A Clockwork Orange | Critical Essay by Anthony Burgess

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of A Clockwork Orange.
This section contains 1,992 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Anthony Burgess

SOURCE: "Clockwork Marmalade," in The Listener, Vol. 87, No. 2238, February 17, 1972, pp. 197-99.

In the following essay, Burgess discusses the violence in A Clockwork Orange and reacts to criticism that both the novel and Stanley Kubrick's 1972 film version of it are gratuitous in their depictions of such content.

I went to see Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in New York, fighting to get in like everybody else. It was worth the fight, I thought—very much a Kubrick movie, technically brilliant, thoughtful, relevant, poetic, mind-opening. It was possible for me to see the work as a radical remaking of my own novel, not as a mere interpretation, and this—the feeling that it was no impertinence to blazon it as Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange—is the best tribute I can pay to the Kubrickian mastery. The fact remains, however, that the film sprang out of a book, and some of the controversy which has begun to attach to the film is controversy in which I, inevitably, feel myself involved. In terms of philosophy and even theology, the Kubrick Orange is a fruit from my tree.

I wrote A Clockwork Orange in 1961, which is a very remote year, and I experience some difficulty in empathising with that long-gone writer who, concerned with making a living, wrote as many as five novels in 14 months. The title is the least difficult thing to explain. In 1945, back from the army, I heard an 80-year-old Cockney in a London pub say that somebody was 'as queer as a clockwork orange'. The 'queer' did not mean homosexual: it meant mad. The phrase intrigued me with its unlikely fusion of demotic and surrealistic. For nearly twenty years I wanted to use it as the title of something. During those twenty years I heard it several times more—in Underground stations, in pubs, in television plays—but always from aged Cockneys, never from the young. It was a traditional trope, and it asked to entitle a work which combined a concern with tradition and a bizarre technique. The opportunity to use it came when I conceived the notion of writing a novel about brainwashing. Joyce's Stephen Dedalus (in Ulysses) refers to the world as an 'oblate orange'; man is a microcosm or little world; he is a growth as organic as a fruit, capable of colour, fragrance and sweetness; to meddle with him, condition him, is to turn him into a mechanical creation.

There had been some talk in the British press about the problems of growing criminality. The youth of the late Fifties were restless and naughty, dissatisfied with the postwar world, violent and destructive, and they—being more conspicuous than mere old-time crooks and hoods—were what many people meant when they talked about growing criminality. Looking back from a peak of violence, we can see that the British teddy-boys and mods and rockers were mere tyros in the craft of anti-social aggression: nevertheless, they were a portent, and the man in the street was right to be scared. How to deal with them? Prison or reform school made them worse: why not save the taxpayer's money by subjecting them to an easy course in conditioning, some kind of aversion therapy which should make them associate the act of violence with discomfort, nausea, or even intimations of mortality? Many heads nodded at this proposal (not, at the time, a governmental proposal, but one put out by private though influential theoreticians). Heads still nod at it. On The Frost Show it was suggested to me that it might have been a good thing if Adolf Hitler had been forced to undergo aversion therapy, so that the very thought of a new putsch or pogrom would make him sick up his cream cakes.

Hitler was, unfortunately, a human being, and if we could have countenanced the conditioning of one human being we would have to accept it for all. Hitler was a great nuisance, but history has known others disruptive enough to make the state's fingers itch—Christ, Luther, Bruno, even D. H. Lawrence. One has to be genuinely philosophical about this, however much one has suffered. I don't know how much free will man really possesses (Wagner's Hans Sachs said: Wir sind ein wenig frei—'we are a little free'), but I do know that what little he seems to have is too precious to encroach on, however good the intentions of the encroacher may be.

A Clockwork Orange was intended to be a sort of tract, even a sermon, on the importance of the power of choice. My hero or anti-hero, Alex, is very vicious, perhaps even impossibly so, but his viciousness is not the product of genetic or social conditioning: it is his own thing, embarked on in full awareness. Alex is evil, not merely misguided, and in a properly run society such evil as he enacts must be checked and punished. But his evil is a human evil, and we recognise in his deeds of aggression potentialities of our own—worked out for the non-criminal citizen in war, sectional injustice, domestic unkindness, armchair dreams. In three ways Alex is an exemplar of humanity: he is aggressive, he loves beauty, he is a language-user. Ironically, his name can be taken to mean 'wordless', though he has plenty of words of his own—invented, group-dialect. He has, though, no word to say in the running of his community or the managing of the state: he is, to the state, a mere object, something 'out there' like the Moon, though not so passive.

Theologically, evil is not quantifiable. Yet I posit the notion that one act of evil may be greater than another, and that perhaps the ultimate act of evil is dehumanisation, the killing of the soul—which is as much as to say the capacity to choose between good and evil acts. Impose on an individual the capacity to be good and only good, and you kill his soul for, presumably, the sake of social stability. What my, and Kubrick's, parable tries to state is that it is preferable to have a world of violence undertaken in full awareness—violence chosen as an act of will—than a world conditioned to be good or harmless. I recognise that the lesson is already becoming an old-fashioned one. B. F. Skinner, with his ability to believe that there is something beyond freedom and dignity, wants to see the death of autonomous man. He may or may not be right, but in terms of the Judaeo-Christian ethic that A Clockwork Orange tries to express, he is perpetrating a gross heresy. It seems to me in accordance with the tradition that Western man is not yet ready to jettison, that the area in which human choice is a possibility should be extended, even if one comes up against new angels with swords and banners emblazoned No. The wish to diminish free will is, I should think, the sin against the Holy Ghost.

In both film and book, the evil that the state performs in brainwashing Alex is seen spectacularly in its own lack of self-awareness as regards non-ethical values. Alex is fond of Beethoven, and he has used the Ninth Symphony as a stimulus to dreams of violence. This has been his choice, but there has been nothing to prevent his choosing to use that music as a mere solace or image of divine order. That, by the time his conditioning starts, he has not yet made the better choice does not mean that he will never do it. But, with an aversion therapy which associates Beethoven and violence, that choice is taken away from him for ever. It is an unlooked-for punishment and it is tantamount to robbing a man—stupidly, casually—of his right to enjoy the divine vision. For there is a good beyond mere ethical good, which is always existential: there is the essential good, that aspect of God which we can prefigure more in the taste of an apple or the sound of music than in mere right action or even charity.

What hurts me, as also Kubrick, is the allegation made by some viewers and readers of A Clockwork Orange that there is a gratuitous indulgence in violence which turns an intended homiletic work into a pornographic one. It was certainly no pleasure to me to describe acts of violence when writing the novel: I indulged in excess, in caricature, even in an invented dialect with the purpose of making the violence more symbolic than realistic, and Kubrick found remarkable cinematic equivalents for my own literary devices. It would have been pleasanter, and would have made more friends, if there had been no violence at all, but the story of Alex's reclamation would have lost force if we weren't permitted to see what he was being reclaimed from. For my own part, the depiction of violence was intended as both an act of catharsis and an act of charity, since my own wife was the subject of vicious and mindless violence in blacked-out London in 1942, when she was robbed and beaten by three GI deserters. Readers of my book may remember that the author whose wife is raped is the author of a work called A Clockwork Orange.

Viewers of the film have been disturbed by the fact that Alex, despite his viciousness, is quite likeable. It has required a deliberate self-administered act of aversion therapy on the part of some to dislike him, and to let righteous indignation get in the way of human charity. The point is that, if we are going to love mankind, we will have to love Alex as a not unrepresentative member of it. The place where Alex and his mirror-image F. Alexander are most guilty of hate and violence is called HOME, and it is here, we are told, that charity ought to begin. But 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.

I have a final point to make, and this will not interest many who like to think of Kubrick's Orange rather than Burgess's. The language of both movie and book (called Nadsat—the Russian 'teen' suffix as in pyatnadsat, meaning fifteen) is no mere decoration, nor is it a sinister indication of the subliminal power that a Communist super-state may already be exerting on the young. It was meant to turn A Clockwork Orange into, among other things, a brainwashing primer. You read the book or see the film, and at the end you should find yourself in possession of a minimal Russian vocabulary—without effort, with surprise. This is the way brainwashing works. I chose Russian words because they blend better into English than those of French or even German (which is already a kind of English, not exotic enough). But the lesson of the Orange has nothing to do with the ideology or repressive techniques of Soviet Russia: it is wholly concerned with what can happen to any of us in the West, if we do not keep on our guard. If Orange, like 1984, takes its place as one of the salutary literary warnings—or cinematic warnings—against flabbiness, sloppy thinking, and overmuch trust in the state, then it will have done something of value. For my part, I do not like the book as much as others I have written: I have kept it, till recently, in an unopened jar—marmalade, a preserve on a shelf, rather than an orange on a dish. What I would really like to see is a film of one of my other novels, all of which are singularly unaggressive, but I fear that this is too much to hope for. It looks as though I must go through life as the fountain and origin of a great film, and as a man who has to insist, against all opposition, that he is the most unviolent creature alive. Just like Stanley Kubrick.

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This section contains 1,992 words
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Buy the Critical Essay by Anthony Burgess
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