Articles > The Strange Fruit of Time
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees...
The hair-raising thriller A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and more recently the no less spine-chilling film version by Stanley Kubrik give José Luis Pardo the opportunity to reflect on the idea of public order —which is suspiciously similar to the order in which we live— where the absence of a civil and police presence is met with sheer violence and pure corruption. Ultimately, this is what both seduces and repels the audience regarding the images shown in the film, and what lies at the foundation of modern and educated morality.
A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick's cult film based on the ambitious novel written by remarkable author Anthony Burgess, has recently been re-released. His original intention was to present a declaration against behaviorism. "Why?" we may wonder now. "Wasn't it a scientific doctrine?" It is true that behaviorism did subsequently evolve towards more politically and philosophically correct positions, and that behaviorists told WWII survivors what they wanted to hear: that human beings are not biologically preconditioned (as the "inglorious bastаrds" of the Third Reich claimed), that they are programmed not by genetics but through learning. However, none of this can make us forget that behaviorism was also a political and moral utopia, less extreme but with the same degree of intellectual depravity as all the other ones of the past century (Does no one recall how easily it was hegemonically implemented in university Psychology Departments around Spain under Franco?) And like all the others it portrayed a scenario in which, through a scientific method of controlling individuals, evil would be eradicated from all known societies. (In fact, it proposed nipping evil in the bud, by eliminating personal freedom, in order to ensure that it would never reproduce.) Burgess was interested in showing that this program is empirically unfeasible, as it is based on incorrect assumptions, and thus made attempts to reform Alex, the extremely violent teenaged main character, fail horribly in his novel. In the penultimate chapter, the last depicted in Kubrick's film, Alex proudly shows that he is "cured" (that evil, and therefore freedom, has triumphed). Yet, Burgess was even more interested in displaying the moral fallacy that underlies the idea that "aversion therapy" (the mechanical inhibition of aggressive behavior) can create good citizens. At the time this was attributed to the author's "Christianity" (perhaps because the spokesperson for these scruples was the chaplain in the prison where Alex served out his murder sentence). However, in truth, the idea that nobody can be seen as strictly good or evil if their behavior is the result of programming, if they are not free, is not only as old as ethical thought itself but is also the foundation of modern intellectual morality. Alex seems quite evil when he rapes and murders in the beginning of the story, but once he stops doing so in the second part, only because the treatment he has been subjected to has turned him into Pavlov's dog and prohibits him from even defending himself, we are not inclined to view him as "good", but rather unfortunate. Political atrocity undoubtedly hides behind this moral fallacy: when the line is blurred between politics and morality, when the moral ideal of a community free of evil is armed with the machinery of the State to be rolled out unwaveringly across the earth, the stage is set for a state of terror. Thus, unhappy Alex's perversion becomes insignificant when compared to that of the horrible "conservative" Minister who does not hesitate to ally himself with the devil (Alex himself) in order to win the election, or that of the "progressive" intellectual who incites the boy to commit suicide in order to get his own personal revenge and, in passing, harm his political adversaries.
Obviously, Burgess's book went beyond this declaration (which is why it's a work of art and not a pamphlet or a treatise), wrapping it inside an "anticipatory" preview of the great invention that was taking place those days in the industrialized world, the invention of adolescence. Like the good pessimist he was, in 1962 Burgess shrewdly captured the darkest features he saw in the future (he set his story in the hypothetical year of "1995"), which would play a dominant role in Kubrick's adaptation and result in the unforgettable impact his film has had on so many viewers. These features included the aestheticization of violence; violence as a badge of identity (e.g. Alex and his gang of "droogs"), not just as a means (as a tool to achieve revolutionary goals) but as an end in and of itself, a process of self-affirmation that is exhausted through its own display, which owes nothing to the "ethics" or "politics" of violence that preceded it (posters of Che Guevara in the streets of London or Paris in 1968 are also closely linked to violence reduced to a display of aesthetics or identity, void of its more or less heroic nature as a political tool). And, despite what one might think, this "aestheticized" violence, precisely because it is completely blind and void of any tangible purpose, is no less dangerous (rather, often even more so) than violence that serves presumably programmatic aims. Yet, Kubrick was no less "anticipatory" than Burgess, making the film just as current today as when it was first released. He shot the film in 1972 when the welfare state was beginning to decompose (although the stench had not yet reached the levels we must endure today) into the ever-familiar "ill-fare state". This state is characterized by economic and political manipulation of irresponsible adolescence (and the promotion of this irresponsibility because it supports economic and political interests) and the trivialization of culture, expressed in Kubrick's narrative through both the flood of kitsch objects and his use of music, which takes revenge on "high culture" by making Beethoven the soundtrack to a massacre and on "bourgeois happiness" by transforming the somewhat smarmy choreography of Gene Kelly's Dancing in the Rain into a macabre ritual death dance.
In this respect, the last scene of the film is more powerful and relevant than the last pages of the book it is based on, leaving the viewer in a nearly hypnotic state faced with its cruel and obscene symbolism. Sliding skillfully from the classical Pavlovian reflex toward Skinner's operant conditioning (which is based more on reward than on punishment), the Minister, who is no less corrupt than Alex, sweetly and paternalistically nourishes the sexual delinquent and the irredeemable ultra-violent teenager who he should stop or neutralize, convinced that he is manipulating the young victim/executioner for his own political gain in his struggle for power and aware of the failure of his behavioral experiment (since if the boy were not capable of wrong-doing he would not serve his purposes). Alex accepts the deal and opens his big mouth to receive the sustenance of welfare poisoned by ill-fare. However, for reasons that Machiavelli could have guessed, he does it only to be secretly sure he can manipulate the Minister (and the system as a whole) to serve his own perverse private pleasure. And both of them are simultaneous right and wrong. It makes no difference, really, whether we imagine the relationship between Alex and the Minister as the complicity between a spoilt teenager who wreaks havoc in high school classrooms and on weekend sidewalks with the authority, who is so keen to "adapt" his school and streets to the desires of an insatiable psyche molded by the propaganda of mass consumption; or as an alliance between a dark leader of a failed state and the western military power that spoils him until it he begins to blackmail and threaten him; or as a bond between a self-seeking businessman and the dubious politicians who believe they are taking advantage of him as much as he believes he is profiting from them; or as the link that unites a capricious ruler and the clientele to whom he arbitrarily gives out prizes and rewards in order to stay in power. It is the portrayal of an order in which the void left by the absence of a civil and political construct is filled with pure violence, and pure corruption offers us a mirror that reflects our worst (and, unfortunately, most systematic) traits as a society. Herein lies the truly seductive and repulsive nature of these images.
El País, “La cuarta página” p. 31, October 24, 2009
Translated by Susana Torres