Violent Transgressions: Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”

“I first published the novella A Clockwork Orange in 1962, which out to be far enough in the past for it to be erased from the world’s literary memory. [ . . . ] I should myself be glad to disown it for various reasons, but this is not permitted.” (Burgess ix)

 Burgess 2

 So Anthony Burgess’s begins his introduction to his most widely read – though apparently somewhat unendorsed – work, A Clockwork Orange. Taking a grudging responsibility for the book, Burgess cites Stanley Kubrick’s film version as the reason for the enduring fame of what was meant to be a more offhand work of art. In fact, Burgess considers A Clockwork Orange “too didactic to be artistic,” a statement that I will address more fully later in this presentation (xiv). Despite the dismissive remarks, the novel remains a compelling work of transgressive literature. Published in 1963, A Clockwork Orange depicts a near-future society overrun by young gangs who commit violence and sex crimes at night. Alex, the protagonist of the story, leads one such gang on a merry rampage through the city, alternately beating and raping the victims they come across and causing general mayhem. According to Burgess, the premise for the novel was inspired partly by the delinquency of 1950s and 1960s Britain, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and the rise of the science fiction genre at the time. On his motivations for writing the novel, Burgess says in an interview:

“I heard talk in the 1960s of the possibility of getting these young thugs, and not putting them in jail – because jail is needed for professional criminals – but rather putting them through a course of conditioning. Turning them in effect to clockwork oranges: no longer organisms full of sweetness and color and light like oranges, but machines. I feared this, and that’s why I wrote the novel. I feared the possibility that the state was all too ready to take over our brains and turn us into good little citizens without the power of choice.”

The “clockwork orange” acts as Burgess’ metaphor throughout the book. A human, however deplorable and however immoral, is an orange full of the sweetness, color, and light that comes with agency and free will. Take that agency away and the human becomes inorganic: a machine, with no ability to determine his own life. That the state could turn humans into “clockwork” is the concern that drives the novel.

Burgess’ narrative is written from Alex’s first-person point of view, a voice Burgess himself describes as “supremely confident, absolutely cold-blooded, yet with a strong sense of irony and humor” (Anthony Burgess Speaks ii).

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This mix of reproachable morals with charismatic liveliness renders Alex a truly conflicting character: while readers are disgusted by his actions, they also find themselves laughing with him or sympathizing with his plight. When Alex is captured by police, jailed to the point of boredom, and finally put into a mysterious rehabilitation program, for instance, his young, dynamic voice engages readers in the ups and downs of his imprisonment. The crux of the novel, perhaps, comes in the rehabilitation program. There, the state’s new scientific, quasi-psychological procedure ensures that Alex can never choose to commit crime again. In divesting him of the ability to make moral choices for himself, the plot taps into the anxieties around excessive state control, engineering human consciousness, and the state of individuality in an scientifically progressive society. These themes prompt the Norton edition of the novel to market Burgess story as the “frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom” (xii). Good and evil, individual and state, and choice and compulsion all lay at the heart of the novel’s intellectual thrust. Burgess’ motivating stance against excessive government control over individuals – specifically young delinquents like those in 1950s Britain – orients his novel in favor of individual freedom. With his murdering, raping protagonist, then, Burgess pushes audiences to confront – and even support – an extreme case of human freedom in action.

Here, I will examine three specific aspects of the story in order to develop my own view on the novel’s transgressive work. First, Burgess’ portrayal of morality throughout the text: specifically the biological, bodied understanding of moral inclination he develops. Second, his use of language – and the process of language acquisition – as a means of indoctrinating readers into the social psychology of the characters in the novel. And finally, I will return to Burgess’ preface and examine the claim that the novel is, in fact, “didactic.” I will explore how understanding the novel as having a moral lesson affects our perception of it as a transgressive work of art.

In Clockwork Orange, Burgess understands moral conscience not as universal or rational but as tied to an individual’s biology. See the conversation between Alex and his doctor at the rehabilitation center. The doctors have just forced Alex to watch a series of violent films after injecting him with a drug mixture that makes him feel sick to watch them.

‘Of course it was horrible,’ smiled Dr. Branom. ‘Violence is a very horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it.’ [ . . . ]

‘But,’ I said. ‘I don’t understand. I don’t understand about feeling sick like I did. I never used to feel sick before. I used to feel like the very opposite. I mean, doing it or watching it I used to feel real horrowshow.’ (121)

That Alex’s body is learning rather than his mind speaks to the biological rather than rational understanding of moral behavior here. In Burgess’ novel, a character can be presented with all the rational arguments and theology in the world (certainly the prison priests use this method), but moral decision in the end will be based on bodily principles of “sickness” and “feeling” rather than truth or religion. The consequences of locating the moral compass in the body rather than the mind means that good and bad become arbitrary labels for a deeper, more convincing impulse: pleasure and pain. Alex naturally feels “horrowshow” (slang for great, energized, or joyful) when engaging with violence. Raping and beating, violence and mayhem give him a visceral bodily pleasure. When raping the two young girls that follow him home to his apartment, for instance, Alex narrates his experience in these following words:  “ . . . then the lovely blissful tune all about Joy being a glorious spark like of heaven, and then I felt the old tigers leap in me and then I leapt on these two young ptitsas” (51). With tigers leaping and Joy playing in the background, the scene carries an unmistakable enjoyment in what traditional morality would find repulsive. Burgess’ biological orientation of morality, then, has the effect of transcending traditional moral systems by seeming to transcend the rational (or controllable) all together. The compulsion of the body takes over everything. It renders the traditionally “bad” in fact tangibly “good” and the traditionally “good” into something undesirable.

It makes sense, then, that Alex laughs when journalists fret over the epidemic of “badness” in youth. See his reaction to the newspaper: “This biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into what is the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop?” (44). He mocks the journalists who fret over immorality. Alex, by contrast, accepts the inclination towards badness – like the inclination towards goodness – as natural: not a mistake, problem, or mental malformation. As such, Clockwork Orange presents a transgressive view of morality that defies conventional moral education or religious tradition. Rather than understanding humans as inherently inclined toward rational moral principles, Alex and the novel reveal these principles to be arbitrary. They are reducible to words, which are themselves insubstantial next to the natural, biological inclinations of the body. Consequently, a person like Alex can not only be inclined towards crime, but relish it – and have that be a normal, even supportable state of being.

Language is also a central experience of reading A Clockwork Orange. Using a combination of Slavic and deconstructed English words, Alex and his friends develop a slang called Nadsat. It sounds like this:

Online tutorials on the language have also been made:

While tutorials like the one above define the words they use, no such glossary or dictionary appears in the book. Instead, the reader undergoes a process of language acquisition, whereby she learns Alex’s slang over the course of the story, simply by hearing him speak. In The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Rosenblatt develops a relevant notion of “efferent” reading. Efferent reading, she argues, is an interpretive methodology in which readers derive something “materially” from the reading experience (like a language skill) (52). Rosenblatt devotes attention specifically to verbal “symbols” in literature and how they might contribute information, concepts, and guides-to-action that the reader is left with once the book is over (27). Borrowing her idea of material gain, then, I argue that the language-learning process of Clockwork Orange gives its readers a unique kind of “information” and set of “concepts.” See, for instance, a moment from Alex’s narrative: “There were real oozhassny animal type vecks among them, one with his nose all ate away and his rot open like a big black hole. [ . . . ] One of them made a jump on to my back, and I had a real nasty bit of drasting with him.” (78) Several words here – oozhassny, veck, rot, drasting – are either used in an unfamiliar way or are not part of standard English at all. Still, by reading the context of the scene, it is possible to discern the broader connotative meaning of each word. Oozhassny, for instance, is paired with “animal,” triggering the association between the two and giving oozhassny an animalistic, bestial meaning. Similarly, Alex has a “drasting” with a man after being jumped. The aggressive move that provokes the word, along with the accompanying description of “nasty,” leads to the assumption that “drasting” means a kind of fight or beating. A reader would pick up on these vague meanings and the narrative, by using them repetitively, can then reinforce and confirm (or change and adjust) the reader’s intuitions. The two work in tandem to inculcate the reader with a new, functional vocabulary.

That these words can only be defined contextually and connotatively – via vague associations and assumptions – is important. In such a mode, language can resist the more oppressive, structured mode of institutional or state language. There is no “official” definition, so to speak, of the words Alex uses – instead their meanings can only be gleaned from casual, on-the-ground use between friends. David Sisk argues that this slang therefore gives Alex and his crew a space of linguistic freedom from a more conditioned society (Sisk 280). I argue, however, that in building this space independent of society, Alex’s language has an additional effect: it renders the reader complicit in this alternative social community. Note that to understand the language Alex uses, the reader must engage with it in an active, interpretive way. This strain toward understanding, then, inherently involves a strain toward inclusion: as the reader learns the language and acclimates to Alex’s slang, she inadvertently becomes a member of his linguistic circle. As such, not only does the reader experience a sense of connection with the narrator, she, like Alex, resists the more conditioned state of society. On a subconscious, linguistic level, then, A Clockwork Orange draws its readers into the transgressive agenda of its narrator.

Finally, the author’s introduction to the novel deserves addressing. Anthony Burgess claims there that A Clockwork Orange carries a moral lesson, and that it is “too didactic to be artistic” (xiv). In fact, one of his heaviest grievances against Stanley Kubrick’s film is the way it leaves out the last chapter where Alex exhibits some redemptive qualities. In Burgess’ words: “[In chapter 21] my young hoodlum comes to the revelation of the need to get something done in life – to marry, to beget children, to keep the orange of the world turning in the rookers of Bog, or hands of God” (xii). Alex’s moral revelation at the end takes his radical behavior of the past and funnels it into a life of social acceptability in the future. He wants a family, a wife, even a child, and finds himself bored with the mayhem of his youth. According to Burgess, this transformation is what gives the novel its claim to being “genuine fiction,” for it shows “the possibility of moral transformation” (xii). But assuming moral transformation, or wisdom, or redemption is what makes a novel “genuine” represents a view that harkens back to somebody like Matthew Arnold. Arnold, after all, was a key Victorian proponent of the belief that the value of art lay in its ability to affect moral or social improvement in the viewer (Arnold 7). In a strange double move, then, Burgess ascribes to an Arnold-esque didacticism while also refusing it – in that he admits that his novel cannot be called “artistic” because of this very morality.

As a work of literature, then, A Clockwork Orange becomes transgressive in its treatment of language, morality, and individual freedom but more conventional in its overall “moral message.” Interestingly, however, if one took the author’s introduction out of the picture, the so-called moral ending can be interpreted differently. Alex’s conversion could be read as disingenuous or simply as unbelievable. While author’s interpretation may be the most authoritative, there is room in every work of art to reconsider its meaning – as Kubrick does – in one’s own interpretive light. In spite of Burgess, then, Clockwork Orange, may be “artistic” after all.

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 [ALA]

Works Cited

“Anthony Burgess Discusses A Clockwork Orange,” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 September 2010. Web. 23 May 2014.

“Anthony Burgess Speaks: 1972 (ii),” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 15 February 2011. Web. 23 May 21, 2014.

Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960. Print.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986. Print.

“Clockwork Orange Dissent among droogs,” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 16 January 2013. Web. 24 May 2014.

Davis, Todd, and Kenneth Womack. “‘O My Brothers’: Reading the Anti-Ethics of the Pseudo-Family in Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’” College Literature 29.2 (2002): 19-36. JSTOR. Web. 24 May 2014.

“Nadsat,” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 15 November 2011. Web. 24 May 2014.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. Print.

Sisk, David W. Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias, Westport: Greenwood, 1997. Print.

“The Ludovico Technique,” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 27 October 2013. Web. 24 May 2014.

 

 

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