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The Strange Case of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

1,011 words

Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange
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, 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.



  1. JJ
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Burgess might not be against state service for all we know. As I interpret the work Burgess wasn’t attempting a world view but rather a quick social commentary on present day England. On the one hand you have a spoiled decadent youth, on the other, the concept of an imposed totalitarianism. The introduction of Beethoven isn’t meant to endorse the former, as much as it is to define the latter. “The Who”, would not do, obviously.
    Burgess isn’t attempting to justify a structure less society. More likely he was simply pointing out the mistakes of any attempt to perfect society, most specifically through the state-this being the cat call of the intellectuals since the relegation of religion.

  2. Lucius
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    For those who have not yet indulged, I highly recommend listening to Pink Floyd’s “Animals” album, which is based on the workings of the Soviet ‘social model’ and specifically on the book “Animal Farm” (Orwell).

    Pigs, Dogs and Sheep. Which one are you? That is the question one asks oneself after giving this album a listen.

  3. Joe Neunzig
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    On a point of fact this article errs: Burgess was a lapsed Catholic: he rejected the faith at sixteen. I would also question whether Burgess displays a conservative attitude in this novel. If the definition of a liberal is one who takes the side of the criminal over the victim then Burgess clearly displays a liberal attitude in this novel as he finds the criminal Alex the most interesting character therein. Although Burgess invented nadsat, the slang Alex and his gang use, in order to create a ‘distancing’ device between the barbarities Alex perpetrates and the reader; Burgess’ sympathies are clearly with Alex (after all he, like Burgess himself, prefers classical music to ‘pop’ and therefore can’t be all bad, don’t you know).
    While I agree that it is statistically unlikely that such a thug could appreciate classical music, Burgess wants to make Alex’s subsequent nausea for classical music, after his treatment, the most grievous loss in the book. This doesn’t work because his distaste for classical music is incidental, although congruent, to his distaste for violence: the latter being the point of his conditioning. In other words Alex could have been conditioned against violence and still appreciate classical music.
    Burgess’s main theme is that an individual without the capacity for violence is nothing but a ‘clockwork orange’. This thesis, however, is stated and not shown. Surely for the victims of his crimes it is better that Alex no longer has the capacity to choose violence? The final chapter, where Alex ‘grows up’ (if rejecting rape, murder, paedophilia and robbery can be considered a normal part of growing up) and renounces violence is thus unconvincing; the novel would have benefited without this chapter, as in the American edition. Burgess’s uncertainty on this point, whether or not to include the final chapter, indicates an ambiguous attitude to the message he wanted to convey.

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