RELI3027 Existentialism and Nihilism
Li King Lem
Sartre’s Existentialism and the movie “A Clockwork Orange”
Since 1971, the famous director Stanley Kubrick revised the America version of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel “A Clockwork Orange” into the movie of the same name, “A Clockwork Orange” has raised countless discussions. This paper aims to interpret the movie with Sartre’s existentialism, to examine the question of freedom of choice and responsibility that raised in the movie along with the care for humanism, which is one of the most significant thesis in the modern days.
1) Sartre’s Existentialism
The most concerning question in existentialism is the value and meaning of human life. To achieve the value and meaning of life, one needs to enjoy freedom through free and continuous choices. At the same time, one also has to face the responsibilities and duties following the choices. Sartre’s existentialism thought has three significant ideas, they are: in the view of objectivity, the world is absurd and life is painful, one is just a man in pain in a world full of absurdity; in the view of subjectivity, one is a “being-for-itself”, freedom of choice is highly praised; freedom of choice and responsibility are closely connected, one cannot escape from it.
2) “A Clockwork Orange”
The background of “A Clockwork Orange” is set in an imaginary future that civilization is highly developed. The story is about Alex, a teenager as wicked as possible. the movie can be divided into three parts: the first part is about Alex committing fist fight, robbery, rape and even murder with his gang, and finally get caught and put in jail; the second part is about Alex undergo an experimental behavior modification treatment in exchange for to be released after the treatment; the third part is about how Alex being “cured” after the treatment and released from jail, which is losing the ability to do evil. The movie described not even one bit of Alex’s growing background, he just made his choice of who he is.
A Clockwork Orange might seem organic and juicy in appearance but is, in fact, just a clockwork machine controlled by other external power. The title is a metaphor of a man who cannot choose. And the movie itself is showing the progress of how an orange being turned into a controllable clockwork machine.
3) Free choice and responsibility in the movie
Alex chooses to be a man of violence, and choosing violence is choosing evil. The sound of alarm siren in the background music indicated the responsibility following the choice. The violence of Alex is pure, he does not hesitate to use force against anyone, he has no concern about the police or laws. in some sense, Alex is a devotee, he devoted himself to the pleasure brought by violence. As expected, Alex’s devotion led him to the hell of pain, the unlimited freedom drags Alex to extremely heavy responsibility.
In the movie, the tediously long process of Alex entering jail is shown to the audience: Alex handed in his personal belongings one by one, Alex took off his clothes one by one, prison guard checked Alex body exhaustively. During the scene, there is no background music and no facial expression on every actor, implying the long and boring prison life that Alex is about to undergo.
The movie further revealed the relation between overly free choices and consequences in the cruelest contrast. The experimental behavior modification treatment that “cured” Alex is conducted like this: Alex is tied on a wheelchair with numerous patch electrodes and a tool holding his eyelids open. He is forced to watch countless brutal videos, including massacre, rape, murder, burying people alive, war, etc. Normally these videos would excite Alex but a medicine which cause pain is injected into his body. Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, Alex favorite music, was played as background music during the treatment. The treatment was successful, whenever Alex tries to use violence or have sex, his body would recall that pain. After released from jail, Alex collided with a man on the street, he wanted to take out a knife but that cause him only pain, made him down on the knee and lick the man’s shoes to beg for forgiveness.
Sartre believes one can make his choice freely, yet there must be corresponding consequences. Alex chose violence, but it is not acceptable in the society, the inverted value of Alex caused the tragedy.
4) Humanity, Subjectivity and Objectivity
At the end of the movie, Alex is surrounded by a bunch of politicians, they are using Alex as a symbol of fighting against the ruling party, as Alex is a victim of the government’s experimental policy. However, Alex does not even care what they are saying, he is imagining himself being surrounded by many beautiful nude ladies and enjoying delicious food. Alex laughed. The movie ends here.
In existentialism, what makes human be human is the freedom of choice. As Sartre claimed: “existence precedes essence”, the meaning of one’s life is decided by one’s choice. Humanity is influenced by two major forces, one is one’s demands to oneself, the other is the setting and framework of the external environment. The conflict between these two forces ended up with objectivity’s overwhelming victory against subjectivity in the movie, resulting in the devoid of humanity.
The specific performance of objectivity in the movie is the state apparatus. Government, police, jail, hospital, politicians, etc. These irresistible force sphered Alex, a random order from the power decided Alex to be or not to be human. the freedom of choice is somehow sacred and inviolable. Without the ability to choose good or evil, right or wrong, Alex is no longer human but a tool. Although Alex can harm no one anymore, he is being oppressed by the outlaws, the inhuman compulsory good deeds do not help to improve the morality of the society. Alex’s freedom of choice ought to be supported unconditionally. As Sartre stated in his book “The Roads to Freedom”, a man proves his very existence by his choices and actions and shape himself through continuous choices and attempts. It is incorrect to deny anyone’s right to choose because one can change oneself in future choices. Thus, if someone lost the freedom to choose, he would degrade into a talking machine. The treatment made Alex a machine of doing good deeds, but his humanity is trapped forever in and only in his own imagination.
In Sartre’s existentialism, humanity and morality can only be accomplished under one’s demand and request out of subjectivity. in order to achieve a truly moral and humane society, every individuals’ freedoms of choice must be respected.
“A Clockwork Orange” must not be seen as just a crime movie, as violence is never the main focus of this movie. Indeed, the violent scenes are shocking and eye-catching, yet the movie has also shown the even more shocking and terrifying consequences. I would say the movie is indirectly praising the sense of responsibility united with the freedom of choice and criticizing actions that degrade humanity.
Sartre had experienced the great war that almost destroyed human’s dignity. As a soldier, he witnessed how lives can be nothing more than numbers. Thus, he attached so much to the search of the meaning of life. Sartre had seen how ideological state apparatuses manufacture ideology that controls the whole society, the suppression of subjectivity by objectivity.
From this movie, I would say that Stanley Kubrick seems to be an understander of Sartre’s fear. In fact, Kubrick has said that society should not do a wrong thing for the right reason.
Reference:Althusser, L. (1970). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses.
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