Higher Ed, or Building Clockwork Oranges?

David Clemens

For Father’s Day, my daughter Kate sent me a t-shirt featuring David Pelham’s dust jacket of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (Penguin, 1962).  Director Stanley Kubrick turned Burgess’s cautionary tale into a surreal film masterpiece (Warner Bros., 1971) with graphic scenes of violence, sex, gangs, rape, and aversive conditioning, choreographed and set to thundering, Moog-synthesized Beethoven (and "Singin’ In the Rain").

The film, now reissued on Blu-Ray for its 40th anniversary, has a turbulent history.  Originally rated X, Kubrick had to re-cut it for an R but also withdrew the film from distribution in the UK where it was re-released only in 2000, after his death.  The American edition of the book which inspired Kubrick had itself been bowdlerized by the publisher (Norton) who amputated the final chapter creating a dark, ambiguous conclusion where Burgess’s 21st chapter offered a consoling one.

Once, Kubrick’s opus was required viewing in my class about what a human being is and isn’t.   When Burgess/Kubrick’s sociopathic narrator, Alex, is arrested, he is subjected to aversive conditioning and becomes incapable of violent action (the conditioning also destroys his ability to enjoy “Ludwig Van”).  He is now “a clockwork orange,” what you get when you treat something organic as if it were a programmable machine; Alex’s prison chaplain protests that "When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man."  Voila, Kubrick’s film was perfect for the class, but, like Kubrick, I too withdrew it after one student became hysterical during the viewing, curling into a fetal position and shaking for an hour after class.  Apparently, Alex’s “ultra-violent” acts but ingenuous “of-course-you-understand” intimacy remain disturbing, even dangerous, enhanced by the timeless music, John Alcott’s cinematography, and Kubrick’s notoriously clinical eye.  The opening 90-second dolly back shot still chills the blood. Yet, cold as Kubrick’s films feel, he was an eminently sane man presenting a perennial dilemma--freedom vs. order.  In an interview with film historian Michel Ciment, he said

I think that when Rousseau transferred the concept of original sin from man to society, he was responsible for a lot of misguided social thinking which followed. I don't think that man is what he is because of an imperfectly structured society, but rather that society is imperfectly structured because of the nature of man. No philosophy based on an incorrect view of the nature of man is likely to produce social good.”

Indeed . . . .  If only the outcomes-and-assessment-addled mandarins who run our “imperfectly structured” education system would take Kubrick’s words to heart, the job of rebuilding the humane studies might finally begin.

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