Kubrick’s Take on Crime and Punishment: the Evolutionary and Revolutionary Psychology of A Clockwork Orange

This essay applies a field of literary criticism described as “Darwinian” to Stanley Kubricks’ film A Clockwork Orange. Darwinian literary criticism came out of work by Barash,[1] Carroll,[2] Pinker,[3] and others working in an evolutionary or sociobiological framework. It is defined as seeking “…to understand the way literature is produced by human nature and reflects human nature—basic human motives like mating, parenting, gaining social status, acquiring resources.’’[4] This analysis shows that in making A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick intentionally, and sometimes unintentionally, illustrated many of the concepts that, in subsequent years, have come out of the scientific inquiry into human nature.

Some literary critics, and others in the social sciences, see this intrusion by biology into their field as reductionist, or they find that it denies notions of spirituality, the essential goodness of people, or the perfectibility of human nature. Sociobiologists have responded that post-modern approaches to literature have lost touch with the true purpose of literature: to instruct and delight. Twentieth century literary criticism made persistent attempts to find cultural determinism, or the scheming of the patriarchy or capitalist elite in every narrative and discourse, and in the process the joy of telling the stories of humanity was lost. In contrast, a sociobiological analysis of literature assumes human behavior and psychology are diverse but also constrained by biological universals. It states that cultures, and thus the narratives we respond to, depict the conflicts inherent in a mass of self-interested, intelligent creatures, designed by evolution, competing and co-operating to achieve their individual goals.

In Pinker’s analysis of the partial conflicts of interest that underlie all human tragedy, he notes at the outset that he “…could illustrate it with just about any great work of fiction.”[5] Nonetheless, some works of fiction are better than others. Those that have struck a chord with both mass audiences and critics across time have attracted the most interest in this new field of criticism. These are the works that ring true across different cultures and times as being reflections and products of human nature. Nineteenth century heroines in corsets have as much appeal in the modern era as they did in the past. We understand their dilemmas and are moved by them because reproductive biology imposes the same conflicts of interest on us regardless of the time and place we live in.

The rest of this essay will correlate three of Pinker’s concepts in evolutionary psychology with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, noting how the latter can be seen, in retrospect, as a keen insight into human nature that psychology has caught up with only in recent years.

In The Blank Slate the author describes how three appealing, but flawed, secular beliefs about human nature have corrupted intellectual life.[6] The blank slate belief overestimated the malleability of human nature. The belief in the noble savage romanticized man in his primitive state and saw civilization as the source of all that is wrong with humanity. The ghost in the machine belief concerns man’s need to believe in an immaterial soul occupying brain and body, entering at the time of conception and leaving at the time of death. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, as well as some of his other films, can be seen as a broad satire of all of these 20th century dogmas.

I want to mention here that in the years since he wrote The Blank Slate, and in the years since I wrote an earlier version of this essay, Pinker has stopped writing strictly about psychology in order to interpret history and make the dubious and controversial conclusion that there has been a remarkable decline of violence since the 18th century. I’ve written elsewhere about Pinker’s drift into a Panglossian obsession that is blind to political and ecological crises of our times. This essay leaves this issue as a separate matter and stays strictly focused on Pinker’s earlier work that preceded his strange emergence as comforter of the post-Trump (or post-Clinton) neoliberal conscience.

Even twenty years ago, however, Pinker’s work in psychology was being dismissed by the left, or by the adherents of what he called the “standard social sciences model.” Evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology was seen as antithetical to intellectuals who saw themselves on the side of social progress. When E.O. Wilson lectured about his 1978 book On Human Nature, he was often assaulted by angry mobs who, ironically, didn’t want to hear what he had to say about violence. What was lost on all these protesters was that some socialists and radicals were taking the new discoveries in biology to support their views. One of them was Robert Trivers who did important foundational work in evolutionary psychology, then left academia to live a decidedly unconventional life that he described in The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. He also describes in this book his dissenting interpretations of American foreign policy and criticizes the false narratives found in the official national histories of Japan, Israel, Turkey and the United States.[7] No one would label Trivers a conventional American conservative. This is all to stress that there is nothing essentially “conservative” or “right wing” about evolutionary psychology, although conservatives, just like leftists, may use it to develop their theories of human nature and ideas for social policy.

When A Clockwork Orange appeared in cinemas in the early 1970’s, the public and critical reaction was effusive and confused. Few could understand why Kubrick had made a film with such disturbing, stylized violence, told in the first person narrative of a psychopath. They failed to see that the film is, in fact, a biting satire of popular notions of human nature and of particular theories about the societal causes of and remedies for criminal behavior. It goes further in its satire by portraying mainstream political parties as being just as pathological as the psychopath at the center of the tale. Rather than being a story that glorifies violence and sympathizes with criminals, it should be seen as a tale that supports the constrained vision of human nature, a term used by Thomas Sowell to avoid semantic confusion over terms such as liberal, right-wing, fascist, conservative and so on.[8] The constrained vision underlies what we usually call “conservative” ideology. It assumes human nature tends toward chaos and violence in the absence of a Hobbesian social contract, and values tradition and received wisdom over the prospect of radical change that may only worsen society with unintended consequences. The unconstrained vision implies a belief that some traditions should be rejected and we should attempt to improve society and move human nature in a better direction.

The film critic Roger Ebert gave a thumbs-down to A Clockwork Orange in 1972, concluding that it glorified violence and portrayed criminals as victims of society (though Kubrick stated his point was exactly the opposite), calling it “an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning. It pretends to oppose the police state and forced mind control, but all it really does is celebrate the nastiness of its hero.”[9] Ebert seems to have let a sanctimonious outrage blind him to the subtler messages of the film. Ebert either did not know of, or take account of, the fact that Anthony Burgess (the writer of the novel the film was based on) was a victim of a home invasion similar to what is portrayed in the film, which caused his wife to commit suicide. This was the trauma Burgess dealt with in his novel, as did Kubrick in the film. Knowing this background, it would be hard to believe Burgess or Kubrick wanted to portray the psychopathic protagonist in a sympathetic light.

Ebert goes on to say that the sympathy is created by the freedom and stylish clothing of hoodlums, and the Beethoven soundtrack. Other critics had the same reaction. Ebert’s website review conveniently links to “critical debate” about the film, but once directed to this collection of reviewers’ quotes, one can find only quotations that agree with Ebert’s analysis. In one of these, Kolker writes, “…the film, finally, can be seen as a cynical manipulation of its audience—a cynicism that indicates Kubrick had become ready to allow his audience to wallow in its own worst instincts”[10]. Kolker, more than Ebert, at least seems closer to realizing the question tossed to the audience by Kubrick’s decision to make the viewer uncomfortable with his or her empathy for the villain. If these critics say that Kubrick is the cynic, thereby implying that they have faith in innate human goodness, then the logic follows that there is no possible way to portray the psychopathic protagonist in a sympathetic light. The goodness of human nature would be unaffected by any attempt to “stylize” the violence or make it esthetically appealing. Or perhaps these critics assume a blank slate vision of a human nature and worry that it can be bent easily toward good or evil, so the artist has a moral responsibility to lead his flock away from “wallowing in its own worst instincts.” Kubrick makes a choice to tell the story from the villain’s point of view, to stylize the violence in a way that tempts the viewer to fall for his charms, and at the same time he portrays no likeable, sympathetic characters elsewhere in the film. They are all caricatures with no developed background stories. The effect is to leave the viewer unmoored, forced to question everything about individual human nature and the nature of social institutions, and thus the film gains its subversive power.

Kubrick must have been quite aware at the time that his film would provoke strong reactions from the intellectuals whose theories he was lampooning. Banks describes Kubrick’s vision, supported with a quote from Malcolm McDowell, who played Alex in the film:

In Clockwork, government, technology, and other social institutions are seen as only worsening the problem of man’s barbaric nature rather than helping. It is small wonder that liberal critics decried Kubrick’s vision, as this also runs counter to their notions. Malcolm McDowell said in an interview, “Liberals, they hate Clockwork because they’re dreamers, and if someone shows them realities—they cringe, don’t they, when faced with the bloody truth.”[11]

Rather than seeing Kubrick as a cruel or cynical manipulator, we should see his film as a satirical challenge to the unconstrained vision of human nature. It is harshly satirical of liberal beliefs about crime, punishment and human nature. The liberals in the film are consumed by a desire for revenge when presented with the opportunity. The blank slate adherents in politics and science, carrying out their behaviorist therapies to cure “the criminal reflex,” are depicted as cravenly irresponsible in the way they recklessly abandon traditional approaches to criminal justice. The prison pastor can’t consider that Alex may have an innate and incurable psychopathy because he believes he has a soul, not a brain pathology, that need only be led away from wicked habits of thought. To elaborate on this interpretation of the film it is necessary to first give a brief synopsis.


The protagonist of the story is Alex, a juvenile offender on the verge of adulthood. He lives in England of the near future, a society in which the grand plans of social reformers have produced stylish, modern ghettos of urban crime and alienation. The housing project where Alex lives is a modern, planned community resembling the visions of the architect LeCorbusier that came to exist in planned cities like Brasilia, or in housing projects in Chicago. The modernity and elegant design is obvious, but it is covered in graffiti and the amenities have all been vandalized. The urban environment is not amenable to human habitation. This element of the film is something that Pinker specifically discusses in The Blank Slate, pointing out that such architectural nightmares were born out of blank slate philosophies that denied that humans need to have such things as greenery, privacy and vibrant street life in their environments.[12]

Alex engages in all forms of crime as the leader of a small gang. They engage in extreme violence, with extreme cruelty toward their victims. They beat a homeless man, steal cars, and break into homes where they rape wives in front of their husbands. Alex’s life of crime comes to an end when he is betrayed by his gang. They rebel against his leadership by beating him during a crime, then abandoning him to be caught by the police.

Alex’s victim this night has died, so he goes to jail for murder. After staying there a while, he hears about a new therapy for reforming criminals. The therapy is said to be an experiment in completely curing violent criminals of their tendencies. Alex is anxious to be accepted for this experiment because he knows that he could be released after he is cured. He makes many seemingly sincere appeals, and works hard to impress the prison chaplain and other officials. One day, the Minister of the Interior inspects the prison and is impressed by Alex’s case. He has the right history of extreme violent tendencies and the apparent desire to change his ways.

The therapy is an extreme form of behaviorist aversion therapy. Alex is given drugs that cause him severe mental anxiety and physical sickness, and while he is on these drugs he must watch films of violent killing and sexual sadism. Inadvertently, his therapists play his favorite Beethoven music during one of these sessions, and thus imprint upon him a sickening aversion to it. After this therapy, the things that used to give him pleasure are now associated with the horrible feelings caused by the drugs. When the therapy is complete, any experience of sex or violence will make the horrible feelings return. Thus it will be safe for him to return to society.

Once released, Alex has no place to go, and after a series of misadventures, he wanders to the nearest house to ask for help, and he is taken in by the man who lives there. After talking to him for a while, the man and his friends realize that Alex is the poor soul who has been tortured in the famous new therapy that the government has been advertising as a cheap new way to treat criminals. This makes them more sympathetic to Alex because they belong to the opposition party that is against the government’s policy of treating the individual rather than the social ills that foster criminal behavior. Therefore, they decide to take care of Alex for a while, hoping to use him to support their cause.

Here, the story takes its most satirical twist. Earlier in the story Alex and his gang had broken into this house, tied up the man in a chair, then raped his wife, but they had worn masks so that they would not be recognized. The wife later killed herself. This man is now taking care of Alex, but he cannot recognize him because he never saw his face. Alex remembers him and the house, but feels safe because he realizes the man cannot recognize him. However, Alex makes the mistake of singing “Singing in the Rain” while taking a bath—the same song that he sang while carrying out his crime in the man’s house.

Suddenly the man realizes who his guest is, and instantly his views on criminal justice are transformed. Just previously he had been ready to protest against a government that did not accept that it is wicked society that creates criminal behavior. Now he only wants revenge on the criminal who destroyed his life. A short while ago Alex told him about the effects of the therapy, so the man knows that Alex will be tortured by hearing the music of Beethoven. After Alex goes to sleep that night, the man locks the bedroom door then blasts the music at high volume. After several hours, Alex cannot take the torture any longer, so he jumps out the window in a suicide attempt, but he does not die.

While Alex is in the hospital, news of his accident appears in the mass media, and the government becomes interested in putting the best spin on it. The Minister of the Interior visits him in hospital for a photo opportunity. He announces that Alex has become a fine young man and the therapy has worked. They bring in a giant stereo system and play classical music to celebrate this announcement. It is Beethoven, but it is not making Alex sick. Instead, it evokes a pleasurable sexual fantasy, so he smiles for the cameras while shaking the Minister’s hand, and his narrating voice declares, “I was cured, all right.” The effects of the therapy have worn off and Alex is his old self.


Alex gets his treatment: viewing films depicting violence
while medicated to feel nauseated by the experience.
Note the unmedicated doctors in the
background viewing the same films.

A Clockwork Orange
reveals Kubrick to be a keen and uncompromising observer of human nature, which perhaps led to the film’s greatest flaw. He took his argument to extremes, and made a commitment to it that left him open to valid criticisms that his vision was too misanthropic. The film’s message goes against the reigning liberal ideologies and behaviorist psychology of the decades when the novel and film were made, and this can be appreciated much better now when evolutionary psychology has, as one commenter said, “re-licensed the scientific study of human nature.”[13]

This contemporary scientific study of human nature can be used as an effective framework for understanding the film. Pinker’s three categories of flawed dogmatic beliefs about human nature (the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine) can all be found as themes addressed in the film. In A Clockwork Orange, we see these erroneous assumptions about human nature viciously satirized as ideology confronts reality.

In the film, the government takes a blank slate approach to human nature as an opportunity to save costs in the nation’s prisons. It believes that even if the criminal’s brain is flawed, his behavior, or the “criminal reflex” can be fixed by behaviorist therapy. For the government and the scientists who have developed the therapy, the blank slate philosophy becomes a matter of faith because they have staked their reputations and their careers on this new therapy, so they put it into action even before they know what its full effects might be. They are eager to apply the therapy because of the obvious assistance it gives to liberal economic theory. It’s a cost savings that will allow for greater “austerity” in public expenditures.

Aside from what it does to the criminal, the dark aspect of this therapy is what it could do to anyone the government chose to treat with it. As is shown in a staged demonstration of Alex’s reform before an audience of scientists and officials, the therapy could be used against anyone to “cure” them of a dislike of humiliation, a reflex for self-defense, or an interest in procreation. The therapy is actually a technology of dehumanization and emasculation.

In this respect, the themes of A Clockwork Orange touch on the themes that run through all of Kubrick’s work. In other films, we can see Kubrick was most concerned with the connections between intelligence, free will and aggression. In 2001 A Space Odyssey, HAL the computer gains the capacity for aggression as soon as he gains a human-like intelligence, just as the ancestral man-apes at the beginning of the film increase their capacity for violence as soon as they figure out how to use tools. In A Clockwork Orange, the scene of an old man’s beating is a choreographed replica of the scene of the man-apes’ murder in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick explored the absurd paradoxes of mutually assured destruction—the need for rational, intelligent actors, in this case world superpowers, to mount a credible bluff of being capable of irrational acts of planetary destruction.

In his final film, the surreal Eyes Wide Shut, the wife of the protagonist reveals to him not an infidelity, but merely a serious temptation that she did not act upon, and this sends him into a nightmare of fear, jealousy, abandonment and amorality. The protagonist is portrayed as satirically derailed by the shocking” discovery that the female sex, like the male sex, has evolved its own non-monogamous mating strategies, and from there he goes on to be shocked, shocked that the wealthy get away with horrible crimes. He discovers that his social class is corrupted far beyond what he ever imagined. He protests the injustices he sees, but in the end, he reconciles himself to keeping his “eyes wide shut,” knowing but pretending not to know, retreating gratefully to the social covenants of marriage and social norms that offer some protection from the evils he saw with eyes wide open. He can carry on only through a process of psychological denial, looking away from what he was powerless to change.

Finally, in Full Metal Jacket, the protagonist, a US soldier in Vietnam, explains to an officer why he wears a peace-sign button on his jacket but writes “born to kill” on his helmet: “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir, the Jungian thing, sir.” 

There are other aspects of evolutionary psychology illustrated in A Clockwork Orange as minor themes. Kubrick’s portrayal of Alex and his gang reflects findings about psychopathy that have been revealed by research. Psychopaths come in two types.[14] One resorts to violence when he perceives himself to be at a disadvantage in society, but he would prefer not to use it if circumstances were more favorable. This describes the form of crime familiar to us as organized crime, carried out by people who can appear sane and have normal family lives, or who can even be considered as good neighbors and citizens. They resort to violence mostly because they cannot call on the criminal justice system to settle their disputes. The severe type of psychopath gets pleasure from violence and finds it so compelling that he will engage in it even when it imperils his own well-being and there is no apparent goal in it. The severe psychopath is unlikely to be reformed by punishment, therapy or moral education.

In A Clockwork Orange, the mutiny in Alex’s gang illustrates this difference. Alex’s gang members reject his leadership because they realize that he does not share their concern with getting ahead in life. They have become interested in gaining some profit for the risk involved in their crimes, but they have noticed that Alex seems somewhat indifferent to the purpose of it all. He simply likes the violence. In this sense, they have a better insight into Alex’s nature than the intellectuals who blame Alex’s criminality on social ills. Later in the film they mature and satisfy their ambitions by becoming police officers. When Alex is released after his treatment, unable to defend himself because of his conditioning, he is, by sheer coincidence, picked up on the roadway by his former friends who are now police officers. They beat him once more and leave him by the roadside.

Although I have interpreted the story as depicting a severe psychopath, Kubrick never seemed to have such an intention, or an awareness of the distinctions between types of criminals. In an interview published in 1972, he said, “You identify with Alex because you recognize yourself. It’s for this reason that some people become uncomfortable.”[15] This is a common explanation of films with violent protagonists, but Kubrick goes to an extreme here that actually does make me uncomfortable, though viewing A Clockwork Orange did not. One can certainly say there is darkness and temptation in everyone. Psychological studies have found that violent revenge fantasies are exceedingly common, but as I stated above, there is a wide range of violent tendencies in any given population. A minority of people commit violence simply because they gain pleasure from it. Others engage in it sparingly to pursue their interests, while most have a strong aversion to it and engage in it only reluctantly to defend themselves. Drafted soldiers have to be trained out of their aversion to killing the enemy. A film that got violence right in this respect was Fight Club, which showed how the members of the club found it extremely difficult to engage strangers in fights, no matter how hard they tried to provoke them. Kubrick’s statement suggests he really did have a dark and pessimistic view of human nature, and by saying everyone is like his protagonist, he said more about himself than he did about his fellow man. Perhaps I can only speak for myself. I don’t have any desires to commit sadistic crimes, and I’ve lived my life with the assumption that most people are similar, which is not the same as having a naive belief in the romantic fallacy that nature made us purely happy and good.

The intellectuals in A Clockwork Orange are not the only ones who misapply their theories of human nature. The intuitive and instinctive moral sense is prone to attributing a capacity for normal moral sense to all people. We have trouble understanding how any human could lack natural empathy and a distaste for inflicting harm on others. Thus, religious clerics and other earnest moral guides believe they can rehabilitate the psychopath. The cleric portrayed in the film believes that in Alex there is a “ghost in the machine” that just needs to be guided to the light. He fails to consider the likelihood that rehabilitation may be impossible for someone like Alex who has an extreme neuropathology. Alex is depicted in the film consciously and cynically performing the role of reformed sinner for his spiritual guide, all so that he can be recommended for the new behavior therapy experiment and gain early release.

The belief in the noble savage is torn down in the scene in which the victim of Alex’s crime gets his revenge. He is the stereotype of what is sarcastically called the “limousine liberal,” or wealthy intellectuals who can afford to hold excessively optimistic views of human nature because they can usually shelter themselves from being victimized. Alex’s previous victim opens his door at night to strangers because he still believes he is good at heart and believes in the goodness of others. Man is inherently good, but it is society that corrupts him. Even after his horrific experience as a victim of crime, he is full of sympathy for Alex when he stumbles into his home in need of help.

He finds out that Alex is the poor ex-convict who has been a victim of the government’s cruel therapy. Unaware that this is the man who raped his wife, he shows no regard for whoever might have been the victim of Alex’s crimes, someone who must be a victim much like himself. Instead, he is guided by the commitment to his beliefs. He belongs to the political opposition, and when he realizes that he has found the poster boy of the government’s prison reform plan, he quickly calls his colleagues so that they can plan how to exploit the situation to their party’s advantage. The satirical climax of the film comes when this man is transformed instantly into a vengeful murderer as soon as he finds out who Alex is. Thus Kubrick reveals here his interest in not only the violence of psychopaths, but in the potential for aggression and lust for revenge that is in everyone. This scene also illustrates the hypocrisy of those who believe in a blank slate. At one moment the victim thought Alex, although once a criminal, was worthy of a warm welcome in his home because treating him well could make him good. All this changed when he found out who Alex was.

Other blank slate adherents are the parole officer and the Minister of the Interior, and the psychiatrists who work with Alex. Yet we have to question how much they really believe the ideology, or whether they are just going along with the bureaucratic momentum, or just find it convenient for the advancement of the careers they have invested in. The parole officer knows “there was a bit of nastiness last night” that Alex was involved in, but his own professional reputation is staked on reforming Alex, so it would be his own failure if Alex were charged with a serious crime. He could take action to protect society by making sure Alex is locked up for a long time, but this would conflict with his own career interest. Thus, one’s misguided beliefs about human nature may be more than innocent misunderstandings. If a person’s career interests are involved, he can cling to an ideology long after he knows it is false and harmful. Much of the irony in the film that critics found so disturbing derives from the way the sadistic psychopath exploits the contradictions that the professionals are caught in. It should not be so disturbing that there is a villain at the center of the story, but that there are no heroes to be found anywhere.

The Minister of the Interior is revealed to be just as evil as Alex because he knows the effect his program will have, but he does not care. The government is gambling with public safety by launching a criminal reform program, before they know the long-term effects of it, just to implement an austerity budget. They do not want to fix the underlying social problems that might be contributing to crime, and they are ready to abandon traditional solutions before they have a proven remedy. This is why Kubrick shows Alex and the Minister shaking hands like co-conspirators in the end. Alex himself may have a future in politics.

Aside from satirizing the dogmas of contemporary intellectuals, Kubrick touches on one other discovery of evolutionary psychology. Pinker calls man the “sanctimonious animal,” prone to excessive moralizing and confusion between aesthetic beauty and moral goodness.[16] The viewer is made aware of this when Alex is shown to be a devotee of Beethoven. For no valid reason, we expect such a person to be well-mannered and good, and we expect the music to inspire lofty, peaceful sentiments. Yet the violent psychopath is a fan, and for him the music evokes pleasurable sadistic fantasies. When the Minister of the Interior visits the prison to search for a candidate for the treatment, he is shown pausing to admire the bust of Beethoven in Alex’s cell, and this suggests that Alex’s musical tastes were a factor in his being judged as a good candidate for treatment because of his apparent refined sensibilities.

Kubrick is hailed as a genius of his era, always ahead of society and other filmmakers in his vision, but many also found his vision cold and his characters one-dimensional. This is evident if we consider the reaction to A Clockwork Orange. The public and the professional critics are still likely to find it confusing or appalling for its apparent glorification of violence and sympathy with its sadistic protagonist. In making an artistic interpretation of a work of literature and grappling with the issues of his day, Kubrick expressed a dark and constrained vision of human nature that mocked the political mainstream, illustrating how politicians and intellectuals of all types have misunderstood human nature and thereby confused the understanding of social problems and alienated a public that could be directing itself toward effective solutions.

At the end of the film we see Alex and the Minister of the Interior shaking hands. Political expediency and criminal pathology unite in victory. It is a triumph for them, but a terror for us. Kubrick has them face directly to the camera, confronting the audience with their victory. Rather than glorifying Alex’s evil, Kubrick’s message is the implicit question he throws back at his audience: What are you going to do about this? One might be tempted to say that Kubrick has engaged only in cynical exploitation. There are no ideological commitments in his films. They are detached and satirical observations of society as it exists. He was not an enthusiastic supporter of American militarism and foreign policy, but he expressed skepticism and doubt in interviews that socialist solutions took proper account of human nature or that they could avoid a descent into bureaucratic despotism. He said in one interview, “any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure,”[17] but this statement does not mean it would not be worthwhile to search for a better understanding of human nature and to create social institutions based on that understanding. In the same interview, Kubrick denied that his art could have a positive effect, or that he wanted it to. He said, “I don’t think it's socially harmful. I don’t think any work of art can be. Unfortunately, I don’t think it can be socially constructive either.” Yet after this interview the film inspired copycat crimes, a turn of events which shocked Kubrick and caused him to cancel screenings in the United Kingdom, an action which showed he did care and wasn’t so indifferent to the effect his films had on people. Perhaps in this interview Kubrick exhibited a common flaw that human nature is prone to. He got carried about by an idea he had committed to and took it to such a ridiculous extreme that he said things he really didn’t believe.

If the film could have this negative effect on viewers, it could have had positive effects as well. By his fruits, not his words, ye shall know him. Kubrick was not a revolutionary, but the ending of A Clockwork Orange leaves the audience with a scathing condemnation of the existing political and intellectual establishment which we can choose to see as call for radical change. If the film elucidates evolutionary psychology, the ending can also leave the viewer wondering if there could be such a thing as revolutionary psychology.

A final thought on the relevance of A Clockwork Orange to the contemporary political scene:

A writer I like to follow, James Kunstler, has noted the dark side of opposition to President Trump. Like me, he stresses that he is not a fan, but feels some permanent damage is being done to American society by the phenomenon loosely called “the resistance”:

Everything about [Trump] drives his… opponents… plumb batshit: his previous incarnations as a shady NYC real estate schmeikler, as a TV clown, as a business deadbeat, as a self-described pussy-grabber… his vulgar casinos, his mystifying hair-do, his baggy suits and dangling neckties, his arrant, childish, needless lying about trivialities, his intemperate tweets, his unappetizing associates, his loutish behavior in foreign lands, his fractured, tortured syntax, his obvious insincerity, his sneery facial contortions… and lots lots more—and of course that doesn’t even touch the actual policy positions he struggles to articulate. In sum, Trump represents such a monumentally grotesque embarrassment to the permanent Washington establishment that they will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the removal of this odious caitiff. And in the process abandon all reason and decency.[18]

It seems that the American public is being subjected a sort of clockwork orange behavior aversion therapy when it comes to its infamous “orange-skinned” president. Apart from all the horrible, malformed ideas articulated by President Trump, during his campaign he supported a few ideas that used to be thought of as progressive and tending toward harmonious international relations. He spoke against free trade and in favor of better relations with nuclear superpowers. Yet the masses are being trained to feel nauseated by the man, and by association this will include a future aversion to the few good policies he spoke about like a broken analog clock that is correct twice a day. The next time a candidate comes along who wants peace with Russia and jobs for the working class, these policies will be associated with everything that was odious about Trump’s character and his unpopular actions on other matters.


[1] David Barash and Nanelle Barash, Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature (New York: Delacorte Press, 2005).

[2] Joseph Carroll, “Human Universals and Literary Meaning: A Sociobiological Critique of Pride and Prejudice, Villette, O Pioneers!, Anna of the Five Towns, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies (2001): 9 27, http://www.umsl.edu/~engjcarr/web_documents/five%20novels.htm, in D. T. Max, “Darwinian Literary Criticism,” New York Times Magazine, December 15, 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/15/magazine/15DARW.html.

[3] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (London: Penguin, 2002).

[4] Joseph Carroll, op. cit.

[5] Pinker, op. cit., 431.

[6] Ibid, 1-73.

[7] Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Basic Books, 2011).

[8] Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

[9] Roger Ebert, “Review of A Clockwork Orange.” RogerEbert.com, February 2, 1972, http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19720211/REVIEWS/202110301/1023.

[10] Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). In Ebert.

[12] Pinker, op. cit., 170-171

[13] Samuel Jay Keyser, Introduction to the lecture: “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.” MIT World, October 2002, http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/23/.

[14] Pinker, op. cit., 261.

[16] Ibid, 269-273.

[17] McGregor, op. cit.

[18] James Kunstler, “And now the Schiff Memo,” (personal blog) February 26, 2018.

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