“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Sympathizing with Psychos: Why We Want to See Alex Escape His Fate as A Clockwork Orange

            Phil Connors, the narcissistic weatherman played by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, is, in the words of Larry, the cameraman played by Chris Elliott, a “prima donna,” at least at the beginning of the movie. He’s selfish, uncharitable, and condescending. As the plot progresses, however, Phil undergoes what is probably the most plausible transformation in all of cinema—having witnessed what he’s gone through over the course of the movie, we’re more than willing to grant the possibility that even the most narcissistic of people might be redeemed through such an ordeal. The odd thing, though, is that when you watch Groundhog Day you don’t exactly hate Phil at the beginning of the movie. Somehow, even as we take note of his most off-putting characteristics, we’re never completely put off. As horrible as he is, he’s not really even unpleasant. The pleasure of watching the movie must to some degree stem from our desire to see Phil redeemed. We want him to learn his lesson so we don’t have to condemn him or write him off. 

            In a recent article for the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen explores what he calls “the problem of sympathy” by considering his own responses to the novels of Edith Wharton, who herself strikes him as difficult to sympathize with. Lily Bart, the protagonist of The House of Mirth, is similar to Wharton in many respects, the main difference being that Lily is beautiful (and of course Franzen was immediately accused of misogyny for pointing this out). Of Lily, Franzen writes,
She is, basically, the worst sort of party girl, and Wharton, in much the same way that she didn’t even try to be soft or charming in her personal life, eschews the standard novelistic tricks for warming or softening Lily’s image—the book is devoid of pet-the-dog moments. So why is it so hard to stop reading Lily’s story? (63)
Franzen weighs several hypotheses: her beauty, her freedom to act on impulses we would never act on, her financial woes, her aging. But ultimately he settles on the conclusion that all of these factors are incidental.
What determines whether we sympathize with a fictional character, according to Franzen, is the strength and immediacy of his or her desire. What propels us through the story then is our curiosity about whether or not the character will succeed in satisfying that desire. He explains,
One of the great perplexities of fiction—and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form—is that we experience sympathy so readily for characters we wouldn’t like in real life. Becky Sharp may be a soulless social climber, Tom Ripley may be a sociopath, the Jackal may want to assassinate the French President, Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat, and Raskolnikov may want to get away with murder, but I find myself rooting for each of them. This is sometimes, no doubt, a function of the lure of the forbidden, the guilty pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be unburdened by scruples. In every case, though, the alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of “bad” people into sympathy is desire. Apparently, all a novelist has to do is give a character a powerful desire (to rise socially, to get away with murder) and I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own. (63)
While I think Franzen here highlights a crucial point about the intersection between character and plot, namely that it is easier to assess how well characters fare at the story’s end if we know precisely what they want—and also what they dread—it’s clear nonetheless that he’s being flip in his dismissal of possible redeeming qualities. Emily Gould, writing for The Awl, expostulates in a parenthetical to her statement that her response to Lily was quite different from Franzen’s that “she was so trapped! There were no right choices! How could anyone find watching that ‘delicious!’ I cry every time!”
            Focusing on any single character in a story the way Franzen does leaves out important contextual cues about personality. In a story peopled with horrible characters, protagonists need only send out the most modest of cues signaling their altruism or redeemability for readers to begin to want to see them prevail. For Milton’s Satan to be sympathetic, readers have to see God as significantly less so. In Groundhog Day, you have creepy and annoying characters like Larry and Ned Ryerson to make Phil look slightly better. And here is Franzen on the denouement of House of Mirth, describing his response to Lily reflecting on the timestamp placed on her youthful beauty:
But only at the book’s very end, when Lily finds herself holding another woman’s baby and experiencing a host of unfamiliar emotions, does a more powerful sort of urgency crash into view. The financial potential of her looks is revealed to have been an artificial value, in contrast to their authentic value in the natural scheme of human reproduction. What has been simply a series of private misfortunes for Lily suddenly becomes something larger: the tragedy of a New York City social world whose priorities are so divorced from nature that they kill the emblematically attractive female who ought, by natural right, to thrive. The reader is driven to search for an explanation of the tragedy in Lily’s appallingly deforming social upbringing—the kind of upbringing that Wharton herself felt deformed by—and to pity her for it, as, per Aristotle, a tragic protagonist must be pitied. (63)
As Gould points out, though, Franzen is really late in coming to an appreciation of the tragedy, even though his absorption with Lily’s predicament suggests he feels sympathy for her all along. Launching into a list of all the qualities that supposedly make the character unsympathetic, he writes, “The social height that she’s bent on securing is one that she herself acknowledges is dull and sterile” (62), a signal of ambivalence that readers like Gould take as a hopeful sign that she might eventually be redeemed. In any case, few of the other characters seem willing to acknowledge anything of the sort.
            Perhaps the most extreme instance in which a bad character wins the sympathy of readers and viewers by being cast with a character or two who are even worse is that of Alex in Anthony Burgess’s novella A Clockwork Orange and the Stanley Kubrick film based on it. (Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley is another clear contender.) How could we possibly like Alex? He’s a true sadist who matter-of-factly describes the joyous thrill he gets from committing acts of “ultraviolence” against his victims, and he’s a definite candidate for a clinical diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. He’s also probably the best evidence for Franzen’s theory that sympathy is reducible to desire. It should be noted, however, that, in keeping with William Flesch’s theory of narrative interest, A Clockwork Orange is nothing if not a story of punishment. In his book Comeuppance, Flesch suggests that when we become emotionally enmeshed with stories we’re monitoring the characters for evidence of either altruism or selfishness and henceforth attending to the plot, anxious to see the altruists rewarded and the selfish get their comeuppance. Alex seems to strain the theory, though, because all he seems to want to do is hurt people, and yet audiences tend to be more disturbed than gratified by his drawn-out, torturous punishment. For many, there’s even some relief at the end of the movie and the original American version of the book when Alex makes it through all of his ordeals with his taste for ultraviolence restored.  
Anthony Burgess

            Many obvious factors mitigate the case against Alex, perhaps foremost among them the whimsical tone of his narration, along with the fictional dialect which lends to the story a dream-like quality, which is also brilliantly conveyed in the film. There’s something cartoonish about all the characters who suffer at the hands of Alex and his droogs, and almost all of them return to the story later to exact their revenge. You might even say there’s a Groundhogesque element of repetition in the plot. The audience quickly learns too that all the characters who should be looking out for Alex—he’s only fifteen, we find out after almost eighty pages—are either feckless zombies like his parents, who have been sapped of all vitality by their clockwork occupations, or only see him as a means to furthering their own ambitions. “If you have no consideration for your own horrible self you at least might have some for me, who have sweated over you,” his Post-Corrective Advisor P.R. Deltoid says to him. “A big black mark, I tell you in confidence, for every one we don’t reclaim, a confession of failure for every one of you that ends up in the stripy hole” (42). Even the prison charlie (he’s a chaplain, get it?) who serves as a mouthpiece to deliver Burgess’s message treats him as a means to an end. Alex explains,
The idea was, I knew, that this charlie was after becoming a very great holy chelloveck in the world of Prison Religion, and he wanted a real horrorshow testimonial from the Governor, so he would go and govoreet quietly to the Governor now and then about what dark plots were brewing among the plennies, and he would get a lot of this cal from me. (91)
Alex ends up receiving his worst punishment at the hands of the man against whom he’s committed his worst crime. F. Alexander is the author of the metafictionally titled A Clockwork Orange, a treatise against the repressive government, and in the first part of the story Alex and his droogs, wearing masks, beat him mercilessly before forcing him to watch them gang rape his wife, who ends up dying from wounds she sustains in the attack. Later, when Alex gets beaten up himself and inadvertently stumbles back to the house that was the scene of the crime, F. Alexander recognizes him only as the guinea pig for a government experiment in brainwashing criminals he’s read about in newspapers. He takes Alex in and helps him, saying, “I think you can be used, poor boy. I think you can help dislodge this overbearing Government” (175). After he recognizes Alex from his nadsat dialect as the ringleader of the gang who killed his wife, he decides the boy will serve as a better propaganda tool if he commits suicide. Locking him in a room and blasting the Beethoven music he once loved but was conditioned in prison to find nauseating to the point of wishing for death, F. Alexander leaves Alex no escape but to jump out of a high window.
The desire for revenge is understandable, but before realizing who it is he’s dealing with F. Alexander reveals himself to be conniving and manipulative, like almost every other adult Alex knows. When he wakes up in the hospital after his suicide attempt, he discovers that the Minister of the Inferior, as he calls him, has had the conditioning procedure he originally ordered be carried out on Alex reversed and is now eager for Alex to tell everyone how F. Alexander and his fellow conspirators tried to kill him. Alex is nothing but a pawn to any of them. That’s why it’s possible to be relieved when his capacity for violent behavior has been restored.
Of course, the real villain of A Clockwork Orange is the Ludovico Technique, the treatment used to cure Alex of his violent impulses. Strapped into a chair with his head locked in place and his glazzies braced open, Alex is forced to watch recorded scenes of torture, murder, violence, and rape, the types of things he used to enjoy. Only now he’s been given a shot that makes him feel so horrible he wants to snuff it (kill himself), and over the course of the treatment sessions he becomes conditioned to associate his precious ultraviolence with this dreadful feeling. Next to the desecration of a man’s soul—the mechanistic control obviating his free will—the antisocial depredations of a young delinquent are somewhat less horrifying. As the charlie says to Alex, addressing him by his prison ID number,
It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good. And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321. (107)
Shirt Woot!
At the same time, though, one of the consequences of the treatment is that Alex becomes not just incapable of preying on others but also of defending himself. Immediately upon his release from prison, he finds himself at the mercy of everyone he’s wronged and everyone who feels justified in abusing or exploiting him owing to his past crimes. Before realizing who Alex is, F. Alexander says to him,
You’ve sinned, I suppose, but your punishment has been out of all proportion. They have turned you into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You’re committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good. (175)
            To tally the mitigating factors: Alex is young (though the actor in the movie was twenty-eight), he’s surrounded by other bizarre and unlikable characters, and he undergoes dehumanizing torture. But does this really make up for his participating in gang rape and murder? Personally, as strange and unsavory as F. Alexander seems, I have to say I can’t fault him in the least for taking revenge on Alex. As someone who believes all behaviors are ultimately determined by countless factors outside the  individual’s control, from genes to education to social norms, I don’t have that much of a problem with the Ludovico Technique either. Psychopathy is a primarily genetic condition that makes people incapable of experiencing moral emotions such as would prevent them from harming others. If aversion therapy worked to endow psychopaths with negative emotions similar to those the rest of us feel in response to Alex’s brand of ultraviolence, then it doesn’t seem like any more of a desecration than, say, a brain operation to remove a tumor with deleterious effects on moral reasoning. True, the prospect of a corrupt government administering the treatment is unsettling, but this kid was going around beating, raping, and killing people.

            And yet, I also have to admit (confess?), my own response to Alex, even at the height of his delinquency, before his capture and punishment, was to like him and root for him—this despite the fact that, contra Franzen, I couldn’t really point to any one thing he desires more than anything else.
            For those of us who sympathize with Alex, every instance in which he does something unconscionable induces real discomfort, like when he takes two young ptitsas back to his room after revealing they “couldn’t have been more than ten” (47) (but he earlier says the girl Billyboy's gang is "getting ready to perform on" is "not more than ten" [18] - is he serious?). We don’t like him, in other words, because he does bad things but in spite of it. At some point near the beginning of the story, Alex must give some convincing indications that by the end he will have learned the error of his ways. He must provide readers with some evidence that he is at least capable of learning to empathize with other people’s suffering and willing to behave in such a way as to avoid it, so when we see him doing something horrible we view it as an anxiety-inducing setback rather than a deal-breaking harbinger of his true life trajectory. But what is it exactly that makes us believe this psychopath is redeemable?
            Phil Connors in Groundhog Day has one obvious saving grace. When viewers are first introduced to him, he’s doing his weather report—and he has a uniquely funny way of doing it. “Uh-oh, look out. It’s one of these big blue things!” he jokes when the graphic of a storm front appears on the screen. “Out in California they're going to have some warm weather tomorrow, gang wars, and some very overpriced real estate,” he says drolly. You could argue he’s only being funny in an attempt to further his career, but he continues trying to make people laugh, usually at the expense of weird or annoying characters, even when the cameras are off (not those cameras). Successful humor requires some degree of social acuity, and the effort that goes into it suggests at least a modicum of generosity. You could say, in effect, Phil goes out of his way to give the other characters, and us, a few laughs. Alex, likewise, offers us a laugh before the end of the first page, as he describes how the Korova Milkbar, where he and his droogs hang out, doesn’t have a liquor license but can sell moloko with drugs added to it “which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg” (3-4). Even as he’s assaulting people, Alex keeps up his witty banter and dazzling repartee. He’s being cruel, but he’s having fun. Moreover, he seems to be inviting us to have fun with him.
Henri Tajfel
            Probably the single most important factor behind our desire (and I understand “our” here doesn’t include everyone in the audience) to see Alex redeemed is the fact that he’s being kind enough to tell us his story, to invite us into his life, as it were. This is the magic of first person narration. And like most magic it’s based on a psychological principle describing a mental process most of us go about our lives completely oblivious to. The Jewish psychologist Henri Tajfel was living in France at the beginning of World War II, and he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp for most of its duration. Afterward, he went to college in England, where in the 1960s and 70s he would conduct a series of experiments that are today considered classics in social psychology. Many other scientists at the time were trying to understand how an atrocity like the Holocaust could have happened. One theory was that the worst barbarism was committed by a certain type of individual who had what was called an authoritarian personality. Others, like Muzafer Sherif, pointed to a universal human tendency to form groups and discriminate on their behalf.
            Tajfel knew about Sherif’s Robber’s Cave Experiment in which groups of young boys were made to compete with each other in sports and over territory. Under those conditions, the groups of boys quickly became antagonistic toward one another, so much so that the experiment had to be moved into its reconciliation phase earlier than planned to prevent violence. But Tajfel suspected that group rivalries could be sparked even without such an elaborate setup. To test his theory, he developed what is known as the minimal group paradigm, in which test subjects engage in some task or test of their preferences and are subsequently arranged into groups based on the outcome. In the original experiments, none of the participants knew anything about their groupmates aside from the fact that they’d been assigned to the same group. And yet, even when the group assignments were based on nothing but a coin toss, subjects asked how much money other people in the experiment deserved as a reward for their participation suggested much lower dollar amounts for people in rival groups. “Apparently,” Tajfel writes in a 1970 Scientific American article about his experiments, “the mere fact of division into groups is enough to trigger discriminatory behavior” (96).
            Once divisions into us and them have been established, considerations of fairness are reserved for members of the ingroup. While the subjects in Tajfel’s tests aren’t displaying fully developed tribal animosity, they do demonstrate that the seeds of tribalism are disturbingly easily to sow. As he explains,
Unfortunately it is only too easy to think of examples in real life where fairness would go out the window, since groupness is often based on criteria much more weighty than either preferring a painter one has never heard of before or resembling someone else in one's way of counting dots. (102)
I’m unaware of any studies on the effects of various styles of narration on perceptions of group membership, but I hypothesize that we can extrapolate the minimal group paradigm into the realm of first-person narrative accounts of violence. The reason some of us like Alex despite his horrendous behavior is that he somehow manages to make us think of him as a member of our tribe—or rather as ourselves as a member of his—while everyone he wrongs belongs to a rival group. Even as he’s telling us about all the horrible things he’s done to other people, he takes time out to to introduce us to his friends, describe places like the Korova Milkbar and the Duke of York, even the flat at Municipal Flatblock 18A where he and his parents live. He tells us jokes. He shares with us his enthusiasm for classical music. Oh yeah, he also addresses us, “Oh my brothers,” beginning seven lines down on the first page and again at intervals throughout the book, making us what anthropologists call his fictive kin.
            There’s something altruistic, or at least generous, about telling jokes or stories. Alex really is our humble narrator, as he frequently refers to himself. Beyond that, though, most stories turn on some moral point, so when we encounter a narrator who immediately begins recounting his crimes we can’t help but anticipate the juncture in the story at which he experiences some moral enlightenment. In the twenty-first and last chapter of A Clockwork Orange, Alex does indeed undergo just this sort of transformation. But American publishers, along with Stanley Kubrick, cut this part of the book because it struck them as a somewhat cowardly turning away from the reality of human evil. Burgess defends the original version in an introduction to the 1986 edition,
The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change. There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. (xii)
Indeed, it’s probably this sense of the story being somehow unfinished or cut off in the middle that makes the film so disturbing and so nightmarishly memorable. With regard to the novel, readers could be forgiven for wondering what the hell Alex’s motivation was in telling his story in the first place if there was no lesson or no intuitive understanding he thought he could convey with it.
            But is the twenty-first chapter believable? Would it have been possible for Alex to transform into a good man? The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slowshares with his own readers an important lesson from his student days that bears on Alex’s case:
As a graduate student I attended some courses on the art and science of psychotherapy. During one of these lectures our teacher imparted a morsel of clinical wisdom. This is what he told us: “You will from time to time meet a patient who shares a disturbing tale of multiple mistakes in his previous treatment. He has been seen by several clinicians, and all failed him. The patient can lucidly describe how his therapists misunderstood him, but he has quickly perceived that you are different. You share the same feeling, are convinced that you understand him, and will be able to help.” At this point my teacher raised his voice as he said, “Do not even think of taking on this patient! Throw him out of the office! He is most likely a psychopath and you will not be able to help him.” (27-28)

Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

And Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game


Anonymous said...

I never sympathized with Alex or rooted for him. Had I read the original 20 chapter American release of the book, I would have been distressed by the ending, which is not to say that I found the 21st chapter to be realistic or believable. Rather, the gang rape of F. Alexander’s wife left such distaste in my mouth that I had no concern for anyone but her and read the remainder of the book, waiting for her fate to be revealed. I did not wince at Alex’s tortures or hope for his restoration/redemption.

The final chapter did raise an interesting question. I don’t have the book in front of me and cannot reference direct quotes or pages, but as Alex contemplates having a child, he observes how that son will likely grow to be a rebellious teenage over whom he will have no control. Because the books follows a rather cyclical pattern, I wondered if this wasn’t a subtle reference to Alex’s father (who we only ever see rabbiting away his days and occasionally lashing out at his son). Is it possible that there is more to this father’s story (and consequently Alex’s)?

This thought leads to one other reason for why readers like or at least sympathize with villains – some previous trauma or abuse. Readers tend to be willing to excuse villains or selfish bastards like Alex if they suspect life has driven them to it. Maybe I’m a sucker for such life-has-been-hard-on-me stories; perhaps this is why I never rooted for Alex.

Dennis Junk said...

Thanks for sharing your response. I would imagine you're not alone in losing-or never having-sympathy for Alex. To hazard a profile of those who do, they're probably current or former angry male teenagers. Ragers against the machine.

Childhood trauma as an explanation (and justification) for adult psychological disorders has a lot of currency in pop culture. You're probably right that many just assume people who behave horribly have had something horrible done to them. But to my knowledge there's no good science connecting childhood trauma to a single disorder. Kids, if anything, respond to trauma better than adults.

Long-term conditions of the family environment like extreme privation, neglect, or on-going physical abuse can, however, definitely make for some bad developmental outcomes. I didn't catch any evidence that any of these were factors in Alex's upbringing though. At any rate, heritability seems to account for at least as much of the variance in psychopathy as all other factors combined.

Which brings us to his father (though he could have inherited it from his mother too--women are much less likely to express the associated behaviors). The lines you refer to are on page 211 of my edition:
"My son, my son... I knew he would not understand or would not want to understand at all and would do all the veshches I had done, yes perhaps even killing some poor starry forella surrounded with mewing kots and koshkas, and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world..."
I think Burgess is commenting on the inseparability of humans' destructive and creative tendencies, suggesting you can't engineer out the evil without deleting much of the good as well.

Anonymous said...

I will concede that IF there was a point in the novel at which I felt a twinge of sympathy for Alex, it was the moment in which he discovered that the Ludovico Technique had made him unable to enjoy his beloved Beethoven. I almost empathized with Alex, but this was because I slipped into the trap of superimposing my own experiences of love and loss onto Alex.

Ugly truth be told, I was almost glad when Alex lost his ability to listen to classical music. As stated before, my thoughts were on the wife and the likelihood that she had lost her connection with/ability to enjoy sex. It seemed to me that the loss of great pleasures balanced each other, and while Alex never made any connection between how music had been taken from him and what he had taken from the F. Alexander’s wife, I saw it.

I did pity Alex, which is distinctly different from sympathy. As you have noted, “you can't engineer out the evil without deleting much of the good as well.” In this sense, I felt sorry for Alex. It does seem as though Alex has been burdened with extremely perverted pleasures, and I pitied him when it appeared that his evil could only be “engineered out” along with the good. The last chapter, however, called this pity into question. What changed in Alex? Was the change circumstantial or a choice?

Dennis Junk said...

That "IF" is really interesting. I guess no matter where you come down with regard to whether Alex got what he deserved or more or less, it's hard not to be ambivalent. I wanted him to snap out of it and defend himself against Dim and Billyboy. And I felt bad for him when he was at F. Alexander's mercy. But it was like my mind kept toggling, felling sympathy, then thinking, "Well, what do you expect?"

Being the sort who grew up with his mind marinating in testosterone, I really want to endorse Burgess's idea about destruction being inseparable from creation, to a degree. Still, Alex pushed the idea way too far.

All in all, complex, disturbing, intense--pretty good story.

gillt said...


You know you want sort of want it

Dennis Junk said...

Ha! Instant conversation starter.

Aaron Davidson said...

Nice blog. I like the use of Phil Connors in comparison.