Sunday, April 08, 2012

437. A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess

Well, my droogs...!

"Goodness is something chosen.. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man."

A Clockwork Orange proved to be an inspired choice to follow Oliver Twist!

It is like the continuing story of the Artful Dodger, transported, not across the ocean, but through time and space to a not-so-brave new world. Witty, flamboyant, cynical and fastidious, 15 year old Alex is a classic teenage hoodlum of the sci-fi 60s, rebelling against the boring drudgery of his parent's life by indulging in extremes of ultraviolence and crime – vice for entertainment and the sense of power it provides, rather than in response to any pressure of poverty or lack of better opportunity. Some reviewers see it as an outbreak from a totalitarian regime, but in reality, the depicted society is less restrictive than the depiction of Dickens' Victorian England. As with Dickens, the focus is upon the way in which humans can be conditioned for good or ill, but Burgess makes more explicit both the importance of a free choice and the innate attractiveness of evil. Burgess explores this further in the preface to the version I read, where he laments the omission of the original ending from the American edition and from the movie (which, by the way, I have never watched).
“Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive. To devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create. We like to have the pants scared off us by visions of cosmic destruction. … My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the novelist's innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself. But the book does also have a moral lesson, and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice.”

The important lesson is the human capacity to change. As the prison chaplain says to Alex:
“What does God want? Does God want woodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad in some ways better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? ...”

The novel is narrated by Alex in Nadsac, the invented Russian/English/Cockney slang of his underworld youth culture. At first, this was disorienting, but I quickly picked up enough vocabulary to go with the flow of consciousness and appreciate its significance, as the colourful diction effectively created a vicarious distance between the reader and the graphic acts of brutality so enthusiastically described. I have chosen to share Alex's description of listening to a Mozart symphony and of how the power of the music accentuates his indulgence of violent and powerful fantasies...
“Then, brothers, it came, Oh, bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my guliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and these strings were like a cage of silk around my bed. Then the flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss my brothers. … I knew such lovely pictures. There were vecks and ptitsas, both young and starry, lying on the ground screaming for mercy, and I was smecking all over my rot and grinding my boot in their litsos. And there were devotchkas ripped and creeching against walls and I plunging like a shlaga into them, and indeed when the music, which was one movement only, rose to the top its big highest tower, then, lying there on my bed with glazzies tight shut and rookers behind my gulliver, I broke and spattered and cried aaaaah with the bliss of it. And so the lovely music glided to its glowing close.”

It all goes pear-shaped eventually – and inevitably – Alex finds himself on the receiving end. After a few years in prison, an opportunity to get out of jail free appeals to him, and he volunteers for an experimental new rehabilitation program. Here, he is effectively brainwashed, drugged, and forced to watch hours of filmed atrocities set to music. Under the influence of the drugs, his previous impulses towards power and violence are reversed, so now the music fills him with pain and nausea as does the thought of any cruelty, a pain and nausea he will avoid at any cost. In the space of a fortnight he is turned from an eager aggressor to a pathetic victim. He finds the change demeaning and intolerable, but even the thought of self-harm sets off the Pavlovian response.

In both these stages of his life, Alex is likened to the clockwork orange of the title – a sweet and juicy natural object created to give pleasure to God but unnaturally activity by unthinking mechanical responses. There is seen to be little difference between mindless violence and mindless passivity – without conscious choice, right and wrong are simply different sides to the same coin.

In his new impotency, Alex is seized upon by political forces who use him for anti-governmental propaganda. The Government in turn backpedals and anti-brainwashes Alex as a public relations exercise. He finds himself back on the street, with all his faculties intact. He half-heartedly attempts to recreate his previous gangworld, but he soon realises something is different. At the ripe old age of 18, he is starting to realise that he has a choice and control over the direction of his life, and that he is no longer satisfied by the thoughtless gratification of violent impulses. The change is a little incongruous and I can see why some feel that the final chapter is tacked on and unconvincing.
“Give me that”, I snarled and grabbed it skorry. I couldn't explain how it had got there, brothers, but it was a photograph I had scissored out of the old gazetta and it was of a baby. It was of a baby gurgling...”

The introduction of this change, suddenly, shockingly, in the midst of a chapter in which one is watching Alex recreating his previous life and finding it doesn't fit is just a little bit too glib, too contrived... sure Alex justifies it, knows that his desired son is likely to repeat the same mistaken pattern of his own life, even if warned against it...
“youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just like being an animal so much as being one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and it is itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.”

While I did not doubt Alex's desire and capacity to change, and being a firm advocate of happy endings, would not have been satisfied with anything less, the open-endedness left me doubtful. Alex suddenly wants a son, so tomorrow he will start looking for a girl to provide him with one, and on that he will base his new life. It may be cynical of me, but I am left doubtful of his chances of success, perhaps because he doesn't seem to see the need to work to bring about the change. I would have preferred to see him demonstrate more of the maturity and strength of purpose that he will need to make his new life a success. I choose (idealistically, optimistically) to hope, however, that like Charley Bates in Oliver Twist, Alex will go on beyond the novel's confines to demonstrate the redemptive power of intelligent humans to break free from mechanistic programming (whether internal or external) and choose anew to create a better future.

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