Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Clockwork Orange

Once again, here's a startling piece by Theodore Dalyrimple, the one conservative who should be required reading for all liberals. This one is also worth reading because it contains an excellent analysis of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange. Dalyrimple aptly notes:
"Clockwork Orange remains a novel of immense power. Linguistically inventive, socially prophetic, and philosophically profound, it comes very close to being a work of genius."

How right he is.

I think it's amusing that Burgess was a schoolteacher; lucky myself not to have taught any droogs. Dalryimple contends that Burgess: "sensed a stirring of revolt among the youth of his country and elsewhere in the West, a revolt with which—as a deeply unconventional man who felt himself to be an outsider however wealthy or famous he became, and who drank deep at the well of resentment as well as of spirituous liquors—he felt some sympathy and might even have helped in a small way to foment. And yet, as a man who was also deeply steeped in literary culture and tradition, he understood the importance of the shift of cultural authority from the old to the young and was very far from sanguine about its effects. He thought that the shift would lead to a hell on earth and the destruction of all that he valued."

Was the lapsed Catholic really so gloomy? In the Britich version of the novel, the Ludovico Technique, a Skinneresque behavioral modification approach, fails miserably, of course. But Alex does outgrow his violent ways, bringing to mind the often startling difference between a boy at 19 and a man at 25. Again, I think Dalyrimple might go too far in universalizing what he has seen as a prison social worker.

But, I don't know if he's wrong, and I think that is usually the strength of his writing. Is it as bad as all of this? "It would not have surprised Burgess that magazines for ten- or 11-year-old girls are now full of advice about how to make themselves sexually attractive, that girls of six or seven are dressed by their single mothers in costumes redolent of prostitution, or that there has been a compression of generations, so that friendships are possible between 14- and 26-year-olds. The precocity necessary to avoid humiliation by peers prevents young people from maturing further and leaves them in a state of petrified adolescence. Persuaded that they already know all that is necessary, they are disabused about everything, for fear of appearing naive. With no deeper interests, they are prey to gusts of hysterical and childish enthusiasm; only increasingly extreme sensation can arouse them from their mental torpor. Hence the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has followed in the wake of the youth culture."

Dalryimple's central claim is that we live in a society in which values have been so inverted that young people are considered to have a wisdom that adults lack, and not vice-versa. And, sure enough, I often find that my student's are trying to educate me. "Mr. TA, you just have to accept the fact that some people are just not going to read, and you have to figure out how to teach us this stuff some other way." Of course, I ignore this. But I wonder if this sort of laying down the rules for the old-timers isn't just accepted everywhere else. Certainly, the university does spew its share of "You tell us how you should be taught" bullshit. Pop culture is similarly obsequious to whichever kids who will buy, buy, buy. Parents worry about being "cool" because they haven't the time to be parents. Even among conservative talk show hosts there seems to be an attitude that: "Those farty old eggheads don't know anything. Come on! Let's have a therapeutic religion, therapeutic patriotism, and a therapeutic war, and tell them to blow it out their ass!" Again, it's the conviction that there's no more genuine expression than a loud belch in a public place.

I think Dalyrimple is correct that young people are sort of floating, cut off from anything ordering or elevating in their lives. But, I think, far from being droogs, many of them are simply profoundly boring people, more ready to shop for more clothes than cut someone's throat. I tend to ascribe to J.G. Ballard's even gloomier belief than Burgess's that the future will be incredibly boring, punctuated by the occasional meaningless act of violence.

More somnabulant than ultraviolent.


Hiromi said...

Whenever people complain about "young people today," I have this tendency to dismiss it as yet another generational conflict, but I do think there is more to it than that these days.

A quick comment on youth culture, or at least music: looking back at my own teenage memories, and conversations with students when I was teaching, music isn't mere entertainment - a lot of young people really identify with these artists. But if you listen closely to lyrics, much of it is pretty narcissistic and solipsistic. I was surprised to see myself agreeing with Allan Bloom on this aspect of pop culture.

Also, Question Authority has become doctrinaire. I think this sort of thing has come up in posts in both our blogs - where choice becomes a right, all opinions are thought to be of the same value, and it is wrong to judge.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I felt pretty strange the first time I had a gripe that essentially boiled down to "kids today have no respect for authority".

I actually listened to a lot of crappy music as a kid, but what I think was different was that I had a whole range of input, from Bach to Dead Kennedys. I disagree with Bloom in that I'm not sure the problem is the lousy music- it's that they get nothing but lousy music. And it's just amazing how stupid television and movies are too. There seems to be this one smug, hyper-bourgeois, over-flattered, sarcastic and cynical persona that extends over all media anymore. And I think kids are convinced that that's the only voice that matters or even exists.

The kids question authority because they think they're supposed to, but the real problem is that there isn't really any authority left, aside from the cops, who are always the last resort in a crumbling society anyway. Teachers definitely get told to take this attitude that all opinions are equal- it's the sort of lazy relativism that democracies tend to melt into. But, what choice is left? Moral neutrality makes everything seem meaningless, and moral certainty seems to turn people into religious assholes. So, where do people like us go? Maybe, we need to cultivate our own gardens.