Malcolm McDowell as Alex Delarge in A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1971) dir. Stanley Kubrick

“imagine a human subject devoid of the defense mechanisms produced by a history of hurting and being hurt, of choices and therefore of exclusions; imagine someone who has never had to make a choice that excludes an option or disadvantages another. In other words, imagine unfallen humanity, as it is imagined in the various Utopian dreams and fictions with which Dostoevsky toyed in general terms in a number of his fiction.” – Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on Prince Myshkin

“Choice! The boy has no real choice, has he?… He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” – Prison Chaplain on Alex DeLarge

One of the major recurring theme in this dystopian series is the utopists’ quest to remake man. Most of the works I’ve looked at take issue with the Enlightenment project to create an “unencumbered self” that exists in a non-cultural, non-historical, non-religious world. It is largely an effort to undo the fall and create a “brave new world” of goodness achieved by calculation.

A Clockwork Orange - Malcolm McDowellThis attempt at an artificial immaculate conception is perhaps clearest in A Clockwork Orange‘s Ludovico Technique. Alex is scientifically conditioned to avoid bad behavior, but of course, this robbery of choice robs him of his humanity as well. Being severed from his natural violence and lust also severs him from human art and heritage.

Watching A Clockwork Orange again reminded me of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Prince Myshkin is an epileptic who is not introduced into society until adulthood. He seems to be a saint. He doesn’t ask moral questions, but innocently acts. He gives away his fortune to scam artists and thinks little of his own happiness, sacrificing his romantic aspirations at the drop of a hat in order to (try to) help a prostitute. He doesn’t fit in with human society at all.

This is not an obvious critique of humanity, but a critique of Myshkin, as Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams points out.

“It is Myshkin’s own changelessness that prevents him from being a ‘savior’ in any sense, and that the gulf between him and Christ is to do with the fact that the Prince makes no adult choices.”

Although without sin, Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as fully human. Unlike the detached Myshkin, he (literally) lashes out in anger, takes a sarcastic tone with stupid questions, is rude, gets tired, gets frustrated and sometimes just needs to get away from it all. When his friend dies, he doesn’t contemplate Heaven or look for comforting scriptures – he sits down and cries.

Emulating Christ is not possible for either Myshkin or post-Ludovico Alex. Myshkin does not recognize and cannot process his romantic feelings for Aglaya, and Alex feels a dread worse than death upon arousal. Jesus – at least as explored by Kazantzakis and Scorsese – is tempted by lust as fully as anyone.

Hans Holbein the Younger - The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (Oil and Tempera - 1520–22)
Hans Holbein the Younger – The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (Oil and Tempera – 1520–22)

Myshkin’s brief foray into the human world is a disaster. Death and ruin is all his “goodness” brings. Alex doesn’t rape and murder anymore, which is a massive improvement to his presence in the world. But he is likewise incapable of bringing about active goodness. His experience might have been to warn others against the technique, but even his role as a symbol of anti-tyranny fails.

Williams might have been writing about either character when he described the effects of Myshkin’s non-humanity:

“The premature embrace of harmony turns out to be an act of violence in its own way — including violence, suicidal violence, to the self.”

The Idiot and A Clockwork Orange are both dystopias, on an individual scale.

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