A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

I've written about mainstream movies that have Christian content and about mainstream movies that aren't Christian but have content Christians can glean insight from.  This is one of those films.

Hoo boy, is it ever one of those films...

A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, was the first X-rated film I paid to see.[1]

This was back in the day when X-rated =/= porn; Midnight Cowboy and Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls were both X-rated even though they can run almost uncut on TV today.  (They, and A Clockwork Orange, were later retroactively downgraded to R.)

For those not at least familiar with the film, shame on you it's a tale set in the distant dystopian year of 2002.  Based on Anthony Burgess' novel, Kubrick took Burgess' literary tour de force and turned it into a dazzling and frightfully prescient look at where Western culture was going.[2]

An earlier American edition of the novel. It's pretty clear the marketing department didn't have clue fracking uno on how to sell this book...

Kubrick's only misstep was guessing stark white was going to be the color of choice for future rebels; give him that one and the film borders on the near-documentary.

Alex and his droogs are a violent punk gang who "enjoy a bit of the old ultra-violence".[3] Betrayed and abandoned by his gang following a murder, Alex is thrown in prison.  Sociopath that he is, he ingratiates himself with the prison chaplain.  His piety, however, is just a guise to let him read all the violent / sexy stuff in the Bible since other forms of entertainment are banned.

Not wanting to spend the rest of his life in prison, Alex volunteers for an experimental treatment called the Ludovico Technique.  Based on Pavlov's experiments, the technique uses drugs and negative reinforcement to destroy all propensity towards sex and violence.

The chaplain cautions Alex against volunteering, but volunteer he does.  He's strapped in a chair, eyes held open, forced to watch violent and / or sexual images as a drug pumps through his brain, introducing repulsion and violent nausea.

Unfortunately for Alex, one of the films shown is a Nazi atrocity clip with Beethoven's music playing under it.

The one glimmer of humanity in Alex' miserable, shriveled up sociopathic soul is his genuine love and appreciation of "Ludwig van's" music.  The result of the Ludovico Technique is that he develops a permanent ingrained revulsion against sex, violence, and...Beethoven.

Pronounced cured, Alex is returned to society.  But no longer able to defend himself thanks to the Ludovico Technique, Alex is soon reduced to victim status, preyed on by his own former victims and his ex-droogs (who, in delicious irony, are now policemen).

Alex finds shelter in the home of a writer, survivor of another attack by Alex and his droogs that left him crippled and his wife dead.  The writer, opposed to the government's adoption of the Ludovico Technique, learns Alex' history and vows to use that information to stop the program.

Unfortunately, when Alex accidentally reveals himself as the leader of the gang that savaged him and his wife, the writer opts for Plan B:  Revenge.

I won't elaborate except to say it's really, really LOUD.

Surviving this, Alex is taken in by a rival political party who offer to undo the Ludovico Technique if he will testify against the government.  Alex readily agrees and the film ends with a symbolic scene of him enjoying sex, violence, and Ludwig van while polite society stands by and applauds.

Okay, let's stipulate this ain't a movie for the whole family.  Certainly not for anyone under 12, many people under 16, or the easily shocked / offended.[4]

Certainly not for those who easily confuse fact and fantasy.  It's just a movie, folks:  Nobody was actually beaten to death, the "villains" and "victims" were all paid professionals who understood the nature of Kubrick's cinematic vision and were adequately compensated for their efforts.  At the end of the shoot they all had a big party then went home and added a new credit to their resumes.

A Clockwork Orange, book and movie, is indeed a fictional construct, a lie as it were.  But if the point of art and literature is to use lies to tell the truth, then book and movie are among the most profound works of the 20th century.

The moral and philosophic core of both book and movie is the question of free will, specifically: Is it better to exercise free will badly, or to lack free will and not be able to choose evil?[5]

Because if one can not choose between good and evil, one is reduced to the level of an unthinking automaton, "a clockwork orange" to riff off the book's title.

Being compelled to avoid evil is not a comforting concept; the same compulsion could be used to force one to avoid good.

It's an unspoken assumption in both book and movie that the Ludovico Technique will be used against dissidents once the violent criminal class has been dealt with, perhaps even before the nadsat punks have been suppressed.

The chaplain warns Alex of this, urging him not to accept the technique but to deal with his criminal nature through spiritual discipline.

It raises an interesting sub-question: Is it moral to voluntarily accept restrictions that will prevent one from doing evil (viz. rapists and child molesters who undergo "chemical castration" to curb their predatory instincts)?

In A Clockwork Orange the question is moot: Alex has no desire for reform, he sees nothing wrong with his behavior and predilections. What he wants is out of prison, and he will cheerfully lie about his intent to achieve that.

Are his handlers fooled?  Good question; hard to answer.  Like Alex their motives, ostensibly virtuous, are actually much more selfish and utilitarian.  Put it this way:  For their goals, it is immaterial if the subject is candid or not, willing or unwilling. Their objective is not to spread virtuous thoughts and behavior; their objective is to find a cheap and effect means of controlling errant behavior -- any errant behavior.

Burgess and Kubrick aren't about to let society off the hook: Alex’ victims are just as eager as he was to commit a bit of the old ultra-violence when they think they can get away with it.  The writer's protestations of moral revulsion at Alex' inability to exercise free will vanish in the blink of an eye, replaced by genuinely inventive sadism fueled by a lust for revenge.

Put it this way: With the possible exception of the ineffectual prison chaplain, there ain't a single genuine expression of Christian morality, ethics, or forgiveness in the story.

So why is it a worthy book / film for Christians to peruse?

As I said, the core of the story is the moral conundrum of free will.

The ancient Hebrews did not understand free will as we do today.  To them everything -- every single act, from the tiniest twitch of an insect’s antenna to the sweeping storms in the sky -- was the direct result of God’s deliberate intent.

If you stubbed your toe at exactly noon, it was because God in His infinite wisdom had ordained you would stub your toe at exactly that moment, not a nanosecond before, not a nanosecond later.

Good and evil were both ascribed to God.[6]

There’s a problem with this, however, one that became readily apparent to the psalmists and the collectors of the Proverbs:  If God controls every single aspect of our lives, why does He allow evil and suffering to exist? Why, for instance, did He “harden Pharaoh’s heart” to refuse to let the Israelites go?  Why didn’t He soften Pharaoh’s heart, make him repent?  How many lives would have been spared, how much suffering would have been averted?

God in Genesis and Exodus often seems less like a kind, benevolent, loving father and more like an abusive alcoholic.[7]

God tells Samuel to anoint Saul as king.  Since God knows all that has happened and all that will happen, it’s clear He must have known Saul was going to go off the deep end.  So why make him king?  Why not just wait a few more years until David was ready?

If everything is the direct result of God’s will, then there is nothing we can do to affect His decisions.  If that’s the case, then why even bother?  God has either arbitrarily decided to look after you or He’s decided to hose you royally.  You have no input in the decision (at least, not if you’re an ancient Hebrew).

Moses and his crew may have been comfortable with this[8] but David, the other psalmists, Solomon and the collectors of Proverbs, not to mention all the latter prophets really had a hard time reconciling a just and loving God with the shenanigans they saw on Earth.

A few centuries later, the Greek philosopher Epicurius wondered the same thing:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

David et al pondered this question long and hard, and gradually came to the realization that the first step in being a moral person is an ability to distinguish between moral and immoral acts, and the only way to distinguish between moral and immoral acts is to have the ability to choose between them.

A clock mechanism has no free will, no freedom of choice and action.  It will tick-tock, tick-tock because that is what it is designed to do.  It may be ticking down the moments until it’s time to take a cake out of the oven, or it may be ticking down the moments until a deadly bomb goes off:  It makes no difference to the clock.

A human being, however, told to do something when the clock strikes, has the moral ability to choose to obey or disobey.  One can be a lazy, selfish slacker and forget all about the cake in the oven, letting it burn to a crisp.  Or one can have a moment of conscience and realize the bomb one is about to set off will only spread harm and evil, not help one’s cause, and refuse to detonate it.

Having that choice makes our final action right or wrong.[9]

By the time of Christ, the Jews pretty much understood the concept of free will.  Christ himself taught that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and that sometimes Bad Stuff Happens Purely At Random.

God isn’t sitting on the sidelines with a penalty card, ready to write down your score and yank your miserable posterior out of the game.[10]

Most of the suffering in this world is the result of human decisions, although not necessarily malign ones.  People die of lung cancer because they decided to smoke cigarettes.  People are killed by twisters in trailer parks because they choose to live in Tornado Alley, or drowned by hurricanes and tsunamis because they want to live close to the ocean.  People perish in bombings and wars because somebody somewhere saw a buck in it for themselves.

For the better part of two millennium the concept of free will has been the cornerstone of both Judeo-Christian morality and Greco-Roman ethics, the twin foundations of Western civilization.[11] Recently, however (well, the last three hundred or so years), philosophers and scientists have been trying to walk back the argument for free will.

Now they propose that free will is a mere abstract, an illusion, that it does not, has not, never will, and cannot exist.  That all human activities are the result of interacting strains of biochemistry coupled with external events, and that we cannot avoid certain actions or conversely instigate other actions even if we so desired simply because we (and society around us) is programmed to behave in specific, unbending patterns.

A nice idea, and an attractive one:  Follow it and you never have to take responsibility for another crappy act in your life. Didn’t pay your taxes?  Ha!  Couldn’t pay your taxes is more like it since you have no free will and were bio-chemically destined not to render unto Caesar.  Cheat on your spouse?  Well, of course you did!  How could you not have?  Slip and fall in your bathtub?  You were just an accident waiting to happen, and you deliberately dropped that soap and stepped on it for ingrained biological reasons.

Cool, huh?  There’s not a thing you can’t excuse claiming an absence of free will.  Start a world war and kill millions of innocent people?  Hey, not Hitler’s fault; his widdle brain cells made him do it.[12]

The obvious problem with this hypothesis is that there is no way of telling whether it is true or not since there is no way of using free will to make a choice of believing or disbelieving the arguments and evidence for and against it.

Indeed, taken to its logical conclusion, one has to admit the hypothesis may only seem to make sense because we are bio-chemically predetermined to accept it as making sense; a truly objective listener might hear nothing but gibberish.

In fact, taken to its penultimate logical conclusion, one has to argue it’s possible this hypothesis makes sense to no one except the person who believes they came up with it / heard it because in truth we are all wallowing in our own psychotic delusions with no basis in reality and we only think we are living in the 21st century and that other people actually exist simply because our brains are hard-wired to perceive that, regardless of actual external conditions.

And in the real ultimate logical conclusion of this argument:  A fish! [13]

Which brings us back to the misadventures of Alex and his droogs.

It is not unfair to say each of us has a unique perception of the world around us, and that no two of us see, or judge, the world in exactly the same light.

That’s not the same as saying there’s no commonality among our perceptions, that we cannot share certain across the board concepts even if the shading and nuance of those perceptions vary greatly.

Alex, sociopath that he is, is still blessed with the power of making a moral choice.  Despite his innate selfish nature, he could have chosen not to indulge his appetite for destruction.

Instead, like Esau of the Bible, Alex throws away his own moral birthright in a desperate attempt to gain freedom, not realizing that he is giving up one form of suffering for another, deeper, far more profound kind, a descent into the bowels of hell[14] from which he cannot escape on his own because he no longer has the free will needed to make the moral choices that could explicate him.

Indeed, he ends up relying on a purely arbitrary deus ex machine to provide him with a conditional grace, not the genuine grace freely given that we seek spiritually.

Movie and book end differently (at least the original version of the book).  As noted, the film ends with a symbolic scene of Alex celebrating his re-birth as a fully functioning sociopath (his victim seems a bit less enthused about his cure than he is).  The book carries on past that point, revisiting Alex as he moves past his teen years and through early adulthood to the precipice of middle age.  He reacquaints himself with several former colleagues and now, the rage and fury of adolescence finally faded, finds himself enjoying quiet evenings visiting with them and playing word games (Burgess’ ironic commentary on adults who work themselves into a lather over teenagers doing the exact same things they did at their age).

Burgess’ ending seems to say, “This, too, shall pass.”  Kubrick’s ending continues in the dark humor / horror he employed in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove.[15]

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[1]  I'd seen plenty as a lot attendant at the drive-in theater where I worked as a teenager, employees being exempt to the "no one under 18" rule.

[2]  A major sub-text of the book is the slowly dawning realization that his future England is living under the shadow of dominant Soviet totalitarianism; his characters' nadsat patois is based on Russian words incorporated into English slang; i.e., their term for "good" is "horror show" which is derived from the Russian word "khorosho", etc.  Kubrick wisely ditched the global politics to focus on the moral heart of the story.

[3]  The film introduced several words, phrases, and terms to the language, thus helping shape the very future it predicted.

[4]  Grandma might like it, however.

[5]  “Better” may be the wrong word to use here; “lesser of two evils” might be a more accurate choice.

[6]  Satan, in fact, is God’s internal affairs bad cop in the Old Testament; it’s his job to poke and prod the human race to find our failure points.

[7]  Small wonder considering how much of Genesis consists of just the stuff Noah could remember.

[8]  By all accounts -- i.e., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges -- they were for the most part a pretty simplistic bunch when it came to matters theological, blindly following rigid rituals without really grasping the underlying purpose and symbolism, frequently disobeying God’s will and veering off into idol worship and a host of other transgressions.

[9]  Here’s another choice:  I’m not inclined to go over the issue of God’s transcendent nature having already done so in other posts.  Go look them up to understand how God can know everything that has / is / will be happening while we humans can still enjoy free will in our own daily lives.

[10]  That being said, Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” is one of the coolest titles ever and I’m surprised no heavy metal band has ever released an album with that name.

[11]  The Islamic world has an Arabic phrase -- Insha’Allah, which translates as “If it is God’s will” -- that they frequently invoke when discussing plans for the future.  Growing up in Appalachia, I often heard the phrase “God willin’ and the crick don’t rise” used under similar circumstances.  At first blush they appear identical but closer examination shows two radically different schools of philosophical / theological thought behind them.  “I will walk through the door if it is God’s will that I walk through the door” makes God the instigator and primary actor and the speaker a puppet responding to jerks on his strings.  “I will walk through the door if God is willing to let me do it” makes the speaker the actor and the initiator, requiring God to take an active role in expressing His disapproval in order to thwart the intended action.  It is a much clearer and precise declaration of free will and morality than the former statement.

[12]  We’re veering off here on a side topic involving Set Theory.  Again, I’m choosing (free will!) to avoid going over already well-worked ground.

[13]  Old surrealist joke; you had to be there.

[14]  Well, London…

[15]  Two films where he drastically altered the somber tone of the source material to turn them into edgy but insightful comedies.  Compare Lolita with its remake, or Dr. Strangelove with the similar Fail-Safe of the same era and see the wisdom behind Kubrick’s choice.  As the eminent philosopher J. Buffet observed:  “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”

 

Peter Bergman [1939 - 2012]

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