"We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides.... The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars for our poems, not our corpses."
That's right. Either from beyond the grave ("Anything that says there's anything after death is ultimately an optimistic story," Kubrick said of "The Shining"), or from within it, Stanley Kubrick responds to a critic who accuses him and his films of nihilism:
The accuser is Fred M. Hechinger in the New York Times, the movie in question is "A Clockwork Orange," and the date is February 27, 1972. "A Clockwork Orange" was the subject of red-hot debate all over the place, celebrated as a masterpiece and condemned as everything from "fascistic" to "anarchistic" to "nihilistic."
Is this, I wonder, because he couldn't actually find any internal evidence to support his trend-spotting? If not, then it is extraordinary that so serious a charge should be made against [my film] (and myself) inside so fuzzy and unfocussed a piece of alarmist journalism.
I'd never read this letter before today, when I found it while searching through the New York Times archive. Naturally, one should always trust the art and not (just) the artist, but Kubrick has to much to say here about about his view of humankind, and this is so revealing of the vision expressed in his films, that I'm going to quote him at length:
Make what you will of Kubrick's stated intentions, but note the value he places on humanity and free will. He continues:
Hechinger is probably quite sincere in what he feels. But what the witness feels, as the judge said, is not evidence -- the more so when the charge is one of purveying "the essence of fascism."
"Is this an uncharitable reading of the film's thesis?" Mr. Hechinger asks himself with unwonted, if momentary, doubt. I would reply that it is an irrelevant reading of the thesis, in fact an insensitive and inverted reading of the thesis, which, so far from advocating that fascism be given a second chance, warns against the new psychedelic fascism -- the eye-popping, multimedia, quadrasonic, drug-orienting conditioning of human beings by other beings -- which many believe will usher in the forfeiture of human citizenship and the beginning of zombiedom.
It is quite true that my film's view of man is less flattering than the one Rousseau entertained in a similarly allegorical narrative ["Emile"] -- but, in order to avoid fascism, does one have to view man as a noble savage, rather than an ignoble one? Being a pessimist is not yet enough to qualify one as a tyrant (I hope).... [Times film critic Vincent Canby] classified "A Clockwork Orange" as "a superlative example" of the kind of movies that "seriously attempt to analyze the meaning of violence and the social climate that tolerates it." He certainly did not denounce me as a fascist, no more than any well-balanced commentator who read "A Modest Proposal" would have accused Dean Swift of being a cannibal. [...]
Consider the previous paragraphs in light of the "Dawn of Man" section of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Kubrick does not hate the "ignoble savage." What sense would that make? He simply accepts the nature of the beast within us.
... Mr. Hechinger seems to rest his entire case against me on a quote appearing in The New York Times of January 30, in which I said: "Man is isn't a noble savage, he's an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved... and any attempt to create social institutions based on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure." From this, apparently, Mr. Hechinger concluded, "the thesis that man is irretrievably bad and corrupt is the essence of fascism," and summarily condemned the film.
Mr. Hechinger is entitled to hold an optimistic view of the nature of man, but this does not give him the right to make ugly assertions of fascism against those who do not share his opinion.
I wonder how he would reconcile his simplistic notions with the views of such an acknowledged anti-fascist as Arthur Koestler, who wrote in his book "The Ghost in the Machine," "The Promethean myth has acquired an ugly twist: the giant reaching out to steal the lightning from the Gods is insane... When you mention, however tentatively, the hypothesis that a paranoid streak is inherent in the human condition, you will promptly be accused of taking a one-sided, morbid view of history; of being hypnotized by its negative aspects, of picking out the black stones in the mosaic and neglecting the triumphant achievements of human progress.... To dwell on the glories of man and ignore the symptoms of his possible insanity is not a sign of optimism but of ostrichism. It could only be compared to the attitude of that jolly physician who, a short time before Van Gogh committed suicide, declared that he could not be insane because he painted such beautiful pictures."
It is because of the hysterical denunciations of self-proclaimed "alert liberals" like Mr. Hechinger that the cause of liberalism is weakened, and it is for the same reason that so few liberal-minded politicians risk making realistic statements about contemporary social problems.
The age of the alibi, in which we find ourselves, began with the opening sentence of Rousseau's "Emile": "Nature made me happy and good, and if I am otherwise, it is society's fault." It is based on two misconceptions: that man in his natural state was happy and good, and that primal man had no society.
Kubrick -- known for his distant, detached style -- sees hubris, in the form of a falsely idealized vision of man -- as the very cause of much of human misery.
Robert Ardrey has written in "The Social Contract," "The organizing principle of Rousseau's life was his unshakable belief in the original goodness of man, including his own. That it led him into most towering hypocrisies, as recorded in the 'Confessions,' is of no shaking importance; such hypocrisies must follow from such an assumption. More significant are the disillusionments, the pessimism, and the paranoia that such a belief in human nature must induce."
Kubrick's films are discomforting, chilly and oftentimes harsh, but they are among those poems.
Audrey elaborates in "African Genesis": "The idealistic American is an environmentalist who accepts the doctrine of man's innate nobility and looks chiefly to economic causes for the source of human woe. And so now, at the peak of the American triumph over that ancient enemy, want, he finds himself harassed by racial conflict of increasing bitterness, harrowed by juvenile delinquency probing championship heights."
Rousseau's romantic fallacy that it is society which corrupts man, not man who corrupts society, places a flattering gauze between ourselves and reality. This view, to use Mr. Hechinger's frame of reference, is solid box office but, in the end, such a self-inflating illusion leads to despair.
The Englightenment declared man's rational independence from the tyranny of the Supernatural. It opened up dizzying and frightening vistas of the intellectual future. But before this became too alarming, Rousseau replaced a religion of the Supernatural Being with a religion of natural man. God might be dead. "Long live man."
"How else," writes Ardrey, "can one explain -- except as a substitute for old religious cravings -- the immoderate influence on the rational mind of the doctrine of innate goodness?"
Finally, the question must be considered whether Rousseau's view of man as a fallen angel is not really the most pessimistic and hopeless of philosophies. It leaves man a monster who has gone steadily away from his original nobility. It is, I am convinced, more optimistic to accept Ardrey's view that "... we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles and our irreconcilable regiments? For our treaties, whatever they may be worth; our symphonies, however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams, however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars for our poems, not our corpses."
Popular Blog Posts
Gerardo Valero sees the potential for a good remake in "Escape from New York."
Erik Childress looks at the first awards of the season and their possible impact on the Oscar race.
Omer Mozaffar reflects on "12 Years a Slave."