A Clockwork Orange | Robert K. Morris

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 4,734 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Robert K. Morris

Robert K. Morris

SOURCE: "The Bitter Fruits of Freedom," in The Consolations of Ambiguity: An Essay on the Novels of Anthony Burgess, University of Missouri Press, 1971, pp. 55-75.

Morris is an American critic, educator, and biographer. In the following excerpt, he compares the structure and philosophic themes of Burgess's dystopian novels, A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed.

What followed from Burgess' preoccupation with the transition and ultimate death rattle of colonialism abroad and the atrophy of "self-indulgent" England at home were his two dark visions of dystopia—A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed. Even the parboiled paternalism of the Empire and the synthetic socialism of the welfare state had still apparently left room—though not much—for a dialogue between the individual and society and had kept alive discussions as to what was right and what was wrong with England (The Right to an Answer, for example, presumed some sort of question to begin with). The subsequent stasis—or worse, stagnation—setting in after reconstruction placed the mystery of understanding, as well as the burden of existence, on the individual alone. No longer of import were the questions of how to view, contain, serve, survive, or possibly love a state that clothed, fed, housed, and medicated. Now what had been the issue was exacted from the sensibilities of those who, glutted physically and socially, lived under what amounted to a deadening hedonism. It must have seemed only logical to Burgess, after exploring the dialectics of the single and collective mind, that the problem of the novelist was to probe its metaphysics—to see how the naked needs of his rebel anti-heroes (no longer even privileged to suffer the "consolation of ambiguity") could be met in a mad, lost, loveless, brutal, sterile world.

At first blush, A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed may appear—one because of stylistic shockers, the other for its Gothicism and grand guignol—more like bizarre and fantastic companions to the Burgess canon than parts of it. Like the majority of sci-fi trading on metarealities, the novels risk having the parts dissolve in the whole, the vantage point become lost in the vision. Unless, that is, one grasps from the outset that they are actually extensions of present conditions rather than forecasts of future ones. Such terrors as perpetrated by teenage werewolves like Alex in A Clockwork Orange and the domination of gangs like Hell's Angels are near-mild "happenings" placed cheek by jowl with current youth revolutions. And if the prime target of The Wanting Seed—overpopulation—is not yet, technically, a fait accompli, its proliferating literature, written not by hysterical Cassandras but by sound demographers, attests less to its imminence than, failing a cracking good holocaust, its inevitability.

One, then, must zero in on the contemporaneity of Burgess' issues—something that the ingenious superstructures and novelistic devices often impede. Take as an example the style of both novels. The ferocious and coarse, partly archaic, partly mod, neologic "nadsat" of A Clockwork Orange captures perfectly the violence and pace of incidents, breaking down into standard English only when the hero is being brainwashed and stripped of individuality. Clearly, it is always an amazing feat to have the language of a novel not simply match the action, but be the action. Clearly, too, one quickly wearies of the innovative, especially in matters of an outré style that so dazzles readers as to its form that they are almost eager to overlook its content. The brevity of A Clockwork Orange probably accounts for the success of its linguistic excess. Burgess, at any rate, has more luck in overplaying his hand in language than in standing pat. Though he was undoubtedly after a much different effect in The Wanting Seed, the contrast between the scrupulous impersonality of a Defoelike, third-person narrator and the nightmarish, surrealistic scenes never quite catches the tone of savagery that the satire seems to be striving for.

Again, there is the matter of structure. The triunal division of A Clockwork Orange—Alex damned, Alex purged, Alex resurrected—can be taken, depending on one's predilections at the start, as the falling-rising pattern of comedy or the rising-falling pattern of tragedy. That one may have it either way means, of course, there is a danger in having it neither. 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. I find a similar falling off into diffuseness or blurriness in The Wanting Seed, in which Burgess, alternating the lives of Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna Foxe, attempts to match the "Pelagian-Augustinian" phases of ebb and flow that symbolize the arbitrary movement of historic cycles. Yet while the reunion of Tristram and Beatrice has been logically anticipated throughout, the pat, almost cliché ending of husband and wife rejoined, coerced no more by the forces of man and nature but rising above them—transfixed, as it were, in the still point of the ineluctable cycle—strikes me as an alogical apotheosis of the human spirit.

Yet both books conclude on notes of "joy": Alex fondling his "britva" as he anticipates the chorale of Beethoven's Ninth and more throat cutting; the Foxes (Adam and Eve and twin offspring?) standing in their Valéry-like "graveyard by the sea," facing the ocean out of which new life will come (il faut tenter vivre). The individual is thus endowed with regenerative powers never clearly woven into the fabric of the fiction, and Burgess barters even tentative answers for impressive technique. I feel, in short, that his adroit shock tactics with plot and language, expertise with satire, and partiality to apocalypse—all enviable attributes and potential pluses normally—come dangerously close here to outflanking the substantive ideas. Done as these novels are, with immense energy and cleverness, their sheer "physicalness" all but crushes their metaphysics.

That is a loss, for Burgess has much to tell us. However arbitrary the premises of these novels, however suspect their "political science," their speculations on freedom and free will are frighteningly pertinent. Violently opposing the sterile, mechanical life under totalitarianism, they point no less to the degeneration under anarchy and, further, offer no viable alternative. Freedom stifled is no less opprobrious than freedom unlicensed, but the middle ground—what every liberal imagines is the just and workable compromise—is accounted equally suspect. Burgess has given us in the earlier … novels a smug, self-satisfied, socialized England that has run down. Too much freedom creates the mess only stability can correct; of course, stability involves the surrender of freedom. Like those of Orwell and Huxley, Burgess' exaggerated portraits of the confrontation between individual and state will ever mystify—until too late—the addled sensibilities who, drugged by the present moment, will neither care about nor comprehend the moment beyond. Even more frightening, we have since Orwell and Huxley moved closer to the impasse where the problems at last overwhelm the solutions, and what we are left with for solution is perhaps only continual re-examination of the problem. Is it not, therefore, a trifle absurd to ponder tortuous issues of mind and soul when daily it grows impossible to cope with external realities like pollution, famine, and overpopulation? Can we even talk of freedom or free will to states that have written them off as mere philosophical aberrations? Yet what meaning can existence have without the continuing quest to define it?

On the one hand, Burgess answers these paradoxes through the nineteenth-century existentialism of writers like Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard who dealt with freedom and free will, not in historic, but in metaphysical contexts. If revolution and the state initiated a new order of debate on freedom versus authority—from which arose the issue of free will—then the problems were quickly desocialized thereafter. Liberationism became as much the immovable force as necessitarianism the impenetrable object. Indeed, the best synthesis of the weird symbiosis between free will and freedom is still to be found in Ivan Karamazov's poem on the Grand Inquisitor, which, wrenched from its place in the novel, can satisfy radical and reactionary alike. Man, weak and imperfect as he is, can never bear the loneliness of living absolutely by free will and so surrenders the ideal of freedom to the Realpolitik of society. As Dostoyevsky realized all too sadly and well, most of us, lacking the superhuman inner strength necessary to do otherwise, submit our wills to Pilates and Inquisitors, rather than exercise them in an imitation of Christ.

Burgess' approach within this convention explains some of the broader outlines of both novels—especially since his hypothetical states dog the heels of totalitarian regimes. But clearly the Europe of a hundred years ago is not the "global village" of today. The revolutionary spirit abroad in the nineteenth century may have accounted in great part for its philosophy, but the trend of states toward a finer and fiercer repression (with no exit in sight) created an entirely new metaphysics on the older issues. Today, though man has more freedom to discuss his powers of freedom, the ugly fact is that the opportunities for demonstrating it have become more and more narrow. Striking out in acts of violence against the state that usurps freedom only binds our wills more rigorously to the state. Enigmatically, violence is not a display of free will at all, but an echo of historic determinism. For whether we like it or not, we cannot exercise free will in a vacuum; and though we like it less and less, the state is still the "objective correlative" for the freedom we seek. The true problem, in other words, is no longer how one learns to love Big Brother, nor what happens when one does not, but what results from not caring one way or the other about him.

What is chilling about A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed is not so much Burgess' awareness of these philosophic questions, but the dead ends to which the empiricism of his answers leads. He achieves a partial perspective in The Wanting Seed in pirating from the Pelagian-Augustinian tussle over free will in order to superimpose metaphysics on history. His ENSPUN, a future conglomerate of English states, moves by fits and starts according to "theologico-mythical concepts" of two historic cycles that alternately place man in one phase or the other.

"Pelagius [as Tristram Foxe tells his history class] denied the doctrine of Original Sin and said that man was capable of working out his own salvation…. All this suggests human perfectibility. Pelagianism was thus seen to be at the heart of liberalism and its derived doctrines, especially Socialism and Communism…. Augustine, on the other hand, had insisted on man's inherent sinfulness and the need for his redemption through divine grace. This was seen to be at the bottom of Conservatism and other laissezfaire and non-progressive political beliefs…. The opposed thesis, you see…. The whole thing is quite simple, really." [The Wanting Seed]

This exposition comes early on and is "quite simple"—that is, if one contents himself with surfaces. I mentioned above that this philosophic rationale provides the structure for the novel. It also supplies the several antipodal outlooks (the optimistic and pessimistic, borne respectively by Beatrice-Joanna and Tristram) and accounts for the crucial rationalistic and voluntaristic arguments over the individual and the state (the Pelagian would allow man freedom of choice to populate himself out of existence; the Augustinian would stifle his natural instincts and freedom in order to preserve the state). Finally, in the most clever of ways, the rationale parallels the lineal development of the protagonists as their lives crisscross in the alternating historic cycles.

But what is also "quite simple" to ignore are the modern ironies Burgess twists into the debate between the venerable bishop-saint and the heretic monk. Augustine and Pelagius clashed, one may remember, over the most fundamental issues relating to free will: original sin and divine grace. Augustine developed the theory that Adam's sin is transmitted from parents to children throughout all generations through the sexual act (which, inevitably accompanied by lust, is sinful), while Pelagius taught that sin originates in man's following the bad example of Adam and that it is continued in mankind by force of habit. Consequently, Augustine concluded that man's ultimate salvation resided in the divine grace of God alone; Pelagius argued—with something approaching psychological insight—that divine grace is bestowed according to merit and that man, in the exercise of his free and morally responsible will, will take the determining initiative in matters of salvation.

This is very solemn stuff, and I hope the reader will not lose patience with me when I say that much of it is beside Burgess' main point, though very ingeniously tangential to it. As Tristram pedantically remarks, "The theology subsisting in our opposed doctrines of Pelagianism and Augustinianism has no longer any validity. We use these mythical symbols because they are peculiarly suited to our age, an age relying more and more on the perceptual, the pictorial, the pictographic." But translated into modern historic terminology, the theology has an added force, albeit an inverted one. The concept of original sin, the theory, is positively silly and insignificant when placed beside the desperate reality of overpopulation accruing from lust, fornication, and marriage. Birth is accountable for both the theological and historical problem as well as for the metaphysical bind of the protagonists. And, by the same token, one cannot even quixotically imagine that God's grace will clear up the population explosion; it is to God's modern counterpart, the state, that one looks for salvation….

Those skeptical of the chances governments afford us will find A Clockwork Orange sustaining to such skepticism. It is a book focusing on "the chance to be good" and proceeding from a single, significant existential dilemma: Is an evil human being with free choice preferable to a good zombie without it? Indeed, at two points in the novel Burgess spells out the dilemma for us. On one occasion, Alex, about to submit to conditioning, is admonished by the prison chaplain:

"It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good…. Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some ways better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?… A terrible terrible thing to consider. And yet, in a sense, in choosing to be deprived of the ability to make an ethical choice, you have in a sense really chosen the good."

And on the other, the unwitting F. Alexander, with whom Alex finds sanctuary temporarily, similarly remarks:

"You've sinned, I suppose, but your punishment has been out of all proportion. They have turned you into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good…. But the essential intention is the real sin. A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man."

Yet, were this all Burgess had to say on the matter, the impetus of the dilemma would lose substantially in force. Society at large has never troubled itself with the existential agony (unless to repress some manifestation of it), and judging from the preponderance of sentiment abroad today, it would undoubtedly applaud the conditioning process that champions stability over freedom. But Burgess has found inhering in the central dilemma considerations even more immediate. What distinctions between good and evil are possible in the contemporary world? As absolutes, have such distinctions not been totally perverted or obliterated? And as relative terms, depending for definition on what each negates or excludes, have they not become purely subjective? In a technically perfect society that has sapped our vitality for constructive choice, we are, whether choosing good or evil, zombies of one sort or another: Each of us is a little clockwork orange making up the whole of one great clockwork orange.

I am not suggesting that this spare masterpiece necessarily answers the questions it raises. Even a philosophic novel is fiction before philosophy, a fact too easily lost sight of in the heat of critical exuberance. If anything, Burgess sharpens our sensibilities, shapes our awareness of his main argument, by letting us see the extent to which the human quotient dwindles in the face of philosophic divisions. One must, therefore, reject equally any monistic or dualistic readings of the novel, not because the book, per se, is complex, but because the issues are. It is obviously impossible to resolve syllogistically which is the greater evil perpetrated in A Clockwork Orange: Alex's rape and murder or the state's conditioning of his mind and, as some would have it, soul. Passive goodness and dynamic evil are choices that in themselves may or may not be acceptable or unacceptable, but that in terms of the novel are neither. My own preference is to view the book pluralistically, to see it as a kind of varieties of existential experience, involving at every turn mixtures of both good and evil that move outward through widening concentric circles of choice from the esthetic (ugliness, beauty) to the moral (sin, redemption). And, as with The Wanting Seed, the experiences are empirically stated.

Let me start with the esthetic that is oddly integral to the novel—its language. Vesch and tolchock and smeck and about 250 other nadsat neologisms characterize Alex's era as distinctively as phony and crap do Holden Caulfield's. Whatever sources Burgess drew upon ([the character Dr. Branom describes Alex's language as] "Odd bits of old rhyming slang…. A bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration."), it has generally been the brutality, harshness, distortion, artificiality, and synthetic quality of the coinages that have fascinated those (myself included) who make the direct connection between the way Alex speaks and how he acts. The language is all of this—an "objective correlative" with a vengeance—but it is something more. Burgess is also a musician, and any passage of sustained nadsat reflects certain rhythms and textures and syncopations. As the following:

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.

In its simplicity and naturalness as well as its wholeness and continuity, this final paragraph of A Clockwork Orange sings to me much as those free-wheeling lapses in Molly Bloom's soliloquy. 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. In a way it is easy to understand why musical conservatives of Beethoven's time could find the Ninth "ugly" by the then rigorous harmonic standards and why, as a matter of fact, more than one critic fled from the concert hall at the beginning of the "lovely last singing movement." Alex's language is, in its way, ugly, too; but place it alongside the bland and vapid professional or everyday language of the doctors and warders and chaplains and hear how hollow their language rings. Burgess was out to show how sterile and devitalized language could become without a continuing dynamics behind it; how, in fact, the juice had been squeezed from it; and how, contrarily, Alex emerges as something of a poet, singing dithyrambs to violence, but revealing through the terrifying beauty of his speech the naked beauty of an uninhibited psyche.

The choice of an esthetic substantiates the several existential modes without explaining how the maladjustment—itself an indication of social, psychological, and biological "evils"—came about. The causes are naturally grounded in current events, and Burgess has spelled them out in earlier writings. Alex, the gross product of welfare state overkill, is not "depraved because he is deprived" but because he is indulged. "Myself," he notes rather pathetically at the beginning of A Clockwork Orange, "I couldn't help a bit of disappointment at things as they were those days. Nothing to fight against really. Everything as easy as kiss-my-sharries." Alex's utopia is more than the result of suprapermissiveness and self-gratification; it is the consequence of the "original sin" inborn with every offspring of modern organizational leviathans. Having discovered that existence has always meant freedom, but never having been taught "goodness," Alex responds predictably and inevitably to the killing burden of choice.

Socially, he and his "droogs" parody the formless, shadowy, omnipotent political entity that sports with them as they with "lewdies." This Kafkaesque infinite regression is frightening enough, though I find even more so Burgess' repeated inferences that we are all, in some way or another, products of conditioning: tools to be manipulated and clockwork oranges whether we will or no. Alex, not unlike Meursault or K. or—as Burgess more slyly than reasonably lets us imagine—Christ, is the mere scapegoat. He is the one called upon to expiate for the existence of others because he has dared question—or (in this case) has been forced to question—his own.

I don't know that Burgess offers any clear-cut expansion of the psychological and biological evils of modern life, but he does dramatize with vitality the theory that we are by now—depending on our luck—either neurotic or paranoid. Alex's particular routine sado-masochism—nightly orgies of "tolchocking" and the old "in-out in-out," alternating between sabbaticals at the all-too-Freudian Korova Milkbar and withdrawals (onanistic and otherwise) into his multi-speakered stereo womb—may be the healthy neurosis standing between Alex and the paranoia of the populace, though it proves something of a disaster for those elected as outlets for his self-expression. Yet more insidious is the growing feeling one gets in reading A Clockwork Orange of governments encouraging violence in order to whip up and feed the paranoia that will ultimately engender allegiance through fear. Ironically, Alex, on the surface at least, is less psychologically distorted and biologically frustrated in his career of violence than those he terrorizes or those who seek to condition him. And, in a more significant way, his small-scale brutalities reflect no deeper abnormality than those of larger scale perfected by the engineers of power politics.

Alex, of course, does not intellectualize his Non serviam. For one thing, he wouldn't know how to; for another, there is no need to. The evils of intellect—ignorance and error—have brought the state to a point at which only the fruits of escalated intellectual achievement can check and contain (if that is now the sole function left the state!) the robots it has brought into being. Nothing is mystifying about our present disenchantment with intellectuals who, however motivated or why, have skillfully and near totally excised with their finely honed organizations, systems, and machines the last vestiges of our intuition. Burgess makes a case for the Alex-breed being one of the last, though obviously not impregnable, strongholds of intuition. Yet Alex is neither a purely feeling (if ignoble) savage nor a crusader warring against thought. He is a prototype of those who, muddling means and ends by lumping them together, rebel out of a studied defiance to intellect, rather than out of any untutored intuitive urge. Intellect having failed to show them the "truth that shall make men free," intuition alone must sustain the illusion of freedom and itself become accepted as the creative act or be confused with it. Such intuitional virtues seem to account for Alex's successful "dratsing" with Georgie and Dim:

… 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 right at once what to do.

What Alex does is carve up both of them a bit with his "britva," yet the episode is more significant in retrospect than in context. Alex's natural reflex of elation in the face of violence—inspired here by Beethoven—later becomes a conditioned reflex against violence after his bout with the "Ludovico technique," a name, I imagine, not chosen at random by Burgess. The distortion of intellect and intuition leads to an unresolvable Manicheanism: What are we, where are we when we can be programmed into calling evil what is so clearly the "good and beautiful?" In a clockwork-orange society we may as well surrender any pretense for distinguishing between good and evil; when we call them by the identical name we know we have been brainwashed past hope. In this respect, A Clockwork Orange shows refinements even beyond 1984. Winston Smith, having undergone physical tortures on a par with primitive atrocities and unrelenting mental cruelties predicated on external fears, quite naturally betrays the woman he loves and learns to love Big Brother. But Alex, robbed of his will, reduced to an automaton, taught to be sickened by violence, is made "good" only by killing in him what was already the good.

Both Winston and Alex "die" when they can no longer love. Yet, if 1984 is grimly conclusive in showing the death of a mind and heart at the hands of the state, A Clockwork Orange is equally effective in questioning the finality of the death. Burgess brings in (not for shock tactics alone) one of the original archetypes through which Alex finds salvation: the fall, or in this case, the jump. His attempted suicide is, according to Christian dogma, a transgression against God's will, grace, and judgment, and, existentially, the inexcusable surrender of human freedom. Alex, in other words, has been half-dragged, half-propelled down paths of problematical and actual evil to arrive at the lethal nadir of moral evil: sin. And having plumbed the depths, he can only rise. He is a slave to fate rather than choice (the things that happen to him in the last third of the book recapitulate those he initiated in the first third), a victim (no longer victimizer) without refuge, unsuited for Christ-like martyrdom ("If that veck had stayed I might even have like presented the other cheek"), physically coming apart at the seams and mentally wracked. From this condition, his try at "snuffing it" becomes the last desperate exertion of a murdered will and, paradoxically, the means to its resurrection.

Despite the unanswerable paradoxes and dilemmas of A Clockwork Orange, which remain unaltered in the ambiguity of its conclusion, my own notions as to the book's ultimate intent are perhaps slightly more irreverent than ambivalent. I cannot escape the idea that Burgess has intended Alex's sickness—the nausée lodged in nonchoice—to symbolize a new concept of Angst neatly antithetical to Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death," the "fear and trembling" accruing from the infinite possibilities of choice. And, further, I suspect Alex's jump, the fall by which he is redeemed (the resulting concussion undoes his conditioning), in some way approximates the Kierkegaardian "leap into faith": the intuitive passage from doubt to faith after the cold logic of intellect fails. Alex has done wrong, been evil, sinned, but all as preparation for his redemption. The faith he finds is a specimen of love, joy, freedom. Ironically, he must leave HOME in order to reach it in the same way a man must "lose his life [before] he save it." And his cure is both of the body and soul. "It was," says Alex, "like as though to get better I had to get worse." Burgess seems to be saying that, in a brutal, resigned, mechanical world—a world turned clockwork—love must come from hate, good from evil, peace from violence, and redemption from sin.

How? Unfortunately there are no panaceas for metaphysical or existential ills, and Burgess is not a prescriptive writer anyway. Human problems are inexhaustible so long as there are human beings; eradicate one and you eradicate the other. Short of that, one might find the answer to A Clockwork Orange in The Wanting Seed—and vice versa, but I very much doubt that either solution would serve for long. Give man unlimited choice? He will make a botch of it. Deprive him of all but the "right" choice? He is no longer a man. The seeds and fruits of freedom, both novels tell us, are bitter, but man is now harvesting only what he has sown.

(read more)

This section contains 4,734 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Robert K. Morris
Follow Us on Facebook