The other morning as I drove up to the hills above my house for an early walk, a woman in a silver Corolla cut me off, approaching from my right and butting into the lane. It was all I could do to keep calm and fall back, to let her pass, because what I wanted to do was give her the finger and then ram her car into the stone wall that fronted the street.
I get a similar feeling whenever I see a picture of Mark Zuckerberg or particular politicians. Their smarmy faces inspire in me a powerful craving to smack them – preferably with a set of brass knuckles. Or when I bang my head on an open cupboard door in the kitchen, I want to take all the plates out and smash them one by one on the concrete floor.
That rush of rage floods in when I haven’t gotten my way, or when I’m jealous, or when I’m feeling like a victim of the absurdity of inanimate objects. It’s an undiluted self-centeredness that’s primitive and wily. Actually, it astounds me that we all live together as well as we do. Every day we’re given many, many opportunities to give in to violent impulses – and most of us don’t.
I read an article in the New Yorker over the summer written by Anthony Burgess, the author of Clockwork Orange. I was fascinated by what Burgess had to say in his analysis of his own work. Hero/villain Alex leads his band of merry criminals, cutting swaths of brutality across their metropolis, before he’s finally captured and “rehabilitated” by being injected with a nausea-inducing drug and then subjected to scenes of violence, set to Beethoven’s music. He is rehabilitated, yes, but the only beautiful thing in his life is now associated with visceral disgust. In the end, Alex is “restored to his former ‘free’ condition,” and the book ends with him dreaming “of new and more elaborate patterns of aggression,” Burgess wrote.
It was meant to be a happy ending, Burgess said.
“What I was trying to say was that it is better to be bad of one’s own free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing,” he wrote. “When Alex has the power of choice, he chooses only violence. But, as his love of music shows, there are other areas of choice.”
Burgess concludes his essay by making the point that state control of people is always dangerous: Alex’s rehabilitation is just as dehumanizing as his freely chosen violence.
But some societal control is good, right? How much is enough, and who should exert it? When do we cross over from helping each other stay civil to the downward rush toward authoritarianism?
I’m glad there are layers and layers of consequences and taboos that prevent me from running a fellow driver off the road. When I encounter my own violent impulses and restrain them, that’s a victory. Perhaps my capacity for violence just is. But there’s always choice, and every time I choose peace, even grudgingly, I trust that the deep goodness at my core gets stronger.