A Clockwork Orange Preview

Posted: July 30, 2017 in Uncategorized

I thought it might be a good idea to preview this novel a bit because if you haven’t encountered it before, it’s likely to be a strange and disturbing experience.

Published in 1962, A Clockwork Orange is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century (Wikipedia points out that Time Magazine named it among the top 100). A short, violent, dystopic novel, A Clockwork Orange makes Hunger Games look like a romp in the playground. Of course, this novel, written by Anthony Burgess, was not meant for teenagers as was Suzanne Collins’ novel. Although, you should note, that Alex, the main character is only 15 when the novel begins. Try to keep that in mind as you read of his exploits.

This novel, set in the near future, poses at least two problems to the modern American reader.

First, and most obviously, it is a first-person narrative in which the storyteller uses an invented slang known as Nadsat. This slang, which is a combination misapplied of Russian and English terms, can pose problems for the casual reader. You are going to have to learn some new words, some of which will seem entirely invented—like “droog” (friend) and “litso” (face)—and some of which will look like English words but be used in ways that are strange to us—as in “horrorshow” (great) or “rabbit” (work). There may be a glossary in your book translating these, and I’ve also included a link on our webpage to aNadsat dictionary.[1]The slang take some getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it, you may find yourself thinking and govoreeting in Nadset.[2]

A more difficult obstacle than the language, for some, may be the “ultra-violence.” Though this may be less of an issue for us in these Game of ThronesThe Walking Dead days, the violence in this novel may still be shocking, especially to those of you who, say, have avoided some of the newer, more violent media. There’s nothing supernatural here, just some awful behavior. The teenager who narrates this novel gleefully steals, mugs, assaults, and rapes. Some of these scenes may be difficult to get through or make you wonder why I’ve assigned this book.

Why have I assigned this book? Obviously, I could have chosen many others. But this book, I think is an apt Omega to the Alpha of Mrs. Dalloway. Whereas that novel aestheticizes–that is, makes beautiful–the world of the Post-Enlightenment, Post-War, Post-God era, A Clockwork Orange takes a dimmer view (in this sense, not unlike that of GOT or TWD, which it probably inspired to some degree).

It is a nightmare version of both the Enlightenment and Romantic notions of freedom, self-direction, and “doing as one likes.” It raises the question that no one else seems to. If modern culture frees us to “follow our bliss,” to pursue our passions, what if we have a passion for violence and destruction? We are forced to ask ourselves, after all this talk of progress, have we really advanced?

And that’s a question that’s unavoidable given the history of the twentieth century, which includes two World Wars in which nearly 140 million people may have been killed.[3] Read that number again. One hundred forty million people killed in two wars, wars which included the Holocaust against the Jews and the explosion of two atom bombs on Japanese soil. And it wasn’t just WW I and II. By 1962, Stalin and Mao had also mounted death tolls in the tens of millions. And there was the slaughter and deportation of about one million Armenians from Turkey in the twenties, and I could probably go on and add more to the death toll if I had time, but what would be the point? The century that preceded the current one was soaked in blood, gas chambers, killing fields and extraordinary acts of human depravity.

Can anyone wonder then, that someone would write a novel like A Clockwork Orange? Indeed, maybe someone had to write this novel and maybe we need to read it, to remind us of what we are up against, that the greatest threat to civilization and progress is from within, not without, and who can doubt, in a time of roving bands of teenagers playing “knockout,” that Burgess’s novel is not far from reality?

P.S. Please make sure to read the author’s essay on the novel, which I believe is included as a preface to your edition. But read it after finishing the novel.

[1] I’m not entirely sure, BTW, why Burgess chose Russian, but I suspect it has to do with the immense influence and world dominance of the Soviet Union. A Clockwork Orange is written near the height of the Cold War.

[2]Obviously, you can figure out a lot of the words simply by context.

[3] I’m basing these numbers off of Wikipedia stats, which suggest the number of killed n WWII may have been as high as 80 million (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties#Total_deadand 37 million in World War I. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties).


One of the things that great literature does—and I’m not afraid to use the term “great literature” though it has come into some disrepute over the past few decades—is to break down preconceptions, to ask us, if not to force us, to see something in new ways, ways that may feel unnatural or uncomfortable: great art exists to strangeify life, if I may indulge in a neologism (look it up). Moreover, let me add this. Good reading means being open to this strangeification (the neologism just keeps getting worse); it means allowing the poem or play or novel or opera to alter your consciousness; it means being willing to set aside, at least temporarily, your common everyday notions about what is true and not true, right or wrong, to do more than suspend belief, to turn yourself over for a little while to the author, and to see things as he or she sees them.

Let me give you an example or two from A Clockwork Orange to show you what I mean.

After teaching this novel for a few years, I’ve noted a couple of recurring misreadings of the text that seem to arise from some preconceptions that are meant to be challenged by the novel. Now “misreading” is, itself, a debatable topic nowadays, as debatable or more so than great literature, but I’m going to stick to it, nonetheless.

Students, for example, often claim that Alex must be a fundamentally good person because he appreciates great music, i.e. Mozart, Beethoven etc., or some suggest that he  uses such music to escape his violent life. These are understandable reactions because we are used to thinking about classical music as enriching, relaxing, something whose appreciation suggests refinement, something that makes you smarter (mothers have sometimes been advised to play classical music to their children in utero).[1]But, putting aside the notion of “the fundamental goodness of Alex,”  let’s look at how classical music actually functions in the novel, as opposed to what we’ve been lead to believe classical music is supposed to do.

One of the most notable descriptions of Alex’s musical devotion comes at the end of Part One, Chapter 3. Alex is listening to a violin concerto while lying in bed, relaxing a bit after a night of beating, stealing, and raping. Consider his own description of his listening pleasure:

As I slooshied, my glazzies tight shut to shut in the bliss that was better than any sythemesc Bog or God, I knew such lovely pictures. There were vecks and ptitsas, both young and starry, lying on the ground screaming for mercy, and I was smecking all over my rot and grinding my boot in their litsos. And there were dvotchkas ripped and creeching against walls and I plunging like a shlaga into them. . . . (38).

What is Alex thinking about while listening to this violin concerto? Kicking men and women, old and young in the face with his boots while they scream for mercy, and he laughs; tearing women’s clothes, pressing them against the wall, and raping them. By the end of the paragraph these violent fantasies reach a literal climax as he orgasms from the sheer bliss of the music-inspired daydream. In the next chapter, a few bars from another violin concerto, this one by Ludwig Van Beethoven, inspires Alex to whisk out his “cut-throat britva” and attack his rebellious droogs, Georgie and Dim (58).

When you consider these scenes and others in the novel, it’s clear that classical music is not an escape from violence for Alex. It is an inspiration to violence. It doesn’t detract from his violent nature; it accentuates it.

What is Burgess getting at here? He’s challenging our conventional notions about music being good for us,[2] showing us the folly of ideas such as the one expressed in an article Alex mocks in which a journalist suggests that “Great Music. . . and Great Poetry would like quieten Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized” (46). “Music,” Alex says, “always sharpened me up. . . made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my power” (46), that is to say, music inspires Alex to sadistic activity.

One of the doctors administering the Ludovico Treatment offers some explanation here. “The sweetest and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence—the act of love, for instance; music for instance” (130). What Burgess is pointing out is that the most seemingly innocent pleasures have elements in them of violence (Freud anyone?), and that a violent person will respond strongly to that aspect of a pleasure, even one as seemingly “civilized” as music. This is a major challenge to the common notion, one I once subscribed to, that art makes you a better person. Burgess seems to say, no, it simply makes you more yourself. And if you’re a violent person, it will make you more violent.

Now you may not agree with such an idea, but is important that you recognize what Burgess is saying and don’t confuse your own notions about the value of music with his very different ones.

I see a similar trend I see in many student reactions to the novel is the assertion that  Alex is “deranged,” “troubled,” “psychopathic.” It’s easy to see him this way, but I would suggest this is not how Burgess wants us to see him. The point of the novel is not that Alex is deranged, but that he is normal, relatively speaking.

Look at how Burgess characterizes Alex in his Introduction. “Senseless violence is a prerogative of youth,” he writes (xi); it is something to be outgrown, but it is not deranged. Burgess says of himself that he lived vicariously through Alex, “I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy” (xiv). Is Burgess admitting that he, himself, is deranged, troubled, psychopathic? I don’t think so. I think what he’s suggesting (and certainly Freud would agree with him) is that what differentiates Alex from other people is not his desire to do harm, but that he acts on his desires while others cower behind their “innate cowardice” (xiv).

If Alex is insane, this is a much less disturbing novel than if he is simply uninhibited, and I think Burgess wants this novel to be disturbing. He is asking us to set aside the conventional notion that one would have to be deranged to do the things that Alex does. He is asking us to consider the possibility that such desires are lodged in all of us. Again, you may not agree with him, but you should recognize what he is saying. (And that he’s not alone. Freud and Nietzsche to name only two are firmly on his side).

So A Clockwork Orange is great, in part, because it shakes up our basic beliefs in, say, the inherent goodness of humanity (or children) or in the redeeming nature of art. It does a lot of other things besides that as well, but this blog is growing long, so I’ll leave off here for the nonce.


[1] Despite all this, as I remarked in one set of comments, it is well known that there were Nazis who admired classical music (mostly German, of course) or philosophy, but were willing, if not eager, to commit atrocities. But we often forget all this in our cultural worship of classical music.


[2] I should revise this a bit. Burgess probably does consider music “good for us,” in the sense that it provides pleasure and maybe even in the sense that it is an intellectual stimulation, but it’s morally neutral. It doesn’t make you a nicer, kinder person; it activates passion, not empathy.

Mrs. Dalloway and Humanism

Posted: July 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Although I can get impatient with Modernist experimentation and the tricks they like to play with language (despite the fact that I wrote my PhD thesis on British Modernism), I think Mrs. Dalloway is an important text because of the way it combines these Modernist devices with a sincere and impassioned Humanism.

Humanism gets a bad rap in the academy these days.

What is Humanism? It’s basically the idea that

  1. we are all, in some significant ways, basically the same and
  2. we are all valuable and
  3. that civilization and human accomplishments are something to celebrated and
  4. things ought to get better and better for everyone if we keep our eyes on A through C.

The biggest problem people have with Humanism, of course, is A, the notion that we are all, in some ways, fundamentally the same. For the past few decades, we’ve been big on difference and diversity and the idea that we all share some common tendencies as well as interests is seen as a big imperialistic enterprise aimed at imposing one group’s version of humanity on everyone else. In other words, we are all the same because everyone, really, is like white, male, heteronormative Westerners, and, if you don’t feel like that’s who you are, well, you should, because straight white guys from Europe and American set the norm.

That, however, is one big projection from the certain schools of critical theory and Postmodernism onto the Humanistic project. To claim that, say, all human beings need to feel connected to other human beings is not exactly foisting Western prejudices on marginalized peoples.  Nor is the idea that, say, we all want to feel understood, respected, validated, or that we all have to come to terms with pain and death. It may not be true that everyone has an Oedipal attachment to their mother, but it is true that everyone has a mother (even if she is not part of your life), that everyone was born of a union of some sort between a man and a woman (for the time being anyway—who knows what the future will bring). Yes, difference is important, but so is commonality, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be hamstrung from asserting commonality because some people have been mistaken about what we have in common.

I guess no one really has a problem with B.

C, however, is made problematic by both the moral and existential relativism of Postmodernism and by, again, the assertion that when we say “civilization,” we really mean Europe and America as run by white guys.

D is made problematic by the twentieth century, which, with its two world wars, the atomic bomb, Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot and millions and millions of people murdered by leaders who considered themselves enlightened. Looking at things from that perspective, the Enlightenment doesn’t seem so great anymore, and progress not so inevitable.

All that having been said, Humanism isn’t going anywhere just yet, and Mrs. Dalloway, perhaps, exhibits Humanism at its best.

Where do I see Humanism in Mrs. Dalloway? First of all, in the commonality of all these different characters who, despite differences of class and gender, all struggle with self-consciousness and self-doubt, who are consistently inconsistent, who yearn for approval and love from others. In short, everyone is human, vulnerable.

Related to these commonalities or maybe because of them is the fact that the novel enables us to have empathy for so many different people by getting inside their heads and seeing the world the way they do, so that we see that, for the most part, everyone is well-intentioned, which is not to say people don’t sometimes envy or even hate each other, but that there are reasons for such envy and hate and, in the case of someone like Miss Kilman, for example, the envy does her more harm than anyone else.

Related to the empathy is the refusal to cast judgment. With the possible exception of Hugh Whitbread, every character earns our sympathy and respect on some level, everyone seems to be doing their best with what they’ve been given, and everyone falls short of their own expectations. Though we may identify more with some people than others, there are no heroes and no villains in this novel.

Mrs. Dalloway herself, after all, is ripe for satire and judgement. In another writer’s hands she could have been mocked for placing so much importance on such seeming trivialities as parties and social manners. She could have been attacked for her seeming anti-intellectualism, her refusal to engage politics. She could have been painted as a hypocrite for abandoning the socialist ideals of her youth and marrying a conservative politician (and don’t get me started on what some writers would have done with Richard Dalloway!). She could have been offered up as a woman who sold out her independence for comfort, and who gave up her very self through her identification with her husband.

And it’s not like none of this would have had some truth in it. But Woolf also allows us to see Clarissa Dalloway as charming, kind, loving, as someone who does struggle with ideas despite her lifestyle choices, as a woman who is heroically taking on the challenge of conducting a life-affirming existence in the wake of the most horrible war the world had ever seen and in a world where religion no longer offers the sort of answers it once did.

She helps us to understand and love Clarissa Dalloway and so, also helps us to love ourselves because, well, in some way we are all Mrs. Dalloway. At least that’s what the Humanist in me says.


Reading Mrs. Dalloway

Posted: July 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

Like any good modernist, Virginia Woolf expects her readers to work for their bread, that is for their enjoyment and understanding.

This is not an entirely new idea, not new at all really. Milton, who was well aware his poem was difficult, said he wrote Paradise Lost for the “fit audience. . . . though few.” But in the century prior to Modernism, i.e. the nineteenth century, it was more common to consider the reader’s comfort, and, in fact, the term “dear reader” was common in both Romantic and Victorian literature. I often joke that the Modernists, by contrast, said “F-You reader,” but that is only half true, and, of course, they never really said it so straightforwardly.

Modernists, I’m sorry to say, were snobs (and so are some of their PoMo descendents). They weren’t interested in reaching the vast middle class. On the contrary, they considered the typical consumer of popular books to be “bourgeois”—complacent, undemanding readers who didn’t want much demanded of them and, therefore, didn’t deserve the artists’ attention. Thus the Modernists were typically either indifferent to the needs of this audience or actively hostile to it. They wrote for the intellectual and artistic “avant-garde”—people who valued experimentation and innovation over tradition, form over content, who came to art to be challenged not coddled, who were willing, in short, to work for their pleasure.

(Note: Mark Morrison, a far more accomplished scholar than myself, with whom I attended grad school, would, I think, disagree with the previous paragraph. In his book: The Public Face of Modernism, he argues that, on the contrary modernists were optimistic about the potential of their avant-garde efforts to reach mass audiences. And I do recall once hearing that James Joyce hoped Ulysses would be a best seller (I might have heard it from Mark). If that’s the case, and they really hoped they would reach the same audience as say, H.G. Wells, with their experimental and challenging works, then, I guess they weren’t snobs. They were delusional.)

This is the time during which there arose a distinction between what we now call “literary” and “genre” fiction—though the Modernists wouldn’t have used those terms. Sci-fi, Fantasy, Horror, etc. are all examples of genre fiction. They tend to be exciting, plot-driven works that make use of suspense and action and mystery and magic to enthrall their readers. Literary fiction, by contrast, is character-driven, “realistic,” psychologically oriented, and sees language not as simply a means of communication but as an integral part of literary art, valuable in and of itself.

In this sense, Mrs. Dalloway could be the poster-child for literary fiction, though it was by no means the first example. But what distinguishes it from earlier literary fiction, such as the stories of Anton Chekhov, for example, is the unconventional nature of its story telling methods and of the story itself.

Take, for example, the plot. There isn’t one. It’s simply the day in the life of several characters in some way connected to a party being thrown by the main figure, Mrs. Dalloway.[1] Each one of them has a story, of sorts, but their conflicts are often subtle (like Mr. Dalloway’s inability to tell his wife that he loves her). It’s a bit like the 1991 film, Slackers, in which we follow around various characters, always switching perspective, as they go about their day in Austin, TX.

At the level of language, the sentences can be long and sometimes hard to follow, as Woof is as interested in the beauty as in the meaning of the sentences, sometimes more so. Take for instance this example:

There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodeness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, taker leave. (174)

This is part of a description of Clarissa Dalloway as scene by her old friend Peter Walsh. It’s 73 words long, full of clauses and including parenthetical expressions, and even parenthetical expressions with parenthetical expressions, without marking them off using punctuation as in this part that I have re-punctuated: [who] . . . . had about her {as she said good-bye to the thick, gold-laced man (who was doing his best ((and good luck to him)) to look important}, an inexpressible dignity. . . . .

So to understand and appreciate Mrs. Dalloway, you have to slow down and pay attention, almost be ready to diagram sentences in your head, and be willing sometimes simply not to understand what VW is writing.

But, to try and make things a little simpler, maybe, I’m going to give you some heads ups about and tips for reading this novel.

First, the Plot: As I’ve already said, there isn’t one, but there are two or three candidates for what we might call a plot. “Plot 1”: Mrs. Dalloway is throwing a party in the evening. She loves throwing parties because they celebrate life, but some people like her husband and old friend Peter Walsh think she’s superficial in this respect, so she’s both worried about the party succeeding and self-conscious about caring for it at all. “Plot 2”–Septimus Warren Smith and his Italian wife, Rezia, are spending the day in London where they will eventually meet Dr. Bradshaw, a psychiatrist who Rezia hopes will help her husband after their previous physician, Dr. Holmes, failed to do so. Septimus has gone insane after losing his best friend in WWI, has messianic delusions, and has threatened to kill himself.

These are the two big “plots.” A third, lesser, plot is the story of Peter Walsh who has just arrived, unexpectedly, from India. Walsh left England after Clarissa (not yet Mrs. Dalloway) rejected him, and now has come back some thirty years later to help a woman get a divorce so he can marry her. But that’s just why he’s here. What the novel is really interested in is how people see him and how he sees other people. Perpetually unlucky in love, he is sensitive, intelligent, and somewhat pathetic. His return brings back a lot of memories for Clarissa and others about their youth.

This story is, in fact, always more concerned with what people are thinking during the day than what they are actually doing.

Other important characters and “plots” include, but are not limited to, Richard Dalloway’s afforementioned inability to express his love for Clarissa; Mrs. D’s hatred of Miss Kilman, a religious woman who has befriended her daughter; Clarissa’s feeling excluded because she was not invited to lunch by the famous Lady Bruton; Lady Bruton’s desire to exert political power by using powerful men to help her achieve her agendas (such as encouraging emigration); and the unexpected appearance at the party of Sally Seton, the “wild girl” of their youth who grew up to marry a rich manufacturer and brags of having 5 boys (despite the fact that she and Clarissa once shared a passionate kiss).

Setting: London, four years after the end of WWI, i.e. the early 20s. The Dalloways are rich and somewhat aristocratic. Mrs. Dalloway has been sick before the start of the novel, possibly related to the influenza epidemic that killed 20 million people after the War; she and her friends, though almost all well-to-do, were radicals—at least in principle—in their youth, favoring socialism, though none of them ever went beyond talking and theory in that regard.

Shifting Perspective: This is one of the most difficult things about the novel because we are used to novels staying in one perspective, that is showing us the world through one set of eyes or, if it’s going to have multiple perspectives, (as in, say, the novel, Game of Thrones), each person gets their own chapter. In Mrs. Dalloway, however, the perspective can shift from paragraph to paragraph with no warning at all.  One minute you’re in the mind of Mr. Dalloway, the next in the mind of some vagrant woman who plays a very minor role in the story. Woolf gives us almost no cues to alert us to the switch other than the shift in the voice of the character, that is the way they express themselves to themselves (since a lot of this story is about what people are thinking to themselves).

Ambiguous Pronouns: This one kind of annoys me, because it is a common problem in student writing. Often you can’t be sure at first what is the antecedent to a given pronoun. In other words, Woolf uses the word “she” in a sentence, but it might refer to more than one person, and so you have to go back and reread to make sure you’re getting it correct.

Here’s an example: in the previous paragraph we’re told that Mrs. Dalloway has entered the room where her maid Lucy is getting stuff ready for the party. Then we get:

“Oh Lucy,” she said, “the silver does look nice!”

“And how,” she said, turning the crystal dolphin to stand straight, “did you enjoy the play last night?” “Oh, they had to go before the end!” she said “They had to back at ten!” she said. “So they don’t know what happened,” she said. “That does seem hard luck,” she said (for her servants stayed later if they asked her). “That does seem rather a shame,” she said . . . . “ (38)

I don’t know about you, but that paragraph with all those “she saids” messed with my head. Is it Lucy or Clarissa being referred to when VW writes “she said?” I couldn’t be sure until I had read the sentences a couple of times and then realized it was Lucy who had been to the theater. All this is made more difficult by the fact that VW uses quotation marks when she is not really quoting.

What do I mean? “They had to be back at ten!” she said. Think about it. That’s Lucy talking about her and her friends. She must have said to Mrs. Dalloway “We had to be back at ten!” but we’re really not hearing Lucy talk directly, we’re getting her speech indirectly as processed by Mrs. Dalloway—or the narrator.

This type of maneuver is called “free indirect” style and is usually confined to what people think, not what they say as in Darn, they would all have to leave early, Lucy thought. It looks like direct thought, but it’s not, it’s indirect as queued by the “they” instead of “we.” But why use that technique in dialogue?

If a student of mine in creative writing made these kinds of “mistakes,” I’d call them out on it, but we have to assume that VW knew what she was doing. So what’s the point? One is tempted to say, to make more life more difficult for the reader. And that might not be entirely wrong. Remember, she wants us to work for our art. But, maybe she’s also saying something about the way we process other people’s speech in our own minds, so that, what you are saying to me is actually experienced by me not really as you speaking but of my mind registering what you are saying, a subtle, but maybe important difference.

The other major difficulty you should be prepared for is that there are No Chapters. The best you get to divide this novel up are occasional extra blank lines between paragraphs to mark off a section as on page 29. But there are precious few even of these. I counted 7, and one of these came after 90 plus pages of no breaks.

So, you’ll have to figure out for yourself when it’s time to take a break, so to speak. I’d suggest never spending less than 20 minutes at a time, though, reading this novel or you will never keep track of what’s going on. This is not Facebook or Twitter. This is some serious reading that requires some serious attention span, and that’s not something  we get trained for anymore.

But here’s your chance to practice the skill. . . .

[1][1] Framing an entire novel in the course of one day was an idea VW borrowed from her fellow Modernist, James Joyce, author of Ulysses. Be grateful I didn’t assign that novel as it is four times as long and ten times as difficult as Mrs. Dalloway.

No Respect

Posted: July 10, 2017 in Uncategorized

Sigmund Freud is the Rodney Dangerfield of Western intellectuals. He doesn’t get any respect. Frequently, for example, you will hear students echoing their psychology professors or high school teachers asserting that Freud is obsolete, that his theories have been discredited and are only of historical interest.[1] Psychology professors, theorists, and high school teachers should know better. Perhaps they even do know better, but there is something about Freud that bothers them, that disturbs them, so they defensively dismiss him as un-empirical and sex obsessed.

But the thing is, modern psychology, at least the clinical sort, would be a vastly different enterprise if it weren’t for Freud, and, moreover, Freudian psychoanalytic language has become so much a part of our common parlance that we are barely aware of it. For example, the use of the word “defensively” in the last sentence of the previous paragraph is a Freudian term, used to describe the way we unconsciously reject or avoid truths that make us uncomfortable. This concept remains today a basic premise in virtually any form of clinical therapy and is a concept that even lay people are likely to use in conversation, as in “don’t get defensive.”

The notion of the unconscious too, though not invented by Freud was theorized and popularized by him, and both culture and practical psychology are indebted to him for the notion that our behaviors are often driven by thoughts and desires of which we are not consciously aware.

For example, though orthodox behaviorism rejected such an idea, today’s cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is often considered the most effective form of “talk therapy,” relies on the notion that we have stored negative thoughts that, unknown to us, drive unwanted behaviors. Cognitive-behaviorists may not use the term “the unconscious” in precisely the way the Freud did, but, they are indebted to him.

And speaking of “talk therapy,” who do suppose is responsible for that? It was Freud who popularized the idea of the “talking cure,”—though he himself adopted it from a neurologist named Josef Breuer. Prior to Freud, treatment for mental illness was comparatively barbaric and consisted mostly of isolating “mad” people rather than treating them. The whole notion endemic to our culture that we must talk about our feelings, that much of our personal pain derives from childhood experience, is a direct legacy of Freud.

And, yes, the importance of sex in defining human character is a Freudian concept as is the notion that we should view sex in a less moralistic way. Freud was not a hedonist, but he did want us to overcome our shame surrounding sexuality, and much of the modern liberal attitude (for better or for worse) towards sexuality is indebted to him.

Freud’s concepts of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego, though no longer recognized as genuine structures of the mind, nonetheless, remain powerful metaphors that still help make sense of human behavior. Likewise, Freud’s concept of the pleasure-principle remains a compelling way of understanding human motivation.

The death-drive, which was never widely accepted, is a notion that still cannot, at least in its metaphorical form, be utterly dismissed. There does appear to be something self-defeating both in individuals and in the species generally and Freud’s concept helps us to recognize the power of this commonly shared impulse to self-destruct.

And, moreover, you should know that psychoanalysis as a method has not died, though it has evolved and, in some cases at least, become more evidenced-based. There are psychoanalytic institutes in nearly every major city of the Western world, and there is nearly a century’s worth of psychoanalytic research that followed in the wake of Freud.[2]

And yet, all we remember him for is the Oedipus complex, the notion that boys want to sleep with their mothers and kill their fathers (which, BTW, is a vast oversimplification of the concept). All we remember are phallic symbols and a Viennese accent. Some of you may remember a scene from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in which the famous analyst is portrayed as a laughable geek clumsily intruding on Billy the Kid and Socrates as they flirt with a couple of mall girls.


Freud with Socrates and Billy the Kid

But let’s give Freud his due. He belongs right up there with Darwin and Marx as one of the great intellects of modernity.

Freud, by the way, who was no more modest than either Marx or Darwin, recognized and his own importance. In Introduction to Psychoanalysis, he compares to the Heliocentric Theory and the Theory of Evolution the psychoanalytic discovery that man was not in the driver seat of his own behavioral car, that he was driven by unconscious notions of which, by definition, he was not even aware:

Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our own time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries. But man’s craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psycho-analysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind hat they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently and to support it by empirical evidence which touches every man closely.

(Quoted from Goodreads,retrieved 11/5/13 from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/429477-humanity-has-in-the-course-of-time-had-to-endure)

Freud’s assertion here is that the notion of the unconscious was—like the notion that we are not the center of the universe, and like the notion that we are not fundamentally any different from apes—was a great wound to human pride.

In fact, he says, it is a deeper insult to our dignity, and maybe that’s why we have never forgiven him, maybe that’s why we’d rather dismiss him as outdated, obsolete, as a geek? Maybe that’s why he gets no respect.

[1] It’s funny, by contrast biology students may point out that Darwin has been updated and that there was much he didn’t know, but they still credit him as a major figure in their field.

[2] There are also many off-shoots of psychoanalysis, such as Jungian psychoanalysis, still in practice today.



Posted: June 28, 2017 in Uncategorized

Dr. Morbius enhances his brain using the Plastic Educator in the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet.

Welcome to the Plastic Educator, the official course blog for English 115 Online Western Humanities II. My goal here is to raise the electromagnetic waves of your brain, not through any mechanical device, however, but through words.  I’ll use this blog to introduce and discuss texts we’re reading, to expand upon PowerPoint presentations and class discussions, and to share whatever comes to mind with regard to our explorations in the Western Humanities.

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out

–Lennon and McCartney

Though no doubt they were considered radical in their day, the essays by Kant and Montaigne strike me as examples of what we might today call “classical liberalism,” which is a liberalism that is so moderate by comparison with what we call “liberal” today that many on the political left would call it conservative.

Certainly, coming as they were on the heels of the middle ages and during a time when both Catholic and the newly emerged Protestant churches still yielded immense power, both politically and psychologically, the independence of thought modeled by Montaigne and proposed by Kant must have seemed bold, if not revolutionary.

Montaigne, who is the earlier of the two writers by more than a century, articulates a kind of cultural relevance that would test the tolerance of all but the most radical thinkers today. He writes with a sanguine equanimity of foreign practices ranging from orgiastic marriage ceremonies to the ritual eating of the dead to incest between parents and children, blithely observing that “Barbarians are no more a wonder to us than we are we are to them” (6).[1] He offers no moral judgment whatsoever on these practices, but, on the contrary, seems to assert that morality itself is entirely determined by culture.

“The laws of conscience,” he writes, “which we pretend to be derived of nature, proceed from custom” (9).

From such a vantage point, one cannot critique a culture where, for example, the eunuchs who guard the “sacred women” have their noses and lips cut off so they will not be attractive to their charges (7). From this point of view, one can neither argue that severe bodily mutilation nor ritual prostitution (“sacred women”) are “wrong.” It is simply a matter of custom.

This was, of course, a time in the world’s history when Europeans were “discovering” new countries and new cultures and were coming face to face with societies where practices such as cannibalism were ingrained or where Western notions of sexual modesty and propriety were turned upside down. But Montaigne could have chosen to see these cultures as “backwards” or “primitive”—or “barbaric” in the usual sense of the term, but instead, he seems simply to see them as different.

Kant, was also radical in his own way. His assertions that “Laziness and cowardice” are the reasons that people turn to books or pastors or physicians for guidance must have been challenging, if not outright offensive, to many people of his day. His injunction, “Have courage to use your own understanding!” is a kind of manifesto that might be seen as the starting point for a motto that has been popular in our own time, “Question Authority!”

Moreover, he articulates a bold political ideology: the notion that one generation cannot impose limitations on future generations, that attempts to do so would be justifiably considered “unauthorized and criminal” by the generations that followed. This means, in effect, that no law is universal across time and that no generation is obliged to follow the rules laid down by a previous one. Consider what this means for religious ideology. From this perspective, the Ten Commandments for example are actually an immoral and unlawful imposition of one generation upon another.


But it’s not just religion. Kant’s notion of the rights of subsequent generations even contravenes political ideologies of our own day. For example, the notion of “original intent” as it applies to the U.S. Constitution is utterly meaningless from a Kantian perspective, at least I am understanding it here. The founding fathers, in such a view, have no right, whatsoever, to impose limitations on people living more than two centuries after them. The fact that Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton may have thought one way about government should have no bearing whatsoever on how we run government today, if we come to different conclusions from them about what is right and what is wrong or even efficacious.[2]

And yet, for all their seemingly radical ideologies, both Montaigne and Kant back away from revolution and seem, on some level, to advocate the status quo.

Kant makes an important distinction between public and private thought. Public thought, for Kant, is the realm of the scholar, who must always be free to critique whatever it is he feels compelled to critique. But, he says, “private use of reason may, however, often be narrowly restricted without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment” (2).

This may be a little confusing to us because we tend to think of private thought as sacred and public displays as subject to regulation, but Kant isn’t so much writing about private thought as what we might call “contracted behavior.” In other words, when you work for someone or are part of an organization, you are obliged to follow its “private” laws.

If, for example, one is a soldier, one must obey one’s officer. If one is a priest, one must uphold Church dogma. “The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him,” Kant writes (2).

Kant, like, Montaigne, seems to approve of the Socratic notion, articulate in the Socratic dialogue “Crito,” that, while one may critique one’s culture, one is obliged to follow its laws to the letter. Socrates was so convinced of this idea that he allowed himself to be executed rather than escape prison and, thus, break a law of his country.

That is certainly a far cry from the rationalistic revolutionary fervor that overturned the French government at the end of the eighteenth century and even at odds with the notion of civil disobedience that Henry David Thoreau (who was jailed for not paying his taxes in protest of government policy) would articulate in the mid-nineteenth century and which would inspire Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It is a very great doubt, whether any so manifest benefit can accrue from the alteration of a law received, let it be what it will, as there is danger and inconvenience in altering it,” Montaigne writes (11). He quotes with approval one critic who suggests that anyone who is so arrogant as to institute a social innovation ought to keep a halter around his neck so that, in case his innovation proves to be pernicious, he may be hung.

This is a form of what might be called “classical liberalism,” which is a kind of free-thinking that, while it may encourage change and progress, works incrementally and through not against the system. Both Montaigne and Kant were aware of the terrible price that civil unrest, not to mention civil war, could bring about (Montaigne had lived through some four decades of religious wars), and so they were naturally cautious of advocating revolutionary behaviors, as opposed to revolutionary ideas.

Today, I think, such reticence to commit to social action and social change would be seen as conservative rather than liberal, but it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1960s, for example, John Lennon wrote a song called “Revolution” where he praised the desire to change the world, but said if that meant “destruction” you could “count him out.” Later that same year, however, he recorded that song saying you could “count him in,” thus moving from liberal to radical.

And, of course, maybe if Montaigne and Kant lived today, they would also see things differently and promote concrete, as well as philosophical, social change, would embrace a more revolutionary ethic. Almost assuredly they would be, in some fundamental sense, different men if you believe along with Montaigne that our values are determined not by nature but by our environment.

[1] Initially, Montaigne’s use of the term “barbarians” would seem to imply a bias toward non-Western cultures, but, in practice, as we will see, his radical moral equivalency undermines, if not eviscerates, notions of Western moral superiority.

[2] To some extent, I suppose, the system for amending the Constitution was set up to address this human right of future generations to self-determination, but what if future generations deem the system for amending the system to be too cumbersome and want to jettison it? From Kant’s perspective, it seems, they ought to be able to.