A Clockwork Orange | Critical Essay by Jean-Pierre Barricelli

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 2,368 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Jean-Pierre Barricelli

SOURCE: "Beethovenian Overlays by Carpentier and Burgess: The Ninth in Grotesque Juxtapositions," in Melopoiesis: Approaches to the Study of Literature and Music, New York University Press, 1988, pp. 140-54.

Barricelli is an American fiction writer, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, he argues that the use of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in A Clockwork Orange is arbitrary and inappropriate, "overlay[ing with negative associations one of the supreme compositions in the musical repertory."]

[The] Ninth Symphony, with its lofty reputation, is not ipso facto always an object of celebration, and it continues to appear in grotesque contexts. With the author of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, it is once more demythicized and overlayed with negative associations. Here again, the Ninth is treated, not as a work of art, but as a device in the novel whose dystopian vision centers around politics (the authoritarian socialism of future society), the media (thought control through technology), and morality (actually the immorality of the curtailment of freedom of choice). Carpentier's narrator thought he had found goodness in the jungle; Burgess, who replaces contrast with irony and seeming allegory with whimsical reality, sticks to the urban setting. At the end of The Wanting Seed, the question is asked: "Do you think people are fundamentally good?" The reply is grim: "Well … they now have a chance to ge good"—grim in light of A Clockwork Orange, where a conditioning process assures stability by eliminating freedom, and where the impossibility of distinguishing good from evil anymore in a totally mechanical environment results in "good" human zombies assembled like a clockwork. Like Carpentier, Burgess critiques the West, though less for its spiritual bankruptcy than for its idealistic faith in natural goodness. Free choice provokes anarchy, conditioning establishes control.

Carpentier's intellectually sophisticated language gives way to what has been called a Technico-Russo-Anglo "slanguage" called Nadsat, replete with neologisms to fit the society portrayed but also pleasantly rhythmical, indeed musical. The narrator Alex, after all, is a hoodlum who loves classical music, especially Beethoven, and his jargoned idiom, where neologisms act as dissonances, betrays a musical affinity. In the words of one critic, "It is hardly coincidental that Alex's favorite piece of music is Beethoven's Ninth, rich in dissonances that only the professional ear can detect, but filled also with as many untapped, infinite (so it seems) harmonies" [Robert K. Morris, The Consolations of Ambiguity, 1971]. As an example, I might single out one passage; after a successful "drasting" with his buddies, Alex writes:

When we got into the street I viddied that thinking is for the gloopy ones and that the oomny ones use like inspiration and what Bog sends. For now it was lovely music that came to my aid. There was an auto ittying by and it had its radio on, and I could just slooshy a bar or so of Ludwig van (it was the Violin Concerto, last movement), and I viddied at once what to do.

Alex, a lad of fifteen, is "ultra-violent," and the music he loves primarily is German, a preference that combines artistic greatness with the naked horrors of two world wars. Carpentier would agree. His motto is antiestablishmentarian: Non serviam, or "Kiss-my-sharries." He and his gang of three masked "droogs" commit all kinds of atrocities, "drasting" and "tolchocking": more than robbery and theft, they beat up an old professor and a drunkard to a pulp, attack another gang with razors and chains, savagely kick a pair of lovers, invade a writer's "HOME" and rape his wife. After breaking into an elderly, cat-loving woman's house and knocking her unconscious, Alex is arrested; sent to jail, where he is number 6655321 and accidentally kills a homosexual inmate; and is turned over to Dr. Brodsky for a reclamation treatment called Ludovico's Technique: brainwashing through films and drug injections that cause Alex to become violently ill the moment he starts experiencing pleasure at violent thoughts. The chaplain has reservations about the treatment: "The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within, 6655321. Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man…. It may be horrible to be good." But Alex sees this as the only way out of prison. He undergoes the cure and is declared cured, "ready to be crucified rather than crucify," by the doctors and state officials. Released, he is rejected by his parents; attacked by the old professor; rescued by his former "droogs" (now policemen), who beat him mercilessly for having previously beat up one of them during an argument; revisits "HOME", where the writer, a liberal out to "dislodge this overbearing government," at first recognizes him as a victim of that freedom-choking Ludovico Technique, later as the rapist who violated his wife—at which point he metes such excruciating punishment on the narrator through music that Alex attempts suicide by jumping out of a window. In the hospital he is restored to his former "ultra-violent" sex-maniacal self (the state is under pressure over its methods) and the Minister of the Interior makes a deal for his support in order to discredit the writer's political party. In one version of the novel, a final chapter (Chapter 21) [in an endnote about the significance of this number, Barricelli adds that Burgess places "Symbolic meaning in the number 7—the seven days of creation—… through his narrator's three sections, each of seven days"] has him mature to realize that "ultraviolence is a bit of a bore, and it's time he had a wife and a malensky googoogooing malchickiwick to call him dadada" [Anthony Burgess, quoted in Richard Matthews, The Clockwork Universe of Anthony Burgess, 1978].

In this gruesome fantasy, Beethoven plays a telling role, with a helping hand from Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. For Alex, music is a salvation, "gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh," producing "a cage of silk around my bed," resembling "silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now": "Great Music … and Great Poetry would like quieten Modern Youth down to make Modern Youth more Civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself." Therefore Alex, who strikes his friend for simply ridiculing a woman singing opera at the Korova Milkbar, retires to his room afterward and masturbates while listening to Beethoven. After beating and bloodying the writer's wife, and with feelings of violence racing through him in bed, he again experiences an orgasm listening to classical music:

I wanted something starry and strong and very firm, so it was J. S. Bach I had, the Brandenburg Concerto…. Listening to the Bach, I began to pony better what that meant now, and I thought, slooshying away to the brown gorgeousness of the starry German master, that I would like to have tolchoked them both harder and ripped them to ribbons on their own floor.

And in prison he is allowed to listen to the "holy music by J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel," even while reading the Bible: "While the stereo played bits of lovely Bach I closed my glazzies and viddied myself helping in and even taking charge of the tolchocking and the nailing in" [In an endnote, the critic adds: "The allusion is to Christ. Critics have brought out the sin-penance-resurrection analogy relating to the three parts of this complex novel"]. But his favorite composition is Beethoven's Ninth. He picks up two ten-year-old girls at the bar and rapes them, incited by the symphony:

Then I pulled the lovely Ninth out of its sleeve, so that Ludwig van was not nagoy too, and I set the needle hissing on to the last movement, which was all bliss. There it was then, the bass strings like govoreeting away from under my bed at the rest of the orchestra, and then the male human goloss coming in and telling them all to be joyful, and 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.

Alone later he falls asleep "with the old Joy Joy Joy crashing and howling away." Indeed, there is black humor as well as grotesque irony attached to this type of Beethovenian overlay, like that of the cat-loving woman who tries to protect herself against the invader wielding a bust of the master from Bonn, or like that of the dream he has of Beethoven, during which he hears a violence-ridden parody of the ode:

        Boy, thou uproarious shark of heaven,
          Slaughter of Elysium,
        Hearts on fire, aroused, enraptured,
          We will tolchock you on the rot and kick
            your grahzny vonny bum.

It dawns upon us at one point that in the name "Ludovico's Technique" Ludovico is really Ludwig, "Ludwig van" in Alex's parlance. When the narrator is subjected to the horrid state-sponsored rehabilitation process, complete with wires, drug, and film ("a very good like professional piece of sinny"), the background music turns out to be Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which then produces such an abhorrence for this music which up to now has aroused his sexual violence (the old "in-out in-out"), that the revengeful writer conceives of locking him up in a room and having symphonic music piped in, a diabolical punishment of hypercruelty. Even Alex, now sixteen, begins to realize the degrading nature of what is taking place:

I don't mind about the ultra-violence and all that cal. I can put up with that. But it's not fair on the music. It's not fair I should feel ill when I'm slooshying lovely Ludwig van and G. F. Handel and others. All that shows you're an evil lot of bastards and I shall never forgive you, sods.

At the end, as part of the deal with the Minister of the "Inferior" and to make sure he has been returned to his original self with his "bloshy" musical ways, he asks to hear the Ninth Symphony (end of Chapter 20), and he is convinced in a manner Beethoven might not have appreciated:

Oh, it was gorgeosity and yumyumyum. When it came to the Scherzo 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 cutthroat britva. And there was the slow movement and the lovely last singing movement still to come. I was cured all right.

As in Carpentier, this network of musical references may well provide a unifying factor in the novel, identifying the protagonist's individuality throughout, an individuality that in A Clockwork Orange threatens and in Los pasos perdidos opposes the status quo. But here, too, one must wonder about the suggestion, in the former work, that the mathematical music of Bach or, more pervasively, the lyrical and jubilant music of Beethoven, sparks even more violence than the hoodlum had in him originally. Similarly, one must wonder about the appropriateness, in the latter work, of associating the Ninth Symphony with violence after a token tribute to childhood memories. It is not enough to say that we are merely dealing with a whimsical selection, a convenient image, or an interesting device. For some reason, something about Beethoven—his titanic stature or what he represents in the cultural patrimony of the West—activates a devil's advocate's adrenalin in the authors of Los pasos perdidos and A Clockwork Orange. Grass reacted similarly toward St. Paul. To be sure, other works by Carpentier and Burgess, like El acoso and Napoleon Symphony, pay homage to the master, at least to the extent of their structural transpositions of the Third Symphony. But then again, look in passing at Richard Ennis in Burgess's A Vision of Battlements, who incites an antiaircraft unit to combative violence with words about this same master: "Beethoven was a musician…. He had absolutely no respect for authority…. He was independent, fearless, alone, no base crawler." We cannot overlook Dr. Brodsky's remark, either: the "sweetness and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence—… music, for instance." Hence Alex's unwittingly profound observation: "It was like as though to get better I had to get worse." Is it that in a clockwork, mechanical world good derives from bad like peace from violence—a restatement of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal or Giovanni Papini's Un uomo finito? Or that man has reached a hopeless impasse in his savage quest for improvement? But the existential messages of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoievsky, Pirandello, and Kafka have already been recorded. Carpentier's narrator hurts spiritually under authority; Burgess's challenges it physically. One feels like a Prometheus for a moment in the jungle but knows he is too weak to be one and that he will get worse before getting better; the other feels like a "fruit" who ultimately is that clockwork orange and that, if he has been made better for society, it is actually worse for society. Thus, we are left with paradoxes in the throes of a Manichaean dialectic: the Apollonian or the Dionysian, freedom of choice or submissive choicelessness, the authentic or the synthetic? More troublesome still, is either side of the equation possible today? If the culture of the Western city has not found fulfillment, is the alternative the primitive jungle? And if the promise of social governance has not matured, is lawless instinct the only avenue left? Answers to these questions are never clearly suggested. The ends of both novels are open-ended—indeed, unhealthy in light of their inconclusiveness. And it is the Ninth Symphony, incongruously, that shapes the contexts.

Yet the language of Beethoven's composition rings too lucidly with vitality and conviction to provide backdrops for such ambiguities and paradoxical modes. The overlays obfuscate the truth. As one critic has commented, "if the mode of a novel should say something about its meaning, or at least carry us forward so we may debate it, then we might have wished for a less open-ended conclusion, one that defined as well as disturbed" [Morris]. Without the definition, Beethoven is merely "used." In "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the King Cobra," the poet Edgar Lee Masters sounds more convincing:

      Beethoven's soul stepped from darkness to brilliant light,
      From despair to the rapture of strength
      Overcoming the world.

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This section contains 2,368 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Jean-Pierre Barricelli
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