February 28, 2006

THE ONLY THEME (via Pepys):

A Prophetic and Violent Masterpiece (Theodore Dalrymple, Winter 2006, City Journal)

Burgess was not merely a social and cultural prophet. A Clockwork Orange grapples as well with the question of the origin and nature of good and evil. The Ludovico Method that Alex undergoes in prison as a means of turning him into a model citizen in exchange for his release is in essence a form of conditioning. Injected with a drug that induces nausea, Alex must then watch films of the kind of violence that he himself committed, his head and eyelids held so that he cannot escape the images by looking away from them—all this to the piped-in accompaniment of the classical music that he loves. Before long, such violence, either in imagery or in reality, as well as the sound of classical music, causes him nausea and vomiting even without the injection, as a conditioned response. Alex learns to turn the other cheek, as a Christian should: when he is insulted, threatened, or even struck, he does not retaliate. After the treatment—at least, until he suffers his head injury—he can do no other.

Two scientists, Drs. Branom and Brodsky, are in charge of the “treatment.” The minister of the interior, responsible for cutting crime in a society now besieged by the youth culture, says: “The Government cannot be concerned any longer with outmoded penological theories . . . . Common criminals . . . can best be dealt with on a purely curative basis. Kill the criminal reflex, that’s all.” In other words, a criminal or violent act is, in essence, no different from the act of a rat in a cage, who presses a lever in order to obtain a pellet of food. If you shock the rat with electricity when it presses the lever instead of rewarding it with food, it will soon cease to press the lever. Criminality can be dealt with, or “cured,” in the same way.

At the time that Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, doctors were trying to “cure” homosexuals by injecting them with apomorphine, a nausea-inducing drug, while showing them pictures of male nudes. And overwhelmingly, the dominant school of psychology worldwide at the time was the behaviorism of Harvard prof B. F. Skinner. His was what one might call a “black box” psychology: scientists measured the stimulus and the response but exhibited no interest whatsoever in what happened between the two, as being intrinsically immeasurable and therefore unknowable. While Skinner might have quibbled about the details of the Ludovico Method (for example, that Alex got the injection at the wrong time in relation to the violent films that he had to watch), he would not have rejected its scientific—or rather scientistic—philosophy.

In 1971, the very year in which the Kubrick film of A Clockwork Orange was released, Skinner published a book entitled Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He sneered at the possibility that reflection upon our own personal experience and on history might be a valuable source of guidance to us in our attempts to govern our lives. “What we need,” he wrote, “is a technology of behavior.” Fortunately, one was at hand. “A technology of operant behavior is . . . already well advanced, and it may prove commensurate with our problems.” As he put it, “[a] scientific analysis shifts the credit as well as the blame [for a man’s behavior] to the environment.” What goes on in a man’s mind is quite irrelevant; indeed, “mind,” says Skinner, is “an explanatory fiction.”

For Skinner, being good is behaving well; and whether a man behaves well or badly depends solely upon the schedule of reinforcement that he has experienced in the past, not upon anything that goes on in his mind. It follows that there is no new situation in a man’s life that requires conscious reflection if he is to resolve the dilemma or make the choices that the new situation poses: for everything is merely a replay of the past, generalized to meet the new situation.

The Ludovico Method, then, was not a far-fetched invention of Burgess’s but a simplified version—perhaps a reductio ad absurdum, or ad nauseam—of the technique for solving all human problems that the dominant school of psychology at the time suggested. Burgess was a lapsed Catholic, but he remained deeply influenced by Catholic thought throughout his life. The Skinnerian view of man appalled him. He thought that a human being whose behavior was simply the expression of conditioned responses was not fully human but an automaton. If he did the right thing merely in the way that Pavlov’s dog salivated at the sound of a bell, he could not be a good man: indeed, if all his behavior was determined in the same way, he was hardly a man at all. A good man, in Burgess’s view, had to have the ability to do evil as well as good, an ability that he would voluntarily restrain, at whatever disadvantage to himself.

Being a novelist rather than an essayist, however, and a man of many equivocations, Burgess put these thoughts in A Clockwork Orange into the mouth of a ridiculous figure, the prison chaplain, who objects to the Ludovico Method—but not enough to resign his position, for he is eager to advance in what Alex calls “Prison religion.” Burgess puts the defense of the traditional view of morality as requiring the exercise of free will—the view that there is no good act without the possibility of a bad one—into the mouth of a careerist.

The two endings of A Clockwork Orange—the one that Burgess himself wrote and the truncated one that his American publisher wanted and that Kubrick used for his film—have very different meanings.

According to the American-Kubrick version, Alex resumes his life as violent gang leader after his head injury undoes the influence of the Ludovico Method. He returns to what he was before, once more able to listen to classical music (Beethoven’s Ninth) and fantasize violence without any conditioned nausea:

Oh, it was gorgeosity and yumyumyum. When it came to the Scherzo I could viddy myself very clear running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas [feet], carving the whole litso [face] of the creeching [screaming] world with my cut-throat britva [razor]. And there was the slow movement and the lovely last singing movement still to come. I was cured all right.

Kubrick even suggests that this is a happy outcome: better an authentic psychopath than a conditioned, and therefore inauthentic, goody-goody. Authenticity and self-direction are thus made to be the highest goods, regardless of how they are expressed. And this, at least in Britain, has become a prevailing orthodoxy among the young. If, as I have done, you ask the aggressive young drunks who congregate by the thousand in every British town or city on a Saturday night why they do so, or British soccer fans why they conduct themselves so menacingly, they will reply that they are expressing themselves, as if there were nothing further to be said on the matter.

The full, British version of A Clockwork Orange ends very differently. Alex begins to lose his taste for violence spontaneously, when he sees a happy, normal couple in a café, one of whom is a former associate of his. Thereafter, Alex begins to imagine a different life for himself and to fantasize a life that includes tenderness:

There was Your Humble Narrator Alex coming home from work to a good hot plate of dinner, and there was this ptitsa [girl] all welcoming and greeting like loving. . . . I had this sudden very strong idea that if I walked into the room next to this room where the fire was burning away and my hot dinner laid on the table, there I should find what I really wanted. . . . For in that other room in a cot was laying gurgling goo goo goo my son. . . . I knew what was happening, O my brothers. I was like growing up.

Burgess obviously prefers a reformation that comes spontaneously from within, as it does in the last chapter, to one that comes from without, by application of the Ludovico Method. Here he would agree with Kubrick—an internal reformation is more authentic, and thus better in itself because a true expression of the individual. Perhaps Burgess also believes that such an internal reformation is likely to go deeper and be less susceptible to sudden reversal than reformation brought from outside.

It's archetypal Anglo-American/Judeo-Christian literature in that it grapples with the only issue that really matters in human affairs, the choice between freedom and security, and comes down on the side of free will.

N.B.: Note that the scientists hate freedom because it leads to insecurity and evil in the world, which is the objection to God's Creation that gave rise to Darwinism. The Ludovicists know they could have created Man better.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 28, 2006 9:28 AM

I never knew about the British version being different. This novel has always been in my top ten; I keep changing my mind about the movie every time I see it (which for some reason is the way I usually am with Kubrick films).

I must point out to OJ that Alex's argot stream-of-consciousness owes much to Joyce's Ulysses. But I suppose OJ thinks this aspect of the novel is a weakness.

Posted by: ted welter at February 28, 2006 1:51 PM


No, I think Joyce and Alex are similar.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2006 1:56 PM


Posted by: ted welter at February 28, 2006 2:39 PM

"Clockwork Orange" is one of only two movies I ever walked out on. The other was "Taxi Driver."

The level of horror and violence was so unsettling that I became physically ill.

Posted by: erp at March 1, 2006 8:47 AM

you probably don't want to rent "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" then.

Posted by: toe at March 1, 2006 1:52 PM

...or the Passion of the Christ, for that matter.

Posted by: ted welter at March 2, 2006 7:07 AM