A Clockwork Orange | Critical Essay by Samuel McCracken

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 4,489 words
(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Samuel McCracken

SOURCE: "Novel into Film; Novelist into Critic: A Clockwork Orange … Again," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, 1973, pp. 427-36.

McCracken is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he argues against interpreting A Clockwork Orange as a didactic novel concerning free will, taking issue specifically with Burgess's stated intentions for the book. He also notes some of the significant differences between the novel and the film.

Although A Clockwork Orange had a respectable little reputation before its visual enshrinement by Stanley Kubrick, it was not upon its publication widely or intensely reviewed. One of its champions, the late Stanley Edgar Hyman (whose discussion has recently been reprinted in a new edition of the novel), saw the work as a tract about free will, showing the unacceptable nature of the method by which the thug-hero Alex is turned from a free agent, however vicious still capable of salvation, into a state-produced "clockwork orange," however incapable of evil incapable also of good. Anthony Burgess himself, responding to recent criticism of both the novel and the film, has now told us that this is indeed what he (and Kubrick) had in mind [see The Listener, 17 February 1972]. While this interpretation is plausible enough as a schema for the film, for the novel it simply will not do.

Life in a post-intentional fallacy universe ought to have prepared us for a novelist who is a deficient critic of his own work; but since a careful reading of the novel leads to an interpretation very nearly opposite to that which he now provides, Burgess seems unusually unsure of what he was about. The essay in which he gives his analysis is an odd one, beginning as it does with an apparent plea of repentant hackery: "… I now experience some difficulty in empathizing with that long-gone writer who, concerned with making a living, wrote as many as five novels in fourteen months." Dropping the suggestion that the novel may be a bit of a potboiler, he proceeds to call it a tract, or sermon, the text of which is presumably somewhere in the Epistle to the Galatians. There is no chance of salvation without the choice of sin, and the brutal State, by brainwashing (Burgess' own word) Alex has deprived him of the choice and hence the chance. This is itself a serious sin, indeed: "The wish to diminish free will is, I should think, the sin against the Holy Ghost."

The belief that Alex has indeed been brainwashed and deprived of free will is possible only with the help of a careless reading of the crucial passage, during which he is subjected to what the State is pleased to call Reclamation Treatment; that this treatment is the sin against the Holy Ghost can be believed only by taking at face value the opinions of two characters, the writer F. Alexander (along with his late wife, one of Alex's principal victims), and the prison chaplain, the charlie, who has been trying his own more orthodox version of Reclamation Treatment. But as a careful reading of the novel will make quite clear, Alex is not deprived of free will and F. Alexander and the charlie are in any event consistently undercut as defenders of the view that he should not be deprived of what he has been, free choice.

Thus, The Treatment consists of no more than an unusually efficacious form of aversion therapy: Alex is exposed to films of great violence and violent sex, to a background of the Beethoven which is his only love, while being kept in a state of extreme nausea. As a result, he can no longer wreak violence, experience sex, or hear Beethoven's Ninth, without getting very sick to his stomach. His new condition is demonstrated to an audience of those his regenerators wish to convince of his regeneration: taunted and knocked about by a bully, he falls to his knees and licks the bully's boots; confronted with a luscious girl, he can do no more than impotently worship her in the accents of amour-courtois. During this demonstration, an argument breaks out between Dr. Brodsky and the charlie. Brodsky describes the treatment:

"Our subject, you see, is impelled towards the good by, paradoxically, being impelled towards evil. The intention to act violently is accompanied by strong feelings of physical distress. To counter these the subject has to switch to a diametrically opposed attitude. Any questions?"

"Choice," rumbled a rich deep goloss. I viddied it belonged to the prison charlie. "He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice."

"These are subtleties," like smiled Dr. Brodsky. "We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime…."

At the very end of the demonstration Brodsky characterizes the new Alex: "… your true Christian." "Dr. Brodsky was creeching out, 'ready ever to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than to crucify, sick to the very heart even of killing a fly.'… 'Reclamation,' he creeched, 'Joy before the Angels of God.'

"'The point is,' this Minister of the Inferior was saying real gromky, 'that it works.'

"'Oh,' the prison charlie said, like sighing, 'it works all right, God help the lot of us.'"

Somewhat earlier, the charlie had put it this way to Alex, as he warned him against the Treatment: "You are to be made into a good boy, 6655321. Never again will you have the desire to commit acts of violence, or to offend in any way against the State's peace."

This characterization of what is done to Alex—common, so it seems, to F. Alexander, the charlie, and Burgess the critic, but not shared by Brodsky—is grotesquely inaccurate. First of all, it is not brainwashing as the term is commonly used. In life, the experience of certain Korean War prisoners shows what the process entails: they were provided with a new set of opinions and values by a relentless program of indoctrination masquerading as political education. One of the most famous fictional victims of the process, Raymond in The Manchurian Candidate, is turned into a puppet-gunman through processes he no longer remembers, becoming finally no more than an intermediate linkage between the finger of his masters and the trigger of the gun they have provided him.

Alex, in contrast, is not provided with new values. At no time after his conditioning, when he is offered an occasion of sin, is his reaction other than what it had been. During the demonstration, his first thought is that of the convict who tries to knife a cellmate before the guard can intervene: Alex wants to get his knife into his tormentor before the nausea can overwhelm him. What he is provided with, in supplement to his old drives, is a sort of internal injunction, the nausea which is always quicker than the knife. This resident injunctive power, far from depriving him of choice, merely offers him one: between eschewing violence and getting sick. And given the choice, he opts for the former. It is noteworthy that it is, as it were, a power of injunction and not of arrest. The latter could easily have been arranged by a technique which would paralyze him whenever the murderous rages well up. Scene: Alex, wired to the nausea-inducer, but free to move about; enter a tormenter; as long as Alex is absolutely motionless, neither nausea nor torment; as soon as he does, both. One might have thought that a novelist as inventive as Burgess should have had no difficulty in devising incidents thus more appropriate to his sermon.

Nor is Alex the victim of subliminal, even subtle, conditioning. He freely signs a release in order to undergo treatment, he is entirely conscious during the conditioning process, his memories of it are acute, and the mechanism itself, once installed, is entirely perceptible. In contrast, his restoration to his earlier state is accomplished through hypnopedia while he recovers from his suicide attempt; it is only those who wish him free to pursue the violent tenor of his ways who are willing, behind his back, to play about thus with his mind.

When the charlie early on warned Alex that he would never again have any desire to be bad, he was in error as to the fact, for Alex continues to have such desires. And when, later on, the charlie changes his tune, and argues the insincerity of the conversion, saying that Alex has no "real" choice, driven as he is by self-interest, he is in error as to the theory, for he equates freedom of choice with freedom simpliciter, believing that if society says Boo, it is repressive and fascist. One is almost embarrassed to draw so hackneyed a distinction, but the charlie has confused freedom and license. One can almost hear him saying: "But the law against murder, with its horrid penalties, deprives him of freedom. The insincerity of his not murdering is obvious, motivated by self-interest. He has no real choice." Real choice = absolute license.

The charlie is not the only commentator to be mistaken on this head. Burgess himself, it will be remembered, has described the State's treatment of Alex as having diminished his free will, an action he thinks to be no less than the sin against the Holy Ghost. However, he may see the matter these days, when he wrote the novel he made it abundantly clear that the Treatment left intact Alex's will towards the dreadful. What has been diminished is that which he enjoyed at the start of the narrative, uninhibited freedom for carrying out his will. Now, the State perennially tries to interfere with such freedom; the fact that it failed to do so with Alex is a serious reproach of its competence. But it normally tries to bias the choice between behavior tolerable and that intolerable by entailing the latter with undesirable consequence. The charlie himself is part of a system of control which restricted Alex's choices, in the form of scope for action, far more narrowly than the Treatment. But neither the Treatment nor the prison diminish free will; this can be done only by a brainwashing which makes the having of certain desires either impossible or compulsory, a process to which Alex patently is not subjected. But free choice is diminished for everyone, by everyone; it is diminished whenever the State makes a law; whenever one man says No to another; whenever one man's desires outrun his own competence. None of which has anything to do with free will or salvation. If it did, the inhabitants of totalitarian societies, their capacity for evil made smaller by their limited opportunity to break the law (totalitarian law forbids much that is desirable to forbid, as well as much that is not) would attain an easier salvation than others. Burgess can hardly believe this, any more than he can believe that Alex is any less sinful because of the chains in which Brodsky binds him. The testimony of the novel is that Burgess once understood this all very well, for what he now says is the argument of the novel is presented there by two highly dubious spokesmen. The writer F. Alexander, himself the author of a flatulent treatise called A Clockwork Orange ("to attempt to impose upon man, a creature capable of growth and capable of sweetness … to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen….") has enough sophistication to regard the reclaimed Alex, from the likes of whom he has suffered, as a pitiful victim. But when he finally realizes that he has suffered from Alex himself, his benevolence collapses into primitive feelings of revenge, and he must be put away in order to make the streets safe for Alex. For he will allow Alex free choice only on the condition that Alex foreswear the option of beating F. Alexander and raping his wife.

The charlie is never exposed to such a test of his benevolence. Living as he does in a fortress full of guards, one of the few places in the world he can live with Alex in safety, he can effort to luxuriate, arguing free choice. His Christianity (which Alex aptly calls 'Prison Religion') is protected by its maximum security environment, blurred by a continuous haze of alcohol. He is as much deluded by his safety and his drink as F. Alexander is by his prose and Alex by his slang.

Language and Action

In this connection, commentators hitherto have been so dazzled by the cleverness of the language with which Burgess equips Alex that they have hardly wondered why he has done so. Burgess has recently provided an explanation which is more than a little difficult to take seriously: when the reader has finished the novel, he will have penetrated the vocabulary of the Russian-based Nadsat, and hence will have gotten, willy-nilly, a basic Russian lexicon. He will thus understand a little of what it means to be brainwashed. Although the process as Burgess describes it is perhaps more akin to brainwashing than anything which happens to Alex before his final "cure," it is so much like programmed instruction as to leave us in doubt just how seriously Burgess has violated our integrity. If we believe that this be the sin against the Holy Ghost, we will believe anything.

The more obvious effect of the Nadsat Burgess himself has pointed out: the reader, seeing the violence by means of a language he is yet learning, is insulated from it, and it becomes, as Burgess observes, largely symbolic. Symbolic certainly for the reader, but for Alex? Burgess describes his relation to language as a paradox: his name might be taken to mean wordless, yet he has plenty of words, and that he uses language is one of the criteria which mark him as a human being. But he uses it in a curious way. It seems clear that he thinks in Nadsat, and consequently he organizes reality by means of what is his second language. Whether or not he does this through choice (there are dark hints of subliminal penetration from the East) is beside the point. When describing the horrors which fill up his existence, he does so in something other than his mother tongue, in a jargon of limited, and (compared to English) syllabose, vocabulary. As we all know, for the practice of calling nasty things by other than their right names there is a perfectly good term. Whether or not we end up considering Alex's use of Nadsat as euphemistic, we must recognize that between reality and his perception of it he draws the veil of jargon. One is tempted to parody Orwell's famous metaphor: "the soft Slav roots fall upon the images like snow, gently blurring the outlines."

Thus the self-deluded members of the Free-Choice Party. In contrast is the cool, bureaucratic professionalism of its principal opponent. Although Brodsky carelessly and redundantly conditions Alex against sex, when a proper aversion to violence would have kept him from all rape but the statutory, and callously deprives him of his music, these are errors of technique, not of principle. What he does not do, as the charlie charges, is to try to make him good. Not only are all of Alex's bad intentions left untouched, but the extent of the areas in which he is enjoined from action is fairly modest. He is not provided with an aversion for theft, for bad language, for laying about idly, or any number of other behaviors which any sensible social engineer would wish to modify. Scene: Alex hooked up to the orgasm-inducer; on the screen, a time-clock; with every punch…. No, all that he desires to do is to keep Alex from committing a limited inventory of viciously antisocial acts by the simple expedient of a little deterrent in the form of nausea. It is no more than that will-o'-the wisp of law enforcement, the certain deterrent, levelled against the desire to act, rather than the act itself. No one would consider a law which prescribed thirty minutes' vomiting as the punishment for a life of murder and rape to have much deterrent effect. But when such a consequence is made absolutely certain, Brodsky shows us, that is all it takes.

Although Burgess seems to have the easy contempt for the State so familiar these days ("towards that mechanism, the State, which, first, is concerned with self-perpetuation, and second, is happiest when human beings are predictable and controllable, we have no duty at all, certainly no duty of charity") Brodsky and the Minister of the Inferior, understanding that the State after all is responsible for maintaining society, realize that Alex, a creature who inflicts insensate violence on anything which gets in his way, cannot be allowed to run loose. The alternatives, life imprisonment or death, are restrictions on free choice far more severe than the Reclamation Treatment. Given the Alexes, who appear to be very numerous, perhaps all the teen-age males in England, and given the desire to maintain something a little better than the Hobbesian state of nature, the Treatment is the procedure of choice. The State's choice, and Alex's. Although Burgess the critic says that "such evil as Alex enacts must be checked and punished," in the novel this position is maintained only by the Prison Governor, who puts it in terms discordant with the Christianity which is supposed to inform the work: "An eye for an eye, I say. If someone hits you, you hit back, do you not? Why then should not the State, very severely hit by you brutal hooligans, not hit back also?" But Brodsky and the State, Alex concurring, reject the doctrine of punishment and opt for a combination of crude rehabilitation and deterrence.

F. Alexander and the charlie reject the positions of the Governor and the State alike, making a fatal substitution of theology for politics, quite as if Alex's free choice could never be exercised to the detriment of another's. Indeed, as the novel ends, the government, under pressure from the opposition party for which F. Alexander is a propagandist, coolly relieves Alex of his aversions and is about to turn him loose, a media-hero with a sinecure into the bargain. As the charlie said, God help us all. This appalling turn of events, most immediately the result of political expediency, has for its ideological justification thinking which confuses sin and crime so thoroughly as to treat all crimes as sins and leave their punishment to God, omitting any interest in preventing them as crimes; Brodsky, at least, does not make the symmetrical error of taking crimes for sins and punishing them, arrogating thus the function of God. He is entirely willing to concern himself, in his measured way, with a few of Alex's least permissible works, and to leave his faith to the charlies of the world; like Elizabeth I, he will not make windows into men's souls, willing as he may be to follow them about with an eternal process-server.

Now as it happens, I find social control by such a process-server nearly as repugnant as does Burgess the critic, if not for the same reasons. For one thing, Brodsky's real-life equivalents would never be so restrained. Scene: a group of six-year-olds attached to the nausea-inducer; on the screen, an angry mob chants "Down with the government!" And ever after, the slightest desire to criticize the State will put them into a state they will be at great pains to avoid. And the Reclamation Treatment has certain affinities with that regeneration through chemistry preached by the Learies and the Reiches, who tell us that certain drugs destroy the will to certain evils. But the Treatment is repellent most of all because it symbolizes the bankruptcy of a society which having bred an Alex cannot, try as it may, come up with any better solution to his problem than chaining him thus. But given the world of the novel, the State has pretty clearly opted for the best choice open to it; such is the most reasonable interpretation, and if I am to avoid instructing Burgess as to what his intentions were, I must accept his statement of them but reply that he has so spectacularly betrayed them as to have ended up on the side of his demons.

Director and Directions

Those intentions are much better served by Kubrick's screenplay, which (although superficially faithful to the source) contrives through a complex shift of emphasis to present a considerably nicer Alex in a considerably nastier society.

Nothing very obvious has been done to the plot: little is excised, and nothing of importance, with the possible exception of an hallucinogenized milk-barfly of whom Alex sharply disapproves. The only interpolations of any duration are the long comic scene showing Alex's reception into prison, and the shorter one in which he unsuccessfully attempts to let pass his lips the drugged chalice offered him by F. Alexander. These do little beyond contributing a comedy of situation totally missing in the source.

But the minor alterations in plot and character are very much more important. Alex is given a pet snake, suggesting a capacity for affection entirely absent in his original. What is in the novel a particularly brutal rape of two teeny-boppers begins in the film as the invited seduction of two rather older girls, and ends, Marx Brothers-like as a real laff riot combining superspeeded action with the William Tell overture. In the novel, Alex's parents having had no warning of his reclamation and imminent return, their rejection is of someone they still assume to be a criminal lunatic; in the film, since they know about his treatment, their rejection reflects society's general unwillingness to begin afresh with Alex, an attitude which will keep him from living as one truly reclaimed. The cat-woman of the novel is a harmless eccentric, whose response to Alex's assault is a feeble blow with a stick; in the film, transformed into the proprietrix of a trendily erotic health-farm, she attempts to brain Alex with a bust of Ludwig van himself, in a scene in which Alex kills her as much in self-defense as by premeditation. The charlie of the novel is so utterly protected from the consequence of free choice by others that prisoners interrupting his sermon are beaten and hauled off to their cells; in the novel, such behavior warrants no more than a bellow from the guard. In the film, we see the Minister of the Inferior inspect Alex's cell and notice his Beethoviana, making less excusable the careless deprivation of his music. The Treatment itself is more brutal in the film, Brodsky telling us that earlier patients have compared it to Hell itself. The scene in which Alex demonstrates his reclamation is touched up with a number of small strikes: Brodsky is put in the background, many of his lines being given to the Minister, whose motivations are a good deal more self-serving than Brodsky's. Confronted by the girl, Alex in the novel overcomes his nausea by playing courtly lover, thus developing a sort of sexual relation; in the film, he simply falls away retching. Most striking of all is the alteration of the final image: in the film, we know Alex has been "cured" when hearing Beethoven evokes a genteelly erotic scene in which two girls grapple in the dust as Edwardian toffs look on. This comparatively innocent entertainment replaces something vastly more sinister in the novel:

… I could viddy myself very clear running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas, carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cut-throat britva.

Even when sticking to the source, Kubrick goes easy on Alex. Violence done by him to others we see only through a tasteful veil of technique: it is shadowed, choreographed, speeded up, slowed down. But violence done by others to Alex is handled quite clinically, even emphasized: in the novel, he explicitly refuses to dwell on the details of the beating he gets from his former droogs, but the camera shows no such restraint. All this may be justified on the grounds that it shows us that Alex feels his own pain, but not that of others; even if we needed to be told this so clearly, the consequence is still that it is easier for us to feel his pain than that of others. The first time I saw the film, there was laughter during the raid on F. Alexander's home, but none as the droogs nearly drown Alex.

The larger effect of all these changes is to make it very much easier to see Alex as the victim of a vicious society; in the novel, it is hard to find anyone more cruel than Alex, in the film, very much less so. The shift in attitude is too detailed and consistent to be an inadvertence of translation from another medium; speculation into the rationale requires one to arraign the director's motives, something I am unsure to be in the proper province of criticism. But for one thing, the novel ends with Alex not only restored to his old brutal self, but with the State's protection; the millicents, we may be sure, will not bother little Alex again. If an audience is to accept this state of affairs as preferable to having Alex an unhappy, but harmless, clockwork orange, it will need to be more devoted to the principle of free choice than it is reasonable to expect. Hence, perhaps, the final vision of the film: sex a bit kinky, perhaps, but purged of the violence with which it up to this point has been invariably associated. More important, it seems likely enough that Kubrick recognized the Alex of the novel as a monster without a soul, no more suitable as the subject of a Christian parable than Richard III as a tragic protagonist. This recognized, I suspect he proceeded to give us not Richard, but Macbeth.

There is probably material here for a critical parable, on some such head as this: whenever a novelist presumes to tell the critic what his work is all about, he will offer the latter a troublesome choice. For if the critic finds himself differing with the novelist's interpretation, he is led to the impolite conclusion that the novelist must be insincere or incompetent as novelist or critic, possibly as both. This latter is unlikely, considering the high statistical association of ability in criticism with inability in fiction; of two things, then, probably one. Come to think of it (agreeing as I do with Pope that bad critics outnumber bad writers ten to one, and with Burgess that you pays your money and you takes your choice), the choice is not really so troublesome after all.

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