a famous experiment some years ago. A mouse colony was allowed to develop in limited space under the best possible conditions, unlimited food, no diseases, no natural enemies. After a while, the group lost the ability to carry out anything but the most elementary survival functions. The mice began attacking one another, mothers abandoned their young and much more of the sort… because there was no longer any possibility of self-defense and… escape.”

… “But what happened to the mice at the end?”

“I can’t really remember, and as I said, don’t take the comparison for more than it’s worth – man is not an animal, after all.”

Although not a long book (only 124 pages, in this edition), it is nevertheless a difficult read. Much of Stangerup’s prose is filled with the necessarily tortuous questions and agonizing of Torben’s mental struggles. It reads very much like a complex philosophical treatise rather than a novel. It is not filled with the lush description of a more leisurely narrative, nor is there a great deal of action outside of Torben’s tortured mind. Also, the subject matter itself is greatly disturbing, for no matter what your position on capital punishment or the alleged “criminal justice” system, your stance will be shaken by the picture drawn of this not-distant future. (I first read this book in 1985, and I can see various parts of it painted as a grotesque caricature in our own bloated society.)

However, despite these seeming drawbacks, it is nevertheless a riveting volume. As you press through the pages, waiting to see what sort of future awaits Torben (or, as you keep hoping, what sort of future he creates for himself), you have the feeling that you have traveled this path before.  Perhaps in the pages of other novels of a pseudo-utopian future, of course, but even more familiarly, you have traveled this path in your own real life. If you have ever felt passionately about something, and even if you have ever had your passion questioned or looked at with shock and surprise (or even worse, if you have been treated with the clinical kindness of those who want to help “cure” you of your outburst), then you will have traveled Torben’s road with him.

The outcome of this book (which, both to avoid “spoilers” and to offer a touch of kindness to you, Faithful Reader, I’ll refrain from describing with any detail) may or may not please you. In my own case, I rank it as about as “good” an ending as I could have foreseen, given the circumstances of the main character and his situation. I will warn you that it’s not exactly a “happy” ending, and you will probably carry a sense of profound disturbance with you for some time to come. Not a pleasant journey, but a valuable one. Writers and artists particularly, take heed: This vision will hit very close to home. Don’t read it alone.

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