Thursday, April 13, 2017

Censors to the Right of Them, Censors to the Left Volley and Thunder

      I've participated lately in some ListServ and Facebook discussions of what a professor can get into trouble for teaching nowadays, and two closely related works that came to mind were Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Stanley Kubrick's 1971 CLOCKWORK ORANGE film, at least as I taught them at conservative Miami University at Oxford (Ohio) — in John Boehner's Congressional District, alma mater for Paul Ryan — in the late 20th and very early 21st centuries.

      They are interesting works to teach.

      In my classes, the film was much more controversial than the novel even though Burgess cheerfully admits in his preface to the reprint we used that his novel is heretical in Christian terms and most of my students were pretty orthodox Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants (with a few theologically radical evangelicals thrown in). The 21-chapter British version of the novel — unlike the initial 20-chapter US edition and the film — is "Pelagian," Burgess says, claiming for human beings an essential goodness and the freedom to choose the good. St. Augustine of Hippo would not have approved, and Augustinian views on Original Sin and a variety of innate, essential depravity are orthodox in Christian tradition — and my generally pious students didn't give a rat's ass. What concerned those who disapproved were the images of sex and violence in the film, and Burgess's once damnable, burn-at-the-stake heresy was no big deal.

      As I said: interesting.

      Also interesting and highly instructive were my students' fairly typical perceptions of the sex and violence in the film.

      To start with something memorable, the Rape Scene in the film and how my students remembered the rape but sometimes forgot that this is also the Crippling Scene. Kubrick's camera pays a lot of attention to the rape of Mrs. Alexander, a woman in young middle age, but it also shows in graphic detail the beating of Mr. Alexander, a man entering a vigorous old age — until that crippling beating and being forced to watch the rape. (Adding to the trauma, Mr. Alexander tells us that the rape killed his wife, but we only have his word for that, plus the problematic trope of rape being lethal to virtuous women. We can be confident, however, that Mrs. Alexander has died.)

     My students' attenuated concern for Mr. Alexander got me asking myself for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE a question from studies of Christopher Marlowe's plays on how audience's perceive violence. So I sat down with a stopwatch and timed the on-screen violence in the film and asked my students for their estimates of how much time we got to see violence against various characters.

      One of the reasons I'd probably get into trouble teaching Kubrick's film is that I think it ethical for a critic to sit with a stopwatch and get some numbers on who on screen is messing over whom and to what degree and for how long. Period. However much in Trumpian times the Left has endorsed fact-base studies, there were academic attacks on Empiricism in the late 20th/early 21st, and I suspect some of that ill-will toward number-crunching horrors still remains.

      It depends on how you evaluate such things, but the major victim of violence in A Clockwork Orange (novel and film) is its nasty antihero, Alex. My students were surprised with this because (I would argue),
            * In the tradition of audiences going back to that of the first English theatrical blockbuster, Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, my students judged violence to a large degree in terms of the victims' worth, and Alex was an attractive but still violent, dangerous, and misogynistic little shit who had it coming. Except with Tamburlaine most of the audience apparently identified with a noble superman, the serial mass murderer Tamburlaine, and not his banal victims.
            * My students sometimes didn't see violence committed by the State and other authorities as violence. I told them that the State's claim was a monopoly on legitimate violence, but that the traditional idea was to allow that violence is violence, and they didn't argue the point; still, they didn't see justified violence as violence. Alex's acts of violence were violence; the violence of State authorities against him were in some sort of unnamed limbo.
            * Etc.

      My students' attitude was something like that mocked in the 1960s with the joke, "I hate violence and them violent demonstrators. Violent people should be taken out and shot!"

      Returning to A Clockwork Orange as novel and film would be interesting nowadays for how different groups would value the value put upon freedom by the story and the question of how much freedom should be restricted to protect decent folk from young monsters like Alex and his drugs. Not to mention how much young readers should identify with decent older people as opposed to guys nearer their age, however despicable those guys — or how much old teens and 20-somethings should be on the lookout for, and push back against, youth-bashing. And it would be fascinating in terms of victims.

      US President Donald J. Trump at least claimed to be appalled by the violence of killing babies with poison gas in Syria, so he blew up property and (enemy) people with Tomahawk missiles, and then went on to use in a related battle the MOAB ordnance: a very large explosive device. Justified or not we can argue about; what I find downright fascinating is the many Americans would not see Mr. Trump's actions as violent. It's unlikely Americans generally could have a rational argument about the actions of the all-too-real Mr. Trump; it's possible we could have one about Burgess's and Kubrick's fictional Alex.

      Or not: I'm not sure one could nowadays — or at least not this off-White male "one" — could teach A Clockwork Orange; and that would be unfortunate.  

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