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The late Anthony Burgess never anticipated being remembered more for A Clockwork Orange than for anything else, but such has been his fate. He never thought it the best of his many novels, and perhaps it isn’t. But it is a philosophically complex, narratively compelling and stylistically distinctive fable, and, while his overall literary reputation continues to waver since his death in 1993, this short book now keeps company with Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four in the grand pantheon of dystopian literature. After nearly fifty years, it remains in print as a Penguin Classic.
On first publication, in 1962, A Clockwork Orange neither sold well nor impressed critics, although it quietly garnered countercultural fans, notably Andy Warhol and The Rolling Stones. It may never have become really famous, as even Burgess recognised, had not Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film of it dragged it into the slipstream of controversy about screen violence. Burgess initially defended the film, but came to feel that it distorted his story, regularly engaging in corrective debate about it, and seeking to reclaim its meaning by creating stage and radio versions, including a short-lived musical for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Northern Stage regularly performed the play for a decade but it never became as iconic as the book and film. Versions have been staged several times at the Edinburgh Festival, and Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre performed it (for a second time) in October 2010, suggesting that some directors still think the story speaks to us, although whether in quite the way Burgess intended is moot – and perhaps also irrelevant.
A Clockwork Orange tells of fifteen-year-old Alex - he has no surname in the book - a Beethoven-loving, lower middle-class delinquent in a drab near-future (and implicitly socialist) Britain, his wild nights of “ultraviolence” (assault, home invasion, rape and eventually murder) with his gang of friends, his betrayal by them to the police, and the state’s attempt, while he is imprisoned, to render him non-violent by experimental aversion therapy, the Ludovico Technique. This device makes him nauseous at the mere thought of enacting aggression. Released early because he is ‘cured” by it, but now unable to defend himself in an unforgiving world, Alex is subsequently victimised by some of his own former victims, and an embarrassed government, rather than let their political opponents exploit the damage done to him, authorise his de-conditioning and restore him to his former violent self. In a last chapter (which did not appear in the American edition on which Kubrick-based his film) eighteen-year-old Alex matures, loses his adolescent appetite for violence, and ruefully contemplates a dull future as a worker and family man.
On the surface at least, A Clockwork Orange is indeed about youth crime and the politics of law and order, and thanks to Kubrick’s audio-visual imagination, and Malcolm McDowell’s mesmerising screen performance as Alex, it is largely in these terms that it has been remembered and celebrated. But also misremembered. Contemporary tabloid newspapers boldly invoke A Clockwork Orange whenever a gang of youths kick someone to death, as if such extreme and supposedly unprecedented violence was precisely what both film and book had been warning against, and been primarily concerned with. In 2008, for example, Daily Express columnist Leo McInstry, lamenting the murder of good citizen Gary Newlove, portrayed both film and book as neglected masterpieces from whose ugly, prescient truths we wilfully averted out eyes at the time, to our present cost.
Not so. Burgess had far loftier concerns, metaphysical more than social. He took his cue from Shakespeare’s lament in The Winter’s Tale about the perennial depredations of youth between “the ages of sixteen and twenty three”, and based his thugs’ behaviour on what Teddy Boys had already done in the 1950’s, not on what their successors might do, which only vaguely interested him. What truly bothered him, and Kubrick, was not youth violence as such but – and this is the point of both book and film - the dehumanising potential for technological repression, on the part of the state, and in Burgess’s case, particularly, the mentalities which underpin it.
In aesthetically distinctive ways, each true to their own medium, both novelist and film director conjured up reader and audience sympathy for Alex, despite his being an unrepentant rapist and a murderer: he is, after all, the abject “clockwork orange” of the story’s second half, a human being transformed into a docile, programmed machine. But they did it in different degrees, the book working better – more responsibly - than the film.
By dint of the smart and imaginative argot in which Burgess’s Alex narrates his story, which creates a certain reflective distance between the reader and the sickening crimes being described, Burgess never loses sight of Alex’s deplorable sadism - but he simultaneously, and shamelessly, invites and expects readers to recognise their own sinful impulses in this cruel, youthful everyman.
Something is lost in the transition to cinema: Kubrick’s depiction of artful and balletic assaults are both offensive and amusing, distancing us from the horror, certainly, but robbing the violence (mostly against women) of any real shock-value, and in the second half, his film unambiguously turns Alex into a snappy, true-to-himself, anti-hero whose crimes don’t really matter because he ultimately beats an oppressive and hypocritical political system. The novel, whilst generating some sympathy for Alex in his time of abjection, never makes him laudable.
Some contemporary critics queasily admired the film’s bravura imagery, but in 1971 it was unsurprisingly, and not unintelligently, accused of glamourising violence and inciting youth crime from all points on the political spectrum, in both England and the USA. Questions were asked in Parliament. The Home Secretary personally reassured himself that the film censor’s decision to rate it an X was appropriate. Despite (or, as likely, because of) this, A Clockwork Orange was commercially successful and, especially in the US, was nominated for important film awards. In 1973, however, Kubrick took the unprecedented step of withdrawing it from circulation in Britain – though nowhere else - because be feared it had indeed inspired copycat crime (and because his own family were threatened). The all important indictment of the Ludovico Technique, and the mentality it represented, got lost in the fuss and youth crime itself – not the state’s possible response to it – came to signify what the film had essentially been about.
For Burgess, the Ludovico Technique had condensed and satirised several mind and behaviour controls that were ‘under development’ on both sides in the Cold War (and which at the time also caused concern to William Burroughs and Aldous Huxley). In pundit mode, Burgess vaguely claimed to fear their deployment in a future totalitarian Britain, not just on criminals but on all citizens. The core point of the novel, for him, however, was theological rather than political: he conceived it as a Christian allegory about the inalienable value of human freewill, a quality of such profound moral importance that man’s undeniable predilection for evil, for using free will badly, epitomised by Alex, has to be accepted by society in order to preserve this defining human quality, which is at the same time the source of all goodness and sublime, artistic glory.
Punishing violence after the fact is fine – but attempts to pre-empt it by engineering it out of existence are godless. Any attempt to manufacture good (i.e. conformist) people through science and technology, for merely political ends – as the first Soviets had wanted the psychologist Pavlov to do - is for Burgess, the far greater evil. The result, at best, is a shallow pseudo-goodness, because it is not freely chosen, and at worst, the creation of a totalitarian order. In giving firm voice to the case for untrammelled freewill, the hell-respecting prison chaplain who condemns the will-destroying propensities of the Ludovico Technique is Burgess’s dubious moral surrogate, and it was in these profound and complex – and to some, plain daft - theological terms, not in terns of its relevance to contemporary youth culture, that he most wanted his story discussed.
Kubrick simply and easily ignored the novel’s Christian underpinnings and used the chaplain’s cry for freedom in a more straightforwardly political way – even Alex should not be treated as a mere thing. Kubrick undoubtedly shared Burgess’s unedifying view of human nature (remember Dr. Strangelove!) but saw man more as risen ape than fallen angel (remember 2001!), which arguably makes even more pressing the question, if spiritual redemption is factored out of the argument, of what a thoroughly secular, purely materialist society should actually do with people who violently abuse freedom. Neither writer nor director proffer an answer. Both were content, as artists, to pose an awkward question, but while legitimate up to a point, the absence even of gestures towards answers was ultimately unsatisfying.
How should we deal with violence? The question is live – and was then! Prison is indeed pointless and brutal, as both book and film show. Alex’s probation officer is an overworked, disillusioned hack (and in the film a pervert). Beethoven’s music may represent the sublime pinnacle of human achievement, but Alex’s appreciation of this “art” neither civilises nor redeems him. Humanity at its moral best, setting a good example, trying genuinely to care, is nowhere to be seen in either book or film. “Clockwork”, as Burgess uses it, in fact sets up more of an opposition between the mechanical and the merely organic (man as brute beast) than the mechanical and the fully, richly human. All his protagonists are Dantean lost souls, locked in mutual torment, and for Burgess that was more or less the way it would and should always be, so long as the totalitarians, whether well-meaning or not, were kept at bay.
Contemporary stage productions of A Clockwork Orange create some opportunity to give proper prominence to what Burgess wanted the Ludovico Technique to stand for, although the text of both novel and play themselves set some limits on this, of which we may be more conscious now than a half century ago. Technically, they don’t actually convey Alex’s inward transformation into will-less-ness as well as, say, Ken Kesey (1964) accomplished it with his hallucinating Native American narrator in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, another great indictment of therapeutic tyranny from the same era as Burgess’s novel (and also a memorable seventies’ film). Alex’s post-Ludovico sense of himself is unduly anaemic and apologetic, abased but not fearful or shaken, compared to Chief Bromden’s visceral sense of dread that the asylum in which he is incarcerated is insidiously turning his body into a machine from the inside out, and infiltrating his thoughts at the same time.
It is nonetheless the techno-focus of A Clockwork Orange that enables it to speak to present and future ages, however allusively. Many dramas, in many media, update reflections on youth crime – despite the lazy thinking of some journalists, A Clockwork Orange is not needed for that - but the recent emergence of ‘techno-corrections’, such as electronic surveillance, ritalin to subdue unruly children, and semi-automated super-max prisons, if not yet behavioural conditioning or neurological modification, gives Burgess’s book continuing contemporary resonance.
How far might, and should, the state go to control violent crime? We are nowadays more likely to frame a response in terms of human rights than Christian theology, but as Kubrick showed, whatever Burgess thought, the story remains a viable resource in debates of this kind even when stripped of that theology. Even beyond mere ‘techno-corrections’, this almost fifty-year-old book challenges the temerity of those contemporary writers, artists and scientists who dream beyond sensible medical innovations and embrace the full technological transformation of all humanity, glibly beckoning us towards ‘post-human’ or ‘trans-human’ futures. This may seem like an unduly bold claim for the novel, but while prediction was never Burgess’s priority, he was nonetheless, despite his anachronistic theology and largely conservative politics, a zeitgeisty guy with a healthy literary respect for science fiction and the antennae to sense what was telling in the swirl of world-news around him. Real scientists had actually coined the term ”cyborg”, the harbinger of the post-human, two years before he published his novel. So, likely as not, for as long as our capacity and inclination to modify human nature accelerates, his ascerbic and so finely written fable will still be pushing us to question whether we really understand the moral import of what we are doing, just as Mary Shelley’s (1818) much older Frankenstein still manages, if ever so faintly now, to unsettle our Promethean aspirations.
Mike Nellis, Emeritus Professor of Criminal and Community Justice, Law School, University of Strathclyde.
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