'A Clockwork Orange' Revisited

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A local independent movie theater recently held a midnight showing of Stanley Kubrick’s cult-classic A Clockwork Orange. The film is well known for its ultraviolence (by 1971’s standards) and graphic sexual symbolism (by any standards), as well as for the talents and eccentricities of its director (Kubrick) and lead actor (Malcolm McDowell). It is even noteworthy for its avant-garde soundtrack, Beethoven and Elgar performed by the electronic music pioneer formerly known as Walter Carlos and now known as Wendy Carlos. All of this goes a long way toward explaining why A Clockwork Orange is a cult-classic, but it’s much more than that as well, and none of its shocking elements should get in the way of an appreciation of the film’s message, which is vigorously anti-state.

Its protagonist is Alex (McDowell), a delinquent youth who spends his nights roaming the streets with his gang, the Droogs, in pursuit of ultraviolence rape, aggravated assault, and brawls with other gangs. When he’s not doing that Alex is either consuming drug-laced moloko (milk) or listening to Ludwig Van (Beethoven, that is), his only nonviolent pleasure. The film is set an indeterminate near-future characterized by the proliferation of "erotic art" the milk-bar Alex frequents has tables shaped like naked women and by a slang language that’s a hybrid of Russian and English. Otherwise Alex’s world is very much like our own, alarmingly so in fact.

Alex’s luck runs out when one of his ultraviolent escapades leads to a woman’s death and his Droogs betray him. He is arrested and sent to prison where he feigns good behavior in the hope of an early release, even going so far as to be apprenticed to the prison chaplain, although Alex’s only real interest in the Bible is prurient: he likes the violent stories. The well-meaning but feckless chaplain is taken in by Alex’s act. The prison warden, an old-fashioned disciplinarian, is not. Notably both chaplain and warden are sympathetic characters, decent but naive. Neither can reform Alex.

There is another option however, one that promises to let Alex out of prison more quickly. It’s the experimental Ludovico treatment, a kind of aversion therapy that "cures" criminals of their violent urges. Alex undergoes the treatment, which makes him physically sick at the prospect of violence. All violence as it turns out, even in self-defense. As a result when Alex is released he finds himself helpless and soon becomes a victim of both his own former victims and of police brutality.

For all his sins Alex himself is a sympathetic character, mostly because of his youth and beauty. But Alex is reduced to a less-than-human level by another force which the film makes clear is every bit as evil as Alex’s ultraviolence but much more subtle and dangerous — the State. The Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp), roughly the equivalent of our Attorney General, uses Alex as a guinea pig in the Ludovico treatment.

The Minister, unlike the prison chaplain, is not interested in the well-being of Alex’s soul. And unlike the warden the Minister is not concerned with the safety of society either. The Minister’s only interest is in getting his party re-elected. Alex and the success of the Ludovico treatment, is only a means to that end. The anguish that Alex’suffers both from the treatment and at the hands of his tormentors is irrelevant to the Minister. Only the success of the program matters.

From the way the warden talks about the Minister it is clear that the latter belongs to a centrist political party pandering to the polls, to the popular demand to "reform" people like Alex. The party could be New Labour or in our American context perhaps the party of compassionate conservatism. The opposition is no better however. One of Alex’s early victims was a writer of some influence in the opposition party. This writer and his allies later use Alex in exactly the same way as the Minister, hoping that the failure of the Ludovico treatment will discredit the administration and allow their party to win. To this end they torture Alex until he tries to commit suicide.

The instrument by which they torture Alex is his own beloved Beethoven an unintended side-effect of the Ludovico treatment has been to give Alex the same aversion to music as to violence. In destroying Alex’s capacity to commit evil the State also destroyed his capacity for the only nonviolent joy he had. And just as the State turned Alex from victimizer into victim, it turned what had been his only innocent pleasure into his greatest fear. Locked in a room with the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth booming up through the floor below, a desperate Alex tries to end his pain the only way he can, by killing himself.

Anthony Burgess, the author of the novel upon which the film is based, makes the lesson plain:

"Alex is not only deprived of the capacity to choose to commit evil. A lover of music, he has responded to the music, used as a heightener of emotion, which has accompanied the violent films he has been made to see. A chemical substance injected into his blood induces nausea while he is watching the films, but the nausea is also associated with the music. It was not the intention of his State manipulators to induce this bonus or malus: it is purely an accident that, from now on, he will automatically react to Mozart or Beethoven as he will to rape or murder. The State has succeeded in its primary aim: to deny Alex free moral choice, which, to the State, means choice of evil. But it has added an unforseen punishment: the gates of heaven are closed to the boy, since music is a figure of celestial bliss. The State has committed a double sin: it has destroyed a human being, since humanity is defined by freedom of moral choice; it has also destroyed an angel.

"The novel has not been well understood. Readers, and viewers of the film made from the book, have assumed that I, a most unviolent man, am in love with violence. I am not, but I am committed to freedom of choice, which means that if I cannot choose to do evil nor can I choose to do good. It is better to have our streets infested with murderous young hoodlums than to deny individual freedom of choice. This is a hard thing to say, but the saying of it was imposed on me by the moral tradition which, as a member of western civilization, I inherit. Whatever the conditions needful for the sustention of society, the basic human endowment must not be denied. The evil, or merely wrong, products of free will may be punished or held off with deterrents, but the faculty itself may not be removed. The unintended destruction of Alex’s capacity for enjoying music symbolizes the State’s imperfect understanding (or volitional ignorance) of the whole nature of man, and of the consequences of its own decisions. We may not be able to trust man — meaning ourselves — very far, but we must trust the State far less."

Thirty years after its initial release A Clockwork Orange is still a disturbing film: ultraviolent, sexually explicit, and surreal. But none of it is gratuitous, and none of it detracts from the film. A Clockwork Orange is shocking because it has to be, because it’s not only about aversion therapy, it is aversion therapy — aversion therapy for the State.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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