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The Strange Case of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

1,011 words

[1]Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange [2]
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1962

A Clockwork Orange is a short novella produced by Anthony Burgess in a very short period of time—yet the author had doubtless dwelt upon an entire zoology before producing it. One of the book’s characteristics, which even the most casual reader notices, is the experimental language or deliberate argot that Burgess develops for his retinue of juvenile delinquents. They speak, stutter, roll around in their own minds, and tend to use words like hammers, meat-hooks, or early-morning razor blades.

The story essentially revolves around the leadership principle or alpha dog mentality of Alex (the leader of this violent troupe of hoodlums) and its subjection to Skinnerian Behaviorism—a technique of which Burgess is highly critical. Paradoxically, Burgess is a highly moral and cross-grained man—a believing Catholic for most of his life—who worried extraordinarily about this novel’s reception. For—to be sure—a short work which appeared to endorse or celebrate gang violence was the last thing that Burgess, a socially conservative Catholic, meant to bring to the table.

Another provocative trope—irrespective of the furor about Kubrick’s later film and its withdrawal in Britain—was the Soviet influence on the entire production. Soviet, I hear you ask? Yes, that’s right; for the germ from which the novel springs was a trip Burgess and his wife made to the Soviet Union in which they discovered a great deal of gang violence. This surprised both of them, but it shouldn’t have really. Communist systems have a nuanced attitude towards criminality—for what they really fear, oppose, and act against, are political crimes or the ideas that give rise to them.

This was by no means an original precept. In Alexander Solzhenitysn’s The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1, the world’s most famous anti-Soviet dissident noticed an indulgence by the guards towards the lags or general prisoners, a latitude that would not be extended towards other zeks.

As in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Soviets treated the proles as near-animals, and their antics—youth cults, transgressive dress, drug usage, relative disrespect for Soviet authority—were all given remarkable indulgence. Why was this, Burgess wondered?

It probably had to do with two factors: first, the fact that crime was always less important than politics; and, secondly, that the party really fed upon itself, in that the lives of inner and outer party members—as in Nineteen Eighty-Four—were held to be far more important than those of mere proles. They were literally left to go to the dogs in every imaginable way—itself completely contrary to the official proletarian discourse of love and inclusion for the down-trodden, etc.

Another factor which Burgess cleverly makes use of is the introduction of communist words, phrases, and tags (gobbets of agit-prop and so forth) in order to tease out and make more real the lingo of his various Youthies or violent adolescent pups.

Yet having said all of this, the real point of Burgess’ short and linguistically-charged work was an attack on the way in which Alex and his droogs (pals) are re-oriented or forced into well-adjusted behavior by the “system.” Much of this, in turn, related to radical (if largely conservative commentators at the time) who wished to break the juvenile delinquency of the ’50s by applying eugenic measures. (Note: Following Bowden [3], I would describe these behaviorist measures as dysgenic rather than the reverse, but there is no agreed definition here.)

What Burgess quite clearly objects to here is state-imposed morality. The way in which he dramatizes this is quite original—in that Alex, the Caesar of his gang, loves classical music, and the reconditioning causes him to loathe his former joy (Beethoven, etc.). Yet this is one of Burgess’ own mistakes—given that the Droogs bear a striking similarity to the British sub-culture known as the Mods. Can you imagine a Quadraphonic (sic) sub-culturalist who prefers Colin Ireland to, say, The Who?

Yet Burgess definitely has a point here, in that the destructive side of behaviorist intervention was in its infancy then—although Burgess, with much greater insight than more “progressive” commentators, realizes that much of the gang’s behavior is innate, biological, pre-social, or somatic in character.

But if the propensity to anti-social violence is innate, biological, pre-social, or somatic in character, this may lead us to conclude that some form of national service in Britain, France, Russia, etc. is vitally necessary for around at least 40% (and more) of the young male population. If you fold this proposition out a bit, then even Anthony Burgess would have to do it—along with all bourgeois and proletarian males who were not mentally impaired or physically ill. Heaven forbid!

Now many commentators might consider this to be just another form of invasive procedure—possibly less invasive but in no way less “demeaning” than the technique used in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. This would certainly veer it into territory covered by Alan Sillitoe in the ’50s (say) or a grainy, black-and-white film called The Hill (about British military prison or the glass house) and that starred young versions of Stanley Baker and Sean Connery. Nonetheless, these procedures are mass oriented, somatic, physical, and work on the external trappings of young males—almost in a semi-anthropological way. They lack the internal craft, guile—or cruelty—of Burgess’ behaviorism and criminology in his short novel. The point here is that they limit Alex’s internal freedom of choice in relation to his passion for classical music. They are malefic in an intentional, a priori, or willed manner—partly due to the individualism of the punishment, the latter personally selected to match with the trainee’s particularities.

Ultimately then, Burgess’ fable revolves around the endless argument between free will and intentionality at the heart of Western thinking. (Note: even the Chorus in Aeschylus’Agamemnon debates whether Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband is entirely self-elected or an inevitable outcome of Zeus’ will.) It is always there. Burgess is a conservative and a pessimist—he is an Augustinian child. He believes that the punishment follows after the facts, is self-limiting and does not seek to change human nature. Man cannot change—he can just learn to endure better.