In writing A Clockwork Orange (1962) Anthony Burgess succeeded in creating a work worthy of disturbing praise. It is a work best known for its controversy, yet no matter how shocking its content is to some, a charge of mindless offense, or flippancy, can not be directed against it. As we will see it is both a challenging and philosophical deep piece of writing, describing a place as one of the great 20th century English novels.
The first thing that anyone will notice when turning through the pages of the book is the presence of a strange form of speech 'nadsat'. It is spoken by the novels protagonist – Alex, and his gang of droggs. Nadsat permeates the entire work, and is not translated. Some critics object to the excessive presence of nadsat rendering the novel unreadable, but this is lazy. The slang is certainly strange, but strange because it is surprisingly familiar; Combining both cockney, elements of Russian language, as well as occasional dashes of baby talk. By several chapters in one can guess the meaning pretty well. This attempt at original fictional speech may not rival something like Professor Tolkien's elven tongues, but it is perfectly suited to the story and, in many ways, offers a subjective estimation of where language is like heading.
Beyond the quirky language, what makes A Clockwork Orange a stand out read is its nuanced examination of several issues, including free will, morality, violence, and state power. It carries itself so well because in examining these issues it defies any simple interpretation. Whilst raising many questions, it avoids being so presumptuous as to tell us the answers.
The book has been hailed by some rather unperceptive critics as a sort of polemic piece offering a clear conviction of growing state power (placing it along the most famous works of Huxley or Orwell). Careful prediction of the work reveals that this is a huge oversight. There is very little evidence in favor of reading the book so simply and much evidence to the contrary.
Most of the government officials in the book, who represent the forces of state intervention, are thoroughly disagreeable, that much can be said. But on putting down the book we realize Burgess at no point comes down firmly against the government and its new found corrective methods – the Ludovico technique. Consider first who is the alleged 'victim' of the Ludovico technique; None other than our humble narrator, Alex. Alex, his Tibetan polite charm and friendly mannerisms, is considered in the light of day, a monster. He is a murderer and a rapist, and is also highly manipulative. If Burgess wanted to present an outright condemnation of the procedure, and state power in general, he has a strange way of going about it. The task of condemning the state and procedure would be far better achieved by presenting the case of a genuine victim, someone wrongly accused of the crimes. But this as Burgess was certainly aware would not get to the heart of the dilemma; In fact it would barely present a dilemma at all.
Alex must be a real villain for a conflict of values to surface, in order that we really contemplate whether making people good by intrusive psychological methods can be justifiable.
Against the temptation to view A Clockwork Orange as simply offering a conviction of state authority we also find that the character most ardent in his conviction of the government's use of the brain washing treatment, F Alexander, is in several ways feasible. When a beaten and bruised Alex comes to him in need, he reveals himself as an idealistic fool, too willing to see ruthless criminals as casualties of an inhumane system. He labels Alex repeatedly a victim not knowing, at this point, that he himself has actually been one of Alex's victims Alex and his droggs having raped his wife and subordinated him to a certain tolchocking near the start of the book. But this character turns out not just to be blinded by his liberal values; He turns out to be as manipulative and corrupt as any government.
His ruling to torture Alex by locking him in the room and blasting classical music at him (Alex having been conditioned to react with the sickness to such music) may be one of two things (or maybe a little bit of both). It could be an act of pure revenge, in which case F. Alexander is a hypocrite – he condemns the state system for what puts criminals through, and yet the moment he realizes he is a victim he uses those very means to his own benefit . In contrast (and as Kubrick's film adaptation is more suggestive of) F Alexander may be playing the music to encourage Alex to kill himself so that the government can be made to look bad. If that is so then he is driven by loathsome political motives rather than sentiment for his lost wife. Our suspicion of F Alexander is further enforced by his claim that Alex was' sent here by providence ', which echoes the loathsome remarks of another religious figure – Pope Pius X1 who, in offering catholic endorsements for fascism, spoke of Benito Mussolini also' as A man sent by providence '(Here there are some deserved parallels to Orwell's Animal Farm). Bottom line is that F Alexander comes across very badly. Consequently we are not driven to be very sympathetic to the liberal views he outwardly professes.
To further assure the simplistic reading it may be said that in terms of 'horror hype', the Ludovico technique is not quite all it is made out to be. Whilst no doubt morally questionable, the technique does not seem to qualify as brain washing through and through. The story clearly reveals that Alex's personality has not quite changed after under the procedure. The technique does not alter what he wants, it does not rob him of memories, or turn him into a zombie; His wicked impulses are still there, he is just pre-enabled in acting upon them. Just as he is about to do a despicable deed he is prevented by the sunset of the sickness, and can potentially no longer harm people. This is more of a victory than might be assumed. Sure the treatment is far from perfect, it leaves Alex able to rightly defend himself and additionally leaves him unable to enjoy harmless and edifying classical music. Whilst these difficulties with the treatment certainly warn us against placing too much trust in modern technology we are still inclined to ask what if these difficulties were ironed out? Is it really such an outrage to give a murderer a treatment that stops them killing again, and only at the point that they seek to kill someone?
Conclusion entirely in favor of the treatment however would be mistaken; The book, whether intentional or not, gives no final word in either direction. If we were to be bought to view the treatment as morally allowed by the above lights we are prompted to consider further questions. Who is it that gets to determine what the actions, or thoughts, are to be whittled out of the subject. Impiety and dishonesty are minor offsets, if offs at all, but if we open up the door for such radical psychological treatments who knows when things like this will be included? We can not deny that A Clockwork Orange contains a warning about power, Alex puts it best himself: 'power, power, everyone like wants power'. But from this we must understand that the 'everyone' really means 'everyone', not just the state.
There is a final interpretation of A Clockwork Orange we should be on guard against. We should be warned against the temptation to view it as a work straightforwardly championing freewill. If we were to view the book as a staunch defense of freewill then the church chaplain and the liberal idealist represent the only sane voices in the book. They are the only people roused by the fact that Ale
x, in undergoing the treatment, is denied his bog given opportunity to do wrong. Looking at things this way we might be dropped to view A Clockwork Orange as a lost Christian apologic. Yet, despite Burgess's own sympathize to religion, and even his own publicly expressed views on the theme of the novel, I think to view the book this way would be an error.
Burgess himself states that he is airing, in relation to scientific conditioning, the question: 'whether this might not in theological terms, be a greater evil than the free choice of evil?' This question, the work does, of course, address. But if Burgess is trying to lean towards an answer that flatters a Christian audience (ie a positive answer) I think he fails. Closer examination of the Ludovico treatment and its effect reveals what may be a much more subversive reading of the book. After undergoing the treatment Alex, as previously stressed, can no longer do wicked things but the treatment has not really changed his nature in a fundamental way. This is because he still keeps the desire to do wicked things. It is only at the point that he dwells on his desires at any length, or chooses to act upon them that the sickness kicks in. Any individual really robbed of his will will not have this gross inner conflict – they would do what is right without compulsion. Alex is simply coerced into doing what is right by a threat of extreme physical and mental sickness.
In this respect we may say that Alex (post-Ludovico treatment) finds himself in a condition not too dissimilar to man under the watchful eye of the heavenly authority. God may not make us decide on good immediately, but if we give in to various temptations, or chose the path he disapproves of (although which often seems best to us) we like Alex, are punished in terrible ways. There is some difference between our positions and Alex's of course: Alex is not allowed to act on his evil intentions whereas we are; Alex is punished immediately whereas our punishment is put on tab so to speak. In this respect we certainly have it worse. But despite these differences this much can be said: Alex's decision to do what is right because of fear falls into the exactly same category as those believers who pays lip service to ideas of eternal punishment. Christians of the fire and brimstone variety only have their hypocrisy laid bare by Burgess's exploration of freewill.
Dig a little deeper and we find more to rubbish the notification that A Clockwork Orange is some kind of lost theodicy. What we find at the end of the novel is that Alex appears to concede that a human life lived in the absence of the Ludovico technique may be no less free. Reflecting on what propels him to do the great evil he has done, and why he now ceases to want to do it, he sees the folly of youth as being like a machine. Perhaps he is being too quick to make excuses for his actions, but as this is the ending point of the book his reflection is likely to have a more poignant meaning. It may very well be an acknowledgment that the circumstance of the world, coupled with our own flawed and conflicted natures (whose violent side is often exaggerated in youth) make what we do all too much like clockwork.
What it sees we have in A Clockwork Orange is a work capable of producing obvious moral guidance. This might make it didactically flawed; Some will accuse it of being a muddled piece. But in being ambiguous in this way it can not be demarked as being a mere 'propaganda piece'. Whilst I have little quarrel with more educational works of fiction (art can fill many functions after all), its lack of certainty and allegoric content accounts for much of why it is so interesting to probe, and very much so revealing about the nature of dilemmas.
Daniel Beaton (2008)