It is probably safe now to reveal something that occurred at Grove City College over a quarter of a century ago. I often feel I must justify my choice of college, but I was a first-generation college student who knew nothing about higher education. I was raised with a Fundamentalist orientation, Grove City was a “Christian college,” and it was only about 30 miles from home. I do give Grove City credit for shaking me out of my Fundie way of thinking; as a religion major I met some genuine honest thinkers in the department who let me question the inconsistencies of Fundamentalist beliefs. I broke free in my own time. One of the literature professors, however, insisted that we both read and watch the movie version of A Clockwork Orange. It was my senior year and I felt ready to handle it. As I watched the movie again over the weekend, the first time since college, I was shocked that the institution Grove City College has become would have ever allowed such a movie to be shown. Although there is Kubrickian nudity, the movie was initially given its rating because of the violence, which, by today’s standards, is somewhat tame.
Anthony Burgess’ book is so well known that I don’t need to summarize the story here. What struck me in a new way was the religious element in the plot. While Alex is in prison, and wanting to be reformed, it is the prison chaplain who advises him against it. Undergoing the famous movie treatment, Alex indeed proves docile after testing, leading the priest to declare, “He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” Of course, the government is satisfied with this kind of morality, the sort that upholds appearances at any price to humanity.
What I find particularly disturbing is Burgess’ prescience. A Clockwork Orange was published fifty years ago, and since that time we have seen politics shift from care of the citizen to the ultimate window dressing of courting the Moral Majority to make it look as if all governmental decisions are moral. The Tea Party seeks to underscore that charade, claiming that all who would argue for Alex’s humanity deserve the fate that he so wrongfully dispensed before his “reform.” This view of the world suffers for its lack of complexity. Humans do not come in black and white. Ironically, Burgess chose to make the clergyman the only the objector to the inhuman treatment imposed on Alex. This is the kind of dilemma on which Stanley Kubrick thrived, but it has become even more poignant in the decades since his movie was released. True, Kubrick’s film is based on the apocopated American version of the novel, perhaps obscuring the intended meaning of Burgess. But isn’t that exactly what he was attempting to do?