A Clockwork Orange | Rubin Rabinovitz

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
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Rubin Rabinovitz

SOURCE: "Ethical Values in Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 43-50.

In the following essay, Rabinovitz comments on Burgess's presentation in A Clockwork Orange of the notion of "social history as a cyclical alternation" of diametrically opposed views of human nature and morality.

In Anthony Burgess's most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange [1962 British edition, which includes the final, twenty-first chapter], the most obvious clash of values is between the lawless hero and a society that hopes to control him. This struggle obscures another conflict which is nevertheless very important: the opposing views of libertarians and authoritarians on how best to provide social controls. The theme of libertarian-authoritarian opposition recurs throughout Burgess's novels, often as a conflict between points of view Burgess has called Pelagian and Augustinian. The best exposition of this idea is given by Tristram Foxe, the protagonist of Burgess's novel The Wanting Seed.

Foxe (who is a history teacher) explains that Pelagianism is named for Pelagius, a monk whose teachings were condemned by the church. Pelagius argued against the doctrine of original sin and advocated the idea of human perfectibility; hence he is the patron of libertarian societies. St. Augustine, a contemporary of Pelagius, reaffirmed the doctrine of original sin; human perfectibility, he said, was possible only with God's grace. Because grace is not universally granted, there must always be sin, war, crime, and hence the need for social controls. Augustine therefore emerges as patron of the authoritarians.

Burgess often presents social history as a cyclical alternation of Pelagian and Augustinian parties which oppose one another like yin and yang. With the Augustinians in power there is a period of social stability which comes as the result of a rigidly enforced authoritarian moral code. Such controls make it appear that the populace is inherently ethical and encourage a growing faith in human perfectibility; eventually the strictness of the Augustinians seems superfluous. The populace begins to demand more freedom, libertarian arguments gain credibility, and finally there is a transition to a Pelagian form of government.

The Pelagians fare no better. Their libertarianism gives way to permissiveness and then to an anarchic period of crime, strikes, and deteriorating public services. After a transitional phase, the popular outcry for more law and order heralds the rise of a new Augustinian party and the beginning of another cycle.

This issue comes up in The Clockwork Testament, one of Burgess's more recent novels. Enderby, the hero, is obsessed with Augustine and Pelagius and decides to write about them. He finishes a dozen pages of a film script (included in Burgess's novel) which culminate in a debate between the two, Augustine arguing in favor of the doctrine of original sin and Pelagius disagreeing. The script is never completed and, fittingly, the dispute is never settled.

In A Clockwork Orange, the anarchic quality of the society portrayed early in the novel indicates that Pelagian liberals are in power. Upon Alex's release from prison he finds that a broken elevator has been repaired and that the police force has been enlarged; these are signs that a more authoritarian party has taken over. But the new regime is not as strong in its authoritarianism as, for example, the Augustinian society in The Wanting Seed. It avoids the extremes of Augustinianism—wars and religious fanaticism—because Burgess in portraying libertarian and authoritarian parties in a society committed to an underlying Pelagian dogma is satirizing the Labor and Conservative Parties of the English Welfare State.

The new government in A Clockwork Orange therefore is only in a subdued way Augustinian. Its leaders, however, do indicate their lack of faith in human perfectibility by utilizing the Ludovico technique and by getting their jails ready for great numbers of political offenders. The characters in the novel who most oppose this government are naturally those who are extreme libertarians.

A principal spokesman for the libertarians is the writer F. Alexander. His book proclaims his belief in human perfectibility and free will, but Alexander's histrionic prose style makes his Pelagian sentiments somewhat suspect. When a friend ascertains that it was young Alex who raped his wife, Alexander gives up his liberalism and agrees to collaborate in a plan to drive Alex to suicide. Another Pelagian character is P.R. Deltoid, Alex's rehabilitation officer. He epitomizes the libertarian belief that criminals should be reeducated and not punished; but despite Deltoid's efforts Alex remains incorrigible. "Is it some devil that crawls inside you?" Deltoid asks hardly the sort of question one would expect from a Pelagian. After learning that Alex has killed an old woman, Deltoid spits in his face: like F. Alexander, he has been reduced to a betrayal of his principles.

These failures of Pelagianism make it appear that Burgess, as some critics have maintained, favors an Augustinian point of view. But in The Wanting Seed, where he gives his most vivid portrayal of each type of society, Burgess seems to take the side of the Pelagians. In that novel the Pelagians undermine family life and encourage homosexuality as a form of population control; the Augustinians solve the population problem by staging pseudowars in which the participants are decimated and their flesh canned for human consumption. Even at their moral nadir, the Pelagians seem restrained when compared to the cannibalistic Augustinians.

In Tremor of Intent Burgess again seems to favor the Augustinian side when the views of a Pelagian scientist are satirized. Burgess's unsympathetic presentation of the scientist's views may, however, have another explanation. In The Novel Now he is critical of writers like H. G. Wells whose enthusiasm for technology leads them to rhapsodize over scientifically organized utopian societies. For Burgess, science deals only with external factors: it may improve living conditions, but it cannot alter the human condition. In Tremor of Intent, the shallowness of the scientist's arguments may be as much related to his profession as to his Pelagian beliefs.

It seems imprecise, then, to assume that Burgess consistently favors either an Augustinian or a Pelagian point of view. Similarly, those of Burgess's characters who are strongly committed to a single side in the Pelagian-Augustinian cycle fare badly. During one phase they are frustrated because they are out of power; during the next they are disappointed when their social theory fails to live up to its promise. Many of Burgess's heroes learn to change; like Alex, they begin to see how their old unilateral views fit into a cycle of interacting polar opposites. In Tremor of Intent, for example, the hero achieves this kind of understanding when he says, "Knowing God means also knowing his opposite. You can't get away from the great opposition."

An interaction of polar opposites in A Clockwork Orange emerges from Burgess's juxtaposition of the Augustinian views of Alex and the Pelagian views of F. Alexander. Many of Alex's characteristics are Augustinian: his dictatorial domination of his friends, his brutality, and his belief that criminals deserve punishment and not rehabilitation. Alex thinks that the world is wicked and does not believe in human perfectibility; F. Alexander, on the other hand, writes that man is "a creature of growth and capable of sweetness." Alexander's arguments in favor of free will indicate his Pelagianism; the connection Alex makes between evil and determined behavior recalls St. Augustine's concept of predestinarian grace. Like St. Augustine himself, Alex is redeemed after a sinful youth and, as an author, favors the confessional mode.

Many of the characteristics of Alex and F. Alexander may be resolved into examples of extremes that follow the pattern of polar antitheses: predator and victim; uncontrolled libido (rapist) and controlled libido (husband); youth and adult; man of action and man of ideas; destroyer and creator; conservative and liberal; alienated man and integrated man. The similarity of the names Alex and Alexander indicates an underlying kinship between the two which emerges if their opposing values are seen as the polar extremes of the same cycles. Alex (who comments on the similarity of the names) refers to his antagonist as "the great F. Alexander"; he himself is often called "little Alex."

The relativism resulting from this evenhanded treatment of contrasting values, however, sometimes leaves Burgess open to a charge of moral ambiguity. Burgess seems to be aware of this possibility, and in Tremor of Intent he tries to show that a belief in his cyclical system need not lead to a weakened moral stance. Here, an important ethical criterion is the degree of commitment to the cyclical system itself. Life and reality are expressed in polar oppositions which alternate cyclically; a commitment to the cyclical system, then, is tantamount to a commitment to life and reality. For Hillier, the hero of Tremor of Intent, an involvement with the cyclical system is the beginning of moral behavior. Those who ignore the cyclical system or attempt to disengage themselves from it—Hillier calls them "neutrals"—are guilty of immoral behavior which may be extremely destructive because, deceptively, it seems innocuous.

Hillier concludes that the neutrals are morally inferior to evildoers: the wicked are at least morally committed, albeit to a polar extreme which Hillier (recently ordained a priest) opposes. "If we're going to save the world," he says, "we shall have to use unorthodox methods. Don't you think we'd all rather see devil-worship than bland neutrality?"

The superiority of evildoers to neutrals is perhaps a reason for Alex's redemption in the original version of A Clockwork Orange. Alex is firmly committed to evil: he enjoys a sadistic fantasy in which he helps to crucify Christ, and, in a discussion of goodness, calls himself a patron of "the other shop." The neutrals are the scientists who destroy Alex's freedom of choice by administering the Ludovico technique. Dr. Brodsky, for example, cares little about the ethical questions raised by the treatment: "We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime." Alex—one would think he had little right to throw stones—calls Brodsky and his fellow scientists "an evil lot of bastards," and complains that their use of Beethoven's music in the treatment is "a filthy unforgivable sin."

Burgess apparently feels that science lends itself easily to the neutrality he detests; though Alex is often beaten in the novel and once driven to attempt suicide, this is the only place where he moralizes about his oppressors.

There are a number of reasons why Burgess considers the scientists who rob a man of his capacity for ethical choice morally inferior to the criminals they treat. In Christian terms, Alex as a sinner must be permitted to enhance the possibilities for his salvation by choosing good over evil. A man rendered incapable of moral choice can never attain salvation; but a sinner may choose to repent and win redemption.

In terms of Burgess's cyclical system, Alex in his youth may be predestined to do evil; but with maturity comes freedom, when his determined phase is transformed into its polar opposite. The Ludovico treatment, invented by ethical neutrals, forces its victims to become neutral; it removes them from the cyclical process and prevents their transition into a mature phase. The neutralizing treatment turns Alex into a perpetual victim whose weakness provokes violence in those who encounter him. But when Alex's ability to choose is restored he finally grows tired of violence, and reforms.

Burgess's moral point of view, however, still seems ambiguous. The neutrals, both in Tremor of Intent and in A Clockwork Orange, are given rather small roles; and in his zeal to condemn the neutrals Burgess seems to be condoning criminal behavior. It was perhaps with this problem in mind that Burgess made the following comment in an article entitled, appropriately enough, "The Manicheans":

The novelist's need to be adventurous, to pose problems, to shock into attention, is bound to lead him to ground perilous for the faithful. And there is something in the novelist's vocation which predisposes him to a kind of a Manicheeism. What the religious novelist often seems to be saying is that evil is a kind of good, since it is an aspect of Ultimate Reality; though what he is really saying is that evil is more interesting to write about than good. [Times Literary Supplement, March 3, 1966]

It may be that Burgess is speaking of himself; like Milton writing Paradise Lost, Burgess may occasionally be distracted by aesthetically interesting wickedness. But this hardly explains Hillier's enthusiasm for devil-worship, an endorsement which perhaps makes him unique among even the most liberal of modern clergymen. [In a footnote, Rabinovitz elaborates: "A friend of Hillier's says that his Manichean views are most unorthodox for a priest. It is then that Hillier makes his devil-worship remark (Tremor of Intent). But one of the original Manicheans would have been horrified by an implication that his religion tolerated devil-worship. The motivation for Manichean sexual abstinence and vegetarianism emerged from the religion's opposition to evil."]

The apparent inconsistencies in Burgess's dualistic moral views are sometimes seen as the result of his utilization of the Eastern yin-yang principles. Yin and yang may be expressed in morally relevant categories like good and evil, or in categories like hot and cold which have no moral connotations: such a view can lead to moral relativism. The Christian idea of an omnipotent, benevolent God, on the other hand, implies a belief in the superiority of good over evil and leads to moral absolutism.

In an attempt to make use of the Eastern yin-yang idea as well as elements of Christian belief from his background, Burgess has turned to Manicheeism, an eclectic religion which flourished both in the Orient and in the West. Manicheeism incorporates a number of Christian doctrines; moreover, one of its central ideas is a dualistic opposition both in nature (light and darkness) and in ethics (good and evil) which in some ways resembles the opposition of yin and yang. Very often, Burgess's use of Manichean dualism does work to reconcile differences in Eastern and Western thought; but problems arise when a choice must be made between relativism and absolutism. In Eastern terms, where a thing may be seen as both itself and its opposite, such a choice may not be necessary; but to a Westerner, part-time absolutism is self-contradictory. Absolutism seems to demand absolute fidelity, and in this sense Burgess's moral point of view appears ambiguous or inconsistent.

In places Burgess seems to be an absolutist; in others, a relativist. A Clockwork Orange, for example, seems to be dominated by moral relativism when one examines the values of Alex and F. Alexander in the light of the yin-yang principles. But this apparent inconsistency is at times explained by another conflict, a struggle between the individual and the state. Here Burgess makes no attempt to maintain the balance of the yin-yang principles: he is vehemently on the side of the individual.

An emphasis on individualism becomes apparent after a series of symmetrical events in which many of the characters who have been abused by Alex find him helpless and avenge themselves. The revenge is no harsher than the act which provoked it, but an important difference does emerge: though the state condemns Alex's brutal crimes, it sanctions and encourages the avengers' brutality—even though it has already exacted its own vengeance in the form of a prison term. For Burgess, society's brutality is more threatening than the individual's; its power is inhuman, enormous, and unrestrained. Burgess, commenting on A Clockwork Orange, has indicated that he meant to encourage a comparison between Alex's brutality and society's: "The violence in the book is really more to show what the State can do with it." [Anthony Burgess with Carol Dix, Transatlantic Review, Spring-Summer, 1972].

Alex is an enemy of the state and, as he predicts early on, the state will attempt to destroy not only what is evil in him but also his individuality: "The not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self. And is not our modern history, my brothers, the story of brave malenky selves fighting these big machines?" Unlike Alex, whose violence is subdued when he outgrows the role of clockwork man, the state remains a machine, always inhuman and conscienceless in its violence.

The hero of The Wanting Seed, like Alex, learns that it is unwise to trust the state: "he that saw whatever government was in power he would always be against it." And Burgess himself takes the same stand: "My political views are mainly negative: I lean towards anarchy: I hate the State. I loathe and abominate that costly, crass, intolerant, inefficient, eventually tyrannical machine which seeks more and more to supplant the individual" [Hudson Review, Autumn, 1967]. Like Alex, Burgess sees the state as an evil mechanism against which individual humans must defend themselves.

It becomes clear, then, that Burgess's moral values are far less ambiguous than they first appear. When he is speaking in his own voice, Burgess reacts to youthful violence with a conventional sense of dismay. If this tone had been introduced in A Clockwork Orange, the novel could easily have become polemical. Without redeeming qualities, the morally repulsive Alex would be a cardboard villain; and similarly the ethically attractive qualities of F. Alexander must be balanced by a personality which is, like his prose style, devoid of grace. Nor is the effect of these characterizations unrealistic; a charming psychopath usually makes a better impression than a righteous neurotic. In this fashion Burgess's system leads to the creation of characters who are round in E.M. Forster's sense.

Burgess's cyclical system works best when it is applied to the subject which concerns him the most, human individuality. Here it becomes a useful metaphor for portraying psychological complexity, for delineating the unpredictability of human beings responding to conflicting urges.

Burgess has indicated that he feels these conflicts within himself just as he observes them in others. One might make a comparison between Burgess the young composer and Alex the music-lover, or between Burgess the middle-aged novelist and the writer F. Alexander. Like Anthony Burgess, F. Alexander has written a book called A Clockwork Orange; and Alex, who tells his own story, is in a sense also the author of a book with the same title. Burgess is hinting that he detects within his own personality elements of both characters, that they form a yin-yang opposition which he sees within himself. But if he indicts himself, Burgess also invites the reader to examine his own capacity for playing the roles of both Alex and F. Alexander.

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