Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick; drawing by David Levine

When Anthony Burgess published A Clockwork Orange ten years ago, he compacted much of what was in the air, especially the odd mingling of dismay and violence (those teen-age gangs) with pious euphoria about the causes and cures of crime and of deviance. Mr. Burgess’s narrator hero, Alex, was pungently odious; addicted to mugging and rape, intoxicated with his own command of the language (a newly minted teen-age slang, plus poeticisms, sneers, and sadistic purring), Alex was something both better and worse than a murderer: he was murderous. Because of a brutal rape by Alex, the wife of a novelist dies; because of his lethal clubbing, an old woman dies; because of his exhibitionist ferocity, a fellow prisoner dies.

The second of these killings gets Alex jailed; word reaches him of the new Ludovico Treatment by which he may be reclaimed, and he seeks it and gets it. The treatment is to watch horrific films of violence (made by one Dr. Brodsky) while seething with a painful emetic; the “cure” is one that deprives Alex of choice, and takes him beyond freedom and dignity, and extirpates his moral existence. But the grisly bloody failure of his suicide attempt after his release does release him. Alex is himself again.

The novel was simply pleased, but it knew that aversion therapy must be denied its smug violences. And the early 1960s were, after all, the years in which a liberally wishful newspaper like the London Observer could regale its readers with regular accounts of how a homosexual was being “cured” by emetics and films.

“To do the ultra-violent”: Alex makes no bones about it. But the film of A Clockwork Orange does not want him to be seen in an ultra-violent light. So it bids for sympathy. There are unobtrusive mitigations: Alex is made younger than in the book. There are obtrusive crassnesses from his jailors: when Alex pauses over the form for Reclamation Treatment, the chief guard shouts, “Don’t read it, sign it”—and of course it has to be signed in triplicate. (None of that in the book.) There are sentimentalities: where in the book it was his drugs and syringes that he was shocked to find gone when he got home, in the film he has been provided instead with a pet snake, Basil, whom his parents have wantonly and hypocritically done in. Above all, Alex is the only person in the film who isn’t a caricature, the only person the film is interested in; whereas in the first-person narrative of the book, Alex was the only person Alex was interested in.

One realizes that the film is a re-creation, not a carrying-over, and yet both Kubrick and Burgess are right to call upon each other in what they’ve recently written in defense of the film, Kubrick in The New York Times, February 27, and Burgess in The Listener, February 17. The persistent pressure of the film’s Alexculpations is enough to remind one that while A Clockwork Orange is in Burgess’s words “a novel about brainwashing,” the film is not above a bit of brainwashing itself—is indeed righteously unaware that any of its own techniques or practices could for a moment be asked to subject themselves to that same scrutiny as they project. Alex is forced to gaze at the Ludovico Treatment aversion films: “But I could not shut my glazzies, and even if I tried to move my glaz-balls about I still could not get like out of the line of fire of this picture.” Yet once “this picture” has become not one of Dr. Brodsky’s pictures but one of Mr. Kubrick’s, then two very central figures are surreptitiously permitted to move “out of the line of fire of this picture.”

First, the creator of the whole fictional “horrorshow” itself. For it was crucial to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange that it should include a novelist who was writing a book called A Clockwork Orange—crucial not because of the fad for such Chinese boxes, but because this was Burgess’s way of taking responsibility (as Kubrick does not take responsibility for Dr. Brodsky’s film within his film), Burgess’s way of seeing that the whole enterprise itself was accessible to its own standards of judgment. The novelist F. Alexander kept at once a curb and an eye on the book, so that other propensities than those of Dr. Brodsky were also under moral surveillance. Above all the propensity of the commanding satirist to become the person who most averts his eyes from what he shows: that “satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” But in the film F. Alexander (who is brutally kicked by Alex, and his wife raped before his eyes) is not at work on a book called A Clockwork Orange, and so the film—unlike the book—ensures that it does not have to stand in its own line of fire.

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Nor, secondly and more importantly, does Alex have to. The film cossets him. For the real accusation against the film is certainly not that it is too violent, but that it is not violent enough; more specifically, that with a cunning selectivity it sets itself to minimize both Alex’s violence and his delight in it. Take his murders or womanslaughters. The old woman in the novel with the cats and an ineffectual stick becomes in the film a professionally athletic virago who nearly stuns him with a heavy objet d’art; the killing comes after a dervishlike tussling and circling, and moreover is further protected, Alexwise, by being grotesquely farcical—Alex rams her in the face with a huge sculpture of a penis and testicles, a pretentious art work which she has pretentiously fussed about and which when touched jerks itself spasmodically.

The film reshapes that murder to help Alex out. Similarly with the more important death of the novelist’s wife. “She died, you see. She was brutally raped and beaten. The shock was very great.” But the film—by then nearing its end—doesn’t want Alex to have this death on our consciences, so the novelist (who is manifestly half-mad to boot) is made to mutter that the doctor said it was pneumonia she died of, during the flu epidemic, but that he knew, etc., etc. Or, not to worry, Alex-lovers.

Then there is the brutal killing within the prison cell, when they all beat up the homosexual newcomer:

Anyway, seeing the old krovvy flow red in the red light, I felt the old joy like rising up in my keeshkas…. So they all stood around while I cracked at this prestoopnick in the near dark. I fisted him all over, dancing about with my boots on though unlaced, and then I tripped him and he went crash crash on to the floor. I gave him one real horror show kick on the gulliver and he went ohhhhh, then he sort of snorted off to like sleep.

No place for any of that in the film, since it would entail being more perturbed about Alex than would be convenient. No, better to show all the convicts as good-natured buffoons and to let the prison guards monopolize detestability. The film settles for a happy swap, dispensing with the killing in the cell and proffering instead officialdom’s humiliating violence in shining a torch up Alex’s rectum. None of that in the book.

“When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality” (D. H. Lawrence). As a novelist, Burgess controlled his itching thumb (he does after all include within himself as much of a polemicist for Original Sin and for Christian extremity as his coreligionists Graham Greene and William Golding). But the film is not content with having a thumb in the pan—it insists on thumbs down for most and thumbs up for Alex. Thumbs down for Dr. Brodsky, who is made to say that the aversion drug will cause a deathlike terror and paralysis; thumbs down for the Minister of the Interior, who bulks proportionately larger and who has what were other men’s words put into his mouth, and whose asinine classy ruthlessness allows the audience to vent its largely irrelevant feelings about “politicians,” thus not having to vent any hostility upon Alex; thumbs down for Alex’s spurious benefactors, who turn out to be mad schemers against the bad government, and not only that but very very vengeful—the novelist and his friends torture Alex with music to drive him to suicide (the book told quite another story).

But thumbs up for the gladiatorial Alex. For it is not just the killings that are whitewashed. Take the two girls he picks up and takes back to his room. In the book, what matters to Alex—and to our sense of Alex—is that they couldn’t have been more than ten years old, that he got them viciously drunk, that he gave himself a “hypojab” so that he could the better exercise “the strange and weird desires of Alexander the Large,” and that they ended up bruised and screaming. The film, which wants to practice a saintlike charity of redemption toward Alex but also to make things assuredly easy for itself, can’t have any of that. So the ten-year-olds become jolly dollies; no drink, no drugs, no bruises, just the three of them having a ball. And to make doubly sure that Alex is not dislodged from anybody’s affection, the whole thing is speeded up so that it twinkles away like frantic fun from a silent film. Instead of the cold brutality of Alex’s “the old in-out,” a warm Rowan and Martin laugh-in-out.

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Conversely, Alex’s fight with his friends is put into silent slow motion, draping its balletic gauzes between us and Alex. And when one of these droogs later takes his revenge on Alex by smashing him across the eyes with a milk bottle and leaving him to the approaching police, this too has become something very different from what it was in the book. For there it was not a milk bottle that Dim wielded but his chain: “and it snaked wishhhh and he chained me gentle and artistic like on the glazlids, me just closing them up in time.” The difference which that makes is that the man who is there so brutally hurt is the man who had so recently exulted in Dim’s prowess with that chain:

Dim had a real horrorshow length of oozy or chain round his waist, twice wound round, and he unwound this and began to swing it beautiful in the eyes or glazzies…. old Dim with his chain snaking whisssssshhhhhhhhh, so that old Dim chained him right in the glazzies, and this droog of Billyboy’s went tottering off and howling his heart out.

The novel, though it has failures of judgment which sometimes let in a gloat, does not flinch from showing Alex’s exultation. The movie takes out the book’s first act of violence, the protracted sadistic taunting of an aged book lover and then his beating up:

“You naughty old veck, you,” I said, and then we began to filly about with him. Pete held his rookers and Georgie sort of hooked his rot wide open for him and Dim yanked out his false zoobies, upper and lower. He threw these down on the pavement and then I treated them to the old boot-crush, though they were hard bastards like, being made of some new horrorshow plastic stuff. The old veck began to make sort of chumbling shooms—“wuf waf wof”—so Georgie let go of holding his goobers apart and just let him have one in the toothless rot with his ringy fist, and that made the old veck start moaning a lot then, then out comes the blood, my brothers, real beautiful. So all we did then was to pull his outer platties off, stripping him down to his vest and long underpants (very starry; Dim smecked his head off near), and then Pete kicks him lovely in his pot, and we let him go.

The film holds us off from Alex’s blood-lust, and it lets Alex off by mostly showing us only the show of violence. The beating of the old drunk is done by four silhouetted figures with their sticks—horribly violent in some ways, of course, but held at a distance. That distance would be artistically admirable if its intention was to preclude the pornography of bloodthirstiness rather than to preclude our realizing—making real to ourselves—Alex’s bloodthirstiness. Likewise the gang fight is at first the frenzied destructiveness of a Western and is then a stylized distanced drubbing; neither of these incriminates Alex as the book had honorably felt obliged to do. The first page of the book knows that Alex longs to see someone “swim in his blood,” and the book never forgets what it early shows:

Then we tripped him so he laid down flat and heavy and a bucketload of beer-vomit came whooshing out. That was disgusting so we gave him the boot, one go each, and then it was blood, not song nor vomit, that came out of his filthy old rot. Then we went on our way.

And, my brothers, it was real satisfaction to me to waltz—left two three, right two three—and carve left cheeky and right cheeky, so that like two curtains of blood seemed to pour out at the same time, one on either side of his fat filthy oily snout in the winter starlight.

The film does not let Alex shed that blood. But it isn’t against bloodletting or hideous brutality, it just insists on enlisting them. So we see Alex’s face spattered with blood at the police station, the wall too; and we see a very great deal of blood-streaming violence in the aversion therapy film which the emetic-laden Alex is forced to witness. What this selectivity of violence does is ensure that the aversion film outdoes anything that we have as yet been made to contemplate (Alex’s horrorshows are mostly allowed to flicker past). It is not an accident, and it is culpably coercive, that the most longdrawn-out, realistic, and hideous act of brutality is that meted on Alex by his ex-companions, now policemen. Battered and all but drowned, Alex under violence is granted the mercy neither of slow motion nor of speeding up. But the film uses this mercilessness for its own specious mercy.

There is no difficulty in agreeing with Kubrick that people do get treated like that; and nobody should be treated like that. At this point the film doesn’t at all gloat over the violence which it makes manifest but doesn’t itself manifest. Right. But Burgess’s original artistic decision was the opposite: it was to ensure that we should deeply know of but not know about what they did to Alex: “I will not go into what they did, but it was all like panting and thudding against this like background of whirring farm machines and the twittwittwittering in the bare or nagoy branches.” I will not go into what they did: that was Burgess as well as Alex speaking. Kubrick does not speak, but he really goes into what they did. By doing so he ensures our sympathy for Alex, but at the price of an enfeebling circularity. “Pity the monsters,” urges Robert Lowell. I am a man more sinned against than sinning, the film allows Alex to intimate.

The pain speaks for Alex, and so does the sexual humor. For Kubrick has markedly sexed things up. Not just that modern sculpture of a penis, but the prison guard’s question (“Are you or have you ever been a homosexual?”), and the social worker’s hand clapped hard but lovingly on Alex’s genitals, and the prison chaplain’s amiable eagerness to reassure Alex about masturbation, and the bare-breasted nurse and the untrousered doctor at it behind the curtains of the hospital bed. All of this may seem to be just good clean fun (though also most uninventively unfunny), but it too takes its part within that forcible reclamation of Alex which Kubrick no less than Dr. Brodsky is out to achieve.

The sexual farce is to excriminate Alex as a bit of a dog rather than one hell of a rat, and the tactic pays off—but cheaply—in the very closing moments of the film, when Alex, cured of his cure and now himself again, is listening to great music. In the film his fantasy is of a voluptuous slow-motion lovemaking, rape-ish rather than rape, all surrounded by costumed grandees applauding—amiable enough, in a way, and a bit like Billy Liar. The book ends with the same moment, but with an unsentimental certainty as to what kind of lust it still is that is uppermost for Alex:

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, carving the whole litso [face] of the creeching world with my cutthroat britva. And there was the slow movement and the lovely last sighing movement still to come. I was cured all right.

The film raises real questions, and not just of the are-liberals-really-liberal? sort. On my left, Jean-Jacques Rousseau; on my right, Robert Ardrey—this is factitious and fatuous. When Kubrick and Burgess were stung into replying to criticism, both claimed that the accusation of gratuitous violence was gratuitous. Yet Kubrick makes too easy a disclaimer—too easy in terms of the imagination and its sources of energy, though fair enough in repudiating the charge of “fascism”—when he says that he should not be denounced as a fascist, “no more than any well-balanced commentator who read ‘A Modest Proposal’ would have accused Dean Swift of being a cannibal.”

Agreed, but it would be Swift’s imagination, not his behavior, that would be at stake, and there have always been those who found “A Modest Proposal” a great deal more equivocally disconcerting than Kubrick seems to. As Dr. Johnson said of Swift, “The greatest difficulty that occurs, in analyzing his character, is to discover by what depravity of intellect he took delight in revolving ideas, from which almost every other mind shrinks with disgust.” So that to invoke Swift is apt (Alex’s slang “gulliver” for head is not just Russian golova) but isn’t a brisk accusation-stopper.

Again, when Burgess insists: “It was certainly no pleasure to me to describe acts of violence when writing the novel,” there must be a counter-insistence: that on such a matter no writer’s say-so can simply be accepted, since a writer mustn’t be assumed to know so—the sincerity in question is of the deepest and most taxing kind. The aspiration need not be doubted:

What my, and Kubrick’s, parable tries to state is that it is preferable to have a world of violence undertaken in full awareness—violence chosen as an act of will—than a world conditioned to be good or harmless.

When so put, few but B. F. Skinner are likely to contest it. But there are still some urgent questions.

  1. Isn’t this alternative too blankly stark? And isn’t the book better than the film just because it doesn’t take instant refuge in the antithesis, but has a subtler sense of responsibilities and irresponsibilities here?
  2. Isn’t “the Judaeo-Christian ethic that A Clockwork Orange tries to express” more profoundly disconcerting than is suggested by Burgess’s hospitable formulation? I think of Empson’s arguments that Christianity marks itself out from the other great religions by holding on to an act of human sacrifice, and that it is a system of torture-worship. The Christian Church has always ministered to, often connived at, and sometimes practiced the fiercest and most insidious acts of brainwashing. The book in this sense takes its religion much more seriously—that is, does not think of it as somehow patently unimpeachable. “The wish to diminish free will is, I should think, the sin against the Holy Ghost” (Burgess). Those who do not believe in the Holy Ghost need not believe that there is such a thing as the sin against the Holy Ghost—no reassuring worst of sins.
  3. Isn’t the moral and spiritual crux here more cruelly unresolvable, a hateful siege of contraries? T. S. Eliot sought to resolve it:

So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist. It is true to say that the glory of man is his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is his capacity for damnation. The worst that can be said of most of our malefactors, from statesmen to thieves, is that they are not men enough to be damned.

But Eliot’s teeth are there on edge, and so are ours; those who do not share the religion of Eliot and Burgess may think that no primacy should be granted to Eliot’s principle—nor to its humane counter-principle, that it is better to do nothing than to do evil.

  1. Is this film worried enough about films? Each medium will have its own debasements when seduced by violence. A novel has but words, and words can gloat and collude only in certain ways. A play has people speaking words, and what Dr. Johnson deplored in the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear is precisely the artistic opportunity of drama, that we both intensely feel that great violence is perpetrated and intensely know that it is not: “an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition, and such as must always compel the mind to relieve its distress by incredulity.” But the medium of film is an equivocal one (above all about how far people are really part of the medium), which is why it is so peculiarly fitted both to use and to abuse equivocations. A Clockwork Orange was a novel about the abuses of the film (its immoralities of violence and of brainwashing), and it included—as the film of A Clockwork Orange does not—some thinking and feeling which Kubrick should not have thought that he could merely cut:

This time the film like jumped right away on a young devotchka who was being given the old in-out by first one malchick then another then another then another, she creeching away very gromky through the speakers and like very pathetic and tragic music going on at the same time. This was real, very real, though if you thought about it properly you couldn’t imagine lewdies actually agreeing to having all this done to them in a film, and if these films were made by the Good or the State you couldn’t imagine them being allowed to take these films without like interfering with what was going on. So it must have been very clever what they call cutting or editing or some such veshch. For it was very real.

The minds of this Dr. Brodsky and Dr. Branom…they must have been more cally and filthy than any prestoopnick in the Staja itself. Because I did not think it was possible for any veck to even think of making films of what I was forced to viddy, all tied to this chair and my glazzies made to be wide open.

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p class=”initial”>The film of A Clockwork Orange doesn’t have the moral courage that could altogether deal with that. Rather, like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, it has a central failure of courage and confidence, manifest in its need to caricature (bold in manner, timid at heart) and in its determination that nobody except Alex had better get a chance. Burgess says: “The point is that, if we are going to love mankind, we will have to love Alex as a not unrepresentative member of it.” A non-Christian may be thankful that he is not under the impossibly cruel, and cruelty-causing, injunction to love mankind; both Christians and non-Christians may think that though the angels may plead, they do not special plead.

This Issue

April 6, 1972