Reassessing Anthony Burgess and his Clockwork Oranges
THE ULTIMATE WIND-UP:
Reassessing Anthony Burgess and his Clockwork Oranges
There is a powerful mythic element in the novel. The story of A Clockwork Orange essentially stems from a mediæval Nordic legend, the basis of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring in 1960, two years before Burgess’s novel. In both A Clockwork Orange and Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, a man rapes and murders a young woman and then, later, inadvertentlyseeks shelter in the woman’s very own home, to become himself the victim of the husband/father’s revenge. Wes (Nightmare on Elm Street) Craven also used this very same plot in his notorious 1972 film Last House on the Left. Kubrick’s even more notorious film of A Clockwork Orange appeared the previous year, in 1971, and in view of Kubrick and Burgess’s respective silences on their Clock works (in K’s case banning his own film, in B’s case disowning his own novel), it is interesting to look at Craven’s comments on his version:
‘Last House was really a reaction on my part to the violence around us, specifically the Vietnam war. I spent a lot of time on the streets protesting the war, and I wanted to show how violence affects people. It blew away all the clichés of handling violence. Before that violence had been neat and tidy: I made it painful and protracted and shocking and very human. And I made the people who were doing the killing very human.’
The Aurum Film Encyclopedia,
A Clockwork Orange
certainly makes ‘the people doing the killing very human’ and this is a vital part of its power as fiction, but it also shows us the obverse side of this, the dehumanising effect that occurs when society’s victims take their revenge, and in so doing become more bestial than the criminals themselves. In Craven’s film, the quiet, suburban mom and dad dispatch the murderers by electrocution, genital mutilation, and ultimately lop their limbs off one by one with a chainsaw.
A Clockwork Orange,
thus, has to be seen in its context. On the one hand it is Science Fiction, in that we have ‘men on the moon’ (still a distant fantasy in 1962) and Ludovico’s treatment, but on the other hand we can just as easily see it as crime fiction written from the point of view of the criminal rather than that of the detective, a style favoured by such writers as, for example, Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley, Strangers on a Train), Donald E. Westlake (The Busy Body, Bank Shot), Chester Himes (Cotton Comes to Harlem), or Derek Raymond.
Derek Raymond’s 1962 thriller The Crust On Its Uppers stands very close comparison to A Clockwork Orange. The ‘hero’ also speaks in a complex argot which requires a glossary in order to be decoded. The ‘deviators’ in the book are either ‘Morries’, young aristos down on their luck who have turned to crime, or ‘the slag’, working class criminals. Our hero wanders from fight to fight, muscles in on fixed gambling dens, and takes ‘snap’ (amyl nitrate) to get him ready for his night’s work just as Alex takes his ‘milk with knives in it’. Alex and his ‘droogs’ would unquestionably be the very same ‘slag’ the ‘morries’ loathe and despise in Raymond’s world. Although the plot diverges from A Clockwork Orange at the end of the book, the criminal world described in the two novels is very similar indeed. The foremost point of contact is the ingratiating way in which the lead villain addresses us, the readers, personally, and makes us sympathetic to him, even when he is doing very questionable things indeed.
That sympathy is vital to the issue that sets A Clockwork Orange apart, namely whether it is right to suppress a part of a person’s humanity even when their way of expressing that humanity is violent and anti-social. A lot of this is bound up with the view that without free-will man cannot ever fulfil God’s plans:
‘...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.’ (Pt. 2, Chpt. 1)
There are many grim little jokes along the way. For a start, in tearing up his namesake F. Alexander’s book, A Clockwork Orange, Alex is destroying a work which argues (albeit in very pretentious language) this very same point. Alex is himself a very determined (and literary) critic of the way that other people live, and presents himself as a pillar of the right, interpreting prurience everywhere, destroying books that offend his surprisingly bourgeois sensibilities. ‘What is this filthy slovo, I blush to look at this word,’ he says to the old man whose books are torn up in chapter one. ‘I didn’t like the look of Dim,’ he tells us. ‘He looked dirty and untidy, like a veck who’d been in a fight, which he had been, of course, but you should never look as though you have been.’ Alex is one of the slag, but clearly sees himself as a morrie manqué.
His keen interpretive eye turns against him, hilariously, at the end when he interprets the words of a political pamphlet to be a command to kill himself:
‘Open the window to fresh air, fresh ideas, a new way of living.’ And so I knew that was like telling me to finish it all off by jumping out. (Pt. 3, Chpt. 5)
Of course, the Ludovico treatment was not entirely Science-Fiction, but can be seen to have been based on many different types of systems employed in prisons and mental institutions in Britain and the United States at that time. The ‘Quickie Lobotomy’ had been perfected in the USA during the 1950s such that every year, many thousands of people could have their frontal lobes severed under local anaesthetic in minutes. Proponents of the technique often stated that in their view it was preferable to have an individual in society with impaired mental abilities than with anti-social patterns of behaviour. Another wide-spread technique which produced similar effects was Electro-Convulsive ‘Therapy’, (Useful background reading on this topic: Breggin, Peter Roger. Electroshock: Its Brain-Disabling Effects. New York: Springer Publishing Co., 1979, and Chorover, Stephen L. From Genesis to Genocide: The Meaning of Human Nature and the Power of Behavior Control. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980). Ken Kesey’s famous novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest deals with a petty criminal who admits himself to a mental hospital thinking it to be an easy option over prison, but is finally lobotomised and reduced to a vegetable.
Another, more intriguing, possibility is that A Clockwork Orange may have a homosexual subtext. Alex and his ‘droogs’ are easy to recognize as criminals, since they do overtly violent things which are in no way ‘victimless’. They are, however, led to do these things by the very nature of their humanities, as though they were in some way, unstoppable. Alex is given an option to have the remainder of his sentence ‘commuted to submission to what is called here, ridiculous expression, Reclamation Treatment.’(Pt. 2, Chpt. 3). Very much the same option was open to homosexual men, imprisoned at a time when homosexuality was still a full, criminal offence:
One type of hormone treatment that has been used most on men imprisoned for homosexual offenses is the administration of a hormone that diminishes the sex drive... These drugs are anti-androgens, which work by counteracting the effects of a man’s own testes’ hormones (androgens). The hormone treatment, in fact, does nothing at all to alter his basic sexual orientation: all it does is to suppress the sex drive. Because of this, it has limited use for social control of homosexuals. Perhaps the most important ethical question it raises is the possibility of drug use being a condition for getting parole - ‘you’ll get out earlier if you take these tablets’.
Birke, Lynda, 1980, ‘From Zero to Infinity: Scientific Views of Lesbians.’ in Birke, L., Faulkner, W., Best, S., Janson-Smith, D., Overfield, K., (ed.) Alice Through the Microscope: The Power of Science over Women’s Lives, London, Virago, p.120.
A report on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme (28th November 1997) revealed that in the 1950s, about forty homosexuals, prisoners and borstal boys, were given a form of aversion therapy very like the Ludovico Treatment. Shown slides of men and women which they were free to click forward themselves, they were given a small electric shock if they lingered over the male pictures for too long. Reporter Martin Shankleman noted that ‘Psychologists like Cedric Hart acknowledge the impact of films like A Clockwork Orange...’ in having had the practice of aversion therapy stopped in Britain’s prisons.
Re-reading A Clockwork Orange as a homosexual allegory would certainly no longer make it seem uncharacteristic of Burgess’s usual subject matter but place it at the centre of his literary concerns. In many of his books, he deals with the theme of male homosexuals agonising over their role in a heterosexual world, doubting their own sexualities but eventually reconfirming them. We find this at the heart of each novel in the Enderby trilogy, as well as in Burgess’s other most well-known work, Earthly Powers.
Another point of contact is the use of the imaginary patois spoken by Alex. Criminals (or ‘deviators’ as Raymond significantly called them) were not the only ones with their own private language. Burgess uses ‘Nadsat’ (a Slavic root meaning ‘-teen’), forming slang words from the Russian language. His stated aim in so doing was to avoid the dated effect that old slang produces (although Raymond’s is a fascinating historical document, and provides a key). The homosexual community, in as much danger from the police as the criminal fraternity, had their own slang, but this was not like the morries’ peculiar version of rhyming slang, but very much more like Nadsat in that it was based on an actual foreign language. Polari was cod Italian, in which ‘varder well, bona catso’ would mean ‘Look at [his] nice cock!’ Compare and contrast: bona catso and horrorshow groodies.
In this light, I might propose an answer to a very small throwaway line in A Clockwork Orange that may have more to it than meets the eye, and brings together all these speculations. Why should the sign reading ‘HOME’, which Alex sees outside the Alexander home, be such a ‘gloomy sort of a name’? On one level, this is joke of a very Joycean type, and don’t let’s forget that Burgess was not the least enthusiastic of Joyce’s fans. The English word ‘gloomy’ is matched with the Russian word glumit’s’a meaning ‘to mock,’ ‘to jeer (at)’ or ‘to commit an outrage (upon)’. The mocking is manifold. The HOME mocks Alex’s own conceptions of home life, its relative wealth mocking his relative poverty. The other side of the meaning is that it is Alex who is about to commit an outrage upon it himself. But none of these give us an application of the English sense of gloomy, meaning dark, or foreboding, unless there is here a premonition of the coming revenge. Homosexuality simply mean the sexuality of ‘the same’ and it is ‘the same’ that he is about to face in the form of the man, Alexander, with ‘the same’ name, and views, as his own. Could it be that another reason that the name is gloomy for Alex is that HOME looks so much like HOMO?